An Existential Theory of Relativity

Paul Almond suggests a kind of theory of relativity applied to existence (section 3.1):

It makes sense to view reality in terms of an observer-centred world, because the only things of which you have direct knowledge are your basic perceptions – both inner and outer – at any instant. Anything else that you know – including your knowledge of the past or future – can only be inferred from these perceptions.

We are not trying to establish some silly idea here that things, including other people, only exist when you observe them, that they only start existing when you start observing them, and that they cease existing when you stop observing them. Rather, it means that anything that exists can only be coherently described as existing somewhere in your observer-centred world. There can still be lots of things that you do not know about. You do not know everything about your observer-centred world, and you can meaningfully talk about the possibility or probability that some particular thing exists. In saying this, you are talking about what may be “out there” somewhere in your observer-centred world. You are talking about the form that your observer-centred world may take, and there is nothing to prevent you from considering different forms that it may take. It would, therefore, be a straw man argument to suggest that we are saying that things only exist when observed by a conscious observer.

As an example, suppose you wonder if, right now, there is an alien spaceship in orbit around Proxima Centauri, a nearby star. What we have said does not make it invalid at all for you to speculate about such a thing, or even to try to put a probability on it if you are so inclined. The point is that any speculation you make, or any probability calculations you try to perform, are about what your observer-centred world might be like.

This view is reasonable because to say that anything exists in a way that cannot be understood in observer-centred world terms is incoherent. If you say something exists you are saying it fits into your “world view”. It must relate to all the other things that you think exist or that you might in principle say exist if you knew enough. Something might exist beyond the horizon in your observer-centred world – in the part that you do not know about – but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be? (Here we mean “where” in a more general “ontological” sense.)

As an analogy, this is somewhat similar to the way that relativity deals with velocities. Special relativity says that the concept of “absolute velocity” is incoherent, and that the concept of “velocity” only makes sense in some frame of reference. Likewise, we are saying here that the concept of “existence” only makes sense in the same kind of way. None of this means that consciousness must exist. It is simply saying that it is meaningless to talk about reality in non-observer-centred world terms. It is still legitimate to ask for an explanation of your own existence. It simply means that such an explanation must lie “out there” in your observer-centred world.

This seems right, more or less, but it could be explained more clearly. In the first place Almond is referring to the fact that we see the world as though it existed around us a center, a concept that we have discussed on various past occasions. But in particular he is insisting that in order to say that anything exists at all, we have to place it in some relation to ourselves. In a way this is obvious, because we are the ones who are saying that it exists. If we say that the past or the future do not exist, for example, we are saying this because they do not exist together with us in time. On the other hand, if we speak of “past existence” or “future existence,” we are placing things in a temporal relationship with ourselves. Likewise, if someone asserts the existence of a multiverse, it might not be necessary to say that every part of it has a spatial relationship with the one asserting this, but there must be various relationships. Perhaps the parts of the multiverse have broken off from an earlier universe, or at any rate they all have a common cause. Similarly, if someone asserts the existence of immaterial beings such as angels, they might not have a spatial relationship with the speaker, but they would have to have some relation in order to exist, such as the power to affect the world or be affected by it, and so on. Almond is speaking of this sort of thing when he says, “but if something is supposed to exist outside your observer-centred world completely, where would it be?”

Almond is particularly concerned to establish that he is not asserting the necessary existence of observers, or that a thing cannot exist without being observed. This is mostly a distraction. It is true that this does not follow from his account, but it would be better to explain the theory in a more general way which makes this point clear. A similar mistake is sometimes made regarding special relativity or quantum mechanics. Einstein holds that velocity is necessarily relative to a reference frame, so some interpret this to mean that it is necessarily relative to a conscious observer, and a similar mistake can be made regarding quantum mechanics. But a reference frame is not necessarily conscious. So one body can have a velocity relative to another body, even without anyone observing this.

In a similar way, a reasonable generalization of Almond’s point would be to say that the existence of a thing is relative to a reference frame, which may or may not include an observer. As we are observers in fact, we observe things existing relative to our own reference frame, just as we observe the velocity of objects relative to our own reference frame. But just as one body can have a velocity relative to another, regardless of observers, so one thing can exist relative to another, regardless of observers.

It may be that the theory of special relativity is not merely an illustration here, but rather an instance of the fact that existence is relative to a reference frame. Consider two objects moving apart at 10 miles per hour. According to Einstein, neither one is moving absolutely speaking, but each is moving relative to the other. A typical philosophical objection would go like this: “Wait. One or both of them must be really moving. Because the distance between them is growing. The situation is changing. That doesn’t make sense unless one of them is changing in itself, absolutely, and before considering any relationships.”

