This Saturday, 8 October 2011, I will give a contributed-paper talk at the EPSA in Athens entitled “No categorical support for radical ontic structural realism”. This is joint work with Vincent Lam; unfortunately, Vincent won’t come to Athens, so I will have to hold the water against the radical ontic structural realist all by myself… Hopefully, there will be some in the audience!

Here is the abstract:

Radical ontic structural realism (ROSR) maintain that the world ultimately consists of ‘free-standing’ physical relations without relata. ROSRers have struggled to convert this idea into a functioning metaphysics adapted to fundamental physics because the theories of the latter make overt reference to objects. Jonathan Bain (2011) has recently argued that category theory offers a suitable framework for formulating these theories in a way which cleanses them of objects and thus realizes the ROSRer’s vision. To make good on this claim, Bain considers the case of the category-theoretic extension of general relativity. The claim that spacetime points are eliminated relies on the fact that the algebraic counterparts of manifold points cannot be defined within the category-theoretic framework. The trouble is that while the reference to spacetime points is indeed eliminated, this is not the case for any physical objects whatsoever. Furthermore, it seems as if category-theoretic formulations prove to be impotent in determining or describing the structure of particular models of the theory, particularly in a way that connects with experimental practice. Category theory gets a beautifully general and unified handle on fundamental physical theories at the expense of being blinded as to the structure of the objects of a category–it can’t see ‘within’ them. While we consider the questions raised by Bain and the solutions he offers to be of great foundational value, we submit that the radical shouldn’t expect that invoking category theory will alleviate–let alone resolve–her ailings.

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