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A Very Brief Meditation on Space and Time

by Fred Russell

I don’t have a scientific mind. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is about as far as I can go, superseding for me Isaac Asimov’s Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Physical Sciences and, before that, Fred Hoyle’s Nature of the Universe. Nor do I enjoy reading science fiction with its time travel and parallel universes, though Hawking himself endorsed both as possibilities. Consequently, for the big questions my orientation is philosophical rather than scientific.

One of these questions concerns the origins of the universe. Another concerns its limits. Both are problematic, at least from a logical point of view. If the universe has a boundary, you have to ask yourself what’s on the other side. If not, you’re left with a contradiction in terms since, by definition, nothing that is material, including space as a medium, can be infinite.

Actual stars, atoms, particles may be counted and measured and the distance or space between the two objects that are farthest apart may also be measured, however large the numbers are. Things can only be infinite potentially or in theory, as Aristotle noted, like a geometric line or a series of numbers.

As for origins, the problem is just as great, though it is not actually the creation of the universe that is the issue — that has been covered by the Big Bang theory — but the origin of the matter out of which the universe was formed. Here again we encounter Aristotle. What he said, to the great displeasure of the Church, was that the world had no beginning, since something cannot be created out of nothing; that is, there was always matter in the universe, though things without beginnings are as difficult to imagine as things without ends.

Even our own Stephen Hawking was stumped by the problem, telling us that physics falls apart if we go back to the moment before the Big Bang, where our concept of time becomes inapplicable, that is, where time does not exist, and it is meaningless to speak of the beginning of the universe. Believers of course believe that it is God who has been here forever and, since the laws of physics do not really apply to his existence, that pretty much ends the discussion as far as they are concerned.

The fact that we find it so difficult to conceive of material things without a beginning in time or an end in space was recognized by Kant as deriving from the nature of the mind, human or otherwise, for in his view space and time are simply the a priori conditions of perception or sensibility, that is, subjective functions of the brain and not objective realities. This solves a lot of problems, as it is we ourselves who create space and time, and therefore the universe is as big or as old as we want it to be.

This means that after finding the material point farthest away from us, all we have to do is posit a point beyond it to create more space. The same principle would hold true for time as well, going backwards. Where then do objects exist, if not in actual space or time? In themselves, Kant replied. It is in fact the Einsteinian observer who creates the spatial and temporal relations between them, which differ in accordance with where he is standing and therefore have no objective or absolute value.

This is admittedly hard to swallow. Why do things bump into each other then? And how did Dr. Johnson manage to kick that rock? Or how does one traverse what we perceive as the space between objects if space is not objectively real?

Nonetheless, according to Einstein, if there were only one object in the universe, it would be impossible to talk about motion and, according to Kant, if there were no objects in the universe, it would be impossible to talk about space. In either case, space and time signify nothing more than the relationship between two or more points as conceptualized by the perceiving mind.

I am aware that for quite some time now we have been accustomed to speaking about an expanding universe, that is, of outward-bound stars moving into what I suppose physicists would think of as an open-ended universe, or at least one that is being created as it goes along. Certainly they wouldn’t think of this movement as breaking a barrier nor, I believe, as expanding into preexisting space, for again, in absolute terms, there can be nothing beyond the most distant measurable object, unless it is an imagined point. For us, the stars are moving. For the Kantian thing-in-itself, in a blind universe, the stars are engaged in their own existence in an unknowable way.

The idea that in absolute — as opposed to conceptualized — terms we exist in ourselves without reference to anything outside us, and also exist in an eternal present (for there is no before and after in eternity, as Spinoza declared), may indeed be the most satisfactory way of talking about space and time, however impractical it may be. It eliminates all the paradoxes that science has laid on us and gives us an answer to what once seemed unanswerable: The universe has no beginning, because it does not exist in what we call time. The universe has no end, because it does not exist in what we call space.

Copyright © 2018 by Fred Russell

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