Space: An Argument for Substantivalism

I’d like to preface this post with acknowledging the fact that I’m aware of the discussion about limiting the role of a lay person on the forum to simply asking questions of the experts and not presenting actual arguments.

The first thing I would say about it is that it’s totally up to those running the forum as to what their objectives are and how they feel is the best way to accomplish those objectives. If they feel that limiting the lay person to simply asking questions of experts is the best way to accomplish their objectives, that’s up to them to decide.

And if that’s what they decide to do I’ll simply post my arguments on other forums and use this forum for the specific purposes that those running the forum have decided to allow. Having said that, it seems to me that an argument should be fundamentally judged by its legitimacy and not by the “expertise” of the person presenting the argument.

And for the sake of those who have concerns about my lack of expertise, I have had a professional philosopher look over the following argument that I’m about to present and in his opinion the argument is legitimate. So in all fairness I think it needs to be responded to in like manner.

One more thing. Though this is a topic which science is concerned with, I believe this is fundamentally a philosophical issue. So unless one is a professional philosopher, I would suggest the use of the “expert” card should be avoided, at least for issues that are recognizably philosophical in nature. Now for the argument.

Coming at this from a layperson’s perspective, the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that what’s happening with relativity is, since it doesn’t seem possible to precisely determine an object’s orientation in respect to the prospect of space as an entity in itself, the most apparent alternative approach is to use a subject oriented perception of where objects are located.

Among other things, utilizing that perspective practically speaking provides a mathematically consistent and unique orientation. And so far it has proven to be the method which gives the most accurate results in respect to mechanical theory in physics for objects beyond a certain distance away in the further reaches of space.

But that in itself doesn’t seem to rule out a reality where objects exist in objective locations. In fact, it seems to me that all of the empirical evidence we have is of objects existing in objective locations. The most obvious examples that come to mind are of objects on the earth that we all recognize as existing in objective locations, e.g., The Eiffel Tower, The Four Corners Monument, Washington Monument, etc.

And if there are objects objectively located in space as we directly experience it, it seems that would possibly entail, or at least suggest in a significant way, that there are absolute locations in space in general, and hence that fundamentally space exists in an absolute sense.

Here’s a formal rendition of what I’m arguing:

Definition of terms;
Objective: in the sense of having been verified
Empirical: verifiable by observation or experience
Absolute: not dependent on relationships for existence
Space: area that can be said to encompass material objects but is distinct and separate from them

  1. All empirical evidence is of objects existing in objective locations in space
  2. If all empirical evidence is of objects existing in objective locations in space, then there is at least reasonably good evidence that there are absolute locations in space
  3. There is at least reasonably good evidence that there are absolute locations in space
  4. If there is at least reasonably good evidence that there are absolute locations in space, then there is at least a reasonably good probability that fundamentally space is absolute
  5. There is at least a reasonably good probability that fundamentally space is absolute

In no way does any of this reflect on the question of the effects described by the mathematical formulas of mechanical theories in physics. This is dealing specifically with the philosophical question of what is the fundamental nature of space.

I think your 2) is incorrect.

You will in all cases bar one need at least one location as a reference point before you can specify any other location. Therefore in all those cases these specified locations are not absolute - they necessarily depend on the location of the reference point.

The one exception is that, in the absence of anything else, the reference location cannot be any other than your own location. Where else could it be?

But this holds true for me as well as for you, therefore the choice of reference location ultimately depends on who is doing the specifying. You and I cannot occupy the same location in space. It follows that the reference location isn’t unique because it depends on the relation between the specifier and the specified, and is therefore not absolute.

Ergo, absolute locations cannot exist (except perhaps in solipsism).

How does that sound?

