Skip to content

Why Truth Isn’t Absolute: A Defense Of Relativism — Guest Post by Luis Dias

RelativismRegular readers will recognize frequent commentor and foil Luis Dias, who today offers us his defense of relativism. As the Staford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes, “Although relativistic lines of thought often lead to very implausible conclusions, there is something seductive about them…”

I know dear reader that just by reading the title you will raise your eyebrows in irritated frustration. How could one possibly defend a position like this? How could one defend nihilism, moral relativism and other most vile depravities that mankind’s ever produced? I can already smell your growing ennui over the stubborn usual liberal idiocies…Well I’ll be glad to try, not to dissuade your absolutist beliefs, but at least to give you the tools to properly judge Relativism and its merits apart from the usual caricatures. So please indulge me, I’ll try to be as brief and as clear as I can be.

I propose to go directly to the juice here and try not to derail too much. Relativism is so false, you will shout, due to the following obvious undeniable truths:

  • A philosophy that states that the Truth is there is no Truth is nonsensical, and self-contradictory;
  • A philosophy that states morality is not objective is equivalent to have morality as a “fad”, neither right or wrong, but just whatever people in a given time feel “right”, and in such a situation “rape” could even be considered a “good thing”;

These criticisms may sound robust enough to end the conversation, until you actually ponder for a moment and try to judge the alternative with the same scalp, the same rigor. Once you start doing this, you see the cracks opening, an entire edifice shattering before your eyes. The alternative I am talking about is the Absolute or Objective truth, which is a Truth that is “independent” of the human mind, that is absolutely true irrespectively of any other thing. Intuitively you’d guess this is a much more robust philosophy. Things are either Right or Wrong with a capital, and it’s merely our fault for not getting it, after all Errare Humanum Est and all that.

That’s where the problem lies, that’s where the cracks open. We have to ask ourselves this simple question: is there any Truth about the World that we can be 100% sure of? Aren’t all truths either conjured by ourselves or plain hearsay? Isn’t everything we can utter just a conjecture hinged upon other conjectures? Is an absolutist philosopher capable of producing the Absolute Truth about anything at all (other than tautologies, that is)? . You may think it rather easy to come up with at least a proposition of the sort (you may even try the Descartian one, for the sake of Tradition you may be so enamorated with), but even in those we can also easily inject the poison of doubt and ambiguity. Cogito Ergo Sum is filled with assumptions about how the world works which are accepted without questioning. What if we question them? What is left of this absolute truth but ashes?

My position is that this Truth hasn’t been established at all. Mr. Briggs will tell you that there are some Objective Truths that we “just know” intuitively with our “gut,” and that the “null hypothesis” is that these truths exists; those who are sceptical of these are welcome to try to prove they do not. To me this is not only a terrible cop out, but it brings huge problems. To a Socratian inquisition “how do you know this to be true then?” such people will just irritatedly answer “I just KNOW ok? Get out of my lawn!”. Sorry, not a good enough. What if my gut tells me a different story than your gut? What then: will you simply deny my gut’s “authority” over yours? You can see the deluge of silliness that comes from assuming we have such a direct connection with the Truth stemming from these simple questions. Why is this important, you’ll probably ask. Men and women may not know when they actually stumble upon absolute truths, but they exist nevertheless, don’t they?

But if you have no tools to assess when you know when we stumble upon those truths, how do you know they even do? More importantly, if you cannot know an absolute truth, what makes you any way different from a relativist? From the omniscient point of view, you are just as cluelessly wandering around silly pseudo-truths as the perverted are. The only difference is that the latter aren’t blinded by some righteous posturing on the issue.

But that’s not…”What about morality!,” you will cry. If Relativism were “true”, wouldn’t we be rapists and criminals? Wouldn’t it be possible to create a moral rule where you could just do whatever you wanted to anyone else? Well dear reader, if that is an empirical test to an hypothesis, then clearly Relativism wins. Even an absolutist people like the Hebrews raped, tortured, killed, genocided lots of others and not against, but in the name of their god as the most just thing to do. IOW, what you consider the Relativism’s worst nightmare were it to be “true” already happened lots of times in History. Absolutism didn’t stop it from happening, it actually condoned it all. Slavery was deemed ok. Beating children was deemed moral. Eating beef is still deemed awesome and juicy instead of barbaric like it will be in a hundred years (my prediction!).

Absolutism is, ironically, more relativist than Relativism itself, for it does not even recognize its temporality, and like in an Orwellian nightmare, is always insisting that Eurasia was always and will always be a good thing to bomb (we just didn’t know it before, and will probably forget it in the future, my bad).

Why now, you are just being beyond silly

No, I am not. Ponder, what is worse. A philosophy that accepts the fragility and limited point of view of its wisdom and knowledge, or a philosophy that really thinks there is an ultimate point of view of absolute wisdom worthy of being in possession of? A philosophy that is humble enough to understand the temporality of its judgements, or a philosophy that arrogantly judges everything around it with a scent of the intemporal forever, always forgetting how in the past other absolutists judged with the same arrogance but with wildly different moralities?

Last but not least, the so-called inconsistency. It’s a myth friends. No Relativist will claim to absolutely know there are no absolutes. Please give us more credit than that. It’s very easy to understand: we are claiming we cannot see how one can possibly assert anything absolutely. We are not saying that no one could ever do such a thing. Such a statement is a strawman. Bury it, leave it alone. We do not absolutely know there are no absolutes. We, like Poincaré, simply do not care about that hypothesis. We simply require none of it, we can live without all of those absolutist requirements. We live in the Sea of Limitations, the Valley of Finitude, the Mountains of Humility. We have the gall to say we ought to be humbler. And so can you.

I’ll be ready to further these thoughts and more in the comments below. Fire away, friends.

95 thoughts on “Why Truth Isn’t Absolute: A Defense Of Relativism — Guest Post by Luis Dias Leave a comment

  1. To refute the all-too-funny cartoon, to be a moral relativist is not to be amoral. A moral relativist will not recognize an absolute moral authority, but he/she will be perfectly able to recognize a humbler non-absolute moral authority.

    For instance, I do share most of your moral beliefs, which makes me perfectly able to judge everything I see. I just do not recognize their eternity.

  2. Is “Descartian” is new way of referring to “Cartesian” philosophy now, or should I request a refund for my undergrad Phil 101 class?

  3. Joshua,

    Must Certainty of Absolutes exist for Absolutes to exist?

    No, but I can make a pretty good case that if you deny any certainty to an absolute, then you fare no better than any relativist anyway. That is, from a purely logical standpoint, their epistemological status is exactly the same. The only thing an absolutist can gain from his own absolutism is his “faith” in the existence of the absolute, while what a relativist gains is the notion that solving problems is perhaps more important than testifying for the “grand Truth”.

    Perhaps the only thing that divides us in a pragmatic sense, is an attitude.

  4. F.P., my bad. Troubles with language, an error I wouldn’t commit in Portuguese (my error detector is fainter in english…). Of course I meant Cartesian.

  5. When I read an article by Briggs I understand clearly what his point is. I do not always agree, but I understand. When I read an article by Dias, and forgive me for this, I have trouble following the train of thought. I see only a series of assertions. It seems to me that relativism is a form of what Ludwig Von Mises calls polylogism. See: http://wiki.mises.org/wiki/Polylogism. It is simply a way of dismissing the arguments of an opponent without engaging with the logic and at the same time placing ones own position off limits to a counter argument. In a strange sort of way relativism is very similar to an extreme absolutism. If all you were saying is that one can never be completely certain, i.e. to err is human, then there would be no disagreement and thus no need for relativism, and no need to argue with Briggs. There’s the rub.

  6. No, but I can make a pretty good case that if you deny any certainty to an absolute, then you fare no better than any relativist anyway. That is, from a purely logical standpoint, their epistemological status is exactly the same. The only thing an absolutist can gain from his own absolutism is his “faith” in the existence of the absolute, while what a relativist gains is the notion that solving problems is perhaps more important than testifying for the “grand Truth”.

    Perhaps the only thing that divides us in a pragmatic sense, is an attitude.

    So if I admit to being human and admit that I can make mistakes then I am a relativist?

  7. So your contention is that I merely “assert” things, and then follow that up with merely asserting that I’m in grave error “just like” polylogism or smth else? Well it seems to me that you are mistaken.

    Not about the fluency of my reasoning vs mr Brigg’s mind you. I fully accept that criticism. Perhaps you could clear up where exactly you stopped following my thoughts, and I could attempt a better phrasing of it.

  8. In a strange sort of way relativism is very similar to an extreme absolutism. If all you were saying is that one can never be completely certain, i.e. to err is human, then there would be no disagreement and thus no need for relativism, and no need to argue with Brigg

    I agree with this observation as well. Relativism in practical form should be the end of all debates.

  9. Does humility have value then?

    “We live in the Sea of Limitations, the Valley of Finitude, the Mountains of Humility. We have the gall to say we ought to be humbler. And so can you.”

    I don’t see how any of this would matter on relativism.

    R: See, I’m actually more humble!
    A: But it doesn’t matter for you.

