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Is the relativity principle consistent with electrodynamics? Towards a logico-empiricist reconstruction of a physical theory

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  • Classical Physics
  • Laws Of Nature
  • Theory/Observation
  • Symmetries/Invariances
  • Relativity Theory
  • Operationalism/Instrumentalism
  • Logical Positivism/Logical Empiricism
  • Linguistics
  • Mathematics
  • Physics


It is common in the literature on electrodynamics and relativity theory that the transformation rules for the basic electrodynamical quantities are derived from the hypothesis that the relativity principle (RP) applies for Maxwell's electrodynamics. As it will turn out from our analysis, these derivations raise several problems, and certain steps are logically questionable. This is, however, not our main concern in this paper. Even if these derivations were completely correct, they leave open the following questions: (1) Is (RP) a true law of nature for electrodynamical phenomena? (2) Are, at least, the transformation rules of the fundamental electrodynamical quantities, derived from (RP), true? (3) Is (RP) consistent with the laws of electrodynamics in one single inertial frame of reference? (4) Are, at least, the derived transformation rules consistent with the laws of electrodynamics in one single frame of reference? Obviously, (1) and (2) are empirical questions. In this paper, we will investigate problems (3) and (4). First we will give a general mathematical formulation of (RP). In the second part, we will deal with the operational definitions of the fundamental electrodynamical quantities. As we will see, these semantic issues are not as trivial as one might think. In the third part of the paper, applying what J. S. Bell calls “Lorentzian pedagogy”---according to which the laws of physics in any one reference frame account for all physical phenomena---we will show that the transformation rules of the electrodynamical quantities are identical with the ones obtained by presuming the covariance of the coupled Maxwell--Lorentz equations, and that the covariance is indeed satisfied. As to problem (3), the situation is much more complex. As we will see, the relativity principle is actually not a matter of the covariance of the physical equations, but it is a matter of the details of the solutions of the equations, which describe the behavior of moving objects. This raises conceptual problems concerning the meaning of the notion “the same system in a collective motion”. In case of electrodynamics, there seems no satisfactory solution to this conceptual problem; thus, contrary to the widespread views, the question we asked in the title has no obvious answer.

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