by Dr. Ghada Chehade
Ghada Chehade is an award-winning writer, social critic
and performance poet.
spent over a decade as a political analyst, specializing
in geopolitics and the study of socio-political change.
articles and essays have been published in international
publications such as Asia Times, The Political
and The Global Analyst.
recently broadened her focus to include an analysis of
how changes in science and cosmology impact the larger
Chehade holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Science,
an MA in Communication Studies and a PhD in Discourse
from McGill University.
doctoral research won the award for Best Dissertation
from the Canadian Association for the Study of Discourse
and Writing and was funded by the Social Sciences and
Humanities Research Council.
In previous articles, I
explored the current crisis in cosmology and what it means to have a
revolutionary shift or change in cosmology.
In today's article, I
step back and explore why cosmology matters in the first place.
Why does cosmology
matter beyond science and to non-scientists?
And, how does
cosmology impact everyday life?
We know that the study of
the universe is important to science.
But cosmology has impacts
far beyond science and has a significant cultural component. What we
believe about the cosmos impacts our worldview and eventually
influences how we view and organize our cultural and social
institutions, values, and norms.
It also greatly impacts how we view ourselves in the world. 1
we may not think of culture when we think of cosmology, cosmology
has greatly impacted everything from anthropology and art to
philosophy, morality, religion, and even politics.
Historically, changes in cosmology have precipitated tectonic
cultural and ideological shifts that have shaped and defined the
course of history.
But the relationship
between cosmology and culture is not unidirectional; it is far more
nuanced than that.
Cosmological shifts are
also a product of their time, and often grow out of and/or reinforce
philosophical and socio-political milieus that benefit from or
exploit the ideas promoted or reflected in a new cosmology.
Let's look at these points in greater detail.
I. Galileo and
The Scientific Revolution
Changes in cosmology can have tectonic ripple effects that influence
the course of history.
A classic example is
Galileo (and the Copernican revolution) and the shift from the
geocentric to the heliocentric model of cosmology. This shift was so
profound that it sparked the Scientific Revolution.
But it also had profound
consequences beyond science.
As the Educational
Director of the Italian Consulate (in the US) explains,
"Galileo's ideas not
only sparked a scientific revolution, they initiated a
large-scale revolution in human thinking. He changed the way we
see the world and, more importantly, how we perceive ourselves
within it." 2
The shift from an
earth-centric to a sun-centric view of the cosmos created a historic
opportunity to unseat the power of the Church, bringing us into the
Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. This eventually impacted how
humans perceived themselves.
In time, Galileo and the
Scientific Revolution led to what has been described as,
"the most important
idea in modern history." The idea that "any person, regardless
of his or her individual characteristic, can seek and find the
This meant that the
Church and clergy were no longer the sole investigators and arbiters
of the truth.
The Importance of
Individuals and the Human Mind
The Church had served as the official intermediary between man
and the universe and man and knowledge for centuries.
within reach of the individual and human deduction was a
revolution in human thinking; one that landed Galileo in deep
However, the human mind as important and worthy of contemplation
is an idea that predates Galileo, going back to Greek
When Socrates spoke
of the need to "know thyself" he,
focus of the contemporary philosophy from nature to
Promoting this type
of thinking eventually got him executed for atheism; thus
Galileo fared better than his philosophical predecessors.
This may be due to the environment in which Galileo's ideas
were bolstered by, and reinforced, Renaissance humanism - a
philosophy that prioritizes and glorifies the potential of the
individual and the human mind (especially in the areas of
creativity and the arts.)
Power structures tend
to prop up or reinforce the cosmological trends and tenants that
serve larger, pre-existing notions and agendas.
While Galileo was
condemned by the Church, he was also backed by certain segments
of the aristocracy.
Specifically, he had
the patronage of Guidobaldo del Monte, a nobleman, and
author of several important works on mechanics. 5
The Scientific Revolution helped bring the fruits of humanism
into the realm of politics.
It shifted ultimate
political power from the Church to the monarchy, which was good
news for monarchies as well as the nobility - that could now
rule without the blessing or approval of the Church.
But the monarchy's
supremacy was short-lived as notions of human importance and
self-actualization led learned individuals to question the
absolute dominance of monarchs and rise up throughout history -
most notably during the Enlightenment 6 - in a manner that
eventually gave rise to Republics, the nation-state, and
modern-day concepts of democracy. 7
ideas reinforced and furthered the tide of humanism and were
beneficial to opponents of the absolute power of the church,
and, later on, the absolute power of monarchs.
