Is the question whether spacetime is real, or whether it’s fundamental?

Matt O’Dowd is starting to look at a question I find extremely interesting. What is the ontology of spacetime? A lot of physicists have begun to wonder whether its fundamental, or emergent from something else. Quantum entanglement is the one I’m familiar with, but I understand there are other possibilities. (This video is 26 minutes long, although the relevant parts are in the first 19.)

PBS Space Time: Are Space And Time Real?

The question I have is, does it make sense to ask whether spacetime is “real”? It seems like, whatever we might discover about its underlying reality, one thing we can say about it is, it does exist, at least at some level of description. It might be that our understanding of it isn’t the fundamental reality, but if so, that doesn’t seem like a reason to consider it not to be real.

Consider the device you’re using to read this? Is it real? Obviously at some pragmatic level, the answer has to be yes. Whether it’s a phone, laptop, or something else, it’s part of the causal flow providing you the information in this blog post. Yet someone could argue that it really doesn’t exist, that it’s just a collection of atoms, or even interactions of quantum fields. But it seems to make more sense to say it is real, just emergent from more fundamental physics.

To take the line that something is only real if it’s fundamental, doesn’t seem to leave much. It seems to reduce reality to interactions of quantum fields, with all the rest just being convenient fictions. Most of us don’t go there in terms of matter and energy. We recognize composite systems as real ones.

To me, we should accord spacetime the same privilege. Whatever it might turn out to be, that thing, process, or whatever, essentially, at some level of abstraction, provides the role of what we’ve historically considered space and time. Even if the thing is emergent from the relational properties of all fundamental particles interacting, that emergent thing exists.

Put another way, the concept of spacetime seems to do work. It might well turn out to make sense, at the level of fundamental physics, to take an eliminativist attitude toward it. But for any other endeavor, it seems like it would be more productive to take a reconstructive one. Spacetime exists, but isn’t what we think it is. And as O’Dowd points out in the video, this understanding itself wasn’t obvious for much of human history.

What do you think? Am I just getting too hung up on a semantic point? Or could we reach a stage where we wouldn’t even refer to space or time, where it wouldn’t even survive as an emergent concept?

69 thoughts on “Is the question whether spacetime is real, or whether it’s fundamental?

  1. Is space-time real is not the correct question, I think. We are taking a reference frame (go to the gas station, turn left, then five blocks turn left again and you will be there) and an iffy intuitive concept, time, make both concrete, weld them together and claim gravity is due to the interaction of masses with space-time, which is a claim that space-time is a thing. In order for it to interact with material objects, it must be a field or a thing and I was taught that a field is a region in space in which an effect can be felt, just as a cow field was a field in which cows were pastured.

    The whole idea is bizarre when viewed from a commonplace perspective. Sure we can imagine it, but are we imagining it correctly? It doesn’t seem so.

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    1. It could well be that the concept of spacetime is just a mental crutch for us to accept the mathematics of general relativity. Whatever we discover will need to be compatible with that mathematical structure, at least within certain domains of applicability. It has too much empirical support. If I had to bet money, it’d be that any underlying reality will seem even crazier.

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      1. The problem with empirical support is that it is interpreted using the current paradigm. In every case in which a dominant paradigm was overthrown, the new paradigm did a better job of interpreting the empirical data.

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  2. You’re not getting too hung up on semantics. Yudkowski’s list of37 ways words can be wrong is a good start on the importance of phrasing things well.

    And indeed, no serious contender for the physics in question explains spacetime *away*. They instead explain spacetime. Schwitzgebel’s “inflate and explode ” complaint applies perfectly to this case.

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  3. You may be getting hung up on a semantic point. I think it comes down to your purposes in discussion. If you want an intellectual discussion, you need to define your terms, and some definitions will have space time as real, and some won’t.

    [cool video]

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    1. Maybe so, although it’s not like the physicists making these points have carefully defined what they mean by “real” here. But I’m onboard with defining terms, at least for any where there are multiple common meanings, or where some have chosen an unconventional one.


      1. Close to my thoughts. Nowhere in the video was the concept of ‘realness’ made particularly clear. One could say there is an equal amount of confusion about what it would mean to successfully label space ‘unreal’. I would say, however, that I do like many of Leibniz’s thoughts as presented, and also Einstein’s stance.

        Question: In order for space to be real — I mean cosmic astronomical space — must there be an actual (0,0,0) coordinate point somewhere? (this is independent of the time question)

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        1. I wouldn’t think so. Space could be infinite, or curved back on itself, a higher dimensional flat torus, or some other topology where any zero coordinate point would be arbitrary.

          But to your broader point, what do we even mean here by “real”, or its opposite? I’ve always liked like the idea that it’s anything that’s part of the causal chain. (Not everyone agrees.) Which is why Einstein’s discoveries seemed to put it on strong footing. That doesn’t mean it still can’t be emergent from some other underlying reality.

