Reality and the Virtual: Relativity is not Relativism

My previous post on relativism has been mostly well received, to my great surprise. It has also been critiqued in some very useful and important ways, in comments and elsewhere. I am not going to try and write a direct response here; the comment box was actually quite useful and I don’t care to add the complexity of rejoinders to what was already a long and tedious post.

The most unexpected non-reply was from the great fighters of relativism, the culture warriors, who probably didn’t have much to say to me because they don’t read my blog, which is unfortunate, at least for me.

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Once we’ve set up some terms and a range of possible ways those terms can be used, then, it is time to take the next step.

This “next step” is sorely missing from our public conversation nowadays. We talk about the surface so poorly that we often distort it completely. This begs for a more sound surface, more clarity and nuance and reasonable preliminaries. But it also forces an almost permanent surface-level discussion, cycling through very basic disagreements, that can be confused for deeper and more interesting discussions.

At best, it delays the really interesting stuff. At worst, it puts it entirely outside the realm of possibility.

That academics have sometimes abused these conversations is a vast understatement. But there are also some instances where the Academy has been good at housing conversations that treat the preliminaries carefully but also are able to move on with breadth and depth. I’ve experienced some of that and am very grateful for it.

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Was Albert Einstein a relativist? It depends what you mean when you ask that question.

Two of Einstein’s great scientific theories were about relativity. The first was narrower than the second. Special Relativity. This was a question about what would happen to time when moving at the speed of light. The second was a much more general and fundamental question about temporality at larger scale. General Relativity. It was related to the first theory, because it considered the same question but, this time, at a larger scale, in a way that was not bound by constant motion at a constant rate. The latter theory was followed by astronomical observation and calculation, to empirically test to validity of the theory.

Each theory has turned out, thus far, to be true. And the implications brought Einstein a great deal of pain. From nuclear weapons to quantum mechanics, he was not thrilled with some of the things that came to be the case because of his insights into relativity.

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Anyone who wants to understand the physical world, needs to use the simple fact of relativity to do it. Thomas Kuhn has perhaps offered the most radical theory about the relativity of science in a way that approaches something like relativism or subjectivism, but there is something instructive about acknowledging the obvious fact that we experience the world relative to a number of variables, interactions, and reactions.

Nothing is the case in a vacuum, as far as we know.

Anyone who would easily dismiss ‘relativity’ because the word has a family resemblance to ‘relativism’ is, quite simply, nutty.

More importantly, anyone who would ignore the insights of the physical sciences — and the simple fact of the relativity of empirical observation, induction and deduction —  to defend against how this might extend into an ideology of relativism, is being cheap and easy about the truth of relativity.

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Einstein’s theories were worked out first in day dreams and his conceptual imagination, but then they were put into mathematical and logical notation, with very specific and absolute claims to follow. Then there were the tests, especially the eclipse photos, with strict parameters and measurements.

This shows the delicate balance between the relativity of the world and the truth of the relativity of the world. These are not contradictory claims.

It is possible to say “X is relative to Y” and to simultaneously make the claim that that claim — “X is relative to Y” — is true. Based on that, it would make sense to say, “The truth is relative.” This is not a claim meant to abolish truth, it is, rather, a claim about how the truth functions. It is, you might say, a description of the truth.

If someone tried to claim that the truth is not relative in the same way, using the terms I as I used them above, it would deny the truth of relativity.

This may seem circular and petty, but it is a vexing but essential aspect of the discussions about relativism that gets missed, I think, because we are so busy doing the preliminary work on the surface.

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Is it impossible to imagine the blogosphere, Catholic or otherwise, as space where we don’t constantly argue and rant about superficial things? The News?

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I understand quantum physics, in very limited and perhaps naive way, to be unique in this sense: When big and slow things (like humans) try to observe small and fast things (like subatomic particles), fundamental problems arise in the relation between those two things because they exist in radically different conditions of temporality, due to their scale.

It is not that they are in different worlds, relative on their own terms. It is, rather, the fact that there is a gap of sorts in the very ability to observe and describe the observation. Theology has always struck me as a more radical, and in my mind impossible, version of the uniqueness of quantum physics. This is why I an neither a physicist nor a theologian. The scale is too much for me.

Relative to dogs, we smell almost nothing, or at least very little. Is smell relative? Sure, in one sense. But, in another sense, it is an objective truth that smell functions in this relative way between two different noses.

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The problem, as far as I can tell, with confusing the truth of relativity with the various ideologies of relativism, is that the former is rigorous and the latter is not. But perhaps there is a more serious difference between them. One is a real aspect of reality itself, confirmed by the natural sciences; the other is an abstraction, a mere virtual fabrication. A guess.

There is nothing wrong with guessing. Einstein was guessing when he started. A good guess is often better then a bad conclusion. But I think we’ve allowed all this relativism business — all this hippy-dippy, feel-good, it’s okay to be yourself nonsense and all this relativism is going to end the world, Jesus save us from all the relativists who I’ve never met in my life, we need to teach the kids some petty arguments about relativism and about how hard and thick and bullet-proof the TRVTH is — to become almost purely ideological and virtual, with precious few concrete realities to tether it to.

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In the meantime, we might do more serious and honest work, unmotivated by ideology or fear, to understand the way that relativity works as a part of the truth of the way the universe works and is, and see how far it can extend into other cases. We might then measure those cases, in proper promotion and scale, to regulate our feelings about relativism.

There is a sense in which things can and must be relative, without abolishing the truth that governs those relations.

Most of all, we might slowly make our way in distinguishing between what is real and what is virtual — and then, perhaps, between virtual reality and the reality of the virtual. For another day.

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Iron clad truth. That’s what we need, right? That’ll keep the kids Catholic and preserve them from the infectious and rampant relativism they are being fed by the monstrous media and those slimy academics. Right? Am I the only one who listens to Catholic radio?

This predictable drivel is nonsense, packaged to sell bad books. NFL commercials selling merchandise after the Superbowl. (Your team just won! Buy a shitty t-shirt and a cap!) That is what lots of this relativism talk is about. Partly true, but mostly false, and rarely observant of the delicate beauty of the truth.

There is a fear of mystery. This is beyond subjectivity and objectivity and all other dualisms and binaries. I think the knee-jerk reaction to try and construct a theory of truth (and Natural Law), with has no seams or weakness, is a rejection of the truth we know in Christ. There is a reason, I think, why Christ didn’t do his work in arguments, theorems, or experiments. He told stories and performed acts of love and mercy. He confused people.

One might say that Christ should have been more objective about things, and others will surely say that he should have been more subjective about other things, but this petty way of dealing with the Gospel is to miss the point. The point is that Catholicism is not a school of thought. Sure, it has produced many ideas and theories and culture and suffering and beauty and the rest, but we need not mistake its truth for a petty and paranoid idea of the truth.

 

 


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