Absolutes and Relativism
(the affect of relativity theory on theology)
(Week 9 of SBTS 28960)
1. God, God’s attributes, and God’s word are absolutes:
a. Something can be absolute in the sense of being completely independent (= self-existent, uncreated, without need of sustaining): God is such an absolute because only God is truly independent (Deu. 4:35; 32:39; Isa. 43:10-12; 44:6; 45:18; I Cor. 8:4-6).
b. Something can be absolute in the sense of being infinite (= without bound): God and His attributes are absolutes because only God & His attributes are infinite (e.g. Deu. 3:24; Job 42:2; Ps. 95:3; 145:3; 147:5; Is. 40:28; Mat. 19:26; Luke 1:37; I Jn. 3:20; Rev. 1:8).
c. Something can be absolute in the sense of being completely pure (= incorruptible, infallible, without sin/error, true): God, His attributes and His word are absolutes because only God (Deu. 32:4; II Sa. 22:31; I Ki. 8:61; Job 25:4-5; Ps. 18:30; 25:8; 33:5; 34:8; 100:5; 103:17; 119:68; 145:7-9; Is.63:7; Jer. 10:10; 33:11; Nah. 1:7; Mat. 5:48; 19:17; Rom. 3:23; 11:22; I Th. 1:19; He. 4:15; Rev. 15:3), His attributes (Ps. 119:142; Is. 26:4), and His word (II Sa. 7:28; Ps. 12:6; 18:30; 19:7-8; 119:7-8, 140, 142, 144, 160; Pr. 30:5; Rom. 7:12; I Tim. 1:8; Rev. 16:7) are pure.
d. Something can be absolute in the sense of being immutable (= unchanging, sure, firm, certain, dependable, eternal, forever): God, His attributes and His word are absolutes because only God (Gen. 21:33; Deu. 33:27; Ps. 41:13; 90:2; 93:2; 106:48; Is. 40:28; 63:16; Jer. 10:10; Mic. 5:2; Hab. 1:12; Rom. 1:20; 16:26; He. 9:14; I Tim. 1:17; Rev. 1:8), His attributes (Deu. 33:27; Ps. 103:17; Is. 54:8; Jer. 31:3; Hab. 3:6; Rom. 1:20; I Tim. 6:16), His word (I Ki. 8:56; Ps. 93:5; 111:7; Eze. 12:25; Dan. 9:12; Mat. 5:18; 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 16:17; 21:33), and His promises (Gen. 9:16; 17:7, 13, 19; Lev. 16:34; 24:8; II Sa. 23:5; I Chr. 16:17; Ps. 105:10; Is. 55:3; 61:8; Jer. 32:40; Eze. 16:60; 37:26) are immutable.
e. And, because God, God’s attributes and God’s word exist forever, there are ontological truths which are absolutes in the sense of persisting forever. For example:
A) infinity, unity, distinction, number (which become foundational assumptions of mathematics)
B) unity, distinction, diversity, disparity, identity, hierarchy (which, as He reveals Himself in His creation, become foundational assumptions of systematics)
C) being, personhood, personality, life, soul, spirit, authority, holiness, righteousness, purity, justice, love, goodness, beauty, power, knowledge wisdom, free will, constancy
2. Truths exist which are absolute in the sense of applying to all things created, both physically and spiritually. For example:
a. There is an actual and singular origin, history, and fate of all things made because aside from God all things are created.
b. God is sovereign: All things were created by God (I Chr. 29:14; Ex. 20:31; John 1:3; Acts 14:15; 17:24; Rom. 11:36; I Cor. 8:6; Eph. 3:9; Col. 1:16; Heb. 2:10; 3:4; Rev. 4:11), all things are sustained by God (Acts 17:25; Rom. 11:36; Col. 1:16; Heb. 1:3), and all events in history are determined and planned by God (Acts 17:26; I Cor. 15:27).
c. Glorification and pleasure of God is the purpose of everything created (Psa. 19:1; Isa. 43:7; 66:18; I Cor. 10:31; Rev. 4:11).
d. [for humans, and probably for angels] Loving, serving, and obeying God with all one’s heart, soul, spirit, and mind is right (Deu. 11:13; 13:3; Josh. 22:5; Mark 12:30). Anything short of that is sin.
e. [for all humans and probably for all angels] The moral standard set by God is the only right one (since only God’s goodness, love, righteousness, justice, authority, and knowledge is infinite). (e.g. Ps. 48:10; 97:2; 119:137; 145:17)
f. [after the creation of Adam] Honoring God’s image is right. Dishonoring, damaging, murdering God’s image is sin (comp. Gen. 1:26-7, 5:1; 9:6; James 3:9).
g. The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).
