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Can you please point me to an argument by a notable contemporary philosopher arguing why we may know the fundamental (metaphysical) nature of space and time?

In a recent answer to a question I wrote that we cannot, to which @modalmilk commented "there are plenty of professional philosophers who ... think we can know the nature of space and time".

There seems to be plenty of discussion about the metaphysics of space and time, but I was surprised that I did not find anything corresponding to why in principle we may or may not someday know the fundamental nature of space and time.

Here is my take on this:

One might suppose that we may someday come to know the fundamental nature of space and time through physics, but I have a problem with that.

In chapter 12 of The Feynman Lectures on Physics Richard Feynman says:

in order to understand physical laws you must understand that they are all some kind of approximation.

And earlier in the very first chapter he says:

most interesting, philosophically we are completely wrong with the approximate law. Our entire picture of the world has to be altered even though the mass changes only by a little bit. This is a very peculiar thing about the philosophy, or the ideas, behind the laws. Even a very small effect sometimes requires profound changes in our ideas.

for example, in Newtonian physics one could imagine a snapshot of the state of the entire universe in a single moment in time (a plane of simultaneity) but the small changes of special relativity to the approximate laws of Newton, made that impossible - today we believe it is meaningless to ask what is happening now somewhere else:

Alpha Centauri “now” is an idea or concept of our mind; it is not something that is really definable physically at the moment.

So if Feynman is correct, physics is out of the window; what next? maybe direct experience? after all we seem to have an experience and an intuition of space and time.

here the problem seems to double; now we need to answer both what is the fundamental nature of our experience of space and time, and what is the fundamental nature of the elements of reality these experiences correspond to.

Take for example the color blue; we can ask what is the fundamental nature of the experience of blue - and since we know that blue corresponds to a particular frequency of light, we need to also ask what is the fundamental nature of light; but what can we say about the fundamental nature of blue color, except maybe in the spirit of Zaphod Beeblebrox, blue's just this color, you know?

then, we can also ask what we can expect to learn from our experience of space and time about the elements of reality they correspond to; why should our experience of space correspond to real space any more than blue corresponds to a bombardment of photons?

on the other hand, there seems to be something in the nature of our experience of time that makes physicists and philosophers try to dispose of it as an illusion; one example is eternalism and another is that of Julian Barbour who advocates the view that "time, as we perceive it, does not exist as anything other than an illusion".

However, when it comes to our experience, time actually seems to be more persistent than space; all we need to do to make the experience of space disappear is close our eyes; and we have several kinds of experiences which do not seem to involve location, such as anger or smell, and just as we can experience blue without light, in a dream, we can experience space without real space, as an illusion; but can we similarly have an illusion of time? wouldn't the dreamworld illusion of the flow of time require real time to flow? this reminds me of the omnipotent being failing to deceive Descartes into believing he does not exist.

In fact, Stephen LaBerge showed dream time flows at the usual rate: "time perception while counting during a lucid dream is about the same as during waking life".

so, in general, it seems that our experience of space and time is not a promising avenue to knowing the true fundamental nature of the corresponding elements of reality.

but what does it even mean to know the fundamental nature of space and time? the experience of colors is literally in our face, and yet philosophers cannot say much about their mysterious phenomenal existence; is this because of a limitation of language? or of our ability to comprehend? is this possibly what Wittgenstein meant by:

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

If this is so for direct phenomenal experience, why should we expect the fundamental nature of space and time, or matter, or existence itself, to be any more comprehendible to human intellect? isn't that pure vanity?

we can hardly even fathom the physical facts we discovered, such as the incredible size of the universe, or quantum mechanics; as Richard Feynman put it:

If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics.

