pp 1–40 | Cite as

The (un)detectability of absolute Newtonian masses

  • Niels C. M. MartensEmail author


Absolutism about mass claims that mass ratios obtain in virtue of absolute masses. Comparativism denies this. Dasgupta (in: Bennett, Zimmerman (eds), Oxford studies in metaphysics, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013) argues for comparativism about mass, in the context of Newtonian Gravity. Such an argument requires proving that comparativism is empirically adequate. Dasgupta equates this to showing that absolute masses are undetectable, and attempts to do so. This paper develops an argument by Baker to the contrary: absolute masses are in fact empirically meaningful, that is detectable (in some weak sense). Additionally, it is argued that the requirement of empirical adequacy should not be cashed out in terms of undetectability in the first place. The paper closes by sketching the possible strategies that remain for the comparativist. Along the way a framework is developed that is useful for thinking about these issues: Ozma games—how could one explain to an alien civilisation what an absolute mass is?


Physical quantities Comparativism Absolutism Mass Newtonian gravity Detectability 



I would like to thank David Baker, Harvey Brown, Adam Caulton, Eddy Keming Chen, Erik Curiel, Shamik Dasgupta, Neil Dewar, Patrick Dürr, Sam Fletcher, Dennis Lehmkuhl, Niels Linnemann, Tushar Menon, Thomas Møller-Nielsen, Zee Perry, Oliver Pooley, Carina Prunkl, John Roberts, Simon Saunders, Syman Stevens, Reinier van Straten, Chris Timpson, Teru Tomas, David Wallace and Alastair Wilson for useful discussions, comments on earlier drafts of this essay, and for their generosity with their time. I am grateful for questions and comments from the audiences at the Ockham Society, the Socrates Society, the DPhil seminar, the Philosophy of Physics Research Seminar and the Philosophy of Physics Graduate Lunch Seminar at the University of Oxford, as well as SOPhiA 2014 in Salzburg, the 2014 Bucharest Graduate Conference in Early Modern Philosophy, the 2014 and 2015 Tübingen Summer Schools in HPS, the 2015 Metaphysics of Quantities Conference at NYU, the 2015 Graduate Workshop in Mathematical Philosophy at the MCMP in Munich, and the DPG2015 in Berlin. This material is based on work supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the UK, a Scatcherd European Scholarship, and in part by the DFG Research Unit “The Epistemology of the Large Hadron Collider” (Grant FOR 2063). The major part of this essay was written while I was at Magdalen College and Department of Philosophy, University of Oxford, including a two-month research visit to Princeton University (supported by the AHRC Research Training Support Scheme and a Santander Academic Travel Award).


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© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute for Theoretical Particle Physics and CosmologyRWTH Aachen UniversityAachenGermany

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