Is Everything Relative?

  The modern world began on May 29, 1919. These words open the massive book Modern Times, by historian Paul Johnson. On that historic day in 1919, photographs of a solar eclipse showed that starlight bends when passing close to the sun. The photos confirmed Albert Einstein's concept of curved space--thereby confirming his revolutionary theory of relativity. The news hit the world like a thunderclap. For Einstein's theory rejected Isaac Newton's concept of absolute time and space--and to the general public he seemed to be rejecting all absolute truth, including the truths of religion and morality. "Relativity became confused with relativism," Johnson writes. "It formed a knife... to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture." Relativity became confused with relativism. Even today many people think Einstein proved the maxim "Everything is relative." Yet Einstein himself said his theory had nothing to do with relativism. In fact, he preferred to call it "invariance theory," because it shows that physical laws do not vary across reference frames. As Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton explain in The Soul of Science, an easy way to understand Einstein is to consider a simpler form of relativity proposed centuries earlier by Galileo. Imagine a ship traveling 10 miles per hour, with the captain strolling along the deck in the same direction. Relative to a person sitting in a deck chair, the captain is walking, say, 3 miles per hour. But relative to someone sitting on the shore, the captain is moving 13 miles per hour, because you add in the speed of the ship. So how fast is the captain really moving--3 miles per hour or 13? It all depends on your frame of reference. For a measurement from the shore, you add in the speed of the ship. For a measurement from the deck, you subtract the speed of the ship. This was Galileo's theory of relativity. It shows how the laws of motion apply across different reference frames. Einstein's relativity theory merely updated Galileo to take into account the laws of electromagnetism-- such as the speed of light. Einstein demonstrated that these laws likewise remain valid across all reference frames. It's true that in the process he discarded Newton's absolute space and time, ending up with bizarre notions like curved space and time slowing down. We've all heard the Twin Paradox, where a baby goes up in a space ship and 70 years later is still a child, while his twin brother back on Earth has become an old man. Yet these bizarre notions are all simply mathematical deductions from the assumption that the laws of electromagnetism remain constant across all reference frames. It's all perfectly mathematical. There is nothing in relativity to support relativism. Einstein's theory is a vivid example of the way scientific theories are often misused to assault Christian faith and morals. You and I need to learn how to respond to these assaults. Learn how to make a cogent defense by reading The Soul of Science, on which this special series on faith and science is based. Everything is not relative. And we need to stand against the hijacking of science to promote a destructive philosophical agenda.


Chuck Colson



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