Kant's hands and Earman's pions: Chirality arguments for substantival space

This paper outlines a new interpretation of an argument of Kant's for the existence of absolute space. The Kant argument, found in a 1768 essay on topology, argues for the existence of Newtonian-Euclidean absolute space on the basis of the existence of incongruous counterparts (such as a left and a right hand, or any asymmetrical object and its mirror-image). The clear, intrinsic difference between a left hand and a right hand, Kant claimed, cannot be understood on a relational view of space - for in terms of the spatial relations of their parts, there is no difference to be found. Kant's argument has been interpreted by, among others, Graham Nerlich (in 1973, Hands, Knees and Absolute Space, The Journal of Philosophy). I briefly discuss Nerlich, and then offer a different reconstruction of the argument, one that appears to be closer to Kant's text. The reconstruction, however, essentially involves ascription of primitive identity to parts of space. Comparing the Kantian absolutist account of incongruous counterparts using primitive identity to the correct relationist account, I conclude that the absolutist account pays a heavy metaphysical price, without buying any genuine explanatory advantage over the relationist. I go on to examine recent suggestions that parity-non-conservation phenomena in quantum physics allow a stronger version of Kant's challenge to relationism. On closer examination, it turns out that here too the absolutist or substantivalist must be appealing to space parts with primitive identity in order to claim an advantage over relationists; and here too, I argue the substantivalist story really has no advantage over the correct relationist account.
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Simon Saunders (2007). Mirroring as an a Priori Symmetry. Philosophy of Science 74 (4):452-480.
Jan-Willem Romeijn (2005). Enantiomorphy and Time. International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 19 (2):167 – 190.
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