Conservation of Energy: Missing Features in Its Nature and Justification and Why They Matter

Foundations of Science 26 (3):559-584 (2021)
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Abstract

Misconceptions about energy conservation abound due to the gap between physics and secondary school chemistry. This paper surveys this difference and its relevance to the 1690s–2010s Leibnizian argument that mind-body interaction is impossible due to conservation laws. Justifications for energy conservation are partly empirical, such as Joule’s paddle wheel experiment, and partly theoretical, such as Lagrange’s statement in 1811 that energy is conserved if the potential energy does not depend on time. In 1918 Noether generalized results like Lagrange’s and proved a converse: symmetries imply conservation laws and vice versa. Conservation holds if and only if nature is uniform. The rise of field physics during the 1860s–1920s implied that energy is located in particular places and conservation is primordially local: energy cannot disappear in Cambridge and reappear in Lincoln instantaneously or later; neither can it simply disappear in Cambridge or simply appear in Lincoln. A global conservation law can be inferred in some circumstances. Einstein’s General Relativity, which stimulated Noether’s work, is another source of difficulty for conservation laws. As is too rarely realized, the theory admits conserved quantities due to symmetries of the Lagrangian, like other theories. Indeed General Relativity has more symmetries and hence more conserved energies. An argument akin to Leibniz’s finally gets some force. While the mathematics is too advanced for secondary school, the ideas that conservation is tied to uniformities of nature and that energy is in particular places, are accessible. Improved science teaching would serve the truth and enhance the social credibility of science.

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J. Brian Pitts
University of Lincoln

Citations of this work

Is prime matter energy?David S. Oderberg - 2023 - Australasian Journal of Philosophy 101 (3):534-550.
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Every thing must go: metaphysics naturalized.James Ladyman & Don Ross - 2007 - New York: Oxford University Press. Edited by Don Ross, David Spurrett & John G. Collier.
Consciousness Explained.Daniel C. Dennett - 1993 - Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 53 (4):905-910.
Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized.James Ladyman & Don Ross - 2007 - In James Ladyman & Don Ross (eds.), Every thing must go: metaphysics naturalized. New York: Oxford University Press.

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