The ‘R’ Word

To many, there are few things more distasteful than the word “relativism.” A person need not be religious to find the concept troubling. It seems a slap in the face to all the effort we’ve put into discerning what is “true” and “good” to have someone reply with “Sorry, but it’s all in your mind. Those concepts have no actual reality.” The implication of “truth” being relative seem just absurd. If two people believe opposite things they can’t both be right, can they? Ethical relativism is probably the most troubling. If everyone can just make up their own “good,” then what would stop everyone from going around killing each other on a whim? If they think it’s good, well, what reason do I have to tell them they shouldn’t?

Objectivity seems the only solid ground. There has to be something that is absolutely true, and something that is absolutely good, because if everything is relative we may as well just float around like pixies and do what we feel like, because nothing matters and truth is whatever we want it to be. Even though just about everyone would agree that an objective “truth” and “good” would be nice, the real problem arises when we begin to discern what this objective truth (and good) is. This nearly sums up the history of human thought.

In my view, the question of what is objectively true or good or whether such things in fact exist is in most ways irrelevant to a human being, because every human’s perspective is necessarily relative, relative to their tiny amount of experiences and knowledge of the world and the particular point in time in which they happen to walk the earth. There is no person who is able to step outside of their limited perspective to see “the big picture.” Even if there were some absolute authority to whom we could bring our relative truth claims to discern their actual truth or falsity, we couldn’t know that that being’s authority is absolute without referring to an even more absolute authority to discern its authority, which would require us to find an even more absolute authority, ad infinitum (infinite regress).

I believe that the search for the absolute or objective “truth” and “good” should be discontinued, not because I don’t think they exist, but rather because it’s something humans simply can’t know. So…now what? We all float around like pixies because everything is relative and nothing matters, and there’s not point in talking about truth or good so why bother? I think not.

I would like to talk about the difference between “knowing” something and “forming a belief about” something. It is in no way required to know something before you form a belief about it. In many cases, belief is formed long before the appropriate amount of knowledge comes along to back up the belief, and sometimes that knowledge never comes. Knowledge proper is only one of the things that we base our beliefs on (actually, in my view, knowledge proper isn’t even one of the things we base our beliefs on). We base beliefs on things like our own intuition, trust in friends or some perceived authority/expert and probability. This is not to say that these things aren’t “knowledge,” just that they are different forms of knowledge and none of them are “absolute” measures of knowledge. Our intuition can be wrong, our friends can be wrong, authorities and experts can be wrong, and probability is only helpful in saying what is “probably the case.” Nevertheless, we still form beliefs about what is “absolutely” true based on these things. Why do we do this? Humans are extremely bad at waiting around for absolute justification for belief. We jump the gun constantly. I don’t know why this is, but we seem to be extremely fond of believing stuff and don’t have the patience to wait around.

So what is to be done about the whimsical murderer and the two mutually opposing truth-claimers? In the case of the whimsical murderer, I believe that their action is not absolutely “wrong” but it is absolutely detrimental to society, so if there is a collective belief that society is a good thing, something should be done to prevent acts which harm it. In the case of the two mutually opposing truth-claimers, I believe it is up to each person to choose their side based on their own beliefs and experiences and pray that they’re right, because there is no authority to refer to (or if there is, you can’t know there is, for the reason mentioned above).

Relativism, to me, is a necessary part of the human condition. This was very sobering when I first was convinced of it. Faith, then, is the answer. Faith in your own limited knowledge, your own experience, and whatever/whomever you’ve come to trust as a result of this.

[Note: In order to keep a respectful dialogue, comments will be moderated before appearing on the site.]

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8 thoughts on “The ‘R’ Word

  1. You suggest that we should stop the search for ultimate truth because of its unknowability, by virtue of our limited perspective. Is this the only concept that should be off limits, or are there other theoretical/philosophical areas as well that we should steer clear of?

    The physical sciences delve in realms that can’t be directly known, but rather indirectly by effect, learned by machines and measurements. Would you prefer that the physical sciences also limit themselves to areas that allow direct knowing and cease exploration into areas that require indirect knowledge?

    I wonder if there is a significant difference between the rules that the physical and the theoretical seekers should play by, and why?

    1. Science, in general, is somewhat of a separate matter to me. Most of the time, it is based on probability which is extremely useful, but doesn’t get at “absolute” knowledge. It doesn’t have to, because probably is good enough. Science serves many wonderful utilitarian purposes, but “absolute” truth is not in its jurisdiction (in my view…I really can’t say much about science because I’m no scientist). As soon as a “physical” seeker starts playing around with ideas about “absolute” truth, they’ve become a “theoretical” seeker.

  2. Searching “good” on Google definitions will get you over 30 definitions:
    http://bit.ly/nwRo88

    Obviously, what people mean by “good” is about as specific as what people mean by “love” (http://bit.ly/roTLUk). To say that there is an absolute “good” can be both true and false simultaneously. It really depends on which of the plethora of definitions of good you are referring to.

    1. That’s precisely true, I think. In my view, terms like “good” and “love” are actually completely relative terms, while “truth” is not (even though humans can’t actually “know” what truth is). However I don’t think anything can be absolutely true and false at the same time, without rejecting logic itself…

  3. I read this post and pretty much agree, as I have generally (with some exceptions, of course) agreed with much of what you have come to question about Christianity (though I sometimes find your understanding of Christianity to be disappointingly narrow). Then I read that good and love are completely relative, but truth is not. That has me very curious. Why would this be so? I would love to hear you say more about that.

    1. Quick answer: Given that there is any water to simple logical rules, truth cannot be relative. The statement “there is nothing that is true” is nonsensical (contradicts itself), but the statement “there is nothing that is good/love (or, good/love is an empty concept)” does not contradict any logical rule.

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