Physics Providing Guidance to the Intellectual World

Einstein’s theory of relativity had two parts: special relativity and general relativity. General relativity is still controversial, but without general relativity, it wouldn’t make much sense to interpret physics in a special field using relativity. It doesn’t make sense because on earth, where we perceive at low speeds, Newtonian mechanics already provides us with enough knowledge of physics to work with; there is no situation to push us toward perceiving a new world. According to the theory, on the other hand, we encounter a very different reality at high speeds. Until Einstein, there were two main views in physics to interpret the world. There was the Newtonian physics, which argued that the world that we perceived and touched through our senses was real, along with its forms, relationships, and material structures, and against this worldview held by empiricists and positivists –who, although not materialists, were close to materialism– there were the idealists. Through subjective idealist interpretations, it was argued that what we perceived was not real; they were simply what we saw through the windows of our senses, and the actual reality was beyond the perceived world. In physics, we had two worldviews: one determined by the Newtonian physics, which was close to empiricism, and the other determined by the remarks of Kant –arguably the founder of phenomenology– which were close to subjective idealism. These views overlapped with one another: Newton placed reality somewhere between these empiricist and idealist positions, whereas Kant argued that a priori aspects of that came from birth. These narratives are somewhat related to philosophy. I believe it is impossible to understand the theory of relativity directly through the terminology of physics, without philosophical interpretations and without starting from the intersection of physics and philosophy.

Albert Einstein

According to Einstein, as we approximate the speed of light, the world as we perceive it changes, along with its realities. The physical reality is a physical reality that we can define at low speeds; it is a field of reality, but if we were to reach higher speeds, it would change and we would need to change our thought paradigm to understand it. If our thought paradigm still follows the worldview of Newtonian physics, these may sound like delusions or fantasies because we cannot experience them directly or reach the high speeds mentioned; we cannot perceive them. When it comes to experiment and observation, or the scientific method itself, we are with those high speeds whether we like it or not. When it comes to electron accelerators, our studies on light, and our work on objects at astronomical distances, and especially when we try to interpret gravity, we encounter that paradigm whether we like it or not. Previously, changes or revolutions in consciousness usually had philosophical sources, however, for the first time, a revolution that has the power to replace philosophy is taking place through physics. Although different interpretations are related to different realities, Einstein’s theory of relativity, based on the law-abiding consciousness of objective reality, has created a great change in Western scientific circles and in consciousness. This was not really a public debate, and there was not enough discussion in universities either. In universities, this idea was perceived as if it were Newtonian physics, or reduced to it, and taught to students through some mathematical equations. It was not debated; no philosophical discussion was undertaken to create a paradigm shift in consciousness. To the best of my knowledge, there is a lack of studies and debates, both in the West and in Turkey, on how the theory of relativity is related to life, consciousness, and perceptions and interpretations of the world. This little attempt of ours aims to create a space and start a debate within it.

The word relativity, which is izafiyet in Ottoman Turkish, is translated to contemporary Turkish in many ways (görelilik, görecelik, görecelilik, bağıllık, bağıntılılık, or ilişkinlik). The word izafiyet was already used by Western and Ottoman-era schools of thought in philosophy, in the sense of facts and events in life being relative. However, it was not used in the sense of realities being related to the laws of physics. The definition of relativity was based on the idea, proposed by Sophists in Ancient Greece, that knowledge is relative, does not have a sound and real foundation, and depends on everyone’s own interpretation. Later, when a similar idea appeared in physics, it was a real surprise to many people. What did that mean? Did we not have a world with an objective reality that we could observe, consisting of deterministic structures that had well-defined and sound positions and places? What does relativity tell us here? Does it mean knowledge is in the eye of the beholder? It certainly is in terms of feelings; there is a world that can be perceived differently and interpreted from the perspective of impressionism, but is that really possible in terms of physical reality? Is there a world that can be interpreted differently by different subjects? This was the first impression, the first interpretation of Einstein’s ideas, but it is not what the theory of relativity proposes. Hence my preference for bağıntılılık or ilişkinlik in Turkish, instead of izafiyet. This theory does not mean that reality is in the eye of the beholder or changes depending on the perceiving subject, and that objective reality is something else. On the contrary, it shows that objective reality is connected to realities and fields of reality: There are multiple realities, not a single reality, and they are connected to one another. This connectivity is one that follows laws, with transformations and changes that are known or can be calculated. Understanding this and imagining what it is like is only possible by thinking about the movements of objects.

