We all know that Einstein came up with the “Theory of Relativity” (easily remembered by school boys as Energy equals milk chocolate squared). Much to his chagrin, the general public thought he had invented relativism. With his genius apparently affirming the idea, relativism permeated popular modern thought. Few people now believe in absolutes. As Paul Johnson puts it, this public misapprehension meant that his theory “formed a knife inadvertently wielded by its author, to help cut society adrift from its traditional moorings in the faith and morals of Judeo-Christian culture” (Modern Times, p.5).

Of course, relativism has as little to do with Einstein’s relativity as it does with Einstein’s relatives. Einstein was talking about “the behaviour of matter at incomprehensible cosmic scales, energies, and speeds that have no direct effect on human life” (Gairdner: The Book of Absolutes, p.18). But “relativity-become-relativism” has poisoned the public mind.

When Einstein spoke of relativity, he meant that all motion must be relative to something: the motion of a train is relative to the ground it is speeding over, and the speed of the conductor walking down the train checking tickets is relative to the train he’s riding. But his scientific theories emerged at a time when the western world was longing for a justification of moral relativism. The public imagination was engaged to the point that, by 1979, Time magazine headlined ‘EVERYTHING IS RELATIVE,’ declaring that “in the cool beautiful language of mathematics, Einstein demonstrated that we live in a world of relative values” (cited by Gairdner, p.85).

If indeed “everything is relative”, then nothing is objectively true or right. It may be true for you, but it’s not true for me. What’s right for you may not be right for me. It’s all relative to a personal perspective (or perhaps to a cultural perspective, such as a Chinese penchant for eating dog meat or a western distaste of such a dish).

But, as Einstein really did say, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” In coming blogs we will look at some of William Gairdner’s objections to the absurdity of relativism.