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          1. We cannot see the entirety of any causal chain. It’s shape and features and topology are all colored by our cognitive modeling, which very much has a zeitgeist-du-jour character to it. (Du jour spanning cultural centuries in this case.) SO it is not reliable to make causality as a foundation for any concept of reality. Our concepts about reality already distort our concepts of causation. Goethe said all is evident within phenomenology, if we penetrate deeply enough. Place aside all theorizing and rely upon observational experience. No multiverses. If we cannot trust our own thinking, then nothing resulting from it has persuasion unless we rely upon arbitrary fashion or orthodoxies.

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          2. On the other point, I of course do not know, but the idea of infinite space seems inherently preposterous. How could such a physicality, if it is physical, come to be ever? The toroid idea feels to be less violating our experience. But if something like the torus-verse is in effect, then I can indeed imagine a “zero” point for it. Namely that point exterior to the universe around which the torus positions itself. (Translated somehow mathematically to however many dimensions.)

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  4. The video asks “Are space and time real?”, and you’re right to look into what this is supposed to mean. If the plan is to find something more fundamental, and call that “real,” and imply that anything derived from it is therefore somehow “not real,” it doesn’t leave room for a lot of things to be real, as you point out.

    If the video had asked “Are tables and chairs real,” it could take a similar route, saying they’re not real because they’re made of atoms. This was an exciting argument in its day. But we’ve moved on, and to get back the glamour we now have to talk about “space and “time.” Nobody understands time especially, so everyone has an opinion.

    You gave the example of a computer, but when you said “But it seems to make more sense to say it is real, just emergent from more fundamental physics,” you added an unnecessary complication. It is no more helpful to think of a computer as emergent from fundamental physics that it is to think of art or poetry this way. Someone might do the math, heaven help them, and prove that poetry is based on quantum fields, but its reality has to do with other things altogether. Similarly, the reality of a computer has to do with its semantics, not just its particles.

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    1. I didn’t mean anything specific with using computers as an example. I thought about reaching for the venerable table and chair examples, but as you noted, it’s been done a lot. Definitely didn’t mean to get into a theory of computation with it.

      That said, doesn’t the reality of a chair, as a chair, have to do as much with its semantics as anything?


      1. You’re right, the “reality” of tables and chairs is subject to similar considerations.

        If the video had asked whether time and space are more fundamental than quantum fields, or whether time is more fundamental than space, that might be more reasonable. But even then, we have to be sure we aren’t straddling different ontologies, appropriate to different concerns. For space-time to be more or less fundamental with respect to quantum fields, it would have to be understood as commensurate with those things, and not with, say, poetry, where time waits for no one. Its “ontology” is not fixed, but a function of how and why we talk about it.

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      2. Tarski’s rule: “snow is white” is true iff snow is white. You can turn any issue into an apparently semantic one if you are willing to dispute the meaning of a crucial term. Vice versa, you can turn any issue into a substantial one if you are willing to stipulate agreed meanings for all terms. Caution, it is generally harder to know that two people have associated the same meaning for a term, than to know that they have associated different meanings to it, although neither is trivial.

        In short, the reality of X always has to do as much with its semantics as anything, for all X.

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        1. I agree it is hard to know if two people hold the same meaning for a term. And yet so much hinges on it that we seem to have little choice but to try. If helps to even be aware that a disagreement could be partially or completely due to different semantics.

          But definitely the more difficult issue is when people seem to agree but hold different definitions that make that agreement an illusion. That’s harder to even notice, and usually only comes out through others disagreeing with the consensus and forcing a conversation about definitions.


  5. Spacetime is a very useful intellectual construction and nothing more; it is neither fundamental nor real. At its core, Einstein’s notion of space and time according to GR is an analogy that is married to a tautology.

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    1. To add further clarity to my assertion:

      According to Einstein space is like a fabric therefore, Einstein’s predicate concept upon which GR stands is an analogy.

      Time is a unit by which we are able to measure a “duration of change” and that unit (time) itself is a “duration of change”. Therefore, adding further insult into Einstein’s elegant analogy, the second component of GR is a tautology. 🤣

      Is it too late to recall the Noble Prize that was awarded to our creative genius Albert Einstein? Or, shall we double-down in order to save face?


      1. This is why it pays to remember that what typically survives theory change isn’t the metaphors used in descriptive language about the theory, but the mathematical structures.

        Interestingly, Einstein never got a Nobel for general relativity. He actually got it for explaining the photoelectric effect with the concept of photons.

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      1. “…what typically survives theory change…..(is) the mathematical structures.”

        Even the mathematical structures of GR are flawed, so there’s that too. But even that egregious short-comings in the math does not negate its usefulness.

        “…is there any way to understand it other than with analogies / metaphors and tautologies?”

        Absolutely, it’s called synthetic a priori judgements followed by rigorous synthetic a priori analysis. Synthetic a priori judgements posit “conditions” on a possibility, and those possibilities are rigorously analyzed to see if they apply universally.

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    2. “Intellectual construction”

      I don’t know about that. Whenever I turn on the warp drive, I speed up but can’t get past C. Do you suppose it might be a little more than an intellectual construction?


  6. Two or three years ago, somebody suggested that I read the book “Proof!: How the World Became Geometrical”. It was an eye-opener. It seems that art, architecture and even landscaping were all changed due to the study of geometry. With that as perspective, I would have to admit that there is something about spacetime that is socially constructed.

