Everything Is Relative

In pondering the structure of software, the world, and change patterns, I keep moving toward the conclusion that everything is relative. Taxonomies, abstractions, modularization, client's viewpoints, you name it. We only draw lines in the sand to be able to deal with the complexity as humans, not because it necessarily reflects the real world well. Does anybody else feel a push in this direction?

I feel like I am turning into a SoftwareHippy or have an Einstein virus or something.


Generalizations pick interesting points out of the world. They never really match the world, but a world without a structure is like a life without a consciousness.

UsefulLies it could perhaps be argued. The consciousness part is perhaps another (long) topic.


Being a GoedelWeenie?, the title of this page is a StrangeLoop. See EverythingIsRelativeStrangeLoop.


If EverythingIsRelative, then pigs fly (more or less).

Exactly.. contrast: EverythingIsNotRelative.

{{If you hit a pig going 90mph, it will fly.}}


See ItDepends for cautions against absolute statements about that which can not be polarized. Particularly for any statement which uses words like Everything, Everybody, always, Nothing, Nobody, never. Also suspect are pronouns which lump populations or groups into We, Us, and They, and Them. There are definitely gradients between what We/They do, and who is For/Against Us/Them. That said, there are things which are True/False, GoodThings/BadThings, and to which we can say'' Yes/No.

Which reminds me of the saying: 'Always remember: Never say always or never.'


It's only paradoxical if you look at it from an absolute viewpoint.

Indeed. From the EverythingIsRelative viewpoint, all paradoxes are relative because the truth value of 'true = false' is relative. Of course, once you recognize that the paradox is only canceled by admitting to 'true = false' at least in some contexts, you should note that all other conclusions of truth are impossible to guarantee, for you must now figure out for each case whether it is in a context where 'true = false'. And, of course, the EverythingIsRelative people haven't figured that one out yet. Most statements made starting from the EverythingIsRelative viewpoint, thus, are either (a) worthless (since they don't actually say anything about the world, math, life in general), or (b) pure bullshit (since they are founded upon a method that doesn't exist yet for identifying cases where true, does in fact, not equal false).

As an absolutist, I think anybody who believes EverythingIsRelative is a pansy who is unwilling to face, in philosophy, the cold, hard truths of reality... e.g. that going without food WILL kill you, and that your pain (no matter how subjective) is quite real.

Not if you view time in reverse ;-p


Not if you view time in reverse ;-p

How is that even meaningful?


Pet peeve: Einstein's theory of relativity did not say "everything is relative", it said that there is no absolute space-time coordinate system, so there are no absolute positions in time and space. All times and positions are relative.

That's pretty different than "everything" is relative. Even in physics, for instance, counter-intuitively, the speed of light is absolute, which seems odd since speed is about (relative) distance and time. That shows how little Relativity can be generalized to "everything".

Now, this page is not really about physics, and there are epistemological reasons to say "everything is relative". Just don't drag Einstein into it.

Note that the original topic had nothing to do with Einstein.

I know. That's why I said it was a pet peeve on the topic, not because of what was said on this page.

Hmmm. The speed of light is a constant in a vacuum, with no gravity etc etc. i.e. it is not absolute but relative to a number of conditions which probably don't exist in this universe. As it is, Einstein's theories do tend to blow away a lot of the examples of 'absolutes', but does not address the more interesting (IMO) discussions which actually tend to say 'absolutes are logically unsupported'. I notice a lot of the theory on this has somehow fallen off this page. ---RichardHenderson

From ThereIsNoAbsolute?:

EverythingIsRelative implies there is no AbsoluteTruth?.


For developers: Consider global variables. These are seldom really global. The are local with respect to Or, from another perspective, they are global: there is only one instance of that particular variable in the entire universe that happens to be on that machine, in that memory, in that run of application. The notion of "global" vs. "local" has a meaning in programming that is relative to the application, of course. -db

Yeah, define global as 'global in universe X'.

{Wouldn't that apply to even vars local to a routine? (assuming not parallel execution going on)}

Assuming no parallel execution or recursion is going on (which may easily be an invalid assumption), there would be at most one variable for a particular routine at any given time. However, each time that routine was called, it would very arguably be a different instance of the variable.