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  • Language can be deceptive; looking at Barbours paper on time in classical mechanics, he resolves an issue that Einstein couldn't manage - ie incorporate the Machian view, which itself is derived from Aristotle - time is an aspect of motion (but not all of it). Apr 25, 2015 at 18:36
  • Barbour manages to drop the explicit parameter t denoting time; so all motions are referred to other motions and not through t; it's this that provokes the question is time an illusion; he doesn't touch the question of the experience of time. Apr 25, 2015 at 18:40
  • @MoziburUllah, can you add a link to the paper? or do you mean the book referred from the wikipedia link?
    – nir
    Apr 25, 2015 at 18:40
  • it's this one. Apr 25, 2015 at 18:46
  • Yes, we can know. If you are interested in this topic, find me. I believe I might be the only philosopher aware of it. You can also read two papers: "The Nature of the Quantum Field" Mark Janssen-Rosenblitt at linkedin.com and "A New Metaphysics" by theDoctor over at medium.com
    – Marxos
    Nov 17, 2017 at 0:06

7 Answers 7

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You did not find any answer to this question in the literature precisely because it does not concern space-time only, but metaphysical knowledge in general. Philosophers who discuss the fundamental nature of space-time generally assume that metaphysics is open to rational inquiry, while philosophers who think it's not simply don't discuss this specific issue.

As for the general debate on metaphysical knowledge: there has always been, throughout history, anti-metaphysical movements: skeptics, quietists, and notably empiricists. Hume's empiricism was anti-metaphysics. Carnap's logical empiricism too. A general argument against metaphysics is underdetermination: if experience cannot tell us which metaphysical package is true because all observable consequences are the same, then how would we know? However the lesson from 20th century and the collapse of logical empiricism is that the problem concerns not only metaphysics but scientific knowledge too. There is no science without metaphysical assumptions, and there is a continuity between metaphysics and fundamental scientific principles. Yet it seems that we can gain scientific knowledge based on other rational principles than experience alone: parsimony, fruitfulness, unification, explanatory power... From then (the 70's) philosophers started doing metaphysics again.

There has been crtiticism of this new analytic metaphysics, sometimes dubbed "neo-scholastic" and there are proponents of naturalized metaphysics (you can read Ladyman's "everything must go" on the subject). These authors say that metaphysics should be read from scientific theories and have a role of unifying diverse branches of science and our everyday experience and perhaps common sense intuitions into a coherent picture of the world, and nothing else. It shouldn't be an autonomous discipline that would try to domesticate science.

So there are at least two approaches to metaphysical knowledge: either metaphysics as an autonomous rational inquiry, or naturalized metaphysics as an induction from scientific theories (just as science works by induction on experiments). Metaphysics can also be seen as guiding future scientific inquiry (it seems that it was the case in the past, where Einstein had a relationalist conception of space-time when he developed his theory. Boltzman's atomism is another example. However contemporary scientists are much less philosophically educated).

Concerning space-time, the point is that precisely physics informs the debates. With relativity theory it is more difficult to defend space substantialism and presentism than before (see the hole argument for example). The success of one theory or the other seem to pull in one metaphysical direction or the other. This seems to show that at least naturalized metaphysics is possible.

Concerning our conscious experience: the debate between physicalism, dual aspect theories or neutral monism is pure metaphysics today but maybe neuroscience informed by the philosophy of mind will pull toward one direction or the other?

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  • There is a difference between arguing that metaphysics can have a role in peeling off the next layer of the infinite onion that is existence, and arguing that we may figure out the entire onion; do you believe the later?
    – nir
    Apr 23, 2015 at 17:25
  • I don't have a strong opinion on this, but it seems that peeling off the next layer succesfully involves entertaining reflexions on the whole onion... Apr 23, 2015 at 20:03
  • suppose you entertain a theory on the whole onion, would you be right to claim that you know its fundamental nature?
    – nir
    Apr 23, 2015 at 22:28
  • One should examine the arguments in favour of the different options. Maybe one option is more plausible than the other. Apr 24, 2015 at 9:09
  • Does that mean a no?
    – nir
    Apr 24, 2015 at 9:38
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The fundamental nature of the universe is a complicated topic for many; indeed it often borders right on the edge of religion. However, I do believe there is an alternate reading which resonates with your line "is this because of a limitation of language?"

