The Impossibility of Asking “What Is Empty Space?”

Two issues that make Newton’s physics and laws controversial are the problem of light and speed. How does light move through empty space? Let’s think about empty space first. What is empty space like? Or, what is it devoid of? What is light and how can light move through empty space? Why do we say “through”, implying an inside? What is inside and outside empty space? Let’s think about it for a while. This is a very thorny issue. Philosophy, science, and even theology encounter the issue of vacuum or empty space, and are unable to provide a solution. What is empty space? “What” is it? The moment you ask “what”, you imply a substance. According to Aristotle, you are still referring to a substance; you are referring to something that exists. The “what” question refers to existence. If this is the case, can you really say “What is empty space?” By doing so, we would be assigning the quality of being to empty space. See, we have failed to conceptualize empty space; we have the words, but we have failed to conceptualize it. So, what is nothingness, where nothing exists? Moreover, we have something that moves through it. Whether it moves in the form of particles or waves is a secondary concern. Something will move through it, be it particles or waves. Where does it move? “In a place.” We are asking, “Where?” On the one hand, we have something called space, and on the other, the maximum existing, objective speed. What is it? Light. Where does this light go in space? What is space? Emptiness, nothingness, non-being. What is light? Of all things that exist, it is a point of reference in terms of speed and existence. It can only exist at its own speed. Not at any other speed. Here lie the main issues; these are the points that we should pay attention to, focus our conceptual efforts on, and then move forward and have our consciousness achieve qualitative change in disciplines of thought. This is not accumulating and learning scientific data; that is the task of science. Accumulated knowledge does not change us or move us forward in a philosophical sense, in the sense of philosophical cognition. On the contrary, we should question these things in the field of science so that it can make progress on the basis of reliable, if not absolute, knowledge. This is a field that philosophy questions. How does light move through space? One answer to the question “how” here could be “in the form of waves and particles”. This is not what I am asking. How does it diffuse? What is space, what is light, and how does it diffuse in empty space? Let us ponder that for a while.

To understand a phenomenon, we have to conceptualize it. This is what we pay attention to in terms of philosophy. Conceptualizing does not simply mean assigning a word to it. For example, in the proposition “Space is darkness,” darkness is simply an allegory. It is a word selected to denote non-being. Being, on the other hand, is symbolized by light. Being and non-being are two basic concepts. This stuff is easy in metaphysics. We associate them with symbols such as darkness or day and light, and can comment on them as much as we like. The problem is that we run into problems when we think of this in physical reality. What is space, one wonders. Now, please indulge me and think about space. Would you think of day or night? You cannot think, because during the day, you have a blue sky, a view that misleads us. Space cannot actually be blue, right? What is the color of space? The color of space is black. You look at it at night, and you see a black sky. Now, if space has a color, then it must be a being. It is black, yes, but it is a being; you could even argue that it is a real being because it is black. Why? Because that would mean it absorbs all radiation and keeps them. Real being; in the sense of absorbing all energy. Alright, but this is how we perceive it. What is it that we perceive? Is there something called “space” out there that we can perceive? Or, are we being mistaken? As we perceive radiation from stars at different distances, are we mistakenly perceiving the empty space between them as black? Do we perceive it as black because of perception differences regarding environments with less and more light? Are we hopeless? Light and empty space. Can you really think about that?  Can you focus your attention to it? Has any of you seen space? Where does that word come from? According to the linguist and philosopher Wittgenstein, “Every concept denotes a phenomenon.” Because every concept denotes a phenomenon, people are the sum of their concepts that reflect phenomena. Concepts form our world, we do not have any other world. “Space,” however, is a concept of physics. You don’t perceive it as a metaphysical concept; space is a concept of physics. We know that findings in physics are based on experiment and observation, right? If so, has anyone seen space? Or conducted experiments on space? Can anyone really say they have experimented on, observed, or perceived space? Is that possible? We also say “We are going to space, they went to space.”

