Journal of Philosophy 106 (2):57-88 (2009)
We are used to talking about the “structure” posited by a given theory of physics. We say that relativity is a theory about spacetime structure. Special relativity posits one spacetime structure; different models of general relativity posit different spacetime structures. We also talk of the “existence” of these structures. Special relativity says the world’s spacetime structure is Minkowskian: it posits that this spacetime structure exists. Understanding structure in this sense seems important for understanding what physics is telling us about the world. But it is not immediately obvious just what this structure is, or what we mean by the existence of one structure, rather than another. The idea of mathematical structure is relatively straightforward. There is geometric structure, topological structure, algebraic structure, and so forth. Mathematical structure tells us how abstract mathematical objects t together to form different types of mathematical spaces. Insofar as we understand mathematical objects, we can understand mathematical structure. Of course, what to say about the nature of mathematical objects isn’t easy. But there seems to be no further problem for understanding mathematical structure. Modern theories of physics are formulated in terms of these mathematical structures. In order to understand “structure” as used in physics, then, it seems we must simply look at the structure of the mathematics that is used to state the physics. But it is not that simple. Physics is supposed to be telling us about the nature of the world. If our physical theories are formulated in mathematical language, using mathematical objects, then this mathematics is somehow telling us about the physical make-up of the world. What is..
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