RELATIVITY PROVES THAT TIME AND SPACE ARE EMPTY OF INHERENT EXISTENCE
A scientific analysis of Einstein’s theory of relativity proves that time and space are empty of inherent existence, in accordance with the Madhyamika philosophy of Buddhism. This is an inevitable conclusion that can be demonstrated, purely by simple logic, to be true. The proof stems from the realisation that relativity exists only because our science is actually a science of our conscious experience.
(See also the related article on relativity: Why Relativity Exists, and the related article on Madhyamika philosophy: A Direct Experiential Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics)
Madhyamika Philosophy and Emptiness
According to the Madhyamika philosophy of Buddhism, all things are empty of inherent existence. This statement does not mean that all things are totally nonexistent; it does mean, however, that all things are dependently arisen and hence do not exist independently on their own right. It means that all
phenomena exist only in dependence upon causes and conditions, in dependence upon their parts, and, in particular, in dependence upon the mind that imputes their respective labels (i.e. their names) upon them.
Madhyamika philosophy forms the cornerstone of Tibetan Buddhism, and is a profound philosophy that has been extant for more than a thousand years. It is important to realize that Madhyamika philosophy is not a belief system based on blind faith. It is an actual philosophy grounded on deep logical analysis
and intellectual debate, and is based on the philosophical expositions found in the texts of Buddhist saints like Nagarjuna, Candrakirti, Aryadeva, Shantideva, Tsongkhapa, and others.
While it is important to explore and study the deep philosophical teachings of these Buddhist masters, the aim of this paper is the simpler task of showing how Einstein’s theory of relativity confirms that even time and space are empty of inherent existence, and hence only exist in dependence upon the mind that labels them. Here, this proof will be provided purely from a logical scientific analysis of the theory of relativity.
Einstein’s Second Postulate of Relativity
The basis for the proof that time and space are empty of inherent existence stems from what is known as Einstein’s second postulate of relativity, and that is the postulate that the speed of light is constant relative to all inertial frames of reference. What this means is that we will always measure the speed
of light relative to us as 300,000 kilometers per second no matter how fast or in which direction we ourselves are travelling. (For a more detailed account of how relativity originated, see Why Relativity Exists.)
The second postulate of relativity is something very counterintuitive because it means that a light ray will always run away from us at the same relative speed regardless of how fast we chase after it. Even if we move in the opposite direction from the light ray, it is still found to be travelling away from
us at the same speed of 300,000 kilometers per second. So what happens if there are two observers, and one chases after the light ray and the other observer runs away, in the opposite direction, from the same light ray? It turns out that both observers will still measure this same light ray to be moving away from each of them at the same speed. This defies common sense, but it has, nonetheless, been experimentally verified to be true!
Einstein’s theory of relativity explains how this strange phenomenon can be possible. Essentially the theory of relativity states that our time and space distort, depending on our state of motion, just so that the speed of light will always be measured as constant. These distortions in time and space can be
extremely complicated and involves time slowing down, space contracting, and even simultaneity becoming relative. This last effect means that while one observer sees event A occurring before event B, another observer may see event B occurring before event A.
The remarkable thing is that, no matter how complicated or bizarre these distortions of time and space are, they are all nonetheless perfectly engineered so that the speed of light is always measured as constant. It is like a giant conspiracy designed to fool us into thinking that light has this unique property of always travelling at 300,000 kilometers per second.
Why nature should indulge in this kind of conspiracy was never explained by Einstein. He considered the second postulate of relativity as a given law of the universe that cannot be explained. Einstein accepted it as a fundamental law of physics, and proceeded to derive all the complicated distortions of
time and space as a consequence of it. A century of close scientific scrutiny has now confirmed that all these distortions of time and space do indeed occur, as Einstein calculated.
The Second Postulate of Relativity is Not a Fundamental Law
Remarkably, there is actually an explanation for this second postulate of relativity. It is not a fundamental law of physics at all, but is a phenomenon that has a simple underlying explanation. And in this explanation resides the proof that both time and space are empty of inherent existence.
It is important to realize that this explanation for Einstein’s second postulate, concerning the constancy of the speed of light, contains no speculative elements whatsoever. The explanation is based purely on a simple logical analysis that is actually inevitable. In other words, it is a conclusion that cannot be avoided because it is something that can be proved, by simple logic, every step of the way, to be true.
