Friday, November 12, 2010

The Relativity of Religion

On June 30, 1905, Albert Einstein proposed that the Universe worked much different than the way anyone alive had supposed it did.  In short, Einstein’s theory of special relativity claims that space and time are not absolute quantities, but are rather malleable, relative scales of measurement.  This astonishing statement, which has not been disproven in the 105 years that have passed since its inception, should boggle your mind unless you have been aware of it for some time.  As I tell my Modern Physics students, if special relativity does not disturb you to the core the first time you hear it, it is because you did not really hear it.  The theory, which has attained law status, goes against everything we observe in our day to day lives.  For this reason, special relativity, which shows that classical physics only applies perfectly to relatively stationary objects, went unnoticed for so long. 
It should be noted that Einstein did not notice that time dilates for two objects moving at relative speeds, he just had a strange intuition that light was special, and wished to understand it better.  His journey towards this understanding required a certain leap of faith.  When Einstein was on this historic path of discovery, he told his friends that he wanted to get inside the head of God, to which they replied, “Could you tell him to pick my 6/49 numbers?"
Special relativity is based on two claims, or postulates, which, at first, seem to be benign enough.  The first states that the laws of physics are the same for all inertial reference frames, and that no one frame is preferred over another.  An inertial reference frame is one that is either still or moves at a constant speed.  This postulate essentially says that the Universe operates the same for all individuals, even if they are moving with respect to one another.  Even though we may experience life in our own unique way, we are all governed by the same rules.  Moreover, everyone’s unique experience of life is equally valid; no point of view is preferred.  The Universe is equitable.

The second postulate is where the big leap of faith occurs.  Einstein made the assumption that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same when measured in any inertial reference frame.  This is a bold statement, which essentially claims that the constancy of the speed of light is a law of physics.  No matter what speed you are moving at, you measure that light whizzes by you at the same 300,000 km/s that it would if you were stationary.  It shows that Einstein loved light, and actually favoured it over space and time.  The compelling truth that emerges when we examine this postulate carefully is that time and space must adjust, or bend accordingly, to allow this apparent anomaly to take place.  His blind faith in the speed of light was surprisingly well-placed – that time and space adjust, or dilate, for objects moving at high speeds has been verified experimentally countless times, and never disproven.
As you warm up to this concept (if you had never heard it before, it will take some time to accept it), let us relate it to the very hot topic of religion (pun intended).  Special relativity has so many philosophical implications.  It states that we all view the world with the same lens, but make different conclusions on it because our reference frame is always unique.  Time and space bend to uniquely wrap around our perspective when we are moving at a specific speed.  Is our perception of time and space correct?  Is it wrong?  It is neither – our perception simply is our perception.  Everyone comes to a unique conclusion about life, since their reference frame is unique.  Our lives exist in the same Universe, and obey all the same rules, yet we observe life differently than the next person.  However, and this is key, no reference frame is preferred; all are equally correct.
The relativity of simultaneity is a direct consequence of special relativity.  It states that to one person that is still, two events can be seen as simultaneous, but to someone moving relative to you, those same two events are observed to have occurred at different times.  Can they both be right?  Yes.  Both viewpoints are correct.  To the stationary person, the events were simultaneous, and to the moving person, they were not.  There is no absolute here, and the same is true about religion.
No one religion is more correct than any other.  There, I said it.  Someone has to.  Person A says that their invisible creator is responsible for their life.  Person B says that the creator is actually some other entity.  Person C says that in fact persons A and B are both wrong, as there are several creators.  Person D says you are all wrong, as the Universe can exist without any creator.  Special relativity argues that all religious beliefs are equally valid.  We all lead a specific life, which leads us to relatively different observations, points of view, and reasons for adopting a given faith.  If you accept special relativity, then you must also accept that there can be more than one correct religious point of view. 
Introductory Mathematics leads us to believe that if solution 1 ≠ solution 2, then both cannot be correct.  Yet, the math of special relativity is elegant, and says the opposite is true.  Why?  It is because both solutions correspond to two unique questions.  Religious leaders wish to generalize their respective faiths, as though they should apply verbatim to all others.  What these leaders fail to recognize is that the question for all of their followers is actually unique.  Our personal viewpoint is relative, and thus, so too is the question, “What is life?”  Clearly, the answer should vary from person to person.  If time passes at the same rate for two people, then they are not moving with respect to one another.  In life, we are all set in relative motion with respect to our views on life.  As such, our viewpoints are equally correct, and most importantly, not necessarily transferrable.
In science, we must agree to disagree sometimes.  Two different observations of the same event can be different and also valid if they come from separate perspectives; in fact, they must be.  When Einstein declared that both time and space are relative, the scientific community took some time to accept this possibility.  They eventually came around, and today, use the theory to ensure successful operation of GPS technology among others.  Indeed, the clocks onboard satellites, which move fast compared to the surface of the Earth, are adjusted to tick slightly faster.  It is the only way they can remain synchronised to our clocks on Earth.
The religious community is historically slower to adapt than the scientific community is.  It is not my intention to impact anyone’s religious views.  My hope is that there will come a time when no one tries to impose their religion onto someone else.  Special relativity proves that such efforts are fundamentally flawed.  Religious views should be based on personal faith, not authority.  
Special relativity is a case where science encourages open-mindedness for all perspectives.  It offers validity to everyone’s impression.  The most progressive of religions ought to consider implementing George Carlin’s unwritten commandment into their list of life values: “Keep thy religion to thyself.”  I don’t mean that you shouldn’t share your views; I just mean that you must never enforce them upon others.  

I beg of you, that when you make a leap of faith, make one akin to Einstein’s.  Leap from a place of inquisitiveness, not authority.   

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