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Philosophy

Philosophy Department Faculty Publications


Providence College Year 2008

On the Mathematical Representation of


Spacetime
Joseph K. Cosgrove
Providence College, jcosgrov@providence.edu

This paper is posted at DigitalCommons@Providence.


http://digitalcommons.providence.edu/philosophy fac/4
On the Mathematical Representation of Spacetime

Joseph Cosgrove

(paper presented to the Third International Conference on the Nature and Ontology of
Spacetime, June 13, 2008, Concordia University, Montreal)1

Einstein’s popular exposition of the theory of relativity includes a rather

humorous characterization of the process of setting up a Cartesian coordinate grid. He

imagines a marble table top and a set of rigid rods, cut to length and laid out on the table

top in squares. “It is a veritable wonder,” Einstein remarks, “that we can carry out this

business without getting into the greatest of difficulties. We only need to think of the

following”:

If at any moment three squares meet at a corner, then two sides of the
fourth square are already laid, and, as a consequence, the arrangement of
the remaining two sides of the square is already completely determined.
But I am now no longer able to adjust the quadrilateral so that its
diagonals may be equal. If they are equal of their own accord, then this is
an especial favor of the marble slab and of the little rods, about which I
can only be thankfully surprised. We must needs experience many such
surprises if the construction is to be successful.2

So you better hope the rods line up, and thank your maker, or perhaps the rods

themselves, if they do. Without reading too much into an obviously tongue-in-cheek

remark about thanking the rods, we should not fail to note the substantive issue raised in

this passage, one upon which Hermann Weyl would soon press Einstein more forcefully

in connection with the latter’s continued reliance upon such gifts in his theory of

gravitation. Einstein, while conceding the questionable validity of the very concept of

rigid rods and clocks, nevertheless insisted that actual rods and clocks “work,” so to

1
This paper is an updated version of the conference paper, the original title of which was “Husserl, Jacob
Klein, and Minkowski Spacetime.” The paper is based on my published article “Husserl, Jacob, and
Symbolic Nature,” Graduate Faculty Philosophy Journal Volume 29, Number 1, 2008, 227-51.
2
Einstein, Relativity, 93.
speak, enabling us to subject our theories to empirical test. Therefore, while ideally we

would not have to depend upon such “elaborate appliances,” as Eddington called them,

from the perspective of the practicing physicist the concept of the rigid rod and clock

remains indispensable.

Weyl was unimpressed by Einstein’s defense of rigid rods and clocks. His

objection, as he put it, had nothing to do with the actual behavior of rods and clocks. It

was instead a philosophically inspired objection, based on Weyl’s study of Edmund

Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology, specifically, Husserl’s Ideas Pertaining to a

Pure Phenomenology, volume one, of 1913.3 Weyl argued that general relativity was

marred by a blemish imported via Riemannian geometry, namely, the illegitimate

congruent displacement of vectors in respect of length. The very concept of congruence,

maintained Weyl, is physically meaningful only in the immediately intuitable,

infinitesimal region of an ideal observer. Accordingly, Riemannian geometry lacks for

what Husserl terms an “eidetic intuition” or essential insight into the meaning of

congruence. “Intuition” in this phenomenological sense always intends something

conceptual, the experientially-based encounter with the universal or essential aspect of an

object. Thus for Weyl, an intuitively coherent conception of the essence “space” must

base distant congruence on directly intuitable local congruence.4 Indeed, only by

attending to this phenomenological context we can make sense of Weyl’s otherwise

puzzling contention, summarily dismissed by Einstein, that the behavior of rods and

clocks, or atoms and their spectral lines, or any other particular physical object, has

3
The issues between Weyl and Einstein as they relate to Husserlian phenomenology are treated in
Ryckman, 2005. The introduction to Weyl’s Space, Time, Matter of 1918 is a virtual paraphrase of
Husserl’s Ideas I.
4
Weyl, “Gravitation and Electricity,” (1918), 207-8 (in Einstein, et al).

