Background Independence: Lessons for Further Decades of Dispute

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B: Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics 65:41-54 (2019)
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Abstract

Background independence begins life as an informal property that a physical theory might have, often glossed as 'doesn't posit a fixed spacetime background'. Interest in trying to offer a precise account of background independence has been sparked by the pronouncements of several theorists working on quantum gravity that background independence embodies in some sense an essential discovery of the General Theory of Relativity, and a feature we should strive to carry forward to future physical theories. This paper has two goals. The first is to investigate what a world must be like in order to be truly described by a background independent theory given extant accounts of background independence. The second is to argue that there are no non-empirical reasons to be more confident in theories that satisfy extant accounts of background independence than in theories that don't. The paper concludes by drawing a general moral about a way in which focussing primarily on mathematical formulations of our physical theories can adversely affect debates in the metaphysics of physics.

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Trevor Teitel
University of Toronto, St. George Campus

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