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    1. I think that’s true, but it seems like the question is, could another society construct something different with the same predictive success? It seems like there’s a necessity to mathematical and scientific structures that transcend culture. Is there a way this could be an illusion?

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  7. > The question I have is, does it make sense to ask whether spacetime is “real”?

    No. The problem is that a lot of philosophy amateurs (and even some professionals) seem to be under the impression that to explain is to explain away. (Thus e.g. the rather indiscriminate use of of “eliminativism” in the philosophy of mind.) It goes back to the romantic sentiment about science “unweaving the rainbow”, I reckon.

    Whether space/time are fundamental is a fascinating issue, but be it as it may, our perception of time flow will have to be accounted for, just like our perception of solidity of objects had to be explained by sub-atomic physics. Saying that time does not exist (or does not flow), as some scientists tend to do, is simply misleading.

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    1. I think eliminativism is always an option, but it should be reserved for concepts that just don’t work, even colloquially. Most people are fine with eliminating demons, sprites, or humors from our ontology. But we didn’t eliminate planets from our ontology, even though our modern reconstructed view of them is very different from ancient thinkers. I definitely agree that just because we can explain it, even reductively, doesn’t mean we’ve explained it away.

      I’ve never understood the argument about whether time flows. Obviously, whatever the ultimate reality is, for us it does. It feels a little bit like arguing whether there’s an up or down. Ultimate there isn’t, but that won’t help us the next time we fall off a ladder.


    2. “… our perception of time flow”

      We don’t perceive flowing time. We have no sensory receptors sensitive to time, which is not surprising since flowing time does not exist. No experiment has ever been proposed, let alone executed, to detect flowing time. The belief in flowing time is a cultural belief, not substantiated by physics.

      Since ours is a block universe, where all events we consider to be in the past and all events we consider to be in the future exist “all at once,” the most reasonable explanation for out feeling of flowing time is that it’s an externalization of the stream/flow of consciousness.

      I’ve read a number of philosophers who believe that our perception of change proves that flowing time exists, clearly begging the question since their unstated major premise is “If we perceive change, then flowing time exists.”

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      1. The predicate concept of a block universe is spacetime, a four-dimension block literally made up of spacetime. Adding insult to injury of this lame theory, the predicate concept of spacetime itself is an analogy married to a tautology.

        Any theory that is based upon an analogy is absolutely worthless other than making a cutesy story that we tell ourselves. Around, and around we go……


      2. I would caution against accepting the block universe hypothesis as an established fact. It is an unverified (and likely unverifiable) hypothesis, based on a conflation of Minkowski’s mathematical model of Einstein’s Special Relativity with the physical theory itself.

        The argument for block universe is based on the model’s extension of the notion of relative simultaneity into spacetime regions in which Einstein’s famous simultaneity criterion simply does not apply. Hence the block universe cannot be justified by the physical theory. A logical justification gets offered instead, based on the Minkowski’s model, but it is question begging: its extension of relative simultaneity only makes sense if one assumes that in some sense events “already” exist in unobservable regions of spacetime — i.e. its putative conclusion is implicit in its premise. The argument is circular.

        As for our experience of time flow being “an externalization of the stream/flow of consciousness” — in what way is flow of consciousness an improvement on time flow? The puzzle of “flow” is not thereby eliminated.


        1. As sixteenth-century poet Angelus Silesius wrote:

          “Time is of your own making,
          it’s clock ticks in your head
          The moment you stop thought
          Time too stops dead.”

          The perceptions that would result from an objective flowing time, should it exist, would be indistinguishable from perceptions resulting from the flow of consciousness, which certainly does exist. Lacking flowing time in the world, the stream of consciousness explanation is all that remains.


  8. “I just getting too hung up on a semantic point? ”

    Probably. Here’s my speculation.

    I tend to think spacetime came into existence with the Big Bang. Or, if that theory isn’t exactly true, the next most probable for me would be the universe is a black hole in a larger universe and so spacetime came into existence when the black hole did. As an aside, the black hole theory might align more closely to a universe where we can never find or see a beginning because it is being created incrementally.

    In any case, we are left to wonder what was before but no real ability to answer the question. But there would be no universe to exist without spacetime. So that could make it ‘real” and/or “fundamental” but it is all in the manner in which those terms are defined.

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    1. Those seem like conceivable possibilities, even if spacetime is emergent.

      The question is which is the more primal reality? Does matter and energy only exist because there’s a spacetime container for it? Or does spacetime exist from matter and energy? The scientific speculation seems to be focusing on the latter, that spacetime is brought into existence through the relations between matter and energy.

      Myself, I often wonder if they’re not two sides of the same coin. From what I’ve read, Einstein had that idea too, but was never able to make the math work. Although the attempt got us the concept of wormholes.

      To me “fundamental” means irreducible. So spacetime could be essential for the universe without necessarily being fundamental. (Unless I’m missing something.)