Space and Time are words, bound by the rules of linguistics. Obviously there is a goal that those words reflect something of the "real world," but they don't necessarily have to reflect it all.

I do not think it unreasonable to assume that, at some point, we will discover something about the world around us which is not well modeled by the behaviors of the words "space" and "time." We will need to coin a new word to describe this behavior. Eventually I think it is totally reasonable to assume that we will understand the fundamental nature of "space" and "time," just like mathematics pins down the fundamental nature of integers in many ways. However, I have reason to believe that won't mean we understand everything, it just means we will have bundled all of our unknowns into a new bucket.

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Why not follow down the idea these are illusions?

From a Kantian point of view it may be that all we can know of things like space and time and color is their fundamental nature. We may never know all the ways nature interacts with or causes us to experience those things, but the fundamental nature of those things is an aspect of ourselves and not of nature.

The problem that makes quantum mechanics so awkward for us, then, is not that space and time are so odd, but that matter does not inhabit what we call space and time, but only indirectly affects it. We are looking at the genuine nature of matter "in a glass, darkly". We are fitting notions natural to us over nature, which does not actually have corresponding aspects.

From a more materialist para-Kantian point of view, space, time, color and other mathematical and perceptual models are our evolved approximations to reality, they are not real, beyond their effects upon us. They do not reflect the essential nature of the matter behind them, but they are themselves essentially and totally ours, and we can fully understand them.

This perspective suggests that our notions of space, time, color, etc. may need to evolve, perhaps in a literal and biological sense, before we can understand some of the deeper conundrums of physics.

It also makes the real nature of space its mathematics, which is an aspect of our psychology, something we can expect eventually to perfectly express, even if we will never run out of ways to be surprised by physics.

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  • I don't understand what you mean by "it may be that all we can know of things like space and time and color is their fundamental nature"; also, suppose a non-materialist accepts that our experience is "totally ours", would he agree that "we can fully understand them"?
    – nir
    Apr 23, 2015 at 22:38
  • @nir, In its most extreme form, Plato's theory of geometry as memory, it means the basic naive interpretation of space which we develop early in life is not a lack of understanding, it is a perfect understanding of space, the details of which we merely need to be reminded of. What we fail to understand is how matter participates in space, which is a totally different issue. Kant is a little less extreme, but he does think that space and time are forms we bear with us, that we construct and know intimately and completely, and impose on experience rather than learning from it.
    – user9166
    Apr 23, 2015 at 22:59
  • @nir, I would not make that assumption (that I fully understand what is wholly mine) about an experience. But space is not an experience it is a model that underlies experience and gives it a human interpretation. Before a baby can even see clearly, they have already decided how space works. Not how objects use it, or how their own body works within it, but that things will be located in space and they can turn toward them or feel them out.
    – user9166
    Apr 23, 2015 at 23:07
  • "is an aspect of ourselves and not of nature" entails that "we" have "non-natural" aspects. That's a pretty big white elephant, no?
    – Jeff Y
    Dec 20, 2015 at 20:30
  • @JeffY I am glad you got to the third sentence before choosing to nitpick and ignore the content. The rest of the post clarifies well what I mean by that ever-so-slightly exaggerated statement. Of course our psychology is part of nature, but that is the point. Nature does not somehow hold these magical facts independent of us. If you take it in context, then. No, the statement rejects those implications rather than making them.
    – user9166
    Dec 21, 2015 at 17:14
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There's a useful discussion of these issues in Bohms Wholeness and the Implicate Order; the discussion below is derived from this as well as other sources.

Aristotle identified four causes in his Metaphysics (this word shouldn't be understood here as a kind of 'mystic' word, but as arguing from first principles); and which are:

  1. Formal

  2. Material

  3. Efficient

  4. Final

The formal cause of a tree is not its form, or shape; but it's inner law of development as it grows from seed to sapling to tree; the material cause is all the matter - the seed, oxygen, rain, sunlight; efficient is what caused it occur - I planted a seed in the ground; and final cause is its purpose - to live and flourish as a tree.

