Space/Time Thought Experiment

Since Meillassoux’s so-called “arche-fossil” argument against correlationism is so popular with the kids (even though it’s not as essential to the argument of the book itself), I’ve always wondered what sort of philosophical response can one give to the following questions:

1) When did the Big Bang take place?

No, I’m not looking for “14 billion years ago” answer. If time is absolute (Newton), then it is a container that can exist even without any objects in it. Since this is the most popular vision of time, let’s think about it. Ok, we can take 14 billion as a number and count back to the Big Bang (and let’s assume we all agree that space and time were created with the Big Bang, as the theory states). When did the Big Bang take place? At 0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds? Why stop at 0 seconds? Why not get even closer to the moment and say 0 miliseconds and so on… infinitely, of course, because time is (logically) infinitely divisible. Can we think the beginning of time? The very first point of time emerging out of timelessness? No, we cannot! (Try and imagine time before time). I’m not concerned with the details of the physical theory here, I’m concerned with the philosophical explanation of the world before space and time, or of anything before space and time for that matter. Newton, of course, believed in the world being created by God (and so did Leibniz), so it might not have been a real question, but what about all these recent “absolute time” neo-Newtonians claiming that since Kantian theory is incoherent, it must be false and therefore time is not a form of our sensibility, but must be a) a substance, or b) feature of objects.

2) Where did the Big Bang take place?

Leibniz’s sly argument against Newton was the silly but important question – why was universe created here and not a couple of meters over to the right side of the current spot? Before space and time, there was nothing. How can appearance of absolute space and absolute time be explained? Again, philosophically speaking, how are any measurements of space possible without the arbitrary zero of the Cartesian coordinates (what was the philosophical significance of those coordinates). Is space infinite? Have we somehow solved Zeno’s paradoxes (yes, the one with a dude throwing a spear, look it up)? Have I missed it somehow?

For those, by the way, who think that Kant was absolutely clueless vis-a-vis Meillasoux’s ancestral statements, I have a surprise for you (I’m sure someone already mentioned it while dealing with Meillassoux’s “original” argument):

R 4077 (1769): “Space and time precede things; that is entirely natural. Both, namely, are subjective conditions, under which alone objects can be given to the senses. Taken objectively, this would be absurd. Hence the difficulty about the location of the world and time before the world. Yet in absolute time no location is determined without actual things, hence absolute time cannot yield any ground for the explanation of the phaenomenorum. [17:406]*

Not only was Kant aware of the difficulty of thinking the “time before the world” 12 years before CPR, it was part of the discussion between “absolute” and “relative” time camps.

I found Meillassoux’s book to be extremely interesting and well-argued, but I’m slowly growing tired of his philosophical epigones running around and claiming to have debunked Kant’s argument on space/time with a couple of witty remarks and a whole lot of speculative nonsense.

These are thoughts from my head and straight onto this page – anyone interested in helping me think them?

See also, R 4756 (17:699): “Is there an empty time before the world and in the world, i.e., are two different states separated by a time that is not filled through a continuous series of alterations[?] The instant in time can be filled,
but in such a way that no time-series is indicated.”

29 thoughts on “Space/Time Thought Experiment

  1. Well, the original Big Bang theory was developed in terms of a super dense point of space-time that collapsed into a singularity when seen in reverse. This was modeled using Einstein’s relativity theory, which predicted the existence of such singularities. However, recent developments in physics have called into question whether true singularities exist as they were originally described. Now, a new model has been proposed which I find to be more philosophically eloquent. It says that instead of a big bang from a singularity, it was a big bounce from the collapse of a “previous” universe. At collapse, the entropy gets set back to 0 and the new universe branches off starting from low entropy. Some say our universe has already branched off other universes too. Under this view, there isn’t strictly a “time 0” towards the moment of expansion. Instead, there is a possibly infinite chain of universes going back, one before the other in a continuous causal chain. Whether this is true, I’m not sure. But it seems more sensible than the “something from nothing” model that you are talking about and which leads to all these weird questions about time.

