Relativism in terms of absolute truth?

I have often heard that (absolute) relativism cannot be true because it is self-contradictory. The argument typically goes something as follows:

Relativism must not be true because as soon as one says “relativism is true,” the person has admitted at least one absolute, objective truth, ie that relativism is true. (The same goes for the argument against agnositicism.)

I want to say that I am not a relativist and believe in absolute truth.

That said, I see a problem with this argument and want to see what others think. It seems that the argument is wrong in that it converts what should be a relative statement into absolute terms or terms of actual being.

It seems, however, that the true relativist would never say, “relativism is true,” but would say something like, “it appears relativism is true” thus taking away the absolute/objective form and emphasis of the word “is”. (As a side, is this what Clinton was referring to when he imfamously said, “what is is?”)

Does this make sense to anyone else?

My opinion is, if a relativist says that “It appears relativism is true”, it seems this relativist is uncertain of its truth (“It appears…”), that is, the truth of his statement, and in that case we likewise cannot accept Relativism to be true, because we are not certain of it being so.
It is similar in a sense to a relativist saying what also appears to be a non-absolute statement like “I’m not sure we can be certain of anything” and in this case we can at least argue that at least **he is sure he is not sure. **

Gerry :slight_smile:

[quote=RobedWithLight]My opinion is, if a relativist says that “It appears relativism is true”, it seems this relativist is uncertain of its truth (“It appears…”), that is, the truth of his statement, and in that case we likewise cannot accept Relativism to be true, because we are not certain of it being so.

It is similar in a sense to a relativist saying what also appears to be a non-absolute statement like “I’m not sure we can be certain of anything” and in this case we can at least argue that at least **he is sure he is not sure. **

Gerry :slight_smile:
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But haven’t you converted his statement, “I’m not sure we can be certain of anyting” into absolute terms by saying, “in this case we can at least argue that at least he IS sure he is not sure.”

And isn’t this some kind of fallacy? A confusion of terms or the mode of knowledge (I’m stretching here…)? Isn’t this like soving for X when all you have is Y?

True relativism, it seems, is enitirely self-referential (a thoroughgoing solipsism) rather than objective in anyway. The problem with truth language (from the relative standpoint of the relativist) is that it is “out there” and objective, instead subjective and fundamentally uncertain (thus the need to come up with enclosed systems in which to speak and act…positive truth rather than absolute).

Part of the problem with relativism is that there must be something which the relativist holds as objectively true. For instance, if someone wants to doubt his senses (like when a stick appears bent in water) he is comparing the false image with a true image. Of course, the true image is found in his senses as well. Thus, in order to “doubt” his senses, he must “trust” his senses at the same time.

[quote=diarmait]Part of the problem with relativism is that there must be something which the relativist holds as objectively true. For instance, if someone wants to doubt his senses (like when a stick appears bent in water) he is comparing the false image with a true image. Of course, the true image is found in his senses as well. Thus, in order to “doubt” his senses, he must “trust” his senses at the same time.
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I don’t mean to be redundant, but aren’t you stating the relativist’s position in absolute terms? Wouldn’t he, if he is truly a thorough going relativist, say something like: “It appears to be bent in water just as it appeared to be straight out of water” rather than, “It appears to be bent in water but it is straight out”?

In saying this, I may be referring to an imaginary relativist who does not exist. I personally have never met a consistent relativist. My question, though, has to do with the theoretical thorough-going relativist who always begins his sentences with, “It appears to me that…” If there were such a person, would the traditional argument work?

[quote=diarmait]Part of the problem with relativism is that there must be something which the relativist holds as objectively true. For instance, if someone wants to doubt his senses (like when a stick appears bent in water) he is comparing the false image with a true image. Of course, the true image is found in his senses as well. Thus, in order to “doubt” his senses, he must “trust” his senses at the same time.
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I believe that is McInerny’s Argument against Descartes’ skepticism, if I’m not mistaken.

Gerry :slight_smile:

That’s probably a category mistake. The relativist does not usually say “relativism is true,” which is a positive statement, and they do not say “there are no absolutes,” which is a universal negative. They seem to say “There are no moral absolutes.” This is also a univeral negative, but the statement itself does not fall within the category of a moral judgment that they say does not exist - it is (very arguably) just outside (one level up from) that realm.

