Foundations for establishing a view

Energy issues occupy an increasingly prominent place in public discourse. I’d hazard a guess that general public awareness of the connections between energy, environment and economics has never been stronger. That these matters have critical implications for humanity’s possible and preferred futures is widely recognised, even if such insight is rather unevenly distributed. Of course, none of this necessarily implies significant action in response—though new instances of individual and collective energy-related activism on scales from the local to the global, seem to arise daily. The rate of institutional, infrastructural and cultural change in response to energy-related challenges may well be unprecedented, regardless of admonitions—from those whose own transformatory metronomes are set to a quicker tempo—that change is too slow.

Yet asked what energy is—what it relates to in a specific sense—most people without some sort of practice-based involvement in the natural or engineering sciences are left scratching their heads. At least, this has tended to be my own experience working with students from non-science backgrounds in a post graduate course in sustainable energy futures—though even people from science and engineering backgrounds often realise that it’s just not a question that they’ve ever really needed to grapple with. In a sense, energy is one of the modern scientific-industrial world’s great givens—a basic building block of contemporary knowledge the nature of which has been sufficiently well dealt with that we can assume there’s nothing to be gained by looking at it more closely. We can leave aside questions of its nature and origin, and focus squarely on the pragmatics of getting by in a world defined and configured in its terms.

The journey of inquiry I intend to take here is a different one. This path starts with the deceptively simple question above: what is energy? For readers who do regard themselves as already well-versed in this area—and for anyone with backgrounds in the physical sciences, engineering and related areas this of course would not be unexpected—I’m hoping that you too may find value in tagging along. For I’m planning to follow a more scenic route than those with which you may already be familiar, one that will afford us a panoramic view of the landscape we’ll be exploring. It’s not the smoothly paved, modestly graded touring route flowing through the valleys and winding up over the mountain passes, though, that I have in mind for getting us to our viewing point. In fact, as agreeable as the scenery from that road with its neatly sign-posted look outs might be, it won’t afford us the most expansive view. For that we need to leave behind the comfort of the highway and continue into the mountains on foot. The path will likely be rocky, steep and perhaps a little intimidating; at times it will be ill-defined, so we’ll need to pick our own way around the various obstacles we encounter; at a few points, I suspect we may even need to hack out a path through the thickets of scrub interspersed across the mountainside. But this path will take us directly to the ridge line high above the highway, from where we’ll be able to take in the overall energy landscape and apprehend how its varied contours flow together as a whole.

Before departing though, while we lace our boots and fill our water bottles, I think it would be worth outlining briefly what we won’t encounter on our climb. This is perhaps most important for anyone who does in fact work day-to-day with the physicist’s understanding of energy, but it may also help to reassure others concerned about my navigation skills. Put very simply, you won’t find anything that undermines or contradicts the established scientific understanding of energy as this relates to physical phenomena. For those who already appreciate such things or have heard that they are important, please rest assured that the laws of thermodynamics are to be treated here with the utmost dignity and respect. When we reach that ridge line and take in the view, we should all most certainly expect to be a little more tired and hungry than when we set out; any rocks we dislodge along the way will, left to their own devices, settle lower down the mountain side than we found them. In the landscape that we’ll be able to see from up there, everything will behave in ways that will be quite familiar—no rivers running up-hill, no work done without commensurate expenditure of effort. Moreover, no-one in this world gets to alter their physical circumstances—or those of anyone else—with wishful thinking alone. In this world, there are most certainly no rescues from our societal dilemmas by other-worldly forces or omnipotent beings. Expect no confounding phenomena. We’ll also be sticking to the formal scientific usage of the term energy. Without any prejudice towards them—many pre-date the modern scientific view of physical energy in any case—we won’t be looking at the various traditional, folk and esoteric uses of the term, for instance in relation to subtle energy, qi (in Chinese traditions) and prana (in Indian traditions). And yet do expect to have some ground assumptions challenged—you’ll be invited to take a different interpretive approach to what previously may simply have been taken for granted. If together we manage this process of questioning well, we’ll hopefully emerge from it with a little more freedom of action for responding to humanity’s energy dilemmas than when we set out. There may be a few new options open to us. Let’s get walking.

What is energy then? For the physicist or engineer—or more specifically, from a thermodynamic point of view—the standard response to this runs something along the following lines:

‘Energy is the capacity to do work or transfer heat.’

