Eddington 1927: Are Space and Time Infinite?

This paper presents Chapter IV (section 6) from the book THE NATURE OF THE PHYSICAL WORLD by A. S. EDDINGTON. The contents of this book are based on the lectures that Eddington delivered at the University of Edinburgh in January to March 1927.

The paragraphs of original material are accompanied by brief comments in color, based on the present understanding.  Feedback on these comments is appreciated.

The heading below links to the original materials.


Are Space and Time Infinite?

I suppose that everyone has at some time plagued his imagination with the question, Is there an end to space? If space comes to an end, what is beyond the end? On the other hand the idea that there is no end, but space beyond space for ever, is inconceivable. And so the imagination is tossed to and fro in a dilemma. Prior to the relativity theory the orthodox view was that space is infinite. No one can conceive infinite space; we had to be content to admit in the physical world an inconceivable conception —disquieting but not necessarily illogical. Einstein’s theory now offers a way out of the dilemma. Is space infinite, or does it come to an end? Neither. Space is finite but it has no end; “finite but unbounded” is the usual phrase.

Infinite space cannot be conceived by anybody; finite but unbounded space is difficult to conceive but not impossible. I shall not expect you to conceive it; but you can try. Think first of a circle; or, rather, not the circle, but the line forming its circumference. This is a finite but endless line. Next think of a sphere—the surface of a sphere—that also is a region which is finite but unbounded. The surface of this earth never comes to a boundary; there is always some country beyond the point you have reached; all the same there is not an infinite amount of room on the earth. Now go one dimension more; circle, sphere—the next thing. Got that? Now for the real difficulty. Keep a tight hold of the skin of this hypersphere and imagine that the inside is not there at all—that the skin exists without the inside. That is finite but unbounded space.

Space does not exist by itself. It exists only as the extension characteristic of substance. Space does not exist beyond substance. The question, “What is beyond space?” becomes, “What is beyond substance?” The obvious answer is, “no-substance” or “emptiness”. The concept of “finite but unbounded space” does not answer the question, “What is beyond space?”

No; I don’t think you have quite kept hold of the conception. You overbalanced just at the end. It was not the adding of one more dimension that was the real difficulty; it was the final taking away of a dimension that did it. I will tell you what is stopping you. You are using a conception of space which must have originated many million years ago and has become rather firmly embedded in human thought. But the space of physics ought not to be dominated by this creation of the dawning mind of an enterprising ape. Space is not necessarily like this conception; it is like— whatever we find from experiment it is like. Now the features of space which we discover by experiment are extensions, i.e. lengths and distances. So space is like a network of distances. Distances are linkages whose intrinsic nature is inscrutable; we do not deny the inscrutability when we apply measure numbers to them —2 yards, 5 miles, etc.—as a kind of code distinction. We cannot predict out of our inner consciousness the laws by which code-numbers are distributed among the different linkages of the network, any more than we can predict how the code-numbers for electromagnetic force are distributed. Both are a matter for experiment.

If we go a very long way to a point A in one direction through the universe and a very long way to a point B in the opposite direction, it is believed that between A and B there exists a linkage of the kind indicated by a very small code-number; in other words these points reached by travelling vast distances in opposite directions would be found experimentally to be close together. Why not? This happens when we travel east and west on the earth. It is true that our traditional inflexible conception of space refuses to admit it; but there was once a traditional conception of the earth which refused to admit circumnavigation. In our approach to the conception of spherical space the difficult part was to destroy the inside of the hypersphere leaving only its three-dimensional surface existing. I do not think that is so difficult when we conceive space as a network of distances. The network over the surface constitutes a self-supporting system of linkage which can be contemplated without reference to extraneous linkages. We can knock away the constructional scaffolding which helped us to approach the conception of this kind of network of distances without endangering the conception.

The argument given by Eddington is, “Space is like a network of distances. Distances are linkages whose intrinsic nature is inscrutable,” simply makes the question, “What is beyond space?” unanswerable. If the nature of distances is inscrutable, then space as a network of distances shall be inscrutable too.

We must realise that a scheme of distribution of inscrutable relations linking points to one another is not bound to follow any particular preconceived plan, so that there can be no obstacle to the acceptance of any scheme indicated by experiment.

We do not yet know what is the radius of spherical space; it must, of course, be exceedingly great compared with ordinary standards. On rather insecure evidence it has been estimated to be not many times greater than the distance of the furthest known nebulae. But the boundlessness has nothing to do with the bigness. Space is boundless by re-entrant form not by great extension. That which is is a shell floating in the infinitude of that which is not. We say with Hamlet, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space”.

Space is limited to this universe of substance. Beyond this universe there is no space. There is only EMPTINESS.

But the nightmare of infinity still arises in regard to time. The world is closed in its space dimensions like a sphere, but it is open at both ends in the time dimension. There is a bending round by which East ultimately becomes West, but no bending by which Before ultimately becomes After.