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“nothing to do with the ideal process of congruent displacement.”5 In fact, the parallel

with Einstein’s own treatment of simultaneity is difficult to overlook. Einstein argues

that a physically coherent conception of simultaneity must be local, such that distant

simultaneity is conceptually meaningful only indirectly, based on this originally local

sense. Indeed, Einstein could well have asserted in his 1905 paper on special relativity

that the “ideal constitution” of simultaneity, its essence or eidetic structure, has “nothing

to do with” the empirical behavior of clocks, light beams, or any other particular physical

phenomenon.

My purpose today, however, is not to rehearse the disagreement between Weyl

and Einstein, which in any event has already been exhaustively documented and superbly

analyzed by Thomas Ryckman. Instead, I wish to attempt a broadening of the

phenomenological horizon for viewing the problem of spacetime, beyond the

phenomenological reconstruction carried out by Weyl, to the historical

phenomenological perspective set forth by Husserl in his last major work, The Crisis of

the European Sciences of 1936. Here philosophy of science, understood by Husserl now

as historical phenomenology of science, has for its task bringing the concepts of modern

mathematical physics to intuitive clarity through an historical “desedimentation,” as it

were, apart from which, argues Husserl, “science as given in its present-day form . . . . is

mute as a development of meaning.” According to the Husserl of Crisis, that is to say,

the very sense of the concepts of modern mathematical physics is constituted in its

essence by a series of historical accretions of meaning, or sedimentations, which can only

be brought to light by a phenomenological analysis grounded in historical research.

Elaborating on the theme, Husserl protests the “surreptitious substitution,” as he sees it,
5
Quoted in Ryckman, 87.

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of symbolic mathematical abstractions for intuitable physical realities, which substitution

amounts to a kind of “reification of method,” where the means of representing the world

is mistaken for the thing represented: “Mathematics and mathematical science, as a garb

of ideas, or the garb of symbols of the symbolic mathematical theories, encompasses

everything which, for scientists and the educated generally, represents the life-world,

dresses it up as 'objectively actual and true' nature. It is through the garb of ideas that we

take for true being what is actually a method . . . .” To bring to intuitive clarity this “garb

of ideas,” via a philosophical investigation necessarily historical in character, is the task

laid out by Husserl’s later philosophy of science.

Husserl did not complete the historical investigation he regarded as a necessary

antidote to the reification of method in modern mathematical physics. However, even

before Husserl’s Crisis was published, his interpreter Jacob Klein had already carried out

such an investigation, at least in part, in his groundbreaking study Greek Mathematical

Thought and the Origin of Algebra, in which Klein traces the transformation of the

conception of number in European mathematics, inaugurated by Vieta in the late

sixteenth-century. Klein, for his part, however, did not carry out the corresponding

historical investigation of physical science, in particular the assimilation of symbolic

mathematics to physics, as he did in the history of mathematics. His work thus leaves

unfinished the task of a phenomenological account of modern mathematical physics.

Husserl himself took the validity of mathematical physics as a given, having no

interest in arguing with it, even if he sometimes did wish to argue with scientists when

they advertently or inadvertently donned philosophical hats. As he famously remarks in

the introduction to Ideas I: “When it is actually natural science that speaks, we listen

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gladly and as disciples. But it is not always natural science that speaks when natural

scientists are speaking.”6 Husserl also took it for granted that any valid concept of

theoretical physics could in principle be “cashed in” intuitively, as it were, if not directly

in experience than at least indirectly in the manner of Weyl’s analysis of congruent

displacement or Einstein’s analysis of distant simultaneity. A theoretical entity of

mathematical physics which does not admit of at least an indirect intuitive redemption in

the “sensuous life-world” can have no meaning for us at all, and accordingly cannot

possibly be an object for us. Thus “intuitive sense” is a necessary condition for anything

we might wish to call a “true” scientific proposition.

