Monday, November 30, 2015

Are space and time necessary?

The other day I was commenting over at DebunkingChristianity—usually not a good idea—regarding whether or not the universe could be said to be necessary. I got into a few decent discussions—which is surprising given the venue--one of which was with the very courteous Nicholas Covington, the author of Hume’s Apprentice, over at Skeptic Ink. During the discussion Nick brought up the possibility of not necessarily the universe per se being necessary, but space and time being necessary. It turns out that Nick has actually written up an article (here) defending this very thesis of his--in fact I remember reading it last year. It’s an answer to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” His answer is that the reason there is something rather than nothing is because space and time themselves are necessary and provide a necessary framework for existents. Needless to say, I don’t find Nick’s arguments persuasive nor valid, hence this post.
So, let’s see where Nick goes wrong. He begins by attempting to narrow down the definition of existence:
What is the difference between the two [a sea monster and the sun] that makes one real and the other imaginary? Well, the sun has detectable effects on ourselves and other things, but a sea monster doesn’t. […] In order to interact with other beings, or have effects on things, you must be within time. An effect takes place at a certain point in time, and you can’t act at a certain point in time if you aren’t within it.

My quibble here is with the talk of cause and effect necessitating temporality. I agree that usually causality is temporal, in that a cause usually precedes its effect in time. For example, I can hit my drink thereby knocking it over, and obviously the act of hitting my drink came before the act of the drink falling over. This is the common deterministic billiard ball type of causation. But, this is not universally the case, and this does not exhaust all types of causation, as I’ve argued in the past. There is such a thing as non-temporal and simultaneous causation. For example, if I hold my daughter, we have the cause of me holding my daughter, and the effect of her being suspended five feet above the ground. Yet, these are one and the same event, meaning the cause and effect happen simultaneously. I don’t hold my daughter and then she is subsequently being suspended, she is being suspended as long as I am holding her. The cause is simultaneous with the effect.
There are many more examples like this.  For instance, a person shaping a clay pot. The pot is only shaped simultaneously as the sculptor shapes it, not after. Or, the solidity of table. The effect of a table being solid is achieved as long as the material constituents are arranged in such a way as to be sufficient for that effect--the solidity is simultaneous with that arrangement. Or, the swinging of a hammer. The hammer’s motion is being caused by the swinging of the carpenter’s hand, and these two are simultaneous. There is no shortage of examples of simultaneous causation. But, what does this mean? Well, it means that, contrary to Nick’s claims above, a cause and effect relationship does not necessitate time.

But wait. I know I can already picture a reader making the following point: while the examples given demonstrate simultaneous causes and effects, the objects used in said examples are still in time. That is to say, the daughter, pot, carpenter, hammer etc. are all temporal objects existing in time. This is correct, but does it really call my point into question? No. For recall that Nick’s point was that in order for one existent to interact or to have an effect on another existent, time is a necessity—not that the existents themselves must be in time. But we’ve seen that this is false. If simultaneous causation is a reality then it is at least metaphysically possible for two existents to interact—i.e. one causing the other—without such an interaction being temporally ordered and without the existents to be in time itself. The point here is that causation qua causation need not be temporal.

Thus, Nick’s attempt to help pin down the definition of existence by interaction is moot so far. For if time is not a necessary condition for interaction, then one cannot infer that all that can or could exist must be within space and time—since Nick claims that interaction is fingerprint of existence. And therefore Nick has no warrant for concluding that we can define existence as space and time.
But Nick’s not finished. After (erroneously) defining existence as space and time, he continues:
Under our working definition of existence, space and time do not exist, strictly speaking. Space and time don’t have effects on things, space and time are a framework in which effects, actions, and reactions reside. As such, it makes no sense to ask whether the framework of existence exists.

There reside a few problems here. First, Nick has already made this inference off of poor reasoning when he assumed that time is a necessary condition for causality and interaction—and therefore for existing things. We saw that this was false. But even aside from this, he seems oblivious to the question-begging nature of his endeavor. For even if for the sake of argument we concede that Nick was correct that space and time were necessary for actual existents, this doesn’t give us any right to redefine existence as space and time itself. Let me put my point a bit more analytically: Demonstrating that X is a necessary condition for Y does not entail that Y is identical to X. That is to say, demonstrating that space-time is a necessary condition for existing things—something that he hasn’t even demonstrated but that we’re granting for argument’s sake—does not entail that existence is therefore defined as space-time. This is simply a non-sequitur. Nick has shown absolutely no good reason, then, for redefining existence as space and time, and to do so is to engage in blatant question-begging.
Second, if space and time were necessary, then, by the definition of ontological necessity, simply contemplating space and time would enlighten us to its necessity. Why would this be? Because something which is necessary contains the reason for its existence in its nature—that is to say, what it is would be identical to the fact that it is. Thus, if something is necessary, then contemplating its nature would be to simultaneously contemplate its existence. And a corollary of this is that you could not fail to conceive this thing existing. But space-time obviously does not satisfy this definition of necessity, since we can easily conceive of space-time not existing at all, and therefore space-time is not necessary.  However, Nick thinks that he can get around this by claiming that space-time does not “exist,” and instead claims that space-time is a framework, and that therefore speaking of its existence or non-existence is nonsensical.

However, this is might only be true if indeed existence is to be defined as space-time. But we’ve seen no good reason to think that we should redefine existence in such an idiosyncratic way. Yet, it gets worse than this, because Nick is basically engaging in explicit question-begging (again). He’s simply defined existence as X, and then claimed that you cannot question the existence of X since X is, by definition, the framework of existence—of which interaction is a corollary. But this is extremely problematic. One cannot simply a priori redefine existence as X and then claim that X is therefore necessary. In fact this is exactly what the ontological argument for God attempts to do, and Nick’s argument is fallacious for the same reasons—in fact we could call Nick’s argument the ontological argument for naturalism.

But it gets even worse than this for Nick’s thesis. For let’s grant for argument’s sake that Nick was correct in his arbitrary redefining of existence as space-time and that space-time is indeed the framework for all existents. Is it still true, as he stated above, that we cannot speak of this framework’s existence or non-existence? No it’s not, because space-time, in order to be distinguishable from literal non-being, must have certain properties and actualities. The fact that it is a framework does not absolve it from harboring these things. For example, in mathematics the set of integers is itself a framework that is completely different in nature from its elements. But the set itself--again in order for it to actually be something as opposed to nothing—must have certain distinguishing properties—e.g., it is infinite, and thus we see that a framework can have properties. So space-time, though it might be a framework, still is manifest in certain actualities and properties—and who would even argue that space-time does not have properties? But why is this important? Well, if space-time has certain properties—e.g., being n-dimensional—then it will always be possible to conceive the absence or lack of these properties, and therefore the lack of space-time itself. But this means that talk of the existence or non-existence of space-time is not nonsensical. And more importantly it means that, by the definition of necessary given above, space-time is not necessary and could metaphysically fail to exist. And thus space-time cannot be existence itself.
In conclusion we’ve seen that Nick’s bold thesis is extremely problematic. First, it assumes a faulty view of causality. Second, it engages in question-begging and non-sequiturs. And most importantly we’ve seen that even if we were to grant his argument and erase all previous objections, his conclusion is still not justified, and is false. It would seem that space-time, then, is not necessary.



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