Beyond politics, the technological advancements of the
Scientific Revolution also shaped economics and labor, moving
the west from a feudal system to economies that are - or were -
industrial and factory-based.
It has been noted
Revolution lit a path that - centuries later, with the help
of a lot of steam and coal power, money, and labor - led to
the Industrial Revolution." 8
This triggered the
necessary socio-cultural shift from a predominantly rural
population to an increasingly urbanized one.
Galileo's impact also affected and reinforced trends in the
Even before Galileo,
artists of the Italian renaissance... had invented
[geometric] mathematical perspective to make possible the
accurate, realistic portrayal of physical space."
reaffirmed and expanded upon the work and focus of Renaissance
artists of his time.
Artists of Galileo's
day responded favorably and enthusiastically to the new
discoveries that science was making.
In the end, the
Scientific Revolution furthered the Renaissance obsession with
representing man and nature accurately and realistically.
Thinking in a Rational World?
Despite the vast cultural and technological impacts, for many,
the most profound impact of the Scientific Revolution was how it
helped shape our understanding of what it means to be human.
Johnathan Sallet has noted:
"Implied in the
Scientific Revolution is the recognition that individuals
matter and can think for themselves." 10
This is arguably the
underlying tenet of the Enlightenment/the Age of Reason:
mankind/humankind is a rational, thinking being, capable of
arriving at Truth, and therefore, enlightenment.
"were the use and
celebration of reason, the power by which humans understand
the universe and improve their own condition." 11
Implied in this
belief is a view of the universe as reasonable and
understandable; for how could humans apply reason to understand
a universe that is not reasonable and not comprehensible.
traditional authority and embraced the notion that humanity
could be improved through rational change." 12
important 17th-century precursors included key natural
philosophers of the Scientific Revolution such as Galileo as
well the English thinkers Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes and
the French philosopher Rene Descartes.
While there was no
single, unified Enlightenment, Enlightenment thinkers in
England, France, and throughout Europe shared,
Enlightenment themes of rational questioning and belief in
progress through dialogue." 13
One can understand
how these notions would benefit, and be bolstered by, powerful
or influential individuals that favored Republics and
parliamentary forms of governance since these are characterized
by dialogue and cooperation between and among "the people"
and/or their representatives. 14
Here again, ideas
about the universe and humankind's place in it (i.e., cosmology
and worldview) would eventually impact notions of governance and
This is an example of the nuanced relationship between
cosmology/science and culture. The relationship can arguably be
described as a feedback loop.
tend to adopt and then support those parts of cosmology that can
shape and influence present and/or future outcomes and behavior.
Relativism is another, modern-day, example.
While much has been noted
Theory of Relativity - which is widely considered
the foundation of modern-day cosmology 15 - and its influence on
relativism, relativism (as an idea) goes back to the ancient world.
Though it did not gain
favor in ancient times and was refuted by philosophers such as
Plato, arguments for relativism have existed throughout history.
Moreover, there is
presently no philosophical consensus on what relativism means.
Relativism as I use it in this article refers to the doctrine that
knowledge, truth, and morality are not absolute, known respectively
as cognitive/epistemological relativism and moral relativism.
This doctrine is influenced in part by descriptive relativism, an
empirical and methodological position adopted by social
anthropologists that highlight the lack of universally agreed upon
norms, values, practices, and worldviews. 17
In other words, the
observation that different cultures have different values, views,
and practices. Descriptive relativism is often used as the starting
point for philosophical debates on relativism in general.
This debate is beyond the
scope of this article/show. I add only that cultural differences
refer to the man-made world and do not necessarily preclude the
universality of natural or physical laws.
All of this is to say that relativism is an idea that pre-dates
Einstein and the Theory of Relativity.
I believe that it was not
until contemporary powers and interests (in politics, academia,
and/or economics) had a need for and could benefit from moral and
cognitive/epistemological relativism, that relativism was fully
promoted and normalized in the popular culture.
Einstein and his
Special Theory of Relativity provided a good opportunity and
catalyst for this.