3. Truths exist which are absolute in the sense of applying to the entire physical creation (i.e. for all physical time; cosmically). For example:
a. Matter and body are truths forever after the creation (because matter is even recreated for the new heavens and earth (Isa. 65:17; 66:22; Rev. 21:1)and our bodies (Rom. 6:5; I Cor. 15; Rev. 20:5-6) and Christ’s body (Acts 2:31-32; 4:33; 24:15; Luke 24:34-43) are apparently made of matter forever in heaven)
b. The law of corruption and decay (the curse) applies to the entire physical creation between the fall and glorification of man (e.g. Rom. 8:18-22).
4. Truths exist which are absolute in the sense of applying to all humans. For example:
a. Humans loving other humans as themselves (Mark 12:31; Rom. 13:9) is right. Any response to another human short of that is sin.
b. Humans are to have dominion over the creation (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:6-8).
c. Humans are to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28; 9:1).
d. Humans are to work for six days and rest the seventh day, setting it apart to God (Ex. 20:8-11; 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 23:3; Deu. 5:12-14).
e. All (non-divine humans) have sinned (Rom. 3:23), salvation is by faith alone (Rom. 3:28; Philippians 3:9; Heb. 11:6), and Christ is the only way (John 14:6)
f. (for all descendants of Noah) Capital punishment is the appropriate response to murder (Gen. 9:6).
g. [as it is popular to understand of Proverbs] there are truths which are absolutely probable.
B. The Bible teaches there are non-absolute truths.
1. There are context-dependent truths:
a. The mosaic laws applied to a particular group of people at a particular time (e.g. Rom. 6:14; I Cor. 9:20-21; Gal. 3:23-25) (Israelites rather than all humans; pre-Christian post-Law time).
b. God has changed the limitations on diet (e.g. plants only before the Flood (Gen. 1:29-30) to both plants and animals after the Flood (Gen. 9:3-4); clean animals before Christ (e.g. Lev. 11:1-31; Deu. 14:3-20) to all animals after Christ (Acts 10:9-16))
c. Applications of biblical principles vary from situation to situation (even if the biblical principles do not).
d. Each culture has ethical standards which distinguish that culture from any other.
e. Weaker believers often have different ethical standards (some of which are appropriate and right for them) – difference which in many cases need to be honored and in some cases need to be followed by the stronger brother.
f. Each person has a set of predispositions unique to that person, which should lead to a unique ethic.
h. The proverbs in Proverbs (many believers feel that the proverbs are not always true).
2. There are limited quantities:
a. the non-physical creation (as rays in time)
b. the physical creation (temporal)
c. human qualities (e.g. limitations in knowledge, experience in time & space)
3. There are divisible phenomena (e.g. individuals; things separated/divided in creation)
C. In science, the development of Relativity Theory was driven largely by conceptual advances. Most of the experimental verification followed theory development by more than a half century. And what seems to have driven Albert Einstein in developing these concepts was speculation about light:
1. Three hundred years ago, no way was known to test between Chistiaan Huygens’ 1678 suggestion that light was a wave and Isaac Newton’s 1704 suggestion that light consisted of particles. Thus, it was mainly based upon Newton’s greater reputation that most of the 18th century scientists believed light was a particle.
2. In an 1801 experiment, however, Thomas Young (age 28) showed that light created an interference pattern when passed through a double slit – something a wave can do, but which particles cannot. This convinced scientists of the next (19th) century that Newton was wrong and light was actually a wave.
3. In 1864, in the midst of unifying the physics of electricity and magnetism, James Clerk Maxwell inferred the existence of electromagnetic waves (where a changing electric field would generate a changing magnetic field which in turn would generate a changing electric field, etc.). Based upon the values of physical constants as they had been measured at that time, Maxwell calculated electromagnetic waves should travel at about 186,000 miles per second in free space. Since the speed of light had already been measured close to that value, Maxwell suggested that light was an electromagnetic wave.
4. Since other types of waves traveled through substances (e.g. sound waves through air, water waves through water), 19th century physicists generally believed that light waves had to travel through something as well – a postulated substance called ‘luminous ether’. If so, just as in the case of other types of waves, the speed of light should be different depending upon how fast one was moving compared to this ether. When, in 1878, Albert A. Michelson (age 25) produced the most accurate measurement known up to that time for the speed of light (186,350 ± 30 miles per second), there were hints that the speed of light was not affected by the earth’s motion through space. In 1880, Michelson invented an interferometer to test this. When sufficiently perfected (by 1887, with the help of Edward Morley, and for which Michelson received the 1907 Nobel prize), the Michelson interferometer demonstrated that the speed of light is the same whether measured in the direction of the earth’s motion or against it, or perpendicular to it.
