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Action at a distance

  • Action at a distance
    • E.g. Gravity/EM, something in one place can affect something far away without anything passing in between


  • Trying to explain how a magic trick (making a match levitate) works. 1. The magician has the power to make things levitate with their mind
    • This would be disturbing because it can’t be generalized / doesn’t fit into a universal scientific model 2. The magician has magnets in the walls and controls them with a small computer
    • Would alleviate the disturbance. 3. The magician can send out ‘levitator particles’ from the eyes. There’s a ‘levitator particle’ detector which is triggered, shows they have energy and can do work.
    • Would also alleviate the concern, the particles would become the new normal, a feature of the world.
  • Action at a distance would be like having no such explanation (though there is regularity/predictability).

Consequence of action at a distance

  • Fear: if we allow action at a distance, then anything is permitted anywhere
    • Billiard ball motion could be determined by huge (far away) bodies of motion rather than anything local.
  • in 17th century, “mechanistic philosophy” (e.g. Boyle)
    • All explanations should be given by just matter and motion
    • Magnets thought to emit something similar to levitator particles
  • in 19th century, get the development of a field.
    • Newton’s gravity is action at a distance is already well-established
      • action at a distance now tolerated widely
    • Faraday/Maxwell are able to reform E&M that doesn’t require action at a distance, have nothing to say about gravity.
    • Einstein then gets rid of it for gravity

Quantum mechanics reintroduced action at a distance

  • Einstein has methodological complaint. Science is impossible if objects aren’t independent of each other.
  • Leibniz Principle of Sufficient Reason: for everything that happens, there is a reason why it (in particular) happened.
  • Paramenides: nothing comes from nothing (apple comes from the tree, apple’s redness came from the seed (DNA))
    • Change is impossible follows from this
    • In some sense, something coming from nothing would violate the principle of sufficient reason.


  • Many arguments for and against.
  • Philosophically, one must have a framework to do science.
  • P.S.R. is really hard to do without.
  • There were never historically people who lamented loss of action at a distance when an equally predictive theory becomes available.