In The Flux Of The LIving Moment Arises The Meaning Of Symbolism

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Einstein’s universe attacks your sense of freedom and dignity

Conversation in thin air

“You see, it’s all about time and place,” the Philosophy Professor said, “a time to move forward and a place to rebel, a time to attack and place to settle down. Einstein had to reject the Newtonian paradigm before he could move on, and according to Cassirer, that process is inherent in the functioning of symbolic forms. In the relation between the symbol and its significance a polarity exists. In symbol formation there is a tendency toward stabilization and a tendency toward the breaking apart of permanent symbolic patterns. Myth explains new phenomena in terms of past origins. Language conforms to rules, yet over time, phonetic and semantic change takes place. Art inspires, but as a cultural phenomenon, it always remains in communication with its traditional forms. In science, the objective, stabilizing tendency predominates, but innovation and change will never be completely subsumed under determinate concepts. That’s where Einstein…”

“Maybe Noel,” Tony interrupted, “you’re referring to a different Einstein. The one that I thought we were talking about is the one who eliminated the confusion concerning space and time. We have known for a long time that people in other cultures experience space and time differently. But that’s the beauty of Einstein’s work; now we can all agree that space-time intervals are the same for everybody, even for space aliens traveling at close to the speed of light. We now know that the length of a space-time interval between any two events is the same for everybody.”

“Okay, Tony, if you want to jump into the thick of it, than lets do it,” replied Noel. “The space-time interval, what’s it based on?”

“The speed of light, or rather the constancy of the velocity of light,” Tony responded. “You and I share the same space-time, but my space and your space, and my time and your time, are the same only when we are at rest relative to each other. We live in our own private worlds of space and time, but in the new public domain of space-time, space and time are the same for everybody. In fact, the intrinsic structure of that space-time accounts for the constancy of the velocity of light for all observers.”

“Do you know why?” said Noel.

“Sure,” responded Tony, “it has to do with the implications of relativity theory. In the mathematics of space-time, Minkowski, Einstein’s mathematics professor, showed that even though the Pythagorean theorem does not work in space-time, something like the Pythagorean theorem is still at work. In Euclid’s geometry the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of its two sides. In the geometry of space-time, the distance between two events, like in the Pythagorean theorem, is equal to the time interval squared minus the space interval squared, however, that minus is the reverse of what takes place in the geometry of Euclid. Subtracting, instead of adding the two intervals, produces four-dimensional space-time. In space-time the distance between two events connected by a light ray becomes zero. Light rays coming at us from outer space take time to reach us, but in space-time no distance is traveled. That’s one of the incredible results that follow from Einstein’s theory. And that is also why the speed of light is constant for all observers. In space-time light is just there, everywhere.”

“I’m just a little confused,” said Noel, “If light doesn’t go anywhere, how can we know that the length of a space-time interval between any two events is the same for everybody?”

“Because of the constancy of light’s velocity,” Tony replied.

“So what you’re saying is that time doesn’t change, just space?” said Noel. “ Is that the answer? Don’t answer that. There’s ‘no’ time to answer, right? Anyway, Einstein’s field equations dictate the space of space-time, and, as you have all ready pointed out Tony, we can agree upon the measured value of space-time. Is that about right?”

“Well, a stab in time will get you nine,” Tony muttered. “You know damn well what I’m talking about Noel. It’s just that you don’t like it. You won’t accept that in the cosmic scheme of things, you and I, and everybody else, are just world lines. That past, present, and future may, or may not, possess meaning scares the hell out of you. You hate the idea that your private frame of reference might be limited and meaningful only to you. Einstein’s universe attacks your sense of freedom, your dignity. Well I’ve got news for you. Nobody was more concerned about dignity than the old man. He didn’t bemoan the fact that he wasn’t God. It was enough for him to peer into the heart of nature, or the mind of God if you prefer to call it that, and understand what was really going on. It was enough for him to know that all human beings had this gift, but how it was used was a person’s own business. Denying it, however, was not dignified. It was plain stupid.”

“I read somewhere,” said Noel, “that in the world of space-time nothing changes; that all that has been and all that will be just ‘is.’ Like in a crystal ball, everything in space-time is just there, in Parmenidean stillness.”

“You’ve got to stop reading those ‘new age’ books, Noel,” responded Tony. “Nothing is quite that simple.”

“I absolutely agree,” said Noel, “It’s never simple, and that’s exactly the point. In Minkowski’s ‘absolute world,’ time, as a becoming, is abandoned. We have not learned how to express time as a becoming, either linguistically or mathematically. The temporal process that ps
ychologically constitutes our inner sense of consciousness, in Minkowski’s ‘absolute world,’ gets represented in the absolute rigidity of a mathematical formula. It becomes time as a state of being. That kind of time, as H.G. Wells pointed out a long time ago, sees a person only as ‘slices of time,’ like pictures in a photo album. The time that gets represented in a photo album lacks the flowing, wheeling, qualitative determinations that constitute our inner sense of time. Without that kind of time there wouldn’t be any photographs at all because there wouldn’t be anybody to take the pictures. In space-time the ‘now’ embraces the ‘whole life,’ but totally left out of that picture is time as a becoming. Cassirer comes to the rescue here.

“The time where ‘the whole precedes the parts,’ where ‘organic unities’ are formed, that time constitutes personal experience–our inner sense of becoming. In that time we become from one moment to the next our future. In that time, the continuity of our becoming signifies living flux, which is given to our consciousness only as flux, a transitional flux within which arises the meaning of symbolism. Whether we take mathematical time to be the t-coordinate of an undifferentiated continuum or the ‘absolute now’ of Minkowski’s space-time, for Cassirer, either way, it’s still only a conceptual symbolic form, a symbolic form that is produced by our personal time, our time of becoming.”

“So what are you saying,” I interrupted, “How exactly did Cassirer rescue us?”

“I’m saying,” said Noel, “that the conceptual symbolic form, the one that reduces everything to the lowest possible denominator, is a preeminent success. Except its meaning is only one of the many meanings that are generated by the multi-functional meanings of symbolic form. Success, when measured on the level of the conceptual symbolic form, reduces, to the simplest possible ‘ideal meaning.’ That success, along with every other meaningful success, has contributed to the survival of our species. In the evolutionary scheme of things, the innovations of sensed space and time, and mathematical space and time have been absolutely essential to the survival of our species.”

“What? Inventions, space and time are inventions? That contradicts everything,” exclaimed Tony. “Everybody listen up. No more whiskey for Noel. He’s cut off, as of right now.”

“Very funny,” replied Noel, “but if you think about it, the theory of relativity gives a clear indication of what Cassirer was talking about, that the meaning of space and time is found in its use value, not in the so called ‘objective world’. Think about it. In relativity theory ordinary methods of space and time measurement fall short. We no longer can use rigid bodies and ordinary clocks as measures of space and time. In Einstein’s calculations, space and time are reduced to mere effects.”


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