Interior dialogue on space and time

A: So I want to understand space and time.

B: All right, let’s start with this co-ordinate system, X, Y, Z. Now if you have something moving on this and you want to compare the different times you need an equation that will…

A: But where is any of this? I wanted to understand space and you’re drawing pictures of things I’ve never seen.

B: Right, but clocks moving on this grid will relate to other clocks on the grid in predicable and interesting ways. Do you know that a twin travelling at close to the speed of light will age more slowly than one at rest?

A: I don’t doubt that this would be important to guys who are worried about travelling that fast and who need to co-ordinate clocks. We can’t have trains running into each other, after all.

B: But anything living or even existing is a clock. Your heartbeat is a clock, your breathing, the rotation of electrons around a nucleus, everything.

A: I agree with that, but you’re framing this reality in a peculiar way by imagining a uniformly divided line for time to tick on. You want me to look out at the world and see a homogeneous, orderly grid with every possible intersection marked off by a unique, ordered number. That will tell me all sorts of useful things, but I don’t see it anywhere.

B: What are you talking about? What else could you mean by time than this?

A: Honestly, you’re imagining that at the bottom of things one finds a featureless city grid-plan or high-rise. I don’t doubt that one can imagine such a fundamental city-plan behind everything and then talk about how nature behaves in it. If I only encountered nature as conditioned by the spacial and temporal exigencies of the city, I’d even need to imagine it in that way. But while I don’t doubt you can (and even need to) imagine nature moving through an infinite imaginary high-rise and then give a description of what its day is like it still has an air of make-believe about it.

B: This is by far the most successful account of space and time anyone has ever given. This is simply the best we can do.

A: “Best” is a term of comparison, but any experience of it that doesn’t start on your grid can’t be compared to one that does. A Voyageur in the wilderness of Ontario thinking about time in the silence of the woods isn’t thinking about it in any way contiguous with the one who imagines it like you. The problems you’re interested in won’t even occur to him, and if he went on to learn them they would be nothing but a different sort of experience.

B: These poetic and intuitive accounts of nature are all anthropomorphic and subjective.

A: And putting all nature in an imaginary high-rise isn’t?

B: These are maps, not territories.

A: Take that metaphor seriously. Maps are ways of recording the order of one thing to another. “Map” in this sense will have as many meanings as there are sorts of order in the world.

B: But there’s one order in the world. Just look around.

A; I know, and I don’t want to give that up. It seems like I’m arguing for some sort of Kantian idea that we have only a multitude of experiences of the one, but never the one. The unity behind the forest is never known to us, only the forest of the forester, the girl picking flowers, the botanist, the tribesman.

B: We have to be able to get beyond this.

A: I have to believe that something does, but it would be a knower with no subjectivity.


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