Understanding That We Don’t Know and Cannot Think

Thinking and comprehending are important because we say we “know” things when we repeat these words. In fact, we don’t know anything; we are condemning ourselves to not knowing. This is why I am discussing these concepts. These are concepts that we use every day: space, place, location, time… If we try to comprehend what they signify, what is place? If we were to think in three dimensions, at a minimum, it denotes a field or a volume between two things. You have a plane between a minimum of two things; between three things, we have a triangle. This is the reason why triangle is a basic concept in philosophical disciplines. We need three reference points to best comprehend the concept of place. “Place” is a part of space that has a minimum of three reference points. We have assigned the quality of being to space, found a part of it, and called it a “place.” What is space? Are these the same kind? I am not sure if this makes sense. To say one thing is part of another thing, they both have to be the same kind. If place is a part of space –the literature says it is– then what we call “space” is also a place. What is the difference? One’s existence has no bounds, and the other is bounded; this is the difference. In fact, space is a concept that is very different from the concepts of place or location. When we look at the night sky, what we see is a place, but everyone keeps saying “They went to space and returned.” “Space” is the widest concept, but in everyday usage, people refer to a place or location when they say space.

The references we look at are references for light. We have a perception regarding the fields of stars, their situations, and distances between them. This is a perception of place, not space. Now, “sensing space” and “perceiving space” are two different things; we have this problem of “how to perceive something you cannot sense”. Then, as a being that cannot be perceived, space is merely a concept, it is nothing but a word. This is how it is described in philosophy: “Space is the name we give to a concept that we choose as the most general reference when we are searching for a reference to our disciplined thinking.” Other than that, a being called “space” does not really exist. This is true for the word “being” as well! No one has ever seen, met, or observed space. There is no such thing, but we call it “space” anyway because we need a most general concept to serve as a reference for all our thoughts.

Is Transcendental God a Non-Comprehensible God?

We were discussing theological issues with someone, and he said he saw God, expecting me to be surprised because this is such a big claim. Saying “I saw God” means, in a theological context, “I call what I see a ‘God’.” In the depths of philosophical thinking, there is the idea of abstraction or incomparability. There is also a conceptualization among opponents who argue “Abstraction leads to specification, and thus to idolatry.” For example, the famous thinker Hegel said “Muslims are idolaters.” He assumed Islam had a “transcendental God,” which shows his lack of knowledge regarding Islam. In saying this, Hegel had a conceptual perspective, reasoning that Muslims were thinking transcendentally when they thought about God. More properly, this transcendentalism meant they were unable to think; they abstracted God to such an extent –saying God is incomparable to this, incomparable to that, and so forth– that if something is abstract to such an extent, it means you have not really thought about it at all. In this context, he argued Muslims were idolaters, and an understanding of God that could not be arrived at conceptually, in thought, would have to be sought in nature. In other words, they would seek to encounter God, mistakenly assume that what they saw was ‘God,’ and thus become idolaters. Then, of course, we have a perplexing claim: Hegel argues that Christians alone are able to reach the pinnacle of an understanding of God. This claim by Hegel is understandable if we think about communities who have a purely formal understanding of religion. According to Hegel, if people turn the concept of God into an unthinkable form through extreme abstraction, then they seek objects that will remind them of God, of that idea. At this point, it turns into idolatry in the form of specific places, holy persons, or holy objects.

You cannot see any of that in Sufism (tasawwuf). Sufism is beyond all that. There was something Hegel failed to understand: Islamic thinking does not consist solely of abstraction, but it consists of tawhid, which is the unity of abstraction (tanzih) and comparison (tashbih). Tanzih is abstraction, in the sense of negation: It is not this, not that, nor that, and so forth. However, this is not a simple game. The power of abstraction is the supreme intellectual power. Civilizations cannot rise without the power of abstraction. When you consider civilizations in history, they have all risen to the extent of their power of abstraction. Science makes progress though abstraction, so does art, so does politics, so do social sciences, and most of all, so does philosophy. The power of abstraction is the human intellect at its most functional. Tashbih, on the other hand, is the power of specifying what one encounters. Tashbih means specifying, limiting, or assigning boundaries to something. You cannot define something without limiting or drawing boundaries. Specifying means defining. Defining means being able to point to the boundaries of something.

