What the Hell Does Plato Know? (Space II)

October 7, 2013


In Timeus, Plato, using the voice of Socrates (or So-crates, for all my Bill & Ted buddies out there) turns his questions toward the nature of space. Plato believes that, so long as you have a conceptual starting point, you can discover new information about anything. His foundation comes at [50b-c] where Plato defines all that exists as:

(i) that which comes to be,
(ii) that in which it comes to be, and
(iii) that after which the thing coming to be is modeled, and which is its source.

The first one (i) is matter, the stuff we and our senses interact with everyday. Things like the chair I’m sitting on and these pretzels I’m eating – which are making me thirsty, by the way. The second (ii) that in which it comes to be is space. It’s everything between what that matter we are so familiar with. As Plato says, “Everything that exists must of necessity be somewhere, in some place and occupying some space” [52b] The third (iii) is the infamous realm of Platonic forms. Forms are Plato’s are the conceptual ideal of all that is. A perfect equilateral pyramid may never be built by clumsy human hands, but we have the ideal concept of what it what it would look like. We can conceive of it through pure thought. Forms are a whole other blog series (or book).

On this blog we’re interested in space. Plato is fully aware of the complexity of trying to define space. He sees it as something we look at as in a dream. Plato starts by developing three questions to guide his way. The fist is, what is space? Is it material as in a container holding all things or is it some strange immaterial structure. Plato speaks of space as acquiring properties similar to matter. It is available for elements to make their impression upon while never taking on any characteristic of the objects which enter it. For Plato space seems to be pure matter that carries copies of objects without absorbing their traits. But, far from certain, he still calls it “a thing extremely difficult to comprehend” [51b].

Plato’s second question is how can we come to find out anything about this invisible, elusive, yet all pervading thing? If space something that cannot be learned about via pure reason (as the forms can) or empirical evidence (physical object), but can only be apprehended by a sort of intuitive “bastard reasoning” [52b], how can we hope to find anything out about it?

Plato’s last question involves the interaction of space and material objects. He wants to know how space and matter interact with one another. It is obvious that objects lie in space, but what else does the relationship entail? Plato reasons that space and the elements all react with one another and affect each other.

You can see that even though he lived two and a half thousand years ago, Plato set the stage for modern physics. He did so by dividing the concept of space into three elemental questions: the metaphysical which asks what kind of a thing is space; the epistemological, how can we come to know anything about space; and the physical, how do space and matter interact? All three of these must be explored to discover anything about the relation of place, motion, inertia, and the relation of space and matter. Natural philosophers! Crack your knuckles and fire up your neural transmitters! I think we just boarded the Wonka boat. It’s gonna be a weird ride.


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