Back to overview


English title Fundamentality
Applicant Mulligan Kevin
Number 126656
Funding scheme Project funding
Research institution Département de Philosophie Faculté des Lettres Université de Genève
Institution of higher education University of Geneva - GE
Main discipline Philosophy
Start/End 01.10.2010 - 30.09.2013
Approved amount 331'177.00
Show all

Keywords (7)

philosophy; physics; biology; time; change; substance; dependence

Lay Summary (English)

Lay summary
The overall aim of this research project is to connect contemporary science and contemporary metaphysics by (1) understanding the notion of being fundamental, and related notions of dependence, grounding, in-virtue-of and substance, (2) making this notion fruitful within the study of some central questions of metaphysics (the puzzle of change, the constitution of material objects, the interrelations of different modalities) and (3) applying it to some hotly contested questions in contemporary (philosophy of) physics, such as the nature of individuality, the notion of structure and the question raised by the time-invariance of fundamental physical theories. Physics tells us that the fundamental building blocks of the universe are very different from tables: they have very few, if any, intrinsic properties and come in homogeneous kinds, with little to distinguish different members. Take two electrons in the orbital of a helium atom: they have the same energy eigenstate and the same position state, and still they are two - how that? In fact, we can show that they are two, because we can show that they have opposite spins. They are indiscernible by monadic predicates, but satisfy a binary irreflexive relation (of having opposite spin to), hence there must be two. But these objects are very different from tables. It is not just that we cannot distinguish them, rather there is nothing to there being one of these two electrons rather than the other. They are not just identified purely relationally, but they themselves seem nothing else than nodes in a network of relations. But can we go from there to the "wholesale abandonment of the ... intuition that there must be something of which the world is made" (Ladyman/Ross 2007: 12)?The key idea is to approach the problem of reconciling science and common sense from an unexpected angle. Presumably, relativity theorists do not want to say that their lives could have started with their death and ended with their birth, no more than researchers in loop quantum gravity want to say that nothing ever changes (their own scientific careers included). No one seriously denies that, in some sense at least, there are tables and other persisting objects that undergo change. But the following seem to capture what those who derive astonishing claims from basic science have in mind: (i) Fundamentally, there is no time. (loop quantum gravity)(ii) Fundamentally, nothing changes. (time is gauge)(iii) Fundamentally, there are no objects. (ontic structural realism) It is not clear, however, what "Fundamentally, such-and-such is the case." means. The present project aims to elucidate this crucial notion.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 21.02.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants


Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
118626 Properties and relations 01.10.2007 ProDoc
113688 Properties and Relations 01.06.2007 Project funding
139932 Aristote chez les Helve`tes. Onze essais de me´taphysique helve´tique 01.02.2013 Agora


The present project, a continuation of the highly successful project “Properties and Relations”, attempts to investigate the central notion of fundamentality, and cognate concepts such as in virtue of, explanation, grounding, and dependence - in the hope that a better understanding of these concepts will help to reconcile Aristotelian common sense with the surprising findings of modern science, physics and biology in particular. The project group is composed of three senior researchers supervising the research, Kevin Mulligan, professeur ordinaire, Fabrice Correia, professeur boursier FNS, Christian Wüthrich, assistant professor at the University of California San Diego, one post-doc, Philipp Keller (research project 1), and one PhD student, Jan Willem Wieland (research project 2), all associated to the philosophy department of the University of Geneva. The project integrates the externally funded Genevan summer schools in the philosophy of physics, the first of which was organised in 2008 with remarkable success. The overall aim of research project 1 (post-doc) is to connect contemporary science and contemporary metaphysics by (1) understanding the notion of being fundamental, (2) integrating the notion of fundamentality into a re-conception of metaphysics, as studying fundamentality structure, and (3) drawing on physics in implementing such a study, focusing on the classical monistic idea that the universe is fundamental. Once the notion of fundamentality is in focus, an important additional problem arises: what is the logical structure and ontological nature of the being more fundamental than relation? Of particular concern is the question whether it is well-founded: could it go “all the way down”? Has there to be a fundamental level? These questions will be investigated in detail in research project 2 (PhD). Presently, no detailed study of infinite regresses exist, and it is to be expected that much progress can be made on a wide variety of difficult questions once the general structure of such regresses is better understood and criteria of viciousness have been established.