Journal Article

Absolute versus Relational Spacetime: For Better or Worse, the Debate Goes On

Carl Hoefer

in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science

Published on behalf of British Society for the Philosophy of Science

Volume 49, issue 3, pages 451-467
Published in print September 1998 | ISSN: 0007-0882
Published online September 1998 | e-ISSN: 1464-3537 | DOI:
Absolute versus Relational Spacetime: For Better or Worse, the Debate Goes On

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The traditional absolutist-relationist debate is still clearly formulable in the context of General Relativity Theory (GTR), despite the important differences between Einstein's theory and the earlier context of Newtonian physics. This paper answers recent arguments by Robert Rynasiewicz against the significance of the debate in the GTR context. In his (1996) (‘Absolute vs. Relational Spacetime: An Outmoded Debate?’), Rynasiewicz argues that already in the late nineteenth century, and even more so in the context of General Relativity theory, the terms of the original Descartes–Newton–Leibniz dispute about space are not to be found. Nineteenth-century ether theories of electromagnetism, and the metric field of GTR, he claims, do not lend themselves to being interpreted clearly as either absolute space à la Newton, or relational structures à la either Descartes or Leibniz.

I argue that, while in some imaginable theories Rynasiewicz's claim that the classical debate dissolves would be correct, in fact in the most important historical theories he discusses, this is not the case. In particular, I argue that in both Lorentz's ether theory and General relativity theory, there is a clear and compelling way to establish connections to the classical absolutist-relationist disputes, and that in both these theories it is the absolutist position that is prima facie victorious. To support my arguments and give a clear overview of the whole debate, I end by offering definitional sketches of relationism and absolutism (substantivalism) about spacetime in the context of contemporary physics. The sketches show the clear connections between these views today and their ancestors in Newton and Leibniz. But at the same time, they indicate how both views are not just claims about existing physical theories, but rather also bets about how future physics will clarify the ontological picture.

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Subjects: Philosophy of Science ; Science and Mathematics

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