This is a fairly popular optical illusion. In this version you probably see the chalice first, but if you look closely, you can also see two people looking at each other. The difference comes from a question of “ground”. Do you see this as a white image on a black background or a black image on a white background?
Let me suggest that something similar happens when we think about the universe. In the current age, we tend to thing of the universe as basically empty, with occasional objects. We have countless metaphors that might be useful, here. We speak of a blank screen, a blank slate, and a blank page. In art, we can think of the empty canvas waiting to be painted. We have been taught to think of an empty background, partially because it’s a terribly useful tool when reasoning. Clear away everything unnecessary so you can focus on what’s important. Better yet, start off with a blank slate and add one piece of the model at a time so that you can keep track of exactly what’s going on.
Particularly in laboratory science, we use this principle. In physics and chemistry and biology, we construct clean, sterile spaces in which to do our work. We tidy up and scrub down, package instruments in sterile wrapping and dress in pure white lab coats (so that we can see immediately if we spill something). Scientists value more than cleanliness, we value efficiency, parsimony, minimalism. It’s a philosophical principle (Ockham’s Razor), an aesthetic (elegance) and even a trope (http://xkcd.com/669/).
At the end of the day, it works. I’m even tempted to say it’s essential to modern science. (I’ll have to think about that for a while. Why? Because I want my definition of science to be as simple as possible.)
It also has some down sides. When introducing the concept of the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, I almost always hear this question from one of the students:
But, if the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into?
The idea of a blank slate easily translates to an idea that emptiness is the underlying reality. Everything must exist within a larger framework of space, as though God were painting reality onto a canvas. If the universe is getting bigger, it must be filling up more space in the fundamental nothingness.
This happens to be wrong – from the perspective of physics. The current model says that the universe isn’t expanding into anything. Instead, the set of things that exist are just getting farther away from each other. Think of two dots drawn on the surface of a balloon. As the balloon inflates, they get farther apart from each other because their 2-dimensional universe has expanded. There is now more area on the surface of the balloon than there used to be. We are told that the expansion of the universe is something like this – only in three dimensions. We are not growing into a larger 3D space.
Of course, the metaphor breaks down, because we still think of the 2D surface of the balloon expanding as the 3D interior of the balloon expands into a larger 3D space. There is no evidence that our 3D universe is expanding because of a 4D expansion. Things are simply getting farther apart.
Let me put that in a slightly different way. The stuff has always been there, we just think it takes longer to go between them than it used to. The relationships are essential, the space is changing.
I would call the common view of the universe TR (tabula rasa: Latin for blank slate). The TR perspective claims that space is the background and things are the foreground, the objects of interest. It goes a step farther, though. TR also implies that space is constant and fundamental to the universe while objects and relationships are incidental and temporary. (Technically, I would say extension is essential/substantial, while everything else is contingent/accidental.)
The view I’m proposing is a relational model (RM), and I think it applies just as much to theology as it does to science. We have called emptiness natural and in some way more real (less changing, more fundamental) than people, planets, stars, or even matter. True emptiness turns out to be hideously un-natural. Huge amounts of work go into creating those ultra-clean spaces the scientists use. We’ve never created a true vacuum in the sense of an absolutely empty space, and the closer we come, the more colossal the energy commitment necessary to pump out everything. “Nature abhors a vacuum.” It just doesn’t make sense to think of that as the primary state of the universe. Modern physics suggests that the earliest observable state was extremely dense – full of stuff.
At an emotion level TR gives us problems as well. We speak of the uncaring universe as though that was the natural state of affairs. We start separate and must enter into relationships. We think in terms of plays and novels where the characters (and the setting) must be introduced to us, but we forget the work that goes into making blank pages (to be written upon) and empty stages (to be strut upon). Life is much more jumbled up than that, with friendships and animosities begun years before our birth. We find meaninglessness and emptiness depressing, not because we long for some non-existent future, but because we recognize clearing a space is always a prelude to something more. We await the book, the play, the experiment even. We see emptiness as an opportunity.
Those who claim TR is all there is and ask us to expect no more are not making an appeal to observation or nature. We do not see vacuum all that often and we always expect it will come to an end. Space means nothing except the space between things. We will be happier, healthier, and more productive if we recognize this about ourselves. We live in relationship by our very existence, not as random individuals bouncing around in the vast emptiness. The attempt to isolate and abstract ourselves is the only aspect of existence that is truly futile.
Relationships form the background of existence. It is the space between us that changes.