The Theory of Relativity


Rudolf Steiner


A new direction in thinking has been stimulated by Einsteinís attempt to transform fundamental concepts of physics. Until now, physics accounted for the phenomena accessible to it by imagining them arranged in empty three-dimensional space and taking place in one-dimensional time. Thus space and time were assumed to exist outside and independent of objects and events, in fixed quantities. With regard to objects, we measured distances in space; with regards to events, we measured durations in time. Distance and duration, according to this view of space and time, do not belong to the objects and events. This view has now been countered by the theory of relativity introduced by Einstein. From this perspective, the distance between two objects belongs to the objects themselves.†††††††


A specific distance from another object is an attribute, a property just like any other property an object may possess. Interrelationships are inherent in objects, and outside these interrelationships there is no such thing as space. Assuming the independent existence of space makes it possible to conceive of a geometry for that space, a geometry that can be applied to the world of objects. This geometry arises in the world of pure thoughts, and objects must submit to it. We can say that relationships in the world must obey laws that were laid down in thought before actual objects were observed. The theory of relativity dethrones this geometry. Only objects exist, objects whose relationships can be described by means of geometry. Geometry becomes a part of physics. In that case, however, we can no longer say that the laws of geometry can be laid down before the objects are observed. No object has a location in space but only distances relative to other objects.


A similar assumption is made about time. No event exists at a specific point in time; it happens at a temporal distance from another event. Thus, spatial and temporal distances between interrelated objects are similar and flow together. Time becomes a fourth dimension that is similar to the three dimensions of space. An event happening to an object can be described only as taking place at a temporal and spatial distance from other events. An objectís movement can be conceived of only as happening in relationship to other objects. This view alone is expected to supply faultless explanations of certain processes in physics, but assuming the existence of independent space and independent time leads to contradictory thoughts about these processes.


When we consider that many thinkers have accepted only those aspects of the natural sciences that can be presented in mathematical terms, the theory of relativity contains nothing less than the nullification of any real science of nature, because the scientific aspect of mathematics was seen as lying in its ability to ascertain the laws of space and time independent of observations of nature. Now, in contrast, natural objects and natural processes are said to determine spatial and temporal relationships; these objects and events are to provide the mathematics. The only certain factor is surrendered to uncertainty. According to this view, every thought of an essential reality that manifests its nature in existence is precluded. Everything is only in relation to something else.


To the extent that we human beings look at ourselves in the context of natural objects and processes, we will not be able to escape the conclusions of this theory of relativity. If, however, our experience of ourselves as beings prevents us from losing ourselves in mere relativities as if in a state of soul paralysis, we will no longer be permitted to seek intrinsic beingness in the domain of nature but only above and beyond nature, in the kingdom of spirit. We will not escape the theory of relativity with regard to the physical world, but it will drive us into knowledge of the spirit.


The significance of the theory of relativity lies in pointing out the need for spirit knowledge that is sought by spiritual means and independently of our observations of nature. That the theory of relativity forces us to think in this way establishes its value in the evolution of our worldview.


From The Riddles of Philosophy (GA18), pp. 590-593