EXPLANATION: "Is there such a thing as empty space?"


Wittgenstein ignored: Explanations, or attempts at same, can go sideways fast.

This remains true at the very top of the academic pile. Consider an early passage in Brian Greene's 2004 book, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time and the Texture of Reality.

(In 2011, the book was turned into a four-part PBS series.)

As of 2004, anyone with an ounce of "philosophical" training might have shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she considered the title of Greene's book. The notion that Greene was planning to discuss as amorphous a concept as "the texture of reality" should perhaps have set red warning lights flashing.

Greene is a highly-regarded physicist. Without any question, Brian Greene knows a ton—a major boatload—of physics and math.

That said, physicists and mathematicians can go badly wrong when they wander outside the boundaries defined by their areas of expertise. And so it goes, it seems to us, early in Greene's highly-regarded book, when he starts a section he puckishly calls "Space Jam" with this muddle-adjacent passage:

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 terms 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?" So begins several pages of muddle-adjacent material. 

 In fairness, Greene is mainly speaking, at this point, about various questions which were posed by (very) ancient "philosophers." That said, Greene—he's an extremely learned physicist—is quickly introducing linguistic and conceptual muddles pretty much of his own.

What does Greene tell us as he starts? Paraphrasing something Einstein is said to have said, he sets out to discuss "the relation with psychological experience" of "the word 'space.' "

According to Greene, that word's "relation with psychological experience" is "less direct" than the  "relation with psychological experience" of such words as "red" and "hard." 

Already, the formulation is rather murky, but the obedient reader will likely decide to read on. 

Greene, after all, is a major public intellectual and a high-ranking theoretical physicist. Respect for intellectual authority may lead readers to assume that Greene won't already, on page 29, leading us far away from Clarity Road and onto uncharted ground.

Alas! The serious reader shouldn't make such assumptions. When they start explaining or musing about their work, our mathematicians and physicists are quite often, and sometimes quite quickly, perhaps in over their heads.

All too often, they'll offer the kinds of muddled musings the later Wittgenstein tried to diagnose. In the case of this early passage in Greene's book, the reader is soon asked to fight his way through this:

GREENE (page 30): Such philosophical and religious musings on space can be compelling and provocative; yet, as in Einstein's cautionary remark above, they lack critical sharpness of description. But there is a fundamental and precisely framed question that emerges from such discourse: should we ascribe an independent reality to space, as we do for other, more ordinary material objects like the book you are now holding, or should we think of space as merely a language for describing relationships between ordinary material objects? 

The great German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz, who was Newton's contemporary, firmly believed that space does not exist in any conventional sense. Talk of space, he claimed, is nothing more than an easy and convenient way of encoding where things are relative to one another. Without the objects in space, Leibniz declared, space itself has no independent meaning of existence...

Let's be perfectly clear. Leibniz believed that space does exist; it's just that it doesn't exist "in any conventional sense!" 

That's what Leibniz is said to have believed. As for Greene himself, he regards the following as "a precisely framed question:"

Should we ascribe an independent reality to space? Or should we think of space as merely a language for describing relationships between ordinary material objects? 

If that is our idea of precision, is it possible that, as of page 30, we've already wandered off the road into a world of hurt?

Full disclosure! Down through the ages, college freshmen had always suspected that much of what passed for academic philosophy was a big barrel of incomprehensible nonsense.  In the middle of the last century, along came the later Wittgenstein, perhaps and possibly seeming to say that those skeptical college freshmen had actually been right all along! 

Is there such a thing as empty space? The inquiring minds of the great philosophers had always wanted to know!

Also, does "space" exist? According to Leibniz, yes, it does—but not in any conventional sense!

Confronted with material like this, courteous readers continue along, convinced that they're in good hands. At this site, we'd ask this question:

Brian Greene knows tons of physics—but is it possible that, in ancillary "philosophical" discussions, he (along with many others) may be in over his head?