Now we can ask the same questions about the discipline of physics; and this with respect to the physical universe.

First, by supposition, there is no efficient cause; the big-bang in a sense 'caused' the universe; but we can ask the same question about the big-bang.

Similarly, and again by supposition, there is no final cause; when one looks in main-stream physics or cosmological textbooks there is no discussion of this - even if they discuss what the universe may look like in 10 Billion years.

It is by these two suppositions, and not otherwise that Hawking, amongst others can say the Universe is self-contained.

Now, it seems plausible that physics being a theory of physical things it must be a material cause; but this isn't true: given the laws of physics and no matter we couldn't get the universe underway. So physics does not, contra to naive expectations identify material cause.

What Physics as a discipline is - is the formal cause of the universe; by it we grasp the inner law of development of the universe and hence it's parts too: thus from the Big Bang to how an electron spins.

This places into context ie in Philosophical Language the observation in Feynmans The Character of Physical Law that Physics doesn't tell you what something is - it's thisness (material cause) but how it behaves (formal cause).

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Contemporary notable philosophers? Nope.

But Barbour is certainly the closest.

Leibniz, Kant, Newton, Spinoza, Einstein, Schopenhauer, and many others certainly had a far more complete view than the notable philosphers today do.

They all had notions of relative time existing because of absolute time.

Here again is Newton's definitions:

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/newton-stm/scholium.html

Today we argue whether time is this or that. Fundamental understanding is about why this and that (at two different levels of reality).

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  • I intend to become a "notable contemporary philosopher". What are we hoping for when we find one/some? Feb 9 at 19:56
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I am not convinced that the question you have asked specifically about space and time has a correspondingly specific answer. It seems to me that the same question can be put about mass, charge, energy and so on. It also seems clear that whatever conceptions we develop about the nature of space and time are liable to be superseded at some point.

To put the question another way, how could we ever know whether our digging into the nature of things had finally bottomed out? Why criteria could you possibly apply to determine whether an understanding was genuinely 'fundamental'? You might, for example, suppose that you had identified the fundamental nature of space and time once you had run out of unanswered questions about them. But then it might only be a matter of time before some new question cropped up. To be truly sure that you had got to the bottom of things, you would need some kind of logical proof that it was impossible for any further scope for uncertainty to exist, and I find that entirely implausible.

Consider, for example, the proposition that you could only be sure you had a fundamental understanding of space and time if your understanding could explain all aspects of space and time, which seems a reasonable position to take. That being so, you are definitely scuppered, since there is only a portion of spacetime that is visible to us- we have no knowledge of what is beyond the observable Universe spatially, and our knowledge of time excludes the future. If you do find a philosopher who definitively states that we can know the fundamental nature of time, please let me know so that I can laugh in his or her face.

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QUESTION: "Can we know the fundamental nature of space and time?"

Question tagged [epistemology]... is the study of knowledge, acquisition thereof, and the justification of belief in a given claim

Question tagged [philosophy-of-science]... for applied philosophical questions about the study of science, the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and the scientific method

Questions tagged [metaphysics]... is a branch of philosophy concerned with explaining the essence of things, of the fundamental nature of being and the world and the principles that organize the universe. Metaphysics is supposed to answer the question "What is the nature of reality?"

Questions tagged [ontology]... is the study of the nature of being, existence or reality as such, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations.

FROM OP: Can you please point me to an argument by a notable contemporary philosopher arguing why we may know the fundamental (metaphysical) nature of space and time?

  1. no·ta·ble - /ˈnōdəb(ə)l/ - adjective - worthy of attention or notice
  2. con·tem·po·rar·y - /kənˈtempəˌrerē/ - adjective - belonging to or occurring in the present.
  3. phi·los·o·phy - /fəˈläsəfē/ - noun - the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence
  4. fun·da·men·tal - /ˌfəndəˈmen(t)l/ - adjective - forming a necessary base or core; of central importance - so basic as to be hard to alter, resolve, or overcome.
  5. met·a·phys·ics - /ˈmedəˌfiziks/ noun - the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space.