The thesis which I set forth for your consideration, however, is that the concept of

spacetime, scientifically valid though it may be, is intuitively incoherent. In what follows

I shall show why, aided by Jacob Klein’s historical analysis of the modern symbolic

conception of number.

I. Klein and “Symbolic Number”

Near the beginning of his Principia, Newton defines “quantity of motion” (what

we now call momentum), as “the measure of the same, arising from the velocity and

quantity of matter conjointly.” Interestingly, while Cartesian algebra has been around for

half a century, Newton still prefers the traditional language of ratio and proportion.

However, in the Principia’s third edition of 1726, specifically the scholium to the Laws

of Nature, Newton refers to quantity of motion as the “product, if I may say so,” of

quantity of matter and velocity. Why “if I may say so” (“ut ita dicam”), a phrase Newton

customarily employs in the sense of “I know you can’t really do this, but I’m doing it

6
Husserl, Ideas I, 39.

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anyway”? Why the qualification? Clearly, Newton is adverting to the multiplication of

mass and velocity, something that makes no sense when you think about it a little. We

take mv for granted, but that is because we have gotten used to isolating the two

dimensionless numbers represented by the symbolic variables, multiplying them together,

and then plugging them back into the units of momentum. Newton did not take that for

granted, and did not want to get used to it. If you don’t feel a pang of conscience when

you do it, then you don’t mean by “momentum” what Newton meant by “quantity of

motion.” From the perspective of any genuinely physical intuition, our modern equation

p = mv is actually a symbolic abbreviation for a proportion, namely, “The ratio of a

body’s momentum to the unit of momentum is jointly proportional to the ratio of the

body’s mass to the unit of mass and the ratio of the body’s velocity to the unit of

velocity.” Note that from an intuitive standpoint, ratios involving non-homogeneous

magnitudes are simply incoherent. Notwithstanding the fact that, for instance, we

routinely place distance in a ratio with time in our conception of velocity, six apples is

not thrice two oranges, but thrice two apples. Nor could one add or subtract apples from

oranges, and so forth. And the same goes for mass, velocity, and all other physical

magnitudes. Thus Newton, who was certainly adept at Cartesian algebra, as a rule avoids

the latter in his physics. For more important than using a symbolic calculus to “relieve

the mind,” as Descartes puts it, is to keep symbolic quantities conceptually distinct from

physical quantities, which latter must be grasped intuitively if genuine scientific

understanding is to be attained.

However, what Newton does here, albeit reluctantly, with the product of mass and

velocity, could not even have been conceived in European science before the late

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sixteenth-century. As Klein demonstrates in his classic study, the concept of “number” in

Greek mathematics, as for European mathematics in general up to the time of Vieta’s

Analytical Art of 1591, accords without exception with Euclid’s definition in Book VII of

the Elements: “A number (arithmos) is a multitude composed of units.” For modern

mathematics beginning with Vieta, by contrast, a number is essentially a symbolic entity

defined by its general relationships to other numbers in a symbolic calculus.7 One might

go so far as to say that to be a number in the modern sense is to be the possible value of

an algebraic variable, while to be a number in the pre-modern sense is to be a collection

of at least two things of a specific kind. As Klein shows, the modern symbolic

conception of number is not simply an abstraction, but rather an abstraction upon an

abstraction, taking the abstract or general concept of number as found, for instance, in

Aristotle, and then casting that concept itself, say “three-ness,” as if it were itself a

number.8 That is why Vieta calls his symbolic variables “species,” representing as they

do the general character of being a number.

