version of:   July 11, 2004

Chapter 12: Transcending Space

Time is something physics hasn't really come to grips with. Our theoretical notions of time and space have been unified as spacetime, but at a price: this geometrization program has spatialized time, frozen the life out of it. Perhaps the main reason that quantum mechanics still does not have a very satisfactory interpretation is the orphan status of time, as a mere shadow on the wall of space. Lived time for sure has a very different quality from lived space. We may have to wait for another revolution in physics to see this difference reflected there more accurately.

Experiment 1.6: Time

Imagine where you are likely to be a day from now, at the same time as it is now. Notice how the imagined you, together with its whole setting in the future world, is the object of your anticipating imagination. After watching this whole structure, and jotting down notes about it, start a new session, and try to reverse the subject/object relationship.

Instead of you anticipating the future you, let the future you remember the current you doing the anticipation. After doing this at least a few times in different sessions, repeat the same series but directed toward the past. Remember what you were doing exactly one day ago. Then let the remembered you anticipate the current you.

Most likely, the remembered you of a day ago was not actually anticipating you doing this experiment here and now. But that is no problem. Just as you can let a rock look at you, without having to give the rock a pair of eyes, so you can reverse the felt relationship between remembering subject and the remembered object, in terms of a reversal of the subject-object structure; similarly the future you does not have to, and probably will not, actually remember the current you.

After gaining some fluency with these temporal subject/object reversals, you can experiment with much shorter and longer intervals. You can remember objects in places far away in both space and time. You can even let all of the past anticipate you and all of the future remember you.


Time is mysterious. Space is already mysterious, but time even more so. Both are essential in our life. They themselves are not things but they are necessary conditions for things to appear. In that sense, they are more potential than actual. Yet, when you walk into a room, and size up the amount of space there, you are dealing with what feels like an actual property of the room.

We have learned to define the properties of space, for example by systematically describing the distances between different points in space, distances that can be measured by rulers or the time it takes for light rays to travel and come back. Mathematically, this means that we can measure the components of the Riemannian curvature tensor, in a particular coordinate system. It was by using such a formalism that Einstein was able to construct his general theory of relativity.

Mathematicians have designed a wide variety of spaces, many of them far different from metric spaces. Recently, for example, noncommutative spaces have been introduced that don't look anything at all like classical spaces, but rather reflect quantum mechanical uncertainty relations. Most likely, even more interesting spaces will be introduced in the future.

Yet, for all these fascinating constructs, there is still the question of what space is, and what it means for space to exist, and what existence means apart from objects that exist in space. Somehow, giving formal mathematical answers to these questions doesn't quite solve the deeply felt philosophical questions about existence.


What do we know about time? We can map all events in our past, present and future into a four-dimensional spacetime structure, but when we do that, there is no longer any significant distinction between today or tomorrow or yesterday: all times have received equal footing.

Yet the lived present for us is altogether different from the way we experience the past or the future. The past is gone, and is only accessible through memories. The future is not yet, and the best we can do is extrapolate. Neither of them carry anything like the vibrant sense of reality that the present has for us.

Even so, without any memories of the past and without any knowledge of the future, the present would be totally meaningless for us. The felt reality of the present is rooted in the whole past-present-future structure, although this tiny sliver called present seems to be where all the action is, as far as we are concerned.

No matter how accurately we can measure space and time, we may still wonder what they are, and whether we have really understood them well enough. Perhaps a story can better convey these puzzles.

No Space

Let us imagine a culture that only has an understanding of space, and lacks the concept of time. And to go even further, let us imagine a visitor who even lacks the concept of space.

To make it into a story, imagine a valley surrounded by high hills, populated by our space tribe. One day, a visitor manages to make the treacherous trek over the mountains that lie to the West. After learning the language of the valley tribe, he is surprised by their notion of space. He has great difficulty understanding what it means.

Is it a fluid, something like air, or something even more ethereal? Is it a type of subtle substance, filling everything? Sure, he understands the concepts of separation, of distance, of height and width and volume. All of those notions are quite empirical, since each one can be measured. But what is this abstract notion of there being a non-physical space, something you cannot hold in your hand, you cannot put in your pocket, you cannot measure as such?