The Difference between the Topics of Philosophy and the Subject Matter of Philosophy

When we fail to conceptualize the words we use, we may lose the ability to think even though we may believe we are thinking. This is why I use philosophy. There is no art phenomenon not backed up by philosophy. There is no scientific finding or invention not backed up by a philosophical paradigm. There is no faith not backed up by philosophical imagination. Philosophy, in fact, is a religion. Don’t be fooled by the topics of philosophy. “Topics” of philosophy and “the subject matter of philosophy” are two different things. You may be misled when you hear the word “philosophy”: Aristotle said this, Plato said that… This is the gossip of philosophy.

This applies to science as well. A list of all scientific content gives us the materials of science. That is to say, the material of science is not science. Science is when those materials are combined with the method of using them. Without the method, all we have is accumulated knowledge, which is not science itself but the elements or contents of science. What creates meaning is the manner in which they are connected to one another, also known as the scientific method. This is what conceptualization and philosophy deal with, creating a concept. This is why I chose the concept of “space” today. Space, vacuum and emptiness are all similar concepts. So are the concepts of “nirvana” in the Far East, and “non-being” in Anatolia. Now, as we think about this, as we select the word “space” and try to conceptualize it, we need to find a reference for it, or compare it to something so that we can comprehend. To what extent can we compare? What sort of a reference do we have? What can we compare “space” to in order to comprehend it?


Comparing means qualifying, bringing into existence by ascribing attributes. It is Aristotle’s idea that substance and accidents together form knowledge or a concept. According to Aristotle, substance is nothing without accidents. Necessary syntheses of accidents predicate and define the substance. Could space be something like this? When we attempt to define it, the attributes we assign become the concept of space. In the beginning, it was a mere word because we had not tested, observed, or witnessed it. We had simply thought about it. What was the basis of our thinking? What is our problem? We don’t have a problem with space. We have a problem with place; we know about gaps, distances, or the relative situations of objects. We would like to abstract from them and think about an empty space devoid of them all, but can we? The sky that we see is a place, not the space. We have some lights at night, and our perception of what is between these lights leads us to a certain understanding. We associate those lights, and form an idea of a place or location in our minds. But we do not comprehend space. Now, close your eyes, and the perception continues. This is despite the fact that this was a perception in the ordinary sense of the term, a visual perception created by light; that perception continues even when you close your eyes, you continue to think, you have awareness. You can also direct your attention, but you cannot create attention. More properly, an unintentional attention emerges. In terms of comparison, your perception of space may be similar to the perception you have when your eyes are closed. A perception without perceptual data. It doesn’t have an image either. The perception is not only not objective, it doesn’t have an image either, because you cannot imagine it. It is pure darkness.

To make a joke, we can experience this by closing our eyes. For example, I am looking to my right, whatever that means! If you take yourself as a spatial reference, you can look to your right. There is not right or left in that darkness. I say “Look to your right,” and he does; I say “Look up,” and he does, which means it is not space. Why? Because it has a right, a left, an up and a down. In other words, it is limited. It is not the comprehension, image, or concept of a perception, internal perception or lack of perception; you cannot limit it, it is limitless. Because you yourself are the reference, turning it into an image, a perception, or a concept takes place in the background. You draw a limit of limitlessness to your left, right, up, and down. You do not, in fact, perceive a limitation, you cannot see any limits in the dark, you cannot see a limit when you look to your right, but you create a limit inside your mind in the form of left, right, up, and down. Thus, you arrive at a place inside your mind as well as outside, and there is no perception, image, or concept of space.