In several surveys of philosophy professors, Wittgenstein has been chosen as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. That said, he was highly inarticulate himself—and go figure! The basic thrust of his ministry has been almost wholly ignored.

Things fall apart, Yeats said. So does the art of explanation, in a wide array of realms.

Tomorrow: Revisiting Goldstein's paragraph—a paragraph we adore

Full disclosure: In the fall of our junior year, we failed Kant. Or could it be that Kant failed us? We've never been totally sure.

At any rate, because we were handed that failing grade, we had to take a summer school "make-up" course. We took a course called "Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz" while working on summer dorm crew.

Wittily borrowing from Jonson's description of Shakespeare, we've always said that we learned little Spinoza and even less Leibniz. Descartes, of course, got something quite right. 

Just barely, we stumbled through. Someone went to Nam in our place.


  1. Meh. If you're into "philosophical and religious musings", dear Bob, you shouldn't expect clear and simple explanations.

    Some people enjoy scholastic bullshit. Others hate it. You sound like you may belong to the second category. To each their own, dear Bob.

    1. "To each their own, dear Bob."
      Good. Then get Lindsey Graham to stop threatening to sic deplorables on those he disagrees with.


    2. Meh. 'Deplorables' are so 2016, dear dembot. Have you been in a coma for six years?

      There days Dembot for 'normal ordinary people' is 'Ultra-MAGA Semi-Fascists'.

    3. “Bigots” is another outdated term.
      We call them “Republican” now.

  2. If you are skeptical about the existence of empty space, poke a finger through the particle board skull of a zombie Democrat's head to remove all doubt.

    1. The skulls of Republicans ate too packed with bigotry to do the same.

    2. Meh. Far from being an empty space, it's jammed with liberal cult's idiotic talking points.

      ...and that's exactly the problem: there's no space left there for anything else...

    3. And here we see a third definition of the word "space." Mao uses the word to talk about how much capacity or room is left in a vessel. How did Somerby miss this one?

  3. While Somerby refuses to engage with current events, Digby has posted several excellent essays. Yesterday, she discussed Trump's recent admission that Comey's letter sabotaged Hillary Clinton's campaign and was the reason she lost:


    Today, at Digby's blog, Tom Sullivan discusses the culture war against schools as a smokescreen for diverting funds from the funding of public education, using North Carolina as an example:


    Both of these issues and many more demand attention but Somerby deflects from the ongoing nefarious activities of Republicans, by engaging in sophistry like today's essay. And it isn't as if he has anything useful to say about Leibnitz or Greene's book or any other aspect of scholarly thought, except to trample the rug with his muddy boots.

  4. Somerby rips two different explorations of the meaning of the word "space," written by two very different authors for entirely different purposes, out of their contexts and presents them as if they were in discussion with each other, solely to argue that neither is articulate or coherent. Words have meanings within contexts, not as stand alone entities. Further, words can take different meanings within different contexts. That is why definition by an author is needed and was no doubt provided by Green and Leibnitz separately, in their broader discussions, omitted by Somerby. No philosopher would argue without including that omitted definition or discussion of the meaning of a word used for a specific purpose. So, Somerby is already being dishonest.

    At the end of today's essay, Somerby includes a paragraph about failing his course on Kant and having to make it up with a summer course. Is this intended to disavow any responsibility for simulated philosophical analysis, on the basis of incompetence? I think many of us would stipulate to Somerby's lack of seriousness in what he writes here.

  5. Space does refer to the physical relations between objects and ourselves when talking psychologically. That is why psychologists talk about spatial reasoning -- how we know where things are, and spatial representation -- how we carry around that knowledge in our brains.

    Space also refers to the location explicitly outside of the Earth's atmosphere, where science fiction describes travel in space ships and people like Greene talk about what may exist out there. This is not at all the same as what Leibnitz meant by space when he talked about relations among objects.