    But that aside – It’s not an issue of someone stumbling upon Truth. “Ha! I finally found it! And in my gut this really makes sense.”

    A Christian certainly wouldn’t say that. The Truth very well may be written on the heart but the human condition obscures our ability to consistently and always discern that Truth. You could scoff that a Christian would say “Truth comes from God… it’s in the nature of His creation to be drawn towards it.”
    To rebut with “ah, but different people believe different Truths”…. as much should be expected in the fallen world we live.

  10. “To refute the all-too-funny cartoon, to be a moral relativist is not to be amoral. A moral relativist will not recognize an absolute moral authority, but he/she will be perfectly able to recognize a humbler non-absolute moral authority.”

    You keep saying “humble”. In your post and reply.

    But why does “humble” now have this great value for you?
    is there Truth to humility? Should the relativist strive for that which makes them appear to be humble?

  11. So if I admit to being human and admit that I can make mistakes then I am a relativist?

    In a word, yes. You follow the argument very quickly. As Bertrand Russell once put it, Objectivism requires an objective observer (i.e. god). We, however, are not gods (I think), so we cannot be “Objectivists” (or absolutists). The only remaining position is being a relativist.

    So I posit that we are all relativists. The main difference between me and what people call “Absolutists” (like mr Briggs and probably you, etc.) is the faith that this absolute exists… somewhere up there, judging from an omniscient point of view. On the contrary, we humans are all in the same valley of tears with only hearsay, failure-ridden observations, limited brains and a very ambiguous language to share words. We merely do what we can to get on with each other, and if mildly successful, have a good wealthy and happy time together.

  12. “Is “Descartian” is new way of referring to “Cartesian” philosophy now, or should I request a refund for my undergrad Phil 101 class?”

    Come on. that’s not a very gracious response. We all know what he was refering to.

  13. Tim,

    Does humility have value then?

    For me it has. I cannot speak for either the rest of the whole universe of mankind, nor for the “ultimate”, and thus my humility. A priest cannot but have the temptation to speak in the name of the ultimate, as if he has the authority to do so (he believes he has). If however you ask me to spread this humility, I’ll give my best for I really think it is a great thing to value.

    And yes, it does matter to me. This myth that relativists “do not care” about anything is wrong headed, I think a product of ages of misinformation on the matter. I care about many things. What I also care is that I do not confuse what I care with what the “ultimate” cares or should care (or whatever).

    A Christian certainly wouldn’t say that. The Truth very well may be written on the heart but the human condition obscures our ability to consistently and always discern that Truth. You could scoff that a Christian would say “Truth comes from God… it’s in the nature of His creation to be drawn towards it.”
    To rebut with “ah, but different people believe different Truths”…. as much should be expected in the fallen world we live.

    I was speaking there directly towards mr Briggs. He fervently believes there exists some truths that we “just know intuitively”, i.e., from our gut. I am perfectly aware there will be many more people who won’t submit to this line of thinking but which will agree with absolutism.

    However, if you disagree with Briggs here, then you are, in all practice, a relativist. Just like me, you will concede that we live in a “valley of tears” unable to see this “absolute truth” anywhere, or worse, to recognize different “absolute truths” contradictory to each other.

    You keep saying “humble”. In your post and reply.

    But why does “humble” now have this great value for you?

    I am trying to convey the notion that moral absolutism is filled with arrogance, which it is. By contrast, relativism is humble. It plainly recognizes we are all too human. That is all.

  14. “However, if you disagree with Briggs here, then you are, in all practice, a relativist.”

    You’re playing with words and meanings of words. I can obviously disagree with someone’s view on something and not fall into the camp of relativism “woe is me, there is no hope.” because I could be disagreeing because I hold there is a standard or a Truth.

    Or, I could disagree with how one goes about discerning that Truth. That doesn’t mean I’ve just ditch the whole structure out. It’s the method to obtain it that I would disagree with it…. not the object itself.

    Moral absolutism isn’t filled with arrogance per se. Because for the person who adheres to that notion they didn’t conjure it up. The assume it a standard they have to fall in line with – independent on their feelings towards the matter.
    Your view would be much more arrogant – you set your own standard. You say your humble but why not on your view look at all the the absolutists and just say “hmmmm, that works for them…. this works for me”. But you don’t do that..

  15. Good post Luis, even if I don’t agree with you.

    I grew up with a relativist. After 15 years i finally learned that no matter I or he said, the not so subtle fact remains that the TV turns on when I press the nubby red button.

    Clearly there are some truths. In writing this post I’m engaging billions of discreet physical manifestations of logic. Each of those depends upon some previously established engineering truth, without which the embedded logic would have no home in which to manifest itself.

    If nothing is ever true, all the word play aside, how do you explain this post?

    The take home message appears to be that relativism says nothing, even about itself. I’m hungry (truth)… It’s time to make a sandwich (truth) and eat it (truth).

  16. Yes Tim, I agree those are very sharp points. My point wasn’t to make a smarty “play of words”, it was to make a “logical equivalence”.

    Before we proceed further, let me clarify that I do understand that point.

    Within absolutism, we have two possibilities. Either the person is able to found a philosophy on a “steady rock”, an “absolute truth”, from which all other conjectures could potentially flow from there on (and create a whole “objective” edifice of knowledge), to which we can say that this person not only is an absolutist, he will even dare to tell you he *knows* which certain truths are absolute; Or a person is unable to do so, aware of his / her own epistemological limitations, however still holding to the faith that this Truth exists and is “graspable”, that is, we can even touch it (like Will’s red button).

    These are two woefully different philosophies, both absolutists.

    What I am saying is that the latter is, for all purposes, epistemologically equal to the relativist stance. That is, the latter absolutist will believe there is an absolute but also believe he isn’t sufficiently “godly” to observe it, and thus is trapped inside a subjective worldview. The Realm of the Absolute is far away and somewhat untouchable, ineffable. The only difference between this stance and that of the Relativist is to say “forget about that ineffable reality. Open your eyes, embrace the things you *actually see*, embrace your own subjectivity, stop worrying about that other realm of reality, there’s only one world”.

    I’ll quote a famous work, which describes this process clearer than what I can possibly do with my poor english:

    1. The true world — unattainable but for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.

    (The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)

    2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).

    (Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian.)

    3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolidation, an obligation, an imperative.

    (At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Konigsbergian)

    4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained, and being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?

    (Gray morning, The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism)

    5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently a refuted idea: let us abolish it!

    (Bright day; breakfast: return of bon sens and cheer-fulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)

    6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one.

    (Noon: moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.’)

    History of an Error, Nietzsche

  17. Luis:

    In a word, yes. You follow the argument very quickly. As Bertrand Russell once put it, Objectivism requires an objective observer (i.e. god). We, however, are not gods (I think), so we cannot be “Objectivists” (or absolutists). The only remaining position is being a relativist.

    I disagree with this, but I wanted to see if I understood you.

    Chesterton responded to Russel well when he said:

    Chesterton:

    The new rebel is a skeptic and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyality, therefore, he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. Thus, he writes one book complaining that imperial oppression insults the purity of women, and then he writes another book, a novel, in which he insults it himself. He curses the Sultan because Christian girls lose their virginity, and then curses Mrs. Grundy because they keep it. As a politician he will cry out that war is a waste of life, and then as a philosopher that all life is a waste of time. A Russian pessimist will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself. A man denounces marriage as a lie and then denounces aristocratic profligates for treating it as a lie.

    He calls a flag a bauble and then blames the oppressors of Poland or Ireland because they take away that bauble. The man of this school goes first to a political meeting, where he complains that savages are treated as if they were beasts. Then he takes his hat and umbrella and goes on to a scientific meeting where he proves that they practically are beasts. In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality, and in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore, the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.

    Luis:

    So I posit that we are all relativists. The main difference between me and what people call “Absolutists” (like mr Briggs and probably you, etc.) is the faith that this absolute exists… somewhere up there, judging from an omniscient point of view. On the contrary, we humans are all in the same valley of tears with only hearsay, failure-ridden observations, limited brains and a very ambiguous language to share words. We merely do what we can to get on with each other, and if mildly successful, have a good wealthy and happy time together.

    And if I posit that we are not, where does that leave us? Can one of us be right?

    If not, then there is no point to any of this. If so, then something is truer than our opinions.

  18. If nothing is ever true, all the word play aside, how do you explain this post?

    Will, truths are all over the place. Truths are, however, pretty much contingent (that much I do agree with Briggs! A shame that he doesn’t deduce the obvious state of affairs that this statement precludes!). Did you actually “press” that red button? A physicist would perhaps disagree, depending on his mood for physical rigor, or want to show off his knowledge of electromagnetism…

  19. Will – I believe you missed the argument on this one.

    Relativism as defined here strikes me as a reasonable approach to existence. I would even call it the more scientific when compared to absolutism. I consider myself an empirical agnostic, because that label appeared to match my thoughts on the value of the scientific method. Does this mean that I would even understand the proof of the existence of God should it ever be presented to me? Probably not. But I think it is the “attitude” of my position that matters here, just as it does similarly for relativism (and as Mr Dias argues).

