Virginia’s Relativity

                 Virginia Woolf at age 20


Doing some research reading on Virginia Woolf for a post yesterday about her novel To the Lighthouse, I came across an article that made what seemed like a weird connection between Woolf and Albert Einstein.

Imagine this: Virginia has a conversation with poet William Butler Yeats. It is 1934. Yeats wanted to talk about her very experimental novel from 1931, The Waves. Yeats’ interpretation of it was mystical and he had visions of “the Occult.”

She wrote in her diary after the conversation that you “can’t unriddle the universe at tea,” She also noted that Yeats had said that “Neither religion or science explains the world. The occult does explain it.”

Virginia was more interested in science than the occult. She was interested in physics and astronomy. Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theories of Relativity were news in 1905 and 1915 respectively and astronomer Arthur Eddington proved (observationally) relativity in 1919, and it became something heard by (but not really understood by) the general public.

What might a novelist do with Einstein’s theory that events in time are not the same everywhere for everyone? It could certainly change how you used time as a narrative structure.  That is what is happening in To the Lighthouse and the article’s author sees the influence in her Orlando, and The Waves, which are two novels I don’t know very well.

Virginia – and others in and out of the literary world – were influenced by Einstein’s view that this is a non-linear, probably godless and probably impossible to fully understand the world and universe.

The article goes into much greater detail but what seems to at least partially have created some of the popularity of his theories in the culture was that they were just so damned counter-intuitive. They turned earlier ideas upside down.

Did Woolf read Einstein’s work? Not clear. She might have just heard it in conversation with friends like philosopher Bertrand Russell who published the ABC of Relativity in 1925. Maybe she read some of the many newspaper accounts. 

Did it get her thinking in such a way about narrative that the character Orlando in that same-named novel is a boy in Shakespeare’s time but later wakes up as a woman in the 20th century? Time in the novel is relative and it moves much more slowly for Orlando than for the rest of his/her world. That’s a paradox that Einstein suggests, though not in such an extreme fashion.

Yeats wanted her to consider that there is a world beyond this one we see. Einstein would agree, but he wouldn’t explain any of it as mystical or having to do with religion. Either would Woolf, who would have a character in Mrs. Dalloway say that “there were no Gods; no one was to blame; and so she evolved this atheist’s religion of doing good for the sake of goodness.” It’s a philosophy of simplicity and seeing the marvelous in every day.

And yet, her life ended in suicide. She finished her last novel and fell into another depression as she had before. It was the start of World War II and her London home was destroyed during the Blitz. Her diary was full of thoughts about death. Woolf was overtaken by mental illness throughout her life and was institutionalized several times and attempted suicide at least twice. Her illness may have been bipolar disorder, for which there was no effective intervention during her lifetime. On March 28, 1941, she filled her overcoat pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse near her home and drowned. She left a suicide note, addressed to her husband:

I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do… 
I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.  V

Occam’s and Other Razors

William of Ockham.png
William of Ockham CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

I was explaining recently to someone a reference in the program The Undoing to Occam’s razor. It’s a pretty well-known problem-solving principle, sometimes called the principle or law of parsimony. It states that simpler explanations are more likely to be correct and that you should avoid unnecessary or improbable assumptions.

But why a “razor”?  The principle is attributed to William of Ockham (or Occam), an English Franciscan friar, scholastic philosopher, and theologian, who is believed to have been born in Ockham. But the principle had nothing to do with his shaving habits.

In philosophy, a razor is a principle or rule of thumb that allows one to eliminate (“shave off”) unlikely explanations for a phenomenon, or avoid unnecessary actions.

There are several other razors or razor-like principles that you hear referenced or applied less often.

Paul Grice, a philosopher of language, also has a razor principle of parsimony. Parsimony refers to the quality of economy or frugality in the use of resources. For linguistic explanations, conversational implications are to be preferred over semantic context. This gets more complicated than Occam’s Razor. Grice worked in pragmatics, a subfield of linguistics and semiotics that studies how context contributes to meaning.

I am a fan of the simpler Hanlon’s razor: Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

Hitchens’s razor seems appropriate to much in the news the past decade: What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Hume’s Guillotine is a larger and more complex razor: What ought to be cannot be deduced from what is. “If the cause, assigned for any effect, be not sufficient to produce it, we must either reject that cause or add to it such qualities as will give it a just proportion to the effect.” Hume’s law or Hume’s guillotine is the thesis that, if a reasoner only has access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises, the reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements.  This is also less-interestingly called the is-ought problem.