    Psychologists take this a step further and talk about meaning spaces -- the arrangement of mental representations maintained in memory, depicting the relations of the meanings of concepts and the words that name them. That space is multi-dimensional and can be derived from use of language and what cognitive judgments about those representations reveal about their relations with each other. People carry around mental maps in their heads that represent the relations they experience in the world.

    Somerby's idea that the word space should mean exactly the same thing when talking about different concepts is idiotic. His main goal today is to confuse people, and by so doing, to argue that authors are muddled in their writing, which makes them untrustworthy to read. That in turn undermines the entire enterprise of becoming better educated. What sort of teacher makes that kind of argument, day after day? Who benefits from an undereducated populous, or one that scoffs at wisdom? The stupider people are encouraged to make themselves, the easier charlatans like Trump, Dr. Oz (selling hydroxychloroquinine in a pandemic), Alex Jones (telling us mass shootings are false flag operations, and Tucker Carlson (who says worry a lot about your manhood, and these are not the droids you are seeking), can hoodwink the gullible and get them to send these assholes all their money.

    1. Democrats are the product of an elite that became convinced "education" meant attending institutions purporting to educate, and when those institutions stopped educating and began indoctrinating, Democrats didn't have the brainpower to distinguish the two and now argue that these indoctrination centers teach wisdom of all things. They teach hatred and grievance and the Democrats they turn out are the most gullible, ignorant, joyless, and perpetually infantile people in existence. They tell each other they have been educated, but this is more delusional sickness.

    2. Here we have the rationalization for remaining stupid as a rock.

    3. Here we have an example of the persistent idea that "education" is attained at institutions identifying as "educational" institutions by virtue of that self-identification. Despite lack of evidence of outcomes demonstrating improved critical thinking and knowledge of subjects important for informed decisionmaking, the ignorant and gullible turned out by these institutions after a good fleecing will never reevaluate the effectiveness of these indoctrination institutions and will instead insist that they have become educated under a useless gender studies, social work, or political science indoctrination program. Their paucity of education is immediately evident after five minutes of conversation, or by their allegiance to the Democrat party.

    4. Educational institutions are accredited by external, independent reviewers, not self-designated, except for frauds like Trump U. Review includes eval of outcomes. There are stats about graduate success rates in hiring and income, except for the frauds. That’s why applicants need to check accreditation, grad rates and what happens after graduation. Biden’s forgiveness of loans has been targeted to help those who were defrauded, but the majority of institutions are not frauds and grads do much better than non-grads. It is cruel to mislead students about this.

    5. Social sciences degrees are not useless. Job helping improve society are underpaid but rewarding in other ways. Maybe not for Somerby, who lacks altruism though.

  6. "Someone went to Nam in our place."

    Somerby may be laughing up his sleeve as he writes today's nonsense. He seems to think he pulled one off by floating through Harvard while others fought the war for him. As morally dubious as the war was, this attitude about escaping national service is entirely consistent with Dubya's evasion of military service and represents a kind of "let John do it" attitude about civic responsibility that is far from admirable.

    And this is the guy Teach for America thought would be a gift to poor urban youth! Somerby had nothing to contribute to them, and then pissed his life away as a mediocre standup comedian, and now spends his "golden years" defending Trump, Roy Moore and Brock Turner.

    1. You voted for Bill Clinton.

    2. Hard to argue Clinton evaded public service.

  7. "As of 2004, anyone with an ounce of "philosophical" training might have shifted uncomfortably in her seat as she considered the title of Greene's book."

    Why has Somerby all of a sudden started describing a hypothetical reader as female? He has not done this before. He has little sympathy for "woke" liberal calls for equality in use of pronouns. Why does he do this today?

    The effect of a known male author using a female pronoun to describe a reaction to Greene or Leibnitz is to make it clear that HE is not the person being described by that pronoun. He is making it clear that he is not the person with that ounce of philosophical training, even though he is clearly the one making the complaints about Greene and Leibnitz. But this use of she distances Somerby from the separate reaction of this other reader to the books Somerby discusses.