    Love this site Mr Briggs, and admire your logic (if not your spell checker, lol). But as one of the other commenters mentioned, I do not subscribe to all of your views.

  20. As much as I enjoy Chesterton, his rant up there is just a silly cartoonization of a relativist, it is not serious. I am aware of that cartoonization, but I see little evidence of it. One does not need to have absolute values to have values. I am sure that even you can see the wisdom in this, since even the most patriotic man will probably trade his patriotism if a “higher” (relative?) value is at stake.

    And if I posit that we are not, where does that leave us? Can one of us be right?

    Yes, just not in an absolute sense. Btw, I’m right, jfyi. 😉

  21. If relativism amounts to admitting that one is human and can make mistakes, then it has just found its absolute truths.

    On another vein, if relativism includes questioning statements like these (“one is human”, “one can make mistakes”), then it is questioning some cognitive strutuctures which underpin the very activity of questioning (and of answering, let’s not forget). This is not an impossibility per se; perhaps questioning is impossible after all. But if one accepts this (even as a “relative truth”), then the only thing left to do is to remain silent.

    Animals are relativists, for the reasons exposed in the OP, and they — consistently — don’t explain it to humans. The act of explanation is not without its (absolute-in-context) presuppositions.

  22. As much as I enjoy Chesterton, his rant up there is just a silly cartoonization of a relativist, it is not serious. I am aware of that cartoonization, but I see little evidence of it. One does not need to have absolute values to have values. I am sure that even you can see the wisdom in this, since even the most patriotic man will probably trade his patriotism if a “higher” (relative?) value is at stake.

    You reject what he has to say because it ‘is not serious’? His primary point was that without absolutes, values contradict each other haphazardly, not that you need to ‘have absolute values to have values’ (though I would agree you do).

    And if I posit that we are not, where does that leave us? Can one of us be right?

    Yes, just not in an absolute sense.

    What does this mean?

  23. You reject what he has to say because it ‘is not serious’? His primary point was that without absolutes, values contradict each other haphazardly, not that you need to ‘have absolute values to have values’ (though I would agree you do).

    I do not see any mechanism on why such a thing should happen in Relativism and not in Absolutism. Chesterton only goes to demonstrate what we already know: that people make fools of themselves by constantly contradicting themselves. His mistake is in thinking this is the problem of Relativism. It is not. It is the problem of mankind.

  24. What does this mean?

    It means I believe my way is the more parsimonious way. And because I value parsimony, I think my way is superior to absolutism.

  25. If values are essentially fleeting and the moral relativist position more veridical than the moral absolutist’s position why critique the moral absolutist’s position at all?

    You can say that values, as well as your view of the nature of values, still have some worth to you and therefore you’ll argue for that worth…
    But on relativism what makes value-statements like “murder is wrong” any different than value-statements such as “chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla”?

    I’d assume you wouldn’t argue toward the vanilla’ists claiming that, “you’re misguided, chocolate is better…. try chocolate”. Even if they were to ‘try chocolate’ you wouldn’t have much ground to argue if they said “I tried chocolate…. I still prefer vanilla”.

    How is arguing for “murder is wrong” on a relativist position essentially different from arguing from one’s taste buds when it comes to which flavor should be prefered? There’s no more Truth to one flavor over the other than there would be to one’s action over the other when it comes to murder. You’ve established that the gut is not a suitable ground for determining whether an action has Truth or not. Stomaching ice cream flavors or stomaching murder….

  26. I do not see any mechanism on why such a thing should happen in Relativism and not in Absolutism. Chesterton only goes to demonstrate what we already know: that people make fools of themselves by constantly contradicting themselves. His mistake is in thinking this is the problem of Relativism. It is not. It is the problem of mankind.

    But as you said, mankind in your view can be nothing but relative in its thinking. To me, those two become one in the same, then. If a man believes one thing to be true beyond himself, he can appeal to it instead of to his changing opinions of things. He does not, as Chesterton put it “undermine his own mine”. An absolutist cannot undermine his own mine in this way.

    It means I believe my way is the more parsimonious way. And because I value parsimony, I think my way is superior to absolutism.

    If relativism leads someone to believe their way is better simply because they value it more, how does that jive with ‘relativists are humble’?

    Also, how is your statement any different than saying “you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe because you value different things”? In such a situation, what value is there in debate at all? Nothing defines one set of values as higher than another.

  27. Come to think of it, I don’t think a relativist can ever claim to be ‘humble’ like an absolutist can. Someone who believes in absolutes can say “I believe this because it is true.” A relativist says “This is true because I believe it.”

  28. Luis, two questions asked seriously:

    What compels you to spend so much energy arguing for relativism?
    Why is it important to you?

  29. I will answer all of yoir questions later at the evening. They are all very good ones.

  30. Even an absolutist people like the Hebrews raped, tortured, killed, genocided lots of others and not against, but in the name of their god as the most just thing to do.

    Surely it is no argument against objective morality to claim that people have not always measured up to it.

    It is, however, a statement in favor of objective morality to condemn the Hebrews for doing immoral things. Otherwise, why object to rape, torture, murder, etc., unless you are on the sharp end.

    It was pointed out by Stanley Fish that efforts to determine secular reasons for morality always smuggle in the absolute under cover. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/are-there-secular-reasons/

    In this he is supported by other secularists, like Richard Rorty, who answered the poignant question “Why not be cruel?” in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, “For liberal ironists, there is no answer to the question ‘Why not be cruel?’ – no noncircular theoretical backup for the belief that cruelty is horrible. … Anyone who thinks that there are well grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question – algorithms for resolving moral dilemmas of this sort – is still, in his heart, a theologian or metaphysician.”

    We find similar statements in Sartre and Nietzsche that there is no way to say that rape, torture, and murder are “wrong” in the absence of God. Sartre is distressed, but Nietzsche is elated. (And we all know how well Europe made out with that Nietzsche thing in the 1930s and 40s. I much prefer the Triumph of the Intellect to the Triumph of the Will.)

    Against the despair and the existential angst of the atheist/secularist philosophers, we can only throw out Paul of Tarsus, who argued as Plato did that there is a natural law accessible to human reason, and one need not be a Christian (or a Platonist) to recognize that law.

    What confuses the issue is the post-Nietzsche triumph of the will, in which people substitute the desires of the appetites for the conceptions of the good. Just as Nietzsche declared that truth was whatever made you feel empowered, so too we find the good is whatever your appetites desire. Hence, people with different appetites confuse those differences with relativity of the good itself. The truth is simpler: sometimes what you desire is not good.

  31. There was a time when I leaned more toward the relativist camp. I beleived in absolutes, but they were personal. There are things I will never do. However, who am I to impose my morality on others.

    It is the practice of university anthorpology departments to say that we shouldn’t impose our Western values on non-Western cultures. It was in this context that I came to the realization that there are some things that are acceptable in some cultures that are just wrong. Slavery is wrong. As is human sacrifice, rape, incest, canablism….

    However, for most things that do not involve one person imposing violence upon another, I am pretty darn permissive. You do what you want even if it is something I would never do myself.

  32. My issue with absolutism has always been its (nonexistent) error management processes.

    Who cares if an absolutist can be absolutely logically consistent or not? Logic says nothing about reality itself. Logic does not constrain reality, it explains reality. If people think they have a notion about the nature of reality that is absolutely correct, IMHO, they are not paying enough attention to the possibility they could be wrong.

  33. Blaming Nietzsche for the Nazis is unwarranted, as discussed in the following link.

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#NieInfUpo20tCenTho

    The Nazis misappropriated and misrepresented the work of a great many people.

    That link is hardly sufficient to say that Nietzsche’s thought did not impact the Nazis. It did. The degree to which it did may be up for some debate, but what Nietzsche had to say was not compromised by what the Nazis did, even if it was taken to an extreme. The link lists a large group of people who were ‘influenced’. One cannot reject his influence on Nazi ideology simply because it is distasteful if he also influenced such a wide variety of people as are presented.

  34. My issue with absolutism has always been its (nonexistent) error management processes.

    Who cares if an absolutist can be absolutely logically consistent or not? Logic says nothing about reality itself. Logic does not constrain reality, it explains reality. If people think they have a notion about the nature of reality that is absolutely correct, IMHO, they are not paying enough attention to the possibility they could be wrong.

    You’ve missed the chief debate here. Human beings indeed can be wrong, but that implies there is something objective. How else could they be wrong?

  35. “If people think they have a notion about the nature of reality that is absolutely correct, IMHO, they are not paying enough attention to the possibility they could be wrong.”

    When I read things like this – it seems that the person saying it is attempting to slay the arrogance they believe to be inherent in the position of their opposition.

    It assumes that the person who holds to a certain worldview (Catholicism) never doubts the veracity of that worldview…. or didn’t come to their conclusions (the truth of Catholicism) in a thoughtful and honest matter.
    I allow for the possibility that my view could be wrong – the fact that I hold strongly to it doesn’t mean I’m blind to the fact that it could be wrong…. it’s a reflection of the fact that I see more value/truth in it’s affirmation and I choose that over a strong skepticism.