The explanation for the second postulate of relativity is simply this: the constancy of the speed of light is a consequence of how we, humans, have defined
time and space according to how we experience the universe. This means that our science is actually a science of what we experience, and not a science of a universe “out there” that is independent of us as observers. It means that, as a consequence of how we experience the universe, we have literally defined the speed of light as constant relative to us.
Some Scientific Facts About Light and Human Physiology
In order to understand this explanation for Einstein’s postulate fully, we need to first understand the nature of light, and also how our human body functions. Basically, we need to understand that light is an electromagnetic wave and that the speed of light is the rate of electromagnetic transmission; and we need to understand that the rate at which our body functions also depends on this same rate of electromagnetic transmission.
First, we need to understand that all chemical bonds and chemical reactions are mediated by electromagnetism. Chemical reactions are reactions between atoms—specifically, between the charged particles that are found in the atoms, namely, electrons and protons. All charged particles exert a force on other
charged particles, and this electrical force falls under the category of force known as “electromagnetic force.” (Note that this term “electromagnetic force” is used because electricity and magnetism are intrinsically linked, and are so considered as merely different aspects of the same category of
force.) Since chemical bonds and chemical reactions involve the forces between the electrons and protons found in atoms, we say that chemical bonds and chemical reactions are mediated by electromagnetism.
Now, let us look at the term “electromagnetic transmission.” First, we need to understand that the force one charged particle exerts on another charged particle depends on the distance between them, as well as their relative position to one another. This means that when a charged particle moves, the force
it exerts on another charged particle will change. However, this change in the force is not felt immediately by the other charged particle. The change has to be first transmitted to reach the other particle; and the rate that this change is transmitted is the rate of electromagnetic transmission, which is actually the speed of light.
In proper physics terms, this process is described as the transmission of a disturbance in the electric field. An electric field is a kind of force field, a region where an electric charge would experience a force. We cannot see the field directly, but if we place a charge in that region, the charge would
experience a force. We say that an electric charge is surrounded by an electric field, because if we place another charge in this region, it would experience a force. (A magnetic field is similar; and electric and magnetic fields are linked to one another.)
Light is essentially caused by a disturbance in the electric and magnetic fields. When we accelerate an electric charge back and forth, the electric and magnetic fields are disturbed. This disturbance is transmitted through these fields, the same way a disturbance on the water surface is transmitted along
the surface of the water. The speed of light is essentially the speed of this transmission of the disturbance in electric and magnetic fields. And because the disturbance is rhythmic like a water wave, we say that light is an electromagnetic wave.
Now, let us look at how nerve cells function in our body. A nerve cell communicates with another nerve cell through the propagation of electrical impulses along the axon of the cell that connects it to this other nerve cell. The electrical impulse is caused by the movement of charged particles (mainly sodium
and potassium ions) along the axon of the nerve cell. The movement of these charged particles result in changes to the force they exert on other charged particles, and that is how the electrical impulse proceeds. In other words, the movement of charged particles disturbs the electric field, and this
disturbance is transmitted to other charged particles (which enables the electrical impulse to continue along the axon by causing further movement of
ions). The rate at which this disturbance in the electric field is transmitted is the rate of electromagnetic transmission, which is again the speed of light. That is why the rate at which our nerve cells function depends on the speed of light.
Naturally, the rate at which our nerve cells function also determines the rate at which our brains function. And the rate at which our brains function determines that rate at which we think. This means that the rate at which we think is also dependent on the rate of electromagnetic transmission, which is the speed of light. This same consideration can be applied to all the cells and all the organs of our body. That is why the rate of electromagnetic transmission, which is the speed of light, determines the rate at which our body functions.
Why the Speed of Light is Constant
We are now ready to understand the underlying reason for Einstein’s second postulate of relativity. In other words, we should now be able to understand why we always perceive the speed of light to be constant. It is actually because the rate our body (including our brain) functions depends on the speed of light.
