We all see and feel space, but what is it really? Space is one of those fundamental things that a philosopher may consider an “intuition.” When philosophers look at anything, they get a bit technical. Is space relational, as in, defined in terms of relations between objects? A relational entity is like your family — you have your parents, siblings, spouse, kids etc. forming what you consider your family. But your family itself is not a physical entity, but only a collection of relationships. Is space also something like that? Or is it more like a physical container where objects reside and do their thing?
You may consider the distinction between the two just another one of those philosophical hairsplittings, but it really is not. What space is, and even what kind of entity space is, has enormous implications in physics. For instance, if it is relational in nature, then in the absence of matter, there is no space. Much like in the absence of any family members, you have no family. On the other hand, if it is a container-like entity, the space exists even if you take away all matter, waiting for some matter to appear.
So what, you ask? Well, let’s take half a bucket of water and spin it around. Once the water within catches on, its surface will form a parabolic shape — you know, centrifugal force, gravity, surface tension and all that. Now, stop the bucket, and spin the whole universe around it instead. I know, it is more difficult. But imagine you are doing it. Will the water surface be parabolic? I think it will be, because there is not much difference between the bucket turning or the whole universe spinning around it.
Now, let’s imagine that we empty the universe. There is nothing but this half-full bucket. Now it spins around. What happens to the water surface? If space is relational, in the absence of the universe, there is no space outside the bucket and there is no way to know that it is spinning. Water surface should be flat. (In fact, it should be spherical, but ignore that for a second.) And if space is container-like, the spinning bucket should result in a parabolic surface.
Of course, we have no way of knowing which way it is going to be because we have no way of emptying the universe and spinning a bucket. But that doesn’t prevent us from guessing the nature of space and building theories based on it. Newton’s space is container-like, while at their heart, Einstein’s theories have a relational notion of space.
So, you see, philosophy does matter.