Part 1—Brian Greene cues the search:
On the morning of Wednesday, February 3, we enjoyed a few brief moments of true amusement.

We were thoughtfully sitting inside a local Starbucks. We were perusing Brian Greene's 2004 best-seller, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality.

(According to the leading authority, the book in question "is the second book on theoretical physics, cosmology, and string theory written by Brian Greene, professor and co-director of Columbia's Institute for Strings, Cosmology, and Astroparticle Physics." It went to number 3 on the New York Times chart. Citizens, we're just saying!)

We've perused Greene's book off and on since its publication. Speaking of time, it was roughly 7 AM when we came upon this statement by Greene, located on page 30:

"The great German philosopher Gottfried Willhem von Liebniz, who was Newton's contemporary, firmly believed that space does not exist in any conventional sense."

No really—that's what the book said! We emitted low mordant chuckles, of a type which more commonly emerge from the world's greatest Zen masters.

(As we walked home that morning, neighborhood dogs twisted their heads as they examined our weirdly grinning visage. If we might borrow from FDR, we welcome those neighborhood dogs' twisted heads! We regard their twisted heads as a badge of honor.)

According to Greene, Professor Leibniz believed that space "does not exist in any conventional sense." Actually, no--he firmly believed it! Once again, considering that word, we went to the land of Zen masters.

Full disclosure—we've encountered this Liebniz fellow before. Full disclosure:

In the fall semester of 1967, we failed our semester-long course on Kant. Or did Kant perhaps fail us? Back in 1998, we asked that question in an award-winning cover story for Capital Style magazine. The glossy magazine is now defunct, though through no doing of ours.

Did we fail Kant, or did Kant fail us? The question has never been answered! At any rate, we had to take a make-up course in the summer of 1968.

We worked full-time on the dorm crew, with an hour off each morning to attend to our book learning. The course we took bore this title:

"Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz"

We later joked, concerning that course, that we learned little Spinoza and less Leibniz, drawing on Jonson's famous jibe about Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and Greek. At any rate, we passed that course, we believe with a D, and stayed out of Vietnam.

Many years later, there we were, in a local Starbucks. We were reading about the man who interrupted our daily cleaning of dorm rooms. And sure enough:

According to Professor Greene, the fellow in question had firmly believed that space does not exist in any conventional sense! As we chuckled, we mordantly came to see that we had been right all along.

According to Leibniz, space doesn't exist in any conventional sense! This seems to suggest that space does exist in some sense. It just doesn't exist in a conventional sense!

Why did we chuckle that morning? Perhaps because we'd also read this, on the previous page:
GREENE (page 29): Einstein once said that if someone uses words like "red," "hard," or "disappointed," we all basically know what is meant. But as for the word "space," "whose relation with psychological experience is less direct, there exists a far-reaching uncertainty of interpretation." This uncertainty reaches far back: the struggle to come to grips with the meaning of space is an ancient one. Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, and many of their followers through the ages wrestled in one way or another with the meaning of "space." Is there a difference between space and matter? Does space have an existence independent of the presence of material objects? Is there such a thing as empty space? Are space and matter mutually exclusive? Is space finite or infinite?
"Is there such a thing as empty space?" No, really—that's what it said!

("We prove it thus," we imagined ourselves saying, flawlessly drawing on Johnson's rebuttal of Bishop Berkeley. In this, our latest thought experiment, we imagined ourselves kicking inside a discarded refrigerator carton—and failing to stub our toe! For context, see today's postscript.)

Is there such a thing as empty space? While we're at it, is it true that space doesn't exist in any conventional sense?

The early chapters of Greene's best-seller are filled with such statements and questions. We know—you think we're making that up. But this is the very first paragraph of the best-selling book:
GREENE (page ix): Space and time capture the imagination like no other scientific subject. For good reason. They form the arena of reality, the very fabric of the cosmos. Our entire existence-everything we do, think, and experience—takes place in some region of space during some interval of time. Yet science is still struggling to understand what space and time actually are. Are they real physical entities or simply useful ideas? If they're real, are they fundamental, or do they emerge from more basic constituents? What does it mean for space to be empty? Does time have a beginning? Does it have an arrow, flowing inexorabiy from past to future, as common experience would indicate? Can we manipulate space and time? In this book, we follow three hundred years of passionate scientific investigation seeking answers, or at least glimpses of answers, to such basic but deep questions about the nature of the universe.
Greene doesn't want to know if space and time are physical entities. He wants to know if they're real physical entities. Also, what does it mean for space to be empty? Allegedly, science is still struggling to understand that.

Inevitably, Greene is instantly asking this, right at the start of his second paragraph, as he continues directly:

"Our journey also brings us repeatedly to another, tightly related question, as encompassing as it is elusive: What is reality?..." (Greene's italics)

Professor Greene wants to know what reality is! It's a tightly related question, as encompassing as it is elusive.

For centuries, philosophy students have suspected that statements and questions like these may not make any sense. In the last century, a major "philosopher" came along to say that these secret schoolboy suspicions were basically right all along!

(Traditionally, schoolgirls have had enough sense to stay away from those courses.)

Readers who tend to defer to authority will tend to insist that we're surely being unfair to Greene. They'll assume that Greene makes sense of these statements and questions as his book proceeds.

We're here to suggest that this just isn't true. Joining hands with the great Zen masters, we're going to let you use Greene's book (and several others) as an introduction to the incomprehension which rules large parts of our intellectual culture.

