The reality of relations: the case from quantum physics

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Michael Esfeld
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As far as classical physics is concerned, it is possible to trace causal relations between physical objects (i.e. particles in this case) back to intrinsic properties of these objects (such as their mass and charge). On this view, causal relations turn out to be internal instead of external relations, supervening on intrinsic properties of the relata (as proposed by Heil and Lowe). However, one can raise doubts about this view already in Newtonian mechanics. The decisive blow to this view comes from quantum physics, with Bell’s theorem proving that no dynamics based on local, intrinsic properties of quantum objects can yield the empirical predictions of quantum mechanics. Nonetheless, quantum entanglement by no means implies that we have to abandon an ontology of objects (i.e. substances such as particles) in favour of an ontology of structures (as claimed by French and Ladyman). Any of the known proposals for a quantum ontology of matter in space-time is committed to objects. However, on any of these proposals, what determines the dynamics of these objects are not local, intrinsic properties, but a global or holistic property instantiated by all the objects together – that is, a structure that takes all the objects in the universe as its relata. The view set out in this paper thus amounts to combining ontic structural realism with an ontology of objects that can be conceived as substances. This suggestion is illustrated by drawing on the ontology of quantum physics worked out by Bohm and Bell.

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