  9. I can see that the 3 dimensions of space may our limited interpretation of parameterised interactions possibly across many more enfolded dimensions, and what we perceive may be the merest shadow of ‘reality’. Time seems a little different in that even if time were to be discrete rather than continuous, and to progress differently for different interactions or observers, it seems like there would still be a need for a distinct sequence of events of interaction or transformation for anything to happen or be observed. Your blogs and comments often appeal to causality, which seems like one perspective on this. I haven’t yet read how researchers such as Carlo Rovelli account for time as emergent from physics in which time (and space) are not fundamental.

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    1. Causality definitely takes time for granted. It inherently assumes a time sequenced series of events where the ordering matters. As many have pointed out to me over the years, it’s not fundamental. But per Rovelli, interactions may be. Although it seems to me that Rovelli pushes that too far, to the point that things only exist in the interaction, and then only when the interaction is happening.

      Rovelli did write a book on time, but I haven’t read it. Based on the book’s description, it sounds like he calls its existence into question.


  10. I would say something can be real without being fundamental. It can be real from the point of view of an observing process. For example, a file on a computer or smart phone can be real from the point of view of an app or a user interacting with it, even if it is not fundamental and is emulated by some underlying systems (itself emulated or some physical entity, which might in turn be emulated by some underlying physics). Our everyday world is real for us, even if most aspects of it are unlikely to be fundamental.

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  11. “Is the question whether spacetime is real, or whether it’s fundamental?”

    I’d say the term “real” can be a bit too vague in this context. Perhaps the following question would be a more precise way of framing the matter: “Does spacetime exist beyond causality (or essentially as existential dimensions able to facilitate causal dynamics), or rather is causality fundamental and thus spacetime can only exist as a product of it?”

    When framed this way my naturalism forces me to say that causality must be what creates spacetime. But it also seems ridiculous to me that causality could occur in a void of either space or time. How could causal dynamics occur with no time from which cause could lead to effect? How could causality exist without space by which causal dynamics might reside? Neither make sense to me. Of course there is evidence that causal dynamics do alter time and space, so that is consistent with my position. I just don’t understand how causality could create what it seems to need for it to even exist. (Furthermore I’m open the the possibility that dimensions beyond space and time exist, since perhaps if we grasped them this would help us straighten out quantum funkiness.)

    Apparently I’m either wrong that spacetime must exist for causality to exist, or it could be that causality inherently creates its own spacetime from which to exist. So I guess this final option must be my answer for now, and even though it seems circular.

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    1. Causal dynamics is an “after the fact” observation, one that is self-evident. Framed in a different context, our intellectual perception of spacetime is an artifact of the world we find ourselves in and that world is at a fundamental level a continuum of change, motion resulting in form; or as you state it, causal dynamics.

      Unfortunately, the subject/object metaphysics (SOM) paradigm in which we intellectually function cannot effectively respond to these type of questions. Only reality/appearance metaphysics (RAM) can address and effectively answer those questions.

      Good luck Eric; don’t get lost in those circular rabbit holes dude 😎

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      1. My point was that the term “reality” is too vague in this context. Apparently “causality” serves as a more effective idea here. You seem to agree with me on this Lee. In any case this all goes back to the quest for effective reductions. There are several ways that I’m able to reduce my own positions. Where we seem to conflict is that while I put most of my credence in subjective observations of how things are (a posteriori), you put your credence in definitional truth (a priori). While I must admit that things which are true by definition can be quite helpful as well, I also note that it’s impossible for them to differentiate our world from any other potential world given that it’s impossible for those observations to be false. So am I wrong to say that you put no credence in experimental evidence, but rather seek truth by definition exclusively?


        1. “While I must admit that things which are true by definition can be quite helpful as well, I also note that it’s impossible for them to differentiate our world from any other potential world given that it’s impossible for those observations to be false.”

          It is not impossible as you assert because what the definitional approach looks for is logical consistency that is grounded in universality. We don’t recognize universality as a standard for any of our knowledge because our current catalogue of knowledge is riddled with contradiction, exceptions and paradoxes. This ad hoc standard is unacceptable and it baffles me that we have been conditioned by our culture to accept this status quo.

          “So am I wrong to say that you put no credence in experimental evidence, but rather seek truth by definition exclusively?”

          Yes you are wrong because I put great credence in experimental evidence, but that evidence falls into the category of what is useful in contrast to “what is truth” or what reflects the true nature of reality.

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          1. Lee,
            If you’re good with experimental evidence from which to support “useful” rather than “true” ideas, then that’s certainly consistent with my beliefs. I guess I’d need to grasp what you mean by “the definitional approach looks for logical consistency that’s grounded in universality”. Apparently you think this approach could help us banish all sorts of contradictions, exceptions, and paradoxes. But what does this mean in practice? That’s what I’d need to understand in order to effectively grasp such a position.

            Let’s try this. I’ll provide some of my own positions and then you can provide any objections that you might have. Furthermore perhaps with these examples of what I practically believe, you’ll be able to help me grasp what you practically believe?

