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Understanding Everyday Concepts - Space and Time
By Saberi Roy   
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Last edited: Sunday, November 22, 2009
Posted: Monday, January 07, 2008

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Understanding everyday concepts – Space and Time


Saberi Roy - published- 9/16/2007

The nature of space and time has been controversial since the Greek philosophical traditions or even earlier in the eastern mystical tradition. Whereas the Eastern mystics considered space as an immutable platform of the universe in which things ‘arise’, the Greeks including Plato and Aristotle used the concept of ‘space’ synonymous with ‘place’. In the Timeaus, Plato wrote of space as a ‘receptacle’ of anything material. Space, according to Aristotle was a limit of a piece of matter and motion is simply a change of place. The nature of time was also equally problematic because although ‘space’ is not immediately obvious, unless something occurs in it, time seems to flow and has directionality about it. If it is difficult for us to conceive of space as some ‘thing’ as an ordinary table or glass, it is even more difficult to think of time as a separate entity.

However, there are puzzling issues relating the concept of space and existence. Even if ordinary matter can be posited in space, concepts like ‘thoughts’ cannot be assigned a ‘location’, suggesting that everything cannot be ‘located’ in space and this gives a sort of indefiniteness to space itself. Time has definiteness about it, as our thoughts ‘occur in a moment of time’. Aristotle thought time was distinct from the ‘motion’ of material objects just as space was distinct from the objects in it. Yet Aristotle claimed that without a change of motion of objects, it is impossible to be aware of time’s passage. Thus both space and time have similar problems. They were both defined in terms of things that they contained. They were both defined in terms of other parameters – time as change of motion, space as change of place. Space is distance between two points. Time is the interval between two events. But does time and space themselves have a separate existence – is there something like ‘empty space’ or ‘empty time’?

Historical Background –

For Democritus, space was an empty extension that ‘contained’ the motion of matter (as atoms) but did not interact with matter itself. This was then taken up by Lucretius who argued for an infinite extent of space and the subsequent infinite extent of the universe. And to Lucretius, just as Plato, space was a receptacle, where matter was posited. However, with Plato, matter and space became explanatorily linked. He considered the physical objects as categorized into geometric forms and ‘empty space’ as identical to matter. Aristotle took this further as according to him, space ‘determined’ the motions of bodies, and thus, space and matter were causally linked. Aristotle also postulated the impossibility of the existence of a void since a void will not have properties of direction or change of motion, so there is nothing like ‘empty space’. Thus, there were three viewpoints on space – the atomistic view (Democritus and Lucretius where space contained motion of material particles), the Platonic view (space as represented in geometric forms and connections between matter, form and space) and the Aristotelian view of space as causing motions.

The Aristotelian viewpoint was questioned when Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler started suggesting an infinite, structureless, space ‘independent’ of matter which in turn influenced Newton. However, in the 16th century, Descartes identified matter with geometrical extension. According to Descartes, the nature of a body is only understood in its extension and as extension is a basic entity of the universe and a void is impossibility, it followed that both space and universe have to be infinite. Matter and space were thus continually linked in spite of Newton’s firm belief in space as a substance independent of ordinary material objects. At this point of time, even ether was considered as the material ‘stuff’ of the universe that pervades ordinary objects so ether and space were intricately connected. So it seems that post-Aristotelian viewpoints on space and time included the Newtonian view of an absolute, independent space and time, and a Cartesian view of space, as extension described by matter.

Substantivalism –

Substantival philosophical views claim that space exists independently and have features ‘independent’ of material objects. Thus space is a sort of ‘container’ where objects occur or events take place in time. According to Newton, who was a substantivalist, even if there is no matter in the universe, there would still be space in its Euclidean form and there would be time instants forming a temporal order. There would be space and time even if there are no events. So space and material objects are both objects in a similar way, only unlike material objects space and time are unchanging and immutable. Yet, material objects can be used to measure features of space and time. Space is thus distance between two points and two events have a temporal interval between them.