The Sagan Standard is a neologism abbreviating the aphorism that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” It is named after Carl Sagan who used that exact phrase on his television program Cosmos, though he was not the first to state it. It illustrates a core principle of the scientific method and of skepticism.

Karl Popper’s falsifiability principle: comes from the philosophy of science. For a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable. For example, the statement “All swans are white” is falsifiable because “Here is a black swan” contradicts it. That seems clear. But what about “All men are mortal”? It is not falsifiable because, unlike a swan being black, a man being immortal is not an inter-subjective property—there is no shared procedure to systematically conclude to immortality. You can think about that one for a bit.

The exciting Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword (I’m not making up these names.), states that “If something cannot be settled by experiment or observation, then it is not worthy of debate.” It is also known by the less exciting name of Alder’s Razor.


That Dialogue on Opposing World Systems

Galileo, Copernicus
Galileo and Copernicus    (Gilgub/Flickr)

The title “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems” certainly sounds like a heavy topic. It was heavy in 1632 when Galileo published it. The two systems were the Ptolemaic and the Copernican theories of cosmology. It is less controversial and easier to understand today.

Ptolemy, following the tradition of Aristotle, believed that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything — Sun, Moon, planets, and stars — revolved around it.

Copernicus, on the other hand, posited that the Sun is the center of the universe, and though we seem to be standing still, we are in fact hurtling through space as we circle the star.

I used to have a quotation in my middle school classroom for my students that said “You are not the center of the universe” – Copernicus. Nicholas didn’t say exactly that quote, and he wasn’t specifically referencing my young teen students, but it was a good point-of-departure quote for discussion.

Galileo had spoken with Pope Urban VIII earlier and discussed his tide theory as proof that the Earth moved through space – not that the Sun was the center of the universe. The Pope granted him permission to write “Dialogue on the Tides” but that the Copernican theory should be treated as hypothetical in the book. Wisely, Galileo wrote the book as a series of discussions between two philosophers. One believed in Copernicus, one believed in Ptolemy, and a neutral but well-educated layman served as a moderator. That got it past the Catholic censors.

But Galileo was Copernican all the way and the popular book did not please Pope Urban VIII who had Galileo tried by the Inquisition. They ruled that he was “vehemently suspect of heresy” and too close to endorsing Copernican theory and the book was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Forbidden Books.

Galileo was ordered to recant and recite weekly psalms of penitence. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest, and none of his later books were permitted to be published in his lifetime.

The Dialogue on Opposing World Systems remained on the Index of Forbidden Books until 1835. Change is slow in religion – but not in science.

Further Reading

The Essential Galileo

The Center of the World

Mt Fuji Full moon
Mt. Fuji under a Full Moon

In certain beliefs and philosophies, there is a center to the world. It is called by some axis mundi and it is the connection between Heaven and Earth. In astronomy, axis mundi is the Latin term for the axis of the Earth between the celestial poles.

It goes by other names: the cosmic axis, world axis, world pillar, center of the world, and world tree.

We don’t know the origin of this idea. There are psychological and sociological interpretations. One interpretation is that it is a natural and universal psychological perception. That is the idea that the particular spot that one occupies (You Are Here) stands at “the center of the world.”

The name of China means “Middle Kingdom” and expresses an ancient belief that the country stood at the center of the world. However, within any sacred place is a specific spot that is the actual center of the center, the axis mundi.

Another interpretation is that the center is a natural object, such as a mountain or even a tree. A mountain or other elevated place where earth and sky come closest is often seen as the true center. The peak of a mountain is often regarded as sacred. Mount in China is such a spot. For the ancient Hebrews, it is Mount Zion.  Mount Kailash is holy to Hinduism and several religions in Tibet. Denali in Alaska is sometimes portrayed as sacred. In Australia, it would be Uluru. Mount Fuji in Japan has many legends and powers attached to it. It was considered sacred by the Ainu people, the indigenous inhabitants of ancient Japan,

Another secular interpretation is that it can be a manmade object, such as a pole, a steeple, a mound, obelisk, lighthouse, a monolith. The secular mixes with the religious in ancient Mesopotamia, where the Sumerians and Babylonians erected artificial mountains on their flat plains. The pyramids of the Middle East and Central America carry his meaning. The Sioux beliefs take the Black Hills as the axis mundi.

Some religious interpretations say that proximity closer to heaven is key. This explains the heights of manmade sacred places, like a pagoda, temple mount, minaret, cathedral, or pyramid.

