Aristotle, Physics, Book IV


Part 6

The investigation of similar questions about the void, also, must be held to belong to the physicist--namely whether it exists or not, and how it exists or what it is-just as about place. The views taken of it involve arguments both for and against, in much the same sort of way. For those who hold that the void exists regard it as a sort of place or vessel which is supposed to be 'full' when it holds the bulk which it is capable of containing, 'void' when it is deprived of that-as if 'void' and 'full' and 'place' denoted the same thing, though the essence of the three is different.

We must begin the inquiry by putting down the account given by those who say that it exists, then the account of those who say that it does not exist, and third the current view on these questions.

Those who try to show that the void does not exist do not disprove what people really mean by it, but only their erroneous way of speaking; this is true of Anaxagoras and of those who refute the existence of the void in this way. They merely give an ingenious demonstration that air is something--by straining wine-skins and showing the resistance of the air, and by cutting it off in clepsydras. But people really mean that there is an empty interval in which there is no sensible body. They hold that everything which is in body is body and say that what has nothing in it at all is void (so what is full of air is void). It is not then the existence of air that needs to be proved, but the non-existence of an interval, different from the bodies, either separable or actual--an interval which divides the whole body so as to break its continuity, as Democritus and Leucippus hold, and many other physicists-or even perhaps as something which is outside the whole body, which remains continuous.

These people, then, have not reached even the threshold of the problem, but rather those who say that the void exists.

(1) They argue, for one thing, that change in place (i.e. locomotion and increase) would not be. For it is maintained that motion would seem not to exist, if there were no void, since what is full cannot contain anything more. If it could, and there were two bodies in the same place, it would also be true that any number of bodies could be together; for it is impossible to draw a line of division beyond which the statement would become untrue. If this were possible, it would follow also that the smallest body would contain the greatest; for 'many a little makes a mickle': thus if many equal bodies can be together, so also can many unequal bodies.

Melissus, indeed, infers from these considerations that the All is immovable; for if it were moved there must, he says, be void, but void is not among the things that exist.

This argument, then, is one way in which they show that there is a void.

(2) They reason from the fact that some things are observed to contract and be compressed, as people say that a cask will hold the wine which formerly filled it, along with the skins into which the wine has been decanted, which implies that the compressed body contracts into the voids present in it.

Again (3) increase, too, is thought to take always by means of void, for nutriment is body, and it is impossible for two bodies to be together. A proof of this they find also in what happens to ashes, which absorb as much water as the empty vessel.

The Pythagoreans, too, (4) held that void exists and that it enters the heaven itself, which as it were inhales it, from the infinite air. Further it is the void which distinguishes the natures of things, as if it were like what separates and distinguishes the terms of a series. This holds primarily in the numbers, for the void distinguishes their nature.

These, then, and so many, are the main grounds on which people have argued for and against the existence of the void.

Part 7

As a step towards settling which view is true, we must determine the meaning of the name.

The void is thought to be place with nothing in it. The reason for this is that people take what exists to be body, and hold that while every body is in place, void is place in which there is no body, so that where there is no body, there must be void.

Every body, again, they suppose to be tangible; and of this nature is whatever has weight or lightness.

Hence, by a syllogism, what has nothing heavy or light in it, is void.

This result, then, as I have said, is reached by syllogism. It would be absurd to suppose that the point is void; for the void must be place which has in it an interval in tangible body.

But at all events we observe then that in one way the void is described as what is not full of body perceptible to touch; and what has heaviness and lightness is perceptible to touch. So we would raise the question: what would they say of an interval that has colour or sound--is it void or not? Clearly they would reply that if it could receive what is tangible it was void, and if not, not.

In another way void is that in which there is no 'this' or corporeal substance. So some say that the void is the matter of the body (they identify the place, too, with this), and in this they speak incorrectly; for the matter is not separable from the things, but they are inquiring about the void as about something separable.

Since we have determined the nature of place, and void must, if it exists, be place deprived of body, and we have stated both in what sense place exists and in what sense it does not, it is plain that on this showing void does not exist, either unseparated or separated; the void is meant to be, not body but rather an interval in body. This is why the void is thought to be something, viz. because place is, and for the same reasons. For the fact of motion in respect of place comes to the aid both of those who maintain that place is something over and above the bodies that come to occupy it, and of those who maintain that the void is something. They state that the void is the condition of movement in the sense of that in which movement takes place; and this would be the kind of thing that some say place is.

