‘Everything is relative’ – the bane of religions
Posted by robertpriddy on January 1, 2011
Relativity theory gave impetus to the common saying ‘everything is relative’. This slogan does capture one central insight behind relativity theory, which rejects the belief that there is an absolute truth applying for all times and places on any question. Almost paradoxically, what is regarded as a most objective theory also led to an increased appreciation of the role of subjectivity both in nature and consequently in all human affairs, especially in the human sciences and philosophy. It is the relation of the observer to whatever is observed that decides the character of the observation, which is reflected in much C20th philosophy.
The theory of relativity is still the best-supported, ‘universal’ theory, having stood up the most exacting experimental tests for a century. Einstein predicted otherwise unimaginable states of affairs, such as the slowing of time at great velocity (now experimentally proven) and the extraordinary Bohr-Einstein condensate (neither a solid, a liquid or a gas) – which would form near to absolute zero, which was only seen 70 years later after decades of work by many major laboratories.
The key insight is that absolutely no observation is possible independently of the observing consciousness or mind. The human brain or mind always interprets what it perceives according to what it has already learned. Observation is always influenced by individual memory, subconscious inclination or habit, and the person’s aims or direction of interest. This ‘subjective ingredient’ of every perception can be neutralized (if not always entirely subtracted or eliminated) by various means:-
1) reductive analysis of the individual’s pre-perceptual propensities and mental habits together with the conceptual mindset involved
2) by comparison with the aggregate of perceptions by large numbers of other observers of the same data from differing backgrounds and circumstances… which reaches its ultimate expression in scientific knowledge.
Set religious belief vs. scientific comparison: Not only do most religions and their sub-sects and many political ideologies maintain their established beliefs and practices, but they tend mostly to resist the very idea of change, because of the challenge it poses to the absolutes or eternal verities they would rely upon and promulgate. Relativism in thought is a serious threat to ideologies (which means non-scientific systems of ideas) because it leads to comparison of differing systems of belief, spirituality, ideology, where a conflict of alleged ‘truths’ is inevitable between the main religions. Comparative religion and the the critique of ideology are rightly perceived as threats by all religious institutions and vested political systems respectively.
A majority of the earth’s population is driven by the need for security of life and livelihood in the face of a threatening natural environment, in relating to death and all other matters which have overwhelmingly been far beyond human understanding for countless ages. Throughout the world, billions of religious believers are still labouring in dead-ends in the search for true knowledge – unwittingly bending under the scourge of obscurantist institutions and their unprovable and false doctrines. The human brain’s proven tendency to recognise human features and figures in many perceptual contexts also contributes to the anthropomorphic belief in deities as having human figures and other human qualities, such as intelligence and creativity… multiplied in imagination to perfection.
The agonizingly slow growth of human knowledge – countless failed ideas, theories, endless blind alleys of opinion, and mutual ignorance and gross misunderstanding between human societies and cultures has led to tried and tested science and its amazing fruits – medicine, labour-saving and productive technology and confidence in human enterprise and learning. Yet though these achievements benefit a majority of mankind, the slowness of the outward spread of the knowledge which sustains them is truly agonizing, faced as it is by all manner of ignorant resistance and the force of misguided traditions… and above all, religious opinion.
The human need for security gave rise to a vast variety of traditional symbolic acts and beliefs concerning the unknown. These coagulated into religious cultures and eventually into scriptures and theologies, subsequently also into political ideologies and a variety of theories from the plausible to the fantastic. All too often, the belief component of religious and secular ideologies overwhelmed and excluded the empirical observations which were emerging as practical and theoretical scientific knowledge advanced. This struggle continues to this day, traditional religions and ideologies being basically too rigid for radical changes and the force of custom and vested interest behind them resisting change to the last moment possible.
For a closer look at the issues raised here see my longer article Relatedness and Relativity