5. In 1905, Albert Einstein (age 26) suggested special relativity (that the laws of physics were the same for any reference frame moving at a constant velocity). Consequently,
a. there is no need for luminous ether (and the Michelson-Morley experiment becomes evidence for there being no ether)
b. there are things which actually vary with velocity (consequently, they are not absolutes). For example:
A) motion. Nothing physical is known to be unmoving – against which all motion can be measured. There is no standard to determine absolute motion. Consequently,
1) the motion of one object can only be measured relative to the motion of another object (thus all motion is relative motion).
2) it is not possible to determine which of two people moving at constant velocity relative to one another is actually stationary and which is moving.
B) time. Time runs at a different rate for objects at different speeds. There is thus no such thing as universal physical time.
1) velocity time dilation: Time runs differently for reference frames at different velocities (time running slowest in the reference frame of the observer), so people on starships traveling velocities approaching the speed of light compared to the earth age more slowly than people on earth (the twin paradox). A photon moving at the speed of light experiences no time at all.
a) Experimental Verification:
(A) Ives & Stilwell (1938, 1941): The doppler shift of cathode rays moving away and towards the observer was consistent with relativistic velocity time dilation and not with classical physics
(B) Rossi & Hall (1941): Most of the muons – radioactive particles formed by cosmic rays impacting the upper atmosphere – survived from the 10,600’ altitude of Echo Lake, CO to the 5,280’ altitude of Denver, CO, even though the travel time was several half-lives of muons at rest – i.e. fast-moving muons survive about 10x as long as muons at rest. A similar experiment was done in 1966 using the 6,288’ peak of Mt. Washington and MIT near sea level.
(C) Hafele & Keating (1971): cesium atomic clocks in commercial airliners flying east, then flying west, ran at different rates than a cesium clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Within experimental error, the difference was as expected in relativity theory (the clocks in flight running more slowly due to velocity time dilation and more rapidly due to gravitational time dilation – see below). A partial replication of this experiment in 2005 by the National Physical Laboratory in the UK was within 4% of the relativistic predictions.
(D) Hasselkamp, Mondry, and Scharmann (1979): Measured a relativistic time dilation in the doppler shift of a light source moving at right angles to the line of sight.
(E) GPS positions are accurate only when the atomic clocks of the satellites are corrected for gravitational and velocity time dilation.
(F) The lifetimes of μ-mesons at rest in the laboratory is 2.22 μs; the lifetimes of μ-mesons traveling at 0.98c in the atmosphere is about 10x longer, as expected with relativistic velocity time dilation.
(A) the time interval between two events is also different as perceived at different velocities – and shortest in the reference frame where the two events occur at the same location.
(B) simultaneity is impossible, aside from direct contact (i.e. that which is judged simultaneous at one velocity may not be judged simultaneous at another velocity).
(C) universal past, universal present, and universal future are all impossible. Relative to Event A
(1) there are past events (those which can influence Event A)
(2) there are future events (those which Event A can influence).
(3) there are events which are outside both that Event A’s past and that Event A’s future (those which are too far away and/or too close in time for light to reach Event A), which are in Event A’s ‘elsewhere’.
2) Present knowledge of distant locations is impossible (because information is transferred no faster than the speed of light)
C) mass (being least in the reference frame where the object is at rest)
D) space (e.g. length in the direction of motion – being longest in the reference frame where the object is at rest)
c. There are things which do not change with the velocity of the reference frame (i.e. there are phenomena which are absolute with respect to velocity). Because of this, and because he assumed the invariance of physical law to arrive at his theory, Einstein sympathized with calling his theory the ‘theory or invariance’ rather than ‘theory of relativity’. Unchanging phenomena with respect to velocity include:
A) natural laws (assuming the constancy of which led Einstein to relativity theory). For example, Maxwell’s electromagnetic equations would be true in every reference frame moving at a constant velocity.