    Somerby dislikes saying anything directly, explicitly, and he rarely takes responsibility for expressing any opinion, especially a political one, while making sometimes outrageous comments about various targets (such as that Einstein didn't understand his own work). Somerby uses a variety of rhetorical devices to do this. Is this simply another such device? If so, it is a new one, since he has been very careful up until now to avoid giving any support to feminist linguistic demands.

    Or maybe the answer is straightforward and Somerby is trying on a different gender identity. After all, anything is possible.

    1. It would be embarrassing if Somerby were arguing against the idea that Leibnitz or Greene has any expertise or authority on a topic (they are too muddled), but then asserted his own "philosophical training" as the source of "unease" with Greene's title. One cannot simultaneously rely on training while criticizing the authority bestowed by extensive training in someone else. That would be a contradiction and a hypocrisy. So Somerby resorts to a strained linguistic ploy of pretending to be some hapless female reader with a degree in philosophy (perhaps from Harvard).

  8. "Just barely, we stumbled through. Someone went to Nam in our place."

    In order to stay out of the draft, a man had to maintain a C average in college. Somerby is in effect saying that his F in his course in Kant resulted in an overall gpa below C and that is why it needed to be made up during summer.

    Why should any of us be taking lessons in philosophy or the meaning of reality, even reading lessons from someone who couldn't maintain a C average in the 1960s? Why should we believe anything he says about philosophy when he, by his own admission, failed several philosophy courses?

    The program of study that you pick as your major is supposed to be something you are interested in and see some value in learning. It is unusual for someone to fail major courses, unless they have picked something like engineering or science, or have picked something their parents want them to pursue but that they themselves dislike, such as business.

    I continue to believe that Somerby, forced to go to Harvard by his mother, picked the most useless field he could find and then proceeded to avoid learning anything at all. He perhaps didn't flunk out because he didn't want to be drafted, but beyond that, he seems not to have been very interested in his major or anything else he might have pursued in college. I suspect he may have been working on his standup routines, hanging out in comedy clubs and keeping late hours, if he was anything like other standups at that age. Or maybe he did all that while working as a teacher in Baltimore.

    But I do think that poor children in inner city schools deserve someone better prepared and more motivated to help them, not a draft dodger who took no education courses and had little interest in preparing himself to work in schools. Someone who thinks that obsessing over the meaning of the word "space" represents actual thinking.

  9. Instead of reading 20 year old (thus out of date) books about the cosmos, Somerby should read and discuss this:


    Thom Hartmann argues that Trump was involved in a conspiracy to turn the country into a Putin-style dictatorship by taking over the military, intelligence and police forces and presents worrisome evidence in support of his theory.

    Meanwhile, Somerby twiddles his thumbs and tries to distract liberals from what may be happening in our country.

  10. "In the middle of the last century, along came the later Wittgenstein, perhaps and possibly seeming to say that those skeptical college freshmen had actually been right all along! "

    Somerby generalizes his own bad attitude to other college students, who do not feel the same way at all. Most are excited about what they are learning and link their studies to future career goals.

    Wittgenstein wrote serious philosophy, for which he made a name, then got lost in his own confusions late in life. Somerby only cares about his writing about how language undermines serious philosophical work. But he entirely mistakes Wittgenstein's attitude toward philosophy itself.

    Somerby is the nihilist, not Wittgenstein.

  11. The idea that there's empty space between celestial objects is relatively new - the old thought was that it was filled with, "aether."

    1. Actually, per modern theoretical physics, there is not such thing as "empty space"

      Empty space is not really empty because nothing contains something, seething with energy and particles that flit into and out of existence. Physicists have known that much for decades, ever since the birth of quantum mechanics. But only in the last 10 years has the vacuum taken center stage as a font of confounding mysteries like the nature of dark energy and matter;