Isaac Newton

In Newtonian physics, when we think about any given object, we perceive physical objects on the basis of actions and reactions. Action and reaction involves a mechanical movement in which a given object moves across the space. In the case of mechanical movements, we need to ask: “What are we to understand in terms of physical reality?” This is what is understood: An object is equal or identical to itself, and it is something that moves. It encounters and interacts with other identical objects, governed by action-reaction relationship. And we talk about “time and place,” we have a perception related to the distance covered by this object as it moves, and the speed it has. These don’t affect the reality of the object’s existence. This is the important point. When we say “any objective reality,” it implies the object itself exists and moves; it exists with all of its qualities. This idea is closely related to Aristotelian essentialism. At its most basic, this is what we perceive through Newtonian physics. This of course has implications for art and philosophy as well. Artistic fields and their boundaries are drawn on the basis of this assumption about physical reality and its physical context; philosophical interpretations are also made on this basis.

According to this Newtonian view, the world or –in the larger sense– the universe is a collection of mechanical relationships. Mechanics here refers to Newtonian mechanics. I am emphasizing what this means because everything hinges on this point. To repeat: Every object in this universe is a constant reality, and there are certain relationships between them. These relationships imply a mechanical setup of external relationships, of movement governed by action and reaction. This is the important point about Newtonian physics. With Einstein, the thought paradigm shifts. I will go into the details of how it is different, but first, let me provide an overall framework regarding Einstein’s theory: When observing any object, as long as the object does not reach high speeds or speeds close to the speed of light, it is perceived as a fixed reality and its external mechanical movement is included in calculations, assuming it moves in space. Time is treated as if it were a common denominator for all objects. What I am trying to say is this: If the presence of this glass here, this pen here, that star over there, this city over yonder, and our locations and positions relative to one another are perceived and included in calculations as if they had an identical relationship with time, then “time” would not be accounted for, which was how calculations used to be made in physics. When? At the moment of existence of the object itself. When is “time” accounted for, then? It is accounted for when the object moves and changes place.

Time is Not External to Objects but a Part of Their Existence

Einstein showed, with his theory, that this was not the case: Time necessarily becomes part of the equation for the existence of an object; time is present in the existence of the object; time is being. Time is not a virtual thing that measures the external changes in an object; it is an element of the object’s existence. No object can exist without time, and in terms of existence, objects have different times. Let’s think about the fact of a paradigm shift here. What physical things can we say the existence of an object involves? For example, it has a material, a shape, a volume, a function, and a mass. According to Newton, an object has a constant mass, and the movements of that mass are examined. According to Einstein, on the other hand, time affects the existence of an object; time flows differently through each of us; thus, all objects have different realities relative to one another. This means when we report the location, mass, volume, width, height, and material qualities of an object in terms of physical reality, as perceived here and now and as measured through experiment and observation, we are in fact describing the object at a specific time period and at a specific speed. When the momentum of the object changes, so does its mass. It becomes another mass. Characteristics that make this object what it is have different qualities at different speeds, and the object even becomes shorter at very high speeds, which means it undergoes a quantitative change as well. The weight of its mass changes, which cannot be constant or at zero speed for any object. It can always be defined at certain speeds, relatively, in connection to another moving object. Then, pay attention: The Earth circles the Sun at a speed of 107,000 km/h. The Sun rotates on its axis at a speed of 70,000 km per hour. According to Einstein, if it were to rotate at a lower or higher speed, its mass would change, its time would change, and so would its other qualities.

