Existence in time and space

Copyright 2016 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at http://avancier.website. Last updated 26/03/2017 12:08


This paper explores what it means for ideas to exist in time and space, and whether they can exist outside of it.


Existence in time and space. 1

The transience of “persistent” things. 2

Persistent entities as side effects of processes. 2

Where are concepts in time and space?. 3

Are there universal truths – independent of time and space?. 4

Conclusion. 4

Footnote 1: Q&A with respect to system theory. 5

Footnote 2: after thoughts on measurement 6


Existence in time and space

What does it mean for something to exist?

Physicists consider our world to be embedded in a four-dimensional space-time continuum.

The straightforward view is that if something exists, then it is located in space, for a period of time.


E.g. You exist in time and space.

The words on this page exist in time and space.

The gravitational force holding you down exists; it can be measured at a time in a place.


You can conceive of imaginary things like flying elephants.

The concept exists in time and space, even though the there is no reality.


Both abstract systems and concrete systems also exist in time and space.

An abstract system description is an idea that imposes a structure on the ever-unfolding processes of the universe.

A concrete system is realization in physical matter and/or energy of an abstract system description (for a while).

Abstract system description

“Solar system”

The score of a symphony

Concrete system realisation

Planets orbiting the sun

A performance producing sound waves.

The transience of “persistent” things

Heraclitus of Ephesus was a Greek philosopher known for his doctrine of change being central to the universe.

Plato quoted him as saying “Everything changes and nothing stands still.


In the world as we see it, stuff happens and stuff exists, but not forever.

The persistence of things is an illusion - caused by the shortness of our attention span.

What we see or touch appears to be a persistent object.

By the time the structure of that object has changed, we are looking at something else.


To any short-lived actor, a longer-lived structure (rock, tree, piano) appears stable and persistent.

But all the things we perceive are bounded in time as well as space.

Relatively transient things (hurricanes, smells and orchestral concerts) come to an end swiftly.

Relatively persistent things (rocks, trees and pianos) reach their end more slowly.


Suppose you could watch the world on fast forward, in a film that compresses time?

A bird would look like a very short process from egg to death.

A seed would grow into a tree that then falls, rots and becomes incorporated in the bodies of grubs.

A fish would grow from an egg to death, become a skeleton, be compressed into a limestone rock and then dissolved by rain.


Look at the universe:

·         at an instant – you see a static structure in one state - objects you can assign to structural types – no process.

·         over a period of time - some objects change, and some seemingly static types (caterpillar and butterfly) now look like the states of a single entity.

·         over eternity - all apparently persistent objects now appear as the transient states of processes; they appear and disappear in an instant.

Persistent entities as side effects of processes

“The universe having started in a hugely complex big bang event – and being now complex enough to sustain information processing will probably end in a simple state called the big freeze….A related scenario is heat death: the universe goes to a state of maximum entropy in which everything is evenly distributed, and there are no gradients - which are needed to sustain information processing, one form of which is life." (Wikipedia).


The sun was created by processes that happened eons ago.

A rose bush is shaped by processes that take it from seed to decay.

A motor car is shaped by processes running from manufacture through operation, maintenance and decay to the scrap yard.

All stuff that exists is created, shaped and destroyed by stuff that happens.


The universe is a continually unfolding process in which stuff exists as a transient product or side effect of stuff happening.

Both kinds of stuff (what exists and what happens) can be described in mental and documented models

And we can remember a description long after the thing described has finished or been destroyed.


Systems are entities that repeat behaviors (for a while) in the ever unfolding process of the universe

Natural physical systems (e.g. the solar system, a hurricane) evolve continually.

Natural biological systems (plants and animals) evolve in discrete steps, by sexual reproduction.

A designed system also evolves in discrete steps, by design.


What would it mean for time to stop or run in reverse?

It would mean all processes would stop, or run from end to start.

So perhaps time does run backwards, but our lives in that direction are an unlearning process in which mental models are destroyed and forgotten?

In other words, the arrow of time is merely a side effect of the process by which we create and remember mental models?

Where are concepts in time and space?

Concrete things are usually considered to be material rather mental, physical rather than logical, real rather than abstract. 

Clearly, a concrete thing can be located in time and space.


What about abstract ideas or concepts like colour, beauty, hunger and fear?

As soon as you perceive or record such a concept, it exists in time and space.

You encode it in the physical matter/energy of your mind, perhaps also in speech and writing

You can later decode these concepts from whatever matter/energy they were encoded in.


Some philosophers argue that concepts exist outside of time and space.

Classical realist philosophers say things and descriptions of them exist, regardless of any describer, their beliefs, language, perceptions or mental models.

And general properties like colour, beauty, hunger and fear also exist outside of time and space.


Suppose all life and records of it were destroyed.

Would colour, beauty, hunger or fear still exist? Would any Beethoven’ symphony still exist?

The “scientific idealist” view is that if a concept cannot be found in time and space, then it does not exist.

Before conceivers there was no concept; before symbolisers there was no symbol.

And an idea cannot exist unless it is encoded in at least one mental or other physical model.

Are there universal truths – independent of time and space?

Most people can be convinced that colour, beauty, hunger and fear did not exist before living organisms sensed them.

But some then ask: surely there are more universal truths, such as the laws of physics?


Consider Newton’s law: Force = Mass * Acceleration.