But there is no necessity for there being a void if there is movement. It is not in the least needed as a condition of movement in general, for a reason which, incidentally, escaped Melissus; viz. that the full can suffer qualitative change.

But not even movement in respect of place involves a void; for bodies may simultaneously make room for one another, though there is no interval separate and apart from the bodies that are in movement. And this is plain even in the rotation of continuous things, as in that of liquids.

And things can also be compressed not into a void but because they squeeze out what is contained in them (as, for instance, when water is compressed the air within it is squeezed out); and things can increase in size not only by the entrance of something but also by qualitative change; e.g. if water were to be transformed into air.

In general, both the argument about increase of size and that about water poured on to the ashes get in their own way. For either not any and every part of the body is increased, or bodies may be increased otherwise than by the addition of body, or there may be two bodies in the same place (in which case they are claiming to solve a quite general difficulty, but are not proving the existence of void), or the whole body must be void, if it is increased in every part and is increased by means of void. The same argument applies to the ashes.

It is evident, then, that it is easy to refute the arguments by which they prove the existence of the void.

Part 8

Let us explain again that there is no void existing separately, as some maintain. If each of the simple bodies has a natural locomotion, e.g. fire upward and earth downward and towards the middle of the universe, it is clear that it cannot be the void that is the condition of locomotion. What, then, will the void be the condition of? It is thought to be the condition of movement in respect of place, and it is not the condition of this.

Again, if void is a sort of place deprived of body, when there is a void where will a body placed in it move to? It certainly cannot move into the whole of the void. The same argument applies as against those who think that place is something separate, into which things are carried; viz. how will what is placed in it move, or rest? Much the same argument will apply to the void as to the 'up' and 'down' in place, as is natural enough since those who maintain the existence of the void make it a place.

And in what way will things be present either in place-or in the void? For the expected result does not take place when a body is placed as a whole in a place conceived of as separate and permanent; for a part of it, unless it be placed apart, will not be in a place but in the whole. Further, if separate place does not exist, neither will void.

If people say that the void must exist, as being necessary if there is to be movement, what rather turns out to be the case, if one studies the matter, is the opposite, that not a single thing can be moved if there is a void; for as with those who for a like reason say the earth is at rest, so, too, in the void things must be at rest; for there is no place to which things can move more or less than to another; since the void in so far as it is void admits no difference.

The second reason is this: all movement is either compulsory or according to nature, and if there is compulsory movement there must also be natural (for compulsory movement is contrary to nature, and movement contrary to nature is posterior to that according to nature, so that if each of the natural bodies has not a natural movement, none of the other movements can exist); but how can there be natural movement if there is no difference throughout the void or the infinite? For in so far as it is infinite, there will be no up or down or middle, and in so far as it is a void, up differs no whit from down; for as there is no difference in what is nothing, there is none in the void (for the void seems to be a non-existent and a privation of being), but natural locomotion seems to be differentiated, so that the things that exist by nature must be differentiated. Either, then, nothing has a natural locomotion, or else there is no void.

Further, in point of fact things that are thrown move though that which gave them their impulse is not touching them, either by reason of mutual replacement, as some maintain, or because the air that has been pushed pushes them with a movement quicker than the natural locomotion of the projectile wherewith it moves to its proper place. But in a void none of these things can take place, nor can anything be moved save as that which is carried is moved.

Further, no one could say why a thing once set in motion should stop anywhere; for why should it stop here rather than here? So that a thing will either be at rest or must be moved ad infinitum, unless something more powerful get in its way.

Further, things are now thought to move into the void because it yields; but in a void this quality is present equally everywhere, so that things should move in all directions.

Further, the truth of what we assert is plain from the following considerations. We see the same weight or body moving faster than another for two reasons, either because there is a difference in what it moves through, as between water, air, and earth, or because, other things being equal, the moving body differs from the other owing to excess of weight or of lightness.

Now the medium causes a difference because it impedes the moving thing, most of all if it is moving in the opposite direction, but in a secondary degree even if it is at rest; and especially a medium that is not easily divided, i.e. a medium that is somewhat dense. A, then, will move through B in time G, and through D, which is thinner, in time E (if the length of B is equal to D), in proportion to the density of the hindering body. For let B be water and D air; then by so much as air is thinner and more incorporeal than water, A will move through D faster than through B. Let the speed have the same ratio to the speed, then, that air has to water. Then if air is twice as thin, the body will traverse B in twice the time that it does D, and the time G will be twice the time E. And always, by so much as the medium is more incorporeal and less resistant and more easily divided, the faster will be the movement.

