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Structural Realism as a Philosophy of Nature

English title Structural Realism as a Philosophy of Nature
Applicant Esfeld Michael
Number 124462
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Section de Philosophie Faculté des Lettres Université de Lausanne
Institution of higher education University of Lausanne - LA
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.05.2009 - 30.04.2012
Approved amount 141'248.00
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Keywords (14)

analytical metaphysics; causation; entanglement; gravitation; metaphysics of science; philosophy of nature; quantum physics; relations; space-time; structure; general relativity; objects; structural realism; structures

Lay Summary (English)

Lead
Lay summary
It is widely accepted that contemporary fundamental physics, in particular the quantum (field) theory and the (general) relativistic theory, has deeply changed our conception of the world. Many aspects of these two fundamental physical theories have been discussed in some details, such as for instance the possible violation of locality in quantum theory or the absence of absolute simultaneity in the theory of relativity. However, no global worldview, no general metaphysical conception of nature that encompasses the fundamental features of contemporary fundamental physics has been developed in a systematic way. This is the aim of this research project. And the main claim of this project is that structural realism, conceived as a metaphysical thesis, does provide such a global worldview. In recent years, structural realism has been put forward as a metaphysical thesis about what there is in the world, namely only structures. We gain knowledge about the world through science, and more particularly through fundamental physics as far as fundamental aspects of nature are concerned. Consequently, any metaphysical thesis about the world has to be supported by what fundamental physics says about the world. Indeed, the structuralism move is grounded in the difficulties created by contemporary fundamental physics for the traditional metaphysical framework: the standard worldview, which can be traced back to Aristotle at least and according to which the world is made of a plurality of independently existing entities that enter into relation to one another, is deeply challenged by fundamental physics, in particular by quantum theory and general relativity theory. This research project aims first to present in a detailed way the main features of fundamental physics that challenge this traditional atomistic conception of nature. Then, starting from these empirical facts, it aims to develop a metaphysics of structure, called moderate structural realism, that accounts for these fundamental features. The core idea of moderate structural realism is that fundamental objects do not possess any intrinsic identity, the relations (structures) are the ways in which the objects exist. Clearly, this move constitutes a radical metaphysics of nature that raises many questions. A fundamental one is about the link of such a metaphysics with our experience of acting beings in the world. This research project aims to show that such a metaphysics of nature, even if exclusively motivated by fundamental physics, is able to account for causation as a fundamental feature of the world and therefore can ground our experience of acting beings.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Publications

Publication
Causal realism
Esfeld Michael (2012), Causal realism, in Dieks Dennis et al. (ed.), Springer, Dordrecht, 157-168.
Conservative reductionism
Esfeld Michael, Sachse Christian (2011), Conservative reductionism, Routledge, New York.
Gravitational and Nongravitational Energy: The Need for Background Structures
Lam Vincent (2011), Gravitational and Nongravitational Energy: The Need for Background Structures, in Philosophy of Science, 78(5), 1012-1024.
Le réalisme scientifique et la métaphysique des sciences
Esfeld Michael (2011), Le réalisme scientifique et la métaphysique des sciences, in Barberousse Anouk et al. (ed.), Vuibert, Paris, 141-170.
Ontic structural realism as a metaphysics of objects
Esfeld Michael, Lam Vincent (2011), Ontic structural realism as a metaphysics of objects, in Bokulich Alisa (ed.), Springer, Dordrecht, 143-159.
Science and metaphysics: the case of quantum physics
Esfeld Michael (2011), Science and metaphysics: the case of quantum physics, in Reboul Anne (ed.), -, -, ---.
GRW as an ontology of dispositions
Dorato Mauro, Esfeld Michael (2010), GRW as an ontology of dispositions, in Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics , 41, 41-49.
Holism and structural realism
Esfeld Michael, Lam Vincent (2010), Holism and structural realism, in Vanderbeeken Robrecht (ed.), World Scientific, Singapore, 10-31.
Kausale Strukturen. Einheit und Vielfalt in der Natur und den Naturwissenschaften
Esfeld Michael, Sachse Christian (2010), Kausale Strukturen. Einheit und Vielfalt in der Natur und den Naturwissenschaften, Suhrkamp, Berlin.
Metaphysics of causation and physics of general relativity
Lam Vincent (2010), Metaphysics of causation and physics of general relativity, in Humana Mente, 13, 61-80.
Physics and causation
Esfeld Michael (2010), Physics and causation, in Foundations of Physics, 40, 1597-1610.
Métaphysisique de la causalité et physique de la relativité générale
Lam Vincent (2009), Métaphysisique de la causalité et physique de la relativité générale, in Klesis, 13, 106-122.
The modal nature of structures in ontic structural realism
Esfeld Michael (2009), The modal nature of structures in ontic structural realism, in International Studies in the Philosophy of Science , 23, 179-194.
A dilemma for the emergence of spacetime in canonical quantum gravity
Lam Vincent, Esfeld Michael, A dilemma for the emergence of spacetime in canonical quantum gravity, in Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics, 43.
Aspects structuraux de l’espace-temps dans la théorie de la relativité générale
Lam Vincent, Aspects structuraux de l’espace-temps dans la théorie de la relativité générale, in Le Bihan Soazig (ed.), Vuibert, Paris.
Ontic structural realism and the interpretation of quantum mechanics
Esfeld Michael, Ontic structural realism and the interpretation of quantum mechanics, in European Journal for the Philosophy of Science.
The structural metaphysics of quantum theory and general relativity
Lam Vincent, Esfeld Michael, The structural metaphysics of quantum theory and general relativity, in Journal for General Philosophy of Science, 42.