This law clearly exists now in memories and in communications.

But did it exist as a universal truth before it was conceived, remembered and communicated?


The law passed all tests for centuries, and was considered to 100% true.

But was then falsified by Einstein; so it turns out the law is only an approximation.

And history is a succession of theories now known not to be fully true.

Ptolemy > Copernicus > Kepler or Galileo > Newton > Einstein.


If we say Newton’s inaccurate law exists, then more dramatically inaccurate laws (Force = Mass / Acceleration) also exist.

The difference is this and only this: Newton’s law is a description of reality that is near enough true to be useful.

Why are some ideas rediscovered and shared so widely they appear to be universal?

Because they model reality well enough to be useful, and evolution favours ideas that are useful.


What abut the laws of logic that define rules followed in forming descriptive propositions?

Do have we any reason to think the laws of logic are more universal than the laws of physics?

Do they exist independently of the language they are expressed in and applied to?


Realist philosophers say realities have descriptions, which describers can discover.

Idealist philosophers say describers create descriptions to help them deal with realities.

Our scientific idealism separates describers, descriptions and described realities.


Scientific Idealism Triangle


<create and use>              <idealise>

Describers     <observe and envisage>       Realities


Note that most realities are more complex and multi-faceted than any description of them.

And that a particular reality may not exactly fit a description applied to it.

Outside of mathematics and computing, fuzzy matching of realities to descriptions is the norm.

The 9 propositions of scientific idealisation are set out later.


It isn’t obvious what “exists” means.

The straightforward view is that what exists is located in space, for a period of time.

Taking this view, what exists includes all ideas that have been encoded in mental and documented descriptions.


Does an idea exist before it is conceived and encoded or recorded in a description of some kind?

Does an idea exist after all physical describers and records of it have disappeared from the universe?

If you say yes, then does every idea (good and bad, true and false, sane and crazy) exist?

If only selected ideas (say 100% true ideas) are universal, then how do you know which ideas count?


Is there any practical use in proposing that every idea exists forever and/or everywhere?

Or that only mysteriously selected “universal” ideas exists forever and/or everywhere?

Surely we do better to apply Occam’s razor and cut out the notion of timeless and/or ubiquitous concepts?


More useful questions you might ask about what you perceive to be a thing may include:

In space: Where has it been? Where is it now?  Where is to going to be?

In time: When was it created? When does it change? When will it be destroyed?

And are the answers accurate enough to help us to do something?

Footnote 1: Q&A with respect to system theory

M: Is everything that exists located in the space-time continuum?


G: All potentially describable things (rocks, smells, colour sensations and songs) appear in time and space.

Is there a potentially describable thing that can be said to exist outside of time and space?


M: Surely most would feel Beethoven’s 9th symphony exists without reference to a particular performance or manuscript?


G: It didn’t exist before Beethoven completed it.

And if every copy of the symphony score (in memories and manuscripts) were destroyed, it would no longer exist.

The chances of it being re-created by another composer are effectively zero.


M: Consider the concept of a flying elephant, does it exist?


G: There is no physical flying elephant, but the concept of is encoded in your mind and in this email.


M: We don't know what or where the mind is do we?   


G: We do know the mind is in the brain, or at least in the body, which is to locate it accurately enough for the purposes of this discussion.

(See the paper “Mental models and how the brain works”.)


M:  You speak of ideas existing in the same ways as physical materials. Can’t people limit their meaning of “exists” to physical materials?


G: I am saying an idea cannot exist unless it is encoded in at least one mental or other physical model.

However, the meaning of “existence” isn’t my primary concern.

It is rather that systems thinkers need to distinguish systems of repeated behaviors from ever-unfolding processes.

And distinguish systems description (theories) from operational systems (realities), and test how well the latter conform to the former.

Because the lack of these distinctions and testability undermines much so-called “system thinking”.


M: Since Berkeley, philosophers have struggled to reconcile common sense with their philosophies. 


G: These papers call the philosophy of system theorists “Scientific idealism”.

Scientific idealism

System descriptions

<create and use>                <idealise>

System describers   <observe and envisage>  Real systems


M: Are you saying "What matters is what works...not the philosophical debate. 

So let's choose a language and definitions that facilitates the focus on what works."


G: I am saying Scientific idealism is the philosophy that best fits practical system design methods.

It fits common sense; it helps to clarify system theory and its application in practical system design.

Footnote 2: after thoughts on measurement

For most quantum physicists, a thing [a particular] does not have a property [a universal] until you conceive or measure it.

The measures of time and space we were taught in primary school are accurate enough for us to manage everyday realities.

Our mathematical models of time and space are now refined enough to land a tiny machine (Philae lander) on a small comet (67P/CG) millions of miles from earth.


Time and space measurements are constructs of the mind:

·         Describers <create and use> space dimension measures <idealise dimensions of> body shapes.

·         Describers <create and use> time dimension measures <idealise the progression of> changes in things.


Time measures include:

·         The hands on a watch face - idealise energy released by the uncoiling of a spring.

·         A digital time display - idealises changes in the energy levels of electrons in atoms.

·         The rings remaining on candle -  idealise the burning of wax.



·         Watch makers <create and use> watch dimension measures <idealise the dimensions of> watch cases.

·         Watch makers <create and use> watch movement descriptions <idealise the progression of> watch movements.



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