But consider this. Currently there are both a calculator and a pen on my desk. Why are both of them there, rather than just one of them? It is easy to see that this fact is intrinsically relative, and cannot in any way be made into something absolute. They are both there because the calculator is with the pen, and because the pen is with the calculator. These cannot be absolute facts about the pen and the calculator – they are relationships to the other.

Now someone will respond: the fact that the calculator is there is an absolute fact. And the fact that the pen is there is an absolute fact. So even if the togetherness is a relationship, it is one that follows logically from the absolute facts. In a similar way, we will want to say that the 10 miles per hour relative motion should follow logically from absolute facts.

But this response just pushes the problem back one step. It only follows logically if the absolute facts about the pen and the calculator exist together. And this existence together is intrinsically relative: the pen is on the desk when the calculator is on the desk. And some thought about this will reveal that the relativity cannot possibly be removed, precisely because the relativity follows from the existence of more than one thing. “More than one thing exists” does not logically follow from any number of statements about individual things, because “more than one thing” is a missing term in those statements.

This is related to the error of Parmenides. Likewise, there is a clue here to the mystery of parts and wholes, but for now I will leave that point to the reader’s consideration.

Going back to the point about special relativity, insofar as “existence together” is intrinsically relative, it would make sense that “existing together spatially” would be an instance of such relative existence, and consequently that “moving apart spatially” would be a particular way of two bodies existing relative to each other. In this sense, the theory of special relativity does not seem to be merely an illustration, but an actual case of what we are talking about.



St. Thomas describes the virtue of patience:

I answer that, As stated above (II-II:123:1), the moral virtues are directed to the good, inasmuch as they safeguard the good of reason against the impulse of the passions. Now among the passions sorrow is strong to hinder the good of reason, according to 2 Corinthians 7:10, “The sorrow of the world worketh death,” and Sirach 30:25, “Sadness hath killed many, and there is no profit in it.” Hence the necessity for a virtue to safeguard the good of reason against sorrow, lest reason give way to sorrow: and this patience does. Wherefore Augustine says (De Patientia ii): “A man’s patience it is whereby he bears evil with an equal mind,” i.e. without being disturbed by sorrow, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things.” It is therefore evident that patience is a virtue.

This brings to mind things like a martyr being afflicted by others for the truth that he holds and enduring this steadfastly, but in fact it applies well even to the ordinary idea of patience, according to which, for example, we might say that Ray Kurzweil’s impatience for technological progress leads him to false opinions about current historical trends.

We can illustrate this with a little story. Peter, impatient to get home from work, exceeds the speed limit and weaves in and out of traffic. Minutes before getting home, he hits a slippery patch on the road. His car goes off the road, ramming a tree and killing him.

Despite being nothing but a story, it is one that has without a doubt been played out in real life with minor or major variations again and again. We can apply the saying of St. Augustine quoted by St. Thomas. Peter’s patience would consist in “bearing evil with an equal mind,” that is, enduring the fact that he is not home yet without disturbance, “lest he abandon with an unequal mind the goods whereby he may advance to better things,” that is, since his disturbed and unequal mind leads him to abandon the goods, that is, the ordered manner of driving, whereby he may advance to better things, that is, actually to get home.

Patience is rightly thought to be related to the virtue of humility. One who judges rightly about his place in the order of things will understand that it is natural in this order that what is best tends to come last. The good wine is served last. Thus such a person should endure without disturbance the lack that comes earlier, in order not to abandon the good by which he might achieve the good that comes later.

Humility and Seeing the Bigger Picture

Michael Matt at The Remnant, relieved at the results of the US presidential election, writes:

If Mrs. Clinton had achieved victory last night, today would seem the darkest in history. The future would be beyond dire for a people that willingly raised up a corrupt and immoral radical, who hates the laws of God, defends the murder of babies, and zealously works for the destruction of the family.

Had she been elected it would have said much more about us than about her. We would’ve exposed ourselves as a soulless and heartless people, beyond hope and beneath contempt.

There was so much at stake. Much of our work here at The Remnant, for example, would have been criminalized over the next four years. Our homeschools were to become illegal enterprises in the village Mrs. Clinton had in mind. Even our ability to move about freely would have been undermined by Mrs. Clinton who had promised to expand the ‘no fly’ list against “haters”. (As the “leader of a hate group”, according to the infamous Southern Poverty Law Center, it isn’t difficult for this writer to imagine how enthusiastically President Hillary would have enforced hate crime legislation against Christian America.)

