Sebastián Murgueitio Ramírez; Forthcoming Publication

Author: Tori Davies

HPS graduate student, Sebastián Murgueitio Ramírez and Notre Dame Associate Professor, Nic Teh have co-written an article forthcoming in The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science.

Abandoning Galileo’s Ship: the quest for non relational empirical significance 

The recent debate about whether gauge symmetries can be empirically significant has focused on the possibility of 'Galileo's ship' types of scenarios, where the symmetries effect relational differences between a subsystem and the environment. However, it has gone largely unremarked that apart from such Galileo's ship scenarios, Greaves and Wallace (2014) proposed that gauge transformations can also be empirically significant in a 'non-relational' manner that is analogous to a Faraday-cage scenario, where the subsystem symmetry is related to a change in a charged boundary state. In this paper, we investigate the question of whether such non-relational scenarios are possible for gauge theories. Remarkably, the answer to this question turns out to be closely related to a foundational puzzle that has driven a host of recent developments at the frontiers of theoretical physics. By drawing on these recent developments, we show that a very natural way of elaborating on Greaves and Wallace's claim of non-relational empirical significance for gauge symmetry is incoherent. However, we also argue that much of what they suggest is correct in spirit: one can indeed construct non-relational models of the kind they sketch, albeit ones where the empirical significance is not witnessed by a gauge symmetry but instead by a superficially similar boundary symmetry. Furthermore, the latter casts doubt on whether one really abandons Galileo's ship in such scenarios.