While satisfactory in a utilitarian sense—and certainly an appropriate starting point for our purposes here, given contemporary industrial society’s energetic context, dominated as it is by the burning of fossil fuels to generate mechanical work—this of course begs a number of questions. For instance: capacity of what? What do we mean by work and heat exactly? And why the distinction between these particular phenomena? These are all very important questions in their own right, and ones that I’ll give attention to further down the track. For our purpose in this post though, we’ll need to take a step back. The nature of this step, and what it reveals, is hinted at by that term capacity, and what it tells us about what energy is not. Energy is not an entity, at least in the physical sense—that is, in the sense that the bottle of water on my desk or the tree outside my window are conventionally understood as physical entities or things with object-like characteristics. For the time being, we can say then that what energy is, is an attribute or characteristic of physical entities, rather than an entity in its own right.

We’re now moving in the direction that I’d like us to head for a while. But to pursue our path further, we need to cross that small stream up ahead, the one that divides the more structured and familiar ground we’ve been on since leaving the highway from that somewhat forbidding scree-slope across which we’ll need to make our way if we’re to reach the ridge above. There’s no bridge, but it doesn’t look too deep, so let’s just pick our way across those rocks. Once we’re on the other side, we’ll be in different territory. Over here, energy is an attribute of physical entities; while over there…

Across the stream

…energy is a concept held in human minds.

I hope that last step wasn’t too great a stretch—at least the rocks were above the water and so not too slippery. The path starts to get steeper and its surface is a little loose though; we’re about to make our first serious foray into territory seldom explored in the context of the nominal themes of this blog. Some technically challenging terrain lies ahead—I expect some furrowed brows.

We’re dealing here with a distinction, in philosophical terms, between ontology and epistemology—between being and knowing. For the most part, we tend to operate day-to-day as if this distinction doesn’t exist—knowledge about situations in which we’re interested and those situations in-and-of-themselves appear to be and are treated as one and the same. Consider for instance:

I pick up a pen from my desk. It’s a blue ballpoint pen; I can see through a transparent window in the side that it’s almost out of ink; the cap is smooth to the touch; it resists slightly and then comes away with a click as I remove it. I write a note to myself on a piece of paper—a reminder to refill the pen.

With those few lines, I’ve described my perception—my mental experience—of a very mundane situation, with which you can no doubt compare your own personal experience. You now have some understanding of what it is that unfolded here in the seconds before I wrote these sentences. But what I’ve revealed with my description is just one infinitesimal fraction of the vast array of knowledge that I might have created and shared in relation to the situation as I perceived it. Even on the very trivial side, you know little about the pen’s design, where it was made, details of its weight and colour (the colour of the pen itself, not its ink). That is, the knowledge that I’ve created and shared represents my perception of the situation at a very abstract level—I’ve chosen a few aspects of the situation of which I’m aware, described them within the institutions of the English language and provided you with a set of signs—written words—that signify for you a certain mental appreciation of what actually occurred. That’s the nature of the knowledge we’re dealing with here i.e. conceptual knowledge, knowledge that can be communicated linguistically. It isn’t ‘situations-in-themselves’ that we’re working with, it is abstract characterisations of perceptions relating to ‘situations-in-themselves’.

What does this have to do with energy per se? Well everything—at least to the extent that energy is a concept (or perhaps expressed a little better and as we’ll see in due course, a set of interrelated concepts) used to categorise and describe certain aspects of situations-in-themselves, as we perceive them. That is, when we deal with any situation in terms of energy, we’re focusing on particular aspects or characteristics of the perceived situation in preference to others—we’re creating an abstract depiction of our perception of that situation, revealing certain things about the situation while overlooking or discounting others. Energy of course is not unique in this regard; these same general principles apply to all concepts—to literally everything that we render in language, and hence talk, write and think about. So the point of this is not to somehow single energy out as unusual in this regard—it’s just to recognise this explicitly so that we can make use of such recognition in coming to terms with the abstract nature of energy. That said, as we proceed further I’ll also look at why I think it’s helpful to treat the energy concept as involving a particularly high level or degree of abstraction, compared with related concepts that we draw upon to understand and communicate about situations we experience—and that as such, energy poses particular challenges to our individual conceptualising capacity and hence to our capacity for sharing meaning with one another.

