What Can We Learn about the Ontology of Space and Time from the Theory of Relativity? A synopsis



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What Can We Learn about the Ontology of Space and Time from the Theory of Relativity? A Synopsis
John D. Norton

Department of History and Philosophy of Science

University of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh PA USA 15260


What is the nature of space? What is the nature of time? These are the perennial questions of philosophy of space and time. A long standing tradition looks to our latest science for assistance in answering. In the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton redefined philosophy of space and time in introducing the notions of Absolute Space and Absolute Time. They were underwritten by the authority of the leading sage of his day and at least a century to come. In the twentieth century, Albert Einstein published his theories of relativity, the special and the general. Philosophy of space and time was transformed once again. Exactly how was it changed? What should we learn from Einstein's work? That is my concern here.

The task proves to be a little different from what one might expect. The task is not to exercise one's philosophical creativity to generate these lessons. Rather it is to apply a critical filter to the plethora of morals already proclaimed. In repeated efforts to extract the philosophical bounty of Einstein's work, generations of philosophers have ended up proclaiming almost every conceivable thesis on Einstein's authority. The present task, then, is to sift through this abundance, discard the spurious morals and answer the question "What can we learn about the ontology of space and time from the theory of relativity?" This note is a synopsis of a lengthier study presented elsewhere.1 The reader is referred to it for citations and elaboration on the claims that follow.




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