Space is inside everything but space itself is nothing. What is this? Do we have a reference that can help us conceptualize? This is what an attempt at conceptualization looks like. Now, at this point, the debate is about the movement of light through space. What does that mean? How does it diffuse? We have a lot of accumulated knowledge about particles, waves, and electromagnetic fields, but when we think about these three concepts and ask “What is empty space? What is light? What is diffusion?” and try to understand how that works, what path can we take? What is empty space? How can we comprehend an empty space when it has light inside? Inside. There is something we cannot comprehend, we do not know, and we call it the “inside.” It has an inside, and light moves through it. It doesn’t have an above, it doesn’t have an outside. This is why we say “through empty space,” it moves through empty space. This is the most accurate expression. Alright, but what does that mean? When we say “through empty space,” we turn empty space into a place, a location, a field. Through empty space… Like saying in the bag, at home, or at school. We assign a place quality to it through our language, but does that really say us anything about its substance? Let’s think about it. The Earth and the Solar System are in motion. Where? We are asking “In what?” Not “Outside what?” See, we are using a word to limit our thought. When our thinking starts from a certain limit, if generates a feeling –I call it a feeling– that all our understanding has a solid foundation. In fact, there is no solid foundation; on the contrary, there is a lack of foundation. What is empty space like? Can we ever comprehend empty space? It cannot be perceived. Can we imagine it, then? The moment we say “perception” or “imagination,” we are already referring to a limit. We are talking about something limited and finite. How are we to comprehend the finite and the infinite, then? How are we to comprehend place and space? It would be meaningless to delve into the concepts of the theory without first thinking about this problem, this is why I insist on talking about these issues. So that we can focus our thinking and contemplation.

The Necessity of Creating Ether for a Universe Devoid of a Physical Foundation

James Clerk Maxwell

“As research continued into the movement of light, Maxwell combined electrical and magnetic events in a unified theory. One deduction from this theory was that there must be electrons moving at the speed of light in empty space. This development lent further support to the view that light was a form of wave. However, how could light with the characteristic of a wave diffuse through an empty medium?” Herein lies the problem. Maxwell demonstrated electromagnetic unity. By demonstrating electromagnetic unity, which was arguably the single most important development in physics, Maxwell laid the foundation for physics in the subsequent period. However, how did light, which was both a wave and a particle, diffuse in empty space? What did “empty medium” mean? The only solution they could find was to argue for the presence of an invisible matter that was present everywhere. This was seen as the only possible solution. Let’s postulate a medium, a medium that fills all universe. What is universe? Have you noticed what we are talking about? We were talking about physics, and now we are talking about universe. There can be no such thing as a “universe” for physics! “Universe” cannot be a concept of physics. Universe may become a concept of physics only when it is thought of as cosmos, in the sense of an order or harmony. It is fine as cosmos or order, but other than that, it cannot be a concept of physics. Yet, at the very outset, physics begins by saying “Laws of the universe, which apply universally…” We are starting from a foundation that is not part of physics; we are building our thinking regarding physics on a non-physical foundation.

The only solution was to postulate that light, which was both a wave and a particle –which, of course, is still problematic depending on the experimental setup– diffused through an invisible and omnipresent matter, which had to fill up all universe. Now, what do we mean by that? What are we saying, really? An invisible and transparent medium that fills the entire universe had to exist, and as it would be argued later, it also had to be frictionless, weightless, and flexible. And that was called “ether”. Then, Einstein said “There is no such thing as ether.” Regardless of whether it exists or not, the need for the concept of ether, both at the time and today, arises from the following question: What accompanies the movement or the motion of light or anything else through space? If there is nothing that accompanies it, then we have empty space. On the other hand, would this questioning ever come to an end, in a metaphysical sense? If there is something accompanying, can’t we also ask “If something is accompanying another thing, where are the two of them?” We can ask this question. How does that work? If the question concerns a collection of imaginary thoughts, is it the limits of our thinking or of the universe? In the context of physics, this question is within the limits of our scientific knowledge. What difference could there be between saying “Light diffuses through space” and “Light diffuses through ether”?

