Space, Time – and Reality

The two entities we call space and time, immortalized so famously by Albert Einstein in his equations are, simply, not real. They fail a simple reality test. To be recognized as real an object or event must be observed, perceived, or otherwise be made conspicuous  by multiple observations; it must be incontrovertibly describable in an agreed-on common language as having a consistent existence; it must be examinable, testable, verifiable by all of its observers and must remain consistently describable as the same thing, object, or event. We accept as real persistent objects and events and we presume as real such entities that may no longer exist but for which there is sufficient evidence that they did exist at some earlier time.

Space  and time, regardless of the opinions and assumptions of multiple famous, not so famous, even infamous authorities, in and of themselves, that is, without reference to other objects or events, do not meet the requirements of this test. You cannot see, touch, taste, smell, experience in any way a solitary piece of space or interval of time. Neither of them has, in and of itself, those properties we call dimensions unrelated to some object or event.

The concept of space and time and all of the mysterious and wonderful mathematics that it inspired in modern physics are inventions of the human mind, derived to enable us to make sense of, to describe, manipulate, and to communicate with other humans about objects and events of the real world. They are not the real world themselves.

This does not mean that relativity is itself overthrown. Newton, Poincare, Einstein, and others far back in history recognized that all of our observations and measurements required a recognition of where we were starting from. And if that starting point were in motion then the observations and measurements would vary according to definable rules and other observations. Space and time were then remarkable inventions to enable us to have starting and ending points for those observations and measurements.

These inventions also enabled us to take our notes and/or our memories of those observations back to a quiet warm place in which to ponder them, safe from the cold, the wind, the predators that might have inhabited the place of our observations. And in that quiet place we were free to work out in our heads what the meanings of those observations might be and how they might be applied to bodies and events we as yet could not reach far enough to measure. The mathematics, and these new concepts called space and time would make all that possible. We could, then, as Newton showed us, roll a small ball down an incline, measure its characteristics, and say with confidence that our results would likely predict what a large ball rolling down a hill outside Cambridge might do, as well.

It was when we began to try to apply what we had learned to objects and events far outside of our experience that we began to go off the track. As we became more comfortable with the mathematics, we began to play with it a little bit. One of the more fascinating characteristic of human consciousness is it’s ability to play “What if?’ games. Students of evolution think that this may have arisen out of the search for an alternative to trial and error as a survival strategy. In the hunt or in battle, for instance, the outcome of trial and error might be limited to either success or death. But many ‘what if?’ models could be tested in the mind and those with the highest probability of success could then be selected with minimum danger to life and limb. For a thinker contemplating the origins and structure of the universe, then, and faced with observations not yet explainable by Newton’s laws that seemed to work fine here in the “zone of middle dimensions,” “what if?” seemed to be the only way to go.

Another mathematician enters here. Hermann Minkowski (1864-1909)was a mathematician who did important work in number theory and geometry. Now geometry was developed as a way of describing and establishing the characteristics of definable forms, both 2- and 3-dimensional. After Einstein developed his algebra based theory of Special Relativity in 1905, a theory that used values of time and distance to help express velocity, Minkowski showed that it could also be expressed geometrically by using units of time as a fourth geometrical dimension. Poincaré, too, used Minkowski’s ideas to resolve a difficult set of Lorentz transformations of Maxwell’s equations.

Einstein himself at first viewed Minkowski’s treatment as a mere mathematical trick, before eventually realizing that a geometrical view of space-time would be necessary in order to complete his own later work in general relativity (1915). ….By 1907 Minkowski realized that the special theory of relativity, introduced by Albert Einstein in 1905 and based on previous work of Lorentz and Poincaré, could be best understood in a four dimensional space, since known as “Minkowski spacetime”, in which time and space are not separated entities but intermingled in a four dimensional space-time, and in which the Lorentz geometry of special relativity can be nicely represented. The beginning part of his address delivered at the 80th Assembly of German Natural Scientists and Physicians (September 21, 1908) is now famous:

“The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.”(Wikipedia)

 So, somewhere in there, between Minkowski’s realization that geometry might be another way to a describe the four values of Einstein’s (algebraic) work on relativity, and Einstein’s insight that he could apply that idea to his General Theory, space and time, those wonderful concepts that were invented to help us describe reality, first in Einstein’s mind, and then in his theory, became more than just descriptors, they became themselves real. “What if… space and time were real?”  became “Space and time are real!” They became substantive essences that could be curved, bent, compressed, extended, just by changing values in an equation. You didn’t have to go out into the cold and gaze into the heavens. Once you saw them as “real” they could, in their manipulations, be offered as the source of gravity, and by Einstein and his successors be used to explain almost everything in the cosmos.

The fact that they in and of themselves are not real and do not pass the reality test, has been forgotten or denied for over 100 years. It is only fair to say that when confronted with the unrealities, paradoxes, and contradictions of quantum theory, Einstein remembered his youthful commitment to reality and argued for it forcefully, but somehow the unrealities in General Relativity have never been corrected.

It seems now that enough time has passed, that a sufficient number of unsupportable theories have been developed out of this mistaken substantiation of a purely mathematical concept, this making of a reality out of a mental construct, that we ought to take another look at how we might find a model more fully based on what is real and not on unproveable hypotheses.

Einstein’s Hypothesis of General Relativity—qualified

If—the conceptual entity that physicists have come to call space can be shown to have a substantive nature, if it can be empirically shown to actually exist, in and of  itself—


If—the entity or phenomenon that physicists call time can be examined and be empirically shown to have a discernable existence in and of itself—


If—the structure of the universe and its environment—what we call the cosmos—can be assumed to conform to the structure and have the characteristics described in Riemann’s and Minkowski’s non-Euclidean geometry, including the dimensional characteristics of the entities described above, i. e. space and time,


The following equation may be considered as a possible description of  the structure and workings of the universe.



About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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1 Response to Space, Time – and Reality

  1. Ulla says:

    We can just as well say that ‘reality’ is an illusion. We are just denser spacetimes. The curvature is the essential? And where does SR stop and GR begin? Cool.

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