Is Truth Relative?

What is Relativism?

Is LA close to New York City? Well it’s relative. LA is closer to NYC than it is to Mars, but it’s not closer to NYC than it is to San Diego. Is rock-n-roll good music? Well it depends. Most teenagers love it; many senior citizens don’t. You may like rock, but your granddad may like Bach. In both cases, the answers depend upon what close or good is being measured against. Compared to Mars, LA and NYC are almost on top of each other; compared to San Diego, LA and NYC are a continent apart. Relative to my teenager’s musical tastes, rock is better than Bach, As for me; I’d choose Bach over rock anytime. Now, what about the logical law of non-contradiction, the distributive law in arithmetic, the parallel postulate in geometry, or gravitational, atomic, or evolutionary theory? Are these relative to, conditioned by, dependent upon, or measured against, something else? Or are they just true?

This kind of relativism is called epistemological relativism. The basic idea is that there are no universal truths about the world, just different ways of interpreting it. The theory dates back at least to the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras, who said: “man is the measure of all things.” But this basic idea is also captured by more contemporary ideas:

  • What you believe is true (for you); what I believe is true (for me).
  • Truth is subjective.
  • Truth is in the eye of the beholder.
  • Different strokes for different folks.
  • You have your beliefs; I have mine, and that’s the end of it.

To be a relativist means that a belief, idea, proposition, claim, etc. is never true or false, good or bad, or right or wrong, absolutely. According to the relativist, there is no absolute or objective truth; truth is relative and subjective. For example, a relativist can’t consistently claim that 2 + 2 = 4 because the answer 4 is neither right nor wrong. It’s just depends. Your math teacher likes 4, but you like 6; so for you, the answer is 6. And you can’t consistently claim that gravity pulls objects downward, that airplanes fly because of aeronautical engineering principles, or that the earth is round, since none of these are absolute truths—at least according to the relativist.

Consider some implications of relativism. If you are an art expert who loves Rembrandt while your eight year-old sister thinks her doodling is the best art, as a relativist you cannot consistently maintain that your opinion about art is better than your sister’s. And if you eat healthy, exercise, maintain an ideal weight, and engage in stress reduction activities; you cannot consistently argue that your lifestyle is healthier than your roommate who eats poorly, lives a sedentary lifestyle, is overweight, and smokes to relieve stress. After all, its’ all relative. Or suppose your brother has a Ph.D. in physics from Oxford and has recently found compelling evidence for superstring theory. As a relativist you have no justification to say that your brother knows more about physical reality than your mother, who believes that she lives in a universe comprised of tiny, invisible gremlins whose gyrations are responsible for the expansion of the universe. After all, physicists have their view of reality and your Mom has hers, and that’s the end of it.

Critique of Relativism

Do you really believe that the palm reader knows as much about the physical universe or the future as a physicist? (If you do, it’s costing you money!) Or that farmers know as much about medicine as physicians? Or that auto mechanics know as much about the brain as neurophysiologists? Or that airplanes stay aloft because we understand the principles of aeronautical engineering, but holding hands and chanting “up, up, and away” works just as well? If you’re a relativist you have to believe all these things, because nothing is true or false. But is everything just relative? You might say this, but do you really believe it?  Would you rather drive over a bridge built by the army corps of engineers, or one made of duct tape built by psychics? Do you believe that the one bridge is as good as the other? Would you consult the next person you meet to determine if you need heart disease, or would you ask a cardiologist instead? And don’t you ask experts because you assume there really are truths about the universe?

In addition to the outrageous implications of relativism, there are other reasons why relativism is problematic. Consider the statement “I know you don’t think I’m a poached egg, but I think I’m one, so it is true for me. Now what does this mean? All it means is that you believe something such as: you’re a poached egg, or that the moon is made of cheese, or Elvis is alive and well in Mozambique. To say that something is true—for you—doesn’t add truth to a statement; it merely reports that you believe something. But here’s the rub. Believing something doesn’t make it true! You aren’t a poached egg; the moon isn’t made of cheese, and Elvis isn’t alive and well in Mozambique. To respond that those statements are true for me is just silly because you’re human, the moon is a rock, and Elvis is dead. And those things are true for me, and for you! The truth is independent of your beliefs.

Moreover relativism is logically incoherent. Consider the statement: all truth is relative. If this statement is objectively true, then relativism is false because there is at least one objective truth—namely, the truth that truth is relative. But if the statement is only subjectively true, then, as we have already seen, this just means that you believe in relativism. Thus, by claiming that truth is relative, you either contradict yourself or make a trivial claim with nothing to recommend your belief. (The other possibilities? Relativism is objectively false, in which case you obviously shouldn’t be a relativist; or relativism is subjectively false, in which case you don’t believe in it.)

In response a relativist could claim that the proposition that the truth is relative is the one objectively true proposition, while all other propositions are relative. So the only true proposition is: all truth is relative except the claim that truth is relative. Apart from wondering why such a puzzling proposition is true, we also wonder if this modified proposition objectively or subjectively true? If objectively true, then you have again contradicted yourself, inasmuch as you have to admit that this new proposition is absolute; if subjectively true, then again you have merely made the trivial claim that you believe in relativism. And of course if this new proposition is objectively or subjectively false, you haven’t helped your case at all.

