Truth and Relativity
By Ali Unal
With the publication of the “Theory of Relativity” at the turn of the century, the world-view based on the laws of simple cause and effect physics that began with Galileo and reached its peak in the 19th century, received a severe blow. Goethe’s observation that “people running after an idea fall into more and more error” was tellingly demonstrated, and scientists themselves were obliged to acknowledge the limitations of scientific theories. For example, T.G. Masaryk’s admission — that “Theories, after nourishing for a while the organs in the body of science, dry up and fall to the ground like leaves” — pointed out how difficult it is to maintain constant and permanent success in the sciences.
For centuries scientists had accused religion of being a collection of dogmas and religious people of being dogmatists. However, only with the demonstration of the limitations of classical physics did they realize that they too had become dogmatically attached to their theories. As Bertrand Russell put it: “Newton’s law reigned for such a long time and explained so many things that no one believed that it would ever need correcting. But eventually it became apparent that correction was needed. Let there be no doubt about it, one day these corrections will need to be corrected.” Science advances, if and when it does, by trial and error. In spite of this, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which replaced the classical physics of Newton’s Law is treated in many circles as if it were absolute truth, and the fact that it will need revision is kept hidden from sight. It is quite probable that eventually it will give way to a new theory.
It seems that going to extremes in the pursuit of a single idea is a constant trait of human beings. Whereas, while there is a share of truth in each of these great ideas, they are not the only means nor the only expressions of truth. If we think of truth as a light at the center point of a circle or a straight line, we see that the light will be reflected ray by ray to an infinite number of points on the circle’s circumference or along the straight line. Each point is touched by a ray of the truth and therefore each can be said to be true. However, the fact is that only the light of the truth in the center never changes, since it is absolute in contrast to each point which is only a relative truth. What gives the relative truth its particular dimensions and properties, its relevance, is the nature of the receiving point, its own properties, time and conditions. This is true for the natural sciences, as much as for the social sciences; indeed, it also applies to fields of Islamic learning such as tafsir (commentary on the Qur’an) and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).
But we may ask, Is there no permanent, absolute truth? Yes, this truth exists but it does so on the spiritual rather than the visible, external dimension of things. In fact, from one view even in the principles which relate to the spiritual dimension of things there are exceptions. These principles are not absolute, universal laws because, in their relevance to the visible, external dimension, they operate as general principles, that is, they admit exceptions. In respect of this difference between absolute and general laws, even science cannot affirm its laws, for example the law of cause and effect, absolutely. For this reason scientists say, “If the universe is in T1 condition at this moment, it cannot be concluded that a little later it will be in the same condition.”
We have already mentioned that the difference between absolute and general principles can be seen in the social sciences and even in the Islamic sciences like tafsir and fiqh. In the Realm of Unity, single and indivisible truth opens the door to countless relative truths in this material and quantitative world. For example, the Qur’an mentions good works as being virtues, as inherently and always of value. This is so, and yet we know that what are virtues under certain conditions and according to certain people may not be considered virtues under different circumstances, at a different time, by others. An administrator’s seriousness of manner may be considered to be dignity at work, but haughtiness at home. A weak person’s self-respect before a strong person is a quality to be praised, but the same quality in a strong person before a weaker one is considered undesirable. In the same way, what is an act of sin for one person can be a meritorious act for another. For this reason it was said, “Pious deeds of righteous people are the sins of those near to God.” Again, an act that earns a single merit for one person can earn a million merits for another. Again for this reason, as long as there is no conflict with the literal meaning of a word and the root of the word is studied and the rules of the Arabic language are not violated, the understanding of every reader of every verse in the Qur’an can be listened to with respect.
The most obvious example of the manifestation of the relative truth of general principles in history is in the sphere of justice. In the absolute, justice would see personal rights and public rights as equal. But sometimes there is such a disturbance of the peace that it is not possible to protect either the rights of the individual or of the public, let alone both; sometimes, even fundamental rights to life and Islam’s basic principles are endangered. During such times relative justice, which sacrifices the individual’s rights for the sake of the public good, becomes necessary and application of it becomes absolutely mandatory. In Turkish history the administration by sultans and even the killing of sons and brothers in the Ottoman dynasty were demanded by relative justice, which, by virtue of the necessity of compelling circumstances, gains the same authority as absolute justice.
In this earthly world there is such variety and abundance of colors, shapes, properties, times and conditions, that it is not possible to avoid relativism altogether. It is a reality of this world. Having understood that, we do also need truths which are at least close to absolute so that we can guide our lives by them. The absolute truth is that in the universe there is no real effect created by causes, and everything is in God’s hand. It is not predictable with certainty what will happen next, and our lives and the life of the world actually consist of this moment. Living this truth consciously together with faith and surrender to God, from the perspective of free-will given to man, we have also to give due recognition to the experience that causes do operate relatively reliably, though not absolutely, in this life. Because of this, the causes wrapping absolute reality like a shawl or veil, a veil of familiarity or habit, make life livable and thereafter, all technology and sciences get constructed on this veil. This is the broad region of human actions and observations where Newton’s classical physics has precedence over Einstein’s relativity physics.
Relativity is an important matter that reminds man of his vulnerability. The highest station a person who is climbing the ladder of divine knowledge can reach by means of his heart is the station of amazement. As the greatest human being said, “We did not know You as we should, O All-Munificent” and “How could I see Him; what I saw was light.” Similarly, the scientist solves one problem, but opens the door to many new ones, and his trust in the century-old foundations of science suddenly falls through. The moment he says that he has found the truth, he sees that everything slips from his grasp. The fact of relativity makes him exclaim, “The only thing I know is that I don’t know anything,” and this leads him, like a moth flying around a light, to eternally flap his wings around the light of divine knowledge.
Relativity shows that absolute truth lies only in Revelation and never begins with man. It can be directly known only by Revelation. Therefore it is clear that man has an absolute need for religion and definite religious dogma. It has been seen in innumerable fields of activity that two people cannot agree on even a simple matter; thus, absolute truth can never derive from man and can only come from God. Man’s duty is to organize his living and dying according to the God-given truth at the point of belief. Understanding that human beings can only attain partial truth is also an acknowledging of the space separating multiplicity from oneness. In pointing to and yearning for the oneness beyond multiplicity, this understanding functions as one of the important proofs of oneness.
Relativity is an important measure for managing (learning to live peaceably with) the differences among professions, temperaments, schools and sects that have arisen in philosophy, teaching methods and religions. All dispositions, sects, schools and methods have a portion of the truth and none of them are absolutely wrong or false. The important thing is for them to be able to unite around a common point. When we look to the past and catastrophes from the perspective of fate, and when we look to the future responsibilities and divine orders from the perspective of free-will and opportunity, then it is possible even to reconcile the conflict between the fatalists and the proponents of freedom of will.
The essential thing is to live believing that absolute truth when it touches upon this world, when it becomes relevant for us, is relative to us, conditioned by the points, circumstances, conditions receiving it. In the analogy given above, countless relative truths reflect the absolute truth located at the center point of the circle or the straight line at innumerable other points according to the properties, color and design of each. As long as people recognize, acknowledge, and defer to their own distance from the absolute truth, and don’t go beyond their human limits, unmanageable conflicts will not arise. But when people lose this sense of proportion about themselves and their capacity to know and propose the truth, when they take what is relative for what is absolute, they fall into errors with catastrophic consequences.