Being Determined by the Opposite

If we keep thinking on the basis of the concepts we have used before, we think of its opposite when we say “empty space.” We have a definition for “filled space.” And we call the opposite of that “empty space.” We define “ether” in a very peculiar way: We use a negative definition instead of a positive one. Let me read the definition one more time: “An invisible, transparent, frictionless, weightless, and flexible medium that fills the entire universe.” This means ether is something more than a simple word; it is conceptual because it has a definition, but if you are paying attention, you can see that all the terms in the definition are negative. A negative definition is still a definition because it references its opposites. It is determined by the things it negates and refuses. Frictionless, transparent, permeable, weightless… These mean that we are referencing weight and friction. Our references are positive, but we use them in a negative design. This is a very interesting subject in philosophy; if you start thinking by negating things, this means you are identifying what exists. This entire negative definition ends up affirming the presence of what we reference. We are in fact affirming friction, affirming weight, affirming flexibility, and affirming transparency, and saying that “All these things explain the movement of light.” The word “ether” represents all of these.

We are creating a system of references. The concepts we need to perceive light, such as transparency, permeability, and diffusion –we could make this list longer to include reflection and refraction, among others– come up because we are thinking of a medium. Those references are kept separate and among positive references because we think light can only move through a permeable medium and be limited by reflection. Transparency is negative in the sense that light can disregard the matter that is present in that medium. Now, this appears to be an absurd thought. We think, “How is that possible? Light is said to move through ether, which is something very transparent, like glass. This is absurd, doesn’t make any sense.” X-rays make what they reflect visible. For example, they make certain dense tissues and bone tissue visible, and render other tissues invisible; those other tissues are transparent to the X-rays. What about gamma rays? They show only lead blocks. Assume we are looking at the universe under gamma lights. Assume we have special lenses, put them on, and look at our surroundings under gamma rays instead of luxons. The only thing we see would be lead blocks. If someone were then to ask us “What is universe?”, how would we respond? If we perceived things only under gamma rays and did not perceive any other reflection, our world would consist of those lead blocks, their shapes and types, and the relationships between them, and nothing else.

Is a Reference System Based on Our Senses is Sufficient to Generate Knowledge?

We know that the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye is very limited. With such a limited vision, what can we turn into knowledge? What is knowledge within that limited field? What references does it make? I am not saying “Our knowledge is so insufficient, we are such poor beings.” On the contrary! I am saying we are very consistent, there are many things we don’t know, and we know what we know, which is an important strength. But I am also asking these questions: If, by “knowledge,” we mean knowledge solely based on perception, or if we think of knowledge on the basis of a reference system based on our senses, how much would we limit ourselves? What would be the quality of the concepts we thus produce? Are there any other methods? Can we search for other methods in physics, in philosophy, or in other fields? When we start creating a concept of “space” on the basis of our senses, we arrive at a concept that negates our sensations. We disregard our sensations. We can only talk about absence and emptiness by disregarding the radiation band that we see. In other words, by disregarding things that we can never perceive – we are not creating absence. What we claim to be “absent” is nothing but what we can perceive. So, what is the knowledge it references, and how reliable is it?

Using various devices to measure what we cannot perceive is called detection. Detection and perception are two different things. Just because we detect the effect of something on some device, it doesn’t mean we are able to perceive it. By thinking about things that we detect, we include them in our world; they become part of our world through thought, and are assigned to the field of rational science. Because they do not become part of our knowledge through perception, they are not included in our psychic field; they are only included in rational processes. I am not saying this is a deficiency or a mistake. The point I am trying to make is this: We construct a dual universe, one that we think of and imagine, and another that we perceive, and then we try to combine them. This is a problem of paradigms. On the one hand, we have paradigms of psychic processes that start with perception, and on the other, we have imaginary paradigms based on what we detect through thinking. We are faced with the problem of connecting the rational and the empirical. This conceptual problem cannot be constructed without a philosophical background. If you keep questioning, you realize that the universe of Newtonian physics and the universe of Einsteinian physics differ on that point. Often, we only learn the results without questioning them. How did these problems emerge? What do we mean when we say “Einstein’s universe and Newton’s universe”? We memorized the results. We encounter weird phenomena such as “changes due to the speed of light, shrinking, and how, after a certain speed, the force we apply results in movement opposite to the direction of the force, as the object starts to move back because its mass increases.”

