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relativity… no true centre… paper bag… fml

January 11, 2011

For anyone interested, here’s a brief explanation of my underlying skepticism regarding objectivity that I sent to a friend of mine — which I originally attempted to reference while trying to make some bullshit ass argument up involving idealism, Darwinism, Buddhism, historical materialism, Zizek and the General Theory of Relativity — but came out as, “Relativity… no true centre… paper bag… Shit, just google ‘relativity’ and ‘no true centre’!” Maybe someone more knowledgeable than myself can help me out here.

Since I did such a bad job of it at Bar of the Gods, I just want to clarify that what I was trying to say the other night concerning relativity is that, the way I see it, making truly objective statements when dealing with relative frames of reference can be problematic. For one thing, it raises questions like, Can certain statements really be said to be objectively true if and when their truth or validity is dependent upon the reference frame (or point of view) of the observer?

If, according to relativity, all reference frames are equally valid, many so-called objective statements become relative (i.e., based on the frame of reference of the observer). For example, the statement ‘The Earth revolves around the Sun’ is a seemingly objective one. It’s a true and valid statement from a particular frame of reference. But at the same time, relativity states that there’s no single, true frame of reference or centre to anything, so a geocentric frame (or one utilizing the entire solar system, for that mater) can be just as true and valid as a heliocentric—the mathematics work in any reference frame.

As Einstein puts it in his paper, The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity, “That this requirement of general co-variance, which takes away from space and time the last remnant of physical objectivity, is a natural one, will be seen from the following reflexion (sic). All our space-time verifications invariably amount to a determination of space-time coincidences. Moreover, the results of our measurings are nothing but verifications of such meetings of the material points of our measuring instruments with other material points, coincidences between the hands of a clock and points on the clock-dial, and observed point-events happening at the same place at the same time. “

Of course, this doesn’t mean that specific frames of reference aren’t functionally more useful in certain contexts, or that a certain frames isn’t a more accurate description of reality, but I do think it means that making truly objective statements about them can be tricky, especially when phrased sloppily. For example, the above statement, ‘The Earth revolves around the Sun,’ could be amended to say, ‘For an observer who’s at rest on the surface of the Sun, the Earth rotates around the Sun’ and I think it’d be closer to the truth.

But relativity doesn’t just make it difficult to make truly objective statements about observations regarding spatial relations; it has consequences in other areas as well, such as measurementation. Things like the observed length of an object, for example, actually depends on the speed of the observer with respect to the object, while similar variables affect an object’s mass, which changes with velocity. This means that objective statements about these phenomena are more or less dependent upon specifically defined variables, which are often easier and more accurately expressed mathematically than verbally.

This doesn’t mean I don’t think there’s an objective reality existing apart from my mind, or that we can’t express that reality in words, but I do think that making truly objective statements about that reality is a difficult thing to do because I believe that (1) we often unconsciously project objective existence onto phenomena that aren’t, in all actuality, independent of the frame of reference of the observer and (2) the ways in which we describe an objective truth can change based upon the amount and quality of the information we have (e.g., gravity as a pulling force vs. a curvature of space-time due to an object’s mass.) And this is one of the reasons why I guess I have a difficult time rejecting certain aspects of postmodern thought.

Of course, this is a very muddled argument, and I’m sure my understanding of relativity is way off, but I’m using it mainly to illustrate some of the underlying ideas behind my tentative skepticism regarding objectivity. As much as I’ve argued against others about notions like objective truth being nothing more than inter-subjective agreement (e.g., arguing that the unknown contents of a paper bag is what it is regardless of what people may think and agree it is), I still find areas where postmodernism is harder to argue against, (e.g., the idea that, as observers, we’re governed by perspectives).

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