On the other side, Scott Aaronson says:

It’s become depressingly clear the last few days that even many American liberals don’t understand the magnitude of what’s happened.  Maybe those well-meaning liberals simply have more faith than I do in our nation’s institutions, despite the recent overwhelming evidence to the contrary (if the institutions couldn’t stop a Trump presidency, then what can they stop?).  Maybe they think all Republicans are as bad as Trump, or even that Trump is preferable to a generic Republican.  Or maybe my liberal friends are so obsessed by the comparatively petty rivalries between the far left and the center left—between Sanders and Clinton, or between social-justice types and Silicon Valley nerds—that they’ve lost sight of the only part of this story that anyone will care about a hundred years from now: namely, the delivering of the United States into the hands of a vengeful lunatic and his sycophants.

I was sickened to read Hillary’s concession speech—a speech that can only possibly mean she never meant what she said before, about how “a man you can bait with a tweet must never be trusted with nuclear weapons”—and then to watch President Obama holding a lovey-dovey press conference with Trump in the White House.  President Obama is a wiser man than I am, and I’m sure he had excellent utilitarian reasons to do what he did (like trying to salvage parts of the Affordable Care Act).  But still, I couldn’t help but imagine the speech I would’ve given, had I been in Obama’s shoes:

“Trump, and the movement he represents, never accepted me as a legitimate president, even though I won two elections by a much greater margin than he did.  Now, like the petulant child he is, he demands that we accept him as a legitimate president.  To which I say: very well.  I urge my supporters to obey the law, and to eschew violence.  But for God’s sake: protest this puny autocrat in the streets, refuse any cooperation with his administration, block his judicial appointments, and try every legal avenue to get him impeached.  Demonstrate to the rest of the world and to history that there’s a large part of the United States that remained loyal to the nation’s founding principles, and that never accepted this vindictive charlatan.  You can have the White House, Mr. Trump, but you will never have the sanction or support of the Union—only of the Confederacy.”

Robin Hanson, in contrast with both of the above statements, tries to calm people down about all this:

Many seem to think the apocalypse is upon us – I hear oh so much much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But if you compare the policies, attitudes, and life histories of the US as it will be under Trump, to how they would have been under Clinton, that difference is very likely much smaller than the variation in such things around the world today, and also the variation within the US so far across its history. And all three of these differences are small compared the variation in such things across the history of human-like creatures so far, and also compared to that history yet to come.

That is, there are much bigger issues at play, if only you will stand back to see them. Now you might claim that pushing on the Trump vs. Clinton divide is your best way to push for the future outcomes you prefer within that larger future variation yet to come. And that might even be true. But if you haven’t actually thought about the variation yet to come and what might push on it, your claim sure sounds like wishful thinking. You want this thing that you feel so emotionally invested in at the moment to be the thing that matters most for the long run. But wishes don’t make horses.

Robin has the better attitude here, and provides a good illustration of a topic that I was planning to discuss at some point, namely the need for recognizing the bigger picture in order to exercise the virtue of humility.

In the linked post, I remarked on St. Therese’s identification of humility with truth, and pointed in particular to the truth that we are neither the first cause nor the ultimate end. But this is just to locate ourselves in reality in a vague way, and the truth is much more detailed than this. A more distinct way to think about this would be that the error of pride consists in thinking that the partial view that we have is the whole truth, while humility would consist in recognizing that there is a bigger picture.

A proud person is often said to believe that the “world revolves around him,” and similar things. But consider: this is not such a strange view. Look around, and it does indeed look like the world is all around you. And the causes of pride are in fact very similar to this, and in that sense, not so unnatural. In this case, if someone were actually to believe it, the error is clear: the person takes his partial view as the full truth about the world, while in reality, his view is extremely limited, and only reaches to certain aspects of the world.

This account applies to virtually every case in which a person behaves proudly. For example when someone stubbornly insists on his own ideas, when he is mistaken, or when he is right, but in a way that is dismissive of others, we rightly identify this as pride, precisely because the person refuses to accept that there is more to reality than he sees himself.

Likewise, if a person is stubbornly attached to his own good, the mistake consists in believing that the only thing that is important is his own desires, while in reality this is only a small part of what is important.

Someone might object: how can humility be about seeing the big picture? Humility seems to be about being small and unimportant, so it seems the opposite of anything big.