After a while, our space tribe begins to understand the bewilderment of their visitor. Yet they may still find it impossible to convey what the concept of space really is. Instead, they may realize that their own understanding of space was merely tacit, and surprisingly lacking in rigor and logic! Most importantly, the encounter with the stranger from the West has prepared them for a far more puzzling encounter.

No Time

Some day, another visitor appears, this time from across the even higher mountain peaks to the East. This intrepid visitor is also invited cordially to settle among the peace-loving space people. She too learns their language, and she has no trouble with the meaning of the word space. But what she has trouble with is the apparent lack of another word, equally natural in her own language as space. Finally she realizes that not only her word for `time' does not translate into the language of the space folks, but that the accompanying concept is not even there.

She starts explaining what time is. But soon she runs into a brick wall of misunderstanding. It sounds to the space people that she is describing a second type of space. Something else that also fills everything, something that is everywhere present, something you cannot step out of. The space people wonder for a moment whether she is talking about a subtle ethereal fluid, the image that came to mind to the visitor from the West when he heard about space. When the visitor for the East declares that time is neither a fluid, nor an alternative version of space, they are quite baffled.

Sure, they know about duration and motion and birth and death. But since they don't have a concept for time, how to link time to those more concrete phenomena? Duration can be measured, and birth and death take place right there in front of your eyes. But what about time, and what about the abstract notion of taking place? What takes place is visible, but the taking place of the what itself is already more abstract, and not separately visible. And the time that allows the taking place of the what that takes place is even more remote.

When the space people point to a rolling ball, and ask whether that is an expression of time, they are encouraged by the affirmative answer of their visitor from the East. But when they then conclude that a rock that is just sitting there has no time, or at least less time, they hear that they got it wrong all over again. What a puzzle!


When we conduct the various variants of experiment 1.6, we will encounter time in a number of fresh and different ways, perhaps even different from any previous experiences you may have had of time. So the story above may apply to some extent to you too: it may seem as if you are traveling to strange lands.

On the one hand, the situation with doing these experiments is just the opposite of what happened to the visitors in the story. There they were surprised by the lack of a normal concept, or the presence of an alien concept. In our case, we may be surprised by the presence of experiences that are unexpected, for which we don't have labels.

On the other hand, dealing with a lack of labels and the groping in the dark that comes with trying to get to grips with a situation is what connects the story with the experiments. What is most important in writing lab notes for these experiments is to trace carefully when and how you are beginning to notice aspects in your experience for which you don't have proper labels.

It will be interesting to try to come up with new labels, at least tentatively. Already the choice of names for each label will capture some of what might have seemed impossible at first to convey into writing. This will help in noticing new types of experience and then in distinguishing them.


Without giving away too many clues, it is safe to say that you will be surprised by how different these time-oriented subject-object reversals are from the space-oriented subject-object reversals. And reversal with respect to the future will in turn be distinctly different from reversal with respect to the past.

And then again, letting a future you look at the present you over a span of time of one day will be very different from that of 10 minutes; or that of 5 seconds. Similarly, directing your attention at another person or object in the past or in the future will again be quite different.

After sufficient practice with more limited experimentation, you can gradually add more objects and even all objects from a certain time. After remembering the year 1900 and everything that happened in it, how about letting the year 1900 anticipate your presence, here and now?

Finally, you can let all of the past anticipate you, and all of the future remember you. And for good measure, you can add the present as well, letting everything currently present look at you, hear you, imagine you, whatever is appropriate.

No Endpoint

We seem to have reached a type of endpoint in our subject-object reversal experiments. What more can we do than letting all objects in space and time take on a subject role while we take on an object role with respect to them?

We can do a lot more. There are always more degrees of freedom that we haven't explored yet, and that we can discover with a little more exploration. The easiest way to generate new degrees of freedom is by specialization: focusing on one particular aspect of a previous experimental situation.

For example, watching a brown chair, you can focus on the brownness of the chair. And then you can reverse it: instead of the chair looking at you, you can let the color of the chair look at you, in the case of a brown chair, the brown color. You can spend some time looking around, from where you are sitting right now, while letting all the colors around you watch you. You will quickly notice that this is again distinctly different from other experiments you have already done.

Or before you fall asleep, you can play with different ways to relate to the cushion under your head. You can let the cushion feel you. Or you can let the softness of the cushion feel you. Or you can let the fabric on top of the cushion feel you, or the texture of the fabric. The possibilities are endless.

Forward to next page

Back to previous page

Return to title page