EverythingIsRelative and ThereIsNoAbsolute? are self-contradictions (e.g. EverythingIsRelativeStrangeLoop). From a contradiction, you can prove anything - that 1=0, that true=false, that pigs fly, and any other contradiction or 'fact' that happens to take your fancy. In logic, systems or models that contain contradictions are 'inconsistent' and for good reason - you can't gain any meaningful truth from them... anything you prove to be true, you can also prove to be false, because you can prove that true=false. Any argument that requires as a premise 'EverythingIsRelative' or 'ThereIsNoAbsolute?' already violates the Law of Noncontradiction. If the other guy says 'EverythingIsRelative' in defense of his or her argument, you should stop there - you've already won the argument, and no amount of rational argument is going to convince someone who truly believes they can reach truth from a contradiction.

Of course, you can direct them to a comment like the one above, but irrational people like their paradoxes. In my experience, pointing them out doesn't help very much. Even when I use the same, fallacious premise to prove the exact opposite of what the other person is saying, the usual response is: ah, well, EverythingIsRelative. I guess contradictions don't matter much to people who believe there is only one truth-value.

Actually you can derive a lot of useful information from an EverythingIsRelative interpretation. You just can't get truth - but that is not always required. EverythingIsRelativeStrangeLoop is a problem only for validity not for usefulness. And I guess you will not deny usefulness, otherwise by taking your argument to its logical end you'd argue that most human communication is invalid. -- GunnarZarncke

Actually, you cannot derive information, useful or otherwise, from an EverythingIsRelative interpretation, period. Information is founded in distinction, and EverythingIsRelative makes all things indistinct (even true and false). I would not deny usefulness were it provided, but I do deny that EverythingIsRelative offers any of it - since you couldn't offer even one valid reason to defend your claim, your own statement that EverythingIsRelative can be 'useful' seems to be founded on nothing more than a desire to defend your position that ThereIsNoAbsolute?; OTOH, perhaps you recognize that there is no 'valid' defense of ThereIsNoAbsolute?, so you're just stating it to be true like some sort of otherwise indefensible axiom. Even human communication - action, percept, interpretation - is not entirely 'relative'; it is context-dependent (context-rich, really) but unlike some above claims seem to imply (e.g. those regarding speed of light), context dependence is entirely orthogonal to the issue of relativity (those who study formal context-dependent languages know this very well). Human communication can be observed to clearly occur, and the occurrence is absolute.

The only 'useful' position is that some things are necessarily absolute. This is a fact of logic and math, which are higher powers in this universe than even the laws of physics (a mathematical truth is 'truer' and more absolute than physical truth). That some things seem relative is a fact of observation and limited cognizance only.

If there is objectivity, it is not isolatable from the subjectivity. This is the "pollution rule" as described in ObjectivityIsAnIllusion. Communication occurs because we often agree on stuff regardless of whether we have solid proof. There is no use debating whether the chair exists if neither party challenges it for the work at hand. We share just enough UsefulLies to communicate and work together (but not enough to prevent conflict).

Whether objective reality can be isolated from subjective cognizance thereof is completely irrelevant to the fact that 'EverythingIsRelative' is a contradiction.

We share far more than "just enough UsefulLies" and even UsefulTruths to communicate efficiently, but even if we did not, mere percept and action and interpretation is all there has ever been to communication. We cannot deny our own attempts to communicate. They are absolute.

Conflict would not be prevented even if we could communicate perfectly - anyone would be naive to believe otherwise.

And 'ObjectivityIsAnIllusion' is defended with reference and even basis upon 'EverythingIsRelative' which is a contradiction. The most that can and has ever been defensibly claimed on that page is that we cannot know for certain that a physical reality outside us exists, and if it exists we cannot for certain know anything about it, because we are limited beings - i.e. epistemological solipsism in a nutshell; proving that a physical universe does or doesn't exist, is or isn't 'real', is or isn't directly determining our sensory percept... is entirely beyond us. Independent of that, one cannot deny that objectivity does exist based simply in the relationships over percept and concept whether they are internally generated or not. Even Top, who so vociferously wishes to defend his EverythingIsRelative contradictions, watered 'ObjectivityIsAnIllusion' down by adding condition after condition (e.g. to exclude issues of objectivity within percept and concept) to the point the claim says nothing more than does epistemological solipsism.

