IT'S ALL RELATIVE
-sign held by Wile E. Coyote
One of the dumbest statements made by otherwise intelligent, learned people is this one:
However, in many universities this kind of philosophy and thought is taught, by men and women who are otherwise fairly deep thinkers. It is implied or assumed in books and movies, and many people would generally assent to that statement. Why? How can people get to the point this nonsensical statement is accepted as wise and proper?
ELEPHANTS AND TREES
Philosophers for thousands of years have been thinking over the meaning and significance of life, trying to understand why we are here, what we ought to do, and what it means to be human. Over the years, thinkers would propose their ideas, then another great thinker would point out a flaw in this philosophy and come up with their own idea, until another debunked them, and so on. As this chain of thinking progressed, the very concept of being able to understand the meaning of life began to be questioned. Eventually, philosophers concluded that one could understand nothing at all.
I know, this is a bit dry and usually this is where people of common sense who have little time to sit and ponder the sound of one hand clapping just laugh and shake their heads. If we can't understand anything at all, that sort of puts philosophers out of a job. How could someone come to this conclusion, if the very point of their efforts and the very process they engage in is an attempt to understand things?
Most people have heard of the fable of the blind men and the elephant, but I'll repeat it here for clarity.
There once was a king who had four wise men who served him well as advisors. One day a hunter came to the king talking about an amazing animal he'd killed, and the king ordered his wise men to examine the creature - an elephant. The wise men dutifully obeyed their king and each one studied the elephant carefully. One held the creature's trunk and proclaimed it to be like a snake, long and flexible. One ran his hands over the creature's side, claiming it was like a wall. A third found the elephant's ear and decided that the elephant was much like a sail. No, said the last wise man, "it is like a tree" as he held the elephant's leg. The king began to regret having blind men do the examination to begin with.Philosophers pointed out that while we can know small bits of truth and understand things in a small, limited way, compared to the whole of reality, we could never know enough about anything. We cannot know anything perfectly and exhaustively, there's always something more to learn and question about any topic. Each of us learns a little bit, and that little bit is so limited and simple that it is next to meaningless about the whole: elephants are far more than simply an ear.
Because of this, the philosophers argued, we can't really say we understand anything at all. Some even went so far as to say that reality and what we perceive and understand only exists because we perceive and understand it. In other words, our will and intelligence is what forms reality around us, and when we aren't there, it doesn't exist. This is where questions like "if a tree falls in the wood and we aren't there to hear it, does it still make any noise" come from, the idea that it is our perception that defines reality.
One way of describing this line of thinking is "relativist" as opposed to "absolutist." Instead of reality and truth being set and unchanging, applying to all situations and persons, reality and truth become "relative" and change based on the situation and person. This is a step beyond what common sense tells us. It is true that Sue is a girl, but even if you subscribe to absolute truth, that doesn't mean that everyone named Sue necessarily is a girl (just ask Johnny Cash) nor that everyone is a girl. Each individual situation is examined for its own merits and properties - Joe is a boy, Sue is a girl, and that kitchen chair is without gender. Relativity takes that a step further: Joe is a boy... until he decides he's really a girl in a boy's body, then that is true. And he might even be a cat, if he says so and insists upon it, until he changes his mind, and becomes something else.
Relativity defines reality and truth not by any outside ("objective") standard, but by personal or communal opinion ("subjective"). If, for example, a community decides that Egypt invented airplanes and the white devil stole the idea, then that's true... for them. Truth, instead of an absolute statement accurately depicting reality becomes instead a relative, personal statement depicting one's opinion of reality.
"Wow," you might say, "that's funny stuff, but nobody really does that, certainly I don't!" Let's find out. For example, when you think about God, do you define God in terms of some source outside you in a manner that does not change to meet your desires and interests in the situation, or by some absolute standard that is unchanging, even if it results in a conclusion you don't happen to like? In other words, when you consider God do you say "the way I see it" or "My God would never..." or do you have some basic absolute standard you appeal to and bow to as an authority outside yourself?