            1) I believe that science suffers today since it has no respected group of meta scientists able to provide it with various generally accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, or axiology. In effect I suspect harder forms of science have been able to succeed under this void because they’re merely less susceptible.
            2) My single principle of metaphysics essentially states that to the extent that causality fails, nothing exists to potentially figure out. It would effectively banish all magical notions to a “causal plus” form of science, and so standard science would be able to continue on without assessing such speculation.
            3) My first principal of epistemology states that there are no true or false definitions, but rather only more and useful ones in a given context (and might be usurped by Occam’s nominalism). It mandates that one be allowed to define a given term however they please so that an evaluator might better grasp that meaning.
            4) My second principle of epistemology states that there is only one process by which anything conscious, consciously figures anything out. Here it takes what it thinks it knows (or evidence) and uses this to assess consistency with what it’s not so sure about (or a proposal).
            5) My single principle of axiology states that there is a physics by which the goodness to badness of existing emerges. Essentially the position is that it’s possible for a machine which is not conscious (like a brain), to create a value dynamic from which to drive an entity that is conscious (like yourself). This would provide the field of psychology with a founding motivational premise from which to potentially build, and the same motivational premise which is already accepted in the far more successful science of economics.

            Perhaps these examples of my positions will suffice for now.


          2. “But what does this mean in practice?”

            Here is your answer Eric: The late Richard Rorty remarked that without a vocabulary that captures the way the world really is or a core human nature, there isn’t even a possibility of locating a metaphysical foundation for truth. In summary, that stark assessment renders your five bullet points moot.

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          3. Okay Lee, but what do you practically consider “a vocabulary that captures the way the world really is or a core human nature”?

            There’s only one thing that I’m completely certain of regarding the way the world really is. It’s that I, a phenomenal experiencer of existence, do indeed exist. There’s not a single other thing about the way the world really is that I can be perfectly assured of that I know of. Is that what you’re talking about in a foundational sense? If so then we wouldn’t be in disagreement on the matter. If you mean something more however then I’d like to consider that premise.


          4. Eric,
            A premise to consider is this: In light of the circumstances that you’ve outlined which underly our own existence, do we as human beings possess and/or have the intellectual capacity to be objective? In other words, do we possess the ability or have the intellectual capacity to perceive the way the world really is or a core human nature?

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          5. It sounds like you’re agreeing with me Lee that all I can possibly know of existence itself with perfect certainty, is that I’m a subjective experiencer in an objective world. This is to say that I’m no god but rather a product of what exists. Furthermore I can say that the means by which I experience, known as consciousness, is inherently subjective. So now you ask me if we possess the ability or have the intellectual capacity to perceive the way the world really is or a core human nature? Not as gods of course, but as subjective entities it seems to me that we can at least try.

            I was asking if you have any answers of your own since you mentioned that I’ve presented some that are moot. If so then I’d like to hear them. Then if you don’t (or perhaps even if you do), why do you consider my answers moot?

            (And again, I posit that science today is foundationally flawed without a respected community to provide it with various accepted principles of metaphysics, epistemology, and axiology. Thus I present four of my own.)


          6. Eric,

            For me, I find your approach systemically flawed in that you are promoting the idea of a group of so-called professionals in whom we should look to as leaders to provide answers to those really hard questions. IMHO, we should not look to others, we should look within ourselves, that’s all.

            These public forums are not a venue for collaboration amongst individual, they are a platform for airing and promoting one’s own bigoted, prejudicial biases. Having said that, I’ve used this forum as well as others to help me construct a viable, tenable metaphysical model of the world. So, I cannot say that the nonsense that goes on sometimes was a complete waste of time because I’ve used these discussions for my own benefit.

            Furthermore, I also know that what is important to me is “only” important to me, so I take what I learn and move on. I will close with a quote from Robert Pirsig in ZMM:

            “…when you look directly at an insane man all you see is a reflection of your own knowledge that he’s insane, which is not to see him at all. To see him you must see what he saw and when you are trying to see the vision of an insane man, an oblique route is the only way to come at it. Otherwise your own opinions block the way.”

            Free your mind and your ass will follow my internet friend……

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    2. Definitely the term “real” is vague, and I’m not sure O’Dowd meant it in any strong fashion. But it often gets thrown around when talking about spacetime these days. And a lot of physicists are saying things like, “Spacetime is doomed.” So it seems like a valid discussion point.

      Many (most?) physicists today would say that causality, in the sense of a guaranteed direction between cause and effect, isn’t fundamental. What is fundamental for many of them, is interaction. Aside from entropy, physical interactions are time reversible. So cause and effect are emergent at macroscopic levels.

      Not sure whether that has any bearing on what you’re asking.

      Something I do think we have to remember, is that when considering why or how the universe is here, it isn’t guaranteed that we can use the principles of the universe to answer that question. It might be that the laws that bring the universe into being are different from the laws within the universe. In other words, it might be like a video game character expecting the rules that bring the video game into existence to be the same as the rules within the game.

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      1. That all seems relevant to me Mike. In the quest for better reductions I’m suggesting that naturalists like us stop speaking in terms of what’s “real”, or “physical”, and certainly not merely “material”. I’m suggesting it would be more effective for us to think about what exists by means of the term “causality” itself. Then if anyone would like to bring up an exception, that could instead be referred to as “magic”. So because I’d rather not consider spacetime magical, I’m forced to believe that causal dynamics create it. How might causality bring about what it seems to require to exist at all? I guess that’s simply what causality does under the premise of naturalism.