We are essentially trapped inside the system, like the characters inside a video movie. If someone slows down the video, all the characters inside the video—as well as everything else there—slows down equally. The characters’ movements, and even their rate of thinking, slow down proportionally in line
with everything else. It is therefore not possible for these characters inside the video to notice any difference in the speed of the video itself. They would not notice any change at all, simply because they are trapped inside the system and cannot escape it to view it from the outside.
As another example, suppose, in trying to measure the expansion of an iron rod being heated inside an oven, we use an iron ruler that is also inside the oven. We will detect no expansion at all, because the iron ruler expands by the same proportion as the rod. This iron ruler is thus incapable of detecting a change because it is also inside the system and equally affected by it.
Likewise, we cannot measure any change in the speed of light because we are also “trapped inside the system.” And we are trapped because the speed of light also determines the rate at which our body functions. If the speed of electromagnetic transmission slows down, we ourselves—our actions and our thoughts—
slow down by the same amount, so we cannot detect any change. That is why we always perceive the speed of light to be constant, and that is the reason for Einstein’s second postulate of relativity. It is not a fundamental law of nature at all; it is merely a consequence of how our body functions!
Why Time and Space are Empty of Inherent Existence
Now let us look at what the theory of relativity tells us about time and space. Both time and space are found to distort, in a very complicated manner, depending on the state of motion of the observer. This distortion in time and space is also precisely engineered just so that the observer will always
measure the speed of light to be constant. Is it not evident then that it is actually the speed of light that is the more fundamental entity? The speed of light is invariant while time and space have to change to accommodate this invariance. And does this also not tell us that it is actually time and space that are the derived entities?
We now have a very good explanation why this is indeed the case. The explanation comes from the fact that the speed of light is directly proportional to the rate at which our body, as well as our brain, functions. This means that if we use our conscious experience as the standard on which to base the
measurement of other conceptual entities (like time and space), we will have to use the speed of light as our standard. That is why the speed of light is effectively the more fundamental entity. And this means that, by defining our time in accordance with the rate at which we experience the universe, we will also have defined time using the speed of light as the standard. Hence, time is actually derived from the speed of light.
Our space is also defined by how we experience the universe. The space that we experience is what is demarcated by solid-state matter that is stationary relative to us. All our buildings, and all our rulers, that demarcate our space, are solid-state matter at rest relative to us. And since solid-state
matter is composed of atoms that are bound together via electromagnetic interactions, it can be shown that our space is also dependent on the rate of electromagnetic transmission between these atoms, which is the speed of light. [Details of this derivation of space via electromagnetic transmission can be found in the author’s paper entitled “Time and Space.”]
Time and space are therefore not fundamental entities at all; they are merely imputed phenomena that reflect our conscious experience. That is why time and space are empty of inherent existence. There is no actual time and no actual space that exist “out there” on their own right, independent of us as observers. Time and space are merely entities that are imputed by the conscious mind that gives them these labels of “time” and “space.” Without the conscious observer, it does not even make sense to be talking in terms of time and space!
A Closer Look at the Emptiness of Time and Space
Understanding the emptiness of time may be difficult because of our ingrained idea of a pervasive time. We have been taught this concept since childhood, making it difficult to think in a different way. The following consideration, however, may help change our habitual way of thinking about time:
Note first that there is indeed a temporal sequence to events that happen to us. For example, you open a door before you walk through it. So one event does occur before the other. If your friend opens another door at another place before walking through this other door, he also experiences a temporal sequence
concerning himself. The big question is whether or not there is a pervasive time that connects the two separate events of you and your friend opening a door, even though you are both at different places.
In other words, is there a pervasive time that connects these separate events happening to separate observers? We have been taught since childhood that there is such a pervasive time. Relativity, however, seriously undermines such an assumption. In Einstein’s theory of relativity, simultaneity is relative.
This means that while one moving observer sees you opening your door before your friend opens his door, another moving observer may see your friend opening his door before you open your door. There is thus no inherently-existing connection between these separate events, that is independent of the observer.
Some physicists may argue, however, that there is such a pervasive time, only that it is different for different inertial frames of reference. Einstein certainly seemed to have put it this way. He even provided mathematical equations (the Lorentz Transformation Equations) to link the different pervasive
times of different inertial frames of reference. There is, however, a serious limitation here: The mathematical equations only link reference frames that
are inertial. “Inertial” means that these reference frames must be at constant velocity and cannot be accelerating. Defining the link between pervasive times in accelerating frames of reference would be extremely problematic (See my paper “Time and Space” for mathematical details concerning this).
