Time, Space and Knowledge - Cover 



Herbert V. Gunther


'Space', 'time', and 'knowledge' are familiar words which yet, in this order, tend to become increasingly elusive as to what they mean. In common parlance 'space' is identified with continuous extension, viewed either as emptiness or as a container of things, be they tiny specks of dust or clusters of galaxies or even the universe as a whole. 'Time' is vaguely interpreted as a passage from past to future or as a medium within which events point in that direction, so that we speak of a flux or flow of time or of our awareness carried along in and through time. But this interpretation contains too many contradictions to serve any useful purpose. 'Knowledge' fares even worse; it may refer to familiarity gained by experience; to a person's range of information; to theoretical or practical understanding; and, if a person is philosophically minded, to that which is not opinion. This fine distinction between knowledge and opinion, however, at once poses a very real threat to customary familiarity, because our familiarity with things may be nothing more than opinion which knowledge is supposed to combat and to overcome. What if the victory is but another opinion in disguise? Certainly, we have to break loose from the fetters of such familiar properties as 'endurance', 'size', and 'position' which we encounter in the things of the universe and in ourselves. Somehow these properties seem to be the fabric of the universe (as opposed to the subjective limbo of so-called secondary qualities) and in considering them in this way we have made them abstract, independent of the things whose properties they are. True, we have got ourselves out of the familiar, but we have chained ourselves to the abstract or, as one liked to term this new fetter, the absolute (with or without capital letter):

There is not the slightest difference whether one is fettered by a chain of gold or a rope of straw.

This is a bold and devastating statement, but while it destroys cherished notions it also asks us to scrutinize our ideas all the time. The emphasis is on 'all the time', assuming that we already know what 'time' means. History shows that despite the continuous effort of refining our concepts we have not been cautious all the time and have often merely replaced the straw by gold.

Until not too long ago space was thought to be absolute, involving a hierarchy of positions with the earth and man at the center of the universe. Improved observation led to the first casualty. The earth was no longer the center and, to add to the discomfiture, the 'things' which were seen to move in and through space, turned out to be 'places' similar to the one which was inhabited by man. What consequences this was to have for the cherished centrality of man is only now dawning upon us. 

Despite the mishap into which our beloved earth fell, the idea of absolute space continued. Newton proposed that space was a substance with independent existence (which is plain English for 'absolute'), and it was through this sort of space that material bodies and radiation moved. But substance suggests a kind of medium, even if it is claimed to be invisible. This ubiquitous and hypothetical medium, called ether — a kind of fluid filling all of space which, in its glorious absoluteness, was deemed to be at rest — has never been found. Apart from the illogicalness of this assumption of something filling something else — which entails the need for the notion of 'size' (while there is nothing to compare absolute space with) — its absence caused another casualty. Newtonian physics was dealt a severe blow from which it was unable to recover. Its picture of space, and incidentally of time also, had to be abandoned (outside of its narrow range of applicability) when Albert Einstein proposed his special theory of relativity, which explicitly denies the existence of any fixed point of any absolute space.

Modern scientists now view space along with matter as constituted of many structural levels. It has the properties of continuity, dimensionality, connectedness, and orientability, known as topological features. In addition, it has other mathematical features, as exemplified by various coordinate systems such as Cartesian, cylindrical, spherical, polar. There is almost no limit to our ability to construct mathematical spaces with properties different from those which we believe 'real' space has. Some of these (mathematical) spaces with metric properties such as distance and angularity were already explored by the ancient Greek geometers, and their findings were formalized in the axioms and theorems of Euclid. Up to the time of the formulation of the special theory of relativity it was widely believed that the universe was a metric space obeying the rules of Euclidian geometry. Actually this belief was merely the continuation of a flat earth and of small scale surfaces for which Euclidean geometry alone is valid. Today only a few die-hard fanatics believe in the exclusiveness of Euclidian geometry. Many scientists now think that space is curved and that its surface may be spherical (positive curvature) or saddle-like (negative curvature).