On exactly the topic "fundamental nature of reality" I would offer up myself. Sorry. I recognize how that sounds. I will justify my self-invitation with the opinion of others of note in the quest for an answer to everything.

Sabine Hossenfelder, qualified and well known publicly...

e-mail requesting my permission to make note of my self and ideas to a journalist

Sabine's Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabine_Hossenfelder

Muhammad Sabieh Anwar's, Dean of Science and Engineering, LUMS University. After I had chatted with him and explained my thoughts some of his replies included...

enter image description here

Muhammad Sabieh Anwar's Google Scholar page: https://scholar.google.com.au/citations?user=BMxS-5wAAAAJ&hl=en Bio at LUMS University: https://physlab.org/muhammad-sabieh-anwar-personal/

Between the two, I think a compelling case for "worthy of note" is made. One made note to a journalist, the other to a professor and string theorist at Harvard

The words of Sabine and Sabieh are not offered as "claim or endorsement of validity" of concept. But rather, "no obvious indicators of invalidity or crackpottery, and may just have something worth noting and considering". And that @Nir is what I think you were asking about and for?

"Philosophy Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for those interested in the study of philosophy" - Philosophy home page

I referenced the page...

How do I write a good answer? Thanks for taking the time to write an answer. It’s because of helpful people like yourself that we’re able to learn together as a community. Here are a few tips on how to make your answer great:

Read the question carefully What is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that – or at least a viable alternative. Your answer can say “don’t do that,” but it should also say “try this instead.” Any answer that fully addresses at least part of the question is helpful and can get the asker going in the right direction. State any limitations, assumptions or simplifications in your answer. Brevity is acceptable, but fuller explanations are better.

I picked up: What is the question asking for? Make sure your answer provides that

FROM OP: In a recent answer to a question I wrote that we cannot, to which @modalmilk commented "there are plenty of professional philosophers who ... think we can know the nature of space and time".

There seems to be plenty of discussion about the metaphysics of space and time, but I was surprised that I did not find anything corresponding to why in principle we may or may not someday know the fundamental nature of space and time.

How to put it in words is not an easy thing. An answer can defend itself, justify itself, explain itself. Have recognizable inherent explicatory properties and/or characteristics.

An answer, rather than theory, can reconcile with the appropriate other understandings.

An answer might... lead us to a re-interpretation of already existing observational data, and reveal that a much more plausible interpretation leads to a much much more plausible and satisfying conclusion.

Now. It can be frowned upon, seen as undesirable, to suggest "Erm, I may have the final fucking answer to all of every fucking thing". And that many would see such a claim as a self-believed delusion. I have met MANY that could be thus described. And I cannot entirely promise I am not self-deluded and just smart enough to come up with a really good delusion, a better delusion than that of most.

Which is why I started with the references from Sabine (who is quite well known publicly, and... is well known to be extremely skeptical of all suggestions... and is well known to not pull punches or beat around bushes) And from Sabieh. I mean, he has a PhD in Physics, Masters in Math, is a Rhodes Scholar, has guest professored at USC (#2 school for physics, globally), and is buddy buddy with a lifelong friend who is professor in theoretical physics at Harvard (#1 in physics globally).

So. Potential for self-delusion? Not denied. IF my candidate answer to the fundamental nature of space and time and reality and everything else is wrong, I hope (and suggest strongly)... if you absorb the basics, will at least be an interesting journey that makes one think a little.

And I hope that sufficiently justifies the existence of this answer on this question within this group on this site.

