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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Tolerance and Relativism

“What is truth? said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.”
So wrote Sir Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific method. The man was not just a scientist, but a devout Christian as well. For him, the two were of a piece — truth in scientific inquiry was a road to knowledge of the Creator. So he wrote as much theology as science, and he stands as but one evidence of the long interaction between Christianity and scientific advancement.

In his 1601 essay “Of Truth”, he pointed out the embarrassing relativism of Pilate’s attitude. Pontius Pilate was standing next to the very One who could tell him definitively any truth he wished to know. He could have asked how planetary motion worked. He could have asked about the origins of life. He could have asked the meaning of our existence. And obviously, he could have asked what God required of him personally. He could have had forgiveness. He could have had salvation. He could have had life. And yet he walked away. And so he is remembered as one of history’s great fools.

To disbelieve in truth in the very face of truth is no sign of wisdom or open-mindedness; it is a sign of willful stupidity. Yet Pilate’s error is repeated in a thousand places every day. Relativism is the flavour of our day. No one believes in truth anymore. Or rather, people believe in multiple ‘truths’, each only relative to the person or community in which they are believed, and none ultimate, none necessary for everyone, none final and unavoidable.

Relativism: Two Kinds

There are two types of relativism, and we need to keep them separate in our minds:

1.    Epistemic Relativism — the belief that there are no true statements we can make about facts.

2.    Moral Relativism — the belief that there are no true statements we can make about morality.

These two are not the same. The first one is far ‘bigger’ than the second one, since it deals with all facts of any kind. It literally calls into question whether or not we really know the sun comes up in the morning, or whether gravity really works, or whether you yourself exist.

The second is only about the value judgments people make, and it does not question other kinds of facts. It says that nothing is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, ‘good’ or ‘evil’ — and, by implication — there is no universal sense in which anything can be said to be anything related to value: nothing is universally ‘necessary’, ‘purposeful’, ‘desirable’, ‘admirable’ ... or whatever. This second relativism only denies the truth value of judgments placed on the fact, not on the reality of the facts themselves.

In this post, I’m only going to deal with the first one. My plan is to come back to the second, but it may take a bit. So from here on in, I’m going to say “relativism” but I’d like you to remember that I’m only talking about epistemic relativism here, not about the other one yet.

Motivations for Relativism

Relativism (epistemic, that is) says that you can’t say anything at all is true. This view has appeal to people today for a number of reasons. One is that it allows the individual to claim that there are no facts that can be imposed on another person.

For example, if you say “There is a God”, and I say “There is not”, then your statement is “true for you” and mine is “true for me”: and hence, there is no way for you to go on insisting that you’re right about this and I’m wrong, and I do not have to deal with the fact that God exists because my mere disbelief in that fact is sufficient to make it ‘untrue’ in every sense that matters.

Another attraction is that we live in a rapidly-changing world. What we thought was a fact today may well not turn out to be a fact tomorrow. For example, we once thought that the world was made up of solids, then of molecules, then of atoms, then of smaller particles like hadrons and quarks. And tomorrow we may find out something different still. It seems to make no sense to accept one of these answers as a final truth if they keep being disproved. In fact, it’s increasingly harder and harder to say what is finally sure; so it seems to us necessary to stay uncommitted, to leave everything ‘loose’ so that we will not be proved fools tomorrow, when things change yet again.

The information revolution is a third thing that increases the plausibility of relativism. For we live amid what is for us an effective infinity of information. Too many facts to handle come flooding past us on a daily basis, and we know there are more of which we are not even aware. Thus to claim to have the ‘truth’ about anything looks dangerous; there might be a fact out there that will reverse everything, and if we’ve build our house on a foundation of error, the whole thing will fall apart when a new fact appears. Therefore, wisdom seems to dictate that we don’t insist on anything, and again, stay ‘loose’ with our truth claims.

Finally, there is pluralism. We live in a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. We believe one thing is true, and other people believe different things are true. It seems unkind to say, “We’re right and you’re wrong”. Besides, it will create social conflict and unrest, and democracies only survive if everyone basically gets along. So for the purpose of practical social cohesion, and for the sake of being nice, it looks better not to insist on any sort of truth. I’m okay, you’re okay.

Maybe there are other reasons as well. But the important thing is that this creates a sort of truth paralysis in us. We don’t feel comfortable challenging anyone else’s version of the ‘truth’ or in asserting our own, because historically, socially and practically there are risks involved.

Relativism Fails

Something that most Christians do not realize, though, is that relativism isn’t even possibly right. In fact, it is clearly, verifiably and obviously wrong — defeated not by its opponents, but by the logical requirements it imposes on itself.

I’m not saying that out of intellectual snobbery. I’m saying it on the basis of the simple rules of logic themselves. These rules are no more optional for us than are the rules of mathematics; they hold in all places, for all times, and cannot be denied without creating utter nonsense. I’m also saying it because relativism itself cannot even live up to its own demands.

Why do I say that? Because if relativism says, “There is no truth”, then it must be asserting it as a truth. If it’s not, it’s not saying that relativism itself is true. But if it is, then it is no longer true that there is no truth, for relativism itself is the one truth. But if there is one truth (namely that relativism is true), then it is no longer true that there is no truth, and hence relativism itself is false.

In other words, relativism cannot even be asserted without thereby denying itself. And when you get to the point where a system of thought cannot even avoid contradicting itself, you’ve reached the point where you know for certain you’re dealing with nonsense.

Relativism is nonsense, pure and simple. It isn’t even possibly true. We can readily dismiss it, and not feel at all bad about doing so. We’re not being mean; we’re just being logical and fair. It’s no kindness to leave other people in confusion and doubt when that is neither necessary nor desirable for them. In fact, charity dictates that we point out the impossibility of relativism whenever anyone claims it. Some things are true, some are ultimate facts, and any sensible person knows that. We can argue about which facts are true, but we cannot argue that there are no true facts.

Jesus said, “I am the truth”. If he said so, then as Christians we cannot capitulate to relativism without thereby denying the truth and identity of Christ Himself. And as we see, there is no intelligence in us so doing anyway. Every Christian must believe in the existence of truth.

Relative Certainty

But this raises a question, and with this I leave you: if there is a truth, is it sure we know what that truth is? The answer, as it turns out, is that ‘knowing’ is not what we have always thought it is: it is both a softer thing and a more available thing than perhaps we have previously supposed.

Finishing off epistemic relativism will take us another post; look for that coming up. Then we’ll take a whack at moral relativism in future posts.

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