Frame of Reference - How it works

Understanding Frame of Reference

The story of the blind men and the elephant, within the framework of Indian philosophy and spiritual beliefs, illustrates the principle of syadvada. This is a concept in the Jain religion related to the Sanskrit word syat , which means "may be." According to the doctrine of syadvada, no judgment is universal; it is merely a function of the circumstances in which the judgment is made.

On a complex level, syadvada is an illustration of relativity, a topic that will be discussed later; more immediately, however, both syadvada and the story of the blind men beautifully illustrate the ways that frame of reference affects perceptions. These are concerns of fundamental importance both in physics and philosophy, disciplines that once were closely allied until each became more fully defined and developed. Even in the modern era, long after the split between the two, each in its own way has been concerned with the relationship between subject and object.

These two terms, of course, have numerous definitions. Throughout this book, for instance, the word "object" is used in a very basic sense, meaning simply "a physical object" or "a thing." Here, however, an object may be defined as something that is perceived or observed. As soon as that definition is made, however, a flaw becomes apparent: nothing is just perceived or observed in and of itself—there has to be someone or something that actually perceives or observes. That something or someone is the subject, and the perspective from which the subject perceives or observes the object is the subject's frame of reference.


An old joke—though not as old as the story of the blind men—goes something like this: "I'm glad I wasn't born in China, because I don't speak Chinese." Obviously, the humor revolves around the fact that if the speaker were born in China, then he or she would have grown up speaking Chinese, and English would be the foreign language.

The difference between being born in America and speaking English on the one hand—even if one is of Chinese descent—or of being born in China and speaking Chinese on the other, is not just a contrast of countries or languages. Rather, it is a difference of worlds—a difference, that is, in frame of reference.

Indeed, most people would see a huge distinction between an English-speaking American and a Chinese-speaking Chinese. Yet to a visitor from another planet—someone whose frame of reference would be, quite literally, otherworldly—the American and Chinese would have much more in common with each other than either would with the visitor.

The View from Outside and Inside

Now imagine that the visitor from outer space (a handy example of someone with no preconceived ideas) were to land in the United States. If the visitor landed in New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles, he or she would conclude that America is a very crowded, fast-paced country in which a number of ethnic groups live in close proximity. But if the visitor first arrived in Iowa or Nebraska, he or she might well decide that the United States is a sparsely populated land, economically dependent on agriculture and composed almost entirely of Caucasians.

A landing in San Francisco would create a falsely inflated impression regarding the number of Asian Americans or Americans of Pacific Island descent, who actually make up only a small portion of the national population. The same would be true if one first arrived in Arizona or New Mexico, where the Native American population is much higher than for the nation as a whole. There are numerous other examples to be made in the same vein, all relating to the visitors' impressions of the population, economy, climate, physical features, and other aspects of a specific place. Without consulting some outside reference point—say, an almanac or an atlas—it would be impossible to get an accurate picture of the entire country.

The principle is the same as that in the story of the blind men, but with an important distinction: an elephant is an example of an identifiable species, whereas the United States is a unique entity, not representative of some larger class of thing. (Perhaps the only nation remotely comparable is Brazil, also a vast land settled by outsiders and later populated by a number of groups.) Another important distinction between the blind men story and the United States example is the fact that the blind men were viewing the elephant from outside, whereas the visitor to America views it from inside. This in turn reflects a difference in frame of reference relevant to the work of a scientist: often it is possible to view a process, event, or phenomenon from outside; but sometimes one must view it from inside—which is more challenging.

Frame of Reference in Science

Philosophy (literally, "love of knowledge") is the most fundamental of all disciplines: hence, most persons who complete the work for a doctorate receive a "doctor of philosophy" (Ph.D.) degree. Among the sciences, physics—a direct offspring of philosophy, as noted earlier—is the most fundamental, and frame of reference is among its most basic concepts.

Hence, it is necessary to take a seemingly backward approach in explaining how frame of reference works, examining first the broad applications of the principle and then drawing upon its specific relation to physics. It makes little sense to discuss first the ways that physicists apply frame of reference, and only then to explain the concept in terms of everyday life. It is more meaningful to relate frame of reference first to familiar, or at least easily comprehensible, experiences—as has been done.

At this point, however, it is appropriate to discuss how the concept is applied to the sciences. People use frame of reference every day—indeed, virtually every moment—of their lives, without thinking about it. Rare indeed is the person who "walks a mile in another person's shoes"—that is, someone who tries to see events from the viewpoint of another. Physicists, on the other hand, have to be acutely aware of their frame of reference. Moreover, they must "rise above" their frame of reference in the sense that they have to take it into account in making calculations. For physicists in particular, and scientists in general, frame of reference has abundant "real-life applications."

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