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The British Society for the Philosophy of Science

On the Mach Principle and Relative Space-Time

Author(s): Mendel Sachs
Source: The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 23, No. 2 (May, 1972), pp.
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The British Society for the
Philosophy of Science
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Brit. J. Phil. Sci. 23 (1972), II117-121 Printed in Great Britain 117



THE purpose of this note is to discuss what I feel to be a common misc

among physicists and philosophers of science on what it is that is ass
the Mach principle, on the one hand, and on the other, what are its i
tions. If one should stay close to Mach's original discussion in his
this principle (named later by Einstein) has to do with Mach's interpr
of inertia-that physical manifestation of interacting matter that is th
its resistance to a change of state of rest or constant velocity. The pr
itself does not directly relate to space and time. It is the assertion that
ertia of any quantity of matter is a measure of its dynamical coupling
of the other constituent matter within the considered closed system (in
the universe).
The implication of this principle is that any physical system is nec
closed, since with this view no matter can be considered as free of the r
components of the system. The latter conclusion appealed to Mac
metaphysical stand since it rejected the assumption that the whole is
of 'free' bits of matter that, in principle, could interact, but equally
free to enter the unobservable states of noninteraction. Nevertheless, i
true that this view of matter in terms of afundamentally closed system n
motivated by the positivistic philosophy. The view of a closed system
actual parts, is also consistent with the continuous field concept (
philosophic stand of realism) that is implicit in the theory of g
It is well known that Mach's interpretation of inertia strongly influenced
Einstein's development of relativity theory. It is interesting that even though
Mach's view was motivated by his positivistic philosophic stand, it led Einstein
to the stand of realism-the 'underlying reality' being the closed system, with-
out parts, necessarily described in his theory with the continuous field concept.1
It is unfortunate that many mistakingly view the Mach principle as a unique
consequence of the philosophy of positivism, perhaps because of the tendency
to assign a single label to everything written by a particular scholar, rather than
sifting portions of the man's philosophy that might have more scientific validity
than other portions. (For example, one should not say that because of Kepler's
astrological writings, his law of equal areas for planetary motion is to be re-
jected as mystical!)
Since the Mach principle is not more than an assertion about a physical
manifestation (inertia) of interacting matter, it does not in itself imply relational
properties between spatial points. Of course, should one accept the concept of
absolute space at the outset, then inertia could be interpreted in terms of a

a In a recent publication (Sachs [1970]) I have tried to analyse the influence of different
implicit aspects of Mach's philosophy on contemporary physics.

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S118 Mendel Sachs

relation between a free quantity of matter and this absolute space, without
considering other bodies. Inertia could also be interpreted as an intrinsic feature
of a free body (atom) that moves about in the absolute space, that is a measure
of its potential to resist external forces, but is in itself unrelated to the space.
Mach's positivistic stand forced him to reject both of these alternatives (absolute
space and atomism) since neither, by themselves, directly relate to the human
being's sensations. Thus the positivistic aspect of his philosophy led him to
interpret the inertia of matter in terms of its dynamical coupling with all other
But also in accordance with Mach's conclusion about the inertia of matter
in terms of interaction, as well as his rejection of absolute space and atomism,
came the theory of general relativity-a theory based on a relational inter-
pretation of space and time in terms of the continuous field concept. While the
Mach principle deals only with matter and does not directly imply anything
about space and time, general relativity does relate the material content of the
closed system to the geometry of space-time. The empirical evidence for the
relational doctrine of space-time should then follow from observations that
would support the full form of the theory of general relativity-a form that
incorporates the Mach principle.1, 2
A second point that I should like to make has to do with what appears to me
as a prevailing confusion between one of the implications of the Mach principle-
the influence of the distant stars on the local properties of matter-and the
principle itself. Indeed, according to this principle, distant stars must influence
the local properties of matter in terms of its inertia. But it could very well be
that the strength of coupling between the stars (i.e. the rest of the universe)
and, say, an electron observed on Earth, is sufficiently weak that one could
safely neglect its contribution to the electron's inertia-yet still maintaining
the validity of the Mach principle! In this case, a good mathematical approxima-
tion in deriving the electron mass from the closed system, might be to consider
as closed only the electron and its immediate environment-the 'physical
vacuum' (involving electron-positron pairs and electromagnetic radiation)
that we find necessary to explain features of elementary particle and atomic
physics, as well as the remaining background matter in which one might study
the electron's physical properties. (The observed isotropy and homogeneity
of the electron's inertia would imply that the primary dynamical coupling that
leads to its mass is in terms of the field properties of space-time, according
to general relativity theory, as determined by the 'physical vacuum'.)
The main point here is the contention that the influence of the stars on the
inertia of a local quantity of matter is only one of the implications of the Mach
principle-it is not the principle itself! The principle could be found to be
perfectly valid without ever having to evoke empirical astronomical evidence
as a crucial test. On this point, Mach made the following comment in his [18831:
'(the) objection, that a comparison of masses satisfying my definition can only
be effected by astronomical means, I am unable to admit. Masses produce in

