Is Gravity a Concept or a Principle?

A few weeks ago, I finished Grant Lichtman‘s The Falconer. In it, he (or rather, one of his students) asks the question, “Is gravity a concept or a principle?” and while he refuses to give his answer to the question, he does say that yours matters, so here is my response to that questions.

As I go through this, keep in mind that I am not a huge math or science person and I do life in America, where they like standardized tests and teaching k-12 students pretty much only the information they need to know to do well on those standardized tests, so I’m probably not the best informed person out there to answer this question. But that’s okay.


I want to break this question down into two new questions:

What if gravity is a concept?

What if gravity is a principle?


What if gravity is a concept?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines concept as: an abstract idea; a general notion; a plan or intention; a conception; an idea or invention to help sell or publicize a commodity; an idea or mental picture of a group or class of objects formed by combining all their aspects.

To clarify, that last one is when it comes to philosophy.

Therefore, if gravity is a concept, it’s a bit like love. I say this because in English class, when we’re defining nouns (especially as we get older), we say that a noun could be an idea. Generally an abstract idea. And what is one of the first examples an English teacher usually gives of any abstract idea? Love.

We can’t actually prove that love exists. People will say that they can feel love, but I don’t think that’s true. Often times, when we talk about feeling something, we have two definitions.

  1. the sensation our nerve ending send to our brain when something touches our skin
  2. the sensation of an emotion or abstract idea

The first is the one I believe in more.

When we’re down about something, we usually say, “I’m feeling sad.” We may say it in our head, but we still say it. We’re not actually “feeling” sad, though. What has actually happened is the brain makes a connection to what has just happened to past events. For example, if your dog has just died, your brain may remember one of the times you scrapped your knee after you fell of your bike. The nerve endings sent to your brain the feeling of that pain and your brain went “Oh, I don’t like this.” Later in life, when your dog dies, your brain recalls that “Oh, I don’t like this.” This time, however, there is not feeling of pain on your skin because you did not hurt your skin, so it sends that feeling to your heart. And just as you cried when you scraped your knee, you cry when your dog dies.

The same can be applied to love. Hopefully by now, we all know that love can be painful, but I’m tired of talking about pain, so I’ll talk about the happy side of love. We’ve probably all said, “I love ice cream.” (well, maybe Anya hasn’t, but that’s beside the point). In actuality, your brain is connecting the taste and feeling of ice cream on your tongue with happy memories like getting it after a visit to the doctor’s office or with your grandmother’s apple pie. As ice cream has sugar (lots and lots of sugar) in it, your brain might also connect the sweet taste with the taste of maple syrup on your pancakes when you eat breakfast with your family every Saturday morning.

If we were to put this in the context of gravity, we would say that we can feel gravity acting upon our ball when we drop it. But we can’t, can we? In this case, our brain makes the connection of the ball being in our hand and then the ball being on the ground and decides something must make it do that. In this case, your brain can’t actually prove that there is a force acting on the ball, so this is an abstract idea.

But then’s there the “plan or intention” part of the definition of a concept. In this case, we have to ask if gravity can make plans, which leads to the question of whether or not gravity has a conscious. I think I’ll come back to this, though, after the discussion of a principle.


What if gravity is a principle?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines principle as: a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior for a chain of reasoning; a rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior; morally correct behavior and attitudes; a general scientific theorem or law that has numerous special applications across a wide field; a natural law forming the basis for the construction or working of a machine; a fundamental source or basis of something; a fundamental quality or attribute determining the nature of something; an essence; (chemistry) an active or characteristic constituent of substance, obtained by simple analysis or separation.

First thoughts after typing this up: there is a lot of definitions, and both “belief” and “fundamental” appear a lot.

Belief: an acceptance that a statement is true or that something exists 

Fundamental: forming a necessary base or core; of central importance

At least, those are the definitions I’m using.

Putting those two together, that means that a principle is the base of accepting something is true. (Sorry, the original is a really scientific definition and as I said, I’m not a science girl.)

What I get from that is: if gravity is a principle, it means you accept gravity as a base of truth. And I think I can accept that. As I said before, the brain attributes something as acting on the ball when we drop it.