Unquestionably, Professor Greene knows contemporary physics—but can he "explain" it? Can he make "theoretical physics, cosmology, and string theory" comprehensible to us, the average shlubs, the way a string of obedient reviewers will always say about best-selling books like his?

This week, we'll be starting an exploration of the fabric and texture of the reality behind a string of questions like the question we've just posed. On Friday, we'll offer an overview of the work which will emerge from the new pavilion within whose unfinished empty spaces we've typed this morning's report.

Tomorrow: Did you understand the front page of Friday's New York Times?

The refutation of Berkeley: In Boswell's famous Life of Samuel Johnson, the story went exactly like this:

"After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, 'I refute it thus.' "

Johnson refuted Berkeley thusly. Citizens, we're just saying.


  1. I think I get Bob’s drift here (to poke fun at the idea that space doesn’t exist in a “conventional sense”). That’s a pretty dumb thing to propose.

    But the idea of empty space, which doesn’t require much thought in our normal comportment, has caused me to wonder about its nature in cosmological terms.

    If a gravitational well (say a star) can distort space to such a degree that light itself will follow a “bent” path, as has been proven through observation, then there is something strange about the interaction between space, mass and gravity. Duh, right?

    In other words, space may be empty, but its properties…

    Okay, I just emitted a mordant chuckle of my own. Whatever its properties, it’s still empty. Its existence is obvious enough. But it’s quite interesting that empty space is a medium in its own right. Again, obvious. But somehow, space can “carry” gravitational waves. What does that mean about space itself? Is space empty when gravitational waves pass though it?

    Darned if I know. And darned if I know what practical applications an answer to such a question may contain.

    I did have a strange thought (which I had to immediately discard) that perhaps space itself is the “dark matter” that has befuddled cosmologists lo these many years. Because even though space might be empty, that emptiness isn’t the same as nothingness. There’s a “there” there.

    Crap, I give up. Can’t seem to stay on topic.

  2. For the sake of Einstein's reputation as a smart guy, I hope Greene is misquoting him.

    The word "space" has a farther-reaching "uncertainty of interpretation" than the words "red," "hard," or "disappointed?" It's easy to imagine the mood in which a physicist might say something like this, but it breaks down under even a little close investigation.

    "Is there enough space to park there?"
    "Leave more space between those plants."
    "That couch takes up too much space."
    "We'll need to buy space for an ad."
    "She said she needed her own space."
    "All this happened in the space of a few hours."

    Is there any uncertainty of interpretation in these remarks? One can imagine odd scenarios (for instance comical ones) in which there might be a doubt about what is meant by "space" in these cases. But in general there wouldn't be any place for doubt to enter into such statements.

    What's curious and interesting, is how it can enter when Greene (and perhaps Einstein) are using the word "space"--a word which normally causes no confusion at all.

  3. Serious discussion of philosophical topics does not occur in bestsellers published by the trade press. People cannot be casual readers of this stuff and expect to participate in such a discussion. Philosophy requires background and training, just as any advanced field does.

    The goal of a bestseller, a book written for the general public, is to challenge the reader to think about meanings beyond the everyday, beyond the knee-jerk, not to convey the state of the art on a particular topic. If the casual readers says "I never thought about that before," the job is done.

    I don't understand why someone who gets a D in a course would think he understands even the basics about that course content. If the goal was merely to stay out of Vietnam, why go back to these topics now? If the goal is to understand philosophy, then more reading and thinking is required, going back to Descartes, Spinoza and Leibnitz, not Greene.

  4. New Bob:

    "incomprehension...rules large parts of our intellectual culture."

    Old Bob

    "Our intellectual culture...slides toward the sea (8/28/12)...lies in tatters (9/7/12) virtually gone (6/18/13) on life support (7/25/13) utterly, crazily failing (9/26/13) plainly dead or dying (11/2/13)...collapses out of sight from most (3/31/14) collapsing (7/24/14)...will melt (2/3/16) broken, crackpot, is broken, deeply insipid, is broken, clownish, is broken.

    Welcome to the Pavilion of New Topics!!!!

  5. If truth is taken to be the correspondence of our representation of the world with reality, then the question can be asked whether our representation of the world as containing physical objects in space could be wrong. Berkeley says maybe our perceptions are simply free-floating ideas, like a vivid dream, so maybe there's no physical stuff for it to correspond to. Prove me wrong! he says.

    Johnson should have kicked Berkeley's stones.

    1. Berkeley says that there is a reality outside of our representation because God's perception gives the external an existence beyond our own perceptions.

    2. All mental representation is symbolic of reality.

      In college we used to refer to this kind of discussion as mental masturbation.

    3. Some bizarre philosophical concepts turn out to be valid, with real world consequences. If Bishop Berkeley had suggested that matter and energy were two different forms of the same thing, people would have found that thesis weird, too.

  6. Bob, for years I've found your media critiques very useful. I hope you don't turn to just kicking philisophical stones.

  7. I am very disappointed the Comment Section was not eliminated.

  8. I wish Bob could settle on one spelling of Leibniz. Hopefully, the correct one.

    Fun fact: there is a right way, and a wrong way, to spell Leibniz!

  9. If you need/want a "God"
    the "Nothingness is "God."

    General knowledge is not just
    the purview of "specialist."

    Sartre said that we bring
    "nothingness into the world.

  10. So Bob failed a course in his major as a junior then made a D in the make-up course. Even Rick Perry did better than that. At Harvard-on-the-Brazos.

  11. I can't help but think when Greene wrote about words like "red," "hard," or "disappointed," he was referring to his penis.