EverythingIsRelative allows for shades. I don't say that everything is equally 'relative'. There are things less relative than others, but absolutes are an abstraction, an extreme that is useful but not achieved. And trying to recover the 'relativeness', the vagueness or unknown dependencies from absolutes by introducing context dependence only buys you so much. And don't take my view to be exactly the one of those pages, I'm only one contributor. And I proposed an idea not stated an opinion. Hey I'm a moderate, I know how to assume and use both positions. -- GunnarZarncke

Everything you just said remains consistent with your contradiction, leaving it inconsistent. "There are things less relative than others" - is this absolute? "Absolutes an abstraction, an extreme that is useful but not achieved" - that seems like an unjustified claim to me; care to present proof that doesn't rely upon 'EverythingIsRelative' as an assumption? I feel you assume EverythingIsRelative, and its own self-contradictory nature allows you to justify to yourself anything else you might choose to say. I'd be in the same situation if I assumed '1=0' and started working on my life philosophy from there. Perhaps it's nice, believing that no matter what you do, you can't possibly be wrong (or right). It certainly absolves you of all responsibility. Or perhaps it's just a neat little meme that sticks in your head whenever you choose to wax philosophical, a useful emotional fallback position for when a logical argument goes poorly, but otherwise is unused in your life of hard logic and programming where the computer doesn't take anything you ever say as 'relative'. Do you fall back on 'EverythingIsRelative' due to the pressures of the CodeKing?

" [...] And trying to recover the 'relativeness', the vagueness or unknown dependencies from absolutes by introducing context dependence only buys you so much. [...]"

I fully agree. Within formal languages, context dependence buys you 'so much' that you have no vagueness or unknown dependencies or 'relativeness' to start with and thus nothing to 'recover'! But I suppose you mean to imply that 'all things start relative' and can only be made slightly less so. With this I disagree, seeing as I am fully convinced that '1 != 0' is truly and absolutely true (not even a little bit relative). So, once again I'm going to attribute this to the invalid assumption that EverythingIsRelative and its ensuing inconsistent logic. If it is not, I'll ask: DemandForEvidence. I will note that unknowns are quite orthogonal concepts to absoluteness and relativeness. (Or, at least, they're completely orthogonal concepts in the eyes of anyone with a consistent logical system backing their comprehension. I suppose to someone who believes that EverythingIsRelative, there's just a sort of 'blur' that combines vague and unknown into some common 'shade' of relative that they can't tell from any other shade since shade1 != shade2 is also relative.) A simple proof: given a simple TuringMachine and input tape, there is a binary and absolute truth-value as to whether that TuringMachine will halt when given that input. However, you do not know the value of this binary condition. Therefore, absoluteness is orthogonal to state of knowledge. (Further, it is likely to be orthogonal to knowledge of absoluteness.)

'Vagueness' under the traditional philosopher's definition (things are vague insofar as there are borderline cases) may be about the only thing one can call 'relative' as said decision becomes some heuristic discretion of the individual decider. But not all classifications or communications possess borderline cases (programming being the simplest example), and thus vagueness is not a guaranteed property in communications..

The vagueness I mean is not one of preference or heuristics. You seem to imply that information only comes from absolutes: Some years later I ran over TheFallacyOfGrey?: http://lesswrong.com/lw/mm/the_fallacy_of_gray/ which explains my point quite well. I know I am probably ArguingWithGhosts but maybe some reader will find this helpful. -- GunnarZarncke

I'd like to give soft sciences as an example where precise (absolute) information is sometimes difficult to come by and exact models seldom. Where metaphors and analogies are used and multiple examples and varied explanations are used to argue for some theory. Or how would you call this? This is the prototype of relativeness. It takes a lot time until the soft sciences agree on some issue, so during that time many aspects are relative. And nonetheless it sometimes does converge to agreement. -- GunnarZarncke

There has always been a path from vagueness -> absoluteness, and it is founded in the formation of formally described heuristics and definition. I've often seen the belief (on this wiki and elsewhere) that 'vagueness' is something built into the universe and that we cannot be rid of it. This is quite untrue. Vagueness exists in definitions that we use to classify and model the universe, not the universe itself - and even then vagueness isn't 'actualized' until such a time as we not only learn of 'borderline cases', but actually start worrying about them. The worst the universe itself generally offers us is ambiguity, limited percept, and a tendency to kill ourselves and others if we attempt to explore it too deeply.

