Factual Relativism

The problem in a pluralistic society is that we are often confronted with conflicting moral values. Moral relativism is one thing; factual relativism quite another.

How do Catholics deal with factual relativism?

What do you mean by “factual relativism”? That some facts are relative? Or do you mean all facts are relative? The former is true in a sense (though this is an extremely vague concept) and it doesn’t really present a problem to the Church. The question is which facts are relative. The latter is false. With cultural relativism, at least in regards to certain morals and absolutely in regards to religion, it is not a tenable theory.

Opinion may change based upon point of view, but facts cannot.

There are issues that many people have differing views about: Most of them scientifically valid in one way or another.

Even lawyers have different opinions based from the same facts.

What exactly is factual relativism? I understand moral relativism to mean that every belief or moral system is equally valid with no one system being superior. Is factual relativism the belief that all facts are then equal?

That statement would be true in that for something to be considered a fact it must be true. But, what weight a fact has upon a conclusion can vary depending on how important that piece of knowledge is to the final conclusion. So for example if we were to figure out why our heating bill is so high in the winter the fact that we leave windows open even when it’s below 20 degrees outside might be more relevant to the discussion than the fact that the furnace is 20 years old, which may be more relevant than discussing the direction the house actually faces (whether it is south, or east or west).

If I’ve understood things correctly factual relativism wouldn’t be a purely Catholic problem but would be something that anybody trying to analyze a situation or event would want to make the best decision possible with all the best information available.


“factual relativism” is a contradiction in terms

“Factual relativism” may seem to be a contradiction in terms, but I wonder. The greater the reach of the media, the more prevalent it seems. The more a particular event is covered by the media, the more the facts are disputed.

The JFK assimilation is one example. It was recorded on film, but the facts are still disputed. The moon landings, first and subsequent, were televised live, yet those facts are disputed.

At one time in my life I thought it would be great to be able to travel back in time with a video camera to record various historic events, thus settling some disputes as to the facts involved. But I’ve changed my mind. More media coverage would only intensify the disputes as to what the facts were.

(And even in a quantum event involving subatomic particles, one never knows for certain where a particular particle exists, only the probability that it exists in one place or another.)

Very few people these days are factual relativists. The few I have met basically end up in an intellectually paralyzed state questioning their own existence.

Yes. But if they are contradictory, one of them is *actually *right and the other is wrong. In some cases it may be that both of them are wrong. Same thing in the case of law. That’s why we have juries, (hypothetically) in order to increase the probability of the decision being in accord with what is actually right.

If the people are truly factual relativists then none of that would matter. In that mindset truth can vary from person to person with no one being wrong and each being right.

What they know and how they know it aren’t important, it’s important to just know that you know something.


Let me cite an example. The issue of “when does life begin”.

The following are scientifically valid answers:

  1. Some will say it begins about 3.8 billion years ago.

  2. Some will say from the origin of life to today every organism is a small piece of an ongoing continuum of life with no gaps of non-life between one cell and the cells it divides into along the way. In multicellular organisms such as ourselves living germ-line gametogonia divide into living gametes via meiosis, and when complimentary gametes fuse, a new genetically distinct organism is produced, but at no point is new life created, nor has it ever been created within the framework of life on earth as we know it since its initial origin.

  3. Some will say life begins at conception.

How is this an example of factual relativism? All this is an example of is answering one question three different ways. An example of factual relativism would be to ask the same question you asked and then answer:

  1. At conception

  2. When the heart begins to beat

  3. At birth

And then declare all three answers correct for the person answering it that way.


How about the following answers?

One said life begins at conception. The other one said a person start when they have a conscious brain, and a person ends when their brain becomes unconscious for the final time.

I think that’s better, but the third one doesn’t answer the question of when life begins. Remember the important thing for a factual relativist isn’t the question that’s asked, or even how the question is answered but that they believe that regardless of the answer is just as true as any other answer given by other people.


Definition of Factual relativism from Wikipedia:

Factual relativism (Epistemic relativism) is a mode of reasoning which extends relativism and subjectivism to factual matter and reason. In factual relativism the facts used to establish the truth or falsehood of any statement are understood to be relative to the perspective of those proving or falsifying the proposition.[1]

Maybe other members can provide better examples.


2 + 2 = both 4 and 5.

Why, because I have a unique view of the value of 2.

And because my perspective is just as authoritative as any other, I am right even though the rest of the world may view the answer as 7.

And guess what, the rest of the world is right too.

That’s how I understand factual relativism.


Factual Relativism, more often than no,t is used only for argumentative purposes. It is basically stating “What is true for you, might not be true for me.” This allows the person to discredit any of your arguments just because, by definition, they can. It allows the two participants to be unable to find a common ground which is counter-progressive to an argument. “Factual” relativism is pointless and I don’t see the point of discussing in it a forum. Moral relativism however holds more water.

How is this an example of factual relativism? All this is an example of is answering one question three different ways. An example of factual relativism would be to ask the same question you asked and then answer:

  1. At conception
  1. When the heart begins to beat
  1. At birth

And then declare all three answers correct for the person answering it that way.


This is not an good example of factual relativism. It would be contradictory for all three of the answers to be correct for an individual. If he was to suggest that all three were true, then none of the statements could be “facts”. He can acknowledge that three are possible answers, but what he holds to be true for himself (relative truth) cannot consist of all three.

A better example of relative truth would be if Person A has a “Mystery Flavor!” Airhead. He then procceeds to share this Airhead with Person B. After both tasting the airhead, Person A suggests it is strawberry and person B suggests it is blueberry. Since neither can fully understand what the other person tastes, it would be impossible to tell the other person that what they are tasting is in fact, something else. So to person A he is eating a strawberry flavored candy and person B is eating a blueberry flavored candy. The decision of flavor may seem like opinion because it is not definite, but this is the foundation of relative truth. Also the term relative truth by definition is contradictory as “JackVK” posted earlier.

That is a case of ambiguity, *not *relativism. They are all true. The question in the form of “When does life begin?” can validly signify more than one concept. So here, if we want to find out the correct answer, and we’re not sure what they mean, we should ask the questioner to re-state the question in one of the following ways:

  1. When did the first life forms appear?
  2. Does abiogenesis occur more than once?
  3. When is a new person/substance created?

When we re-state it without ambiguity there is no problem, nor is there any “relativism”.

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