Alethic relativism and modern physics

As the treasurer of the philosophy club at Chico State, I help organize weekly meetings to either explore topics from class more in-depth, or just argue with each other until the majority wins. As anyone will tell you, a group of philosophers is called a disagreement.

In this century, positions like absolute idealism, transcendental dualism or “free” free will are very marginal, and outside of those that favor the continental and those that favor the analytic schools, philosophy talk at a state college can tend toward groupthink.

One position that never fails to attract criticism is relativism, whose adherents persist to this day about morality. Someone will even come along now and then and claim truth itself is subjective (alethic relativism). Although at least the latter notion seems outright preposterous — it too easily leads to contradictions — Marvel Studios, of all places, recently gave me some insight into this debate.

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow, played by Scarlett Johansson, says “the truth is a matter of circumstance.” Before I’m kicked off this site for talking about mainstream cinema twice in a row, I want to argue that this off-hand sentiment raises some powerful and plausible connotations.

Truth does sometimes seem to be circumstantial. I don’t want to get grouped into the alethic relativists or skeptics quite yet, but sometimes truth at one level (or circumstance) becomes falsity at another. The most obvious example is our dual systems of mechanics. Newtonian physics describes the physical world we function at with excellent approximation, including planetary motion. After its creation, it defined the paradigm for over two hundred years, improved upon by greats like Faraday and Maxwell, until experiments with optics wore heavily on our common sense and prevailing calculus. The nature of light was questioned, and so a new theory of optics was necessary (and thence truth). This would be theorized by Einstein. 

Albert Einstein formalized light as quanta, and went on to pen special relativity to understand bodies approaching the speed of these sometimes-packets, sometimes-waves. And he went on again to redefine our understanding of gravity. Arthur Eddington’s eclipse expedition in 1919 corroborated Einstein’s new theory of general relativity, which predicted light, traveling along the indenture of space-time by massive bodies, would appear curved. In the eclipse observation a star which should have been hidden was shifted outside of the eclipse — confirming that starlight itself, which is massless, had been affected via light deflection. It was a dramatic event in scientific history, akin to Galileo’s confirmation of the Copernican heliocentric universe, or the abandonment of Aristotelian innate qualities.

Just like this early test of light deflection helped cement general relativity a century ago, physicists with LIGO just confirmed gravitational waves, another Einsteinian prediction. Stephen Colbert recently featured Brian Greene (whose online courses I used to learn special relativity) on his show to discuss the pivotal discovery, and Greene does an excellent job modelling the experiment in three dimensions. So exactly a century after Einstein first thought up his theory of the workings of the universe, scientists have transformed the mysterious and radical postulates into the popularly tangible.

The theory of general relativity explained the flaws and limits of Newtonian physics, but did not completely retire the mathematics. It became the new theory of truth for new areas of study. The problem being that general relativity doesn’t work for everything.

Albert Einstein never thought we would be able to practically test for gravitational waves, and he also denied a fundamental discovery of the fresh field of quantum mechanics: nonlocality. After the 19th century two-slit experiment, in which electrons were found to behave with wave-particle duality, quantum probability and nonlocality were introduced, to which Einstein proposed multiple solutions to avoid. These tenets have since been generally accepted. However, quantum mechanics, for all its brilliant complexity, works only to describe the extremely small scale, and fails to describe the universe we live in, which Newtonian mechanics excels in practically predicting, but which in turn fails to with true accuracy describe cosmological characters, like black holes and spacetime itself, in turn best explained by general relativity. The issue of gravity has been a key dissonance between the theories, as the other forces (electromagnetism, strong and weak nuclear) have their explanations in quantum field theory on the fundamental level at certain speeds, but a quantum explanation of gravity has been empirically evasive. Scientists must utilize classical or relativistic or quantum mechanics or quantum field theory, and each has its own domain of validity.

All of our current presiding and college-instructed theories, though compatible in certain contexts, war with each other at others, and ultimately fail to describe everything in every scenario… which is where “the truth is a matter of circumstance” comes to play. What can indisputably be said to be true for one scenario becomes false in another. Meaningfully saying that this is certainly true here, and anything else would be false, but then there, speaking of the same “this,” is false and an anything-else is true, seems to be only a reward of the past century of physics. Truth has a context within our understanding of the scale it admits to. It’s important to notice that, within these conflicting physical theories, a truth doesn’t become a falsity in its same context; it is only when the truth is examined through a different circumstance that, in light of the new circumstance, the truth no longer applies. It would sound like alethic relativism, except that in the example of physics, there are three or so set systems or rubrics from which to evaluate truth-values, instead of the complete toss-up commonly theorized by global relativism, in which there are as many systems as there are individuals or methods of viewing a given system.

The most obvious opposition would be that though we use these distinct theories to describe our reality based on our early place in scientific progression, we don’t assume they are necessarily correct; a final, accurate picture of the nuanced intricacies of the universe is singular and still beyond our experimental comprehension. In which case, parallel to the idea of circumstantiality, there is a vagueness whose truths are still humanly inaccessible (the idea that there is a definite but forever unknowable quality to outwardly-vague systems of speaking or discernment has been defended as epistemicism). This doesn’t get us anywhere closer to truth, however, and for practical purposes it’s as if to say truth is a convention of any given, temporary system of thought: a social construct.

