What is Space?

This sounds like a strange question. We all know what space is, it is all around us. When we open our eyes, we see it. If seeing is believing, then the question “What is space?” indeed is a strange one.

To be fair, we don’t actually see space. We see only objects which we assume are in space. Rather, we define space as whatever it is that holds or contains the objects. It is the arena where objects do their thing, the backdrop of our experience. In other words, experience presupposes space and time, and provides the basis for the worldview behind the currently popular interpretations of scientific theories.

Although not obvious, this definition (or assumption or understanding) of space comes with a philosophical baggage — that of realism. The realist’s view is predominant in the current understanding of Einstien’s theories as well. But Einstein himself may not have embraced realism blindly. Why else would he say:

In order to break away from the grip of realism, we have to approach the question tangentially. One way to do it is by studying the neuroscience and cognitive basis of sight, which after all provides the strongest evidence to the realness of space. Space, by and large, is the experience associated with sight. Another way is to examine experiential correlates of other senses: What is sound?

When we hear something, what we hear is, naturally, sound. We experience a tone, an intensity and a time variation that tell us a lot about who is talking, what is breaking and so on. But even after stripping off all the extra richness added to the experience by our brain, the most basic experience is still a “sound.” We all know what it is, but we cannot explain it in terms more basic than that.

Now let’s look at the sensory signal responsible for hearing. As we know, these are pressure waves in the air that are created by a vibrating body making compressions and depressions in the air around it. Much like the ripples in a pond, these pressure waves propagate in almost all directions. They are picked up by our ears. By a clever mechanism, the ears perform a spectral analysis and send electric signals, which roughly correspond to the frequency spectrum of the waves, to our brain. Note that, so far, we have a vibrating body, bunching and spreading of air molecules, and an electric signal that contains information about the pattern of the air molecules. We do not have sound yet.

The experience of sound is the magic our brain performs. It translates the electrical signal encoding the air pressure wave patterns to a representation of tonality and richness of sound. Sound is not the intrinsic property of a vibrating body or a falling tree, it is the way our brain chooses to represent the vibrations or, more precisely, the electrical signal encoding the spectrum of the pressure waves.

Doesn’t it make sense to call sound an internal cognitive representation of our auditory sensory inputs? If you agree, then reality itself is our internal representation of our sensory inputs. This notion is actually much more profound that it first appears. If sound is representation, so is smell. So is space.

Figure: Illustration of the process of brain’s representation of sensory inputs. Odors are a representation of the chemical compositions and concentration levels our nose senses. Sounds are a mapping of the air pressure waves produced by a vibrating object. In sight, our representation is space, and possibly time. However, we do not know what it is the representation of.

We can examine it and fully understand sound because of one remarkable fact — we have a more powerful sense, namely our sight. Sight enables us to understand the sensory signals of hearing and compare them to our sensory experience. In effect, sight enables us to make a model describing what sound is.

Why is it that we do not know the physical cause behind space? After all, we know of the causes behind the experiences of smell, sound, etc. The reason for our inability to see beyond the visual reality is in the hierarchy of senses, best illustrated using an example. Let’s consider a small explosion, like a firecracker going off. When we experience this explosion, we will see the flash, hear the report, smell the burning chemicals and feel the heat, if we are close enough.

The qualia of these experiences are attributed to the same physical event — the explosion, the physics of which is well understood. Now, let’s see if we can fool the senses into having the same experiences, in the absence of a real explosion. The heat and the smell are fairly easy to reproduce. The experience of the sound can also be created using, for instance, a high-end home theater system. How do we recreate the experience of the sight of the explosion? A home theater experience is a poor reproduction of the real thing.

In principle at least, we can think of futuristic scenarios such as the holideck in Star Trek, where the experience of the sight can be recreated. But at the point where sight is also recreated, is there a difference between the real experience of the explosion and the holideck simulation? The blurring of the sense of reality when the sight experience is simulated indicates that sight is our most powerful sense, and we have no access to causes beyond our visual reality.

Visual perception is the basis of our sense of reality. All other senses provide corroborating or complementing perceptions to the visual reality.

[This post has borrowed quite a bit from my book.]


5 thoughts on “What is Space?”

  1. Thank you Manoj, for this elucidation of a fact thqt I had discovered for myself a few years back. With the principles of physics, perhaps, one can get to the real phenomena than by just reasoning. Your attempt to correlate physics to philosophical investigation is admirable and very helpful for laymen like me. Thanks a lot.

  2. Hallo Manoj,
    I can well imagine that you might not be typesetting yourself the text of your articles being posted at the Unreal Blog. There are typing errors now and then. But one that is not probably a fleeting error is to be pointed out for better legibility purposes. This has to do with the distinction between a hyphen and a dash. Interchanging these can destroy clarity as in the case of ‘remarkable fact-we have a….’
    Actually a dash is in place there.
    Zach Neduncanal

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