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Space, Time and Natural Kinds

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image of Journal of Critical Realism

Einstein's special theory, as interpreted by Herman Minkowski, suggests that an understanding of space and time requires the replacement of three-dimensional space and one dimensional time with a four-dimensional spacetime continuum, as a natural kind of thing with a characteristic, geometrical, structure.

Issues of space and time in general, and of special relativity in particular, are not addressed in Bhaskar's A Realist Theory of Science, and their treatment in subsequent realist writings has been patchy and indecisive. Some of Bhaskar's observations in later writings, including his defence of fundamental ontological asymmetries between space and time, and between present, past and future, appear incompatible with a relativistic perspective. Equally problematic, from a critical realist perspective, is the apparent ontological prioritisation of events, and causation as action-by-contact, within the Minkowski interpretation of special relativity.

This paper argues that the four-dimensional spacetime continuum of special relativity occupies its own level at the base of the ontological hierarchy of natural kinds, providing lower-order components and laws for higher-order physical, chemical, biological and social structures. While providing no definitive reconciliation of relativistic and realist perspectives, this paper does suggest that A. N. Whitehead's idea of atomic events, or ‘actual occasions’, could pave the way for some possible future reconciliation.


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