Is the relativity principle consistent with classical electrodynamics? Towards a logico-empiricist reconstruction of a physical theory
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It is common in the literature on classical electrodynamics (ED) and relativity theory that the transformation rules for the basic electrodynamical quantities are derived from the hypothesis that the relativity principle (RP) applies to Maxwell's electrodynamics. As it will turn out from our analysis, these derivations raise several problems, and certain steps are logically questionable. This is, however, not our main concern in this paper. Even if these derivations were completely correct, they leave open the following questions: (1) Is the RP a true law of nature for electrodynamical phenomena? (2) Are, at least, the transformation rules of the fundamental electrodynamical quantities, derived from the RP, true? (3) Is the RP consistent with the laws of ED in a single inertial frame of reference? (4) Are, at least, the derived transformation rules consistent with the laws of ED in a single frame of reference? Obviously, (1) and (2) are empirical questions. In this paper, we will investigate problems (3) and (4). First we will give a general mathematical formulation of the RP. In the second part, we will deal with the operational definitions of the fundamental electrodynamical quantities. As we will see, these semantic issues are not as trivial as one might think. In the third part of the paper, applying what J. S. Bell calls “Lorentzian pedagogy”---according to which the laws of physics in any one reference frame account for all physical phenomena---we will show that the transformation rules of the electrodynamical quantities are identical with the ones obtained by presuming the covariance of the equations of ED, and that the covariance is indeed satisfied. As to problem (3), the situation is more complex. The covariance of the physical equations is actually not enough for the RP; whether the RP holds depends on the details of the solutions describing moving objects. As we will see, in case of ED, the very concept of a moving system raises serious conceptual problems. Thus, contrary to the widespread views, we will conclude that the question asked in the title has no obvious answer.