The answer to this is that the objection is no different from noticing that the person going about claiming, “I am a humble person!” is most likely not the most humble of people. Humility consists in seeing the bigger picture, but a humble person is not in general the one who is most likely to go about claiming to see the bigger picture. We might ask why not. In particular, if humility is truth, as St. Therese says, then why should a humble person not say that he is humble, since it is the truth? And likewise, if you see the bigger picture, why should you not admit it, since it is the truth?

This is really a question of the right behavior in particular circumstances, and there is no definitive answer for all cases. Sometimes a humble person should indeed say they are humble, as St. Therese did in fact say of herself, although she put it somewhat delicately. But the danger here is twofold: first, if you see a bigger picture than someone else, you might identify your picture as the whole and his as the part, and thus you fall into the error of pride, because your picture remains partial, even if it is larger. Second, your view of the other person’s picture is itself partial, and you will again fall into the error of pride if you assume that you fully see his picture.

Humility tends to a make a person calm, basically for the reason suggested by Robin Hanson, namely by relativizing the importance of the person’s immediate concerns as a small part of the greater whole. And if you agree that the world at its heart is neither evil nor indifferent, but rather the world is rooted in goodness itself, then humility will also make you happy, because you will be looking at the whole and seeing that it is very good.

More on Knowing and Being

I promised some examples of the point made in the previous post. I will give just a few here, although the point could easily be extended to many more.

Parmenides argues that nothing can come to be, since “what is not” cannot be or become. He also claims that “it is the same thing that can be thought and that can be,” and apparently this is intended to cover not only what is, but also the way that it is. Consequently, his position seems to imply a perfect identity between thought and being, even if it is ultimately inconsistent, since he says that human beings are wrong about change and the like, and this implies a discrepancy between thought and being.

Alexander Pruss argues that all words are sharply defined, at least in the mind of God.  He makes the argument, “Words are part of the world, so if there is vagueness in words, there is vagueness in the world.” This is no different, of course, from arguing that since words are part of reality, and some words are universal, there are universal things. There are universal things, if we mean by that universal terms or concepts, and there are vague things, if we mean by that vague words or concepts. But there are no universal cats or dogs, nor are there vague cats or dogs, despite the words “cat” and “dog” being vague.

C.S. Lewis argues, “Either we can know nothing or thought has reasons only, and no causes.” As I argued in the linked post, reasons in fact are a kind of final cause relative to their consequences, and they do not exclude efficient causes. This case might be somewhat less evident than the two previous cases, but I would argue that the cause of Lewis’s error here is the fact that, as St. Thomas says, the human mind can understand many things at once only by understanding them as one. Consequently, we can understand that an efficient cause can be for the sake of an end, but if the efficient cause and the final cause are presented as simply two causes, without the order that they actually have, they are not intelligible in this way.

These are examples of speculative errors resulting from confusing the mind’s way of knowing with the way that things are. I asserted in the last post, however, that practical errors can also result from this confusion. There is a very fundamental way this can happen: by nature we know things only if they have some relation to ourselves. The corresponding practical error would be to suppose that those things are real and important only in relation to ourselves. Look around you, and it appears that the world is centered on you. If you take this appearance and attribute an absolute truth to it, you will conclude that everything else has its being and importance in relation to you. Consider that you exist, and that all of the past has past out of existence. It might seem that the past only existed to bring you about.

St. Therese says about humility, “To me it seems that humility is truth. I do not know whether I am humble, but I do know that I see the truth in all things.” This is related to the examples I gave above. Since we know things in relation to ourselves, there is the temptation to suppose that things exist in the very same way. This leads to a false idea about our place in reality. Humility consists, on the contrary, in the truth about our place in reality, as I noted here.

Love of Truth and Love of Self

Love of self is natural and can extend to almost any aspect of ourselves, including to our beliefs. In other words, we tend to love our beliefs because they are ours. This is a kind of “sweetnesss“. As suggested in the linked post, since we believe that our beliefs are true, it is not easy to distinguish between loving our beliefs for the sake of truth, and loving them because they are ours. But these are two different things: the first is the love of truth, and the second is an aspect of love of self.

Just as we love ourselves, we love the wholes of which we are parts: our family, our country, our religious communities, and so on. These are better than pure love of self, but they too can represent a kind of sweetness: if we love of our beliefs because they are the beliefs of our family, of our friends, of our religious and political communities, or because they are part of our worldview, none of these things is the love of truth, whether or not the beliefs are actually true.