    That comment also hints that the person making the declaration is holding some notion to be practically “absolutely correct” – namely – that others are wrong in holding fast to their worldviews.

  36. Joshua Postema,

    My Nietzsche link is sufficient as a response to Ye Olde Statistician. Your comment claims to refute something that I did not say. In fact, it is just an elaboration of my final sentence, which you quote!

  37. I won’t be able to provide answers tonight. Too many family duties… :). I will try to answer every objection or confusion I can find here. I have detected many things here and my mind has already “answered” to most of them. Typing them in a proper way will take too much time though. 😉

  38. To expand, in part, on what Mariner says above:

    Mr. Dias confuses the issue of whether there is or is not some absolute truth with the question of whether or not there is anything we can know at all to be true or not—or, since the question here is of morality, better or worse. Some “absolute” truth may be very difficult to know, but not, in principle, impossible to know. But it is not possible to imagine better and worse without some sense of best and worst.
    To use a trivial example, I know that every decimal digit I add to my calculation of pi gives me a more exact approximation. even as I must acknowledge that I will be unable to bring the calculating to a final conclusion. I still know that there is a ratio called pi and that there are better and worse calculations of it.
    In morals, I can easily demonstrate that stealing is less moral than purchasing, and that pimping out 8-year-old girls as prostitutes is less noble than providing them ballet lessons. And I can do this with reference to readily cognizable and rationally defensible appeals to better and worse, without any necessity to be able to state the exact nature of The Good. All I really need to defend this enterprise is my ability to tell human beings from other kinds of beings, and so to be able to discursively state what will be good for those humans and what will be bad. I have excellent access to this through that distinctively human thing, language. And there appear to be no humans whose language lacks conceptions of good and bad, better and worse, so I have good reason to think that sufficient mental effort will be able to bring forth clear and defensible statements on moral matters.
    Finally, all I need in order to take up this work is to know that it is not in vain, doomed to failure because there is no absolute truth. However, Mr. Dias has yielded that ground, so I have no reason to fear that my work is baseless and vain.

  39. Tim, perhaps you should know that I believe in both God and Natural Law. For example, the Catholic Seven Virtues, relatively more the Cardinal ones. But like you I allow for the possibility that my beliefs could be wrong. I would think that our allowances for being wrong make our beliefs relative rather than absolute. Or do you think such beliefs must be Platonic? Subject only to faith and logic. If so, why not allow for such beliefs to be relatively grounded in physical reality? The error management processes in the physical sciences are state-of-the-art.

  40. Strange. I never mentioned the Nazis. It was the triumph of the will over the intellect that infected that era and underlay the anti-bourgeois revolutions. The fascisti were only one symptom (and had other influences in addition). But that he also influenced the breakdown of the arts and the rise of the pseudoscience of psychoanalysis, as well as postmodern deconstructionism and other elements of the collapse of Western Civilization is an equally valid observation.

    Crazy Fred’s contribution to the current topic was his contention that conventional morality could not survive the death of God, for after the death of God comes the death of reason. That he welcomed this and derided the Anglophone atheists (like Shaw) as “flatheads” for believing otherwise is simply part of the case.

  41. Godel’s incompleteness theorem proved that in recursively enumerable mathematical sytems, there exist statements which are true even though they cannot be proven true. While this applies directly to a mathematical system involving natural numbers, it shows that truths exist in the universe which cannot be arrived at through logical argument.

  42. The old Stanford Encyclopedia article on relativism did a better job, IMHO. Here’s the gist.

    Suppose we adopt a relativistic stance: Any proposition’s truth value is relative to some reference frame.

    Then proposition X could be true in Alice’s reference frame, but false in Bob’s.

    But wait: Charles might have a reference frame in which X is true in Bob’s reference frame, but false in Alice’s.

    And Doug might have a reference frame in which X is true in Bob’s reference frame, if and only if it is false in Alice’s.

    But far worse is to come.

    Edgar might have a reference frame in which X is not a proposition.

    Francine has a reference frame in which Alice and Bob do not exist.

    George has a reference frame in which there is no such thing as propositions, and Harry has a reference frame in which there is no such thing as a reference frame.

    The meltdown is complete. Relativism, if true, not only swallows its own tail but nukes the possibility of discussing tails.

    Whatever relativism gains in epistemic humility, it loses in epistemic sanity.

    Alice and Bob can only meaningfully converse if they *share* a reference frame. And if they do so, then set of the truths that they share are, for purposes of their discussion, absolute. That is, they both believe the set to consist of True propositions, and their ‘relativism’ does not enter the discussion.

    So what if Alice believes A and Bob believes ~A ? Then to converse beyond mere assertion (Is A! Is not A!), both must retrench to a shared common belief and reason from there.

    And then we’re back to a shared set of beliefs.

  43. I’m sorry but this article is a little silly isn’t it? How do you defend relativism by attacking absolutism?

    Let’s move the form of this argument from morality to epistemology. I will argue that there are no empirical truths (all knowledge is relative), because we cannot know anything with absolute certainty…

    Please…

  44. Will N says: “I’m sorry but this article is a little silly isn’t it? How do you defend relativism by attacking absolutism?” Well firstly our host (and a few others) usually defend absolutism by attacking relativism so that seesm to be ‘the method’, and, secondly I believe that LD’s article is an attempt to contrast the two rather than simply attack.

  45. Luis: I pressed the button. A process occurred. The tv lit up. It’s conditional on all sorts of things, but no less true.

    I’m having a hard time taking this too seriously because it seems more like an issue with symantecs than an interpretation of the real world.

    You can dice anything up fine enough until it becomes incomprehensible, but in the world of engineering (and the living) airplanes still fly and TVs continue to glow. What would a relativist say to that?

  46. Is it true that 2+2 is 4?

    re Hebrews decimating others….. Bad (!) argument. It does not prove supremacy of relativism. It has the same weight as a claim that if a person or a group can not calculate some math expression, the math is relative.
    Funny, that’s all.

  47. Oh dear. I should probably just leave it alone, eh Luis? But I can’t help myself.

    Is there any Truth about the World that we can be 100% sure of?

    Yes. Only about a zillion of them. Here’s a few:

    Pigs can’t fly.

    Miss the nail, hammer your thumb, and pain will ensue.

    Up is up.

    Down is down.

    We must rely on essential verities to survive. Don’t jump off the cliff. Don’t eat dirt. Tigers bite. The water is that way. You can eat that purple berry.

    Conifers grow vertically, in the opposite direction of gravity, which is to say, even dumb plants know which way is up. Certainly humans do, even babies. Gravity is a TRUTH to all life.

    I am sure of these truths. You may not be. You may wish to test them.

    Go ahead. Test the gravity thing. Maybe up is a mental construct and not a fact of existence. Heck, maybe existence is a dream. So go ride the elevator to the top of the skyscraper and jump off. It’s all relative. Down is only an idea. The sidewalk is only an illusion. All is Maya. Splat.

  48. @AndrewKennett says:
    23 May 2012 at 11:01 pm
    Will N says: “I’m sorry but this article is a little silly isn’t it? How do you defend relativism by attacking absolutism?” Well firstly our host (and a few others) usually defend absolutism by attacking relativism so that seesm to be ‘the method’, and, secondly I believe that LD’s article is an attempt to contrast the two rather than simply attack.”
    ====================

    This is defence by conceding defeat. 😉

    If I wanted descriptions I could look them up in Wikipedia.

  49. What a great read – both post and comments.

    I suspect Luis realises pigs cant fly but is looking a good reason not to have the chore of believing in something eternal, like God and stuff. Luis, we feel your pain.

    Pigs still cant fly tho’, absolutely.

  50. Ok people, I will try to answer to *some* points you have raised. You did well and bombarded me with very good questions, but they are so legion that I will probably not answer all of them in the quality I’d like. For that I do apologise.

    So to begin.

    @Tim:

    But on relativism what makes value-statements like “murder is wrong” any different than value-statements such as “chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla”?

    The answer to this question would require a comprehensive argument on how you can build up a morality from basic values. Forgive me if I will refrain to do so, but to give a hint, the solution to this problem is of harboring certain core values that are the most important to you. All the system follows from that point on, always permitting a certain sense of proportion and common sense. What is produced is a system of grades of values, some much more important than others.

    In such a system, I’d value murder as much more important an affair than “chocolate taste”. If someone else values it equally, I will judge such a person as being very dangerous to me, a “psychopath” or whatever other term that suits an empirical assessment on my part. If enough people agree with me on that point, we will try to tame this person’s dangerous priorities to “safe” levels for us. This is what society appears to me. If you happen to be inside a psychopathic group, I do not see how your absolutist moral can save you from being eaten as if you were chocolate.

    @Joshua,

    But as you said, mankind in your view can be nothing but relative in its thinking. To me, those two become one in the same, then. If a man believes one thing to be true beyond himself, he can appeal to it instead of to his changing opinions of things. He does not, as Chesterton put it “undermine his own mine”. An absolutist cannot undermine his own mine in this way.

