Reading Natural Philosophy: Essays in the History and Philosophy of Science and Mathematics

By David B. Malament | Go to book overview

7
Reconsidering Ernst Mach on
Space, Time, and Motion

ROBERT DISALLE

The standing of Ernst Mach as a philosopher has depended, at least since 1915, on the prevailing interpretation of general relativity. After the successes of the atomic theory in the early years of the twentieth century, Mach's denial of the reality of atoms seemed to discredit his severe form of empiricism. But the advent of general relativity seemed to vindicate Mach after all. According to Einstein himself, general relativity incorporated two central insights of Mach: that motion is essentially relative, so that any meaningful statement about motion is necessarily a description of relative change of position; and that inertia is not an irreducible property of any given body, but arises from its interconnection with all the other masses in the universe. To philosophers, especially Reichenbach, and physicists, especially Einstein himself, these principles signified that genera! relativity was not merely a new theory of space, time, and gravitation, but a new philosophical understanding of space and time in general. Whereas Newtonian mechanics and special relativity had taken space and time, or spacetime, to be objective features of the world, general relativity had revealed the arbitrariness of all spatiotemporal descriptions. In doing so, general relativity seemed to confirm Mach's view of absolute space and time as “conceptual monsters.”

In the second half of the twentieth century, however, many philosophers and physicists came to understand that general relativity does not satisfy Mach's philosophical demands as Einstein had originally hoped. First, it fails to establish the “general relativity of motion,” since it does indeed distinguish geodesic motion (gravitational free-fall) from other states of motion. Thus, the theoretical distinction between rotating and nonrotating systems—what Einstein called the “epistemological defect” of the earlier theories—persists in general relativity, though in a much more complicated form; the difference between the Keplerian and Tychonic

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