Theosophy Northwest View

The Newsletter of the Northwest Branch of the Theosophical Society

September 2010 – Vol. 13 Issue 7

The World as Einstein Saw It

Einstein made a tremendous contribution to the remaking of our way of looking at the universe from atomic nucleus to the cosmos at large. A profound development arising from the practical application of special relativity's E = mc2 is the realization that mass and energy are equivalent: that matter is energy and energy is matter. Without entering into the details of his special and general relativity theories, we may say the first applies to all phenomena except gravitation and that it unifies space and time in a continuum. The second rests upon the first and applies to gravitation, a formula he later elaborated into a generalized theory of gravitation. The philosophical implications of these theories are far-reaching.

The previous model of the universe was of an arrangement of disconnected parts – absolute space, absolute time, and hard, indivisible particles of matter, for example. Einstein conceived the cosmos to be a vast, whole organism with the numerous observed components working together. As he said: “The individual feels the nothingness of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in Nature and in the world of thought. He looks upon individual existence as a sort of prison and wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole.”

Einstein felt that further research would tend to show that there are not two or more unrelated forces operating in the universe, but that the processes we have discovered are expressions of the one energy manifesting in various ways according to conditions. It is because of this view that he said "God does not play dice with the world." Einstein very firmly upheld the principle that causation operates throughout the universe; and it is indeed difficult to conceive that something can produce results, i.e., effects, without being itself both causal and the result of a previous cause of some kind that we may not at first discern. This in theory should operate on the atomic level as it does on the cosmic, and he had difficulty in accepting the implications of quantum theory. Einstein's own considerable contribution to quantum work in 1905 on the particle aspect of light should not be forgotten, however. His mind was not closed, but it was his contention that not enough was known of the phenomena to come to definitive conclusions. He was quite prepared to have his concepts superseded, as his had replaced those of Newton and others.

That he experienced intuitive guidance in his life is certain from his writings: “The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.” Einstein's son-in-law once asked him how he had arrived at his famous relativity theory. Einstein said that after much work he found he had not advanced very far toward a solution to his problems. One night he retired in utter discouragement and feeling very depressed. He told himself there was nothing more to be done. Then he experienced an intuitive flash illuminating his subject and piecing together the parts as in a puzzle. The next day he began to work out his equations, in appropriate sequence.

It is perhaps enough to add here that for the hard-and-fast views of preceding generations he substituted relativities, banishing absolutes, such as ultimate indivisible particles. In replacing the invariable constants ascribed to Newton and others with a different constant in the case of his relativity theory – the velocity or speed of light in a vacuum – he was himself in the web of an "absolute." For he placed light out-side the category of relativity, which I believe is questionable.

As the French mathematician and philosopher Jean d'Alembert stated in 1715: "To someone who could grasp the universe from one unified viewpoint, the entire creation would appear as a unique fact and a great truth." Einstein's main approach was similar to this view – the inherent oneness of our universe, all its parts composing an aspect of a cosmic organism. But in the unfathomable reaches of infinite space, there must be an uncountable number of such universes. – I. M. Oderberg

Great Ideas Discussion Group

Join us one Tuesday a month for informal conversations exploring major ideas that have influenced human thought and actions through the ages. This month our topic is Relativity – Scientific, Philosophic . What can we know? Are there any absolute truths? Is certainty possible? Is nature deterministic, as Einstein’s theory holds? How far are traditional commonsense notions adequate for understanding the natural and human worlds? What are the implications of cultural relativism? How best can we deal with irreconcilable systems of thought and culture that each claim to be true and binding? Can reality ever be captured in human language and thought? (Here are some quotes to get the discussion started.) We hope to see you there!

  • When: Tuesday, September 7, 7:30 to 8:45 pm
  • Where: Bellevue Library, 1111 - 110th Ave NE, Bellevue
Upcoming Topics
October 5: Utilitarianism
November 2: The Oneness of Life
December: Gods / God / No Gods?

Theosophical Views

The Unity or Diversity among Religions?

