Your truth or mine? Answer: relativism

Earlier this week, Peter Johnston condemned relativism and suggested that America must “regain the conviction of the exclusivity of truth” (“Shift to relativism spells end for truth,” 9/27). It’s refreshing to see some first-principles philosophical debate in these pages, a good old contentious free-for-all. However, in a social context, a stalwart belief in absolute truth is restrictive, exclusive and potentially damaging — far more threatening than any relativist stance.

As a disclaimer, I should mention that I approach this topic as a layman and will sidestep the obvious logical potholes (such as the impossibility of refuting absolute truth without invoking absolute truth in your argument) to take issue primarily with Johnston’s contention that we need more absolutes in society and government. While definitely a cultural critique, Johnston’s attack does not appear anchored to any specific social concern. This makes his amorphous tribute to absolute truth somewhat sinister, a non sequitur that leaves us wondering precisely what we have done to provoke it.

To me, a relativist attitude is simply recognition of the fact that perception shapes reality, that the same event can be seen differently by two people. Thus, relativism does not demand the staunch denial of some universal truth, but rather the acceptance that, due to limitations in language, perception, particle physics or whatever, this truth can never be wholly known to us. In other words, it’s not offensive to suggest the existence of an ultimate reality; but it is wholly impudent to argue that you are actually in possession of this single truth, and are therefore authorized to squelch any dissenting views. Relativism does not allow the imposition of a single absolute view on everyone. This is a good thing.

If you believe in absolute truth, on the other hand, attaining an unimpeachable position is pretty straightforward. For instance, there’s nothing to stop me from waking up tomorrow and proclaiming that I have divined the grand design of the universe, and every moral pronouncement I make shall henceforth be right and true. Of course, I’ll have difficulty convincing anyone else to accept this view (unless it’s couched in some seriously eloquent oration, perhaps peppered with bons mots). And that’s the pesky thing about absolute truth. Everyone has their own idea what it should be.

Johnston argues that we should test such truth-claims against reality. This approach works well in science, since the facts of the natural world are generally immune to our perception of them, and therefore serve quite nicely as a criterion to evaluate truth. However, when reality can be influenced by our perceptions, this two-way interaction complicates matters and can render absolute truth meaningless. Consider the financial markets. The essence of investing is anticipating the future, but our expectations today can affect that future. As George Soros says, it is meaningless to speak of a true future value without buyers, sellers and a market, all of which contribute to a reflexive reality that cannot exist without our biased perceptions.

From a social utilitarian standpoint, the epistemology of absolute truth is problematic. Historically, religious fanaticism has enabled and endorsed killing, crusades, inquisition and conversion; such adventures were fuelled primarily by the infallible righteousness of the perpetrators. Today, people worldwide condemn America’s unilateral application of military power. Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara cautions that if we cannot convince like-minded nations of the merit of our case, we must re-examine our position. With this in mind, it’s appalling to accuse the current administration of gratuitous relativism. After all, the president seems to speak almost exclusively in absolutes, eschewing any attempts at empathy towards “evildoers” who hate American freedom. After Sept. 11, Congress rallied together, united in support of war. On the eve of this landmark decision, dissenting views were discarded — precisely when debate should be most vigorous. Ideological absolutism has no place in a democratic government.

Absolute truth also poses serious obstacles to free speech. After all, if we know the ultimate truth, why tolerate counterfactual or dissenting views? Many religions certainly don’t. Any opinion that challenges accepted understanding is automatically heretical in such a system, so most inquiry must cease. The ongoing quest for truth is frozen by the premature adoption, ratification and fortification of convenient dogma. Not exactly the height of enlightenment.

Bizarrely, Johnston pronounces relativism inherently arrogant, because the opinion-holder “cannot be wrong.” Relativism at least permits the existence of dissenting views, so to call this arrogant while excusing absolute truth is disingenuous. Perhaps the problem is not the views themselves, but the perceived equal treatment which they are afforded. I too criticize a philosophical paralysis wherein no single view can ever be favored over any other, though I daresay I prefer it to someone else’s imposition of universal truth.

Absolute truth is unquestionably seductive. Surrender to it, and we can act with conviction, drunk on the nectar of a righteous God-given mission; we can pronounce laws without debate, safe in their unassailable validity. But if history teaches us anything in this regard, it is humility; after all, a staggering collection of once-unimpeachable beliefs turned out to be false.

To endorse one truth is the height of conceit. Echoing McNamara, good government demands empathy, not the righteous unilateralism of absolute truth.



Michael Seringhaus is a fifth-year graduate student in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.

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