    He can appeal to whatever he wants, it does not make it absolutely true as far as I am concerned. Such a fool always contradicting himself just does not consider “consistency” very highly. Politicians do this all the time. I do not value these people’s considerations very highly, just like you.

    Having said that, I also do not value people who take “consistency” too far, cornering themselves to untenable positions due to their own extremism (like say creationists).

    If relativism leads someone to believe their way is better simply because they value it more, how does that jive with ‘relativists are humble’?

    Those are independent assessments. I think that the relativist position is more parsimonious and humbler. Parsimonious because it does away with an “ultimate reference” that isn’t any good for us. Humbler because it refrains people from speaking “for god” or “for truth”.

    lso, how is your statement any different than saying “you believe what you believe and I believe what I believe because you value different things”? In such a situation, what value is there in debate at all? Nothing defines one set of values as higher than another.

    The debate is possible because I know we do share some core values. And from those core values we challenge each other. Were we unable to find *any* value to share, we would just consider ourselves enemies and be done with the chatter. And isn’t that what just happens in our world? I posit it is.

    Come to think of it, I don’t think a relativist can ever claim to be ‘humble’ like an absolutist can. Someone who believes in absolutes can say “I believe this because it is true.” A relativist says “This is true because I believe it.”

    It is the difference between saying “Listen to me, I’ll tell you the truth” and saying “This is my view on the matter”. Which is, in your opinion, humbler? Whose speaker do you refrain from listening to? The arrogance exists on the notion that someone is speaking for the great Unbiased truth, and the humbleness exists on recognising our limited viewpoint, that our tentative truths are just points of view.

    (I’ll try to continue)

  51. @Gary,

    What compels you to spend so much energy arguing for relativism?
    Why is it important to you?

    I like it. And it feels like a razor blade cutting through the trash still residing in my mind.

    @Ye Olde Statistician,

    Surely it is no argument against objective morality to claim that people have not always measured up to it.

    This was not the point I was making, you misread me. My point was not to show that absolutists erred. My point was to show that the nightmarish predictions of absolutists regarding Relativism “permitting rape, murder, genocide”, etc., were not avoided within an Absolutist regime, but actually condoned.

    My point was to show you that what you accuse Relativism of “potentially bringing” was already brought within Absolutism.

    And this makes sense if the world behaves as I posit it does, relativistically. It shouldn’t make much sense if Absolutism was really our “salvation”.

    Nieztsche wasn’t a proto-nazi btw, and he actually predicted (and warned) against the moral vaccuum that christianity’s degeneration would do to Germany’s culture.

    I enjoy your rethoric, the way you write. But let’s be a little more rigorous here. When you say that a relativist has no way to say that “rape” is “wrong”, you are using “wrong” in an absolutist sense. But if the relativist denies the validity of the word “wrong” in that sense from the beggining, why is this accusation even worth a blink? We should instead try to see what substitutes this absolute wrongness. From there we might work out something that actually works, instead of houlier-than-thou absolute moralities.

    @Doug M,

    There was a time when I leaned more toward the relativist camp. I beleived in absolutes, but they were personal. There are things I will never do. However, who am I to impose my morality on others.

    There are things in this planet which I abhor, no matter how their own “moralities” permit them to do. Notice however that these aberrations are almost always granted with the authority of an absolute moral. In Iran, for instance, when virgin women are condemned with a “great” sin, they cannot be condemned to death, for they are virgin. But their absolute law dictates they can be raped. And then they can be condemned to death.

    @Joshua,

    That link is hardly sufficient to say that Nietzsche’s thought did not impact the Nazis. It did.

    This is as much true as saying that Darwin “impacted” the final solution of the nazis. Which is to say, very shallowly.

  52. I don’t have much time (right now) but I wanted to answer this little funny snark @Sextus

    Is it true that 2+2 is 4?

    Not on base 2. :p

  53. Briggs, shame on you for wasting my time.
    And yes Luis you againg are tirelessly tiresome

  54. Another snark reply (all in good mood), @Uncle Mike:

    Oh dear. I should probably just leave it alone, eh Luis? But I can’t help myself.

    Is there any Truth about the World that we can be 100% sure of?

    Yes. Only about a zillion of them. Here’s a few:

    You should be more demanding. All those examples are not flawless, so let me poke a little fun out of them:

    Pigs can’t fly

    Except if you put them inside a plane.

    Miss the nail, hammer your thumb, and pain will ensue

    Except when it doesn’t. For example if you are under aenesthetics.

    Up is up.

    Down is down.

    Except if you do not value the law of non-contradiction that much. Just ask a poet.

    We must rely on essential verities to survive. Don’t jump off the cliff. Don’t eat dirt. Tigers bite. The water is that way. You can eat that purple berry.

    Except for those people who just happen to be lucky all the time.

    Conifers grow vertically, in the opposite direction of gravity, which is to say, even dumb plants know which way is up. Certainly humans do, even babies. Gravity is a TRUTH to all life.

    Except to all life that isn’t hampered by gravity wells. Or, for instance, much life that lives inside deep oceans, where gravity is perhaps a minor tension they somewhat “feel”.

    Go ahead. Test the gravity thing. Maybe up is a mental construct and not a fact of existence.

    I’ll quote you Stephen Hawking instead on his version of positivism. Read carefully, it is filled with deep insight:

    Any sound scientific theory, whether of time or of any other concept, should in my opinion be based on the most workable philosophy of science: the positivist approach put forward by Karl Popper and others. According to this way of thinking, a scientific theory is a mathematical model that describes and codifies the observations we make. A good theory will describe a large range of phenomena on the basis of a few simple postulates and will make definite predictions that can be tested… If one takes the positivist position, as I do, one cannot say what time actually is. All one can do is describe what has been found to be a very good mathematical model for time and say what predictions it makes.

    IOW, don’t try to understand it, or to say what the “Truth” of it “really” is. You should instead “shut up and calculate”.

  55. Luis, ta daa, of course! And there’s the rub. What is your perspective and what do you mean by the words you use? Pigs fly if you define the worldview/circumstances where they fly, as is truth being relative or the truth being absolute.

    So are we any further forward? I think not. You have explained your perspective but it is inadequate from my perspective. Gosh.

    But the quote from Stephen Hawking is great.

  56. Every time you use phrases like “You should” or “It does” or “It doesn’t”, etc, you are appealing to something being right or wrong. Every single time. And if your view is relative and there is nothing -objective- (meaning of an ‘objective nature’ or something outside of the subject saying it), then the appeal can have no impact on another subject. It simply can’t. I can reject it entirely.

    It is the difference between saying “Listen to me, I’ll tell you the truth” and saying “This is my view on the matter”. Which is, in your opinion, humbler? Whose speaker do you refrain from listening to? The arrogance exists on the notion that someone is speaking for the great Unbiased truth, and the humbleness exists on recognising our limited viewpoint, that our tentative truths are just points of view.

    There is nothing arrogant about “speaking for the great Unbiased truth” as long as they really are. And there is nothing humble about speaking of one’s viewpoint if it is spoken of as truth.

    It isn’t arrogant to offer your opinion, but if ‘truth’ is defined as ‘relative truth’, then it flows from the subject, and the process does become arrogant. The subject defines truth. It is not arrogant, as someone suggested, to say that “2 + 2 = 4”. However, if someone thinks they can define it however they want, it certainly isn’t humble to respond with “no, 2 + 2 = 5 today”. Without a source other than themselves, they wish to define truth, which is arrogant. When you say “recognizing our limited viewpoint”, you indicate that our “viewpoint” is limited from seeing the big picture; the Great Unbiased Truth. Else what is it ‘limited’ in doing? And if there are absolutes, as there are in that scenario, it is not arrogant to offer opinion, because it is not considered a source of truth.

  57. Luis, I love this post and your answers to some comments. Thank you.

    I think there are also right and wrong in a relativist’s vocabulary, but it is about what’s right or wrong relative to a certain moral code. I obviously don’t know whether the intersection of all moral codes of different cultures and religions is empty. If the intersection set is not empty, perhaps, it can be labeled as the moral absolute.

    Moral absolutists must also argue what’s right or wrong contingent on circumstances?! Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able explain, e.g., the action of supporting Iraq war, and I don’t think that all the supporters are moral relativists. (Killing is wrong but can be justified under certain circumstances.)..or maybe they think they are moral absolutists, in fact, they are not. Or perhaps, moral absolutism is just a theory, and the moral complexity of real-life simply can’t be explained by moral theories.

  58. Every time you use phrases like “You should” or “It does” or “It doesn’t”, etc, you are appealing to something being right or wrong. Every single time.

    Yes, I am. But “right” and “wrong” in my worldview are different from yours. In my worldview, these concepts do not require an absolute reference. They are qualifiers that have basis on my criteria, which in turn are based upon core values I hold. Once I try to qualify those words in an absolute basis, I lose track of them, like dividing a number by 0 or something. I mean, in an absolute sense, who can really tell what’s the right thing to do in a certain circumstance? The sheer effort of calculating the xanatos gambit of it all is godlike. So I refrain from that and just use it in a very limited, relativistic, subjective sense.

