In physics and philosophy, a relational theory is a framework to understand reality or a physical system in such a way that the positions and other properties of objects are only meaningful relative to other objects. In a relational spacetime theory, space does not exist unless there are objects in it; nor does time exist without events. The relational view proposes that space is contained in objects and that an object represents within itself relationships to other objects. Space can be defined through the relations among the objects that it contains considering their variations through time. The alternative spatial theory is an absolute theory in which the space exists independently of any objects that can be immersed in it.
Someone who has constructed a relational theory or promotes relational theorising is called a relationist.
The relational point of view was advocated by in physics by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, Ernst Mach (in his Mach's principle), and it was rejected by Isaac Newton in his successful description of classical physics. Although Albert Einstein was impressed by Mach's principle, he did not fully incorporate it into his theory of general relativity. Several attempts have been made to formulate a full Machian theory, but most physicists think that none have so far succeeded. For example, see Brans–Dicke theory.
Relational quantum mechanics and a relational approach to quantum physics have been independently developed, in analogy with Einstein's special relativity of space and time. Relationist physicists such as John Baez and Carlo Rovelli have criticised the leading unified theory of gravity and quantum mechanics, string theory, as retaining absolute space. Some prefer a developing theory of gravity, loop quantum gravity for its 'backgroundlessness'.
A recent synthesis of relational theory, called R-theory, continuing the work of the mathematical biologist Robert Rosen (who developed "Relational Biology" and "Relational Complexity" as theories of life () takes a position between the above views. Rosen's theory differed from other relational views in defining fundamental relations in nature (as opposed to merely epistemic relations we might discuss) as information transfers between natural systems and their organization (as expressed in models). R-theory extends the idea of organizational models to nature generally. As interpreted by R-theory, such "modeling relations" describe reality in terms of information relations (encoding and decoding) between measurable existence (expressed as material states and established by efficient behavior) and implicate organization or identity (expressed as formal potential and established by final exemplar), thus capturing all four of Aristotle's causalities within nature (Aristotle defined final cause as immanent from outside of nature). Applied to space-time physics, it claims that space-time is real but established only in relation to existing events, as a formal cause or model for the location of events relative to each other; and in reverse a system of space-time events establishes a template for space-time. R-theory is thus a form of model-dependent realism. It claims to more closely follow the views of Mach, Leibniz, Wheeler and Bohm, suggesting that natural law itself is system-dependent.
- Kineman, J. 2011. "Relational Science: A Synthesis". Axiomathes 21 (3):393-437.
- Rosen, R. 1991. "Life Itself: A Comprehensive Inquiry Into The Nature, Origin, And Fabrication Of Life". Columbia University Press. New York.