Sunday, January 6, 2013

How space poses a problem for philosophy

To: Jeffrey D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: How space poses a problem for philosophy
Date: 6th February 2009 14:29

Dear Jeff,

Thank you for your email of 26 January, with your fourth essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'In what ways does the nature of space pose a problem for philosophy?'

My impression from your musings is that one question that grips you is the question of how the space which you 'create' through being a conscious subject in possession of a point of view relates to the space in which your body exists objectively as one entity related to other entities, both conscious and inanimate. (You use the term 'singularity' which has a meaning in physics but I am not sure to what extent if any you are alluding to this meaning.)

From the scientific standpoint, there is no such place as 'here'. Every position in space is potentially a 'here' to some suitably placed conscious creature who perceives, or acts on, an object located at that space.

You also mention the problem of a 'vacuum' -- traditionally viewed in philosophy as exceedingly difficult to resolve, with positions taken for and against the 'possibility of a vacuum'. It is difficult to appreciate the point of these disputes today. Rather more relevant is the question of whether we possess an understanding of space as merely the product of spatial relations between objects as the philosopher Leibniz held, or, as Newton argued whether space is something over and above the physical objects which it contains -- which implies the possibility in principle of a space devoid of objects.

Leaving that problem aside, what is the significance of the fact that I 'exist in space'? What does that mean?

You will recall the second dialogue from the unit on space, where Kant rehearses his argument that space is a condition for the possibility of experience. In order for there to be such a thing as 'I' -- the subject of experience who makes judgements based on my subjective experiences -- it is logically necessary that these experiences be located as 'objects' in a 'space', with myself similarly conceived as occupying a spatial position in relation to these objects. In other words, the very idea of a conscious subject necessarily goes along with the notion of a 'space'.

But what kind of space is this? It seems that 'my space' could exist provided that just two conditions are fulfilled: a stream of subjective experiences, and a suitable 'format' for these experiences which makes them suitable for interpretation 'as' perceptions of objects in space. However, that picture, taken as a description of the whole of reality is the theory of solipsism. There is nothing in existence besides myself and the 'world of my experience'.

This is definitely not what Kant had in mind. In Kant's view, there are many conscious subjects all occupying the same 'space'. The objects in this common space -- for example, the Moon -- are the same objects in each of our personal 'spaces'. There are not two (or many) Moons, 'the Moon' and 'my Moon'. There is just the Moon.

However, it is questionable whether given Kant's starting point he is entitled to say this. The Cartesian methodology which he accepts -- starting from 'experience' as a given -- leads inevitably to the sceptical conclusion that the only experience I can ever talk about is my experience. The only 'Moon' I can ever talk about is my Moon, the satellite which revolves around my Earth in my space.

What Kant does at this point is save the common sense, anti-solipsist view, but at the price of introducing a distinction between two 'worlds', the phenomenal world of experience and the noumenal world of 'things in themselves'. The plurality of 'personal spaces' has a reference outside the realm of appearances to 'things in themselves' existing outside space and time. You could think of this noumenal reality as the logical 'matrix', the single 'program' which accounts for the plurality of subjects and experiences, all pointing to the same description of an objective spatial world.

Some commentators have objected to this doctrine, and have attempted to 'clean up' Kant by removing the phenomena/ noumena theory. (An example would be P.F. Strawson in 'The Bounds of Sense'.) What they have failed to see is that this is no longer Kant but rather the philosopher that they would have wished Kant to be; not the critic dialectically engaging with Descartes' Meditations but rather a contemporary philosopher making use of Kant's powerful arguments.

The culprit, I would argue, is the idea from which Kant starts, that there is a 'given' which comes before the application of concepts. This is what I referred to as his 'Cartesian methodology'. You start with the self, the subject, just as Descartes did. The alternative would be to start with the conception of the subject as already in relation to other subjects through the medium of language, the approach taken by Wittgenstein.

However, this still doesn't solve the problem of the relation between 'my Moon' and 'the Moon'. The intuition that there is something more to say about the world than a list of things contained within it -- namely that *I* am in the world -- is very strong. It is this intuition that I try to give voice to in my book, 'Naive Metaphysics' (

All the best,