Perhaps you are a total atheist, and you don't consider God any more than you consider Cthulhu. When you consider ethics and morality, do you consider it in terms of a standard we all must adhere to and follow, or in terms of what each of us have to conclude for ourselves? Do you say "I just think we should" or "I can't speak for others but I just..." when you discuss ethics? If you define ethics or God (or many other topics) in terms of personal opinion or a group's definition, then you're doing so in a relativistic manner. You're deciding reality not based on what reality presents its self as but based upon what you decide or desire to be true.
Now, obviously some situations this is completely reasonable and proper. When we discuss how tasty Clamato© is, we've entered the realm of the subjective. It is a matter of opinion; I happen to think it tastes very good indeed, others might find it repugnant. In areas of opinion, there is no objective standard, there is no absolute by which we all ought to judge something, except how tasty beef jerky is, and anyone who says otherwise is a heretic.
Some areas of life, many in fact, are unclear and difficult to know for certain. Politics for example, some ideas often have good arguments on both sides, even if they are diametrically opposed. One cannot form an absolute standard for some topics because we simply cannot know for certain and have no basis upon which to make such a judgment. They are more than opinion, but less than absolute truth, and it is up to us to work out what is wisest and best. For example, which form of government ought we take up? I prefer a representative democracy, but a monarchy has a lot to offer and a great deal of benefit that a democracy lacks. At the same time, a monarchy has dangers and problems a democracy avoids.
Which is better? I know of no absolute standard by which to choose. For some of these decisions, pragmatism works best: what is most effective at obtaining goals. For some, the situation must be the deciding factor: the king is a moron and his ministers corrupt, so we have to have a change.
BACK TO THE ELEPHANT
Remember the Elephant? If you haven't moved on or fallen asleep, lets take a look at the elephant again. It is true that no one member of the blind wise men managed to work out what the elephant was truly like. Let's presume that they were unable to examine any more because the elephant fell into the sea and was lost. Nobody will ever know the truth of the creature, will they?
Well... not exactly. No doubt you've hit on the answer already - the wise men can discuss what they learned together and piece together enough of the truth to understand what the elephant looks like. They can even, based on what they learn, understand some of what the elephant must have been like while alive. The problem with the idea that since we cannot know all truth perfectly we therefore cannot know any truth at all is absurd. We can know enough truth to function properly and make reasonable decisions. None of us will ever know everything but we do not need to in order to act properly.
I don't know exactly how a computer works, I know the basics and what the parts generally do but not how they are made and why they work in this manner, nor could I make a computer even if somehow I had all the machinery to do so. I am, however, able to understand a computer well enough to use it and use it quite well. Humans have never understood all of the world around them, that's why we ended up with myths of Thor riding his chariot across the sky to cause thunder (you can hear the wheels!), because people weren't exactly clear on what was happening. That didn't make them unable to properly react to and understand thunder well enough to know not to climb a tall tree and to understand that rain was likely coming.
The more we understand the natural world around us, the more that enables us to come up with technology which few if any of us understand beyond simple use. Microwave ovens, MP3 players, computer controlled fuel injection for your car, all around us are gadgets and devices that for most of us are just as unfathomable as why thunder happened to Olaf in 72 AD. That doesn't stop us from driving cars, heating soup, and listening to music.
Relative thought usually comes in one of three categories. The first is personal whim, someone defines reality or truth or ethics by what they simply decide at the time to be correct or accurate. Today I think speeding is perfectly fine, because I have so many stores to visit and want to get home in time to watch Shark. Tomorrow speeding is bad because that guy sped by me so fast it scared me.
The second is to define reality by one's cultural group, usually defined in terms of ethnicity or sexual desire. This is where Black Studies comes up with the "reality" where every major technological concept and development was actually a black African invention, later stolen by whites. Their "metanarrative" is true, for them, and defines reality, for them.