The fate which befell our notion of space as some sort of unlimited and static container, a three-dimensional enclosed stage for every visible happening, did not spare our notion of time, although it was and is fundamentally different from that of space. If space is, or was assumed to be, 'at rest', time has always been pictured as an ever forward rushing stream. This stream has been linked indissolubly with 'things which happen'. But on further analysis these things turned out to be but point-instants or events. Thus time (and what is carried along by it) is in effect 'substantialized' and promptly taken as an absolute. This was clearly articulated by Newton when he introduced time as a parameter into the laws of physics and was forced to emphasize its uniformity and universality (absoluteness) and to work out the precision of its forward flow. His concept of time relied heavily on the notion of the simultaneity of two separated events. But today we know that simultaneity is not an absolute property possessed by the events but a consequence of the manner in which these events are observed. Simultaneity, therefore, is relative and Newton's absolute time is as meaningless as his absolute space. There is, therefore, no reason why we should not rid ourselves of the shackles of absolutes. But in doing so let us beware of putting on new shackles — are golden ones any better than straw ones, except for appearing more elegant?

A corollary of the notion of time as an onward rushing stream was the assumption of a moving present moment, quickly absolutized into a 'now', which was steadily transported from the past to the future. However, the meaning of 'past' and 'future' is determined not merely at the surface (psychological) level but also, more significantly, at a deeper (ontological) level. In between the 'no more' and the 'not yet', we may say, lies the eternally present and equally eternally absent 'time zone' called 'now'. Both levels of psychology and ontology are excluded from the mathematician's and physicist's description of space, time, and space-time. The mathematician's description of time is very similar to that of space; space and time are but aspects of a single structure called 'space-time'. In the physicist's description of the universe the moving universal 'now' is not only totally absent, but there is no provision made for a flowing time and, by implication, for a moving 'now'.

The notions of space and time, so characteristic of our experience of ourselves and of our world, seem to have been learned by building up reflexes and operations to demarcate various 'objects', one of which is the 'subject' himself, who is at once so different from the rest of the world and yet thoroughly embedded in it. Therefore, however spectacular the development or overthrow of these notions has been, it has occurred at the level of what may be termed the end phase of a long process or at the surface of an as yet largely unexplored ocean with literally unknown depths. The reluctance of admitting 'mind' or 'experience' or 'intelligence' — all elusive concepts — into the realm of the 'hard' sciences is understandable, but it must be pointed out that the more the hard sciences shut themselves off from their source and restrict themselves to 'pure facts', the greater are the chances that unbridled speculations and silly superstitions which were supposed to have been banished, will emerge again — a curious way in which new fetters (shall we call them plutonium ones?) are forged.

This above-mentioned reluctance, which so often amounts to an undisguised hostility, is mainly due to the general haziness of such terms as 'mind', 'knowledge', 'experience', 'consciousness', 'spirit', and their synonyms, which are often used quite indiscriminately. The theories which deal with what is referred to by these terms are commonly divided into two groups: dualism of mind and body on the one hand, and reductive monism with its subdivisions of reductive materialism and pan-psychism on the other. Their outstanding weakness is that they come up with answers before having asked any questions.

The ambiguity of the word 'experience' can be interpreted as pointing in the direction either of absolute objectivity (a road followed by reductive naturalism) or of absolute subjectivity (pursued by deductive idealism). The one conceals the subject, the other conceals the object; common to both is the bogus dichotomy of subject and object. But 'experience' antedates the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity, between interior and exterior, because it is neither a subject nor an object and has neither an interior nor an exterior. As a matter of fact, experience is not a thing, and the interiority of a constituting subject or transcendental ego, as well as the exteriority of a constituted object, are latecomers. The transcendental ego is a postulate — as are absolute space and time — and it has only a limited application in myopic representational thinking, as has Euclidian geometry for small-scale surfaces. Experience which defies any reductionism and therefore cannot be equated with a transcendental epistemological source (the ego of transcendental philosophies) or with a metaphysical ground (the soul-substance assumption of metaphysics), is nevertheless the source of interpretative notions among which 'space' and 'time' turn out to be 'horizon forms' of experience itself. Here 'space' is orientability with no fixed center, and 'time' a retentional-protentional structure with the 'now' its unifying operation. The distinguishing qualities of 'the presence of a subject' and 'the presence of an object' are results of later (thematic) construction. Although experience is pervasively present as 'horizon forms' which are playfully imposed boundaries, experience (as continuous source) never exhausts itself.

