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Super-relationism: combining eliminativism about objects and relationism about spacetime


I will introduce and motivate eliminativist super-relationism. This is the conjunction of relationism about spacetime and eliminativism about material objects. According to the view, the universe is a big collection of spatio–temporal relations and natural properties, and no substance (material or spatio–temporal) exists in it. The view is original since eliminativism about material objects, when understood as including not only ordinary objects like tables or chairs but also physical particles, is generally taken to imply substantivalism about spacetime: if properties are directly instantiated by spacetime without the mediation of material objects, then, surely, spacetime has to be a substance. After introducing briefly the two debates about spacetime (Sect. 1) and material objects (Sect. 2), I will present Schaffer’s super-substantivalism (Sect. 3), the conjunction of substantivalism about spacetime and eliminativism about material objects at the fundamental level. I shall then expose and discuss the assumption from which the implication from eliminativism to substantivalism is drawn, and discuss the compatibility of eliminativism with relationism: if spacetime is not a substance, and if material objects are not real, how are we to understand the instantiation of properties (Sect. 4)? And what are the relata of spatio–temporal relations (Sect. 5)? I then show that each argument in favor of super-substantivalism offered by Schaffer also holds for super-relationism (Sect. 6) and examine several metaphysical consequences of the view (Sect. 7). I conclude that both super-substantivalism and super-relationism are compatible with Schaffer’s priority monism (Sect. 8).

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  1. Perduring but qualitatively unchanging objects are material objects that persist through time by having temporal parts. Such objects are qualitatively unchanging iff the considered temporal parts are qualitatively identical. Perduring but qualitatively identical objects require then that one accepts entities (the temporal parts) that are qualitatively identical but numerically distinct, something one might be ready or not to accept, depending on one’s philosophical principles.

  2. It might be the case, however, that the two views are explanatory equivalent (see Benovsky 2011a). If so, it is worth noting that Schaffer’s super-substantivalism and super-relationism are probably equivalent, too.

  3. Van Inwagen and Merricks acknowledge that the composition of objects sometimes occurs and may then be classified as species of quasi-eliminativism. Van Inwagen claims that objects arise when there is an activity of life. For Merricks, composition occurs when there is consciousness. All I say about eliminativism is compatible with quasi-eliminativism and remains neutral on the exceptional conditions needed for composition to occur.

  4. Sider's argument goes as follows: the world might be gunky (that is, be infinitely divisible into smaller and smaller proper parts with no simple particles). But a gunk world is a world in which there cannot be mereological simples to substitute for material objects. Then, it might be that eliminativism is false; and if it can be false, then it is false. There are various responses to the argument. See for instance Le Bihan (2013): if spacetime were gunky, natural properties could act as the mereological simples and be instantiated by gunky spacetime.

  5. For another example, see Horgan and Potrč's blobjectivism (2000): according to the ontological part of the view, what there is is just a concrete particular, the cosmos. The main feature of this existence monist view is that the cosmos is a complex entity that does not admit of proper parts.

  6. One could argue that the common view that there are many objects is accounted for in Schaffer’s view by both the fundamental object and the plurality of derivative objects, and that it makes more sense to construe Schaffer’s view as realist about material objects. And true enough: it all depends on how heavily we want to weigh derivative existence. But once again, inasmuch as the depicted ontology is clear enough, this terminological problem does not matter too much.

  7. Schaffer uses the expression 'monistic substantivalism' in this context. I will stick to Sklar's original expression 'super-substantivalism' (Sklar 1974, 214), assuming that the two expressions are synonyms.

  8. Within the scope of this paper, I do not want to explore speculative physics like geometrodynamics (the idea that no natural properties are to be found at the fundamental level of reality) or loop quantum gravity (the idea that spacetime is not real at the fundamental level of reality) and will restrict myself to considerations arising from widely accepted physical theories.

  9. One might be tempted to argue that natural properties are instantiated because they are parts of fields. Granted, but it then remains to be explained how the field-made-of-properties is connected to spacetime, and another notion of instantiation is required to fill the gap between fields and spacetime.

  10. I want to thank Akiko Frischhut and Jonathan Schaffer for raising this issue. It is worth noting that ontological interdependence is not only an issue for super-relationism (if it is an issue at all), since both the bundle view and the substratum view also have to posit ontological dependence between properties and the unifying device that joins them together. A bundling relation is generally construed as ontologically depending (in order to be instantiated) on the existence of the properties it ties together. And the very existence of these properties depends ontologically on the existence of the bundling relation. Similarly, substrates and properties instantiated by it are generally construed as being ontologically interdependent: there is no bare substrate (it does not make sense to conceive of a substrate that does not have any property), and properties of the substrate depend ontologically on the existence of the substrate.

  11. There is even a gain of parsimony if one believes that substantial regions are not required if spatio–temporal relations are already posited.

  12. Meaning here ‘spatial location’: in most of realist accounts of material objects, these have multiple temporal locations.

  13. I mean here the view that spatio–temporal relations are individuals that have, each, only one instance.

  14. I want to thank an anonymous referee for raising this issue.

  15. One may equivalently formulate this point along a top-down approach: according to the nihilist about decomposition, decomposition, as a mind-independent relation, that would give rise to proper parts, never obtains. According to the universalist about decomposition, decomposition always obtain, giving rise to proper parts which are not material objects.


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For comments on a previous version of the paper, I am indebted to Jiri Benovsky, Annabel Colas, Akiko Frischhut, Jasper Heaton, Thomas Jacobi, Quentin Ruyant, Jonathan Schaffer and an anonymous referee. For discussions and comments on the ideas of the paper, I want to thank the participants of the Experience and Reality 2 workshop in Schwarzsee (September 2015), Olivier Massin and Gianfranco Soldati.

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Correspondence to Baptiste Le Bihan.

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Le Bihan, B. Super-relationism: combining eliminativism about objects and relationism about spacetime. Philos Stud 173, 2151–2172 (2016).

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  • Spacetime
  • Material objects
  • Eliminativism
  • Substantivalism
  • Relationism
  • Super-substantivalism
  • Super-relationism
  • Priority monism