I am not sure that I am logical but I cannot feel the difficulty of an infinite future time very seriously. The difficulty about A.D. ∞ will not happen until we reach A.D. ∞, and presumably in order to reach A.D. ∞ the difficulty must first have been surmounted. It should also be noted that according to the second law of thermodynamics the whole universe will reach thermodynamical equilibrium at a not infinitely remote date in the future. Time’s arrow will then be lost altogether and the whole conception of progress towards a future fades away.

But the difficulty of an infinite past is appalling. It is inconceivable that we are the heirs of an infinite time of preparation; it is not less inconceivable that there was once a moment with no moment preceding it.

This dilemma of the beginning of time would worry us more were it not shut out by another overwhelming difficulty lying between us and the infinite past. We have been studying the running-down of the universe; if our views are right, somewhere between the beginning of time and the present day we must place the winding up of the universe.

Time does not exist by itself either. It exists only as the duration characteristic of substance. Therefore, Time is also limited to the universe of substance. It does not exist beyond this universe in emptiness. The units of time can be as small or as large as we may imagine. The past and future exist only from the localized, subjective viewpoint and not from the universal, objective viewpoint. The alternative to the concept of a beginning of the universe is a cyclic universe, which is just like the cycles the universe itself is made up of.

Travelling backwards into the past we find a world with more and more organisation. If there is no barrier to stop us earlier we must reach a moment when the energy of the world was wholly organised with none of the random element in it. It is impossible to go back any further under the present system of natural law. I do not think the phrase “wholly organised” begs the question. The organisation, we are concerned with is exactly definable, and there is a limit at which it becomes perfect. There is not an infinite series of states of higher and still higher organisation; nor, I think, is the limit one which is ultimately approached more and more slowly. Complete organisation does not tend to be more immune from loss than incomplete organisation.

There is no doubt that the scheme of physics as it has stood for the last three-quarters of a century postulates a date at which either the entities of the universe were created in a state of high organisation, or preexisting entities were endowed with that organisation which they have been squandering ever since. Moreover, this organisation is admittedly the antithesis of chance. It is something which could not occur fortuitously.

Actually, contrary to the opinion above, observation tells us that the universe has been evolving toward greater organization as time moves forward. The major evolutionary steps have been as follows.

  1. From electromagnetic energy to matter
  2. From matter to animation
  3. From animation to life
  4. From life to thought

This has long been used as an argument against a too aggressive materialism. It has been quoted as scientific proof of the intervention of the Creator at a time not infinitely remote from to-day. But I am not advocating that we drew any hasty conclusions from it. Scientists and theologians alike must regard as somewhat crude the naive theological doctrine which (suitably disguised) is at present to be found in every textbook of thermodynamics, namely that some billions of years ago God wound up the material universe and has left it to chance ever since. This should be regarded as the working-hypothesis of thermodynamics rather than its declaration of faith. It is one of those conclusions from which we can see no logical escape—only it suffers from the drawback that it is incredible. As a scientist I simply do not believe that the present order of things started off with a bang; unscientifically I feel equally unwilling to accept the implied discontinuity in the divine nature. But I can make no suggestion to evade the deadlock.

The naïve theological doctrines take the place of the fundamental laws of the universe that are unknown to science.

Turning again to the other end of time, there is one school of thought which finds very repugnant the idea of a wearing out of the world. This school is attracted by various theories of rejuvenescence. Its mascot is the Phoenix. Stars grow cold and die out. May not two dead stars collide, and be turned by the energy of the shock into fiery vapour from which a new sun—with planets and with life—is born? This theory very prevalent in the last century is no longer contemplated seriously by astronomers. There is evidence that the present stars at any rate are products of one evolutionary process which swept across primordial matter and caused it to aggregate; they were not formed individually by haphazard collisions having no particular time connection with one another. But the Phoenix complex is still active. Matter, we believe, is gradually destroyed and its energy set free in radiation. Is there no counter-process by which radiation collects in space, evolves into electrons and protons, and begins star-building all over again? This is pure speculation and there is not much to be said on one side or the other as to its truth. But I would mildly criticise the mental outlook which wishes it to be true. However much we eliminate the minor extravagances of Nature, we do not by these theories stop the inexorable running-down of the world by loss of organisation and increase of the random element. Whoever wishes for a universe which can continue indefinitely in activity must lead a crusade against the second law of thermodynamics; the possibility of re-formation of matter from radiation is not crucial and we can await conclusions with some indifference.

In my opinion the second law of thermodynamics does not advocate a running-down of the universe. Instead it supports increasing equilibrium of the universe.

At present we can see no way in which an attack on the second law of thermodynamics could possibly succeed, and I confess that personally I have no great desire that it should succeed in averting the final running-down of the universe. I am no Phoenix worshipper. This is a topic on which science is silent, and all that one can say is prejudice. But since prejudice in favour of a never-ending cycle of rebirth of matter and worlds is often vocal, I may perhaps give voice to the opposite prejudice. I would feel more content that the universe should accomplish some great scheme of evolution and, having achieved whatever may be achieved, lapse back into chaotic changelessness, than that its purpose should be banalised by continual repetition. I am an Evolutionist, not a Multiplicationist. It seems rather stupid to keep doing the same thing over and over again.


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