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.