        I didn’t mean to suggest that causality can never occur in reverse. If so then I guess that time could move backwards under certain circumstances. I don’t know that there is any experimental evidence for this yet, but rather just that it can slow under certain conditions such as traveling at a reasonable percentage of the speed of light. Furthermore I’d think that backwards time would mandate backwards entropy in that regard. So I guess in addition to all of the other far out pondering that’s done on the matter, one might propose that causality moves back and forth in general!

        I’m not sure I like the analogy where the virtually arbitrary rules that we choose for a video game are taken from within to constitute how the video game itself might exist. It’s too teleological. If we were proposing that a god were responsible for our domain then sure, but we’re not. Once we propose “universe” as a closed causal system then it seems to me that such arbitrariness must ultimately be lost. Not that I expect the human to use its apparent rules of causality to tell it much about the obviously very different circumstances of a proposed “founding” to a closed causal system. I can’t quite get my head around such a notion. Theoretically however it should all at least be made of a single kind of stuff.

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        1. Eric,
          I tend to think the words “real” and “physical” remain useful. It seems like we’re only tempted to think they’re not when dealing with edge cases. But no one doubts that Darth Vader, for instance, isn’t real. (At least as a person; he is of course a real character in a fictional set of stories.) For a strict physicalist, “physical”, “real”, and “exists” seem to all be near synonymous. But the distinction remains useful for talking about putative platonic objects and other non-physical concepts, even if only to disagree with them.

          The word “magic” is pretty pejorative, so I doubt anyone will willingly agree to use it for their notion that doesn’t fit your concept of natural.

          The point about most physical laws being time symmetric isn’t to say that time can move backward, just that systems that evolve according to those laws can evolve in one direction or another, “backward” or “forward”. Of course, in practice this only applies to micro-scale systems which aren’t large enough for the second law of thermodynamics to be a factor. For any macroscopic system we care about, it will be. The question is whether there’s any necessity to the arrow of time aside the second law.

          I wasn’t trying to sneak in any teleology with the game analogy. Just to illustrate the idea, that the rules by which a system works aren’t guaranteed to be the rules from which it came into being, or whatever broader context it may exist in. As components of the system itself, it’s not guaranteed that we could even understand those broader rules, so we shouldn’t expect it to be easy to wrap out our mind around it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. I’m not about to stop using words like “real” or “physical” either Mike. It’s just that I think such terms need academic grounding, and certainly when used for academic work. I propose what’s known as “causality” for such grounding. For example I’ve been able to observe here that naturalists should consider spacetime to exist as a product of causality rather than a precursor to causality.

            I suppose that any naturalist who believes that ontological causality ultimately fails, would merely refer to this as “non-causal function” rather than “magic”. And of course quantum mechanics is ripe for such interpretation. But those of us who dispute such interpretations should tend to drill down on their meaning. If they propose system based cause without effect, or effect without cause, wouldn’t such function effectively be magical? If not then what’s the difference? Or perhaps upon inspection it would be found that the person was merely speaking in an epistemic rather than ontological capacity? If various people would rather not be perceived as believing in magic, though are unable to differentiate what they believe from magic, then that seems like a valid inconsistency for them to potentially work on.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. Eric,
            As we’ve discussed before, I’m sympathetic to what you mean by causality, but not comfortable with turning it into what seems like a new dogma. Scientific progress can require postponing the full mechanistic account, sometimes for centuries. Newton’s stance toward gravity is the prime example. I don’t think scientists in that situation should feel like they’re doing something illegitimate if what they come up with still gives us insights into what’s happening.

            At least unless they insist that their theory is the final answer. The history of science seems to demonstrate that no one should take that attitude, even when we have what seems to be a fully causal model. Every theory is subject to revision on new evidence.

            Liked by 1 person

          3. I think you’ve misinterpreted me here Mike. I’m not currently presenting commentary on what is or isn’t causal (though I do commonly present such speculation as well). Instead I’m asserting that the well known idea of causality should be an effective way to differentiate natural from supernatural proposals. For example sometimes scientists assert that quantum dynamics are non causal. I’d have them realize that when they make such assertions ontologically, it’s effectively an endorsement of supernatural function. This gets back to my quest for effective reductions. Similarly I think that illusionists should explicitly state that they believe consciousness occurs by means of worldly causal dynamics. Conversely their “illusion” term seems quite misleading. I suspect that they realize this and find obfuscation to serve their purposes. Or do you have evidence that its main steward today, Keith Frankish, does reduce their position back to a simple idea?

            Regardless I’m very much supportive of scientists doing the best they can even when a full account will not be achieved, as in the case of Newton. Indeed, this is where evidence should come into play. Thus I find it quite troubling that virtually all popular consciousness proposals on the market today have no potential to be empirically demonstrated as false in themselves. Theoretically philosophers ought to be guiding science in this regard, and yet seem to be the greatest offenders. Thus the need for a respected community of meta scientists to help fix science where such structural failure exists.