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Building upon @faded_Glory’s comment, let’s look a little closer into how one would specify the location of the Eiffel Tower. The Eiffel Tower is in the Champ de Mars in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, France. How would I know where that is? I would first fixate on the country France. I know that France is in Europe, and I know that Europe is to the East of my location in Eastern US. How do I know that? Because I’ve seen a standard world map before, and I can identify which area corresponds to “Massachusetts” and which area corresponds to “France”. This world map is standardized; however (in the sense that the North Pole is closer to my head than to my feet if I’m looking at the world map in the “right way up”). It would make no sense to a person from an isolated tribe who has never seen it and does not understand what the convention is. In other words, the locations in the case of the Eiffel Tower, Washington Monument, etc. are only “objective” (in the sense that everyone can agree how to get there from their respective positions) mainly because we have previously already agreed on a shared world map which includes the locations of everyone on Earth. It is unclear to me that such objectivity is strong support for the idea of absolute coordinates in space.

How would we specify the location of the Eiffel Tower to a person without knowledge of a shared world map? You always have to start by referencing some place that the person is likely to be familiar with. And then you have to specify a direction relative to that familiar place. For anyone living on Earth, one could specify East-West by appealing to the direction of the sunrise: because everyone on Earth experiences time’s arrow in the same way, and the Earth rotates in the same direction for everyone. However, these are all contingent facts! We could not appeal to these facts for an alien living in some remote village on Planet 1g of the TRAPPIST 1 system in the Aquarius constellation, for example. In fact, I wouldn’t know how to specify the location of Earth to such an alien without referencing some shared star or galaxy which both of us can see from our respective places.

Having found such a common reference, I would also have to specify a convention for indicating East-West and other directions. This second part of the problem is actually interesting (see Feynman’s thoughts on it here) and says something about our conventions of left- or right-handedness.

In conclusion, it seems to me that for a given pair of two observers separated in space, the objectivity you talk about in the case of the location of the Eiffel Tower or any other object is only possible after referencing a shared object that both observers can identify from their location, a convention for indicating direction, and then the information assuming that convention. But these conventions and these shared reference objects are all arbitrary - there are multiple ways to specify the same location to such an alien. Thus, I’m not sure if this supports the idea of an “absolute coordinate system” existing or not.


I suspect my reply below to @faded_Glory would apply to your comment as well. Let me known if I’m mistaken.

Just to clarify, I’m using the term substantivalism in the strictest sense of space as an entity in itself that exists regardless of relationships. The argument is not concerned with the questions surrounding Galilean/neo-Newtonian spacetime.

I suspect you are approaching this from the aspect of physics. But that’s not what the argument is about. It’s about the metaphysical question of the fundamental nature of space. The argument is if locations can be individually verified then they are objectively located and in turn empirical evidence for absolute locations.

I don’t think it can be argued that locations cannot be individually verified, otherwise how would the same GPS work for more than one person? It would require relativising it for each individual. But obviously that isn’t the case.

The only plausible objection that I can see is that objectivity through verification is illusory. But to me that seems to undermine science itself since verification is a cornerstone of science.

My tentative answer would be that space does not have a fundamental nature. I’m inclined to see space as a human construct. We construct it using mathematical methods to extrapolate based on our local system of weights and measures. And the apparent nature of space changes as our physics changes.

Take your example of the Eiffel Tower. Imagine that an alien in the Andromeda galaxy has managed to see it with a very powerful telescope. When he looks again, he finds that it has moved millions of miles from where he first saw it. To the Andromedan, that does not look at all like a fixed location.

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I don’t think you engaged with my argument at all. Simply saying that my argument is only “physics” and you are concerned with “metaphysics” is not helpful - it is not clear to me how my argument doesn’t affect your argument, given that you think the objectivity of the location of the Eiffel Tower supports your metaphysical stance on substantivalism.

GPS only works because different individuals on Earth are communicating with the same set of GPS satellites.


I am only approaching it from the aspect of what you wrote:

Purely using your definitions and your reasoning I don’t think your conclusion follows, for the reason I gave. I’m not sure what I can add to that.

Ok let me respond to this as well. The locations are objectively located within the reference system that you have chosen to specify them. Without such a reference system you won’t be able to locate anything at all. The choice of reference system is subjective, as per my first reply to you. I think that automatically makes the locations subjective as well.

