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The position of conventionalism states that there is no fact of the matter as to the geometry of space and time, but that it is decided by convention. The first proponent of such a view, Henri Poincaré, reacting to the creation of the new non-euclidean geometry, argued that which geometry applied to a space was decided by convention, since different geometries will describe a set of objects equally well, based on considerations from his sphere-world.

This view was developed and updated to include considerations from relativistic physics by Hans Reichenbach. Reichenbach's conventionalism, applying to space and time, focuses around the idea of coordinative definition.

Coordinative definition has two major features. The first has to do with coordinating units of length with certain physical objects. This is motivated by the fact that we can never directly apprehend length. Instead we must choose some physical object, say the Standard Metre at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures), or the wavelength of cadmium to stand in as our unit of length. The second feature deals with separated objects. Although we can, presumably, directly test the equality of length of two measuring rods when they are next to one another, we can not find out as much for two rods distant from one another. Even supposing that two rods, whenever brought near to one another are seen to be equal in length, we are not justified in stating that they are always equal in length. This impossibility undermines our ability to decide the equality of length of two distant objects. Sameness of length, to the contrary, must be set by definition.

Such a use of coordinative definition is in effect, on Reichenbach's conventionalism, in the General Theory of Relativity where light is assumed, i.e. not discovered, to mark out equal distances in equal times. After this setting of coordinative definition, however, the geometry of spacetime is set.

As in the absolutism/relationalism debate, contemporary philosophy is still in disagreement as to the correctness of the conventionalist doctrine. While conventionalism still holds many proponents, cutting criticisms concerning the coherence of Reichenbach's doctrine of coordinative definition have led many to see the conventionalist view as untenable.

The structure of spacetime

Building from a mix of insights from the historical debates of absolutism and conventionalism as well as reflecting on the import of the technical apparatus of the General Theory of Relativity, details as to the structure of spacetime have made up a large proportion of discussion within the philosophy of space and time, as well as the philosophy of physics. The following is a short list of topics.

The relativity of simultaneity

According to special relativity each point in the universe can have a different set of events that compose its present instant. This has been used in the Rietdijk-Putnam argument to demonstrate that relativity predicts a block universe in which events are fixed in four dimensions.

Invariance vs. covariance

Bringing to bear the lessons of the absolutism/relationalism debate with the powerful mathematical tools invented in the 19th and 20th century, Michael Friedman draws a distinction between invariance upon mathematical transformation and covariance upon transformation.

Invariance, or symmetry, applies to objects, i.e. the symmetry group of a space-time theory designates what features of objects are invariant, or absolute, and which are dynamical, or variable.

Covariance applies to formulations of theories, i.e. the covariance group designates in which range of coordinate systems the laws of physics hold.

This distinction can be illustrated by revisiting Leibniz's thought experiment, in which the universe is shifted over five feet. In this example the position of an object is seen not to be a property of that object, i.e. location is not invariant. Similarly, the covariance group for classical mechanics will be any coordinate systems that are obtained from one another by shifts in position as well as other translations allowed by a Galilean transformation.

In the classical case, the invariance, or symmetry, group and the covariance group coincide, but, interestingly enough, they part ways in relativistic physics. The symmetry group of the general theory of relativity includes all differentiable transformations, i.e., all properties of an object are dynamical, in other words there are no absolute objects. The formulations of the general theory of relativity, unlike those of classical mechanics, do not share a standard, i.e., there is no single formulation paired with transformations. As such the covariance group of the general theory of relativity is just the covariance group of every theory.

Historical frameworks

A further application of the modern mathematical methods, in league with the idea of invariance and covariance groups, is to try to interpret historical views of space and time in modern, mathematical language.

In these translations, a theory of space and time is seen as a manifold paired with vector spaces, the more vector spaces the more facts there are about objects in that theory. The historical development of spacetime theories is generally seen to start from a position where many facts about objects are incorporated in that theory, and as history progresses, more and more structure is removed.

For example, Aristotle's theory of space and time holds that not only is there such a thing as absolute position, but that there are special places in space, such as a center to the universe, a sphere of fire, etc. Newtonian spacetime has absolute position, but not special positions. Galilean spacetime has absolute acceleration, but not absolute position or velocity. And so on.


With the general theory of relativity, the traditional debate between absolutism and relationalism has been shifted to whether or not spacetime is a substance, since the general theory of relativity largely rules out the existence of, e.g., absolute positions. One powerful argument against spacetime substantivalism, offered by John Earman is known as the "hole argument".

This is a technical mathematical argument but can be paraphrased as follows:

Define a function d as the identity function over all elements over the manifold M, excepting a small neighbourhood H belonging to M. Over H d comes to differ from identity by a smooth function.

With use of this function d we can construct two mathematical models, where the second is generated by applying d to proper elements of the first, such that the two models are identical prior to the time t=0, where t is a time function created by a foliation of spacetime, but differ after t=0.

These considerations show that, since substantivalism allows the construction of holes, that the universe must, on that view, be indeterministic. Which, Earman argues, is a case against substantivalism, as the case between determinism or indeterminism should be a question of physics, not of our commitment to substantivalism.