            Meanwhile given this mess, McFadden finds his consciousness proposal quite disadvantaged given that it actually is falsifiable! Thus he mines related studies to merely observe consistent findings. The following would be a recent one where it’s demonstrated that anesthesia has the effect of diminishing synchronous neuron firing, and thus consciousness under his proposal:

            Liked by 1 person

          4. Eric,
            I don’t think I’ve misunderstood you, although maybe you’re misunderstanding me. While I do have metaphysical priors (I expect explanations to ultimately be deterministic), I’m not going to reject a scientific theory that works because of it. In the end, I think evidence trumps metaphysical preferences. Of course, if we find a theory’s implied ontology distasteful, we can always insist that it’s not the final explanation. Given the history of science, that’s not an unreasonable stance.

            It seems like we spend a lot of time in these threads arguing about what Frankish thinks. This is strange since he’s online and (at least for now) generally accessible. Anyway, here’s a response he gave me a while back that I think gets at your question.

            I should note that not all illusionists are functionalists. Some aren’t even physicalists. It’s one of the reasons that, although I no longer disavow illusionism, I prefer to be known as a functionalist.

            Liked by 1 person

          5. Mike,
            It seems quite predictable that each of us would feel that we’re being misunderstood. As you know I feel that you’ve been duped into a single highly suspect and yes magical belief. Thus in a sub conscious sense you should tend to apparently challenge me even when such challenges don’t actually conflict with my positions. (I’m specifically referring to the case above of you positing that I must not consider science to be provisional.) But I also know you well enough to understand how grateful you’d ultimately be if it did turn out that my observations were solid, and perhaps even before full experimental verification. In any case I love talking about these sorts of things with knowledgeable people, and you’re certainly that.

            Let’s try this. As portrayed by McFadden’s “Life is Simple” book, I’ve become utterly smitten by William of Ockham and his apparent effect upon the rise of science in general. So I’m going to present a simplified narrative of various non simple terms for you to agree or disagree with however you consider reasonable. The only catch is that you can’t just say that you generally disapprove and so these non simple terms must continue to be handled without reduction. Instead you’ll need to reduce them into standard English interpretations of what you consider them to effectively mean, and/or not mean.

            I think illusionism effectively just means “I don’t believe in any magical consciousness notions”. Furthermore by “magical” here I mean a void in system based causal dynamics. So the position holds that consciousness should exist naturally rather than supernaturally. Under this definition I may be referred to as an illusionist as well, though in practice a more extreme version because I argue that the one conception of consciousness that standard illusionists do endorse, consists of magic/illusion. I’ll get into that regarding computationalism and functionalism. (I guess you might explain the platform of non-physicalist illusionists here, since that seems opposed with this reduction.)

            Computationalism is not the position that the brain functions like a computer, as nominally implied. To me the brain quite obviously functions that way. It’s rather that consciousness exists by means of the proper information processing alone. I consider this non causal because information should only exist as such by means of what that information actually informs. So just as the information that animates your computer screen wouldn’t be informational in that sense given a broken connection, the premise of causality means that there must similarly be something that your brain information animates to exist as your consciousness itself. (I expect your disagreement to remain consistent with the position that if the right markings on paper were properly converted into other marking on paper, then something here would experience what you do when your thumb gets whacked.)

            Functionalism essentially states that something will exist as something else to the extent that it functions like that something else. Its origins should essentially reside with the Turing test — if we can’t distinguish the output of a computer from the output of a conscious human, then the computer must be displaying consciousness as well. It’s a way to imply that consciousness must exist as information processing alone since it’s commonly presumed that some day we’ll create an information processor that can output whatever a human does. Regardless of that specific unverified claim, if taken strictly functionalism cannot possibly be false. So I guess you can refer to me as a “functionalist” as well. But I’m not sure that says much because in this sense I may be referred to as a “two plus two equals four” ist and all other definitional truths.

            Regarding the accessibility of Frankish, yes it’s a new world and online accessibility seems to be an effective way to potentially grow one’s flock. I’ve noticed that he’s at least as charismatic as Dennett and displays tremendous apparent humility. I’m sure that he’s far too clever to ever publicly address my own observations. But if he’d somehow misjudge the threat that my reductions could potentially represent … well that could be some really good fun!

            Liked by 1 person

          6. Eric,
            There are a lot of different ways to characterize illusionism. My take on it is that introspection, our ability to know the operations of our own mind, is limited and unreliable. These limitations aren’t because it’s defective or that we’re doing something wrong. It’s due to the mechanisms having evolved for things other than understanding how the mind works. So we shouldn’t be confident in any judgments or theorizing based on its infallibility, particularly when they clash with other predictive models we have of reality.

            Functionalism is about causal relations. The mind is as the mind does. That is typically married to computationalism because that’s what computation, distilled causation, is all about. A straight functionalist is interested in a causal account for anything mental, and won’t be satisfied with anything else.

            Liked by 1 person

          7. It sounds like our reductions are relatively consistent Mike, though I seem to get a bit more specific. It remains an open question whether or not there is a kind of brain physics by which consciousness arises, or rather that information can exist independently of mechanical instantiation. In the second case consciousness could arise when the right marks on paper are properly converted to others. Conversely if McFadden’s theory becomes experimentally validated for example, then computationalism would fall. Seems worth mentioning.