Relationism –

This is another philosophical view that claims that all there is in the universe are objects and space and time can only exist as relations between these objects. Thus space and time are not separate material entities and not objects, but ‘relations’ between these entities. Relationists do not talk of the structure of space itself but of the spatial relations of the points of locations of the objects. Time is also defined in terms of temporal ‘relations’ that events bear to one another. An occupation of space or time by material objects is not conceivable in the relationist view as there is no independent space-time that exists by itself and which can be occupied. The occupation is nothing but the relations. Spatial relations are different from the temporal relations in that spatial relations are relations among things at one instant, whereas temporal relations are relations among events not occurring at the same time.

Relativity and Space-Time

The Theory of Relativity has two distinct applications - the special relativity theory and the general theory.

In special relativity, the propositions look a little different. In the special theory, the Minkowski space-time structure is the appropriate definition of space and time representation and there is no spatial and temporal separation as these exist relative to a particular state of motion chosen as what is considered as the reference frame. Yet in relativity, space-time seems to have an independent structure as it can be defined ‘only’ in terms of the geometry.

In general relativity, space-time is explicated using Riemannian geometry, it is four dimensional and ‘curved’. So space-time has a different structure here and is connected with the non gravitational mass energy in it. General relativity brings with it the possibility of different space-time structures. The substantivalist has a position compatible with commonsense thinking - when accepting the possibility of empty spaces in a room or in ordinary language an object is said to be ‘in space’. Yet, as we have seen in case of general relativity and in scientific terms, one speaks of structures of space-time. One thing common to both science and ordinary discourse is, we talk of space-time as real and existent independent of the objects. Thus material objects and spacetime are similar so much so that matter is considered as ‘pieces’ of space-time. Plato took space as ‘matter’ of the world and Descartes’ view of space suggests space as the ‘stuff’ of the world if space and matter are considered similar. So there are two distinct substantival positions - space as a type of matter or substance, containing other types of matter or the objects and space and matter of the world as identical, so all matter is just space.


In our commonsense thinking, when we talk of space-time as existing, the manner of existence we imply is different from existence of tables and chairs. Tables and chairs are objects, just like we can say, even quantum particles are objects. But space-time is ‘structure’ and things exist in space and that is why we have difficulties in explaining the existence of space-time in the same manner we describe real objects. However as it can be seen, space-time can be defined in terms of geometry, in terms of matter, as space can be equated with matter or even in terms of structure or simply as a receptacle or container in which events occur or objects exist. However considering the theory of relativity, the scientific explanation of space-time would largely depend on a four-dimensional structure defined by mass-energy relations suggesting that earlier philosophical attempts of defining space in terms of matter were at least on the right direction and even provided the basis for relativity, which was a shift from the Newtonian viewpoint in which matter and space were separate.


References and Further Reading:

Cushing, James

Philosophical concepts in physics : the historical relation between philosophy and scientific theories / James T. Cushing.

Cambridge ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Earman, John

World enough and space-time : absolute versus relational theories of space and time / John Earman.

Cambridge, Mass., ; London : MIT Press, c1989.

Einstein, Albert

Relativity : the special & the general theory : a popular exposition / by Albert Einstein ; authorised translation by Robert W. Lawson.

London : Methuen, 1929.

9th ed.

Jammer, Max

Concepts of space : the history of theories of space in physics / Foreword by Albert Einstein.

Cambridge, Mass. : 2d ed. Harvard University Press, 1969.

Newton, Issac, Sir

Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematical principles of natural philosophy and his system of the world / translated into English by Andrew Motte in 1729 ; the translations revised, and supplied with an historical and explanatory appendix, by Florian Cajori.

Berkeley : University of California Press, 1962.

Newton, Issac, Sir

Sir Isaac Newton's Mathematical principles of natural philosophy and his system of the world / translated into English by Andrew Motte in 1729 ; the translations revised, and supplied with an historical and explanatory appendix, by Florian Cajori.

Berkeley : University of California Press, 1962.

Sklar, Lawrence

Philosophy of physics / Lawrence Sklar.

Oxford : Oxford University Press, c1992.

Sklar, Lawrence

Space, time and spacetime / Lawrence Sklar.

Berkeley ; London : University of California Press, 1974.

first published in Global Politician. 

Web Site: Saberi Roy

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