Although it is often said that that Greek mathematics recognized only the “natural

numbers,” as if the Greek conception of number simply referred to a subset of our own,

nothing could be further from the truth. The Greeks knew nothing of “natural numbers”

in our sense, for the modern conception of “natural number” is already symbolic from the

outset. Even so philosophically aware a mathematician as Hermann Weyl himself, for

instance, in his book on the philosophy of science, calls numbers “free products” of the

7
For a general treatment of Klein's interpretation in Greek Mathematical Thought, see Hopkins, "Jacob
Klein on François Vieta's Establishment of Algebra as the General Analytical Art," Graduate Faculty
Philosophy Journal 25, no. 2 (2004): 51–85.
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Based on repeated encounters with three things of the same kind (e.g., three apples, three oranges, three
bears, and so forth), one can form the abstract or general concept of “three.” This conception of number is
intuitive in the sense that we do encounter in experience such multitudes of units. The modern constitution
of number as a symbolic entity requires a further abstraction through which the general concept of a
number is interpreted as being itself a number (i.e., “the number three” itself).

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mind, and in Space, Time, Matter he remarks that numbers are “merely concise symbols

for . . . relations.” But on the Greek conception of number, which means the conception

governing Western mathematics all the way through the late sixteenth-century, a dozen

eggs sitting in your refrigerator is a number, namely, a dozen, a multitude of units, the

eggs. This multitude of eggs is certainly neither a free product of the mind nor a symbol

for a relation, and we could no more multiply eggs times, say, apples, or eggs times eggs

for that matter, than Newton was willing to countenance the product of mass and

velocity. Note that this has nothing to do with any deficiency among the Greeks in

respect of their abstractive powers. Eudoxus, after all, whose theory of the continuum

surpasses anything produced before or after up until the nineteenth-century, would have

found unintelligible the idea of multiplying numbers together, something we master by

around the third grade (unless the numbers were multiples of units of line lengths, in

which case we could in a certain sense take one line length “by” another to form a plane

figure, and then do it again to form a solid figure, the latter constituting the limit on the

operation of “multiplying” numbers by one another). Only pure dimensionless numbers

can be multiplied together, and there are no dimensionless numbers in the physical

world.9 Indeed, dimensionless numbers are possible solely as symbolic entities in the

sense outlined above.

Two important and related features of modern mathematics can be traced to the

symbolic conception of number emerging in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

First, while pre-modern mathematics refers directly to things, such that arithmetic is

directly “about” collections of countable objects and geometry is directly about figures in

9
There are, to be sure, dimensionless ratios in the physical world, but ratios are not numbers in the proper
sense.

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space, the proximate object of modern symbolic mathematics is general symbolic

possibilities. Secondly, modern formal mathematical systems are consequently self-

referential in a distinctive sense. That is to say, such systems are in the first place “about

themselves”; only indirectly are they correlated, or “coordinated,” if you like, to things in

the world. It is for this reason that the assimilation of symbolic mathematics to physics

raises a unique set of questions regarding modern mathematical physics and its

relationship to the experienced physical world.

II. Symbolic Mathematics and Symbolic Nature

Galileo, as is well-known, did not know what an equation was. Newton, as we

have already noted, while certainly adept at the new algebra, avoids it in his physics for

reasons we have touched upon, namely, its way of obscuring the physical intuition upon

which scientific understanding is based. However, the significance of Descartes in this

context can hardly be overestimated, and here Jacob Klein truly pulls off a tour de force

of historical interpretation. While it is often said that Descartes’ analytical geometry

“unified geometry and algebra,” as if Descartes took a preexisting geometry and

somehow fused it with algebra, Klein shows that this facile characterization obscures

Descartes’ real accomplishment, which is to have transformed geometry into a symbolic

representation of equations. The first step in this process is to convert ratios, which as

such are either relationships between dimensional numbers (six apples to three apples,

for instance) or relationships between non-numerical but still dimensional magnitudes

(pi, for example), into dimensionless numbers. This Descartes accomplishes by

nominalizing the relationship expressed by a ratio. Ratios themselves are trivially

dimensionless, since they are not numbers, but relationships. But what if I take, for

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instance, the relationship between six feet and two feet, the former being thrice the latter,

and then treat this relationship of “thrice” as if it itself were a number (“thrice-ness,” or

the number “3”)? This is Descartes’ initial move in his Geometry of 1637, which we

have already encountered, in historically sedimented form, in Hermann Weyl’s assertion

that numbers are “free creations of the mind” and “nothing but symbols for relations.”