By I. M. Oderberg

For most people, religion doesn’t center on beliefs but on acts: prayers, worship, special meals, holidays and rituals. It also centers on stories about the origins of the world, humanity, and traditions, stories that give meaning and context to people’s lives. These aspects permeate family life, starting when people are infants, so that they become second nature. And until recently they also pervaded community life since most religions dominated particular societies for long periods, as some still seek to do today.

For more than a century scholars such as Huston Smith, Aldous Huxley and Joseph Campbell, as well as those in interfaith movements, have emphasized the commonalities among religions. Among these claims are that all religions promote similar ethical teachings and embody many of the same archetypal ideas under a variety of symbols, rites and mythic stories. Though differing in specifics, each tradition is said to respond successfully to the human condition and enable people to reach the ultimate spiritual goals shared by all humans in relation to an identical underlying reality.

Theosophical writers also hold that an ancient wisdom tradition lies at the root of all great systems of thought. This knowledge, they say, was impressed onto the inner being of primeval humanity by superior beings, and then kept alive among an association of the most evolved humans who periodically sent forth messengers to various peoples. The religions and philosophies these teachers founded invariably degenerate under the weight of human ignorance, weakness and love of power and must be renewed or replaced. Thus, all great systems of thought can be traced to a perennial source.

In his God Is Not One, Stephen Prothero takes issue with unifying approaches and adopts a type of cultural relativism. In describing eight influential religions he argues that religion is found in the lived aspects which vary so greatly. Brushing aside the specific practices as minor is, he feels, disrespectful, misleading and harmful in that people then fail to engage with faiths as they actually are for most believers. Denigrating any suggestion of fundamental unity, he seeks to show that each faith addresses a different problem in its own unique ways.

Yet do such differences exclude basic oneness? Dr. Mrinal Roy is among the many who would disagree. In Nakedness Is All he examines ten major religions, seeking the main problem each addresses and the solution it offers. He concludes that all of them focus on the same issue: a deep-seated alienation of humans from the root of being, however that may be defined. Though the paths prescribed differ in emphasis and detail, each solution rests initially on establishing inner and outer harmony, and in the final stages involves stripping the individual of all excess psychological baggage to reach a state of inner nakedness or simplicity that allows them to reunite with the essence of their being. This is the mystic quest. The mass of people, of course, never reach this final stage, or seriously strive for it. For them, religion functions as a way of regulating society and giving structure and meaning to life. Many love the ritual, theater, and fellowship, as well as the contact they feel with powerful transcendent beings – whether these are God, gods, saints, ancestors or spirits – that religions encourage, rationalize and take credit for.

But must we privilege either similarities or distinctions? This argument makes me think of a forest filled with many species of plants, each plant with its own history and habit of growth. How can we say that a moss, a wildflower and a redwood are essentially alike – and yet they are. They all share the same cell structure and chemistry, photosynthesis, DNA, and much more. Despite disparities in size, appearance, lifespan and reproduction, they are all plants even though each individual and species remains unique in some respects. Again, take humans gathered from many countries: despite variations in appearance, language, dress, diet, customs and beliefs, they are members of one species. The differences, which are most obvious in the daily details of life, are not fundamental. Similarly, religions grow out of widespread, deep-seated desires, fears and hopes. If religious practices didn’t respond effectively enough to these individual and group needs, they wouldn’t take hold (though whatever takes hold is apt to persist). So whether their origin is sacred or profane, it would be remarkable if religions failed to reflect the commonality of human beings, their societies and ways of life that have held for millennia, while also displaying countless differences arising from each tradition’s unique origin and history.

Current Issue

A few quotes reflecting different views, to help get the conversation started:

The theory of relativity worked out by Mr. Einstein, which is in the domain of natural science, I believe can also be applied to the political field. Both democracy and human rights are relative concepts – and not absolute and general. – Jiang Zemin


Relativity applies to physics, not ethics. – Albert Einstein


MAGNITUDE, n. Size. Magnitude being purely relative, nothing is large and nothing small. If everything in the universe were increased in bulk one thousand diameters nothing would be any larger than it was before, but if one thing remain unchanged all the others would be larger than they had been. To an understanding familiar with the relativity of magnitude and distance, the spaces and masses of the astronomer would be no more impressive than those of the microscopist. For anything we know to the contrary, the visible universe may be a small part of an atom, with its component ions, floating in the life-fluid of some animal. Possibly the wee creatures peopling the corpuscles of our own blood are overcome with the proper emotion when contemplating the unthinkable distance from one of these to another. – Ambrose Bierce


