A precipice below which lies absurdity? Theories without a spacetime and scientific understanding

Sebastian de Haro*, Henk W. de Regt

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


While the relation between visualization and scientific understanding has been a topic of long-standing discussion, recent developments in physics have pushed the boundaries of this debate to new and still unexplored realms. For it is claimed that, in certain theories of quantum gravity, spacetime ‘disappears’: and this suggests that one may have sensible physical theories in which spacetime is completely absent. This makes the philosophical question whether such theories are intelligible, even more pressing. And if such theories are intelligible, the question then is how they manage to do so. In this paper, we adapt the contextual theory of scientific understanding, developed by one of us, to fit the novel challenges posed by physical theories without spacetime. We construe understanding as a matter of skill rather than just knowledge. The appeal is thus to understanding, rather than explanation, because we will be concerned with the tools that scientists have at their disposal for understanding these theories. Our central thesis is that such physical theories can provide scientific understanding, and that such understanding does not require spacetimes of any sort. Our argument consists of four consecutive steps: (a) We argue, from the general theory of scientific understanding, that although visualization is an oft-used tool for understanding, it is not a necessary condition for it; (b) we criticise certain metaphysical preconceptions which can stand in the way of recognising how intelligibility without spacetime can be had; (c) we catalogue tools for rendering theories without a spacetime intelligible; and (d) we give examples of cases in which understanding is attained without a spacetime, and explain what kind of understanding these examples provide.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3121–3149
Number of pages29
Issue number7
Early online date17 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2020


We thank Jeremy Butterfield, Silvia De Bianchi, Carl Hoefer, and Daniele Oriti helpful discussions. We also thank the members of the research group on Philosophy of Science and Technology of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam for a discussion of the manuscript. SDH thanks audiences at the Ninth Workshop on the Philosophy of Information in Brussels, and at the Department of Philosophy of the Universitat Aut?noma de Barcelona. SDH was supported by the Tarner scholarship in Philosophy of Science and History of Ideas, held at Trinity College, Cambridge.

FundersFunder number
Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona


    • Emergence of spacetime
    • Intelligibility of theories
    • Quantum gravity
    • Scientific understanding


    Dive into the research topics of 'A precipice below which lies absurdity? Theories without a spacetime and scientific understanding'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this