It is worth noting that the use of metaphor and analogy and example used in explanation of a definition or theory says very little about the theory or definition, except that it is difficult for at least some humans to comprehend in its raw form (i.e. communication barrier on explaining the theory or definition). Sometimes the communication barrier will, indeed, be due to vagueness; however, much of the time it's due to difficulty in subject matter (e.g. a straight definition of monads or category theory will leave most people reeling, so LOTS of explanation and metaphor is needed to take that definition and build a cozy home for it in the brain so it sticks around rather than entering one ear and exiting the other - see BalloonModelOfKnowledge, YouCantLearnSomethingUntilYouAlreadyAlmostKnowIt.) However, it is true that if you use metaphors, analogies, and examples as the definition (akin to ostensive definition) it can leave a question as to where else it applies, making it vague.

Anyhow, the idea that some things are relative, subjective, or vague has never been at question. The objection has always been to 'EverythingIsRelative', which is used by some people to defend arguments - it is a sweeping statement, and one they don't feel any need to defend. The lesser statement 'SomeThingsAreRelative?' is perfectly fine (and almost certainly correct), but it doesn't allow people to get away with fallacy - even they must then properly argue their position that the particular case under observation is among those that are 'relative'.

EverythingIsRelative applies to itself and the obvious way to avoid the strange loop is to assume different strength. But I think we basically agree anyway.

I think that there are few absolute - at least considering human communication at large. The exception being math. Maybe you'd like to have a look at MemesAndAttractors (on TheAdjunct) for more. -- .gz


If everything is relative, maybe the relational model has a chance ;-)

No, the RelationalModel absolutely had a 'chance'. And it took that chance. And it succeeded. It will eventually be replaced (or slowly modified beyond recognition) in the long run - moving towards more and greater meta-data on the per-fact level (such as tracking where data came from or how it was derived, confidence in the represented truth, tracking which capabilities are needed to see it, tracking when it was added or became overwritten, for which period it was valid, support for negations or a wider variety of truth-values, etc.) and towards greater 'knowledge' support (tracking patterns and predictors over data, so you can query at a much higher level). The RelationalModel as is doesn't admit to such things as time, confidence, security, trust, confidence, OpenWorldAssumption, etc.. and while it provides a persistence layer for expert systems and datamining, it doesn't actively support such efforts. But that won't prevent it from being the dominant data model for at least the next three decades.

It hasn't been implemented properly yet and still has a chance to become:

Don't confuse `relative` with `subjective`.

The distinction is relative ;-)


Remember: EverythingIsRelative not only the rule but the exception to prove it all in one easy little bundle.

Wow, this stuff is cool. Who are the people writing this? I want to worship them. I'm beginning to believe in moral right and wrong again. I can't go kill people and say that it's ok because your judgement that I'm wrong is just as good as my judgement that I'm right since everything is relative.

I'd be careful to extrapolate technical discussions into the field of morality.


See Also: AlwaysAndNever, EverythingIsRelativeStrangeLoop, BenefitsAreSubjective, ThereAreNoTypes, AllAbstractionsLie, InevitableIllusions, InkBlotSoftwareEngineering, LifeIsaBigMessyGraph, DefinitionOfLife, FuzzyDistinctionBetweenInterfaceAndImplementation, SeparationAndGroupingAreArchaicConcepts, SoftwareGivesUsGodLikePowers, AbsolutismHasGreaterBurdenOfProof, DatabaseNotMoreGlobalThanClasses:interface_relativism (PageAnchor)
AprilZeroEight

CategoryPhilosophy, CategorySubjectivityAndRelativism

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