Debate Magazine

Space-Time Constructions

By Cris

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.


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