    Without a source other than themselves, they wish to define truth, which is arrogant.

    Yes, that is quite arrogant, but your accusation is not against relativism. You are exposing the maladies of solipsism. I suffer not from such disease.

    When you say “recognizing our limited viewpoint”, you indicate that our “viewpoint” is limited from seeing the big picture; the Great Unbiased Truth. Else what is it ‘limited’ in doing?

    Limited at describing an empirical phenomenon with reasonable accuracy. This limitation is merely possible to acknowledge because there exist other people in this universe, who constantly make plainly clear that we do not know nearly enough. Were there not any other folks here, the fate of a single man would be quite solipsistic and uncivilized.

  59. @DEEBEE

    Briggs, shame on you for wasting my time.
    And yes Luis you againg are tirelessly tiresome

    I’m truly sorry!

    @JH

    Luis, I love this post and your answers to some comments. Thank you.

    Thanks, good comment.

    @Josh

    Luis, ta daa, of course! And there’s the rub. What is your perspective and what do you mean by the words you use? Pigs fly if you define the worldview/circumstances where they fly, as is truth being relative or the truth being absolute.

    But that’s the point. There’s always a crack to be found on the edifice if you deem it to be “absolute”. It’s been shown to be fairly easy to “deconstruct” every concept if you wish to. Not that I like folks like Jacques Derridá (who appear to me as cranks of the worst kind), but he at least made that point very robustly. And if you can deconstruct the concepts, how can you make any absolute statement? Derridá used to argue that concepts start to wreck themselves at their margins, and who will disagree? Just look at the abortion debate and its slippery slopes, etc.

    To me, it appears that language is ambiguous enough to allow these cracks, and how could it not be, since it tries to depict the empirical world around us, with the words themselves presuming implicitly hypothesis and theories on how the world works behind them. But hypothesis are flawed. Who knows what the “I” is composed of? What is really a “soul”? And so on.

  60. Limited at describing an empirical phenomenon with reasonable accuracy. This limitation is merely possible to acknowledge because there exist other people in this universe, who constantly make plainly clear that we do not know nearly enough. Were there not any other folks here, the fate of a single man would be quite solipsistic and uncivilized.

    Know nearly enough? So there is something to be known that we can know better? What is this ‘thing’?

    And accurate to what? What measure defines accuracy? If I am more accurate, what is it exactly that I am closer to?

  61. There is nothing arrogant about “speaking for the great Unbiased truth” as long as they really are. And there is nothing humble about speaking of one’s viewpoint if it is spoken of as truth.

    This paragraph eluded me.

    And this is what I want to convey to people, that this notion of “speaking for the great Unbiased truth” is indeed one of the most depraved things of absolutism, and is indeed a bad thing (for instance, the examples constantly being shown here regarding the sheer arrogance of scientism”istic” papers and opinions against the “deniers of science”, etc. should be a warning of exactly how dangerous this absolutism is).

    Kinda reminds me the line Mother Theresa used to say. “Don’t bother me, I’m just doing God’s work“. Yeah, really humble to describe her business just as the world’s most important thing as stated by the big landlord himself! And yet, it is taken as “humble”. Probably I won’t change any minds here about this point, but at least I want to make sure you are aware that there are people who view this Mother Theresa’s attitude to be anything but humble.

  62. Yes, I am. But “right” and “wrong” in my worldview are different from yours. In my worldview, these concepts do not require an absolute reference. They are qualifiers that have basis on my criteria, which in turn are based upon core values I hold. Once I try to qualify those words in an absolute basis, I lose track of them, like dividing a number by 0 or something. I mean, in an absolute sense, who can really tell what’s the right thing to do in a certain circumstance? The sheer effort of calculating the xanatos gambit of it all is godlike. So I refrain from that and just use it in a very limited, relativistic, subjective sense.

    So you are the origin of truth for yourself. Then again, debate seems worthless. If we disagree, you can still be ‘right’. There is no subject-less (or ‘objective’) standard. No matter the outcome of the debate, we both go from ‘right’ to ‘right’.

    You are still trying to define ‘relative’ as ‘unable to know something with absolute certainty’. But gravity doesn’t require our knowledge of it to exist no more so than Absolutes require absolute certainty in their existence to be real (let alone even knowing they exist). Something truly ‘objective’ doesn’t need subjects at all. That is the entire point. So saying that because subjects can never know completely and with absolute certainty in every Absolute that exists doesn’t make sense. The Absolutes never depend on subjects in the first place, which is why they are objective.

  63. Joshua,

    Know nearly enough? So there is something to be known that we can know better? What is this ‘thing’?

    Empirical Reality.

    And accurate to what? What measure defines accuracy? If I am more accurate, what is it exactly that I am closer to?

    You are closer to predict the future events more precisely. And thus fare better.

  64. And this is what I want to convey to people, that this notion of “speaking for the great Unbiased truth” is indeed one of the most depraved things of absolutism, and is indeed a bad thing (for instance, the examples constantly being shown here regarding the sheer arrogance of scientism”istic” papers and opinions against the “deniers of science”, etc. should be a warning of exactly how dangerous this absolutism is).

    Kinda reminds me the line Mother Theresa used to say. “Don’t bother me, I’m just doing God’s work“. Yeah, really humble to describe her business just as the world’s most important thing as stated by the big landlord himself! And yet, it is taken as “humble”. Probably I won’t change any minds here about this point, but at least I want to make sure you are aware that there are people who view this Mother Theresa’s attitude to be anything but humble.

    If I worked for the President of the United States and described my job as “Just doing the President’s Work”, would that be arrogant?

    If I worked for myself and described my job as “Making the world a better place”, would that be humble?

  65. Joshua,

    So you are the origin of truth for yourself. Then again, debate seems worthless. If we disagree, you can still be ‘right’. There is no subject-less (or ‘objective’) standard. No matter the outcome of the debate, we both go from ‘right’ to ‘right’.

    The game of being “right” or “wrong” depends upon to what you are measuring and with what criteria. Of course, if we do not share the same criteria, the debate will inevitably be located on that field, not on the judgement itself. A socratic dialogue will make us go back and back and back towards a point where we can agree. This point need not be an absolute point. Just needs to be sufficiently agreed upon. Then we can try to reason our way forward.

    For instance, imagine we debate “Law”. We will go back until we define certain priorities for you and for me. If we agree on them, we will level up the conversation and try to work out how we will work those priorities out (how we can achieve them), etc.

    Again, if we do not agree in anything, I agree with you that there will be little to talk about. I’ve already said this.

    You are still trying to define ‘relative’ as ‘unable to know something with absolute certainty’.

    No I am not Joshua. I have also made that distinction perfectly clear a few hours ago. It is different to say that there exists something objective but “we just don’t know it” and flatly ignore such metaphysical constructs in the first place.

    However, having said that, I do think that being “unable” to know that something will eventually transform that “object” into a “numenous” of some kind and eventually turn it into something untenable, unknowable, and finally irrelevant (see History of an Error).

    But gravity doesn’t require our knowledge of it to exist no more so than Absolutes require absolute certainty in their existence to be real (let alone even knowing they exist).

    So you say. But when you say “gravity” I see nothing more than a word that refers to a theory, perhaps merely even an empirical phenomena. I do not recognize it as an “objective reality”.

    Something truly ‘objective’ doesn’t need subjects at all. That is the entire point. So saying that because subjects can never know completely and with absolute certainty in every Absolute that exists doesn’t make sense. The Absolutes never depend on subjects in the first place, which is why they are objective.

    Yes, but like angels dancing on top of pins, I have no need for postulating such “mind-independent” objects. I have empirical realities. I have hypothesis. I need to predict things. I use theories to do so. I shut up and calculate, and hope I’ll get it right.

  66. Better? According to what?

    Sometimes according to my own prejudices. Other times according to my bank account. Yet other times according to my non-broken muscles. Etc.

  67. Joshua, sorry I missed this one (the thread is getting confusing):

    “Empirical Reality”.

    Define this term. Using no absolutes.

    Perceived reality.

    To be contrasted with “Real Reality” (Plato’s ramblings about the cave and so on).

  68. Luis,
    One of my favorite professors was fond of saying: “There are no truths. There are only questions and observations– You should strive to make the best of both”. How much he believed these words as a matter of philosophy is not clear but he used them to great effect as carrot and stick.

    I also note here, as in my experience with family and friends, that religion and absolutism are highly correlated; I have always found this difficult to comprehend as religious views require a dualism with regards to reality and time.

  69. @ Will S., who says:
    ” I will argue that there are no empirical truths (all knowledge is relative), because we cannot know anything with absolute certainty…”

    How have you come by the certainty that we cannot know anything with certainty?

  70. Luis,
    Do you believe mathematics to be a human creation or does it exist independently of the human mind?

  71. As someone who disagrees with many of Luis’ prior comments on this blog and his approach to truth-seeking generally, I have to say I was impressed. First, with Luis’ willingness and effort to put together this guest post. Second, with the engaging and interesting description of his position.