The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration. – Heinz Pagels


This principle [of cultural relativism], or more correctly, this axiom, states that because there is no universally valid standard by which the beliefs or practices of other cultures can be evaluated, they can only be judged relative to the cultural context in which they occur…. For W. G. Sumner, who had never done research in a non-Western society, practices such as religious prostitution, cannibalism, human sacrifice, infanticide, and slavery were perfectly reasonable human adaptations to particular circumstance. Like all practices, they had to be understood in context; there could be no absolute standard for evaluating them.

… in the 1970s a far more radical version of the concept came into vogue. … Cultures, this new relativism insists, are incommensurable; each one can only be understood, or more correctly, interpreted, in its own terms as a unique system of meanings. What is more, only someone enculturated in that system can comprehend it fully. As Renato Rosaldo put it, “My own group aside, everything human is alien to me.” As these relativists have said, it necessarily follows that if peoples’ minds vary so much from one culture to another, Western science is only a culturally specific form of ethnoscience, not a universally valid way of verification or falsification…. Physicist Charles Nissam-Sabat has chided epistemological relativists for adopting this extreme position because “they make the people they study falsely incomprehensible and thus dehumanized.” … most anthropologists believe that it is possible to understand many aspects of another culture. As Gellner and Spiro have observed, no ethnographer know to them (or to me) has returned from a stay in another culture to report that the people they encountered were so alien that their beliefs and practices were completely incomprehensible. – Robert B. Edgerton, Sick Societies


I should emphasize this, to keep well-meaning but misguided multiculturalists at bay: the theoretical entities in which these tribal people frankly believe – the gods and other spirits – don't exist. These people are mistaken, and you know it as well as I do. It is possible for highly intelligent people to have a very useful but mistaken theory, and we don't have to pretend otherwise in order to show respect for these people and their ways. – Daniel C. Dennett


The following two statements are assumed to be evidence and true: (1) Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external. (2) Absolute space, in its own nature, without relation to anything external, remains always similar and immovable. – Isaac Newton


With almost breathtaking sweep, Einstein began his paper [on special relativity] by proclaiming that his theories worked not just for light, but were truths about the universe itself. Remarkably, he derived all his work from two simple postulates applying to inertial frame (i.e., objects that move with constant velocity with respect to each other): 1. The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames. 2. The speed of light is a constant in all inertial frames. These two deceptively simple principles mark the most profound insights into the nature of the universe since Newton’s work. From them, one can derive an entirely new picture of space and time. – Michio Kaku


In relativity, movement is continuous, causally determinate and well defined, while in quantum mechanics it is discontinuous, not causally determinate and not well defined. – David Bohm


But what if the members of an entire community are agreed that some statement is true: must it then not be true for them? For example, it was at one time universally agreed that the sun moves around the earth: was it not therefore true for the people living at that time that the sun moved around the earth? If so, where does that leave us who are living now? It seems to follow that anything on which we are unanimously agreed can be true only for us. There can then be no absolute truth. … Someone who knows the meaning of a statement must be able to recognize evidence for its truth when he is presented with it. He must also be able to distinguish conclusive from defeasible evidence. If the people of former times took themselves to have conclusive evidence that the sun goes around the earth, then … they could not admit anything as counterevidence against the truth of this proposition…. But if the people of former times took themselves merely to have very strong evidence that fell short of being conclusive, there is no ground for saying that the proposition was true for them; they merely wrongly thought that it was true. It was simply a proposition for which they believed that they had strong evidence, but the meaning … allowed the possibility of counterevidence, which Galileo later brought to light. Indeed, they might have been brought to see that their evidence was weak; when someone said to Wittgenstein that it was natural to think that the sun goes around the earth because it looks as though it does, he retorted with the question, “And how would it look if it looked as if the earth rotated on its axis?” – Michael Dummett, The Nature and Future of Philosophy