That there is a discoverable and definite system of truth is still hoped for by theoretical physicists. The popular, almost celebrity theory — that one-dimensional oscillating “strings” make up fundamental particles — has most of the platform, as compared to the alternative loop quantum gravity. However, much criticism directed at string theory centers on its nonempirical evidence (perhaps epitomized in the polemic “Not Even Wrong” by Peter Woit that chastises the theory for a purported lack of testability). The use of nonempirical arguments is very controversial in 21st-century science, but they could possibly shed light on truth; in any way we may be forced to accept this consequence of not having the adequate technology to make observations, or retire particle physics altogether.

Now, how concerned should we be with what occurs on a quantum level, as applicable to our own lives? This is relevant for truth as well as our conception of free will. The answer is that the quantum level is just as true as the functional human level, and dismissing it as less valuable or irrelevant is absurd. Not only are special relativity and quantum mechanics necessary for much of our modern technology, they speculate about the very processes that comprise all experience and function and moreover, what it’s like to exist.

I noted at the beginning that mechanics is the most obvious example of a circumstantiality of truth. At this moment I’m unsure of others. But here would not consist of an example of circumstantiality: at a ski resort, someone traveling up the lift might say they were high. However, to the skier already at the top of the mountain, the person in the lift is low and they are high. So we might say the truth is a matter of either of their circumstances; this is not the case however, because in either situation the quality that is being examined for truthfulness (high, low) is a relative quality, and this will be for every example of the sort. A claim we might expose to Newtonian mechanics and quantum mechanics (e.g., the body is moving forward) is subject to criteria concerning momentum, space-time, reference point, locality, and a whole conglomerate of standards to evaluate what’s actually happening. In this sense it takes on a less subjective tone than what is high or low, which can, like the first point about global relativity, be examined by a myriad of individual viewpoints. (Also, from an outsider context, high and low are meaningless.) High and low are dependent on their correlatives, and also dependent on scale for their truth; quantum mechanics without any other size would still have truth, and general relativity without any other size would still have truth, and so on.

So, what does all this mean? It’s support for the idea that truth can be evaluated through different systems, and not just like using the tools of sociology, or psychology, or feminist theory, or Marxist history to read and analyze the same event in different interpretations; physics is a physical science, and its truths are not contingent on lived humanity. The circumstantiality of truth on the scientific level might have some consequences for objectivity and vagueness, allow exploration into what the conditions of truth are, and could be formed into a rubric for evaluating all truth and falsity; all that is work for another day though. Right now, all it tells us is sometimes Marvel can say meaningful things in philosophy.

[Update (6/28/2017): I no longer believe much of what I wrote here, having learned much since.]

7 thoughts on “Alethic relativism and modern physics

  1. In the interests of full disclosure: I’m a naive methodological falsificationist. To the distress of most of my colleagues who are sophisticated methodological falsificationists…

    I need some clarification about your argument that “…truth can be evaluated through different systems…” If, as I suspect, the systems are theoretical systems such as relativity theory I would argue that the problem with determining truth is different that what you argue: no system can be used to evaluate all truth claims.

    Some people seem to believe that some sort of unified theory of general relativity will work for everything…one ring to rule them all so to speak. This is clearly nonsense with regard to human behavior. But even with regard to mere physical phenomena Gödel’s incompleteness theorems proved that that can never happen…formal systems can be complete or consistent but not both.

    • I’m going to respond to your comment next time I post about the viewpoint I’ve laid out, perhaps in a more developed state. Thanks for the response, Terry.

  2. I tend to take idealism more seriously than current philosophy, despite the many legitimate critiques lobbed at dear old Kant’s original system, in no small part due to the concerns raised in this post. If there is such a thing as truth, then some of its characteristics would have to be:

    1. Not contingent on human experience. True regardless of who views it.
    2. So, not a part of human experience. Truth can be perceived in a limited way, but it can’t be perceived fully, because perception itself is limited. Whatever is taken as true through human perception is true in a limited sense, but cannot be taken for the full sum of truth.
    3. Relativistic, though not relative. By which I mean it may be perceived differently by different people or different systems, though the perception is not equivalent with the truth itself. The truth is not relative, but it may be perceived as relative because it is relativistic.

    Physical models thus approximate truth, but to say that quantum mechanics IS truth (whether at one level or another) or Newtonian mechanics IS truth is a conflation of models with the truth itself, which is unknowable as long as perception remains imperfect. Hence the model can describe accurately the reasons for certain experience, but their many theorems are approximations of truth, and not truth itself.

    Truth is probably a postulate which cannot be fully determined, because it cannot be perceived in full.

    Of course, this depends on accepting dualism between man and “real” world, the imperfection of experience, and the unreliability of the senses and the mind to perceive it. Any of which may be successfully attacked.

    • Next time I post about this topic, I’ll incorporate your criticism – no doubt I have to do some rewording and further explanation.

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