B) the mathematical form of natural laws (assuming the constancy of which led Einstein to relativity theory). For example, special relativity theory itself seems to hold (i.e. those phenomena which change with velocity do so as predicted by special relativity theory)
C) the physical constants of natural laws (assuming the constancy of which led Einstein to relativity theory). And, since the speed of light in Maxwell’s equations is dependent only upon physical constants, the speed of light (c) is also constant. Therefore,
1) c will be measured the same regardless of the speed of the light source or the observer. Observational evidence: When a binary star system has one star moving away from us and the other toward us (the relative velocity determined by doppler-shifting of star colors), there is no difference in the speed of light measured from the two stars.
2) c will not be different at different places in the universe. Observational evidence: The speed of light coming from distant stars and the physics about those stars seems to be the same as we observe here on earth.
D) combinations of phenomena which are themselves relative in special relativity theory
1) 4-D spacetime is the same at all velocities (even though separately space and time are not the same at different velocities)
2) 4-D momenergy is the same at all velocities (even though separately energy and momentum are not the same at different velocities)
3) 4-D electric density is the same at all velocities (even though separately electric charge and electric current are not the same at different velocities)
4) the total amount of mass-energy in the universe is constant (even though separately the mass and energy in the universe are not constant)
E) the sequence of causally-related events
6. Albert Einstein (1915) extended special relativity (to general relativity) by claiming that the laws of physics are the same for any reference frame (regardless of either velocity or acceleration). Conceptually, since the laws of physics are the same if a person were in a free-falling elevator (accelerating reference frame) or motionless in empty space (uniform motion reference frame), and the laws of physics are the same if a person were in an accelerating rocket in empty space (accelerating reference frame) or standing on a planet (uniform motion reference frame), the laws of physics are the same in uniform and accelerating reference frames. In general relativity theory
a. gravity is not a force. Rather, matter/energy distorts (curves) spacetime, with greater concentrations of matter/energy creating a greater curvature. This curvature of spacetime is gravity.
A) Since spacetime is warped by matter/energy, space is non-Euclidean. An object without forces acting on it (i.e. in free float) will not follow a straight line (the shortest path in Euclidean space) but rather follow the geodesic (the shortest spacetime path). Consequently, light will appear to bend around concentrations of matter/energy:
1) Einstein (1916) predicted that a star being occulted by the sun during an eclipse should appear to move away from the sun just before being completely occulted. Sir Arthur Eddington, interpreting results from two locations during the 29 May 1919 solar eclipse – one to Principe Island and the other to Brazil – claimed success for general relativity theory and made Einstein an overnight celebrity. Although Eddington’s results were not very accurate, observations of quasar occultations since 1964 have permitted much more accurate confirmations of this relativistic prediction.
2) Orest Chwolson conceptually suggested (in 1924) and Albert Einstein mathematically predicted (in 1936) ‘gravitational lenses’ – extremely massive astronomical objects which create distorted and/or multiple images of objects beyond them. Observational verification:
a) 1979: the first gravitationally lensed object was discovered, being seen as two images of a more distant quasar (Twin Quasar, Q0957+561) on either side of the closer massive YGKOW G1 galaxy which, acting as a gravitational lens, creates the images.
b) 1985: the first ‘Einstein cross’ was discovered (G2237+0305), being four images of a more distant quasar around the closer massive CGCG 378-15 galaxy which, acting as a gravitational lens, creates the images.
c) 1998: the first ‘Einstein ring’ was discovered (B1938+666), being the distortion of a more distant galaxy into segments of a ring of light about the galaxy which, acting as a gravitational lens, creates the images.
d) 2004: through the Hubble Telescope, the Abell 2218 galactic cluster magnifies into view the most distant galaxy known in the universe (13 billion light years distant from us).
B) Since spacetime is warped by matter/energy, time is different in different places in spacetime (time running the slowest where spacetime is warped the most). Since gravity is curvature of spacetime, gravity warps time (time running the slowest closer to concentrations of matter/energy). Time may even run backwards inside a black hole. This warping of time
1) changes the frequency of light waves (called gravitational time dilation or gravitational redshift). Observational verification:
a) Sir Arthur Eddington’s 1924 prediction of a gravitational redshift for the white dwarf Sirius B was confirmed by Walter Adams in 1925. Sirius B, about the same mass as the sun but much smaller, shows 30x the gravitational time dilation of the sun. Neutron stars and black holes routinely demonstrate gravitational time dilations.
b) Pound & Rebka (1959): The motion of a 57Fe gamma ray source near the roof of Jefferson Laboratory at Harvard University was changed (by varying the frequency of the loudspeaker diaphragm to which it was attached) until it was absorbed by a motionless 57Fe receiver 73.8’ below in the basement of the building. The observed velocity (to counter both the velocity and gravitational time dilations) was within 10% of the relativistic predictions. Pound and Snider (1964) got within 1% of the relativistic predictions.