Even if we ignore this problem of accelerating observers, there is nonetheless still a problem with the concept of a pervasive time. This problem is as follows: According to relativity, observers moving in different ways will experience a different time. Now, let us push this scientific fact to its logical
limit. Imagine yourself at the computer, moving your fingers on the keyboard, and also tapping your feet in rhythm to music. Relativity tells us that your head (which is not moving) is now experiencing a different time from your fingers (which are moving), and also that your feet (which are moving
differently) are experiencing yet another different time! So these different parts of your body are all experiencing different pervasive times. Which pervasive time actually applies then?
To make matters worse, since the molecules in our body are moving in different ways, all these different molecules are therefore experiencing different pervasive times! This means that we are functioning within millions of different pervasive times, which sounds ridiculous. What it really means is that a pervasive time does not inherently exist. It is only a concept invented by us.
Actually, we have arbitrarily defined our time only in the reference frame stationary to our surroundings. This is convenient because we do not move in our surroundings at high speed (comparable to the speed of light), so the different times experienced by the different parts of our body only differ very
slightly and does not affect our overall rough experience in a significant way. Nonetheless, scientifically, these different times (as experienced by the different parts of our body) are different, and that is why it is illogical to consider all these times to be inherently-existing on their own right.
The same consideration applies to space. According to relativity, every different inertial frame of reference experiences a different space. So all the molecules that are moving in different ways are existing in their own different space! Again, this sounds ridiculous, but what it really means is that a pervasive space does not inherently exist.
A pervasive space is merely a concept invented by us in a way that roughly reflects our experience. We have arbitrarily defined our space as that entity demarcated by solid-state matter at rest in our surroundings. Notice we do not use moving rulers to mark our space—we need to keep our rulers stationary
when we measure distance. Nonetheless, scientifically, each part of our body that is moving actually requires a ruler, moving the same way as it is, to demarcate its space. That is why they each have their own pervasive space, and there may be millions of different types of pervasive space corresponding to each of the molecules that are moving differently!
The only logical conclusion to all of this is that time and space are actually empty of inherent existence. They are arbitrary concepts invented by us in a way that roughly reflects our experience. Time and space only exist in dependence upon the mind that imputes them, and hence do not exist independently on their own right. That is why, in the absence of us as observers, it does not even make sense to talk in terms of time and space.
The Central Role of the Conscious Mind in Science
Now, since time and space are considered fundamental entities of physics, it means that our science is actually a science of our experience, and not a science that is independent of us as observers. Thus, a science that ignores the role of the conscious mind—or relegates it to that of a secondary, and
hence unimportant, phenomenon—is actually an incomplete science. If our science is a science of our conscious experience, it has to seriously take into account the central role of mind and consciousness.
The mind and what it perceives cannot be separated. They come together; this is one aspect of non-duality. In the words of Nagarjuna [from “The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way” (Mulamadhyamakakarika)]:
“Without detachment from vision there is no seer.
Nor is there a seer detached from it.
If there is no seer
How can there be seeing or the seen?”
This is a teaching on emptiness. Neither the seer nor the seen exist independently on their own right. They are dependently arisen and hence are empty of inherent existence from their own side. The theory of relativity confirms this truth with regards to time and space. Relativity proves that time and space do not exist independent of the observer, but are simply aspects of our conscious experience.
That is why our science is a science of what we experience; and not a science of a universe independent of us as conscious observers. Scientists must acknowledge this, and take into account the central role of the conscious mind. Otherwise, we will be like the prisoners in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, who mistakenly believe that the shadows they perceive on the wall is the sum total of reality.
A longer exposition on this understanding of the theory of relativity can be found in the author’s article “Why Relativity Exists.”
A more mathematical explanation of how time and space are derived from our conscious experience can be found in the author’s paper “Time and Space” [This paper was published in the book Thinking on the Edge (Agamemnon Press, 1993) after it was approved for publication by the physics consultant for the book,
Professor Kip S Thorne (Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology), who is a world authority on General Relativity. Professor Thorne has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics.