Relativity. (12/18/98)

Einstein's General Theory of Relativity established for the first time, and with clear certainty, that the orbits of the planets were ellipses with the sun more or less occupying one of the two foci. That idea was first proposed by Kepler in his laws of celestial motion and generally confirmed by Newton in his theory of gravitational force. The reason Einstein argued as he did concerned the fact that Newton's Law of Gravity failed to account for an error of 43 seconds of "circular" arc in the position of Mercury relative to the sun that accumulated during each of the planet's orbits. Einstein's Theory demonstrates that the sun's gravitational field produces a "wobble" in Mercury's orbital plane that perfectly accounts for the accumulation of error that was discovered in Newton's calculations. All planetary orbits demonstrate similar effects and, as natural laws invariably tell us, these effects cannot be altered, mitigated, or ignored by human agents. Human beings cannot legislate Mercury's 43 seconds of error, relative to Newton's calculations, out of existence. As far as anyone knows, the "wobble" in Mercury's orbit has always existed as an immutable consequence of the sun's gravitational field and has been present in the universe since before the arrival of human beings on the planet and will continue to be there long after human beings have ceased to exist as an animal species. The law that dictates that characteristic of celestial motion has been in place as long as the solar system has existed and will remain in place for as long as it persists. There is absolutely nothing that anyone can do about that. To pretend that planetary orbits are not elliptical, to ignore the fact that ellipses have two foci and not one center, is not only illogical, flying in the face of confirmed facts, as it were, but is also absurd and ridiculous.

In opposition to a relativized view of the universe is the model of celestial motion against which Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein argued. The old view, generally referred to as Ptolemaic, after the name of its inventor, Ptolemy, supposed that the earth rested immobile at the center of a series of celestial spheres which rotated once around the center every twenty-four hours. The spheres, perfectly circular of course, were thought to be solid but transparent objects that held everything in place. Or, as Aristotle argued, composed of a substance he called "aether." The moon, being the closest object to the earth, occupied the first circle or sphere. The sun, and the other known planets (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn), came next in that order, each with its own sphere. The final circle or sphere held the fixed stars which were thought to occupy the same plane of rotation around the earth. Outside the last circle, occupied by Aristotle's notion of the Prime Mover, was a measureless void of total and absolute emptiness, in the Greek or pagan model, but with God and the Angels being out there in the Christian view of the cosmos. It might be worth noting that from a native American perspective there is no way to distinguish between the pagan and Christian views of the realm outside of the spheres, since both would have to be considered measureless void empty of meaningful content.

One indisputable fact is clear: the Ptolemaic version of the cosmos has never, at any time in human history, reflected the true state of the conditions of natural reality. Ptolemy's version of celestial motion has never been accurate, it is not accurate now, and it will never be accurate at any point in the future.

Making this unqualified distinction between the only two cosmological models that have ever appeared in the history of western European consciousness becomes both necessary and significant when these two models of spatial reality are applied to the human act of speech. If it is true that the social use of language constitutes every person's perception of reality, then the model underlying that act determines the nature of how people come to perceive the world in which they live. On the one hand, if a person gives credit to the Ptolemaic model of the universe and tends to accept the speech act as being one defined by the principles inherent in its terms, then all utterances take on the characteristics of monologic speech. This is essentially indisputable because every speaker stands at the center of the Ptolemaic circle, on the surface of the earth, as it were, and actively voices the language that constitutes his/her reality. The listener, at the same time, rests on the circumference of the speaker's circle and passively accepts the word he/she hears. Depending on the strength of the speaker's authority (say, for instance, that he/she claims to be speaking the unequivocal word of God received by direct revelation, as is the case with a Biblical text), the word received by the passive listener would be considered as absolutely true, because God does not lie, and, if the received word is a command, it would be taken as absolutely coercive. If such a speech were proven to be the work of the devil, instead of the true word of God, then the passive listener would be obliged to reject its validity and resist its coercive force. A point that cannot be overlooked here is that the listener, because he/she is passive, does not talk back to the speaker.

Below is a diagram of the Ptolemaic speech act:

Most monologic speech assumes an ultimate authority derived from God even if that claim is not made explicitly. All God-derived speech, of course, is monologic. An example from the Bible, for instance, would be "Thou shalt not kill." Virtually no one would disagree with the validity and truth of the moral force of that statement. In the monologic model of the speech act, since God is the ultimate moral authority governing the right and wrong of all human behavior, the listener, in this case any sensible human being, would be inclined to accept the binding moral force of the prohibition against murder without any question whatsoever. Even if someone were foolish enough to question the absolute truth of that statement, even when spoken by a human surrogate for God, the model of the speech act here evoked would prohibit even the most reasonable response or objection that one might raise to the absolute character of the statement. A completely passive listener, after all, does not speak, is not capable of talking back (to God).

In a pure and absolutely abstract context the monologic speech act does not admit that a single word can be spoken against the moral force of the monologic discourse. In the real world of actual speech, however, any number of qualifications and rationalizations have been voiced against the absolute truth and validity of the binding moral force of that commandment. In times of war, as Hobbes points out, it is not only possible to kill your enemy, but both custom and practice demand that you do so. If someone threatens your life, the lives of your family, the absolute prohibition against murder magically disappears. Under this condition or that condition, the terms of the statement change, are modified, ignored, suspended, forgotten, deferred or adjudicated. An important point to recognize is that monologic utterances rarely, if ever, rise to the level of absolutism where every and all responses are disallowed. One obvious reason for that, of course, is that the monologic model was derived from a cosmological concept having no inherent validity or truth beyond what human beings recognize from appearance only. In other words, monologic discourse works, when enough coercive power is applied in one way or another to the community of listeners, because most people most of the time are not willing to give up the hope that they will be able to utter the final word, the ultimate word of truth, in any given verbal confrontation.