In daily life, this may not be very significant; when we think about the theory, we may think of it as a fantasy because we don’t feel its reality. When, however, we conduct experiments in electron accelerators in the physics field called “high technology,” on obtaining forces from electrons and controlling them, we no longer have the luxury of saying either one works. This is a very important field. If we were to approach this with a philosophical sensitivity, if the consciousness is adapted to the experiment or inclined to receive and interpret the results of the experiment, then we arrive at a magnificent but slippery ground. The universe, which exists as a physical reality, used to be perceived and watched through the windows of the five senses; this was a structure we knew and had been familiar with, and the objects there were sound, they were the reality. Even if there were some differences between our perceptions, this was not really very important. At the end of the day, when we compared our perceptions and reported the results of our experiments and observations, we could comprehend them in their own reality, as they really were. Kant, on the other hand, argued that we could never comprehend objective reality as it is (noumenon), and we could only comprehend relationships between ourselves and outward appearances of objects, as well as relationships among the outward appearances of objects, in other words, phenomena. He argues we can know phenomena but never know noumena; for the form and nature of an object “in itself” is related to all other objects in the universe, which goes to infinity, and we could never hope to comprehend that.

Einstein’s theory, on the other hand, showed that it was impossible to obtain knowledge of an objective reality by examining its movements or external interactions because no objective reality exists as a fixed object with a self-identical being. The thing itself is movement: Object means movement. This is why the word momentum was used. It is not that in objective reality, we have an object and that object moves; on the contrary, there is a movement, and that movement appears or manifests itself like an object. We shouldn’t really be saying “like” here, because it is not virtual. So, what does that mean? There is a movement, this movement undergoes changes at different speeds; what appears as different realities in different dimensions of speed is the movement itself.  Now, how does that work? For we hold movements at very high speeds in our hands, and we do not feel anything. For example, the electrons around the atoms of this pen have a speed of 50,000 to 150,000 km per second. With different periods, from the core to the periphery, they move at speeds of 50,000 to 150,000 km per second. I am holding in my hands something that moves, toward the core, at a speed approximating the speed of light, two hundred thousand plus kilometers per second, but it doesn’t move at all, right? Interesting. This (pen) is bursting with motion. If we were to look at this from the perspective of a physicist, we would see many particles doing Brown movements, in other words moving around randomly.

We cannot perceive them because they have such high speeds, but of course, this is only about perception. As it is not possible to comprehend this theory with a consciousness that perceives and evaluates using classical Newtonian physics, it is argued that it is only possible to comprehend the theory when the intellect undergoes a philosophical paradigm shift. Einstein once said that he was searching for certainty in physics, not relativity, but he ended up with relativity. The object itself contains a reality that resembles the realities we imagine in our fantastic universe or artistic world, but it has its laws. It is a slippery ground but it has its laws! It is the science of physics because it has laws.

How Do You Comprehend Motion Where Immobility Does Not Exist?

The problem starts when we use the knowledge provided by the theory to comprehend what the object is in itself, asking “What is it?” We need to have a reference that allows us to refer all these different movements to a single movement, and define them on the basis of this one movement. If everything is in motion and there is no reference, in other words if there is no immobility, how are we to comprehend movement? This used to be a question posed by philosophy, later it became a question for physics as well.

According to rationalism, rates and proportions create ratio. Thought can be rational when it works with rates, proportions, and comparisons. In that case, when there are two different movements, we create a constant from the ratio of the difference, and define them. When we do this, it leads to the question of whether we are defining reality or rationality by so doing. Are we to take the ratio as the reality itself or as a comparison between realities? What is the reality of that reference? Does it exist? Is the universe rational, or is it a collection of realities? If it is a collection of realities, what reference should we use to define them? In an effort to base this on physical reality, during his search for certainty, Einstein makes an important observation about the boundaries of existence of physical realities: All objects in the universe are in motion, and they are based on motion; however, the maximum speed they can reach is the speed of light, which is 300,000 km/s. There is no speed higher than that. This means we have a constant speed. Now that there is a constant that applies to all objects, I can comprehend all other movements by associating them with this movement. Therefore, he includes the “speed of light” as a constant in the energy-mass equivalence.

If the Speed of Light is the Highest Possible Speed, What is the Speed of Light Squared?

