Why it’s Right to Ask “Relations between what?”

16Nov12

In his review of the book “Why Does the World Exist” (“The Really Big Question”, TPM, October 2012), Massimo Pigliucci states that he was hoping the author Jim Holt had explored James Ladyman and Don Ross’s “suggestion that there is no ‘ultimate’ stuff of which the universe is made, that ‘at bottom’ it’s all about relations (don’t ask ‘Relations between what?’ because you’d be missing the point)”.

However, I think asking ‘Relations between what?’ is precisely the point, precisely the question, to pose to anyone who suggests or posits that at bottom it’s all about relations with regard to the makeup of the universe.  Why wouldn’t that be asked?  To assert that such a question is missing the point is an invalid attempt to cut off at the knees a challenge to the stance of ontic structural realism (OSR) for which Ladyman and Ross are advocates.

A key tenet of OSR is that objects do not really exist, only structures.  What the OSRists mean by structure is not exactly clear.  If OSRists do grant in some way the existence of objects, they give ontological primacy to the position or roles objects  occupy in a structure over the nature of objects themselves.  But again there are some forms of OSR that deny the existence of objects whatsoever.  There is only structure in this view.  What stands in to be structure, or what is being structured is unclear in the arguments of many hewing to OSR.  So the question of “relations between what” is clearly relevant and should be addressed by the OSRists.

For an excellent exploration of that question and others relating to OSR, I recommend “Do Objects Depend on Structure” by Johanna Wolf (British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, September 2012).  Wolf demonstrates how at most a weak form of OSR is plausible in quantum mechanics.  Weak meaning objects are required in the ontology however structure goes a long way toward defining the objects.

-Tanner Phillips  @philosophyofsci

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