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Monday, January 01, 2007

Philosophy of space and time

Space has a range of definitions:
One view of space is that it is part of the fundamental structure of the universe, a set of dimensions in which objects are separated and located, have size and shape, and through which they can move. A contrasting view is that space is part of a fundamental abstract mathematical conceptual framework within which we compare and quantify the distance between objects, their sizes, their shapes, and their speeds. In this view space does not refer to any kind of entity that is a "container" that objects "move through". These opposing views are relevant also to definitions of time. Space is typically described as having three dimensions, and that three numbers are needed to specify the size of any object and/or its location with respect to another location. Modern physics does not treat space and time as independent dimensions, but treats both as features of space-time – a conception that challenges intuitive notions of distance and time.
An issue of philosophical debate is whether space is an ontological entity itself, or simply a conceptual framework we need to think about the world. Another way to frame this is to ask, "Can space itself be measured, or is space part of the measurement system?" The same debate applies also to time, and an important formulation in both areas was given by Immanuel Kant.
In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant described space as an a priori intuition that allows us to comprehend sense experience. With Kant, neither space nor time are conceived as substances, but rather both are elements of a systematic framework we use to structure our experience. Spatial measurements are used to quantify how far apart objects are, and temporal measurements are used to quantify how far apart events occur.
Schopenhauer, in the preface to his On the Will in Nature, stated that "space is the condition of the possibility of juxtaposition." This is in accordance with Kant's understanding of space as a form in the mind of an observing subject.
Similar philosophical questions concerning space include: Is space absolute or purely relational? Does space have one correct geometry, or is the geometry of space just a convention? Historical positions in these debates have been taken by Isaac Newton, Gottfried Leibniz, and Henri Poincare. Two important thought-experiments connected with these questions are: Newton's bucket argument and Poincare's sphere-world.

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