What’s something else we regard as a base of truth? Well, the definition stated about talks about beliefs, so let’s talk about religion.

I know, I know, religion is a touchy subject, so I’ll do my best to keep this general and as unbiased as possible.

One thing that most religions have in common is a text. For Jews, it’s the Torah. For Muslims, it’s the Quran and the hadiths. For Christians, it’s the Bible. There have been countless others throughout history, but these are ones that most people are at least a little familiar with. They were also all written hundreds–if not thousands–of years ago, so simply said, they’re old. Times have changed, but these texts are still very much at the center of the world. What people take from them has changed, but is often at the center of someone’s world. People from all three religions pick-and-choose what to believe and how they will interpret words written in a completely different world. The point of all of this, though, is that people still believe in these texts as a base of truth for their religions, but the rest of the structure is theirs.

This can be applied back to gravity: there is base, but all other thoughts are yours.


But back to the question, “Does gravity have a conscious?”

I don’t think so. Me saying that actually sort of directly contradicts the definitions of both concept and principle, so I think I’ll go a little more in-depth.

As I stated before, the definition of concept says it can be “a plan or intention” and as I did not state before, the definition of principle it can be “a rule or belief governing one’s personal behavior.”

Personally, when someone says the word “plan” I think of outlines, blueprints, the like. When someone says “governing” I think of controlling. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t think gravity can make blueprints, nor can it control your personal behavior. I also think that if gravity had a conscious, it wouldn’t be consistent because it would become bored of that, meaning that gravity wouldn’t always apply 9.80665 newtons of force on objects on Earth, and that would be weird. And now I’m laughing thinking of gravity applying 2 newtons of force on an object one day and 100 newtons of force the next day despite the fact that the object hasn’t moved.


Anyway, I think gravity is a combination of a concept and a principle. The principle part dictates that it has to be at least somewhat true, which I accept because we don’t see objects just randomly drifting off into space. Well, not usually, anyway. The concept part dictates that we can’t completely prove it’s truth, or if it’s true on all objects, no matter what size, all the time, which makes sense because there are very few things in life that we can prove 100% true 100% of the time.

This also explains why we sometimes feel weightless when in turbulence or can create rides that lift people off the ground. At least to me, without knowing all of the mechanics and such of it, it does. If gravity applied the same way all the time, I think we would have a rather hard time experiencing these things. Plus, if gravity was a principle, wouldn’t that kind of mean it would be everywhere? And we know it’s not. At least, it doesn’t apply the same way in every place in the universe.

Therefore, gravity is both a concept and a principle and someone should come up with a name for that.


2 thoughts on “Is Gravity a Concept or a Principle?

  1. What a remarkable argument. I don’t use that word often, but I am not finding a better one here. Tell all of your teachers and Dr. Jacobsen that you don’t need to go to “school” any more this year; just read, think and discuss. And tell your parents they should throw up their hands and be thankful.

    Not sure I could have made the argument any better, thought that is not to say that it is MY argument; it is not. But you can see why it took me three days to come to a conclusion when this question was first posed more than 30 years ago. And I am not sure that my answer then would be my answer now, which thankfully means I am still evolving in thought and learning.

    Since you shared such a well-constructed answer, i will share mine with you, though I am not going to re-tread the entire derivation. It actually is somewhat simpler:

    I can’t be sure that gravity is a principle because, as you state in the argument, a principle must be a foundation, true in all cases. In fact we know that at very small levels of quantum mechanics things like gravity do not act according to the general principles; in fact at that level the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle kicks in and we really can’t say what the heck is going on for sure; everything is just a probability.

    Concepts are open to complete interpretation as you discuss; and surely gravity is more concrete than a mere concept. But since interpretations are relative to the each viewpoint, I can’t be sure gravity is NOT a concept; I only find it doubtful.

    So after three days I finally came to the determination that the answer is “maybe yes and maybe no”. It It is the only time I have answered a question with this multiple degree of ambiguity, which tells me something about how the world is, or I how I view it.

    Thanks for the great thinking!

  2. Pingback: The Stories of Our Lives | Struggle Against Silence

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s