1 I have recently published the results of a theoretical analysis that is in the direction of
supporting such a theory. (Sachs [1968].)
2 A recent interesting exposition of views in contrast with these comments on the role of
the Mach principle vis a vis the relational doctrine of space-time were presented in
Hooker's [1971].

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On the Mach Principle and Relative Space-Time i19

each other accelerations in impact, as well as subject to electric and magnetic

forces, and when connected by a string in Atwood's machine.'

Department of Physic
State University of New York at


HOOKER, C. A. [1971]: 'The Relational Doctrines of Space

for the Philosophy of Science, 22, pp. 97-130o.
MACH, E. [1883]: Die Mechanik in ihrer Entwicklung historis
English edition: The Science of Mechanics, 196o).
SACHS, M. [1968]: 'On Positive-Definiteness of Inertial Ma
of Electromagnetic Coupling and the Mach Principle fr
Nuovo Cimento, 53B, pp. 398-414.
SACHS, M. [I970o]: 'Positivism, Realism and Existentialism
temporary Physics', Philosophy and Phenomenological Res


In his [1967] Hilary Putnam concludes that all events in special relativisti
time, whether past, present, or future, are equally real, i.e. that a tensel
cept of existence is the appropriate concept of existence in a special rel
world. Although I believe this conclusion is correct, I think Putnam's arg
for it is not. Therefore, in this paper I will first criticise one of Putnam
assumptions and then I will sketch a new argument for the reality of all e
special relativistic space-time that escapes this criticism.
In his argument Putnam assumes that if me-now is at a space-time po
then of the events outside the lightcone of P and with respect to my f
reference, those simultaneous to me-now are in my present, those later t
now are in my future, and those earlier than me-now are in my past. Ho
as against this, note that in special relativity, temporal relations between
at P and events outside of P's lightcone are conventional,' depending no
on the frame of reference chosen but also on the definition of simultaneity
Being merely conventional such temporal relations cannot have physica
ficance and thus, such concepts as past, present, and future are not phy
significant when, with respect to P, they are applied to events outside
lightcone. This ties in also with the fact that if we adopt the usual defin
distant simultaneity of E = - in every frame of reference, the temporal r
between events at P and events outside P's lightcone are not relativ
invariant (i.e. the same in every reference frame). And we would expect
ally significant concepts of past, present, and future to be relativi
1 Depending on the choice of e, o<e< I, along a line in space, the speed of light
,= c/2i in one direction and e = c2l (l--e) in the opposite direction. The a
round trip speed of light travelling a distance d in one direction and a distance
again along the line is
zd 2
dle'+ dle - 261Cc + 2(11 6))I
d2T+d/- ze/c+z(i--e)/c c, and so it is independent of e.

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