Relativity is Absolute May 25, 2009Posted by Andre Vellino in Philosophy of Science.
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is perhaps the best known book by Thomas Kuhn. But I think his most interesting book is The Copernican Revolution. In it Kuhn defends the thesis that Copernicus was more of a Platonist about the importance of circular motion in celestial bodies than Greek astronomers were.
The Greeks also believed that circular motion was the only way to explain celestial motion, but in order to accomodate the additional principle that the earth is at the center of the universe, they had to explain the movement of heavenly bodies in terms of circles moving around circles (epicycles) without worrying too much about whether the physical entities themselves were actually moving incircles.
Copernicus, on the other hand, held the view that the bodies themselves had to be moving in circles. And if that becomes the core of your theory of the heavens, then explaining the phenomena (e.g. the retrograde motion of mars) is “merely” a matter of “shifting paradigms”, i.e. setting the sun at the center of the universe and putting the earth in motion. So the core of Khun’s thesis is that Copernicus was more of an “absolutist” about circular motion than ptolemaic astronomers.
Similarly, I would argue that Einstien too was more of an “absolutist” about the laws of nature than his predecessors and that the theory of “relativity” is a misnomer. In fact, it is a theory about the “absoluteness” of the laws of nature. Einstien’s insight was that all the laws of nature are the same in all frames of reference. For instance, no matter how fast you are moving, the speed of light is a constant. And for Einstein there nothing that is exempt from being subject to laws of nature, not even “space” or “time” (which thereby relinquish their role as “absolutes”).