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How Einstein's Relativity Murdered the Concept of Objectivity

22. 4. 2010

The start point: the concern about objectivity and object is merely the most important theme in the field of epistemology after 1905. This short presentation will try to line-up some of conclusions that appeared from analyzing works of Einstein (3*1905-1915-1935,) de Broglie (1924), Heisenberg (1927). All of them are very strong critics against the concept of objectivity. The peak of the storm of those radical critics had been expressed at the fifth Solvay’s congress in Brussels (Copenhagen interpretation).

Unfortunately the evolution of our Human civilization (in what it remains of it trough history : art, philosophy or science) is tied up to the concept of objectivity. There for a critical point of this concept appearing from the scientific field seems to be a paradox. We might are used to critics fusing from idealistic philosofy or from a even more intuitive field like the artistic one. But the science is an activity of mind which goes along the most with the concept of objectivity. Then if science declares that there is no longer any valid concept of objectivity, that could appears like a suicide for the science it self.

Primal step : at this point of history of pure subjectivity, the counting process is really poor, it does a difference only between one, two and more. We do observe as well the same graduall and slow evolution in the psychological developpement of child or in linguistic. The latin root TRes (in french : trois, in english : three, in czech : tri,) means three and a little among. To day, the Indians living in detroit of Torres still use a numeric system with olny three occurences (Orapun = 1 , okasa =2, okasa-orapun = 3, okasa-okasa = 4, okasa-okasa-orapun = 5, okasa-okasa-okasa = 6, ras > 6.(Godefroy, Gilles, L´aventure des nombres, Odile Jacob, 1997.)


Start-point of civilization : Sumer and first cuneiform writing of mathematics.

About 5000 b.c. the nomad tribes had succeeded to create and store some stocks of supplies. The people suddenly had something stable, under control that they where able to count. They had something in view that was not changing all the time. Before this revolution people had already the really slow moving stars as a material to study, but they couldn’t assure any control on it. Anyway they started to count their stocks and they get to the idea to exchange them. To avoid any argument during the sell, each good was marked down in the form of a line on a tablet of dried mud. The buyer, buy reading the tablet, could control the among (quantity) of goods he received was exactly the same that he ordered.

From this point on it was possible to associate a number and a part of reality together. It was possible to determinate what was the among of goods delimitated by this part of reality (the goods in a storage can or the cows in a herd.) It was possible to partly describe this finite reality. For instance an architect could imagine the precise size of many different stones or pieces of wood, describe them to workers, and built a Ziggurat either a palace, or some machinery to release the slaves from hard job on the wharves in Syracuse.

This spot on long term history shows up 2 parameters for the definition of objectivity: 1 - a delimitated part of reality (the object) 2 – a capacity of the subject to associate a description of this reality that will be understood without any confusion by somebody else like a faithful representation of this reality (the objectivity: an information about the object).

  1. Classical définition of objectivity.

1.1 : Descartes

Certainly those two criteria that we admited in our introduction remained for a long period of time without any linguistic either logical description. René Descartes is known as the first philosofer who built a system explicitly based on those princips.

With his concepts of res extensa and res cogitans, the philosofer describes two different substances wich do not interfer one on the other. The information on the object is reputated clean of any subjective element. It is always possible to have a clear picture of an object and it is to be sure that somebody else (an other ego, another subjecivity) will interpretate exactly in the same way the same picture. There for the scientist had the admirable conviction that the world and its objetcs were exactly like he could describe them. In the cartesian system this description can not be the result of an general illusion for the reason than the third susbstance, God, garantees the existence of the world. It can not be either the result of an individual illusion because the validity of the picture is confirm by its capacity to be deduced with a logic taking its source in the universaly shared rationality (ego cogito).

The cartesian demonstration relies on a kinetical conception of the world. The object are described in terms of localisation and speed. But if I pretend that an object X is localisated at 50°north and 5°east and in the same time I pretend that X is made of wood, I will give to different information. But they are still compatible one with each other, they are both true. Therefore it is correct to elaborate different statement about the same object and this possibility point out a variety of subjectivities (the different point of views on the object) that still give a reliable information respecting the definition of objectivity as we elaborated it in our introduction.


1.2 Kant :

            As Werner Heisenberg put it, critic of pure reason (1781 Kritik der reinen Vernunft. 2e éd., 1787) , is a synthesis that erases the antagonisms between the cartesian rationalism and Locke' empirical scepticism. We will see now how the philosofer from Koeniksberg reached this point.

Locke (Essay on human understanding, 1690) reproched Descartes to use the concept of clear and distinct idea as a typical subjective concept. Descartes supposes that everything appearing in our mind clearly and distinctively is objectively true and do belong to the object it self. On the other hand, for Locke the movement of objectivity forces the mind to adapt its concepts to reality. Reducing the reality at few dimensions that will please the mind is a subjective movement and teaches more about inner presumption than on the reality of the world.

According to Locke, human is a blank page, tabula rasa, without anything inside (innate ideas for Descartes) that could guarantee the validity of a mind picture of the object.

The main aspect in Kant’s work is certainly to overcome the empirical concept of tabula rasa.

The subject is no longer a blank page, is much more a picturing-system (a weltbildapparat accordind to Konrad Lorenz). I mean an organic system painting a picture of the world by it self (Berkley thought that this picture was the only reality at all, esse percipi.) Organic has to be understood as a coherent, full and autonom procedure able to receive an information from his own outside. In a way, the picturing-system has to function independently from the existence of the world. It has to be discribed without any regards to the shape of the world ( as Descartes argued it, the res extensa do not influence the knowledge of the res cogitans). Indeed the picturing processors ensure the possibily to built a picture of any object. That why Kant imagine the theory of the categories of perception (and of understanding) to allow any further perception and laws of neccessity to link those perceptions together (1783. Prolegomena zur einer jeden künftigen Metaphysik die als Wissenschaft wird auftreten können.)