The third is to define reality by culture or civilization. This is the most seductive and plausible seeming choice, in which truth or ethics are defined by the people you live with. If your society decides that slavery is proper and right, then it is proper and right - for you. If your society decides that abortion is a right based on privacy, then it is - for you.
There are things in life that are absolute, and no matter what philosophy or intellectual position someone holds or espouses, they agree and live their lives in accord with this truth. Mathematics is one perfect example, 2+2 does, in fact =4, even if you prefer otherwise or want it to equal 5. Math is pure absolutist, objective truth, it is unchanging and follows certain absolute rules. Math is described as the foundation for understanding physical reality, that it underpins everything. Everything tends to follow mathematical principles, from how cells divide to how you are balanced while you walk to how water freezes. That's why every scientist has to learn math and learn it well to do any work at all. It is the language of the physical.
Science is almost entirely made up of absolutist and objective study and understanding. Water is understood to be made up of H2O, every time, because physical reality follows certain predictable and regular rules. There aren't a few molecules of water out there actually made up of Cesium and Calcium, there isn't water somewhere made up of tiny gnomes. In a certain irony, most people who cling hardest to relativist ideas of the world also cling hardest to science as being the supreme and sole description of reality - that nothing exists beyond what you can measure scientifically or with your senses. Yet science most thoroughly repudiates relativistic philosophy by its hard facts and inflexible absolutism.
There is some science that seems to push these barriers, such as quantum physics in which it appears that two contradictory things can be true at the same time, and that our mere observation is affecting the outcome of experiments. The problem is we know so very little about this area and are so ignorant of what we're studying that it is much akin to the Thor/thunder story. It made sense at the time, based on observation. There are other scientists who are trying to apply a more relativistic approach to science, where the ideas and thoughts of the scientist matter more than the hard data and experiment, but I don't see that going very far.
So, this is a weird little philosophical discussion, but people are funny. Let the be funny, if they have their own way of looking at things, well that's how they are, I can live my life... right? Actually, it matters more than you think.
One of the basic rules of logic is that two concepts cannot both be true at the same time and in the same context. For example, a woman cannot both be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. This rule is not only valid and true, it also allows us to have any sort of discussion or conversation to begin with. If you believe the word "yes" actually means "no" and I believe it to mean "yes" then any conversation we have will soon end up like a Monty Python Skit:
Interviewer: Good evening. I have with me in the studio tonight Mr Norman St. John Polevaulter, who for the last few years has been contradicting people...Mr Polevaulter, why do you contradict people?Take that further and presume that any two words can have contradictory meanings and both be true at the same time. Now mix in that each person can according to their own whim at any time choose the meanings of these words without advance warning. Now try to communicate.
Polevaulter: I don't!
I: You told me that you did.
P: I most certainly did not!
I: Oh. I see. I'll start again.
P: No you won't!
I: Ssh! Mr Polevaulter I understand you don't contradict people.
P: Yes I do!
I: And when didn't you start contradicting people?
P: Well I did, in 1952.
I: Twenty-three years ago.
The truth is, for truth to have any meaning at all, it has to be absolute and objective. Truth only has any meaning or significance if it is not subject to your whim. There's no point in having an argument over whether you like bubblegum or not. Either you do, or you don't, and it doesn't matter either way. We can argue about whether bubblegum is good for your teeth or whether you ought to chew it at the funeral, we can argue whether bubblegum is obnoxious because of how it sticks to everything, but personal statements of opinion are just that: opinion.
When someone is a relativist, they have no basis for argument or to try to convince anyone of anything, ever. If all reality is defined by your whim, then who cares if someone else disagrees? That's their whim, that's how they see things. In fact, you really have no basis for teaching anything, either. All you do by teaching someone is share your opinion of reality and events, which someone else might vary from. Their truth, after all, is as valid as yours - even if it happens to contradict yours in every way, they simply are both true.