While it might be unfair to characterize all monologic speech as God-determined, where in reality any superior force capable of coercion can play that role, it would be equally misguided to de-emphasize the role that the word of God has played in most European discourse over the last 1,500 years. The rise of science in the last 400 years or so, especially with its culmination in Einstein's perceptions about relativity, has generated a direct challenge both to religious sentiments in general and to conceptions of truth, and whether truth itself can be said to exist or not, in more specific contexts. What is true or false in any absolute sense is an ideal more and more connected to discourse perceived as inconsistent with contemporary standards of verifiability, at least from any scientific point of view. As circumstances now stand, that ever sharper distinction between relativity and truth is commonplace when the discussion turns to determining value-laden issues.

A problem with making this distinction, however, arises precisely because relativity itself has been demonstrated to be a consistently occurring feature of natural reality. Einstein's observations have not been disproved by any of the people who object to the claim that discourse itself can only be defined and understood in terms that make all claims relatively true and never absolutely certain. This condition of fact rests firmly on the model of the speech act that best expresses the circumstances governing language use in an age of relativity. Since the ellipse has replaced the circle as the geometrical figure most consistent with the cosmological model that defines the true shape of the world, as Kepler, Newton, and Einstein have verified, it is necessary to examine the implications of an elliptically determined speech performance.

As noted earlier, an ellipse does not have a center; rather it has two foci, with the sun resting on one of them. The earth itself cannot be said to rest anywhere in the model because the earth, like all other planets (the moon included), are in motion around the focus where the primary gravitational force rests. The planets, of course, are held in orbit by the sun, while the moon is the captive of the earth's gravitational field. This fact effectively de-centers the speaker, since he/she cannot be said to rest in the same place for any continuous interval of time relative to the sun and does not even return to the same location in the orbit over time because of the "wobble" in the orbital plane of the planet. While this is all technical in nature, the facts suggest that the concept of a centered speaker in the world of relativity (elliptical) is simply impossible to justify. The notion of a grounded speaker in the Ptolemaic model makes some sense because the earth is at rest at the center of the speech performance and the speaker is located on the surface of the earth. The use of an elliptical model of the speech act creates the necessity to redefine and reconfigure the basic relationships that obtain in the Ptolemaic model. The figure below illustrates those necessary alterations:

Speaker A stands on one focus while his/her listener rests on the other. Listener A hears the utterance of Speaker A and formulates a response. Listener A, as he/she articulates that response, becomes Speaker B. Speaker A is simultaneously transformed into Listener B. Listener B formulates and articulates a response as Speaker A. Listener A hears the response to his/her utterance and responds in turn. The exchange between the two participants in the dialogue can continue indefinitely. The audience is situated on the line which defines the ellipse and witnesses the development of the dialogue as A and B talk to each other. Any member of the audience, if circumstances allow, can enter the dialogue and can participate in its development. The point of the dialogic speech act is that every utterance, even the first word spoken, because the first speaker anticipates the response of the person he/she addresses, never exists in a state of abstract idealism where truth can be forged prior to a qualifying or mitigating circumstance that relativizes its coercive force. Truth itself is relativized by the fact that the listener possesses the same right to speak and be heard that resides in the initial speaker. Every alternative point of view has its advocate and the audience witnessing the dialogue can be swayed in favor of which ever speaker seems to possess the best, most persuasive, most coercive authority. Instead of commands which must be obeyed, one is confronted with choices that must be made, as the two speakers/listeners articulate their relative points of view.

It would be inappropriate to close this discussion without acknowledging an important fact: one of the foci in the relativized model of the speech act is occupied by the sun which is the source of the gravitational field that shapes the ellipse and determines the relative location of the second focus, a place situated in space where nothing with any substance rests until its emptiness is filled by the listener/speaker who takes up the task of responding to the initial statement of the dialogue. One can rightly argue that the focus of the first speaker is privileged and that fact invariably leads to the impression that the initial statement of any dialogue creates a space of dominance in the exchanges that follow. This in turn has generated the impression that monologic discourse both can and has occurred in the past, prior to the discovery of the terms of relativity, but, in the strictest sense of relativity's validity as a genuine model of natural reality, monologic speech acts have occurred only as often as the orbits of the planets have been true circles and not ellipses. In other words, monologic speech is only as valid as Ptolemy's description of the solar system. Put bluntly--monologic speech is impossible and has never occurred. The appearance of monologic speech does, of course, exist in as much as one position in the model, the one where the sun is located, seems to have dominance over the other foci.

From a purely native American point-of-view, issues involving relativity offer no particular challenge to animistic belief systems. Concepts of spirit, in other words, fall comfortably within a dialogic model because issues of dominance and superiority, which are both necessary and inevitable in a monologic frame, are excluded from the field of discourse in general. One spirit is not thought to be superior to another. In fact, the elliptical model associated with relativity actually defines spirit relationships far better than a circular one does. A person's spirit-guide, for instance, would be the one that occupies the foci where the sun is thought to reside, while all other spirits would then occupy the second focus of the ellipse. The dialogue between one's "dominant" spirit and all other points-of-view would then occur in the context of the tribal council, where every person and every clan has an equal voice in deciding what is best for the whole. It might even be appropriate to say that native culture always depended on the value of interpersonal dialogue while European culture always avoided it in preference for hierarchical structures that silenced as many alternative voices and opinions as possible. Even in democratic countries now the illusion of equality is maintained, even as false consciousness, when the vast majority of people in the culture have no voice whatsoever in determining their own individual fate and never have an opportunity to influence the course of their own culture in any meaningful sense either.

Other aspects and elaborations of these issues will be addressed elsewhere in this document.