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
140201 Structural Realism as a Philosophy of Nature 01.05.2012 Project funding (Div. I-III)

Abstract

It is widely accepted that contemporary fundamental physics, in particular the quantum (field) theory and the (general) relativistic theory, has deeply changed our conception of the world. Many aspects of these two fundamental physical theories have been discussed in some details, such as for instance the possible violation of locality in quantum theory or the absence of absolute simultaneity in the theory of relativity. However, no global worldview, no general metaphysical conception of nature that encompasses the fundamental features of contemporary fundamental physics has been developed in a systematic way. This is the aim of this research project. And the main claim of this project is that structural realism, conceived as a metaphysical thesis, does provide such a global worldview. Structural realism finds its contemporary origin in the epistemological insight that the intrinsic nature of objects cannot be known in principle and that only the relations among objects are accessible; consequently, structural realism has been set out as an epistemic thesis in the first place. However, in recent years, structural realism has been put forward as a metaphysical thesis about what there is in the world as well, namely only structures. We gain knowledge about the world through science, and more particularly through fundamental physics as far as fundamental aspects of nature are concerned. Consequently, any metaphysical thesis about the world has to be supported by what fundamental physics says about the world. Indeed, the structuralism move is grounded in the difficulties created by contemporary fundamental physics for the traditional metaphysical framework: the standard worldview, which can be traced back to Aristotle at least and according to which the world is made of a plurality of independently existing entities that enter into relation to one another, is deeply challenged by fundamental physics, in particular by quantum theory and general relativity theory. This research project aims first to present in a detailed way the main features of fundamental physics that challenge this traditional atomistic conception of nature. Then, starting from these empirical facts, it aims to develop a metaphysics of structure, called moderate structural realism, that accounts for these fundamental features. The core idea of moderate structural realism is that fundamental objects do not possess any intrinsic identity, the relations (structures) are the ways in which the objects exist. Clearly, this move constitutes a radical metaphysics of nature that raises many questions. A fundamental one is about the link of such a metaphysics with our experience of acting beings in the world. This research project aims to show that such a metaphysics of nature, even if exclusively motivated by fundamental physics, is able to account for causation as a fundamental feature of the world and therefore can ground our experience of acting beings. Thus, the research project globally aims at developing a coherent and experimentally well-founded metaphysics of nature. Concretely, this coherent worldview shall be exposed in a monograph written in English on Structural realism as a philosophy of nature. The physical basis and the metaphysics of structural realism, to be completed by the beginning of 2012 and to be submitted to one of the major philosophy publishers.
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