Reinforced by the Theory
of Relativity, relativism eventually impacted art, philosophy, and
modern culture; influencing and/or engendering everything from
abstract/cubist art to postmodern theory and identity politics. 18
As noted in an article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
"The popularity of
the very idea of relativism in the 20th century owes something
to Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity (1905) which was to
be used both as a model and as well as a vindication for various
relativistic claims." 19
The article points to
Gilbert Harman as one of the contemporary philosophers to use
Einsteinian relativity as a model for philosophical versions of
The article quotes Harman
(1996) as saying:
Einstein's Theory of Relativity even an object's mass is
relative to a choice of spatio-temporal framework.
An object can have
one mass in relation to one such framework and a different mass
in relation to another... I am going to argue for a similar
claim about moral right and wrong...
I am going to argue
that moral right and wrong... are always relative to a choice of
moral framework." 20
It is interesting to note
that Harman wrote this in 1996, which is several decades after
Einstein, and curiously, only a few years before identity politics
began to gain serious and ubiquitous momentum as well as the
support/backing of the establishment in the west.
I have written
extensively about the rise of identity politics - which is grounded
in postmodern notions of relativism - and the replacement of
traditional forms of left-wing mobilization and opposition with
identity-based movements. 21
In this scenario,
relativism is exploited to fragment, dilute, and/or diffuse
political opposition and ultimately to serve power.
Cognitive/epistemological relativism espouses the idea that,
"there is no absolute
truth to be had," 22
...since all truth is
relativism holds that morality - i.e., right and wrong,
good and bad
- is relative and varies from person to person. 24
Such notions fly in the
face of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment eras' emphasis
on the ability of the rational individual to seek and find Truth
(with a capital T).
Prior to relativism,
philosophers argued that there was an absolute truth and an absolute
way of approaching various aspects of life, especially with respect
to morality and moral obligations. 25
To this day, the Law
still relies on the founding premise that humans are capable of
reason and do not necessarily operate within the confines of moral
Law notwithstanding, postmodern philosophy - which emphasizes
pluralism and relativism and rejects any certain belief and absolute
value 27 - brought moral relativism into the socio-cultural milieu,
creating a philosophical slippery slope that can arguably be
exploited or abused, especially by those with power.
As I note elsewhere:
"If there is no such
thing as absolute right and wrong, then we are powerless to
point out and confront the wrongs of those with power (be it
political power, corporate power, etc.), since 'everything is
In other words,
arguing that there is no such thing as absolute right and wrong
alleviates wrong doers - big or small - from responsibility and
accountably for wrong-doing." 28
Einstein was not a moral
relativist and even recoiled at the misappropriation and
misapplication of his theory in the non-sciences.
As Einstein's most
prominent biographer, Walter Isaacson, explains:
"In both his science
and his moral philosophy, Einstein was driven by a quest for
certainty and deterministic laws.
If his theory of
relativity produced ripples that unsettled the realms of
morality and culture, this was not caused by what Einstein
believed but by how he was popularly interpreted." 29
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states:
It is... worth noting
that Einstein did not think that the Theory of Relativity
supported relativism in ethics or epistemology because, although
in his model simultaneity and sameness of place are relative to
reference frames, the physical laws expressing such relativity
are constant and universal and hence in no sense relative.
It seems that Einstein's
Theory of Relativity - and by extension contemporary cosmology - was
misappropriated and misapplied in a manner that supports moral and
cognitive relativism and the host of non-scientific or non-empirical
interests they could potentially serve.
the New Normal?
A common criticism against cognitive relativism is that it
(semantically) contradicts or refutes itself.
The statement "all
is relative" holds itself to be absolute, therefore
contradicting its original premise - that all is relative.
Put another way, if
the statement "all is relative" is an absolute, then this
contradicts relativism. And, if the statement is relative, then
it does not have to be - or cannot be - accepted as true.
For this reason, many
view relativism as a paradox. 32
In western culture, paradox is increasingly presented as a good
thing and is celebrated and promoted in all areas of life; using
science and cosmology as a justification for such arguments.
For instance, in a
2020 article entitled "Think Like Einstein
- The Paradox
Mindset," the author notes that Einstein was used to conceiving
and embracing opposite or contradictory ideas, and, that many
Nobel Prize-winning scientists are known to actively conceive
"multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously."
Describing this as a
"paradox mindset," the author encourages readers to do the same,
contradictory ideas is one of the main assets for raising
creativity" and "is a better way forward."
