Causation and Motion



Causation and Motion



Consider a universe containing just two objects, A and B (suppose they are tennis balls). They are moving relatively to each other at 30mph and are a million miles apart. Conventional opinion has it that it is arbitrary to declare one at rest and the other in motion; we can only regard one as at rest while the other moves in relation to it. We cannot suppose that one might be genuinely (objectively, absolutely) at rest and the other genuinely (objectively, absolutely) moving—that is, moving relative to space itself. Motion is coordinate-dependent, and we get to choose what is to be the coordinate. But suppose we apply a force to one of these objects, say A—we throw the ball in a certain direction. It moves relative to B; but B also moves relative to it, with no force applied. That is, we cause A to move, but not B. It would be bizarre to suggest that we also applied a force to B making it move relative to A. Isn’t this a non-arbitrary reason to suppose that A is in motion and not B? We can’t tell just by looking which is really at rest and which really moving, but once we know the causal history we can make such a judgment. The object B did not have its state of motion changed by the act of throwing it, but the object A did. Thus causation and motion are linked, both ontologically and epistemologically: causation gives rise to motion and we use this fact to determine what is moving (objectively, absolutely). This is how we ordinarily think of actual motions in our universe: when things are observed to move relatively we use causal facts to decide which is moving absolutely (i.e. relative to space). That is the epistemic basis for judgments of non-relative motion.

            Generally speaking, causation produces non-relative changes in an object, as in changing the color or shape of an object. We don’t suppose that painting an object red, say, could effect a color change in some other remote object—the analogue of causing motion in ball B by throwing ball A. Causation brings about local changes in the object acted on. Nor do we suppose that it is somehow arbitrary which object changes color or shape—as if we are free to say that some object a million miles distant changes color or shape when we apply a paintbrush to an object in front of us or hit it with a hammer. So if motion is anything like these properties it is a local property of the object acted upon, objectively and absolutely, not a property that can be decreed to hold of a remote object in relative motion with respect to the given object. Of course, relative motion is relative, but causation gives us reason to suppose that there is also non-relative motion—motion that reflects the causal order of things. If I order you fetch me an apple, thus causing your body to move in certain ways, it would be bizarre to suggest that I have thereby caused the whole material universe to move relatively to your body, which I have taken to be at rest for the nonce; though it is quite true that your body and the universe have been in a state of relative motion, and that I could have chosen to make your body my frame of reference for the purpose of describing this relative motion. Intuitively, your body was caused to move by my command, not the rest of the universe, even though there was a state of relative motion between them. In a universe equipped with causation, then, there is absolute motion (as well as relative).

            The difference between motion and color or shape is just that we can see changes in the latter but not in the former just by looking at the object in question. But this is not a deep fact about motion: absolute motion could be imperceptible yet real. And not seeing is not the same as not knowing: we can know that absolute motion has occurred by knowing what the operative causes are. Movement through absolute space is not perceptible because of the featureless nature of space, but it can be inferred by knowing the causal history of the object (e.g. whether it was recently thrown). In a sense, then, absolute motion is not an empirical property in the way that color and shape are: but it can be real nonetheless. Only a form of idealism would deny this possibility.

            The relativity of motion is a central tenet of Einstein’s relativity theory, both special and general. But it is noteworthy that no other science treats its central properties as similarly relative. Einstein’s (supposed) revolution in physics has not been mirrored in geology, biology, psychology, economics, etc. There has been no replacement of absolute notions by relative ones—as if an animal could only be a mongoose in relation to another animal, or a belief something you can have only relative to someone else. Objects simply have intrinsic non-relative attributes; they don’t have to be regarded as elements of systems that confer on them whatever properties they possess. This makes Einstein’s mechanics anomalous among the sciences: only it deals in properties that (allegedly) consist in relations to a coordinate system. We don’t, for example, think that Darwin’s theory of natural selection makes evolution relative to a choice of coordinates. Animals are not said to evolve with respect to one reference frame but not with respect to another. Why should the motion of bodies be an exception to this rule? It would be different if Einstein’s “revolution” had carried over to the other sciences, but it hasn’t. Only in certain (dubious) branches of anthropology could anyone say that we have discovered that certain apparently absolute properties are really relative—viz. ethical properties—but that would be a wholly superficial analogy. So mechanics alone traffics in the kind of relativity proposed by Einstein. No one ever says that an animal could be a mongoose relative to one set of animals but not relative to a different set, or that individuals have beliefs relative to one set of people but not relative to another set. There is nothing arbitrary in the claim that a certain animal is a mongoose or that a given person believes that the sky is blue—as if we could with equal right describe things differently by simply changing our frame of reference. Recognizing the existence of absolute motion, because of causation, thus brings physics into line with the other sciences. In trying to free physics from supposed “metaphysical elements” by banishing the idea of absolute motion (and absolute space and time) relativity theory makes physics exceptional among the sciences.  [1]



  [1] This is, of course, quite contrary to the erroneous lay idea that Einstein transferred the general relativity (subjectivity) of all our supposed knowledge into that bastion of objectivity known as physics. In fact, he claimed a relativity in physics not found elsewhere.

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