Descartes’ particular innovation, however, is to employ line lengths as symbolic

representations of dimensionless numbers, and then to use these “coordinate systems” to

“graph equations,” as we say. Such graphs, the drawing of a circle, for example, must

accordingly be understood as symbolic representations of equations, which themselves in

turn symbolically represent generalized relationships between symbolic, dimensionless

numbers, which themselves represent whatever it is we’re actually talking about. I trust

you will agree that there is ample potential for Husserlian “sedimentation” in these layers

of symbolic representation.

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Consider, if you will, the following diagrams:

Let us regard the first figure as a circle drawn with pencil and compass, maybe

from the books of Euclid or Apollonius. This drawn figure directly represents a figure in

space, a circle. It is not a graph. The second figure is a symbolic representation, or

graph, of an equation. The equation itself represents generalized relationships between

numbers; this particular equation, for instance, could be used to represent, say, a

quantitative relationship in economics, perhaps something from statistics, maybe even a

circle in space. Interestingly, the graph of the equation in the second figure actually

resembles a circle in space, even though it isn’t one per se, it’s simply a graph of the

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equation. Klein’s claim, the full argument for which I will not review here, is that

Descartes implicitly identifies the symbolic circle, the graph, with the real circle in space;

and more generally, that Descartes has actually created a “symbolic space” and implicitly

identified that symbolic space with physical space. Still more provocatively, Klein then

suggests that this Cartesian “symbolic space,” now surreptitiously identified with

physical space, subsequently becomes the proximate object of modern mathematical

physics. A prime candidate here, of course, would be “Minkowski space,” a symbolic

space used for the representation of a theoretical “spacetime.”

Before moving on explicitly to the subject of spacetime, however, another

historical example is in order. In 1699, Pierre Varignon, to much castigation from his

peers, first expressed velocity as an algebraic ratio of distance and time. Fully a century

later, Laplace in his Celestial Mechanics of 1798 is still at pains to justify such use of

non-homogeneous ratios in physics:

Time and space, being heterogeneous quantities, cannot be directly compared


with each other; therefore an interval of time, such as the second is taken for the
unit of time and a given space, such as the meter, is taken for the unit of space;
then space and time are expressed as abstract numbers, denoting how many
measures of these particular species each of them contains, and they may then be
compared with each other. In this manner the velocity is expressed by the ratio of
two abstract numbers, and its unit is the velocity of a body which describes one
meter in a second.10

Note that the “abstract numbers” of which Laplace speaks here, which alone render the

procedure workable, are not simply abstractions per se, but rather symbolic

dimensionless numbers. Thus velocity understood as “distance over time,” as we are

used to saying, is nothing but a symbolic abbreviation for a proportion, intuitively

redeemable by saying that the ratio of velocity to its unit is jointly proportional to the

10
Quoted in Roche, op. cit., 138.

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ratio of the distanced traversed to its unit and the ratio of the unit of time to the time

elapsed. It is significant that while the prima facie problematic employment of

dimensionless numbers in physics is still on Laplace’s radar, so to speak, symbolic

number itself, if this passage is any indication, has already been completely sedimented

in Western mathematical history by the end of the eighteenth-century. By the close of the

nineteenth-century, however, not just symbolic number, but “symbolic nature” as well

will have become part of a sedimented history. The concept of “spacetime,” I shall now

demonstrate, is a most notable legacy of this sedimented history.

