Theories of Newtonian gravity and empirical indistinguishability

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In this essay, I examine the curved spacetime formulation of Newtonian gravity known as Newton-Cartan gravity and compare it with flat spacetime formulations. Two versions of Newton-Cartan gravity can be identified in the physics literature-a "weak" version and a "strong" version. The strong version has a constrained Hamiltonian formulation and consequently a well-defined gauge structure, whereas the weak version does not (with some qualifications). Moreover, the strong version is best compared with the structure of what Earman (World enough and spacetime. Cambridge: MIT Press) has dubbed Maxwellian spacetime. This suggests that there are also two versions of Newtonian gravity in flat spacetime-a "weak" version in Maxwellian spacetime, and a "strong" version in Neo-Newtonian spacetime. I conclude by indicating how these alternative formulations of Newtonian gravity impact the notion of empirical indistinguishability and the debate over scientific realism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)345-376
Number of pages32
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science Part B - Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2004


  • Empirical indistinguishability
  • Gauge system
  • Newtonian gravity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • General Physics and Astronomy
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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