The author concludes
that strangeness is a good thing, which is to be embraced in the
Similarly, in a 2020 BBC article on work culture, the authors
argue that "the paradox mindset" is the key to success in the
workplace, stating that:
paradoxes often trip us up, embracing contradictory ideas
may actually be the secret to creativity and leadership."
And in a talk at the
2014 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
of the United States of America, scholars argued that the key to
promoting peacemaking and peaceful intervention overseas is
paradoxical thinking, which they define as,
is inconsistent with held beliefs"... and "raises the
sense of absurdity." 35
It is strange, and
perhaps disheartening, to see paradox promoted as a good thing
in the world of politics and peacekeeping.
It is also odd to see
politics discussed at the National Academy of Science.
brings us back to earlier discussions about science and
cosmology being used to justify larger and/or pre-existing
interests and agendas.
It also harkens back to what Thomas
Kuhn implied about institutionalized science:
that it is
hegemonic and functions much like other institutions of
power (such as religion or politics) and/or in the service
Promoting paradox and
absurdity in politics and political intervention may be a way to
disguise or preserve Empire and political hegemony, not least by
framing inconsistency and absurdity as positive political
Rhetoric about the benefits of paradox in politics and the
workplace is somewhat evocative of that found in media articles
on contemporary cosmology, which embrace and celebrate
cosmological "weirdness" and paradox, rather than problematizing
As I note in my
Thunderbolts below video essay, Cosmology Crisis 2021,
the increasing focus in mainstream media on the "strange and
wacky" universe presents cosmic weirdness and contradiction as
something that is matter of fact and non-problematic: 36
the universe is a
weird and unknowable place, and that's Okay because the
universe does not have to make sense.
If that's the case,
then contemporary cosmology has failed us, for what good are
science and rational observation and analysis (which were
hallmarks of the Enlightenment) if they cannot give us answers.
Rather than admit the
failure/inability of contemporary cosmology to provide answers
or explanations, mainstream science, and
increasingly blame the failure on, and/or hide the failure
behind, the strangeness of the universe.
This suggests that
mainstream cosmology is not actually interested in giving us
It also confirms what
Thomas Kuhn infers about dominant or normal science:
that it is
hegemonic, dogmatic, and unyielding to falsification and
At the socio-cultural
level, the promotion of a "paradox mindset" could be interpreted
as giving people permission to act inconsistently,
unpredictably, contradictory, and/or without integrity.
Rather than admit
that systems or policies (or scientific models) may be failing
or contradictory, failure and contradiction can simply be
repackaged as normal and acceptable.
This signals to the
public that traditional virtues and norms such as logic,
predictability, consistency, accountability, and clarity are not
to be expected from institutions, leaders, or centers of power.
In terms of dominant discourse, this potentially opens the door
to and/or justifies inconsistent, contradictory, and deceptive
discourse and narratives.
As an aside, it is important to note that the paradox rationale
is a tool that can only fully be exploited by those in a
position of power...
For if the average
person on the street tried to argue in court that the Law is
relative or could be interpreted in a contradictory manner, it
probably would not go very well for them!
Everything we discussed drives home just how influential
cosmology is beyond the sciences, and how much it shapes and
impacts the broader culture and human thinking.
Cosmology, and changes in cosmology, have shaped and/or fostered
everything from the Scientific Revolution to present-day forms
of governance, industry, philosophy, and morality.
This process is not unidirectional; it happens through a nuanced
and reciprocal relationship between socio-cultural power (or
emerging power interests) and cosmology - with power adopting,
appropriating, and/or advancing aspects of cosmology that can
serve its interests.
With respect to the most recent sea change in cosmology - that
of relativity and the big bang - theories and innovations in
cosmology were misappropriated and misapplied by thinkers in the
non-sciences in a manner that gave rise to various notions of
relativism (cognitive, moral, cultural, etc.) and eventually
fostered a culture and worldview that embraces, celebrates
and/or promotes paradox, contradiction, and absurdity.
As noted in previous works, 37 the existing cosmology is
presently in crisis and inevitably heading towards a revolution.
Given everything we discussed today,
what might a future
cosmology look like, and, how will it impact the broader culture
and human thinking?
These questions will be explored in future articles...
I discuss each of
these in greater detail in a previous article. To view that
Harman, G., and
J.J. Thomson, 1996, Moral Relativism and Moral Objectivity,
For more on the
meaning of cognitive relativism see
See "On the
Paradox of Cognitive Relativism"
For more on this,