    • Thanks, Gary. I was trying to avoid getting into scientific theories here, but stay with philosophical implications of thinking time 0 or, which is I think equally challenging philosophically, thinking time ∞. If Meillassoux’s argument allegedly makes Kant unable to account for some “ancestral time” before humans (which it only does, as I also mentioned, if your idea of time is that of absolute time), then any non-correlationist (if such exist, because claiming one is not bound by correlationism is not the same as not being one) would have to explain how absolute time can account for either time 0 or time ∞.

      I find Leibniz’s take on space/time and now Maimon’s to be a legitimate answer to Kant’s formulation, but both are counter-intuitive.

  2. It does not surprise me that Kant “was there first,” like Heidegger’s hedgehog. I almost never believe in the gotcha version of the history of philosophy. It too often turns out that philosopher X had indeed thought about what philosopher Y brings up 20 or 200 years later.

    I am not the only one to note that After Finitude gets more interesting in its later chapters (if I were a satirist maybe I’d write After Fossils). To me, the “ancestral” is no more interesting qua humans than is the sound of the falling tree in the uninhabited forest (uninhabited by human beings, that is). The issue has nothing to do with “when human beings first appeared.” Later in the book, his arguments with fideism, with conclusions based “on the fact that there is a world,” and so on, in short his engagement with facticity, these are interesting.

    You are quite right that one cannot imagine timelessness (this was sort of my rejoinder to Maimon’s “maybe someday I will experience something outside space &/or time….). Meillassoux would say, doesn’t matter if you can imagine it, can you mathematize it? (And I wonder if that isn’t also Maimon’s eventual line).

    It is obvious that the branching universes of the Big Bounce merely “push the question back a stage,” as they used to say. We are still left with the question, Whence facticity? Whence this flurry of black holes and not-quite-singularities? In short, it doesn’t matter if there is or is not a Time Zero. The big Why in the Sky remains shy.

    • That is precisely why I found not Meillassoux’s critique, not the epigonal excitement to be so irritating – as if Kant was dumb enough not to see potential problem. And this is usually coming form folks who want their arguments to be read in the best possible charitable way and cry foul if you don’t give them the benefit of coherence, even it is nowhere to be found.

    • It is obvious that the branching universes of the Big Bounce merely “push the question back a stage,” as they used to say.

      Physics reaches its “negative theology” state. The conditions of the universe don’t lie in itself any more. They are not unveiled by observing nature and finding reasonable principles by understanding the relations between things but they are contingent and inaccessible and somehow hidden in a multiverse. But if all we are left with is randomness, hidden causes and mathematical science fiction one has to ask whether the universe is it worth to be understood? What a disappointment.

  3. I’m not concerned with the details of the physical theory here, I’m concerned with the philosophical explanation of the world before space and time, or of anything before space and time for that matter.

    But hasn’t the philosophical problem been restated as the relationship between a mathematical model and its physical representation? Why going back than to “imagination” and declare its relevance?

    You certainly can imagine some background of a light cone but now it is you who introduces a metrics, not the universe and you move back from physics to mathematics where anything goes.

    • Certainly, but since Meillassoux’s supposed embarrassment of “correlationism” is based on precisely this sort of imagination and thought experiment, I figured its fair to operate on the same primitive level, no?

      • Oh, the difference is that I took your thought experiment seriously ( stretching to the limit of concepts ), whereas I hold Meillassoux arch-fossil for a tactical argument used to debunk radical constructivists, solipsists, young earth creationists and all the other misbegotten offspring attributed to Kant😉

      • Well, my thought experiment is serious – I mean it is rather shallow and full of holes, of course, but let’s protect my fragile ego with “I’m still working these things out” defense.