The fact that different assessments are made on the object is not relevant to enforce a critic of the objectivity. It just could reveal that different categories are involved during the descriptive procedure. It does not prove that the communication between different subjects is impossible but shows that subjectivity is a complex unit made of many elements.

By observing the sciences of his time, Kant was able to write down the list of those elements called categories (a priori): space, time, causality and substance. Later he added the law of conservation of energy and even the law of gravitation.

For Kant any science, wich wants to evoid to be a metaphysic, has to work on an object that will respect those categories. Then came Einstein.

2 New definition of objectivity

2.1¨Einstein’s critic of objectivity : concept of extra-subjectivity.

In essence, the cartesian res extensa is motionless. The Kantian substance has exactly the same quality: permantly faithfull to what is supposed to be, a ground on wich grow the changing phenomens, out of time and out of any succession.

The first fondamental step that make Einstein’s relativity is to reintroduce the motion in the defintion of the object. From this poinct of view a single object without motion does not exist. In this new physics, looking for a cause of the motion is irrelevant. For now on every thing is in motion and even more, every thing is motion. That a conclusion that bring out the famous equation e  = mc2. Matter is energy and not only a ground for energy.

Einstein took an old problem of physics up side down and explained the illusion of immobility. If the observer can believe that an object is motionless, a cup of tea on a table for instance, that for the only reason that all of them, the cup, the table and the observer, move at the same speed.

It might be to noticed right here, that before Einstein, physicians fermly believed in this illusion of immobility and they were convinced to find a essentiel motionless substance : the ether (as a ground to light waves, the last scientists looking for it were Michelson and Morlay.)

If the motion is an essential caracteristic of the object, the idea of a single object vanishes as well. The explanation resides in the definition of motion. Something is moving only relativly to a specific point (let us say the observer). This second point moves as well, but that could not change our conception of motion, we only designate it as a relalive movement (that why Einstein nammed his theory relativity) and not an absolut movement (that does not exist anymore.) Any object is link to is frame of reference. Then the object vanishes as well, just remains an evolution, a motion. Einstein says an event. The geometrical correlate is the diseapearing of the single point (the motionless object), just exists a line (the moving point.)

Now if we admit that a motionless object is not a valid conception, we have to imagine as well a subject in a everlasting movment (after all a observer is just another point in the univers, another brick in the wall ! ) The question is to know if two different observers moving at two different speed will obtain the same result by mesuring the same object.

Einstein’s answer is without a doubt negative.

If two observers A and B are mesuring the same object, if the relative movement of A is small compared to the object and if B has a high speed compared to the object, then B will mesure a smaller object than A. This phenomena is called Lorentz’s contraction (it works aswell for any mesure of time.)

This experimental conclusion is definitively a deep failure in our concept of objectivity. The proper reality of the subject does interfere on the result of the mesure.

But two observers are always capable to agree on wich frame of reference they will use for their mesure. This convention between the subjects is the only garantee that assure a communication of the result. That why the concept of objectivity is more or less outdated or obsolete. The concept of intersubjectivity seems much more preferable when is understood as a control exercised by scientific community (City of science-Bacelard.) In this logic, the world out side the subject as became the extra-subjectivity.

Does it mean that we have to accept the conclusions formulated by Berkley who supposed that the sensitive perception was the only reality ? Off course not, the Relativity uses a continuum of four dimensions (time and space) wich is a pure rational conception far beyond sensitive capability of the human subject.

Does it mean that the idealistic Kantien conception of the thing it self is valid and we will never know anything about it (if the relativity is a pure logical conception, then we can imagine any kind of coherent conception completly disconnected to reality) ? May be not.

Konrad Lorenz might have found a solution to this problem by using the concepts of  phylogenetics and approximation :

  • Einstein’s critic has destroyed the quality of absolut in the Kantian categories,
  • But that still does not mean that those categories do not have any connection to extra-subjective reality,
  • Biology (Darwin) shows that the species adapt them self and develop some organs and behaviors by confronting them self to the reality of their environnement (for instance the shape of the eyes is a result of what the light is indeed. And it is a non sens to believe that as soon as I close my eyes the science of optics vanish ),
  • This adaptation is a specific knowledge adapted at a specific context, it makes understable a specific aspect of the world. This knowledge is valid and that why particular species were able to adapt and survive,
  • A specific knowledge adapted at a specific context is called an approximation (Newton theory is still a valid theory used by any army from earth to moon),
  • A change of approximation does not necessarly mean that the new approximation is better that the oldest one (we could believe it if we say that X=1,1 is a better approximation than X=1), but it means that a new parametr for the definition of the object has been found and mesured,
  • Those adapted knowledge (the shape of an eye for instant) are inheritated during the phylogenesis by the subject, they allow the further perception, therefore they fit to the Kantian definition of a priori,
  • In the meanwhile those knowledge are the result of a confrontation opposing the subject and its environnement, there not without any link with the experimentation.

It is onto a realistic conception that I wish to conlude. But not a concret realism, more an hypothetic realism. We do not know what the reality really is, but we still know some aspects of it and nothing should ever let us think that the research of new aspects could ever past out.



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