The Legacy of the Physics Philosopher, Ernst Mach
Is it possible that our Western tradition of science has been founded on a BIG MISTAKE?
For centuries it has been assumed that the light by which we see things travels in space. However, a logical alternative to that idea is one that was introduced into modern physics by the physics philosopher, Ernst Mach. This is simply to think of light as the pure information from which, as observers, we project the dimensions of physical phenomena, similarly to the way in which the viewer projects the length, breadth, depth and action of a video scenario from patterns and sequences of screen pixels. In this alternative way of thinking, the traditional ‘speed of light in space’, c is replaced by a dimensional constant which has the same value and dimensions as c but none of its usual ‘space-travelling’ connotations. It is to be emphasised that this conceptual modification does not compromise the practical consequences of Relativity theory in any way.
The significance of this proposal for the conduct of modern relativistic and quantum physics is profound but has not, so far, been fully assimilated into the corpus of contemporary Physics which, consequently, is held in suspense between two incommensurable paradigms. This is doubtless because, from the point of view of the standard paradigm the suggestion that light doesn’t travel is completely heretical and incomprehensible. But, then, so, in its day, was every major advance in science. However, the full logical consequences of this Neo-Machian alternative approach to modern physics have now been explored in depth. This is for over half a century since, in 1954, Viv Pope had a short but very significant correspondence with Albert Einstein, just before the great man’s death. A quarter of a century later, a meeting between Pope and Anthony Osborne at Keele University occasioned a rare cross-disciplinary merging of Arts and Science, namely, Philosophy and Mathematics. This was in an academically unclassifiable joint venture which has become known as the Pope-Osborne Angular Momentum Synthesis (POAMS). This offers a simple logical solution to the notoriously unsolved problem of whether distant action is limited to the ‘speed of light’, as Relativity demands, or is instantaneous, as Quantum Physics requires.
What would such a solution signify for the ordinary person? The answer is – just about everything. The traditional ‘space-travelling’ concept of light places a ‘veil of perception’ between us as observers and the physical world. Removing this traditional ‘veil’ restores to Western science its original confidence in direct sensory and instrumental perception as the true foundation of all knowledge of the world from the microcosm to the macrocosm. This is in the way that was taught by Mach, who was Einstein’s philosophical mentor and source of his ‘relativistic’ inspiration. This teaching is in direct opposition to that of the traditional notion of physical reality as what classical physicists tacitly supposed ‘God sees’ in his assumed ‘infinite and ubiquitous (i.e., absolute) way’ behind and beyond our ‘finite’ observations. Significantly for empirical physics, this Neo-Machian, ‘flipside’ view of c as a constant, not a velocity, puts observation as emphasised by Einsteinian Relativity, right at the forefront of all scientific knowledge, thus allowing the halted revolution that Mach began, from absolutism to relativism to turn full circle.
ERNST MACH: PRECURSOR of both EINSTEINIAN RELATIVITY and QUANTUM PHYSICS
Einstein’s Theory of Relativity emphasises the centrality of the observer in the scheme of things. In Relativity, all the properties, qualities and dimensions of things, their mass, length and duration, their force, energy and so on are as manjfest in observation. However, the history of observationism, or relativism, does not begin with Einstein. It is a tradition which goes at least as far back as George Berkeley in the 18th century, reaching its climax in the first half of the 20th century with Mach’s followers, the philosopher-physicists of the Vienna Circle. This three-hundred years development of relativism after Berkeley is scarcely, if ever, taught to students of Physics whose knowledge of this observationist movement stops at Berkeley, three centuries ago. They are therefore not informed of how, over those three centuries, that observationist movement initiated by Berkeley led to the Logical Positivism of Mach and thence to the ‘Linguisic Analysis’ of the likes of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Alfred Ayer. Another spin-off from this Machian observationist tradition was, of course, in 1905, with Einstein’s Theory of (observer-based) Relativity.
The essential difference between this relativist, or Berkeleyan, tradition and that of classical, or fundamentalist ‘realism’, is that the knowledge on which the relativist approach is based is provided entirely by the senses and instruments of direct observation. This is radically opposed to theoretical ideas of an underlying God’s-eye-view ‘reality’ consisting of atoms and so on existing absolutely and self-sufficiently – that is to say, in relation to nothing but themselves. Relationists (relativists) such as Berkeley and Mach argued that this assumed self-sufficiency of atomic particles and processes, as Democritus and his followers conceived them, can never be directly observed but only inferred from direct observation. From this relativistic point of view, therefore, there can be no space, nor time, nor objects nor properties or qualities of objects other than in direct holistic relation to one another – including ourselves, of course, as ‘observers’. This holistic interrelation between things is known in Physics contexts as ‘Mach’s Principle’. In this Machian paradigm of physics therefore, there can be no such things as light-waves or light-particles (‘photons’), nor any conducting ‘ether’, ‘atoms’, ‘fields’ or anything of that kind existing or acting isolatedly in vacuo in some imagined and inaccessible ‘God’s’ universal space and time.
It is easy to see, then, why Mach was at first heralded as the source of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. This view of him being the precursor of Einstenian Relativity, however, was repudiated by Mach in the plainest possible terms . The implicit reason was Einstein’s espousal of the notion of light as travelling on its own, darkly and unobserved in vacuo at the ‘constant speed’ c which, plainly, is as foreign to commonsense as to what Mach would regard as true relativity.
Having reached its peak, this observationist movement gradually withered in the public mind , overshadowed as it became by Einstein’s celebrated popular version of ‘Relativity’ which was a bewildering compromise between fundamentalist ‘Realism’ (absolutism) and Machian ‘Phenomenalism’. Since these two teachings are incommensurable, one or the other had to be chosen, with the other pushed into the backgound. Mach’s unadulterated relativism was thereby consigned to the cloisters of Academic Philosophy. It was simply too radical and out-of-kilter with the mindset of the Physics community of the time. Einstein’s hybrid, watered-down version of Relativity was much more palatable, insofar as it concealed the truly revolutionary significance of the observationist paradigm.
Unfortunately, Mach did not live long enough to develop his relativism to a level where it could compete, in practical terms, with Einstein’s conceptually flawed but highly acclaimed Theory of Relativity. This was the situation which prevailed until the 1960s when the full physical consequences of Mach’s relativism began to be systematically explored. Specifically, these developments are the consequence of interpreting the constant c consistently along neo-Machian lines as plainly and simply a dimensional constant of observati0nal perspective, as opposed to Einstein’s uncritical acceptance of c as the traditional ‘velocity of light in vacuo’. These consequences also include that essential part of Mach’s approach, which is his quantisation of observation into what he called ‘sense-data’. This quantisation of physical phenomena into observational data was the logical precursor of Max Planck’s observational/instrumental quantum h upon which modern Quantum Physics is based. The results of this half-century’s exploration of Mach’s quantised relativism and its implications for modern relativist quantum physics are as described on this website.
 Ernst Mach: Prinzipien der physikalischen optik (1921). ‘I gather from publications which have reached me, and especially from my correspondence that I am gradually becoming regarded as the forerunner of relativity. … I must, however, as assuredly disclaim to be a forerunner of the relativists as I withhold from the atomistic belief of the present day.’