        Like many, when it comes to various physical theories regarding the origin of the universe and so on, I rely on scientific (well, popular scientific) literature. So reading Kant’s discussion of whether world is finite or infinite and other such sections never really sends us to science since we judge Kant’s scientific background to be hopelessly outdated. And I’m still struggling to understand how, for example, we might casually say things like “Well, before the Big Bang, there was no time” – maybe you can give me a hand, Kay, you have a science-y aura about you…

      • And I’m still struggling to understand how, for example, we might casually say things like “Well, before the Big Bang, there was no time”

        This is because we extrapolate back to a space time singularity. Such things are believed by some to exist inside of black holes. The effect for an outside observer would be that measure sticks have the size 0 and clocks stand still. So at a black hole singularity space and time are vanishing. Now consider the case where such a space-time singularity with a finite mass but infinite mass density is all that exists. It is an object without any spatio-temporal extension. At the very moment where we think it just persisted immutable in time we introduce a second frame of reference, an observer for which it doesn’t change. But since the whole universe exists in the space-time singularity we have excluded this observer from physical existence. Since the space-time singularity is all that exists, relationality is also gone.

        The reason why some physicists believe that this thing which is so close to non-existence can somehow spring into life is quantum mechanics. Here one assigns states to the space-time singularity as well as probabilities to those states. Quantum mechanics is a probabilistic theory which applies to individuals. So in case of a space-time singularity there might be a probability that mass exists outside of it i.e. there is a probability that space and time exists. There is not literally a cause for the big bang as if there was some sort of firing mechanism. It just follows the rules of a quantum logics.

        This is so strange because it is as if concepts would act and they exist without a mind that is thinking them.

      • Thanks, Kay – this is a good starting point. Just to give you an idea where I’m coming from, Lorne Falkenstein’s Kant’s Intuitionism has a good section on Kant’s opposition to “empty space and time” notions. The relevant sections are available on Google Books here (203ff)

  4. “Can we think the beginning of time? The very first point of time emerging out of timelessness? No, we cannot! (Try and imagine time before time).”

    Is this a parody of someone else’s position, a parody of someone else’s caricature of a third person’s position, or your position? Clearly someone has thought and imagined these things, otherwise you wouldn’t be writing about them now.

    • That’s not a parody, it’s a sincere (and therefore irrefutable) attempt to think about the beginning of time – clearly, someone who is much more capable than me is able to think about the beginning of time and I solicited that someone’s help.

      Can you imagine time before time? It’s contradictory, therefore impossible. Wasn’t Meillassou’x point about time before human time based on such impossibility? I might need reread that section.

      Think Zeno’s paradox applied to time, not space.

  5. Wouldn’t the post-critical Kant call ‘antinomy’ to all reasoning about origins? But I’m grateful for your pre-critical finds, Mikhail.

    I love Kant allowing (second quote) that an ’empty’ time before the world might have to be still ‘present’ – and suggesting that such a presence might be some kind of instant state between every alteration-in-time, though not itself qualified by alterations. Woah.

    This resembles a concept of the eternal (for example, if allowed) which must also be a form that is outside of time in a real sense. Eternity would have to be real before singularity, certainly, but if it maintained its difference from time after singularity (as Kant suggests) it would be in a sense not available to our time-space minds anyway – there’s no formal traction for entertaining the concept.

    I do think eternity would have to mean something in a different category than simply the set of all measurable or even imaginable moments – it must stand for something infinitely more than even an infinite number of moments a-f-t-e-r singularity. It must refer to a realm of being that is already real before the first measurable moment of time.

    Difficult ground, since we are strapped into time-space mindsets (for which thank God for now).

    Great fun. I’m new here, of course. I was attracted by the Maimon-Kant study. I don’t know Meillassoux but wanted to say hi and see no better place than this relatively ‘open’ thread.

    • This resembles a concept of the eternal (for example, if allowed) which must also be a form that is outside of time in a real sense.

      It would be pre-critical to assert knowledge when you actually deal with mental coins.