In reply, you could construct a new proposition: all truth is relative except the claim that “all truth is relative except the claim that all truth is relative.” (Hang on if you feel you need a beer!) This is known as an infinite regress argument; you continue to construct a new claim to infinity. But whatever proposition you advance, we can always show that what you’re claiming is either a contradiction or just states your belief in relativism. Now you don’t want to be contradicting yourself because that’s just silly. And you don’t want to say that you believe in relativism, because you just believe in it without any reason. Thus relativism is either self-refuting or trivial. 

Relativism, the Unknown, and Belief

Relativism also seduces because you might confuse your inability to know the truth with there being no truth. I don’t know if intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe, but intelligent life either does or doesn’t exist elsewhere—my inability to determine the truth is irrelevant to the actual truth about the matter. You may not know whether God exists or not, or if the author of this text is married with children, but God either exists or does not, and I either do or don’t have a wife and children. The fact that you don’t know what 2 + 2 equals, doesn’t mean there is no solution to the problem; it means your bad at arithmetic. Therefore, your inability to distinguish between truth and falsity is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

This leads to a related idea. Don’t confuse the fervency of your belief with a belief being true. You may be convinced the universe is teeming with intelligent life, that God exists, or that the author of this text has six wives, but this doesn’t mean these beliefs are true. Remember that you often believe things that are mistaken. You may believe that continental drift is impossible, that biological evolution didn’t happen, or that relativity theory is bogus. But your belief has nothing to with the truth or falsity of these ideas. Therefore, the strength of your belief in something—say that all truth is relative—is not evidence for the truth of relativism.

Summary and Transition

Ok, let’s summarize. The claim that all truth is relative is either incoherent or trivial. Moreover, relativism is neither supported by our inability to know what’s true, nor by the fervency of our belief in relativism. But does this mean that nothing is relative? No. The answers to all the following questions are relative. Is LA close to NYC? Does chocolate taste better than vanilla? Who’s the world’s greatest athlete? Am I a great philosopher? It’s not the claim that some things are relative that has been positively refuted; rather, it is the claim that all things are relative that is incoherent or illogical. And if all things aren’t relative and subjective, then some things must be absolute and objective.

6 thoughts on “Is Truth Relative?

  1. Relativists are weird, but they persist because people insist eternal Truths (with a capital T to denote the philosophical usage) exist when they actually cannot. All knowledge (even knowledge about Truth) is only ever *contingent* because we cannot know what the future will reveal to us. Descartes’ evil demon showed that. To me, the concept of Truth is a relic of our ancient cosmology when we thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. Now that we know the universe has been evolving since the Big Bang, we should incorporate this understanding to our concept of Truth too. Cosmological revolutions need to extend to epistemological ones. Knowledge cannot be 1) justified, 2) true, 3) beliefs. Knowledge can only ever be: 1) justified, 2) beliefs, 3) that survive. I wrote more about this here if you are interested:

    http://www.evphil.com/blog/knowledge-cannot-be-justified-true-belief

  2. Thanks Ed – Like you I am an evolutionary epistemologist, although I’m a bit more of a realist about truth. I’m not sure truth is only what survives. I think it a bit more objective than that. But this is a very complicated discussion. Perhaps another reader will weigh in.

  3. I think we probably agree on this again. I closed the essay I linked above with this:

    “Finally, this brings us back to tenet #1, our first assumption [that we live in a rational, knowable, physical universe]. Through the eons of the entire age of life, and over all the instances of individual organisms acting within the universe, the ability of life to predict its environment and continue to survive in it has required that *ontologically* the universe must be singular, objective, and knowable. If it were otherwise, life could not make sense of things and survive here. As we now see, we may never know if that is TRUE, but so far that knowledge has survived. The objective existence of the universe may indeed be an assumption, but as a starting point, it now seems to be the strongest knowledge we have.”

    So…I think that makes me a realist about truth, but I try to be careful now to say our *knowledge* of it is evolutionary and we must be humble about any claims to Truth. I think this is the proper line to walk between relativists and dogmatists for it softens both of them into more helpful attitudes.

  4. Well I basically agree with what you say here, at least it is the common sense view. Of course Bostrom will question our starting point with the simulation argument, metaphysicians of various stripes may believe with Berkeley that we create reality, etc. And I do like your skepticism too, since in the end we must be fallibilists—any idea we have may be wrong. But that doesn’t mean we must be relativists because some ideas are still more likely to be true than others. So again, I think you have it about right … with the caveat that we are all wandering around in the dark …

  5. Yes, I think that’s right. Relativists are unhelpful because much of our knowledge is true…for now…since it has survived all of the best investigations we have thrown at it. Nassim Taleb would quibble with your usage of some ideas being “more likely” to be true, but I know what you mean, even if we can’t calculate the probability of black swan events coming from out of the darkness ahead.

    Bostrom, on the other hand, can be dismissed as unpersuasive because his math is poor. You can’t calculate probabilities when dealing with infinite imaginary metaphysical possibilities. And as for Berkeley, I loved reading these letters in the form of a limerick that both summarised him and dismissed him (to a naturalist like me anyway):

    “God / Must find it exceedingly odd / To think that the tree / Should continue to be / When there’s no one about in the quad.” // “Dear Sir: Your astonishment’s odd; / I am always about in the quad. / And that’s why the tree / Will continue to be / Since observed by, Yours faithfully, God.”

    : )

  6. All well said with the exception that I take intellectually seriously the idea that we live in a simulation. Sort of like I take Berkeley that way. Now back to all my political thoughts which will be posted daily for the foreseeable future.

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