ABSOLUTE SPACE AND RELATIVITY


Introduction

[Eric Voegelin had a clear and penetrating understanding of modern physics. In fact, he had mulled over becoming a physicist when he was in high school. His presentation of the restoration of philosophy's preeminence by the supplanting of Newtonian Mechanics with the Theory of Relativity is brilliant. It is hard to condense or excerpt. But it is most important because Newtonian Mechanics still dominates our intellectual culture. Please go to the text itself. It is well worth reading in full.]


. . . . With the thinning out of faith into a reverential attitude toward symbols, the meaning of the symbols themselves is thinned out to propositions the truth of which has to be demonstrated by reason. As a residuum of reality there remains only the structure and content of consciousness, that is, of a self no longer open toward transcendental reality.

This general pneumato-pathological state, which in itself may occur and has occurred in other periods of history, receives its specific coloration as a result of the coincident rise of mathematical physics. A new world-filling reality, emerging from Galilean and Cartesian physics and systematized in Newtonian mechanics, is ready to substitute for God and his creation.

The new science, on principle, is a science only of phenomenal nature; that the edifice of science could assume ontological functions is a result of the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." This fallacy becomes the vehicle of the trend toward materialism in the sense of a worldview wherein all realms of being are reduced to the one and true reality of matter. The pathos of this view, insofar as it is carried by the new science itself, is expressed in the anecdote of Napoleon and Laplace: when questioned by Napoleon whether, indeed, he had not mentioned God in his Mecanique celeste, Laplace answered proudly, "I have no use for this hypothesis!" The mechanism of matter extends infinitely, and God has been squeezed out of his world.

When the issue is stated in such bald language, it seems almost unbelievable that the movement of enlightened scientism could have the strength and duration that it actually had and still has, and that it should have taken the work of generations of thinkers to dissolve such crude mistakes of thought. . . . It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the authors are particularly deficient in intellectual capacity. Their inability to handle elementary speculative problems rather illustrates that there is no limit to intellectual disorder once the nosos of the spirit has corroded the personality of the thinker.

Nevertheless, the situation is not quite as bad as it looks at first sight. There is one real and very serious theoretical problem involved in the position of enlightened scientism. . . . We are speaking of the problem of absolute space that was built into the foundations of modern science through Newton's Principia and that has found its full and satisfactory solution only through Einstein's theory of relativity.

We must discuss this problem for two reasons. In the first place, it was Berkeley's starting point for his recovery of the concrete. Beyond this restricted importance in the English quest for the concrete, however, it has an importance for understanding the impact of enlightened scientism on the Western scene that can hardly be exaggerated. The Newtonian theory of absolute space lent a semblance of justification to the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

Without this piece of Newtonian doctrine scientistic materialism, with its ramifications in the Encyclopedist movement, in utilitarianism and positivism, in the sociology of Comte and Mill, in Marxism, and so forth, would have had little ground to stand on. The belief that science is the key to the understanding of nature in an ontological sense has entered as a decisive ingredient into every one of our political mass movements: liberalism, progressivism, Darwinism, Communism, and National Socialism. The historical root of this belief is the Newtonian theory of space.

CW VOL 24 (HPI-VI)
Chapter 4, The English Quest for the Concrete
§ 3, Absolute Space and Relativity, pp 183-184.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

VOEGELIN MAIN PAGE

NEXT QUOTATION