I don’t think that the choice of ‘locations’ in an attempt to demonstrate objectivity is a fortunate one because of this requirement for a reference system. I can’t think of an objective reference system - can you?

I’m pretty sure that would be a relational type position. And there are arguments for holding to it. But I’m wondering if you have any specific objections to the argument?

The question isn’t about fixed locations, it’s about absolute locations.

I guess I’m not clear how what you’re saying is relevant to the argument. The question is about objectivity. You seem to be arguing for subjectivity which is not what the argument is about. Of course there is subjectivity. The question is whether or not there is objectivity as a result of verification. And I don’t see how what you’re saying addresses that? Maybe I’m just not understanding what you’re saying?

So how is that not a case of objectivity?

Well, I’m not actually arguing that my argument entails it’s conclusion. Simply that the evidence supports it. And since you seemed to take issue with premise 2, I’m just not clear on how what you said addresses the question of objectivity in regards to verification.

You define ‘objectivity’ as ‘having been verified’, so how can there be a question about that?

The issue I have centers around your claim of there being ‘absolute locations’ in space. I don’t see how your reasoning supports that.

Do you have any objections to objective being defined as something that’s been verified?

I might have, but I don’t see how that is relevant to what you are arguing for. I can accept it here for the sake of argument.

The objection I have is about your step from ‘objective’ to ‘absolute’. You haven’t demonstrated that, as far as I can see.

So you don’t see that objective locations are evidence for absolute locations?

No. I can think of many objective things (in the sense of having been verified) that are not absolute (in the sense of not being dependent on relationships for existence).

First thing that came to mind: a solar eclipse.

When it comes to locations, I have already addressed that. All locations depend on relationships for existence. You simply cannot define a location without referring to something else.

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If an absolute location is not automatically a fixed location, then I wonder what you mean by “absolute location”.

I’m also not sure I know what you mean by “objective”. For me, it only means that we can talk about it. That is to say, it is sharable between people. I don’t take “objective” to imply “human independent.”

So the distinction is not that absolute existence can’t stand in relationships but that it is not dependent on relationships for its existence. And a solar eclipse is an effect of an event, not a location of an object. Its the location of the objects that result in the effect. So in a sense that’s evidence for absolute locations in that the event involving the location of two bodies is independently verified

You seem to be saying that because a location cannot be defined without referring to something else that its existence is dependent on relationships. Not sure how that conclusion follows. It seems to me that just because we can’t define a location without a relationship only shows our dependency on relationships for defining locations, not that their actual existence depends on the relationship.

I’m assuming by fixed you mean it doesn’t move. By absolute I mean its existence doesn’t depend on a relationship.

You’re welcome to hold that position. But in the argument I’m assuming a human or mind independent reality. But I would say things like the sun are pretty good evidence that there is a mind independent reality. But that’s another argument for another day. :slight_smile:

That isn’t what was suggested. You are not limited to merely asking questions.

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Oh. That seemed to me to be the gist of it. So is it possible to sum up in a nutshell what was suggested?

Saying nothing of the chain of reasoning that culminates to this conclusion:

Relativity is not opposed to this statement given your definition of absolute:

so you are not arguing against the relativists. If you think you are, then you are fighting a strawman.

Of course, your definitions and arguments, as with all the other time we have a discussion, are nowhere as rigorous or “formal” as I believe is required, but I get the gist.


Essentially what I’m trying to get across is that relativity as applied in physics is not concerned with the metaphysical question of the fundamental nature of space, but rather the physics question of the effects of objects movements through space.

However, the success of the concept of relativity in physics, it seems, is used as evidence to support the relationalists’ metaphysical claims about the fundamental nature of space. And I see this as a justifiable move.

However, I think there is much more evidence to the contrary so that the weight of the evidence comes down much more significantly on the side of the metaphysical position of space as absolute.

So I agree with what you’re saying. As I see it, I’m not arguing against the relativist in regards to physics. However, I am arguing against the relationalist who sees relativity as evidence for that metaphysical position.

I’ll take that as an encouragement that I’m getting better at expressing what I’m trying to say. :slight_smile: