Thursday, December 21, 2023

Relativity was not Influenced by Philosophy

2019 article:
Last week it was revealed that Edinburgh University’s David Purdie had discovered a letter from Albert Einstein in which the great scientist notes the importance of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume in developing his theory of special relativity.

Without having reading Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature, Einstein wrote: “I cannot say that the solution would have come.”

Historians have, in fact, long known about Einstein’s debt to Hume, and indeed about that letter. They’ve known, too, about the influence on Einstein of many other philosophers, from Ernst Mach to Arthur Schopenhauer. Part of what many find intriguing about the story is the idea that scientific theories should be shaped by philosophical ideas. It has become common for scientists to dismiss philosophy as irrelevant to their work.

The flaw in this argument is that Einstein had almost nothing to do with the discovery of special relativity. He wrote a 1905 paper that is credited heavily today, but at the time it was just an exposition of Lorentz's theory, and soon superseded by papers by Poincare and Minkowski. Relativity became popular from Minkowski, not Einstein.

I have argued that a belief in causality could have led natural philosophers to the basic ideas of relativity, but it did not.

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