Ultimately, when you hold this position you can't say someone is lying, is wrong, or is confused, mistaken, or improperly speaking. Nothing ultimately is untrue, no matter how absurd or strange it may be. All concept of communication and education, rhetoric, logic, study, and most of life are degraded bit by bit as people embrace this more until we either reject this nonsense or civilization collapses entirely.
Further, goofy, nonsensical ideas are given the same amount of money, time, attention, and validity as reasonable ideas because they both are equally true. This is something we can already see happening in writing and education, particularly at the higher levels of education.
In reality, only a madman lives their lives consistently relativistic with regard to truth. We all insist on a shared standard of truth any time we have an argument or try to educate people, we all recognize an absolute truth any time we decry deception or lies. The most hardcore relativist bows to absolute truth in the end, regardless of their rhetoric.
Morality and ethics is another area that suffers greatly from relativism. Even the clever argument that ethics are defined by society has a problem: yes, societies do define their ethics and moral laws, but that does not actually indicate that there is no absolute basis on which we ought to live and function. If you decide that morality - that good and evil - is based on the whim of individuals or groups, then you cannot condemn another society or person's actions. At best, all you can say is "I find that improper" or "we as a society condemn this action." In short, we all end up like the UN: we can issue condemnations, but ultimately they mean nothing because there's no shared standard by which we can hold others accountable.
Further, if a society decides on something particularly repugnant and awful - say, enslaving people based solely upon their ethnic background - then as a relativist we cannot say this is not right either. This is what they have decided is right, therefore for them it is right. No matter how evil or horrid the action or behavior is, for that society it is right, and no one has a shared basis to condemn the other society by. All you can say is that, in your or your society's opinion, what they are doing is improper.
So good and evil lose all their meaning, as does the concept of justice or fighting against evil. If it truly is up to mere opinion of one's self or one's group or society, then you cannot properly take action against that evil. That's just how they think, and it's just as valid as how we think. If someone does something you consider horrid, that's too bad, but he thought it was right and who are we to decide?
Again, few live by this policy in their personal lives unless they are truly insane, the psychopath who seems to have neither ethical boundaries nor feeling of guilt or shame. We appeal to a shared sense of right and wrong, a mutually agreed upon standard of fair when someone wrongs us. We demand justice and want the wrongdoer punished, or at least us compensated. However, in a larger scale, the arguments can be, and are often made that we cannot judge other nations by our standards, for this is chauvinistic and improper. That we can consider someone wrong for doing an action but are wrong to try to stop them such as an invasion or sanctions. At best, what we must do is enlighten this person to our point of view, perhaps by dialogue or teaching, maybe some motivational DVDs.
Beauty is skin deep, they say, and it is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, what I find beautiful others may not - I consider Grace Kelly to be one of the most beautiful women who has ever walked the earth, others disagree. My perception of and opinion of what is aesthetically pleasing and beautiful may vary from other peoples, and theirs from mine.
That said, there is a classic standard for beauty that states that there is an absolute for this as well. That some art is actually superior to others, that some music is better than other music. That there is beauty that is higher than other beauty, even if we personally do not care for it as much.
For example, I enjoy listening to a dazzling variety of music, from Zydeco to Classical to Jazz to Heavy Metal to Country to some 60's Bubblegum Pop, and so on. A playlist of my music would go from Vaughn Williams to Vaughn Monroe to AC/DC and all points in between. I like all sorts of music. However, I also recognize that there are objectively better forms of music and better songs than others. Sugar Pie Honey Bunch by the Temptations is fun to listen to and agreeable, but Handel's Hallelujah Chorus is a stunning work of awe-inspiring, tear-inspiring art. I like and highly recommend the Astro City comic book, but understand that Rembrandt's Abraham's Sacrifice is a far superior, breathtaking work of art.
The idea that art is completely subjective, with no absolute standard is why we get paintings like Kazimir Malevich's White on White. Yes, that was the work of someone who is in the arts, but it fails to be actually art and is by all objective standards no Rembrandt. I've written more extensively on art elsewhere, so I will not repeat it here.