c) Hafele & Keating (1971): cesium atomic clocks in commercial airliners flying east, then flying west, ran at different rates than a cesium clock at the U.S. Naval Observatory. Within experimental error, the difference was as expected in relativity theory (the clocks in flight running more slowly due to velocity time dilation and more rapidly due to gravitational time dilation – see below). A partial replication of this experiment in 2005 by the National Physical Laboratory in the UK was within 4% of the relativistic predictions.
d) 18 June 1976: A hydrogen maser in Gravity Probe A, placed 6200 miles up into space by a rocket, ran faster than a hydrogen maser on the ground to within 0.007% of the relativistic predictions.
e) GPS positions are accurate only when the atomic clocks of the satellites are corrected for gravitational and velocity time dilation
2) lengthening of travel times for light near matter/energy concentrations. Irwin Shapiro (1964) predicted the Shapiro time delay or gravitational time delay (radar waves should take longer to travel to Mercury or Venus and back when the planet is in the direction of the sun than they should if the sun were absent). Shapiro et al. (1971) observed agreement within 5% of the relativistic predictions and more recently the Cassini probe found agreement within 0.002%.
b. time runs slowest in a free float reference frame (i.e. time runs faster for objects being accelerated by forces)
c. planetary orbits will not close as they do in Newtonian gravity
A) Einstein (1916) explained the 43 arcseconds of angle per century procession in Mercury’s perihelion (Mercury, being closest to the sun, is the planet where the effect is the easiest to see). More precise measurements since 1966 have confirmed the relativistic perihelion procession for Venus and Earth and established it even more accurately for Mercury.
B) A 4 degree-per-year orbital axis procession was predicted (and confirmed) for the binary system of two neutron stars discovered by Joseph Taylor, Jr. and Russell Hulse (NOTE: for their 1974 discovery of this binary, Taylor & Hulse received the Nobel prize in 1993)
d. neutron stars and black holes are possible – predicted in the 1930s, and observationally confirmed in the 1960s by
A) x-rays emitted from material drawn from one binary star into its extremely small partner – the mass of the smaller partner being consistent with neutron stars or black holes.
B) quasars, which because of their small size and high energy output may be best explained a black holes
C) galactic centers which have gas jets being emitted from them (similar to gas jets emitted from quasars)
e. changes in the shape of spacetime (‘gravitational waves’) will propagate through spacetime at the speed of light.
A) not yet measured directly
B) The Taylor-Hulse binary pulsar orbital period is decreasing at a rate consistent (to within 0.2%) with the system losing energy via gravitational waves.
7. NOTE: There continue to be physicists who attempt to explain the physics of the universe without the use of relativity theory. These physicists have had some success explaining a number of observational expectations of relativity theory, but only in an ad hoc fashion after the predictions of relativity theory have been confirmed by observation. Unlike relativistic physics, these classical physics approaches have never made predictions about the physical world. Therefore, all other things being equal, it seems unlikely that classical physics is true, and more likely that relativity theory or something similar to it better describes the universe.
D. In summary:
1. Relativity theory suggests that some phenomena of the physical creation do not exist in the absolute sense as was traditionally assumed, but rather only relative to other phenomena. Given that according to traditional theology God alone possesses absolute qualities, discovery of relativism in God’s physical creation should not be a great surprise.
2. Relativity theory suggests that more unknowables exist in the physical world than was traditionally assumed to be true. Given that according to traditional theology man should be humble because of his limited and forever incomplete knowledge – even of the physical world – identification of things in God’s creation that humans cannot know even in principle should not be a great surprise.
3. Relativity theory suggests that some phenomena of the physical world are more interdependent with other phenomena than was traditionally assumed to be true. Given that according to traditional Christian theology the creation is reflective of its triune Creator, discovery of greater holism, interdependence, and complexity in God’s creation should not be a great surprise. [NOTE: Certain aspects of this holism, interdependence, and complexity are not expected by naturalistic and mechanistic perspectives of the physical world and its origin]
4. Relativity theory suggests that absolutes exist in the physical world even though some phenoma are relative. Given that according to traditional theology God, as an self-existent absolute, fashioned a creation completely dependent upon Him, discovery of the existence of absolutes alongside relativism in God’s creation should not be a great surprise.
5. Relativity theory arises from the assumption that natural law is constant. Given that God is an absolute in traditional theology, if natural law is actually God’s activity in the creation, then relativity theory’s success might be expected in modern theology.