Experience carries with it the connotation of knowledge which, it must be emphasized, is basic to, if not synonymous with, all life (as we 'know' it). It is also the manner in which it manifests, that is, spatializes and temporalizes itself. In being a process, rather than a static entity, knowledge is always in danger of becoming divided against itself by taking its intentional operations concretely and — even before it glides off into the rigidity of a subject — 'here' and an object — 'there' — setting up a counterfeit image of itself which actually is the source of any duality. Still, this counterfeit image is knowledge, but it is neither commanding insight nor 'Great Knowledge'. It varies with the mood of 'time', being fashion-like, and therefore its time is not 'Great Time'. The scope ('space') it sets itself is a limitation and therefore not 'Great Space'. As a matter of fact, from the vantage point of this 'lower' knowledge, space and time are but 'pieces', 'things apart' which are laboriously woven into a space-time fabric. But this unification remains unstable and is seriously threatened by new information.

It must not be assumed that in differentiating between 'lower knowledge' which is inevitably found to be limited as well as restrictive, and 'Great Knowledge' which has a liberating effect because it defies any attempt to restrict or reduce it to the banalities of opinion, we are dealing with irreconcilable properties or 'things' between which there lies an unbridgeable gulf. 'Great Knowledge' encompasses 'lower knowledge' and can therefore 'see' (and most important, laugh at) its limitations, while 'lower knowledge' can do nothing of this sort.

So, to use figurative language, 'Great Knowledge' plays the game of blind-man's bluff with itself. But there is nothing to prevent it from tearing off its blindfold and from proceeding knowingly. Or, we may say, 'lower knowledge' is like impaired (myopic) vision, while 'Great Knowledge' is full (normal) vision — a seeing without seeing 'things'. This, of course, is paradoxical language which is quite unintelligible to the literalist who, for that very reason, has nothing to laugh at and misses out on the richness that is Being as the interweaving dynamics of space, time, and knowledge.

The transition from 'lower knowledge' to 'Great Knowledge' does not entail a new theory about knowledge and its manifestations — which are not so much happenings but Being as knowledge, space, and time, forever there but never as a thing. Neither does this transition constitute a new epistemological model. It is the restoration of vision which as such neither denies nor absolutizes.

This, then, is the purpose of this book — to restore vision, and the graded exercises it offers are a therapeutic means to this effect. The thoughtful reader will be deeply grateful to Tarthang Tulku for challenging him to think and to vision again.



— A dynamic expression of the meaning and value

of being human.


The world we live in appears in space, unfolds in time, and makes itself available through knowledge. Time, Space, and Knowledge evokes direct insight into the broader dimensions of these most fundamental aspects of existence. Visionary, analytical, and theoretical, this book offers a path-breaking synthesis of philosophic, scientific, and psychological approaches to reality.

First published in 1977, Time, Space, and Knowledge has become a modern classic. Readers throughout the world have discovered that it offers a significant breakthrough in liberating our perspectives on knowledge and human possibilities. Educators have explored its depth in more than 100 college and university classes, and its implications for a wide range of disciplines has been treated in doctoral dissertations and in three volumes of essays. It is currently available in six languages.

In response to readers' requests for further investigations into the multidimensional facets of the TSK vision, Tarthang Tulku has written five additional works: Love of Knowledge, Knowledge of Time and Space, Visions of Knowledge, Dynamics of Time and Space, and recently, Sacred Dimensions of Time and Space.


Dharma Publishing