Relativism, Truth, and Reality

Relativism is the view that there is no objective truth, or the view that truth is “relative to” individuals or cultures or conceptual schemes.

This chapter describes five forms of relativism.

  1. Individualist relativism: “If I believe p, p is true for me. If you believe not-p, not-p is true for you.” Individualist relativism is also called epistemological subjectivism.

    Individualist relativism is easy to refute because it implies obviously false consequences. For example, it implies that everyone is infallible (but we’re not). It implies that disagreements between people are pointless (but they don’t seem to be). It implies that the person who disagrees with individualist relativism is just as correct as the relativist.

    Rule: “Just because you believe that something is true doesn’t mean that it is.” (71) Remember the subjectivist fallacy.

  2. Social relativism (also called cultural relativism): “If my culture believes p, p is true for my culture. If your culture believes not-p, not-p is true for your culture.”

    Social relativism is easy to refute by the same arguments used against individualist relativism. Like individualist relativism, social relativism implies obviously false consequences.

    • It implies that every culture is infallible (but this seems false).

    • It implies that disagreements between cultures are pointless (but they don’t seem to be).

    • It implies that a culture that rejects social relativism is just as correct as a culture that accepts it.

    • Social relativism makes the idea of social progress incoherent (but the notion of progress doesn’t seem to be incoherent).

    • Social relativism makes it impossible for one culture to learn from another (since by definition, both cultures are right already).

    • Social relativism makes it impossible for one culture to praise or blame another, or make any cross-cultural comparisons of value. For example, if social relativism is true, it makes no sense to say things like “Native Americans have better views about the environment than we do.”

    • Social relativism assumes we know what constitutes a culture.

    • Social relativism implies the “reformer paradox”: by definition, anyone who disagrees with the prevailing cultural consensus is wrong and actually promotes immorality.

    Rule: “Just because a group of people believes that something is true doesn’t mean that it is.” (71) Remember the fallacy of appeal to common belief.

  3. Conceptual-scheme relativism: “If my conceptual scheme says p, then p is true in my conceptual scheme. If your conceptual scheme says not-p, then not-p is true in your conceptual scheme.” This is Peter’s view in Who’s to Say?; Peter calls it “non-dogmatic relativism.” The philosopher Harvey Siegel calls it “framework relativism.” Most philosophers reject conceptual-scheme relativism. Some English teachers and social scientists take it seriously.

    A conceptual scheme (also called a frame, or a frame of reference, or even a “boat”) is a way of classifying things in the world of experience. Typically, languages embody conceptual schemes. Different conceptual schemes might place phenomena into different classes: for example, one society may place meteorological phenomena in the class of “manifestations of God’s emotions,” while another society might classify them as “manifestations of physical laws.”

    Conceptual-scheme relativism is an improvement on individual or social relativism. The latter simply discount the world, or “how things are.” There is no objective “reality,” according to individual or social relativism. Conceptual-scheme relativism, by contrast, says that “how things are” matters for truth. It assumes a version of the correspondence theory of truth.

    The correspondence theory of truth states that a statement p is true if and only if the states of affairs claimed by p is so. “Proposition” is what philosophers call the state of affairs a statement claims to be the case. The statements “It’s raining,” “Il pleut,” “Es regnet,” and “Llueve” all express the same proposition; they mean the same thing. I have mentioned all those statements; the quotation marks indicate that. Take the quotes off (“disquote” or “use”) a statement and the state of affairs expressed is the proposition.

    So the correspondence theory of truth would say that the claim “snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white. The actual color of snow matters to the truth of claims about the color of snow. In the same way, according to conceptual-scheme relativism, “snow is white” is true if snow belongs in the category of things called “white” in one’s conceptual scheme. But what one conceptual scheme classifies as “white” might differ from another.

    For example, one’s conceptual scheme might claim that “white” includes both colors that another conceptual scheme classifies as separate colors, say, white and blue. In the second conceptual scheme, anything either white or blue counts as white; it matters, then, if the object we’re describing is in fact neither white nor blue. The claim “snow is red” is false in both conceptual schemes.

    According to conceptual-scheme relativism, people can slice up the world in very different ways, so that they in effect live in different worlds. And so the same proposition can be true in one conceptual scheme and false in another. For example, “the sky is white” might be true in the conceptual scheme that puts white and blue in the same category.

    Does conceptual relativism make sense? Surely it does, to a limited degree. For example, there are words in some languages that are “untranslatable” into other languages, in the sense that there is no word in the L2 that “corresponds” to the word or phrase in L1. The German word “schadenfreude” is an example. The conceptual scheme of German doesn’t correspond word-for-word with English. So, the conceptual relativist says, German speakers feel schadenfreude and English-speakers don’t. The world of a German speaker includes instances of schadenfreude, while the English speaker’s world doesn’t; German and English speakers thus live in different worlds, thus conceptual-scheme relativism is true.

