Why Relativism Is So Appealing and Why Strong Beliefs Come Off Closed Minded

In this post I want to get into a specific set of implicit beliefs, values, and feelings that are typically operative, but poorly articulated, in many strands of “common sense” thinking and feeling within Western culture. In some ways I see myself as translating into philosophical categories what many unphilosophical, and sometimes even anti-philosophical, people think. I do this primarily because I think some philosophical distinctions and context might clarify and improve the strengths in their views and overcome their weaknesses. But even more interestingly this will allow me to alert philosophers and other critical thinkers to a major potential blindspot that our own practice often gives us. This post is in part a further attempt to answer questions raised in an e-mail to me that I published yesterday (as part of my new philosophical advice column) from a philosophy graduate who wanted to know why so many non-philosophers he argued with accused him of closed-mindedness when he felt he was being scrupulously openmindedly concerned about being logical and responsive to evidence.

First some context. Absolutists say some things which are so sweepingly broad and unnuanced as to be false in many important circumstances. Plus absolutism is formally false out of the gate a great deal of the time for saying “always” when the accurate word would be “usually” or “sometimes”. And total relativists and total subjectivists overcorrect in the opposite direction. Instead of noting that we must take account of relativities and relevant subjective inputs into our calculations that use (more) objective standards, they overcorrect and try to say all views are equally subjective and equally valid. Or they’ll at least say things to the effect that various matters are so subjective or so relative as to negate the validity of discussions and debates about them.

But the truth is in the middle.

Good, rational, successful thought is able to apply relatively objective rational standards in ways that are adequately context sensitive. This requires skills of rational judgment. But for some reason, this nuanced truth is hard for people to think through abstractly. Implicitly, in practice, their subconsciously processing brains quite often strike such balances impressively. But when giving abstract accounts they feel forced to choose between extremes. Either absolutism or total relativistic subjectivism. This false dichotomy manifests itself in (and leads to) a number of interpersonal conflicts centered around ideas conflicts and, in particular, leads to hasty accusations of closed-mindedness.

Now in the history of Western culture, there are crucial factors at work that I think contributes greatly to explaining why our unreflective minds have been conditioned to implicitly form this simplistic either/or association. For a long time, absolutism in belief has been the basis for absolutist social hierarchies and politics. And during key centuries that were formative of the modern consciousness, all sorts of bloody wars and tortures and violations of conscience and safety were justified by unresolvable disputes over arbitrary absolutist faith beliefs. All this violence as attributed to fights over issues that in principle could never have been solved scientifically or philosophically but which instead just hinged “theologically” on how one read deeply ambiguous supernaturalistically fantastic ancient texts. And all this happened concurrent with the rise of empirical science which was actually showing people how to come to results that could actually compel widespread consensus and tangibly and undeniably prove one’s ideas in ways that could literally transform the world. So while empirical science was providing powerful means for adjudicating disputes rationally, theology was providing precisely the opposite–interminable intellectual disagreements that caused, and/or provided ideological cover for, seemingly interminable conflict and death.

The modern liberal conviction that freedoms of thought, conscience, and expression must be treated as inviolable arose in no small part because of this startling contrast. We couldn’t keep on torturing and killing people over those differences in belief that were fundamentally intractable and which were nowhere near as well founded as the scientifically vindicated ones which had the power to compel agreement even from one’s skeptics. So I think this is why buried deep in the logic of much Western thinking there seems to be a close association between absolutism of belief with respect to fundamentally undecidable matters on the one hand, and the authoritarian willingness to violate others’ freedom of conscience on the other. And even were there not this long cultural history closely associating this way of believing with a certain way of restricting others, there is a noticeable personality association in many cases between people thinking in absolutist terms and treating others like petty dictators. Another issue at play is that typically because liberal societies allow private choices about morality, public debates about values often center on matters of law. So, people get accustomed to only debating morality in legal contexts and so reflexively respond even to arguments for private values like they will have overreaching legal consequences.

So, what might be happening is that when we are insistently confident about our position about non-scientific, disputable, philosophical matters (or even science that their theology tells them can’t really be science), unphilosophical people are inclined not to pay as much attention to your evidence and logic as to your adamancy. They will take that as a cue that you are the kind of person who might force your opinions on others. They stigmatize that as closed mindedness. To them it’s not how openly you considered the evidence, it’s how openly you allow that others might be right. And this seems to be because they are implicitly leaping from, “he does not act like I could even be right” to “he might not let me or others go on freely since he thinks we are wrong”.

What they mean by “openmindedness” is often more akin to tolerance . Rather than openmindedness being a matter of looking at more evidence, with more careful logical rigor, it means to them accepting more views can be simultaneously right, or, in some cases, affirming uncritically that fantastic propositions might be true since some people want to believe them and that’s their right. This strikes me implicitly as a way of allowing ethically that everyone be allowed to think for themselves by going to an extreme and claiming epistemologically that many ways to think are equally (or comparably) good to one another.