    Reading through the comments above it strikes me that we may be suffering with a semantic disconnect. The key seems to be Luis’ following statement:

    “No Relativist will claim to absolutely know there are no absolutes. Please give us more credit than that. It’s very easy to understand: we are claiming we cannot see how one can possibly assert anything absolutely. We are not saying that no one could ever do such a thing. Such a statement is a strawman. Bury it, leave it alone. We do not absolutely know there are no absolutes.”

    What it comes down to is the definition of “relativism.” Many commenters above understand the term in an absolute sense, the exacting “all truth is relative” type of statement. We might call this “Strong Relativism.” This kind of relativism is self-defeating and logically problematic, and commenters rightly point this out. However, I’m hearing Luis say that he doesn’t subscribe to this Strong Relativism. Rather, he subscribes to a kind of Weak Relativism, which, rather than saying “all truth is relative” says something more along the lines of “we can’t be sure which truths, if any, are absolute [including this statement itself].”

    Much of the misunderstanding therefore arises from the fact that Luis refers to this as “relativism” whereas many understand “relativism” to mean something more akin to Strong Relativism. What I’m hearing Luis describe I’m not sure I would call “relativism.” Perhaps it would be more appropriately described as a recognition of uncertainty, an awareness of fallability, a questioning of how much we can and do know, a general skepticism, perhaps even a type of agnosticism as it relates to absolute truth.

    There is much in this viewpoint Luis has described that I can identify with and (ironically) agree is ‘true.’ I’m just not sure it should be called “relativism.”

  72. Well, this is interesting.

    “The answer to this question would require a comprehensive argument on how you can build up a morality from basic values. Forgive me if I will refrain to do so, but to give a hint, the solution to this problem is of harboring certain core values that are the most important to you. All the system follows from that point on, always permitting a certain sense of proportion and common sense. What is produced is a system of grades of values, some much more important than others.”

    I’d like to see this “comprehensive argument.” Without external reference, how does one come to creating values? I assume that all of us here believe that murder is wrong. While an absolutist can say that it’s wrong because it’s Wrong, the relativist has a much harder time. There can be rationales, but eventually they end up breaking down.

    Take for instance: Murder is wrong because it harms another human being.
    But why should I care about another human being? I might very well use this rationale if I have a well-developed sense of empathy, but using such an intuitive source of morality isn’t a firm basis for anything, as it leads one to base all decisions upon their feelings and intuitions. You could make cases about how certain behaviors will hurt society or yourself or others and whatnot, but when you get right down to it, relativism is an appeal to emotion or instinct. And amongst the college age crowd, I see this get turned into “Do what feels right” instead of “Do the right thing,” and frankly, I am sick of it.

    Also, you defined “Empirical Reality” as “Perceived reality.” What are your feelings on schizophrenics? Do you consider your version of reality to be more valid than theirs? If so, why? If they perceive themselves to be normal and/or healthy, why would their worldview carry more or less weight than yours or mine?

  73. Dr. Briggs likes to say that models, and I assume this includes the model of reality our brain creates for us, are not reality and we tend to trust them more we should.

    Are Luis’s antagonists prepared to claim that human perceptual and cognitive machinery model reality with complete fidelity? How is this fidelity measured? How are beliefs in absolutes justified when we cannot even be sure we can comprehend reality?

  74. Eric, while I appreciate your recognition of that subtlety, I’d argue that my relativism is quite the mainstream one, and the one you call “Strong Relativism” is but a caricature, or a populist version.

    Alyssa, you are right about relativistic arguments “breaking down” eventually, for they are relativistic, they are limited. These weaknesses are what “philosophers” call “deconstruction”. And we can see on our world how they break down eventually. Murder, for instance, is Wrong, with capital W, until of course we are in a just war. Or acting in self-defense. Or sniping Obama, the Socialist dictator. In those cases, it becomes a moral duty. But wasn’t it a big Wrong thing to do, Absolutely? Well, you see, we just broke down its absoluteness, didn’t we?

    But why should I care about another human being? I might very well use this rationale if I have a well-developed sense of empathy, but using such an intuitive source of morality isn’t a firm basis for anything, as it leads one to base all decisions upon their feelings and intuitions. You could make cases about how certain behaviors will hurt society or yourself or others and whatnot, but when you get right down to it, relativism is an appeal to emotion or instinct.

    Relativism is, above all, a theory on how this stuff is actually working on our world. So, it’s not only my position that morality by relativists will work in certain ways, it is my position that it has always been that way. So, yes, fundamentally our morals do seem to follow up from our genetic heritage, social constructs and tensions, and mostly on a very deep, long discussion on how will we get along between each other in this big civilization. And yes, it is fragile. Like all the best things we have. So take a good care of it.

    Also, you defined “Empirical Reality” as “Perceived reality.” What are your feelings on schizophrenics? Do you consider your version of reality to be more valid than theirs? If so, why?

    If one is to declare one’s vision more “valid”, one has to produce beforehand the criteria to do so. If my observations of reality appear to be working better than those of a schizofrenic in the results I have with them (in non-broken bones, bank account, career success, etc), I will say that my life is “better” than his. About empirical reality, well I value things like consistency, non-contradictions, overall logic and reason, rigorous observation, scientific methodologies, and so on (because they work in the Hawking sense I quoted above). If a person is unable to proceed a train of thought along these lines, I will mostly ignore it, regardless of where it comes. Well not entirely. Sometimes surprises are to be expected from the strangest people.

  75. Eric, Alyssa, I had very good answers written in extensive fashion to you, but WordPress ate my homework… sorry ;).

    Luis,
    Do you believe mathematics to be a human creation or does it exist independently of the human mind?

    Ohio, clearly mathematics was created by humans. Its history is well known.

  76. Luis, in your mind, do you exist? Are you sure? If not, then, why bother writing this post?

  77. Luis,

    I thought you would answer as you did. By the way, the history of mathemetics is irrelevant to whether or not it has an existence independent of humanity. Your answer, however, poses problems. Such as, if mathematics is a human creation, how has it proved so adept at describing every aspect of the universe and physical law? I would argue, as David Deutch has also, that mathematics exists independently of our existence and we are simply discovering various aspects of it. If humanity did not exist, would 2 + 2 still equal 4? They very fact that the laws of the universe can be represented in mathematical form indicates that mathematics is part of the fabric of reality. This is not a trivial point and has been a point of philosophical discussion for some time.

    If mathematics is part of the fabric of reality, then absolutes exist, independent of whether or not they can be proven to be true…thank you, Godel, and goodbye relativism.

    Plato’s ideals which you mock above, may not be far from the truth, which happen to be, in some cases, absolute.

  78. Even assuming there is no absolute truth, that is far from the same as asserting that all moral schemes are of equal merit or that it is not possible to establish – given any acceptable critieria, that some are absolutely superior to others.

    Once we establish any criteria as the means for measuring moral frameworks, we ultimately arrive at absolute truth with respect to that critieria. We likely even resolve to similar or identical absolute results relative to many criteria.

    Accepting that we are going to reject any criteria that results in the destruction of humanity, or more broadly net destruction of the world, we likely end up with either a narrow or even single truth that can meet that criteria.

    It does not matter whether in the context of all possible universes or in the context of the outcome for other possible sentient beings that some other scheme may work better – though it is entirely possible that the same scheme that results in absolute truth with respect to humanity also results in absolute truth relative to everything else – put differently that even in a relativistic context all workable relativistic schemes devolve to the a single scheme – but that is not essential to my argument, just plausible.

    I can not conceive of a moral scheme that does not start with freedom. Absent freedom, moral decisions and therefore morality can not exist. So we have already established one absolute. The universe may not require freedom, but humans can not act morally without it.
    It may be possible to argue that freedom need not be absolute, but morality still requires freedom. To the extent we are not free to make our own choices those choices are amoral with respect to us. So a purported relativistic moral scheme that does not include freedom is nihlist, it is not morally relative, it is devoid of moral significance.
    So even in a relativistic world we can still eliminate most if not all relativistic schemes.

    So what difference does it make if from a perspective distant from humanity morality is relative, if we can elimnate from the infinite set of possible moral schemes all but a few or even all but one ?

  79. “Murder, for instance, is Wrong, with capital W, until of course we are in a just war. Or acting in self-defense. Or sniping Obama, the Socialist dictator. In those cases, it becomes a moral duty. But wasn’t it a big Wrong thing to do, Absolutely? Well, you see, we just broke down its absoluteness, didn’t we?”

    Except that a lot of absolutists believe that murder is ALWAYS Wrong. The act of taking another person’s life might be justified, but that doesn’t make it a good thing to do. Sniping a horrible dictator might be the catalyst of several good things, like the toppling of an oppressive regime (and I’m not talking about Obama here, fyi), but the act of taking a life, even with all the good it brings to the masses, is a Wrong one. However, sometimes one must do something that is Wrong in order to bring about greater Rightness. It’s an unpleasant situation and one that can be difficult to judge, but it doesn’t compromise absoluteness as you claim it does.