WHAT I SUGGEST MIGHT FUNDAMENTALLY BE... is

  • a lattice (which is a patterned stack of "things"/"objects")
  • populated by identical copies of a 3D-volume-occupying "Universal Building Block" with a specific wave-sphere-shape
  • in direct contact (with no friction)
  • rotating and shoving each other around, in varying degrees of synchronicity and resistance to increased or decreased spin rates. (with no friction)

And I suggest, fundamentally, that is a complete and exhaustive list of all phenomenon that can be described as "exist fundamentally". I did not include or assume in "dimensions" or "time" or "forces" or "dualities" or "probability/observance" or "energy".

I would rather show it is more plausible to recognize them as "emergent phenomena". Non-fundamental.

As a fundamental building block (IF BOTH WERE EQUAL MATHEMATICALLY)... which has the higher plausability...

  • Wave-Particle duality (osillaction between the two as "phases". OR...
  • Wave-shaped-particles-in-motion interacting and sending virtualized copies of themselves as "signals" through a meshed "lattice" continually full of progressing interactions?

In picture form...

A: Duality

Wave-Particle-Duality Imagined

or option B: Combination

Wave-Shaped-Persistent-Particle Presented

Being one of many many (actually, infinite):

Many Universal Building Blocks populating a lattice

Projected motion of a plane seen within the many in motion:

Many Universal Building Blocks populating a lattice, in motion and interacting

I am happy to provide more detail, more reasons for taking it as a serious suggestion, more reasons for recognizing it as possibly "the right and final answer". But I don't wish to oversell, or overwaste anyone's time.

So will wrap it hear, pending prompting or critique or cease and desist or "yes more" requests. I do think, and judge from all I can read on this site, that this is the right location for this type of suggestion. Sorry if I am incorrect on that point.


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  • I understand that you mean to be helpful, but this answer is rather problematic for this site. The guidelines say "Please note that this site is not a personal blog or a pulpit for you to express your own personal philosophical beliefs. This is a Q&A site for examining ideas and concepts in the field of philosophy." It is not easy to interpret and apply this, but I do think your answer needs to locate itself as philosophy by referring to and/or responding to what is clearly philosophical literature. If you can add that, it will be much easier for people to evaluate and respond to.
    – Ludwig V
    Feb 10 at 14:23
  • @Ludwig Sabieh is a physicist, and professor like you have been, and listened to what I had to say on the subject of fundamental reality, on the recommendation of his son. After I explained my candidate final answer to him, his first reaction was to think I was pranking him, and was a physics student pretending to not be. MY wording, my ability to explain, my tone, my word choice... maybe they all suck... I don't know. But none of that has a factor in whether the underlying concept is worth consideration and discussion, or should be dismissed and never thought of again. Feb 10 at 21:41
  • 1
    You've added quite a lot of helpful information, so I won't suggest any more changes. It does seem to me that this sits in the border country between philosophy and physics and that can be problematic. Now it's a question of waiting to see what reaction you get. Hopefully, there will be someone who able to comment on your thoughts.
    – Ludwig V
    Feb 11 at 9:07
  • Thanks @Ludwig. Yes. Metaphysics and the search for fundamentals, and philosophy, and theoretical physics are almost indistinguishable from one another. Philosophy seek to understand knowledge, reality, and existence. Science seek understanding of reality/existence, using experimentation. Theoretical physics that does not lead to experimentation is therefore philosophy. Metaphysics. The search for understanding of fundamental principles of reality. You don't know why you (and all mammals) have ribs. In absence of that knowledge... what might get made up to explain ribs? Feb 11 at 13:00
  • @Ludwig However... reconsider the situation. Imagine you know that fundamental reality itself is built from units that have "ribs". Then your philosophical musings about "Why humans have ribs?" becomes not a guessing game, an extrapolate and calculate determination. Understanding replaces guessing. Soooo... it has justifiable reason to be "Philosophy". (Unless it is self-delusional and completely invalid... but then... don't we tolerate "fuzzy guesses" that are often little more that "verbiage"... consider: Entropy, chaos, dimensions, energy, forces, dualities, consciousness, gods Feb 11 at 13:04

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