, Volume 141, Issue 3, pp 417-429

The Newtonian Limit of Relativity Theory and the Rationality of Theory Change

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The aim of this paper is to elucidate the question of whether Newtonian mechanics can be derived from relativity theory. Physicists agree that classical mechanics constitutes a limiting case of relativity theory. By contrast, philosophers of science like Kuhn and Feyerabend affirm that classical mechanics cannot be deduced from relativity theory because of the incommensurability between both theories; thus what we obtain when we take the limit c→∞ in relativistic mechanics cannot be Newtonian mechanics sensu stricto. In this paper I focus on the alleged change of reference of the term mass in the transition from one theory to the other. Contradicting Kuhn and Feyerabend, special relativity theory supports the view that the mass of an object is a characteristic property of the object, that it has the same value in whatever frame of reference it is measured, and that it does not depend on whether the object is in motion or at rest. Thus mass preserves the reference through the change of theory, and the existence of a Newtonian limit of relativity theory provides a good example of the rationality of theory change in mathematical physics.