      A possible alternative to time-freedom / eternity would be a greater reference frame = multiverse which establishes time and context again, is infinte and absolute. The only advantage of the latter is that it doesn’t require the introduction of a brand new concept and is free of paradoxes. However, quantum mechanics taught us already that nature doesn’t avoid paradoxes on all costs. So why invoke it here and extrapolate conservatively if not for the worship of a rational God?

    • I strongly agree w/ John here. Eternity (as in those ‘eternal objects’ that Whitehead posits and that people keep saying are entailed by Harman and Bryant’s theories) just ain’t the same as ‘always’ or some Hegelian bad infinity version of time.

      Note too that the a-temporal singularity is not the only a-temporal possibility in current [philosophy of] physics, as witness Julian Barbour or Huw Price.

      • I strongly agree w/ John here. Eternity (as in those ‘eternal objects’ that Whitehead posits and that people keep saying are entailed by Harman and Bryant’s theories) just ain’t the same as ‘always’ or some Hegelian bad infinity version of time.

        Better a bad infinity than misleading terminology.

      • Really, Kay, if the subject is misleading terminology, I think ‘multiverse’ ought to be on the table.

        The purveyors of that coin are not actually observing reality anymore – only the numbers. And there is no consensus that quantum mechanics requires a multiverse. Even the fact that such theories are consistent with a certain structure of mathematics does not allow us to assert (only to imagine) they can be transposed to any time-space reality (until they are in fact transposed). We have great classroom lectures or cocktail hour discussions (and TV specials) but not proof against misleadings.

        To me the ruminations of that branch of physics resemble the goings-on among the Wolfians in the pre-critical days.

      • John, maybe fundamental physics is in fact comatose and neither the LHC nor any other big tech experiment in the near future will bring the cure. The multiverse business seems to prepare for the death of physics by accepting randomness and contingence at the foundations. It is not so much that the order is outsourced into a multiverse but the multiverse guaranties statistical distributions of physical parameters which make our universe not looking too odd and exceptional. That’s the basic purpose of the multiverse: filling a gap without leaving open too many mysteries about our own home bubble. It feels more like a disciplined capitulation than a farce.

  6. Time before humans doesn’t seem any harder for me to think than time before my own existence. Though it’s tough to imagine time before time, such imaginings are unnecessary because before time was there was no time — kind of like imagining humans before humans.

    Meillassoux was going on about the Correlation, wasn’t he? If the content of human thought is inseparable from the humans who think it, then what about content that precedes the existence of thinking humans?

    • What about it? Why is “existence of thinking humans” making any difference here? It’s a sophisticated version of “tree falling in the forest” argument.

      My point is that you can post time 0 for some sort of theoretical calculations, but to think time before time is to think that “there is no time” which impossible because thinking requires that there is time, does it not? Does thinking take place outside of space/time? Are we some sort of gods? If correlationism means we’re stuck with what we have, it doesn’t mean that because we might not like it, we can simply throw arguments away and pretend that our “common sense” notions of space/time as absolute are philosophically sound.

  7. I agree with the tree falling in the forest analogy. Agree also that the reality of non-time before time might withdraw from our common sense, but that we can still ferret it out of its hole with some more sophisticated thinking. Though the process of thinking takes place within space/time, the object of thinking can fall outside of space/time. The process of thinking also takes place in brains, but we can still think about objects other than our own brains.

    • “we can still think about objects other than our own brains.”

      Let me be a good Kantian and correct you: “we can still think about objects ‘as outside us’ [als ausser uns] or our own brains”…

  8. When I try to imagine “time before time”, I somehow am picturing Homer Simpson in that Treehouse of Horrors episode where he goes through the wormhole in the wall and into the 3rd dimension and finds himself on an empty 3-dimensional cartesian plane and calls back to Bart and Marge one of my all time favorite lines:

    “Help! I’m somewhere where I don’t know where I am!!”

    A very lacking illustration:

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