A Defence of Relativism
February 15, 2013 - Philosophy
(1) Objectivism versus (2) relativism: the first position (1) holds that it is possible for us human beings to get to know the “absolute truth” (whatever this might be) while the second position (2) holds that each point of view is – of necessity – “equally true or false”. A claim often made against (2), the relativist position, is that: even if relativism would be true, it would still only be relatively (and thus not absolutely) true. Therefore, critics say, it would be impossible for relativism to defend itself against objectivists’ criticisms. After all, since relativism holds that “truth” can only be “relatively true”, this would imply that “the truth” of relativism can itself, if true, merely be “relatively true”; thus, say the objectivists, the belief in relativism is just as true or just as false as any other belief held: including the belief in objectivism.
And while this argument might be justified against the interpretation of relativism as I explicated above, there might be a “different” interpretation of relativism that could deflect this objectivist blow. And it is this “different” interpretation of relativism that I want to take a look at in this – rather lengthy – article.
The first thing to point out is that the belief of an idea being “merely” relatively true does not disqualify anyone from being allowed to discuss the beliefs responsible for making this idea to be “merely” relatively true; that is, “merely” relatively true for the person holding the idea. Objectivists have a tendency to accuse relativists of making impossible claims about “the truth” (in the absolute sense of the word) of ideas, including the idea of relativism itself. However, given that an idea could indeed be nothing more than relatively true, this would not restrain the person holding the idea from exchanging what (s)he considers to be the reasons for why this idea is true. At least, not as long as this person refrains from judging “the truth” of the idea that is at issue.
Furthermore, it might be reasonable to assume that someone, by absorbing all the different arguments around, would be in the best possible position to come to the most reasonable (or most “thought-trough”) point of view available to mankind. And this “coming to the most reasonable point of view” could be the case irrespective of the notion of “truth”.
Also, the fact that objectivists claim that relativism can, if true, only be true in a relative sense, indicates that they admit the possibility of something being “merely” relatively true. Thus, even though they might claim to disagree with the position of relativism as such, the act of giving notice of the possibility of some idea (in this case “the idea of relativism”) to be true relative to a certain point of view, implies that they consider the notion of “truth” – at least in some sense – to be dependent upon a person’s point of view. That would imply that they do not consider truth to be “absolutely absolute” or, as it is sometimes put, “mind-independently true”. Therefore you could say that “the objectivists” admit relativism to be true on what is in fact some kind of meta-philosophical-level; the level at which the idea of relativism can at least be relatively true.
Lastly, you could say that there is no objective manner, no view from a “mind-independent” point of view, for pointing out the “truth” of objectivism. This makes it impossible to ever settle an argument in favor of objectivism. After all, in order to do so, one should be able to have access to this mind-independent (and thus human-independent) point of view. And, as you can imagine, it is is logically impossible for a human being to enter such a “mind-independent” point of view. Thus, given this assumption, you could say that relativism must be true simply because objectivism cannot be proven to be true.
But, what are the implications of this “re-conceived” idea of relativism? Well, first of all, we should notice that, within this “new version of relativism”, we can very well be involved in a reasonable discussion regarding the reasons for why we believe something to be true. However, we should realize that the level on which this discussion takes place has shifted: instead of trying to push our collocutor into accepting our point of view, we should focus ourselves on providing reasons in favor of the idea we are trying to convince the other person of. That is, the exchanging of reasons for believing an idea to be true (or not) is the only manner in which we might be able to come to the most reasonable point of view attainable to our human species.
Another implication of this version of relativism is concerned with our tolerance towards (the ideas of) others. This principle goes as much for religious and ethical ideas as it goes for scientific ideas. Only by adopting a position of complete non-pretentiousness regarding the truth of our own beliefs, and only by being fully prepared to listen to the reasons other people have for believing what they do, we might be able to converge to a universally shared conception of “the truth”. After all, we are all reasonable creatures and given that we are provided with the same reasons and given that we will think long enough about the reasonableness of each of these reasons, it seems very unlikely that the “truths” we will come up with can differ dramatically.
This “meta-relativistic attitude” also spans the realm of science and its journey for finding “the truest of truths”. Thomas Kuhn explained in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that the truth of scientific beliefs always confines itself to a certain scientific paradigm. That is, different paradigms equal different truths. However, this does not imply that each notion of “truth” is equally reasonable. We could still claim that, although we might be unable to reach absolute certainty regarding the truth of our ideas, some points of view are more reasonable than others; that the point of view that is based upon the best reasons and congruent with the most different points of view would be the one most reasonable and therefore the best.
But what do you think?