Substantivalist and Relationalist Approaches to Spacetime

In Robert Batterman (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Physics. Oxford University Press (2013)
Oliver Pooley
Oxford University
Substantivalists believe that spacetime and its parts are fundamental constituents of reality. Relationalists deny this, claiming that spacetime enjoys only a derivative existence. I begin by describing how the Galilean symmetries of Newtonian physics tell against both Newton's brand of substantivalism and the most obvious relationalist alternative. I then review the obvious substantivalist response to the problem, which is to ditch substantival space for substantival spacetime. The resulting position has many affinities with what are arguably the most natural interpretations of special and general relativity. I move on to consider and reject two recent antisubstantivalist lines of thought. The interim conclusion is that the best argument for relationalism is an appeal to Ockham's razor. However, for this to be successful there must be genuine relationalist theories that share the theoretical virtues of their substantivalist rivals but without the additional ontological commitment. The bulk of the paper is therefore an investigation of various concrete relationalist proposals. I distinguish three options for the relationalist in the face of the success of Galilean invariant physics and trace how these generalise to relativistic physics. One of the options is particularly promising but, since its basic objects end up being spacetime points, this does not help the prospects of relationalism as traditionally conceived. I end with some reflections on the fate of substantivalism in the aftermath of the Hole Argument, concluding that we have as yet to be given good reasons to abandon the natural, substantivalist interpretation of current physics
Keywords substantivalism  relationalism  spacetime
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