Cosmology Intelligent Design Philosophy Physics

300-year philosophy battle over the nature of space rages on

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This image represents the evolution of the Universe, starting with the Big Bang. The red arrow marks the flow of time. But what exactly is the space?
Big Bang/NASA (What exactly is the “space” shown?)

From philosopher Emily Thomas at The Conversation:

Is there space between the stars? The relationist Leibniz argued that space is the spatial relations between things. Australia is “south of” Singapore. The tree is “three meters left of” the bush. Sean Spicer is “behind” the bush. That means space would not exist independently of the things it connects. For Leibniz, if nothing existed, there couldn’t be any spatial relations. If our universe were destroyed, space would not exist.

In contrast, the absolutist Clarke argued that space is a sort of substance that is everywhere. Space is a giant container, containing all the things in the universe: stars, planets, us. Space allows us to make sense of how things move from one place to another, of how our entire material universe could move through space. What’s more, Clarke argued that space is divine: space is God’s presence in the world. In a way, space is God. For Clarke, if our universe were destroyed, space would be left behind. Just as you can’t delete God, you can’t delete space.

Other philosophers, such as Kenneth Manders and Julian Barbour, think our best physics is compatible with both views, and there are other reasons to believe Leibniz’s theory was right. If the physics really is compatible with absolutism or relationism, then perhaps we should prefer relationism as the simpler theory? After all, why posit a giant entity that acts like a container if we don’t have to? More.

See also: Is zero even?

Durston and Craig on an infinite temporal past


New Scientist vs. William Lane Craig on infinity explanations

6 Replies to “300-year philosophy battle over the nature of space rages on

  1. 1
    willspeaks says:

    Liebniz’s theory seems to be a kin to the “If a tree falls in the forest” question. If nothing exists in space, is space really there.
    I would come down on the Giant Container side. But then that would beg the question. Is the container inside a box?……. inside a room, inside a house, under a Christmas tree.
    It kind of reminds me of an old Outer Limits plot.

  2. 2
    daveS says:

    For Leibniz, if nothing existed, there couldn’t be any spatial relations. If our universe were destroyed, space would not exist.

    Could there exist a universe consisting only of empty space (so no matter, no photons flying around, no EM fields, etc)? It’s conceivable I guess, but I don’t see how one would verify such a fact.

    A related question: If such an empty space universe existed, would it be distinguishable from a single geometric point?

  3. 3
    mike1962 says:

    What do electrons “think” space is? To know, consider how they hop from valence to valence in a quantum leap without traveling thru anything. Consider how entanglement works.

    Consider the question posed in the OP in this light: what if this universe is a virtual reality, aka, the Matrix? What would space be? What would anything be?

    If I write a computer program that has pixels interacting in pre-determined ways on a dark screen (the “space” around the pixels), what is “space” in this context. What do the pixels “think space is?”

  4. 4
    Pearlman says:

    SPIRAL might resolve the dispute,
    SPIRAL vs SCM info-graphic: is how it compares to SCM

  5. 5
    FourFaces says:

    Leibniz is right. Space is an illusion/creation of the mind/spirit. It does not exist physically. As Kant would say, if space exists, where is it and what is it made of?

    In the future, it should be possible to invent technologies that will allow us to travel instantly from anywhere to anywhere.

  6. 6
    polistra says:

    Neither concept is needed. We don’t need particles either. Waves are all we need. Periodicity and repetition.

    The relational concept of space arises from languages with noun cases and prepositions and verb tenses, and resonates with an environment full of clocks and yardsticks. Tribes with limited experience of clocks and yardsticks tend to have language forms based more on intention and purpose than positional and temporal measurement. Even the Indo-European forms that restrict us to vectors and clocks appear to have developed from earlier purpose and intention morphemes.

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