This raises two questions: first, how do we know whether we are acting out of the love of truth, or out of some other love? And second, if there is a way to answer the first question, what can we do about it?

These questions are closely related to a frequent theme of this blog, namely voluntary beliefs, and the motives for these beliefs. Bryan Caplan, in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, discusses these things under the name of “preferences over beliefs”:

The desire for truth can clash with other motives. Material self-interest is the leading suspect. We distrust salesmen because they make more money if they shade the truth. In markets for ideas, similarly, people often accuse their opponents of being “bought,” their judgment corrupted by a flow of income that would dry up if they changed their minds. Dasgupta and Stiglitz deride the free-market critique of antitrust policy as “well-funded” but “not well-founded.” Some accept funding from interested parties, then bluntly speak their minds anyway. The temptation, however, is to balance being right and being rich.

Social pressure for conformity is another force that conflicts with truth-seeking. Espousing unpopular views often transforms you into an unpopular person. Few want to be pariahs, so they self-censor. If pariahs are less likely to be hired, conformity blends into conflict of interest. However, even bereft of financial consequences, who wants to be hated? The temptation is to balance being right and being liked.

But greed and conformism are not the only forces at war with truth. Human beings also have mixed cognitive motives. One of our goals is to reach correct answers in order to take appropriate action, but that is not the only goal of our thought. On many topics, one position is more comforting, flattering, or exciting, raising the danger that our judgment will be corrupted not by money or social approval, but by our own passions.

Even on a desert isle, some beliefs make us feel better about ourselves. Gustave Le Bon refers to “that portion of hope and illusion without which [men] cannot live.” Religion is the most obvious example. Since it is often considered rude to call attention to the fact, let Gaetano Mosca make the point for me:

“The Christian must be enabled to think with complacency that everybody not of the Christian faith will be damned. The Brahman must be given grounds for rejoicing that he alone is descended from the head of Brahma and has the exalted honor of reading the sacred books. The Buddhist must be taught highly to prize the privilege he has of attaining Nirvana soonest. The Mohammedan must recall with satisfaction that he alone is a true believer, and that all others are infidel dogs in this life and tormented dogs in the next. The radical socialist must be convinced that all who do not think as he does are either selfish, money-spoiled bourgeois or ignorant and servile simpletons. These are all examples of arguments that provide for one’s need of esteeming one’s self and one’s own religion or convictions and at the same time for the need of despising and hating others.”

Worldviews are more a mental security blanket than a serious effort
to understand the world: “Illusions endure because illusion is a need
for almost all men, a need they feel no less strongly than their material needs.” Modern empirical work suggests that Mosca was on to something: The religious consistently enjoy greater life satisfaction. No wonder human beings shield their beliefs from criticism, and cling to them if counterevidence seeps through their defenses.

Most people find the existence of mixed cognitive motives so obvious
that “proof” is superfluous. Jost and his coauthors casually remark in the Psychological Bulletin that “Nearly everyone is aware of the possibility that people are capable of believing what they want to believe, at least within certain limits.” But my fellow economists are unlikely to sign off so easily. If one economist tells another, “Your economics is just a religion,” the allegedly religious economist normally takes the distinction between “emotional ideologue” and “dispassionate scholar” for granted, and paints himself as the latter. But when I assert the generic existence of preferences over beliefs, many economists challenge the whole category. How do I know preferences over beliefs exist? Some eminent economists imply that this is impossible to know because preferences are unobservable.

This is very similar to points that I have made from time to time on this blog. Like Caplan, I consider the fact that beliefs have a voluntary character, at least up to a certain point, to be virtually obvious. Likewise, Caplan points out that in the midst of a discussion an economist may take for granted the idea of the “emotional ideologue,” namely someone whose beliefs are motivated by emotions, but frequently he will not concede the point in generic terms. In a similar way, people in general constantly recognize the influence of motives on beliefs in particular cases, especially in regard to other people, but they frequently fight against the concept in general. C.S. Lewis is one example, although he does concede the point to some extent.

In the next post I will look at Caplan’s response to the economists, and at some point after that bring the discussion back to the question about the love of truth.


What do we have to give thanks for? As St. Paul says, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The question is of course rhetorical. You have nothing that you did not receive; only the first cause could have something without receiving it from another.

This is related to the virtue of humility, which consists largely in the recognition that one is neither the first cause nor the ultimate end, together with the implications that follow from the fact that one is not these things. I might write something on this in detail at a later time.