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Everything is Not Energy

September 7, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

There is a very common misconception that I have been running into a lot lately. It is the idea that “everything is energy”, or that “matter is energy”. I used to think that this was true also, so I understand why a vague understanding of physics concepts such as E=mc² make it seem like matter and energy are the same thing.

Here are some points that will hopefully clarify what energy is and what it is not:

  1. The m in E=mc² refers to mass rather than matter. Mass is a property of things, not a substance*. Nothing is made of just mass. Matter is an object – a particle or structure composed of particles which have positions and momentum. A carbon atom is matter, and it has a particular mass, but the amount of energy a carbon atom has depends on its movement and what frame of reference is used to observe that movement.
  2. Nuclear energy is not generated mostly from matter turning into energy, but from the release of nuclear binding energy. When small atoms like Hydrogen fuse to form Helium, or when heavy atoms like Uranium split, there is a chain reaction caused by protons, neutrons, and electrons colliding with each other and changing their configurations.

    “Increasing values of binding energy can be thought as the energy released when a collection of nuclei is rearranged into another collection for which the sum of nuclear binding energies is higher.”

  3. Energy is measured in units like joules, calories, BTUs, and kilowatt hours, which refer to the capacity to do work. Work is “Movement that occurs against a restraining force”. eqn_joule
    When we talk about light, heat, and electricity being “forms of energy” we are really saying that they are different material effects which involve work. A photon, for example, has more energy the higher its frequency is, but since a photon has no mass, that energy just means that there is more movement per second in whatever instrument is used to measure the photon. It takes more work to turn a flame blue than it does to turn it orange. The work itself, the kinetic energy, is not blue and it is not light.
  4. “Energy is…
    • a scalar quantity,
    • abstract and cannot always be perceived,
    • given meaning through calculation,
    • a central concept in science. “- source
  5. Energy is not matter, or light or vibration or quantum. A vibration is a behavior of a thing which is moving back and forth, like a guitar string. We can have tactile sensations of vibration also, but it is our sensation itself which vibrates, not literally an “energy” in the physical sense. Whatever is causing the sensation may be working and thus ‘using energy’ to vibrate but it’s a bit like saying that a ruler is using inches to cause length.
  6. “Matter and Energy really aren’t in the same class and shouldn’t be paired in one’s mind.
    1. Matter, in fact, is an ambiguous term; there are several different definitions used in both scientific literature and in public discourse.  Each definition selects a certain subset of the particles of nature, for different reasons.  Consumer beware!  Matter is always some kind of stuff, but which stuff depends on context.
    2. Energy is not ambiguous (not within physics, anyway).  But energy is not itself stuff; it is something that all stuff has.  
    3. The term Dark Energy confuses the issue, since it isn’t (just) energy after all.  It also really isn’t stuff; certain kinds of stuff can be responsible for its presence, though we don’t know the details.
    4. Photons should not be called `energy’, or `pure energy’, or anything similar.  All particles are ripples in fields and have energy; photons are not special in this regard. Photons are stuff; energy is not. – source

It may seem picky to make these distinctions or to apply them to the many informal ways that the term “energy” is used, but I think that if we are going to try to understand really what the universe is and who or what we are, it is important to have a clear idea of what we are actually talking about.

Once we understand that energy is a quantitative abstraction whose effects can be described entirely by geometry, then we can see how saying that ‘everything is energy’ gets us no closer to qualities of conscious experience like colors, flavors, feelings, and ideas. Energy is about overcoming resistance to movement. When we talk about energy-laden qualities of sense experience like warmth, light, tingling, empathy, etc, we are talking about our own consciousness being excited or expanded, not about a disembodied ‘field of energy’.

When we start to ask what a ‘field’ is, that too reveals an idea which is defined mechanically within physics, but is questionable when it comes to ascribing it concrete existence. A field is a continuity of measurements across space, not necessarily a thing which occupies space that is being measured. In the end, it all comes down to some kind of capacity for sensory experience which is participatory. In my understanding, energy can only describe a particular common sense of how participation converts private motive affects (motivation) into public motor effects (work). I think that the rest of the universe is aesthetic phenomena, aka qualia, with physical forms being qualia which have been quantized for public interaction.



  1. md asif iqbal
    September 7, 2016 at 9:03 am

    Sir energy can be perceived.;

    • September 7, 2016 at 12:16 pm

      What is perceived are aesthetic qualities, not energy. We feel warmth, see glowing auras of color, etc. That is exactly what it appears to be, changes in conscious experience. The cause of those changes can be measured in terms of an energy transfer, but that doesn’t mean that ‘energy’ itself exists as an independent entity.

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