instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, December 29, 2003

No space-time like the present

There's some fun stuff on the nature of time at Fr. Dowd's Exploring the Nature of God blog.

Something I don't think is very widely known is that contemporary physics suggests that, in some fundamental ways, that tiresomely unenlightened Aristotle, with his let's pretend deductive science, understood the universe better than History's Greatest Scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. Newton regarded space and time as existing apart from things to fill it (in the case of space) and things to change during it (in the case of time). Aristotle used the idea of "place," which implied an object to define the place, rather than "space," and he regarded time as inseparable from the changes by which we mark its passing.

The most recent cosmological theory I've read about (which, granted, may well have been completely overthrown by the most recent cosmological theory) held that space was effectively created by matter and energy, of which there's a finite amount, so that space itself is finite, contra Newton. Time, too, is meaningless apart from matter and energy -- or, perhaps better, there can be no "privileged clock" measuring an objective universal time.

It should be admitted that we'd never know Aristotle was right (assuming he was) if we hadn't assumed Newton was right. The mathematical abstractions Newtonian physics uses have been essential for developing the models used to interpret the physical observations. Aristotle was big on physical observation, but didn't care for mathematical abstractions.

As long as the sun rises in the morning and things still fall when they're dropped, most people probably aren't too concerned over who was right about what, but I think it's very unfortunate for our culture that Aristotle the philosopher was tossed out along with Aristotle the scientist several hundred years ago.