There is a conceptual, paradigmatic problem behind this. And this is not really a field that is based on experiment and observation, it is a purely conceptual field. This was how our discussion started, and I am coming back to the same point: When I say “space,” “empty space,” or “movement through empty space,” I am in fact talking about a purely conceptual universe, not a universe that I have perceived or detected. A universe that is formed by bringing together or associating pure concepts. This is abstraction or the power of abstraction. This is why they say “It is impossible to make progress in science or in arts without the power of abstraction.” There is a counter argument to be made, saying it is possible, but I tend to emphasize and agree with this view. This is our deficiency. As a society, we do not have the ability to abstract. We mistake disregard for abstraction. What we call “negation” is disregard. The ability to abstract requires, from the moment you attempt conceptual abstraction, reviewing all existing processes. Your power of abstraction grows to the extent you can obtain the knowledge of being. It is dialectical; they mutually determine one another.

Non-Abstract Thinking Cannot Arrive at the Idea of a Transcendent God

“Transcendent God” is the ability of abstraction of humans, of the human mind. Abstracting existing objects means discovering the connections among them, causal connections in particular, and expressing these with symbols, mathematics, and science. When you look at the idea of god in a society that can achieve this, you can see their ability of abstraction. Interestingly, you would also see that the ability of abstraction of a society influences civilization. I argue that Prophet Moses’ idea of god is yet to be superseded. It may be in the future, I don’t know. What is more, his successors failed to properly grasp his idea of god. He offers an idea of god with such a high level of abstraction that his conceptualization transforms reason into pure reason. We can talk about the “power of abstraction” when we think of the object of the idea of god as an object of thought, as a position to which the human consciousness elevates itself in connection with the object of that thought, a position of abstraction that the mind reaches.

Abstraction is one thing, and the ability that the mind gains after abstraction is another. I am talking about this ability. This is why, when you ask someone who is uneducated and doesn’t know how to use the power of abstraction to paint –whether the educated have this ability is another matter– they would paint the world they perceive. Try it and you will see. They would paint the world they perceive, some object they see. When the power of abstraction reaches that level, to the extent it can go beyond and abstract the visible world… This abstraction does not mean randomness or making the perceived world haphazard or complicated; on the contrary, it may mean expressing the world in a symbolic manner, or even in one, two, or three dimensions. Sometimes, a relationship between some smudges of color can represent an abstracted connection of your entire idea of world. The connection here is “internal connection.” The word “internal,” in the context of science, refers to cause and effect – not to causa finalis in the sense of end or purpose; that would be metaphysics. Sublation of an object means its abstraction. Can you do this in reality? Can you sublate an object? “I can take it and put it in my pocket.” I meant its existence!

If we base the existence of an object on energy, can we sublate it? With reference to perceptions, yes. When something is no longer perceived, does it mean we have eliminated the object? What does sublation mean in physics? In philosophy, it can mean many things. Sublating an object means transforming it. What is transformed is in fact what defines that object at the most basic level. Abstraction is something like this. What we call “abstraction” is an attempt to sublate a concept, an ideological bundle, or an idea of belief. This is not denial, negation, or disregard; this is an actual attempt to sublate it. It is a rational method. The moment you sublate it, you discover its foundation, the reason for its existence, its law. What affects a worldview, a philosophical view, an ideological or political view at the most basic level is the power of abstraction; societies that have individuals with strong powers of abstraction are able to establish dominance over civilization, that is to say, discover what is the most basic. Those who transform discover what is basic. Those who discover what is basic acquire the power to use it. Those who fail to discover have their minds under a form of tutelage.

* Based on the recordings of a series of speeches given by Metin Bobaroğlu between January and June, 1999, in the Faculty of Fine Arts of Marmara University on “Einstein’s Theory of Objective Relativity”. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.