We have further interesting debate here. The speed of light is denoted by “c”, right? E=mc2 We have this simple formula. It has only three terms, and an equation. What are we to understand from this? What does “E” stand for? It stands for energy. E has a pre-existing definition, it is already defined in Newtonian physics. “m” refers to mass; alright, this much is clear. We are talking about an object that has mass, that can be measured, that has dimensions and volume, as well other qualities that we have previously mentioned; we are talking about a body. What is c2? It is the square of c, the square of the speed of light! No, we are faced with a much bigger problem here. The speed of light was supposed to be the maximum speed possible! We enter the value in the equation: E=mc2; when you enter the value for c2, that is to say 300,000 x 300,000, you will obtain a result, but wait a second! It doesn’t have a reality, yet we cannot comprehend reality without it! This is a subtle point. At that speed, the object can never exist as an objective reality, because at the limit of existence, it has an infinite mass. We enter this in the equation as a squared speed, and we define an objective reality. Was Einstein making all this up? No. Using E=mc2, we are able to calculate energy transformations accurately, without any errors.

From Moving Objects to Movement that Appears as Object

In Newtonian physics, an object is included in calculations simultaneously with other objects. All objects have fixed realities in the form of mass, and they move relative to others in a mechanical environment. There is no problem regarding the existence of the object; objects have fixed and certain existence. According to Einstein, however, this is a movement, not an object. This movement has an existence at a given time and space related to the flow of time, in other words related to its speed, and this is momentum. This means that mass changes with speed. The mass of an object changes depending on its speed: The higher the speed of the object, the higher the mass, and vice versa. For example, rockets moving at 46,000 km/h shrink slightly, which we cannot perceive but calculate mathematically. At higher speeds dimensions get smaller. As the speed of light, it turns into a dot –not even a dot, in fact, for a dot also has mass– and a mathematical dimension begins where the mass is expressed either as zero or as infinity! This is still physics, we have particles, but it is rational because it has an infinite mass. What does that mean? Are we able to perceive or think about something like this?

Space is not a Place

Newton was the person who discovered the law of gravity and defined gravity. One of the most interesting things about gravitational force is that it involves mass – movement, attraction. There is a very important conceptual tie between the two, and as you know, gravity was timeless and eternal. The laws of gravity and motion that Newton formulated have provided science with proper answers to a lot of questions. However, scientific advances led to the discovery of some phenomena that were inconsistent with these laws. The biggest problem concerned the different views on light. There was no logical explanation of how light was able to move in space. How does light move in space? If an object is using a path or a medium to move through or above something, this implies the existence of another thing besides this object. It either moves within air or water, or flows through a molecular chain in solid objects, like electricity does. What does it mean to move in space? What does space even mean? In Turkish, the words uzam (place) and uzay (space) are confused with one another, as is the case with many other philosophical concepts. What is that thing –“thing” is like a trump card, as you know, it can replace anything– called space, what is it like? We will say “light moves in space.” Where does it move? In space. What is that space “in” which light moves? Inside, outside, beside…

When we talk about atoms or molecules, it is “place,” not space. Place. “Place” refers to a limited space. Limited space is place. Space, on the other hand, has no boundaries, it is not limited. This means, of course, that unlimited place is space. What creates the feeling of place? Dimensions. When we say “place,” we are talking about something that has dimensions. We are talking about volume, area, distance, or at its most basic, a line between two points, a relationship. Does a point occupy place? A “point” contains all the dimensions, because it creates place when it moves. “Place”, then, refers to dimensions and relationships – of area, volume, etc. If we were to reduce all relationships, we would arrive at the “point”. If we were to remove the point, what would we have? Space. If we are talking about a distance, if we have references, in other words, if we are talking about a measured part of space, it means we are talking about place, not space. What is space? Isn’t that interesting? Whatever we say about space, we end up turning it into place. We cannot leave it as space, as something formless.

* Based on the recordings of a series of speeches given by Metin Bobaroğlu between January and June, 1999, in the Faculty of Fine Arts of Marmara University on “Einstein’s Theory of Objective Relativity”. Translated by Dr. Emre Eren Korkmaz, and revised by the editorial board.