Space-Time Constructions

When someone claims that “life is a braid in spacetime,” you can expect some crazy talk. In this wonderfully reductionist piece by MIT physicist Max Tegmark, he does not disappoint. Math, he claims, constitutes reality:

That our universe is approximately described by mathematics means that some but not all of its properties are mathematical. That it is mathematical means that all of its properties are mathematical; that it has no properties at all except mathematical ones. If I’m right and this is true, then it’s good news for physics, because all properties of our universe can in principle be understood if we are intelligent and creative enough. It also implies that our reality is vastly larger than we thought, containing a diverse collection of universes obeying all mathematically possible laws of physics.

This may or may not be true. I have serious doubts, as do many physicists who grapple with foundational theories. It certainly smacks of a Platonic idealism that has traditionally been the handmaiden of metaphysics. So it’s refreshing to see someone make this argument on behalf of a potentially comprehensible reality rather than a designed universe and god.

These issues aside, Tegmark’s discussion of space and time remind us that there are various ways to conceive and experience both. I’m not talking here of the technical dispute among physicists but of the culturally constructed ways time and space can be considered. While this surely was not Tegmark’s intent, these comments got me thinking about animist worldviews that are rooted in actual physical space or “place” rather than time:

“Excuse me, but what’s the time?” I’m guessing that you, like me, are guilty of having asked this question, as if it were obvious that there is such a thing as the time. Yet you’ve probably never approached a stranger and asked “Excuse me, but what’s the place?”. If you were hopelessly lost, you’d probably instead have said something like “Excuse me, but where am I?” thereby acknowledging that you’re not asking about a property of space, but rather about a property of yourself. Similarly, when you ask for the time, you’re not really asking about a property of time, but rather about your location in time.

But that is not how we usually think about it. Our language reveals how differently we think of space and time: The first as a static stage, and the second as something flowing. Despite our intuition, however, the flow of time is an illusion. Einstein taught us that there are two equivalent ways of thinking about our physical reality: Either as a three-dimensional place called space, where things change over time, or as a four-dimensional place called spacetime that simply exists, unchanging, never created, and never destroyed.

I think of the two viewpoints as the different perspectives on reality that a frog and a bird might take.

I can’t comment on frogs or birds, but can say that for many traditional or indigenous peoples, place was paramount. Everything else flowed from it, including the rather inconsequential idea of time.



Did you like this? Share it:

3 thoughts on “Space-Time Constructions

  1. Sabio Lantz

    “Platonic Idealism” was exactly my impression when I read that article last week.
    Now, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least if everything proved to be relational (which is exactly what mathematics is), but taking the next step to idealize is a mistake.

  2. Chris Tolworthy

    re: not platonic. Can I see if I understand?

    As I understand it, Pythagoras said that the principles of mathematics are the principles of all things. With that I strongly agree. But Plato said that the theoretical ideal is the reality. E.g. the ideal sphere is a better way of understanding experienced spheres. This seems dangerous to me because it suggests that one way of looking at maths is better than another. If we admit that perfect spheres are better than experienced spheres, why not go all the way and say that numbers are better than spheres? Ultimately everything comes down to one concept and then to none at all.

    Personally I agree that reductionism can explain everything, BUT (a huge but), the further we get from experience the harder it is for us to understand, the more complex any explanation becomes (which is ironic, given the purpose of reductionism), and so the less useful it becomes. So the sin of platonic idealism is choosing some half way house that is neither experience nor reduction, and adds nothing of value. So Platonism is wrong because it offends Occam’s razor.

    Am I understanding it right?

  3. Larry Stout

    How does this jibe with assertions (by professional mathematicians) that mathematics is a language invented by humans?

Leave a Reply