And, if we accept that categorization, we have to acknowledge (moral) relativism as logically self-consistent. The true question is whether their self-consistent system conforms to observable reality.

That’s where my argument stops, because I tend to be only clever enough to through monkey wrenches into machinery, not pull them out. If anyone can think of examples of how relativism does not conform to reality, then we have a great counter-argument unless someone wishes to slip into silopsism and absolute relativism, in which case the category mistake no longer applies and their system becomes self-contradictory.

Discuss.

[quote=FelixBlue]I have often heard that (absolute) relativism cannot be true because it is self-contradictory. The argument typically goes something as follows:

Relativism must not be true because as soon as one says “relativism is true,” the person has admitted at least one absolute, objective truth, ie that relativism is true. (The same goes for the argument against agnositicism.)
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Does this make sense to anyone else?

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Dear FelixBlue,

Yes, it makes perfect sense. Thank you for bringing up this topic. It has been one of my favorites as of late, when a few weeks ago I checked out a library book “My Search for Absolutes” by Paul Tillich. You have rekindled my interest and I think tomorrow I will check it out again for another reading. It’s kind of high level for me so I understand only a little more each time I read it. The book is not long, though, so at least it never gets to be drudgery.

The argument you made here is almost exactly one he makes in the beginning of chapter 2, if memory serves, where he introduces the concept of whether there is such a thing as absolutism in human thought and perception. There can be no such thing as a pure relativist, as you said, because “absolute relativism” is a contradiction.

I’ll give you just a bit of a jump start on the book; in chapter 3 he goes on to discuss relativism in morality and finds the absolute principle of human dignity, “do not use me as a means.” Chapter 4 deals with relativism in religious realm and comes up with the absolute to love God and (I think) to love one another. These are the moral and religious absolutes he found, from which many relative principles, such as the Ten Commandments, are derived.

This guy Tillich was considered one of the theological “giants” of the last century, but caution he was not Catholic. His conclusions at the end of the book do not sound like they would set well with the idea of the Catholic Church being the absolute, infallible interpreter of faith and morals, so if that offends you then read the book at your own risk.

The way I first heard of Tillich was he was quoted in a Catholic magazine in a page with daily quotes for the month. His quote was, “faith is not the opposite of doubt; it is an element of it.” That struck me hard because I had just about come to that conclusion on my own, so I looked more into Tillich and found that excellent book on absolutes.

Again, thank you for bringing up the topic because I have been trying to figure out how to break the ice in an environment where the mere concepts of “absolutism” and “relativism” seem to be considered sacred and satanic, respectively. Actually I had considered opening a thread titled something like “was Jesus really a relativist?” :smiley:

Alan

Good call on the Tillich, by the way - he’s managed to command broad respect in academia and has almost single-handedly brough virtue ethics back to a respectable position.

one problem arises when someone who says ‘it appears that there are no absolutes’ tries to dialog with someone who sees that there are, in fact, absolutes. the one to whom it ‘appears’ that there are none suddenly becomes adamant, and superior in his adamancy, that there ARE in fact no absolutes.

peter kreeft addresses the issue marvelously, in case you haven’t read it, in his book ‘a refutation of moral relativism’. definitely a must read if you are interested in the subject.

another problem is that those who follow a relativistic mindset are not simply saying ‘it seems to me that there are no absolutes’. if that were so, it would simply be a matter of a personal opinion that doesn’t match reality.

they are, however, saying ‘there is no such thing as an absolute’. which is, in fact, an absolute statement. and therefore… a witch! sorry, monty python tangent. therefore: a self contradictory statement.

the ideas of ‘tolerance’ (as promoted by contemporary american society) and sola scriptura are similarly self defeating and self contradicting.

interesting that kreeft points out in his lectures that ‘self defeating’ is what we find to be true of one particular aspect of the universe:

evil.

(in case i made that last bit unnecessarily opaque, what i mean to say is that kreeft teaches that evil is always self defeating.)

