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The Theory of relativity

Do neutrinos travel faster than the speed of light? Probably not, but the claim by a European scientific team at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, has generated not just skepticism but also fervor to attempt to replicate the finding by an independent site. Why the intense interest? The excitement is because the premise that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light is a cornerstone of Einstein’s special theory of relativity (remember    e=mc²?  The c is the speed of light).  If anything can travel faster than the speed of light, then one of the main premises of Einstein’s theory and the modern conception of the universe is incorrect.

Apparently neutrinos are notoriously difficult to measure (this measurement required a 454 mile long particle accelerator, which spanned two countries, to track something that traveled the entire distance at 60 nanoseconds faster than the speed of light). Most scientists regard the result as a measurement error, but that will not stop them from conducting further experiments in case they are wrong. Healthy skepticism following unexpected results is part of science (remember Thomas Kuhn?), but so is the urge to experiment further to test the limits of science. More importantly, the need to revise theories in the face of new evidence is what sets science apart from religion, faith, belief and old wives’ tales, which govern most of human behavior.

“It’s just a theory,” we say about evolution, global warming, the Big Bang, etc. and half of us dismiss these theories’ claims as a result of that statement and half of us deny their theoretical status and claim them as “fact,” or  “settled science,” or what “science has found.”  Certainty is a matter of predictability within accepted limits of error and a matter of consensus by either our peers or those with the qualifications to know.  Certainty is not independent of the minds of the knowers or observers.  “Facts,” are things of which we are certain, so is what “science has found.” It can all be overturned by new evidence. Then we will be certain of something else.

We must live our lives based upon our knowledge of the world, including the physical, social, political and economic “facts” available to us. These facts will change, either within our lifetimes or in the future. All facts do. Everything we base our decisions upon now will turn out to be different or wrong sometime in the future. But we must still make decisions.  Each of us can decide to base these decisions upon what the “best evidence” of modern science has taught us is most likely to be the case (e.g. rationalists), or upon what our belief systems  tell us is true, independent of any scientific evidence (e.g. religionists), or upon our value systems taught to us by our culture and to which we subscribe through personal commitment (e.g. patriots), or upon our personal proclivities without thought beyond our immediate satisfaction (e.g. shoppers), or upon just thinking and doing what everyone else does (e.g. sheep).

Most of us base our decisions upon each of these different paradigms at different times and in different situations. Is one basis for decision making better than another?  Yes, I think so. I prefer the scientific, rationalist one. But probably no single basis  for making decisions is the most useful one in all situations.  In my opinion it is best to be acutely aware of the relativity of the theory (belief, religion, preference) you are using and its tenuous claim to certainty. Then, with such awareness in mind, make your choices and then live with the anxiety of knowing that the basis you used for making your decision was in some sense, arbitrary, in many ways, fallible, and in the long run, just another choice you made. If you want know how well this works, see Noel Mawer’s review of the fiction of Camus in this issue of this review. Camus got the idea.


How the United States Celebrates World Philosophy Day

            World Philosophy Day 2011 will take place on November 17 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. During this event, which has occurred annually since 2002, UNESCO will provide philosophers, researchers, teachers and students as well as the general public with a wide variety of conferences on various subjects, such as the equitable sharing of scientific benefits, philosophical meanings of the political upheaval in the Arab world, the role and the place of women philosophers in the exercise of thinking, philosophical practices with children, philosophy and equal opportunities at school.

            Why is philosophy important to UNESCO?

            The first clause of the UNESCO Charter’s Preamble states, “Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” According to their own statements, “For UNESCO, philosophy provides the conceptual bases of principles and values on which world peace depends: democracy, human rights, justice, and equality. Philosophy helps consolidate these authentic foundations of peaceful coexistence.”

            And now, the United States, which provides 22% of the financial support for UNESCO, has withdrawn funding for the organization. The reason is because UNESCO voted unanimously to admit Palestine into its membership.

            U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stated, "Today's vote by the member states of UNESCO to admit Palestine as member is regrettable, premature and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive just and lasting peace in the Middle East. The United States will refrain from making contributions to UNESCO."

            White House spokesman Jay Carney said, "Today's vote distracts us from our shared goal of direct negotiations that results in a secure Israel and an independent Palestine living side by side in peace and security."

            In February of this year the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution that condemned all Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory as illegal, called for Israel and Palestine to follow the Road Map for Peace plan, and for both parties to continue negotiations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over 120 U.N. member states supported the resolution.

            Despite votes in favor of the resolution by all the other 14 members of the Security Council, the U.S. vetoed the resolution. US Ambassador Susan E. Rice, while defending the U.S. veto, admitted that, "We reject in the strongest terms the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlement activity.... Continued settlement activity violates Israel’s international commitments, devastates trust between the parties, and threatens the prospects for peace.…"

            The U.S. has now opposed Palestine’s admission to the U.N. as well as to UNESCO. This last action by the U.S. is the most devastating because it is accompanied by withdrawal of financial support for the UN cultural and scientific agency.

            As the Jordanian Parliament stated in response to the U.S. announcement, “The US decision ..., was taken to punish UNESCO for the member states’ democratic and just voting to grant Palestine what it deserves. Washington’s move is strange because the United States tries to convince the world that it is a protector of democracy and freedom.”

            The actions of the United States in these matters are not the actions of a country that claims to be a defender of freedom   and a champion of the democratic process. The U.S. withdrawal of financial support for UNESCO is the action of a petulant bully that blindly follows a policy of fearing to alienate its strongest Middle East ally, Israel (which deserves American support, but not in this way)  and fears to anger Israel supporters here at home even when it admits that Israel’s actions are wrong. The U.S. pronouncements on these issues are hypocritical and disingenuous and it is time for America to place truth and morality ahead of political and strategic calculations.

The Editor


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