The direction of time

The problem of the direction of time arises directly from two contradictory facts. First, the fundamental physical laws are time-reversal invariant. In other words, anything that can happen moving forward through time is just as possible moving backwards in time. Or, put in another way, through the eyes of physics, there will be no distinction, in terms of possibility, between what happens in a movie if the film is run forward, or if the film is run backwards. Second, our experience of time, at the macroscopic level, is not time-reversal invariant.[citation needed] Glasses fall and break all the time, but shards of glass do not put themselves back together and fly up on tables. We have memories of the past, and none of the future. We feel we can't change the past but can influence the future.

The causation solution

One solution to this problem takes a metaphysical view, in which the direction of time follows from an asymmetry of causation. We know more about the past because the elements of the past are causes for the effect that is our perception. We feel we can't affect the past and can affect the future because we can't affect the past and can affect the future.

There are two main objections to this view. First is the problem of distinguishing the cause from the effect in a non-arbitrary way. The use of causation in constructing a temporal ordering could easily become circular. The second problem with this view is its explanatory power. While the causation account, if successful, may account for some time-asymmetric phenomena like perception and action, it does not account for many others.

However, asymmetry of causation can be observed in a non-arbitrary way which is not metaphysical in the case of a human hand dropping a cup of water which smashes into fragments on a hard floor, spilling the liquid. In this order, the causes of the resultant pattern of cup fragments and water spill is easily attributable in terms of the trajectory of the cup, irregularities in its structure, angle of its impact on the floor, etc. However, applying the same event in reverse, it is difficult to explain why the various pieces of the cup should fly up into the human hand and reassemble precisely into the shape of a cup, or why the water should position itself entirely within the cup. The causes of the resultant structure and shape of the cup and the encapsulation of the water by the hand within the cup are not easily attributable, as neither hand nor floor can achieve such formations of the cup or water. This asymmetry is perceivable on account of two features:- i) the relationship between the agent capacities of the human hand (i.e., what it is and is not capable of & what it is for) and non-animal agency (i.e., what floors are and are not capable of and what they are for) and ii) that the pieces of cup came to possess exactly the nature and number of those of a cup before assembling. In short, such asymmetry is attributable to the relationship between temporal direction on the one hand and the implications of form and functional capacity on the other.

The application of these ideas of form and functional capacity only dictates temporal direction in relation to complex scenarios involving specific, non-metaphysical agency which is not merely dependent on human perception of time. However, this last observation in itself is not sufficient to invalidate the implications of the example for the progressive nature of time in general.

The thermodynamics solution

The second major family of solutions to this problem, and by far the one that has generated the most literature, finds the existence of the direction of time as relating to the nature of thermodynamics.

The answer from classical thermodynamics states that while our basic physical theory is, in fact, time-reversal symmetric, thermodynamics is not. In particular, the second law of thermodynamics states that the net entropy of a closed system never decreases, and this explains why we often see glass breaking, but not coming back together.

But in statistical mechanics things get more complicated. On one hand, statistical mechanics is far superior to classical thermodynamics, in that thermodynamic behavior, such as glass breaking, can be explained by the fundamental laws of physics paired with a statistical postulate. But statistical mechanics, unlike classical thermodynamics, is time-reversal symmetric. The second law of thermodynamics, as it arises in statistical mechanics, merely states that it is overwhelmingly likely that net entropy will increase, but it is not an absolute law.

Current thermodynamic solutions to the problem of the direction of time aim to find some further fact, or feature of the laws of nature to account for this discrepancy.

The laws solution

A third type of solution to the problem of the direction of time, although much less represented, argues that the laws are not time-reversal symmetric. For example, certain processes in quantum mechanics, relating to the weak nuclear force, are not time-reversible, keeping in mind that when dealing with quantum mechanics time-reversibility comprises a more complex definition.

But this type of solution is insufficient because 1) the time-asymmetric phenomena in quantum mechanics are too few to account for the uniformity of macroscopic time-asymmetry and 2) it relies on the assumption that quantum mechanics is the final or correct description of physical processes.

One recent proponent of the laws solution is Tim Maudlin who argues that, in addition to quantum mechanical phenomena, our basic spacetime physics (general relativity) is time-reversal asymmetric. He denies the definitions, often quite complicated, that underlie time-reversal symmetries, arguing that these definitions themselves cause the appearance of a problem of the direction of time.

The flow of time

The problem of the flow of time, as it has been treated in analytic philosophy, owes its beginning to a paper written by J. M. E. McTaggart. In this paper McTaggart proposes two "temporal series". The first series, which means to account for our intuitions about temporal becoming, or the moving Now, is called the A-series. The A-series orders events according to their being in the past, present or future, simpliciter and in comparison to each other. The B-series eliminates all reference to the present, and the associated temporal modalities of past and future, and orders all events by the temporal relations earlier than and later than.

McTaggart, in his paper The Unreality of Time, argues that time is unreal since a) the A-series is inconsistent and b) the B-series alone cannot account for the nature of time as the A-series describes an essential feature of it.

Building from this framework, two camps of solution have been offered. The first, the A-theorist solution, takes becoming as the central feature of time, and tries to construct the B-series from the A-series by offering an account of how B-facts come to be out of A-facts. The second camp, the B-theorist solution, takes as decisive McTaggart's arguments against the A-series and tries to construct the A-series out of the B-series, for example, by temporal indexicals.