‘His conclusions at the end of the book do not sound like they would set well with the idea of the Catholic Church being the absolute, infallible interpreter of faith and morals, so if that offends you then read the book at your own risk.’

or, alternatively, if we believe that his teachings regarding the church are thus skewed, we should take the rest of his teachings with a grain of salt. ‘taking offense’, i think, has little or nothing to do with it (or shouldn’t).

good thinking and obedience to the church are not only not mutually exclusive, they are, in my experience, virtually identical.

:rotfl::rotfl:
:rotfl::rotfl:

Dear Jeff,

That was so great, and I sooo didn’t see it coming. I’m glad I logged in tonight! :slight_smile:

Alan

[quote=jeffreedy789]‘His conclusions at the end of the book do not sound like they would set well with the idea of the Catholic Church being the absolute, infallible interpreter of faith and morals, so if that offends you then read the book at your own risk.’

or, alternatively, if we believe that his teachings regarding the church are thus skewed, we should take the rest of his teachings with a grain of salt. ‘taking offense’, i think, has little or nothing to do with it (or shouldn’t).

good thinking and obedience to the church are not only not mutually exclusive, they are, in my experience, virtually identical.
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Dear Jeff,

Thank you for offering the other way to look at it, which might expand the audience for our combined comments. For myself, this is one area where I have not yet come to complete agreement with the Church, at least what many people seem to view as “complete agreement.” Several weeks ago I went over it quite a bit with other posters, and came to a place where I could agree in a rhetorical sense, but there still is a part of me that won’t let go and embrace – or refuses to cling to, depending on how you look at it – an absolute faith in infallible teachings of the Church. It’s a bit off topic, but this thread could certainly head toward a place where I might touch on certain aspects of it.

Alan

[quote=FelixBlue]But haven’t you converted his statement, “I’m not sure we can be certain of anyting” into absolute terms by saying, “in this case we can at least argue that at least he IS sure he is not sure.”

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I would rather say that it is this relativist who is in fact stating an absolute proposition he himself pretends to deny, though he may not be aware of it, which is to say that he “accidentally” got caught in the dead-end of self-contradiction.

Gerry :slight_smile:

[quote=RobedWithLight]I would rather say that it is this relativist who is in fact stating an absolute proposition he himself pretends to deny, though he may not be aware of it, which is to say that he “accidentally” got caught in the dead-end of self-contradiction.

Gerry :slight_smile:
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Yes. An ostensible “pure” relativist really can make no assertion at all.

Alan

[quote=FelixBlue]That said, I see a problem with this argument and want to see what others think. It seems that the argument is wrong in that it converts what should be a relative statement into absolute terms or terms of actual being.
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Quoting from the Wikipedia entry:

A common argument against relativism uses an inherently contradictory (self-stultifying) notion: The statement “all is relative”, which is either a relative statement or an absolute one. If it is relative, then this statement does not rule out absolutes. If the statement is absolute, on the other hand, then it provides an example of an absolute statement, proving that not all truths are relative.

You can reply to that by saying that only one thing in the world is absolute: relativism, thereby solving this dilemma. This is a softer take on relativism. It says that the argument presented above is correct in a way. Not all statements are relative, but the only statement that is not relative is a statement “The only thing that is absolute is that everything else is relative.” This preserves relativism for all intents and purposes as it is applied to the real world, although in a weaker sense.

alan - i look fwd to future discussions on the subject. i respect your viewpoint. and your taste in movies. :slight_smile:

[quote=RobedWithLight]I believe that is McInerny’s Argument against Descartes’ skepticism, if I’m not mistaken.

Gerry :slight_smile:
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Could be. I heard it from a fellow in college (not Notre Dame) and it was in relation to Descartes.

Absolute truth may be an interesting concept but, while there might be absolute truths, how would one establish one without the potential for infinite regress?

Fortunately, of course, science doesn’t interest itself with ideas like ‘absolute truth’.

[quote=cabaret]Absolute truth may be an interesting concept but, while there might be absolute truths, how would one establish one without the potential for infinite regress?
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it depends on what you think counts as “establishing” something like that.

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