The reason for being so particular about recognising energy first-and-foremost as a concept, prior to discussing the aspects of perceived exterior or physical reality that it deals with, relates to a habit, a common tendency, to which we humans seem innately predisposed. This habit goes by the technical name of reification—taking an abstract concept and treating it as if it were a concrete thing, with its own existence independent of our interior processes of conceptualisation. In other words, assuming that a concept relates to an object of some kind that we can ‘touch and feel’, so to speak. Consider the consequences of this in our situation. We’ve seen above that energy is not a physical entity: it is better appreciated as a capacity associated with physical entities. In the conceptual realm though, energy-the-concept can be usefully regarded as a thing or entity. This leads to us talking about it as an entity, albeit a conceptual entity. Notice how my reference to energy in the previous sentence as an ‘it’ supports and relates to this kind of treatment; so too does the noun ‘energy’ itself—that is, by naming what it is that we’re referring to when we use the term energy, we give our referent an entity-like character. The act of reification is typically accompanied by a kind of forgetting—we forget that it’s energy-the-concept that is usefully regarded as an entity, and extend that entity- or object-likeness to the perceived situations in the physical realm to which energy-the-concept refers. In doing so, we create the illusion of energy as some thing with a concrete existence in that physical realm independent of us. But this entity or object is in fact something that we—humans immersed in language—have constructed. This idea of energy as constructed is a major theme that I’ll return to down the track. For now though, just be aware that recognising the constructed nature of anything that we treat conventionally as having an inherent existence—an existence independent of our interior conceptualising activity—is the first move in addressing our tendency to reify, and hence protecting against the confusions to which it can lead.

Phew. We’re through the first technical part of the climb. This is probably a good point at which to take a break, now that the path has leveled out somewhat. We’ll regroup here, and discuss briefly the next leg of the climb. It’s probably worth noting that, without undermining the validity of the physicist’s view of energy within the domain of physics, we’ve just moved well beyond a commonly-held view within that field. Physics is typically understood as the field of inquiry that studies matter and energy.Note 1 In other words, most practitioners of physics—and by association, the scientific and technological disciplines for which it is foundational, including my own home-ground of mechanical engineering—take as given a physical world constituted in terms of matter and energy. By taking the epistemological turn introduced above, we’ve now moved outside the terms-of-reference for the physics discipline, at least as far as these tend to be understood by most practitioners. In doing so we’ve left the conceptual knowledge of physics entirely undisturbed—we have simply shined a light on the relationship between that knowledge and the underlying nature of the world with which it’s associated. This does prepare the ground though for me to make a claim that, prior to this post, may have seemed rather outrageous, and may have left many reasonable readers feeling decidedly uncomfortable about my fitness for leading this expedition. The claim is this: energy does not exist—not in the object-like physical sense that is commonly assumed. Instead, we can now say that energy’s existence is conceptual in nature. So far, I’ve given only the briefest of introductions to what it is that this concept in fact relates to. This is the task to which I’m planning to work my way over the next couple of posts.

Just in overview then, we’ve now shifted from a default position of studying energy as an objective physical phenomenon, to studying our perceptions of the physical world in terms of the energy concept. In making this move, my contention is that we’ll now be better placed for developing effective habits of thought in relation to energy-related matters. There’s some further ground work that needs to be done though before developing a more definitive view of what it is that the energy concept in fact deals with, which in turn will support subsequent inquiry into questions of energy and society.

The first part of this involves returning to a question flagged earlier: if the energy concept relates to the capacity to do work or transfer heat, with what exactly is this capacity associated? This question will provide our first entry point into the discussion of systems—a theme that I’ll be giving much more attention to as we proceed, as hinted at by this blog’s sub-title.

The introductory discussion of systems will then provide the basis for returning to a key theme for these early posts—energy’s very abstract nature. That is, I’ll go a little further than simply recognising energy as an abstract concept: I’ll attempt to articulate why it is better regarded as involving a particularly high level of abstraction, and what this might mean for our attempts to arrive at shared understanding in relation to energy issues. This will provide the foundation for our first inquiry into the practical implications of all that we’ve looked at to date.

On a closing note, it’s perhaps timely also to recall the broad purpose of this inquiry—namely, to develop ways of thinking about and understanding energy that are capable of guiding practical action to improve the situations in which we find ourselves together. An important part of this will involve re-establishing connection between abstract energy concepts, and our concrete day-to-day experiences.


Note 1 Physicists themselves might be a little more precise than this, describing physics as something along the lines of the study of matter and its motion through space-time. The point here is just to highlight that matter and energy tend to be understood as the basic ‘units of study’ that this domain deals with.

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