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III. “Spacetime” as an Intrinsically Symbolic Entity

It is a commonplace observation that concepts of mathematical physics such as

“spacetime,” “curved space,” and so forth, are “non-intuitive” in the sense that they

cannot be directly experienced or even pictured in the imagination. That may or may not

be the case, but at any rate, this is not the sense of “intuitive” which concerns us, but

rather what we should call “intuitive coherence,” something for which picturability in the

imagination is in no wise a necessary condition. Higher-dimensional spaces, for instance,

are wholly intuitive even though we cannot, or at least most of us cannot, picture in our

imagination any more dimensions of space than three. The string theorists talk about

extra dimensions of space being “rolled up” such that they are beneath the threshold of

experience. Presumably, were a fourth dimension of space to start unrolling to everyday

proportions, we would learn to intuit space four-dimensionally, just as in infancy we

learned to reconstitute three-dimensional space from the two-dimensional visual field

imprinted on the retina of our eyeball. Indeed, nothing stops us from making literally

true statements about the Pythagorean line element of higher dimensional space, such

statements clearly being an intuitively evident extension of our knowledge of three-

dimensional space. Similarly, there is nothing in principle non-intuitive about so-called

“curved” space, which presumably would be intuitively obvious to us if we lived in high

gravity. And using Hermann Bondi’s so-called “k-calculus,” to cite one last example, we

can easily cash in relativistic time dilation intuitively without even using algebra,

employing the traditional mathematics of ratio and proportion. In general terms, we

should be careful not confuse that which is offensive to “common sense” with that which

lacks intuitive sense or coherence.

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“Spacetime” falls into the latter category. All we need in order to see this is the

equation ds = ( )1/2. Any other version of this equation, with generalized tensor

components as coefficients, for example, is conceptually equivalent to this one for our

purposes. We remind ourselves that this equation is the only doorway from experience to

the absolute world of “spacetime,” as well as the only doorway from spacetime back to

experience. What enables us to interpret the expression as a formula for the “interval” of

a four-dimensional “spacetime continuum”? For as it stands, after all, ds has units of

distance, velocity times time (ct) clearly yielding units of distance. While the invariance

of this quantity over Lorentz transformations may be suggestive, the formula per se

simply expresses the difference between the spatial distance separating two events and

the distance light would travel in the time interval between those two events. It is not a

“spacetime interval” without further interpretation. To be sure, we read in textbook

presentations that when spacetime diagrams have one of their axes labeled ct, then time is

being “measured in units of distance,” which is a rather misleading thing to say, since

strictly speaking time can be measured only in units of time. To be sure, time can be

represented in units of distance, but representation is quite a different thing from

measurement. The representation of time in units of distance, of course, happens

whenever we represent time on a graph; but that is not what we are doing when we label

the y-axis of a spacetime diagram ct. Rather, in that case we are using the distance on the

graph to represent the distance ct. If we wish to represent time, we’re not there yet.

Happily, at this point the textbooks inform us that we are “adjusting” the units of c such

that c = 1! For example, Hartle’s excellent textbook on general relativity informs the

reader that once we substitute the number ‘1’ for the velocity of light, “velocities are

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dimensionless.” This is a most interesting conceptual move. After all, adjusting units

has nothing to do with creating dimensionless entities, and one would have thought that a

velocity whose units were adjusted to unity would equal one unit of distance per one unit

of time. A more accurate description of what has happened would be to say that we have

adjusted the units of c to unity and then dropped them, yielding the desired form of

representation for our purpose, the symbolic and dimensionless number ‘1’. Thus,

having turned the original expression into this: ds = (t2 – x2)1/2, we now have what we

needed for a “spacetime interval,” namely, one term representing time and one term

representing space. While the textbooks invariably imply that all this has been done

simply for convenience, and we can restore the units of c any time we want, that is not

exactly the case. In truth, the substitution of a dimensionless number for the velocity of

light is all that certifies the indispensable analogy of a coordinate rotation, without which

there is simply no justification for interpreting the expression ds = (t2 – x2)1/2 as a

“spacetime interval” at all. But a spacetime coordinate rotation can be effected only in a

symbolic space, since a coordinate rotation as such presupposes homogeneity of

dimensions. It is the graph alone, with its spatial representation of time, which fulfills

that requirement. (A coordinate system, it bears reminding, is a physical object

consisting of rigid rods and clocks. The entire apparatus, including the clocks, can be

physically rotated in space, but this obviously does not constitute a “spacetime rotation.”)