It seems like implicitly the logic in their minds says that even conceding that there might be a single right answer in any sense might legitimize people in their own minds to squelch others when they think they have the right answer. So they trust people more who say there is no right answer because if there’s no right answer no one is going to have the right to squelch others’ freedom of conscience (or those of others). So affirmations of epistemic relativism are, I am guessing, their over-corrective firewall to protect freedom of conscience. If there can be no right answer, then a priori no one is ever legitimate in imposing one answer on everyone. And unfortunately, when being abstract, they conflate all arguments about what is best with attempts to impose one’s view of what’s best on others. Implicitly they seem to also believe that a dangerous corollary is true: if there is a right answer, everyone must think and act exactly the same. That would be the death of pluralism in their minds. So, intuitively, their subconscious brains run the calculation that it’s simply better to say there is no right answer to forestall all impositions on freedom of conscience. And they intuitively feel very strongly about this assertion because their subconscious brain is well trained to associate their freedom as threatened by its denial.

What we need to make clear is a view of the world where there is a right answer and that it itself is pluralism. We need to explain ad nauseum that there can be objective answers but to figure them out, individuals’ needs, abilities, desires, etc. need to be calculated in. We need to explain views like “there can be better and worse paths in life consistent with the government being neutral enough to allow different people to find varying, objectively defensible goods for themselves as individuals”. In other words we need to articulate conceptions of objectivity that take into account the ineliminable value of pluralism, freedom of conscience, sensitivity to context relativity, sensitivity to relevant subjective factors, etc. We have to articulate that there are ways to acknowledge that what is good for different people can objectively vary without everything being equally good for everybody. The latter is an overcorrection that is extreme to the point of absurdity.

But in the meantime we have to work with people as they are and not assume they grasp these things. We need to be sensitized to the ways they intuitively conflate all strong beliefs with closed minded and authoritarian ones.

And also, we philosophers and other critical thinkers who want to emphasize the possibilities for right answers (or at least “better and worse” ones) need to learn from those whose minds are reflexively relativist, to correct against being oversimple in the absolutist direction. Their minds are not ridiculous. They form the associations they do for reasons.

In the e-mail from Vance, it seemed like he took openminded to mean “being willing to scrupulously weigh all evidence according to fair rational standards in order to best find the truth”. Probably a lot of abstract thinkers look at it this way. But to others it means “understanding how multiple perspectives might be comparably good or true in their own way even if they are incompatible with my own views and with each other”. Philosophers need to embrace what we know about the value of shifting perspectives and incorporate this into our sense for how to attain truth. The skill we should take as most instructive is our ability to inhabit contrasting perspectives and see how they can make some interesting, illuminating, and even unique sense of the world.

As Nietzsche has taught me to see, the best kind of thinking is not “outside of all perspectives”. In fact there is no thinking that happens outside of perspectives. The best thinking learns how to perpetually adopt and alternate between different perspectives to get more and more angles on something–and more and more feelings towards it too. The point is to really inhabit and appreciate a variety ways of looking at the world and of functioning in it. The messy truth that is hard for critical thinkers to accept is that even many belief or value structures that are either incomplete, inconsistent, inaccurate, or outright false in thousands of literal ways can have surprisingly powerful functional value for people. Sometimes, ironically, some literally false beliefs (in terms of their explicit content) may be as functionally workable to people (or even more functionally workable) for their lives as some more literally true, rationally coherent, logically consistent, or justifiable beliefs.

The more that we insist, whether explicitly or implicitly, that unless you have our own perspective you have a perspective of no use at all, we’re going to come off as closed-minded to people who intuitively grasp the reality of perspectivism. What we should learn to signal to people is that as technically flawed, internally inconsistent, or literally false, as we might see their picture of the world to be, we can appreciate that it has some tangible benefits for ordering the world in ways that make real sense for them, such that they’re not crazy, stupid, or evil for feeling so attached to it. We can still argue that your perspective is on the whole better, but while we do so, we would do well to take any opportunity we can to adopt their perspective empathetically and talk about what there is to learn from it that we might miss if their perspective wasn’t in the world to highlight it for us.

If we assume there is nothing that they’re onto that we’re not, then we are probably underestimating just how much the pervasiveness of falsehoods in thought provides us reason to think that falsehoods are in an uncomfortable number of ironic ways, highly useful. (Again, Nietzsche is deeply instructive on this point.) We are tempted to naïvely assume only truth is ever useful and truth is only ever useful. Our scrupulous truthfulness itself should compel us to take seriously how the false, in various degrees, can be quite useful. Or how various forms of fallacious reasoning might ironically catch onto more about certain truths than conscientious methods of reasoning so far have done.

This is not to endorse chaos or the view that all perspectives are necessarily equal. It is to recognize that the choice is not between absolute truth and absolute falsehood. It is to convey to others that we appreciate that there can be some wisdom in the ways their brains are practically structuring things even if we think on net it’s an overall inferior way to put things together because of this reason or that. And it is to understand why freedom of conscience is a good thing and why we can tolerate people being wrong legally. We need to come to terms emotionally and ethically with the fact that while it is often quite better that we all think more truly, it is tolerable that in the meantime people work with a number of falsehoods that are operatively more successful than we would assume they could be for helping people through life. That’s not to say none of those falsehoods are harmful or worth opposing strenuously. It is to say though that just being false does not equate to necessarily harmful or false in all respects.

Much more needs to be clarified as I have opened giant cans of worms. But this is already very long. See my next post for an analysis of another distinct problem with coming off closed-minded that philosophers in particular run into. Then I offer my practical advice for generally arguing in ways that are not off-putting and susceptible to charges of closed-mindedness in the final post of this series.

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