Now there is no ratio in which the void is exceeded by body, as there is no ratio of 0 to a number. For if 4 exceeds 3 by 1, and 2 by more than 1, and 1 by still more than it exceeds 2, still there is no ratio by which it exceeds 0; for that which exceeds must be divisible into the excess + that which is exceeded, so that will be what it exceeds 0 by + 0. For this reason, too, a line does not exceed a point unless it is composed of points! Similarly the void can bear no ratio to the full, and therefore neither can movement through the one to movement through the other, but if a thing moves through the thickest medium such and such a distance in such and such a time, it moves through the void with a speed beyond any ratio. For let Z be void, equal in magnitude to B and to D. Then if A is to traverse and move through it in a certain time, H, a time less than E, however, the void will bear this ratio to the full. But in a time equal to H, A will traverse the part O of A. And it will surely also traverse in that time any substance Z which exceeds air in thickness in the ratio which the time E bears to the time H. For if the body Z be as much thinner than D as E exceeds H, A, if it moves through Z, will traverse it in a time inverse to the speed of the movement, i.e. in a time equal to H. If, then, there is no body in Z, A will traverse Z still more quickly. But we supposed that its traverse of Z when Z was void occupied the time H. So that it will traverse Z in an equal time whether Z be full or void. But this is impossible. It is plain, then, that if there is a time in which it will move through any part of the void, this impossible result will follow: it will be found to traverse a certain distance, whether this be full or void, in an equal time; for there will be some body which is in the same ratio to the other body as the time is to the time.

To sum the matter up, the cause of this result is obvious, viz. that between any two movements there is a ratio (for they occupy time, and there is a ratio between any two times, so long as both are finite), but there is no ratio of void to full.

These are the consequences that result from a difference in the media; the following depend upon an excess of one moving body over another. We see that bodies which have a greater impulse either of weight or of lightness, if they are alike in other respects, move faster over an equal space, and in the ratio which their magnitudes bear to each other. Therefore they will also move through the void with this ratio of speed. But that is impossible; for why should one move faster? (In moving through plena it must be so; for the greater divides them faster by its force. For a moving thing cleaves the medium either by its shape, or by the impulse which the body that is carried along or is projected possesses.) Therefore all will possess equal velocity. But this is impossible.

It is evident from what has been said, then, that, if there is a void, a result follows which is the very opposite of the reason for which those who believe in a void set it up. They think that if movement in respect of place is to exist, the void cannot exist, separated all by itself; but this is the same as to say that place is a separate cavity; and this has already been stated to be impossible.

But even if we consider it on its own merits the so-called vacuum will be found to be really vacuous. For as, if one puts a cube in water, an amount of water equal to the cube will be displaced; so too in air; but the effect is imperceptible to sense. And indeed always in the case of any body that can be displaced, must, if it is not compressed, be displaced in the direction in which it is its nature to be displaced-always either down, if its locomotion is downwards as in the case of earth, or up, if it is fire, or in both directions-whatever be the nature of the inserted body. Now in the void this is impossible; for it is not body; the void must have penetrated the cube to a distance equal to that which this portion of void formerly occupied in the void, just as if the water or air had not been displaced by the wooden cube, but had penetrated right through it.

But the cube also has a magnitude equal to that occupied by the void; a magnitude which, if it is also hot or cold, or heavy or light, is none the less different in essence from all its attributes, even if it is not separable from them; I mean the volume of the wooden cube. So that even if it were separated from everything else and were neither heavy nor light, it will occupy an equal amount of void, and fill the same place, as the part of place or of the void equal to itself. How then will the body of the cube differ from the void or place that is equal to it? And if there can be two such things, why cannot there be any number coinciding?

This, then, is one absurd and impossible implication of the theory. It is also evident that the cube will have this same volume even if it is displaced, which is an attribute possessed by all other bodies also. Therefore if this differs in no respect from its place, why need we assume a place for bodies over and above the volume of each, if their volume be conceived of as free from attributes? It contributes nothing to the situation if there is an equal interval attached to it as well. [Further it ought to be clear by the study of moving things what sort of thing void is. But in fact it is found nowhere in the world. For air is something, though it does not seem to be so-nor, for that matter, would water, if fishes were made of iron; for the discrimination of the tangible is by touch.]

It is clear, then, from these considerations that there is no separate void.