Relativity, Relativism, and the Modern Age

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The intellectual revolution that is shaping American culture began in some sense with four lectures presented to the Prussian Academy of Sciences in late 1915. The lectures were given by Albert Einstein, who before the end of the year would publish his argument for a general theory of relativity. Those lectures launched an intellectual revolution, and Einstein’s theory of relativity is essential to our understanding of the modern age.

The one-hundredth anniversary of a scientific theory is not necessarily a matter of great cultural importance. Einstein had developed his special theory of relativity a decade earlier, but his general theory—his special theory extended to the entire cosmos—was breathtaking in its revolutionary power. Einstein replaced the world of Newtonian physics with a new world marked by four dimensions instead of only three. Time, added as a fourth dimension, changed everything.

Einstein summarized his own theory in these words:

The “Principle of Relativity” in its widest sense is contained in the statement: The totality of physical phenomena is of such a character that it gives no basis for the introduction of the concept of “absolute motion;” or, shorter but less precise: There is no “absolute motion.”

Thus, time, matter, and energy are relative, and not absolute. Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Thomas Levenson recently called Einstein’s theory “the greatest intellectual accomplishment of the twentieth century.” The Economist, marking the centennial of Einstein’s lectures, called the general theory of relativity “one of the highest intellectual achievements of humanity.” It is no exaggeration to claim Einstein’s theory as the very foundation of modern cosmology.

And yet, most modern people—even well-educated moderns—have little idea of the actual theory or of its scientific significance. In everyday life, Newtonian physics serves us very well. Cosmologists may depend on Einstein’s theory in their daily work, but few others do.

Nevertheless, the cultural impact of Einstein’s theory extends far beyond the laboratory or the science classroom. As the twentieth century unfolded, Einstein’s theory of relativity quickly became a symbol and catalyst for something very different—the development of moral relativism.

Einstein was not a moral relativist, nor did he believe that his theories had any essential moral or cultural meaning. He recoiled when his theory of relativity was blamed or credited for the birth of modern art (Cubism, in particular) or any other cultural development.

The philosopher Isaiah Berlin defended Einstein against any such charge: “The word relativity has been widely misinterpreted as relativism, the denial, or doubt about, the objectivity of truth or moral values.” He continued, “This was the opposite of what Einstein believed. He was a man of simple and absolute moral convictions, which were expressed in all he was and did.”

Fair enough. Albert Einstein was not a moral relativist, and his theory of relativity has nothing to do with morality. The problem, however, is simple—Einstein’s theory of relativity entered the popular consciousness as a generalized relativism. Of course, Einstein is not responsible for the misuse, misapplication, and misappropriation of his theory. But in any event, millions of modern people understood relativity as relativism. And that misunderstanding is one of the toxic developments of the modern age.

As Walter Isaacson, Einstein’s most important biographer, explains:

In both his science and his moral philosophy, Einstein was driven by a quest for certainty and deterministic laws. If his theory of relativity produced ripples that unsettled the realms of morality and culture, this was not caused by what Einstein believed but by how he was popularly interpreted.

That is exactly the issue. Einstein, Isaacson reveals, was an influence on the emergence of relativism as a major theme in modern art, philosophy, and morality, even if that was not his intention at all. In Isaacson’s words, “There was a more complex relationship between Einstein’s theories and the whole witch’s brew of ideas and emotions in the early twentieth century that bubbled up from the highly charged cauldron of modernism.” Historian Paul Johnson gets it exactly right as he describes the cultural impact of Einstein’s theories:

It was as though the spinning globe had been taken off its axis and cast adrift in a universe which no longer conformed to accustomed standards of measurement. At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate, for the first time at a popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly but perhaps inevitably, relativity became confused with relativism.

By the middle of the twentieth century, moral relativism was a major influence in the cultural revolutions that reshaped entire societies. Artists, filmmakers, authors, and playwrights were joined by an army of psychotherapists, academics, liberal theologians, and academic revolutionaries—all seeking to reject absolute moral norms and absolute truth and to establish relativism as the new worldview. They were stunningly successful.

Moral relativism and the rejection of absolute truth now shape the modern post-Christian mind. Indeed, relativism is virtually taken for granted, at least as an excuse for overthrowing theistic truth claims and any restrictive morality.

And so, Einstein is variously blamed or thanked for a moral revolution he never intended or wanted. The lesson for the rest of us is clear. Not only do ideas have consequences, they often have consequences that are neither foreseen or predicted.

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