Space and time in particle and field physics

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 32 (2):217-241 (2001)
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Textbooks present classical particle and field physics as theories of physical systems situated in Newtonian absolute space. This absolute space has an influence on the evolution of physical processes, and can therefore be seen as a physical system itself; it is substantival. It turns out to be possible, however, to interpret the classical theories in another way. According to this rival interpretation, spatiotemporal position is a property of physical systems, and there is no substantival spacetime. The traditional objection that such a relationist view could not cope with the existence of inertial effects and other manifestations of the causal efficacy of spacetime can be answered successfully. According to the new point of view, the spacetime manifold of classical physics is a purely representational device. It represents possible locations of physical objects or events; but these locations are physical properties inherent in the physical objects or events themselves and having no existence independently of them. In relativistic quantum field theory the physical meaning of the spacetime manifold becomes even less tangible. Not only does the manifold lose its status as a substantival container, but also its function as a representation of spacetime properties possessed by physical systems becomes problematic. 'Space and time' become ordering parameters in the web of properties of physical systems. They seem to regain their traditional meaning only in the non-relativistic limit in which the classical particle concept becomes approximately applicable.



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Dennis Dieks
Utrecht University

References found in this work

Newtonian space-time.Howard Stein - 1967 - Texas Quarterly 10 (3):174--200.
Space-time as a physical quantity.Paul Teller - 1987 - In P. Achinstein & R. Kagon (eds.), Kelvin's Baltimore Lectures and Modern Theoretical Physics. MIT Press. pp. 425--448.
Space-time relationism in Newtonian and relativistic physics.Dennis Dieks - 2000 - International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 15 (1):5 – 17.

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