Yggdrasil, the World Ash in Norse myths
Yggdrasil, the World Ash in Norse myths

There is a shamanic concept that a healer traversing the axis mundi can bring back knowledge from the other world. You can find this in the stories from Odin and the World Ash Tree, Yggdrasil, an immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology. It is also present in the stories of the Garden of Eden and Jacob’s Ladder. It probably figures into fairy tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

In The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, the hero’s descent and ascent through a series of spiral structures through the Earth’s core takes him from the depths of hell to celestial paradise.


Travelers to the axis mundi are often depicted carrying a staff that represents the axis itself. The Rod of Asclepius (an emblem of the medical profession that comes from Greek mythology) and the caduceus (an emblem of correspondence and commercial professions) features a staff with a serpent(s) who acts as a guardian of, or guide to, knowledge.

There are also those who believe that the center of the world, or even the universe, is within each of us.

At the Philosophers’ Birthday Parties

philosophy cake

I saw on The Writer’s Almanac that Francis Bacon and August Comte had birthdays this past week. I wonder what philosophers’ birthday parties were like back then – or today. Liquor, for sure. Lots of conversations and lofty ideas, I assume. Lousy food and no cake or ice cream.

Fran in his party clothes

One birthday is philosopher, essayist, and statesman Francis Bacon. He was born in London in 1561. His main contribution to philosophy was his application of the inductive method of modern science. How would his idea that full investigation and rejecting any theories based upon incomplete or insufficient data go over these days?

At his birthday party, Francis might have said to me that, “Prosperity is not without many fears and distaste. And adversity is not without comforts and hopes.” To which I would reply, “Yes, but I still wish there was cake and ice cream, ” at which point Francis would move away from me.


It was also the birthday of the man who coined the term “altruism” and who helped found the field of sociology. Not as well-known to the public as Bacon, philosopher Auguste Comte was born in Montpellier, France in 1798.

He made friends with a social philosopher who insisted that the goal of philosophy should be improved social welfare, and Comte used this as a guiding principle for the rest of his life’s work. His most famous work was Système de Politique Positive. Altruism is the principle and moral practice of concern for the happiness of other human beings or other animals, resulting in a quality of life both material and spiritual.

Augie said at the party, “Everything is relative, and only that is absolute.” I told him that in about 100 years a guy named Albert Einstein was going to have his own theory about relativity and become very famous. “Good for him, ” he replied positively, “But if Francis was just more altruistic there would be ice cream and cake at this party.” Augie and I had to settle for a few brandy Alexanders.


Therefore I Am

Today is the end of this March of coronavirus pandemic. We know now that it really began late in 2019 and hit China hard in January and moving through Italy and Europe in February. But America was not reacting as seriously as it should have been until this month.

Rene DescartesSerendipitously today, I saw that today is the birthday of philosopher René Descartes. As a student of philosophy in college, if you had asked me to sum up Descartes in a word I would have chosen “doubt,” and that is a word that has filled this month for many people including myself.

Descartes was born in France in 1596 is sometimes called the father of modern philosophy, even though he considered himself a mathematician and scientist. His interest in philosophy began with his finding out that the Catholic Church persecuted Galileo for his scientific theories, especially the idea that Earth was not the center of the solar system.

This doubt seemed to follow him. His own theories were controversial and he believed that doubt is necessary for scientific inquiry. This doubt always seems to me to have almost lead him into depression. He wrote about doubting everything in his life. He even began to doubt his own existence.

As he worked his way through this problem, he realized that one thing he could not doubt was the existence of his own thoughts. From that conclusion, he came to his idea that has lived on in one Latin philosophical proposition: Cogito, ergo sum which is translated into English as “I think, therefore I am.”  In his book, Discourse on the Method, it is written in French as je pense, donc je suis. It has been translated and interpreted in other ways, such as “That cannot doubt which does not think, and that cannot think which does not exist. I doubt, I think, I exist. (Krauth, 1872) Descartes wrote, “I concluded that I was a substance whose whole essence or nature resides only in thinking, and which, in order to exist, has no need of place and is not dependent on any material thing.”

I didn’t intend this post to be a philosophy lesson but, like poems, writing your thoughts often leads you down paths you had not planned to walk. What inspired me on the month-ending day and Descartes’s birthday was the idea of knowledge in the face of radical doubt.

The full title of his book is A Discourse on the Method of Correctly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences and that last part – “Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking Truth in the Sciences” seems most relevant in the past few months.

The very act of doubting – in one’s own existence or in the way our government is handling this pandemic – is proof of the reality of one’s own mind and a necessary part of the constant inquiry we have with the world.

From “I think therefore I am,” Descartes moves to the existence and nature of the physical world, human and animal nature and God. That may be further than we want to walk in the month ahead, though I suspect some of us have been moving in that direction consciously or unconsciously.