New Water in Old Buckets: Hypothetical and Counterfactual Reasoning in Mach’s Economy of Science

In Friedrich Stadler (ed.), Ernst Mach – Life, Work, Influence. Springer Verlag (2019)
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Ernst Mach’s defense of relativist theories of motion in Die Mechanik involves a well-known criticism of Newton’s theory appealing to absolute space, and of Newton’s “bucket” experiment. Sympathetic readers (Norton 1995) and critics (Stein 1967, 1977) agree that there’s a tension in Mach’s view: he allows for some constructed scientific concepts, but not others, and some kinds of reasoning about unobserved phenomena, but not others. Following Banks (2003), I argue that this tension can be interpreted as a constructive one, springing from Mach’s approach to scientific reasoning. Mach’s “economy of science” allows for a principled distinction to be made, between natural and artificial hypothetical reasoning, and Mach defends a division of labor between the sciences in a 1903 paper for The Monist, “Space and Geometry from the Point of View of Physical Inquiry”. That division supports counterfactual reasoning in Mach’s system, something that’s long been denied is possible for him.
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