The result of a rejection of absolute standard of "beauty" (that is, aesthetic considerations) is why art galleries look like a well-organized junkyard or we get a crucifix in a jar of urine that is celebrated around the world. Without a standard to judge art by, without an absolute, shared, and recognized basis for judging art and beauty, all that we are left with is visceral reaction. The art is defined not by its inherent qualities or excellence, but by what it makes you think and feel when you are exposed to it. If a piece of art makes you react strongly or surprisingly, that's a good indication that you have created a truly significant work of art.
It is not easy to judge art like we judge truth or ethics, the standard is more smoky and difficult to grasp, primarily because art reaches us at a level and in a manner that eludes ordinary study and examination. In short, it grabs you by the soul, and as such defies unsoulish methods of examination. But in a world where beauty has been replaced by the visceral and shocking, art loses its meaning and we are impoverished by it. It is this sense of loss that prompts people to seek some manner of regaining what they lack but do not understand in such areas as feng shui. What is missing most are not even truly conscious of, but they sense it's lack and look for some way to fill the gap. This is true of truth and goodness as well, as we'll see below.
Sadly, unlike the other two, many people comfortably and happily live their lives very consistently in a relativist sense with art and aesthetics. From public square sculptures to the movie theater to pop music to church worship services, an ignorance of artistic beauty and aesthetics and a rejection of the concept of absolute beauty leads to a sad loss and a sort of dumbing down of the arts. In place of Bach's weekly written oratorios for church we have Shine, Jesus Shine. In place of Christopher Wren's London we get some of the more modern architecture.
METANARRATIVES AND POWER POLITICS
So what happens to your world if you reject absolutes? We've examined some, but I'll lay out a serious consequence we're dealing with nearly every day from people who are usually unaware where it comes from and why they hold such positions.
If you have no absolute standard of right and wrong, then what is left to make ethical decisions is personal whim. Even if you base your ethics on society, going along with what everyone agrees to, you are following the whim of someone or some group. That original force is the most powerful, most strident, and most insistent among us that push until their ideals and positions are the ones that are agreed to. In 1940 Germany, that was the Nazi party. Today, it often is the modern left. A relativist can't consistently say either one is wrong or right, just different.
Quite simply if there is no standard of good and evil, then all one can appeal to is strength, the power to insist on your opinion. No one can appeal to a shared, agreed upon absolute and objective standard, so what one is reduced to is the standard of the most powerful. That powerful enforces their version of reality upon everyone else. Thus in the place of right and wrong we simply have power.
And the language of power is politics. Politics are the method of gaining, exerting, and maintaining power. For someone who is wholly relativistic, considerations of right and wrong are irrelevant in the quest for power and in politics, only what works and what achieves your goals. Someone is going to end up with their version of things in control, and for the politically ambitious, it must be them. To that end, if there is no true right and wrong, what difference does it make what you do? You can use other people's perception of right and wrong in this quest, claiming your opponent is a rotten so and so, but you can do exactly the same thing and it doesn't matter, because you define right and wrong for yourself.
Further, because of this dynamic - the powerful applying their idea of reality on others - anyone in power necessarily is oppressive and is by definition imposing a tyrannical ideology on everyone else. Thus, those in power are always brutal oppressors disenfranchising and disempowering those who disagree, and those not in power are victims and the oppressed.
This is the basic template that some apply to life without other considerations - it is their worldview, the way they presume life is without examining it. As soon as any situation or event occurs, they see it through this lens. Palestine vs Israel, Islam vs the Western World, etc. It doesn't matter, the more powerful is the bad, the less powerful is the oppressed. Morally the ones out of power have the greater argument and position because they are being stomped on by the more powerful.
I hope that you're beginning to (if you didn't already) see how this pattern works out in politics, news, and education. How groups will act and behave, how conclusions are reached and why some say and do the things they do. Why it is that regardless of the atrocities and evils terrorists commit, the real bad guy is President Bush. How someone can claim the Founding Fathers were terrorists, too. This isn't moral equivalence so much as it is an expression of these power politics.
