Expecting objects to have their own independent existence—independent of us, and any other objects — is actually a deep-seated assumption we make about the world.
During the scientific revolution, the English physics pioneer Isaac Newton and his German counterpart Gottfried Leibniz disagreed on the nature of space and time.
Newton claimed space and time acted like a “container” for the contents of the universe. That is, if we could remove the contents of the universe—all the planets, stars, and galaxies—we would be left with empty space and time. This is the “absolute” view of space and time.
Leibniz, on the other hand, claimed that space and time were nothing more than the sum total of distances and durations between all the objects and events of the world. If we removed the contents of the universe, we would remove space and time also. This is the “relational” view of space and time: they are only the spatial and temporal relations between objects and events. The relational view of space and time was a key inspiration for Einstein when he developed general relativity.
Rovelli makes use of this idea to understand quantum mechanics. He claims the objects of quantum theory, such as a photon, electron, or other fundamental particle, are nothing more than the properties they exhibit when interacting with—in relation to—other objects.
These properties of a quantum object are determined through experiment, and include things like the object’s position, momentum, and energy. Together they make up an object’s state.
According to Rovelli’s relational interpretation, these properties are all there is to the object: there is no underlying individual substance that “has” the properties.
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