Space, Time and Space-time

Does the economy and mathematical elegance of collapsing space and time into space-time represent a deepening of our understanding of nature or does the gain in simplicity come at a price? I ask this as a retired psychiatrist, who wonders at the inconvenient and almost imperceptible presence of consciousness in physics. As an indifferent mathematician, I have to approach this question from the side of experience, and with the prejudice that explaining consciousness by science is likely to be an explaining away, because you can’t get colour from the visible wavelengths or warmth from the infra red. And Matisse and Turkish baths present further and possibly more difficult challenges for materialists.
Firstly I will consider space. I can return to the place from where I set out, not just once but repeatedly over long periods of time. Or can I? Heraclitus told us we could not jump into the same river twice, but he was exploiting the fact that the river flowed and the water was constantly replacing itself. He did not say we could not return to the agora as often as we chose to do so. If all is flux, perhaps it is true that the place revisited is subtly different from what it once was. But it is also much more obviously the same and the fact is so unremarkable that I can arrange to meet you at the agora/supermarket tomorrow, next week or next year.
Secondly time. The time of physics is one of pure succession, a now followed by another now and so on. How does one instant follow a previous one? There is no known connecting principle between one instant and the next. We do not know how time passes: it is the most inescapable and elusive fact of our existence. There is nothing, other than empty mathematical conjectures, to support theories that suggest anything travels backwards in time. Although relativity shattered the Newtonian view that time and space were absolutes, it nowhere implies that time ever moves backwards. It does imply that at speeds approaching the speed of light, time passes more slowly for objects thus travelling. Since the mass of objects increases enormously and progressively as they approach such speeds, it is impossible to give any meaning to the notion that there might be any living thing enduring, much less experiencing a slowing of time. Life, like vision, is possible only between very limited physical parameters.
Is it not right to conclude that a place changes, if and only if time passes? And that space-time obscures that massively important difference between space and time?
Of course the time of physics is unlike experienced time, in which the past is remembered and the future anticipated or imagined differently, the two held together in an experiencing ego.
As Hamlet reflects:-
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

2 thoughts on “Space, Time and Space-time

  1. Dear David Space, Time and Space Time.

    When i say I enjoyed reading your piece I really mean it.

    You highlight the problem of people like you and me arguing our case in the face of sophisticated mathematical arguments that we cannot judge. In that sense there can be no real debate. The mathematicians just go home for tea leaving lesser mortals agonising about what they meant and wondering if they really have insight into the mystery of the Universe and Being that eludes us. Yet your writing rightly refuses to leave it there, by insisting that conscious awareness and asking about thing, marvellous and mysterious in themselves, just should not be left out. Without them the whole argument descends into no more than eating sawdust.

    We have to argue our case from the point of view of experience—often denignated as mere intuition. Yet you state clearly and in logical sequence the unassailable evidence from day to day experience that ‘science’ cannot ignore.

    I loved your reference to colour and warmth as part of the experiential perspective, as opposed to mere wavelength of radiation which is the sum total of physical description. I think though that Matisse and turkish baths ought to have some further explanatory comment .

    Your comment on the puzzle as to how time passes onwards sequentially stopped me in my tracks. I had always taken it for granted.

    Your last sentence also moved me. — the way you described ‘experienced time’ as the remembered past and imagined future being being held together by an experiencing ego.

    I do think you ought to persist with this piece ( can’t think of a better word, sorry).

    SUGGESTIONS You assume that readers have a lot of prior knowledge. For example in the early part you might describe how the concept of Spacetime differs from the two components Time and Space. I would also add that as the text stands i don’t see the direct relevance of consciousness, which you bring into your first paragraph, to the rest of your argument. Perhaps a few extra words will make this clearer.

    Here’s strength to you arm!

    Gethin . >


    1. I have a tendency to over-condense things, so I fear you are right that the reference to consciousness in the first paragraph is not well explained. Experientally space is characterised by the ability to return to the same place. Were it not that all traversing of space takes time, we might find that space was absolutely unchanged. As it is we can return to places again and again, subtly different but broadly the same. Not so with time. Time moves, we tend to say in one dimension, although this is an analogy with space. And it moves in one direction. So space and time are vastly different. Yet, a mathematical formalism combines them. Is this like making a juice of apples and pears, and something unique to the flavour of each is lost? I am not sure, but wonder whether it is so.
      The remark about Matisse and Turkish baths was a joke, a notoriously colourful painter and an institution in which to enjoy unusual heat. The more serious point was that Art and Entertainment are complex activities which are probably not expressible in mathematics. Knowledge and meaning are not the same, and it is not clear that physical science can ever give an account of the what induces people to spend hours in an art gallery of turkish bath.


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