This sort of power politics is most often encountered in its most honest expression in any specialty studies area in a university. White males are perceived to be in power, so the ethics and ideals of truth they cling to are their invention, held because they are in power. Since people in power are by definition oppressors, the non white males have a duty to overthrow this oppression and further can define all their troubles upon that basis. I don't have a job: the white man is keeping me down. I got pregnant: the male oppressor's phallocracy won't keep me from living my life, kill the baby.
Further, each group can define their reality based upon their experiences, perception, and position. Each group can pick a manner of defining truth and that truth is equally valid to everyone else's. The term used to define the reality that a group defines is often "narrative" or "metanarrative." There are no truths, there are simply stories, ways people perceive reality and live. Their narrative is one way, yours is another, and we all are valid and accurate, to our groups.
Under all this, of course, is a presumed system of absolute morality: oppression is bad, absolutely. Because the understanding and recognition of ethics is part of being human and further the rejection of the bad is part of us as well. Empire is presumed to be evil, so the language of imperial oppression is used to condemn, even though the person doing so would claim that ethics are based on personal or group decision, not an absolute standard.
At last! you cry. Indeed, but this is a weighty subject I've barely done justice to. The names of philosophers and how they came to their conclusions are useful to study to understand better how and why they came to such an odd position. Given their progress and rejection of certain concepts, they had no choices. Especially Kant and Kierkegaard damaged the entire concept of truth and any reality beyond what is natural and scientifically understood.
This is an important key, a sort of codebreaker that helps understand what is going on in modern culture and why people say and do the things they do, why people act the way they do. The very language of truth and reality has been changed to mean something totally different to some. In the culture wars, this is more than a difference of opinion, it is a difference of very worldview and conception of reality. The words we use and the concepts we espouse mean something totally different to either side of this divide, to the point that trying to have an argument is like trying to explain algebra in Swahili to an Irishman. The concepts don't make sense because he doesn't even understand the words you are using to describe them no matter how patient or skilled you are in teaching.
In part, this is why this blog exists, to do my tiny part in trying to teach the language again. The concepts of virtue, of truth, of reality that have been lost, the ideals that our grandparents lacked and could not pass on. Each successive generation decries the next "kids these days!" In a certain sense, I believe each one is right and we've lost a little bit with each generation. It's true, we've gained as well, but oh what we've lost. Without regaining those key, critical concepts and important truths of the past, the things we've gained will ultimately add up to nothing.
Even those of us who strive to cling to absolute concepts and live our lives based on principles and truths are caught up in this culture, in the sea of relativism we dogpaddle in. We're so inundated by the ideals of subjectivism that it is difficult not to be influenced. People who otherwise would utterly reject such a thing will cling to pieces of it and pass on hardcore relativist concepts without even meaning to or being aware of it. And there is a sliver of truth in relativism: we must interpret each situation based on absolutes, we cannot categorize everything in a static, concrete way because the world changes. It is the absolutes that gives us principles and a standard, a reliable, proper basis to make these relative decisions.
Life is hard, and the older we get, hopefully wiser, the harder it becomes. When you are 5 years old and your hardest choice is between two toys, life isn't so difficult to puzzle out. But when you are 35 and trying to figure out how to teach your daughter why it's wrong to dress like a whore or explain why something that seems innocent or harmless actually is an incremental corrosion and leads to worse things, that's when people grasp at the easy, at hard and fast rules. The only way we can properly make these hard choices and understand ethics is to have the basic language of reality and truth, to understand what we've lost so much of.
Thank you for your time, your reading, and for what comments you leave. You may disagree with everything I've said, but at the very least I hope you think about it before you simply reject the concepts brought up here. I know some of this is a bit weighty and dry, I understand some of it will be utterly new and odd to some. It is however important and critical to facing the world. Your worldview changes everything: make sure it's a good one, especially if you have children to pass it on to.