          8. Eric,
            I know you really want to discuss this information without instantiation thing you keep accusing me of. I’ll just remind you that until you pay attention and address what I actually say, it’s not worth the frustration for me to engage with it. If you think I’m not understanding you, consider that you might need to find an alternate description.

            Liked by 1 person

          9. Actually I suspect that you already understand my argument quite well Mike. Therefore more clarification shouldn’t help change your mind. The issue here I think is that you perceive full causality regarding the computationalist account of how consciousness arises, while I argue something different. So I highly doubt that you’ll change your mind, or at least without some pretty solid empirical support on my side.

            Also I’m very sorry if I’ve made you feel that I’ve been accusing you of things. I don’t want you or anyone to feel like I’m attacking you. I guess that’s been a nasty side effect of what I’d actually like to happen. Along with my apologies on that, I’ll mention what I’d ultimately like to happen. This would be a hopeful thought for me that helps make blogging fun, and even given how improbable it might seem.

            I believe that John Searle and his supporters failed, not only given the charisma and cleverness of his opposition, but also because his arguments weren’t as good as they might have been. Though I have no counter for the talent and charisma of people like Keith Frankish, I do suspect that my arguments are much better than Searle’s were. Therefore I’ve been honing my craft on the hope that those arguments might ultimately renew this debate popularly once again for a new reckoning. You’ve only ever aided me in my quest.

            Liked by 1 person

  12. Spacetime according to some is the electromagnetic medium that allows propagation of waves. That would make it essential for matter and energy but not the same or different aspects of one thing.

    “In energy wave theory, spacetime is a physical substance that occupies the universe, as a medium that allows the transfer of energy of its components. It is more commonly referred to as the aether, which was broadly accepted within the physics community until the late 1800s when the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to detect an aether. Einstein, and others that followed in the 1900s, have used the term spacetime.

    If spacetime is considered to be a structure that curves, the structure that is curving must be defined. Similarly, if particles and photons are considered to be wave-like, the structure that is waving must be defined. Here, the structure of spacetime at the smallest of levels – the quintessence of the universe – is proposed to be a material in a lattice structure of repeating unit cells, where each of the cells contain granules that vibrate in harmonic motion”.

    Doesn’t really answer whether fundamental but not sure that it matters.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Usually the electromagnetic field is considered distinct from spacetime. Although as I mentioned above, I’ve idly wondered before if there isn’t a way to combine them.

      I also used to wonder if the old aether and electromagnetic field didn’t amount to similar concepts, but apparently there are significant differences. The aether was seen as something having a preferred zero rest frame, while EM fields are compatible with special relativity, where there is no preferred frame.

      Agreed that it doesn’t seem like we lose any significant possibilities if spacetime isn’t fundamental.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Regarding “reality” – I think I said one time that its meaning is dependent on context. Scooby-Doo is real in the context of cartoons.

    The context for spacetime would be the physical universe, so, in a sense, if you doubt the reality of spacetime, you are doubting the reality of the physical universe. Everything (?) we can measure usually has a location, dimension, and/or time of existence involved somewhere in the measurement or the phenomenon being measured. If spacetime emerged from something more fundamental, then whatever that would be would have no dimensions or time. In other words, it would be similar to a thought.

    Which makes me think of Asimov’s “The Last Question”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “If spacetime emerged from something more fundamental, then whatever that would be would have no dimensions or time. In other words, it would be similar to a thought.”

      The notion of thought is a useful metaphor sure, but as a predicate concept that can stand on its own two metaphorical feet; no way. This rationale is why idealism breaks down because a thought consists of dimension (structure) and it occurs over time (a duration of change).

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Physicists generally aren’t envisioning idealism when they talk about spacetime being emergent. The ultimate reality is still anticipated to be something physical, just of a radically different nature than we perceive.

      Of course, as you noted, whatever it might turn out to be, just about every measurement we’ve ever taken has incorporated the dimensions of space and time, so calling it something other than “real” would be, I think, pretty misleading. Whatever it is, it’s real at some level of description, real in a sense that works for us systems embedded in it.

      It’s been a while since I read that Asimov story. Might have to see if I can dig it up somewhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “pretty misleading”

        Yeah. You end up in the dilemma of claiming something is physical but it has no dimensions, hence effectively can’t be physically measured. Even forces are detected by their effects on bodies and their movements which can only be measured in spacetime. Physicalism would self-refute itself. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  14. Maybe you, I, everyone and everything is just information merging with other information in a never ending info-gasm — Claude Shannon style. Space & time are just information. Matter is just information.

    One of realizations I recall — don’t recall if it was reading Shannon’s book or Mendelbrot’s but the concept that the most organized system contains the least amount of information. While the perfectly chaotic one contains the most. That thought kind of blew my mind.

    If, at the most fundamental level, all energy and matter is just data flowing through some impossible CPU…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do think we’re information, or maybe more precisely, information processing. But since information processing is causation, that’s just to say that we’re causal systems.

      In terms of the impossible CPU, another way of thinking about it is a computer is just a causation machine, distilled to maximize causal differentiation (information) while minimizing energy magnitudes. It’s the same result as pancomputationalism, just looking at it from the opposite perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

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