Shift to relativism spells end for truth

The torrential downpour two weekends ago compelled many to remain indoors, but offered others an unparalleled opportunity. Clad in swimsuits, a group of daring freshmen congregated in the center of Old Campus, ready to test their strength and skill in a large patch of mud. But the ensuing wrestling competition could not determine a victor.

The sport of wrestling is normally conducted on a dry mat, in specified positions, and with recourse to a clear set of rules. In mud wrestling, though, no one can get a grip, the mode of combat varies widely and all tactics are allowed. While extremely fun, then, mud wrestling is not a framework within which to determine physical superiority.

The realm of ideas works in a similar way — philosophical argument is to intellectual superiority as a wrestling match is to physical superiority. Indeed, this analogy is historically appropriate, for while the ancient Greeks wrestled in Olympia, Socrates practiced philosophy in Athens. Both activities had an explicit goal; neither was instituted for fun. Both aimed to reveal previously unknown information; neither aimed to indecision.

An idea is true if it expresses of what is that it is and of what is not that it is not. Philosophical argument, then, is often the method of pitting two opposing ideas against each other to determine which is true. It maintains no prior assumption that either is true, but does assume a transcendent standard by which to determine truth. It is conducted from experience, under the framework of logic, and with recourse to the standard of truth.

But all too often the proverbial rains mar the dirt and create an environment incapable of determining superiority. In intellectual argument, this rain is the reign of relativism, a presupposition against absolute truth. With relativism, a true idea is redefined as an idea that is favored by an individual. The ultimate arbiter of truth is no longer reality but each individual; each person’s value system is his own standard of truth. Such a position is comforting and arrogant — comforting because one cannot be wrong, and arrogant because one cannot be wrong.

But this also makes rational discourse impossible. Last May, in his commencement address, President Levin spoke about “reviving public discourse,” calling upon Yalies to combat oversimplification and polarization to spur valuable public dialogue. While President Levin hit the mark in decrying oversimplification, intellectual polarization is precisely what Americans need.

A culture that has capitulated to the insidious ease of relativism has no desire to put ideas to the test. This is why each political candidate dumbs down his arguments: He is trying to convince the voter, not of the truth of the candidate’s ideas, but that the candidate best represents the voter’s values. Our country needs to regain the conviction of the exclusivity of truth, and this project should begin at Yale. But the modern university seems reluctant to take up this task.

Dean Salovey, in his welcome address to freshmen this year, argued that we should go “beyond caricature” in intellectual contemplation. “Good teaching,” he claimed, “often exposes complexity and nuance, allowing students to become comfortable holding seemingly opposing thoughts in mind at the same time.” While correct, Dean Salovey did not mention another hallmark of good teaching: that genuinely opposing thoughts are identified and competing truth claims vigorously explored. While some ideas are pitted against each other in a false dichotomy, others are actually contradictory.

An ultimate foundation for ethics may exist, or it might not. Humans may have souls distinct from their material existence, or they might not. A deity may exist, or it might not. Some ideas clearly oppose each other, and cannot all be correct. Yet many seek to develop their souls while subscribing to a materialist philosophy. Many argue against actions on ethical grounds but reject any transcendent ethical standard. Many claim a deity for themselves but decline to disagree with an atheist.

Truth, it is said, is relative. This really means that there is no truth at all. When the rains fall on wrestlers, the result is a suspension of serious competition. A vigorous search after truth requires the reign of relativism to end and a return to truth rightly understood.

Peter Johnston is a freshman in Saybrook College.