Absolute vs. Relative : Is there a universal truth?

23 Jul

blind men elephant relativity

We all know the story of the six blind men of Indostan – who, on touching various parts of an elephant’s body, had different descriptions/ definitions of the “object” – all correct in their own right, all with their version of the truth, but all just not the complete/ absolute truth.

It reminded me of a conversation I had heard between my daughter Riddhi and her friend Kaveri as I was chauffering them back from school. Describing one of the differences between the IGCSC and the ICSC systems, Kaveri said that the former had the Percentile system of grading. And she said “that is scary, coz someone will always fail…but its also easy, coz you just have to make sure you are as good as most of the people – not necessarily the best!” Coming from a 13 year old, I really found that insight very interesting.

Got me thinking about relativity in its various avatars – and when you start thinking about it really, they span science, philosophy, human behavior, corporate culture, branding….a whole host!

Avatar 1 – Einstein’s Theory:

Ofcourse the best known context for Relativity is Einstein’s theory. For those who want to learn about it and related concepts, apart from Wikipedia, this is a nice visual series kind of explaining simplistically how it applies. (Click on this link and the subsequent 3 segments for a full explanation)

I just thought I’d do a check for how well most folks understand it/ know about it. The poll had interesting results – Most science students have studied it and remember the crux of the matter. The majority of non science students remember peripheral/ associated concepts. Younger kids have not been exposed to this. And ofcourse, there are a surprising number that haven’t the foggiest 🙂

Understanding relativity

I thought the funniest answer to my poll question “What, according to you, is the Theory of Relativity. (Shortest answer you can think of)” which my friends and family were supposed to answer without googling was Meeta’s.

She said – “depends” :), and then went on to surmise that the reason I was conducting this poll was because I now had “time on my hands” – uggghhh..

Manoj and Avinash both cited (apparently Einstein’s “funny” version) too – When you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it feels like two hours. However if you sit with a beautiful girl for two hours, it feels like two minutes

Ajay, the scientist/ researcher par excellence said “Einstien theorized that time, space, speed etc. are all “relative” in the sense they depend on each other and not constant. The only exception being speed of light in vacuum which he theorized was a universal constant. Some examples I remember were: if a person travels at a certain speed through space and returns to earth after a few earth years, his siblings on earth would have aged more than him.”

Corollaries of relativity can be observed in optics experiments – calculation of focus and centre of curvature using “parallax error” – parallax error essentially comes down to space-time and relativity.

So, yes, a full spectrum. And, ofcourse we have arguably the nuclear bombs attributable to this same theory of relativity and the famous E=mc square equation, a fact that apparently made Einstein a very sad man.

Avatar 2: Performance Management

Probably the biggest source of angst that one always comes up against in an organisation, specially during evaluation/ appraisal time is – “are you measuring me on absolute terms or on relative terms”. Or, “OK, these are my areas of improvement, but tell me one person who doesn’t have these!” This, of course, also makes the basis of the infamous bell curve.

It is unfortunate actually, but while performance evaluations are more or less absolute (maybe I should say “relatively absolute” – an oxymoron if there ever was one! But, after all, the “absolute” evaluation is also being done by someone and so, the rating is relative to the evaluater’s point of view!), the outcome of these results is increments/ promotions which become very very relative! So, most corporate systems almost force fit an order – or ranking – thereby very often ignoring the very concept of multiple skills/ intelligences (the minute you create ONE number out of a series of variables – like in the multi-attribute rating/ ranking system, you make everything unidimensional!)

The famous/ gory-ish joke doing the rounds here is that of 2 men and a lion.

Lion and Men Cartoon

Two guys in a jungle come around a corner and meet a lion head-on pawing the ground.
One guy ever so carefully reaches into his knapsack and slowly takes out a set of Nike running shoes, never once breaking eye contact with the lion.
The second guy hisses: “What are you doing, you can’t outrun the lion” And the first guy says: “No, but all I have to do is outrun you”!