    But this is going too far, no? Just because English speakers don’t have a word that corresponds exactly to schadenfreude doesn’t mean we can’t ever understand the reality that “schadenfreude” refers to! I can easily explain what schadenfreude means, and you can understand.

    There are different ways to slice up the world: conceptual-scheme relativism is right so far. But that doesn’t mean there’s more than one world, or more than one intersubjectively verifiable reality. Schick and Vaughn use the excellent analogy of maps (conceptual schemes) and terrain (p. 77).

    Conceptual-scheme relativism implies more absurdities: e.g., it implies that languages really can’t be translated. For example, if reality is just what your conceptual scheme (language) says it is, and there is no common reality that all languages describe, then the claims “It’s raining,” “Il pleut,” “Es regnet,” and “Llueve” all mean different things. And this seems false; so by MT …

    Conceptual-scheme relativism is also subject to self-refutation: if it’s true, then it’s only true in conceptual schemes that say it is. It’s false in conceptual schemes that reject it. Conceptual-scheme relativism also implicitly denies the law of non-contradiction. The law of non-contradiction says that the same statement cannot be both true and false in the same sense at the same time. The law of non-contradiction makes ultimate sense because the world is a certain way, and if it is a certain way, it’s necessarily not otherwise. And that’s not just true in our conceptual scheme; it’s true in all known conceptual schemes. It’s one of the commonalties of all languages; see Pinker.

    As Schick and Vaughn point out, the “most compelling pretext” for conceptual-scheme relativism is political: conceptual-scheme relativists believe that the concept of objective truth is dangerous! It turns people into religious dogmatists and racists; it makes people intolerant; they start disrespecting others, committing genocide, initiating wars, etc.  Think slippery slope.

  4. “We each create our own reality.”
    The actress Shirley MacLaine and many New Age thinkers advocate this view. Philosophers reject it. Scientists roll on the floor laughing at it.

    There are two versions of this view:

    1. We each create our own separate reality.

    2. Solipsism: “I alone exist and I create all of reality.”

    Position (1) is clearly false. If a mental patient believes himself to be Napoleon, he’s still not Napoleon. And he can’t both be and not be Napoleon, because that’s logically impossible.

    Solipsism is simply unreasonable to believe, given our experience. First of all, it’s compatible with all states of affairs: nothing could prove it either true or false, so it isn’t a genuine claim at all. Some 20th-century philosophers would classify solipsism as meaningless. So would pragmatists, since the truth or falsity of solipsism makes no practical difference in how we live. So solipsists resort to appeal to ignorance and unfair shifting of the burden of proof: “Prove I’m wrong; prove there’s a world outside your mind.”

    Martin Gardner says “the hypothesis that there is an world, not dependent on human minds, made of something, is so obviously useful and so strongly confirmed by experience down through the ages that we can say without exaggerating that it is better confirmed than any other empirical hypothesis.” (p. 86) That solipsism is false is simply the reasonable thing to believe, given our experience.

  5. “We create reality by consensus”
    According to this view, if enough people believe p, then p will become the case; and it doesn’t matter what p is. If a “critical mass” of believers becomes convinced that p is true, then p suddenly becomes true for the whole world. Not only does everyone now believe p (by a process of “instant, mass brainwashing” (89)), but the state of affairs asserted in P becomes the case. A “paranormal group consciousness” (88) transforms reality. So not only will someone be elected President if enough people believe he or she should be President (plausible), but the laws of physics will change for the entire universe if enough people believe in new laws of physics (implausible).  Philosophers and scientists reject this view.

    Supporters of the claim that reality is created by consensus like to bring forward the famous (and infamous) “hundredth monkey” case. See text 87ff. As Schick and Vaughn point out:

    1. The phenomenon did not occur as reported.

    2. There are alternative and more plausible explanations of the phenomenon, if it occurred.

    3. Generalizing to a claim about spontaneous paranormal transmission of beliefs from a single phenomenon is hasty generalization.

    Yet many New Age believers, e.g., Bhagwan Rajneesh, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Aquarian conspirators, etc. invoke the “hundredth monkey” phenomenon as if it were undisputed scientific fact.

    Other New Agers say that even if it’s not a fact, it’s a “good myth” because it empowers us. Whether or not our beliefs are reasonable now ceases to matter; the very fact that we believe them now will help make them true in the future if enough people agree with us.

    Of course this justifies the most blatant intellectual laziness (“It doesn’t matter if I’m wrong now: I’ll just get swept up in the magic when critical mass is reached”) and dogmatism (“I’m going to holding on to my beliefs and try to convince others, no matter how unreasonable they may be, because if I do, they’ll become true!”). I wouldn’t call this empowering; it’s frightening (see sidebar 90). The psychologist Maureen O’Hara concludes that it is “a betrayal of the whole idea of human empowerment.” (90) What do you think of her argument? (Naturally, you have to read it in order to find her premises.)




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