Moreover, it is only symbolic dimensionless numbers that render possible the intuitively

incoherent arithmetical operation of subtracting distance from time, where we perform

the operation on the symbolic numbers and then plug them back into “spacetime.”11

11
It is interesting that the original ict of Minkowski’s 1908 address, which from our perspective is
obviously a gimmick for making the quadratic form of the spacetime interval appear Pythagroean, was

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Finally, unlike the other examples we have discussed (e.g., mv and so forth), the

“spacetime interval” in principle cannot be intuitively “cashed in,” even indirectly; rather,

it is, as far as we have any conception of it, an inherently symbolic entity devoid of

intuitive sense.

With spacetime, then, we run up against a scientific concept not merely beyond

the limits of common sense or mental imagery, but of physical intuition itself. Indeed,

we simply have no non-symbolic conception of spacetime, although one would not know

it from the indiscriminate use of metaphors like “block time” and such. These metaphors

are unobjectionable as long as they are recognized for what they are–metaphors for

something of which we have no conception whatsoever beyond mathematical formulas

and the logic by which those formulas have been deduced. Nevertheless, the so-called

“block universe” is ubiquitous in both philosophical and sometimes even scientific

literature (especially popularizations of relativity). Physicist Paul Davies, for instance,

suggests that were we to think more relativistically and “pin down those brain processes”

that give rise to the illusion of the passage of time, we could rid ourselves of the fear of

death (something Einstein himself seems to have dabbled in).12 Similarly, the notion of a

static universe has been employed by some philosophers to prove that our sense of free

will is an illusion.

But in reality, the assertion that in spacetime time all moments of time coexist is

no more true than the assertion that in spacetime all points of space flow continuously. If

we are in the habit of speaking in the first way rather than the second, it is only because

taken quite seriously by, among others, Einstein himself. This would seem to suggest how great an
intuitive barrier was initially presented by the idea of a “spacetime interval.”
12
Paul Davies, “That Mysterious Flow,” Scientific American 15:3 (2005), 82–88, at 88. Since a “brain
process” is temporal phenomenon, it would be strange for it to explain how the “illusion of time” arises!

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we are accustomed to a spatial rather than a temporal means of representation, the

“Minkowski diagram,” for instance. But to imagine that the image of “block time” or of

a “static universe” gives us any more insight into physical reality than the image of

“flowing space,” is a prime example of the reification of method, confusing the means of

representation with the thing represented. As Meyerson pointed out as early as 1925, “we

need only open an exposition of the doctrine [of spacetime] to note that, where time is

concerned, the writer always speaks of one dimension, obviously conceived as spatial,

while no attempt is ever made to represent the properly spatial dimensions in terms of

time.”13 Imagine a world in which we experienced not three dimensions of space and one

dimension of time, but rather two dimensions of space and two dimensions of time. We

would then be free to highjack one of the time dimensions for the representation of space,

employing digital clocks, for instance. Our conception of “timespace” would inevitably

suggest to us that space is somehow “like” additional dimensions of time, and our

propensity to believe space exists “all at once” an illusion.

Perhaps philosophical mischief about “block time” has no ill-effects on the actual

practice of physics, although given the power of metaphor in all areas of science one

might well be concerned. In the end, we are stuck with our metaphors, and all we can do

is try to separate the good ones from the bad ones, while making sure not to imagine that

even the good ones tell us more than they actually do.

13
Meyerson, The Relativistic Deduction, 72.

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