Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0102, January 2, 2017


On the Notion of Empty Space

     Before delving into this weighty and difficult matter, please relax and enjoy some more eye candy that did not make it into the 2017 calendar.

Copyright 2016 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski

Copyright 2016 by S. W. Paul Wyszkowski

      The first question of the year concerns "empty space". Many, including Prickles, claim to have felt it in their chest as 2017 arrived. Which raises the question: is "empty space" something real, like indigestion, or mere nothing at all?

     Regarding nothing, all that needs to be said about it is that nothing needs to be said about it because there is no such thing (hence "no thing"). This profound observation courtesy of our resident philosopher, Prickles. Thank you, Prickles. "It's nothing," she says modestly.

     Incidentally, "next to nothing" is an entirely different kettle of fish from which, if we may mix our metaphors, Leibniz and Newton spun the very useful mathematical methodology of differential calculus. But that's another story.

     Back to our topic. Thanks to Prickles, we know what we mean by "nothing". But what do we mean by "real"? A "real" thing is one we can describe from direct or indirect experience of it. And even though our description can only be partial (we can never completely experience the whole thing) and though it may be in some ways mistaken, there is absolutely no doubt (unless we are deliberately lying) that we have experienced something rather than nothing. That's as close to real as we get.

     Space, feelings of emptiness notwithstanding, is not a thing we can describe from experience. Instead, it is part of the description of how things are related to one another. Note that space is not a container for things but a collective property of things, defining (in part) their mutual relationships (e.g. far apart, close together). Since space has no meaning independently of the things it relates, it does not make sense to speak of "empty space" as a separate thing unto itself. The answer to the question "is empty space something or nothing?" is that it is neither. "Empty space" is a meaningless phrase. Space is the set of measurments of distances between things - it is neither empty nor does it contain anything. It's just a set of numbers. "Oh," says Prickles sounding a bit disappointed.

     Cheer up, Prickles! There is more to space besides its function as a descriptor of how things are located with respect to one another. There is energy associated with the magnitude and curvature (geometry) of space. ("A 'set of numbers' can be curved?" Prickles asks dubiously. You bet!) Which brings up the exciting matter of motion and change - "space" is actually twisting dynamic four (or maybe more) dimensional space-time. But that's a whole nother story.

     "What about that feeling of emptiness?" Prickles persists. Not space. But not nothing, either. Possibly part of a psychological syndrome induced by the stresses of 2016. I recommend a brisk walk in the woods. "OK," she says, trotting off hopefully. Don't forget to enjoy!

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