Science vs. Relativity

In science, there is a tendency to prefer universal truths over localized observations. For example: the reason why people believe that gravity is a scientific “fact of life” is not simply because one apple happened to fall down on someone’s head somewhere, and also not because they happened to fall down in England at some point in time, but rather (so the theory goes) that all kinds of matter will behave the same way throughout time and space. Scientists cannot really make direct observations across vast spans of time or space, but they are nonetheless very willing to make universal statements in the name of science.

There is some nuanced irony to the idea that observations from experiments should be “verifiable”. The idea behind this is that a scientific law should always hold true, but the irony is that the conditions are never exactly the same (since time has elapsed, the universe has changed, etc.). Besides: Perhaps the reason why something happens is entirely hidden from our ability to observe it. Perhaps the most amazing thing of all is that so many believe science to be undeniable truth.

One of Einstein’s significant contributions to the field of science was his notion of “frame of reference”. According to this view, the same phenomena can be interpreted differently, according to which frame of reference one happens to take. Hence, the moon seems to revolve around the earth when a stationary earth is taken as the frame of reference… but both revolve around the sun if the sun is considered the (stationary) frame of reference, and so on (with regards to the Milky Way galaxy, etc.).

Each frame of reference can be see as its own “world view”, a way of describing the universe from a particular vantage point, a particularly localized speck in space (and time). The elements of vastly complex systems may be viewed differently from each of these different frames of reference, and these different points of view may very well give rise to different languages — different ways of observing, and perhaps also different observations — see also “Noam Chomsky Talks at Google“.

As Professor Chomsky emphasizes in the interview  linked above, the loss of any one of these world views (i.e., languages) is a loss for humanity, a further limitation of perspective. Our knowledge of the universe becomes lessened each time we eradicate another way of describing it. Having a single, universal language would be extremely limiting! Again: Ironically, this is what many seem to expect from “science”.

Whether or not this is a valid objection to the hegemony of “science” as a universally true language, we also need to take a step back and consider what this means for regular humans: Most people would no longer be able to speak at all. You could no longer say “you”, “me”, “I think”, “yesterday”, “right now”,… nor indeed most of the elements of any natural whatsoever. Consider something as simple as noting the image a cloud in the sky makes: In order to speak precisely, your remark would have to make reference to every single speck of dust in the sky, every single water molecule attached to every single speck, all of the atoms moving in various directions, and all with reference to some centralized universal frame of reference. Even if this weren’t impossible, it would still be so ridiculously complicated that it would vastly exceed what any single human being could muster.

Every single moment of every single day, we all vastly over-simplify the vast complexity of the world we live in — in order to be able to make any sense of it at all… and we each do this by invoking various frames of reference, each tailored to the contexts we experience. We constantly interpret the world around us — as Piaget said: by accommodating and assimilating new observations into our already acquired knowledge about the world, thereby constantly revising and reformulating our language(s).

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