Avatar 3: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” – Werner Heisenberg

heisenbergsuncertaintyprinciple (credit: http://nargaque.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/heisenbergsuncertaintyprinciple.png )

The uncertainty principle essentially (and simplistically) states that the more you try and define something, the more undefinable it becomes. So, in quantum mechanics, or actually in all matter behaving like waves, your observing a sub atomic particle actually impacts/ changes what you are observing. It hinges on the observer effect (or position vs. momentum). For a simple explanation, click here

The question that arises then if perception of the particle is dependent on the observer, what is absolute???

Avatar 4: Universality and The Absolute Truth

An absolute (or universal) truth, is an unalterable and permanent fact. The existence of absolute truths has been debated among many different groups of people. An interesting debate-type article on the absolute truth can be read here . Per wikipedia, In philosophy, universalism is a doctrine or school claiming universal facts can be discovered and is therefore understood as being in opposition to relativism. In certain religions, universality is the quality ascribed to an entity whose existence is consistent throughout the universe. When used in the context of ethics, the meaning of universal {from Gk. katholikos) refers to that which is true for “all similarly situated individuals. In logic, or the consideration of valid arguments, a proposition is said to have universality if it can be conceived as being true in all possible contexts without creating a contradiction.

Avatar 5: “Good – Better – Best” Brands

Ofcourse Marketing uses this. In that discipline, it connects to the concept of “value” and how the price-quality equation is relative to the consumer. So, most product categories of a company have a “good-better-best” strategy. There is very often a “value” brand, followed by a “mass” or “middle ground” brand, and then a premium one. Whether it is Old Navy – Gap – Banana Republic; Camry/ Prius/ Corolla – LandCruiser – Lexus; Rin – Surf – Surf Excel; or for retailers The Store Brand – Mass Brand – Premium Brand – it really relates to the question of who can pay what price for what perceived value!

Marketers nowadays are evolving to debunk the good-better-best theory and talk better-better-best – but these are all variations on relative value to consumers.

Actually, many second brand acquisitions result from a desire to create a good – better – best lineup in the range.

Avatar 6: Competitiveness

My 80 year old dad, when he gets on his car, becomes a road-maniac. He gets completely bogged down by the guy/ gal next to him who is outgunning him. This leads to road rage, and his very natural desire to get one up over the teenager, while conveniently forgetting his age! My young nephew, probably being that very guy whom dad is outgunning, ofcourse behaves similarly on his motorbike!

Road Rage

It is a natural human tendency – we want to do better than the other people. Very often, performance eval time notwithstanding, our own benchmarks are relative. I have to confess, I do it to my very non competitive daughter – whenever she brings home results, my invariable question is – what was the highest? This is just fact – it is how we behave! Maybe it is a natural byproduct of being social animals – after all, being part of a community/ society means that our behaviors (and maybe our standards) are defined by our environment – so, much like Mr. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, our very existence implies that we seek relativity…

A construct I wrote about in a previous post, the Johari Window, actually touches on many layers of relativity in people’s perceptions – about themselves and others.

Think about advertising – a very famous detergent ad in India goes “Bhala uski kameez meri kameez se safed kaise!” (how is it that his shirt is whiter than mine!) Ofcourse the same brand then indulged in very direct competitive ad, naming their competitor too – and was loudly decried!

The more I think about this, the more examples come to mind – I really could go on and on. But, I thought I would leave you with a really funny cartoon from my favourite facebook page – I fucking love science…enjoy!

einstein relativity


2 Responses to “Absolute vs. Relative : Is there a universal truth?”

  1. Meeta July 23, 2013 at 5:40 am #

    Nice, I had forgotten about the poll! My comment on “time on your hands” was an indirect reference to Einstein’s concepts of space and time, and how time can be relatively used as well…hence the inverted commas…..amused at your reaction 🙂

    • joshsang July 23, 2013 at 6:55 am #

      Ofcourse – that’s why it is funny! The “cringe” was at the awful pun 🙂

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