    “So, yes, fundamentally our morals do seem to follow up from our genetic heritage, social constructs and tensions, and mostly on a very deep, long discussion on how will we get along between each other in this big civilization. And yes, it is fragile.”

    So why is basing morality on genes and social norms better than the absolutist route? Genes can screw up and create sociopaths. Society can deem that one group of people doesn’t necessarily need to live. Absolutes, on the other hand, provide a standard to which every person is measured regardless of what they personally happen to value. I don’t see how relativism has any advantages.

    The way I see it is that there are absolutes. We, as flawed human beings, are looking through a glass, darkly, and it is impossible for us to fully understand the absolutes, at least not all of them. However, like Joshua said earlier, we should use even our darkened vision of the absolutes as reference points. Like relativism, this is a “fragile” way of looking at things, but this is how I see it.

  80. There is a difference between absolute truths, and absolute moral imperatives. The existence of Absolute Truths may be a matter of pure logic, but the existence of some logical Absolute Truth does not mean there are absolute moral imperatives.

    An Absolute Moral Imperative may be an Absolute Truth, but there can be others that are not moral imperatives.

    Anyway, it’s all based on one article of Faith or another, followed by axioms and rules of evidence. Even the most cold-eyed science is founded on Faith – at the very least faith that what is observed is real and repeatable, hence meaningful. Science, and even Mathematics start with a kernel of pure faith and depend on an assumed Absolute Truth that the whole enterprise has some sort of meaning. That the value of Pi is invariable may derive from fundamental axioms, but within the system set by those axioms the invariability of Pi is, surely, an Absolute Truth.

    So, depending on the foundational faith, there may or may not be Absolute Moral Imperatives. You, operating within your faith system, cannot tell me whether there are or are not Absolute Moral Imperatives within my faith system. My absolutes may not exist in your system. So what? My system may postulate the existence of moral absolutes. Some of them may be axioms. You cannot refute my absolutes without entering my system, in which those absolutes are axiomatic. All you can do is prove that your system has none.

  81. Luis, in your mind, do you exist? Are you sure? If not, then, why bother writing this post?

    Scott, let’s not derail this discussion into silliness. I know the temptation is extremely large, but please.

    I thought you would answer as you did. By the way, the history of mathemetics is irrelevant to whether or not it has an existence independent of humanity. Your answer, however, poses problems. Such as, if mathematics is a human creation, how has it proved so adept at describing every aspect of the universe and physical law?

    Ohio, it is a very good question. However, the confusion inherent in your post is the notion that relativism is somehow “solipsistic” and should have no relationship with “reality”. But I do recognize Empirical Reality. Mathematics works just like hammers work. We should not be surprised at their eficacy when we built it precisely to be so. Mathematics can be summed up as “counting”. Well, if you are so astonished by the miracle of “counting”, so be it.

    To say that mathematics is “part of the fabric of the universe” makes as much sense as saying that the number “two” is what both coffees on top of my table are all about. Counting is very important, but if you confuse that action with “reality”, you will descend quickly into metaphysical thinking…

    dhill,

    I can not conceive of a moral scheme that does not start with freedom. Absent freedom, moral decisions and therefore morality can not exist. So we have already established one absolute.

    Several problems here. First, one can “start [a moral scheme] with freedom” without it being an absolute. Second, we still have to understand what kind of “freedom” we are dealing with here, third, the fact that you “can not conceive” does not establish any absolute, but merely the limitations of your imagination. I’m not facetious, the third point is extremely sharp.

    Gregory,

    That the value of Pi is invariable may derive from fundamental axioms, but within the system set by those axioms the invariability of Pi is, surely, an Absolute Truth.

    Given some premises and accepting some mechanisms of logic, then you can assert “absolute truths”. This is precisely what I meant by saying that all truths I’ve found so far are conjectures, based upon other conjectures, “turtles all the way down” and so on.

    So, depending on the foundational faith, there may or may not be Absolute Moral Imperatives. You, operating within your faith system, cannot tell me whether there are or are not Absolute Moral Imperatives within my faith system. My absolutes may not exist in your system. So what?

    So they are not absolute in the sense I am defining it, that is, “mind-independent”. You are subscribing to a subjective-based morality system. The way you try to link this foundational truth with a mind-independent reality is with “faith”, which is lacking (I defined it in my OP as “your gut”, please re-read that part). The funny thing is that I’m the one accused (by Joshua) of making my own reality, when what is clear here is that those who base their absolute moralities must base them upon what they will proclaim to be truth by “faith” as a fiat.

  82. “Ohio, it is a very good question. However, the confusion inherent in your post is the notion that relativism is somehow “solipsistic” and should have no relationship with “reality”. But I do recognize Empirical Reality. Mathematics works just like hammers work. We should not be surprised at their eficacy when we built it precisely to be so. Mathematics can be summed up as “counting”. Well, if you are so astonished by the miracle of “counting”, so be it.

    To say that mathematics is “part of the fabric of the universe” makes as much sense as saying that the number “two” is what both coffees on top of my table are all about. Counting is very important, but if you confuse that action with “reality”, you will descend quickly into metaphysical thinking…”

    Luis,
    I would agree with you if you were speaking of science in general. Science is a human invention…a process by which truths are discovered. Scientific theories are constantly evolving and improving over the course of time. By improving, I mean specifically that they do a better job “explaining” aspects of reality. Newton’s theory of gravity was a formula that could predict how quickly objects would accelerate in a gravitational field. Einstein added a conceptual framework to this formula (as well as improving its predictive power), i.e. mass warping spacetime creates gravity.

    Mathematics, however, is separate and distinct from that. We are constantly moving forward and developing new mathematical concepts and theorems, but once discovered and proven, they are are perfect for all time. I find it very hard to believe humans invented a system such as mathematics that results in perfection. I find it easier to believe that we are simply discovering aspects of the universe which are absolute truths.

  83. Mathematics, however, is separate and distinct from that. We are constantly moving forward and developing new mathematical concepts and theorems, but once discovered and proven, they are are perfect for all time.

    They are “perfect” in the sense that they were designed to be “perfect”. If you build a system where you constraint your rules so that 1+1 is always 2, then that will be the result. I know that such a preseverance of mathematics, and sometimes the beauty that its form can take may cause some emotional awe in us humans, but it’s still just counting.

  84. Luis, I was being sincere when I asked my question. You are writing about relativism with respect to absolutism and in so doing have made certain assumptions about your audience unless of course I’m but a mere figment of your imagination. Though, that would just be silly.

    We know that you have written this post which would suggest you have great expectations of reality and are, in fact, only a mild relativist at best. Actions speak louder than words after all.

    Not knowing the truth does not mean the truth does not exist and, in its absence we can substitute something else. The only thing you can be absolutely sure of is, we know we don’t know. Relativity is not another word for uncertainty. Trying to deduce truth from reality is indeed a challenge but it appears as though we have already agreed, absolutely, on a few things.

    The only thing you can be sure of, without being silly of course, is your own actions and expectations of the world around you. The key word is “you”. From your own minds eye. For example, that you put on clothes before going out into the world would suggest you have an expectation of a certain reaction of others toward you if you were naked. This would suggest you have plumbed humanity and have found that there is a sounding after all. That certain morals that we can all agree on actually exist. You have it as given certain truths exist by your own actions.

    So I’ll ask again. In your mind, do you exist? Are you “absolutely” sure? If not, why have you bothered to write this post? I am interested to know if I also exist.

  85. Luis, nice answer. But you are still, for me, merely playing with words “look, words can mean different things” and then leaping confidently across the chasm to the idea that nothing is absolute. This is too silly. To say words are inadequate, thoughts are flexible, fine. To say that means something other than what it is, is puzzling. What are you running from? 

    Abortion is a difficult subject, sure. Life is tough, death is certain. Not sure what your point is.

    Eric Anderson. I agree, hats off to Luis, this is a fun post. And I think I agree with you – Luis is relatively relativist in a kind of humble uncertain way. Which makes me ask again, but does this take us any further forward? It feels like having relative cake and eating it absolutely.

    But I am still enjoying the posts and comments. For sure ;-) 

  86. First time commenter on this blog. I’d like to say that I really appreciate Briggs’s work.

    However, this article is hogwash that can be refuted quite easily.

    1. Do universals exist?

    2. If the answer is no, then one is dedicated to nominalism. This leads straight to the problem of induction, the “grue and bleen” paradox and, worst of all, the Kripgenstein rule-following “quus” problem. These three issues–particularly the last one–undermine all logic and reason, and reduce the original post to a meaningless series of completely unconnected letters.

    3. If the answer is yes, then one admits that mind-independent truth exists.

    Quite simply, you either give up your ability to argue for (or even think about) relativism, or you give up relativism.

  87. Everything is relative and there are no absolutes. Do you see my error?

    There are absolutes; to say there are none is an absolute statement. If you’re a true relativist then you must allow for my perspective because to say that I am 100? wrong is very absolute but guess what; I can be 100? wrong about something. So there are absolutes but much is relative.

    The world is flat; not true. The English spelling of the word Doctor is actually Fifodoctier; not true.

    I can say that I absolutely exist. Be logical. Pace out.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *