Why We Need Relativism More Than Ever

Why We Need Relativism More Than Ever February 6, 2018

Nothing is as mistrusted and misunderstood as the idea of relativism. But I submit that there’s value to the idea that we ignore at our peril.

What Relativism Is and Isn’t

The main problem with relativism seems to be that people think it’s something it isn’t. They know it mainly through the caricatures and exaggerations peddled by folks who think the idea should only be derided and dismissed in the first place:

“Relativism means nothing is real.”

“Relativism means all ways of knowing are equally valid and everything is a matter of opinion.”

“The central claim of relativism that there is no truth is actually self-defeating.”

Hold on a minute. This is a complicated matter that can’t be put into glib sound bites. Broadly defined, truth relativism is “the doctrine that there are no absolute truths, i.e., that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.” It’s not that all ways of knowing are equally valid, just that there’s no one universally valid way of knowing. If that’s something that disturbs people who are uncomfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, maybe they deserve to be disturbed.

I see relativism as a perspectival approach to truth claims, not a rejection of them. There’s a certain range of perspectives from which we assess phenomena, and those perspectives come with their own (not completely mutually-exclusive, necessarily) sets of assumptions and value systems.

Who Loves The Sun

Scientific relativism truly irks people, and for no good reason. Scientists acknowledge that the truths we affirm are a function of our modes of inquiry.

We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.

—Werner Karl Heisenberg

Relativism gets a bad rap: it doesn’t say that there are no facts, it says that the way we determine truth—even in science—is a much more complicated and context-sensitive process than we’re used to admitting. Data points don’t have magic power to change minds and stimulate progress; rather, the way scientific communities assemble, interpret and apply them is what creates cogent scientific narratives and inspires consensus.

The geocentrism-heliocentrism matter is usually used as an example of “self-correcting science” improving because of evidence. However, it’s much more appropriately interpreted as a vindication of relativism, not a sign of its weakness: people are looking at the same data, but creating different models to arrange and interpret it. The paradigm that can create the most cogent narrative will be the one that scientists and reasonable people will affirm.

The Ambiguity that Won’t Go Away

The culture wars and science wars could have taught us important lessons about the fluid, contextual, and perspectival nature of truth and knowledge. However, with the power of the West on the wane and a multicultural future ahead, humanity appears to have decided it can’t deal with ambiguity and subjectivity anymore. As a civilization we’ve decided to turn back to nostalgic forms of absolutism like nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and scientism.

Critical thinking went out the window, too, when the West decided to dress in digital camo gear and pretend that high-tech war and a corporate-managed surveillance state were the answers to all our geopolitical problems. It’s no coincidence that Sam Harris, the most virulent of our rationalist cowboys, closed his manifesto The End of Faith by saying, Nothing is more sacred than the facts. The point of getting rid of absolutist thinking was to assert that nothing is sacred, not that we just need to be more choosy about our dogma.

We need relativism to create a more realistic approach to facts and evidence, and to public discourse. Trial lawyers don’t just tell the jury that the evidence speaks for itself, they decide which information to emphasize, how to interpret the data, and how to shape it into a meaningful narrative. We have to realize that there are many possible meanings to our knowledge, and how to emphasize, argue and mobilize in favor of the meanings that we feel are best for our society, the environment, and the future of inquiry itself.

The Post-Truth Era and the End of Absolutism

Nothing makes this program more urgent than the post-truth society, where it seems like the sky’s the limit on mendacity and motivated reasoning. Despite the prevalent (and wholly mistaken) belief that postmodern philosophy somehow created the alt-right’s denial machine, the truth is that the current administration’s war on public discourse and common decency is the last gasp of absolutism. It’s not as if the alt-right understands the perspectival nature of truth and our responsibility in convincing people of our version of the truth through cogent argumentation. They agree with Harris that facts are sacred, so they just make up their own facts and vilify anyone who questions them. To paraphrase Harris again, this is what absolutism becomes when it achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse.

As a civilization, we face a future where engaging one another in empathetic discourse rather than online slapfights is more important than ever. We need to understand and communicate with others, and develop a nuanced awareness of other perspectives—especially those that differ from our own.

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  • Dave Maier

    Naturally I am sympathetic to your rejection of “absolute truth,” whatever that is. But while it’s true that realists tend to lump all of their opponents together under the blanket term “relativism” (then telling us, as if we had never heard this before, that it’s self-refuting, so ha), there’s no reason to follow them in this use. Whatever your position is, for the love of all that’s holy good, call it something else. (If not, realists will appear on the thread and inform you, in a tone suggesting that you had never heard this before, that relativism is self-refuting, so ha.) What’s wrong with “perspectivism”? Then part of your exposition can be why “perspectivism” isn’t the same thing as “relativism”. I’d like to see that last bit myself, actually, as what you say about geocentrism sounds awfully close to conceptual-scheme relativism.

    Also, interesting link about the guy from Stony Brook. Nothing would be easier than to misunderstand what’s going on with that guy (not that I *do* understand, mind you!).

  • I see your point. But I’m used to having to explain myself over and over, and getting heat from people who object to the way I advocate for positions that don’t ostensibly seem outrageous or unreasonable. Even after I’ve distanced myself from climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, I’ve been accused of lending support to those sorts of crackpots. Nuance isn’t exactly thick on the ground in the massage-board jungle.

  • al kimeea

    Latour mentions <- link

    “My argument is that a certain form of critical spirit has sent us down the wrong path, encouraging us to fight the wrong enemies and, worst of all, to be considered as friends by the wrong sort of allies because of a little mistake in the definition of its main target. The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism.”

    Latour once said Ramses II could not have died of TB because the bacillus wasn’t found until 1882…

  • Dave Maier

    Yes, he said both of those things. But 1) what do you think he meant by the latter, and 2) what’s your point in citing the former? (2a: what’s the “little mistake” he thinks “we” made?)

  • al kimeea


    Did Ramses II die of TB?
    – there’s a link, you tell me

    as for the latter, Latour was referring to climate-change deniers, if you’d read the link you’d know that and:

    Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by man-made pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.

    “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,” he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.

    It’s what any good crank does to sell their snake-oil…

  • Al, how is this relevant? I never even mentioned Latour. Do you have anything to add to this particular discussion?

  • Dave Maier

    So you don’t get what Latour was saying in either case (that’s what I suspected, but I didn’t just want to assume it). That’s okay, we don’t (as Shem notes) have to talk about Latour (not a big fan anyway, myself).

  • martin_exp(pi*sqrt(163))

    it’s interesting to note that copernicus himself wasn’t very happy with

    “… people are looking at the same data, but creating different models to arrange and interpret it.”

    in the preface of his “on the revolutions” (addressed to the pope) he criticized that the astronomers were not able to infer the order of the planets (especially of the inferior planets) and the size of their orbits (without additional assumptions). this is what the “monster analogy” is about:

    “Nor could they elicit or deduce from the eccentrics the principal consideration, that is, the structure of the universe and the true symmetry of its parts. On the contrary, their experience was just like some one taking from various places hands, feet, a head, and other pieces, very well depicted, it may be, but not for the representation of a single person; since these fragments would not belong to one another at all, a monster rather than a man would be put together from them.”

    the “pieces” are each planet with his own deferent and epicyle, say, but it was to some extent arbitrary how the planets relate to each other.

    “Having thus assumed the motions which I ascribe to the earth later on in the volume, by long and intense study I finally found that if the motions of the other planets are correlated with the orbiting of the earth, and are computed for the revolution of each planet, not only do their phenomena follow therefrom but also the order and size of all the planets and spheres, and heaven itself is so linked together that in no portion of it can anything be shifted without disrupting the remaining parts and the universe as a whole.”

    also, one shouldn’t forget that even the ancient greeks knew that if the earth orbits around the sun we should observe stellar parallaxes (a new piece of data or evidence).* this is something which we weren’t able to measure until the 19th century, after kepler and newton.

    *) another interesting detail: “James Bradley first tried to measure stellar parallaxes in 1729. The stellar movement proved too insignificant for his telescope, but he instead discovered the aberration of light[6] …”

  • al kimeea

    Not unexpected. So what was he saying? I’d really like to know.

  • al kimeea

    You distancing yourself from wackaloons does not stop snake-oil peddlers from spitting out scientism when their farrago of nonsense is questioned…

  • You distancing yourself from wackaloons does not stop snake-oil peddlers from spitting out scientism when their farrago of nonsense is questioned…

    Um, no, but it should stop rational people from pretending that I’m somehow defending that nonsense.

    I’ve asked you several times not to swoop in here with completely off-topic posts. Why is asking you to be reasonable such an unreasonable request?

  • al kimeea

    LOL there are none so blind as those who refuse to see

  • You win, Al.

    I’ll sure miss you.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    How is “the doctrine that there are no absolute truths” itself not a claim of an absolute truth? ‘There are absolutely no absolute truths!’ said the Cretan.

    Or does relativism allow that from “a particular frame of reference”, truth may be absolute?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    It’s not that all ways of knowing are equally valid, just that there’s no one universally valid way of knowing.

    Okay, which ways of knowing are more valid than others, and which way of knowing does one use to know that?

  • The point is that every truth has a frame of reference, in the same way every observation implies an observer. As I mention in the OP, taking a perspectival approach to truth and knowledge makes us more aware of our responsibility for understanding the perspective of others and presenting our version of the truth in the form of cogent argumentation and not appeals to absolute authority.

    Do you think there’s anything wrong with trying to be empathetic and persuasive?

  • Do you prefer to believe that there’s only one universally valid way of knowing? How do you know this?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    You once again answer a question by asking a question. You must think this makes you clever.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Trying to understand why someone thinks something that’s incorrect and persuading them otherwise, does not require one to validate the ‘truth’ of that incorrect belief.

  • This is a complicated matter, that’s all. Why am I obliged to explain in detail why there’s more than one way of knowing, but you’re not obliged to explain why there’s only one?

  • Who’s to say one is correct and the other incorrect? In terms of argumentation theory, we’re not presuming to correct other people’s mistaken beliefs, but rather we’re constructing cogent arguments to try to persuade others in a social setting. The assumption is that reasonable people are responsive to cogent arguments, not that the evidence speaks for itself.

  • You mention motivated reasoning at the end of this post and that is absolutely a huge part of human cognition. I definitely agree that scientists have bias just like anyone else. An easy example is how some scientists develop “pet theories” that are central to their work and they can be pretty biased in ignoring criticisms of their theory.

    However, we can study this kind of bias scientifically within social psychology (my own area actually). So I’m having trouble following why studying motivated reasoning needs to be approached from outside the realm science. Also, any decent scientist should have been inundated with information about experimenter bias. What can scientists learn from relativism and apply to their work that they can’t learn from a research methods course and some scientific literature on motivated reasoning?

  • Hey, Matthew!

    I didn’t necessarily mean that the bias has to be studied from outside science. I recently read Cogent Science in Context: The Science Wars, Argumentation Theory, and Habermas, by William Rehg, and it gave me a basic overview of the way scientists, sociologists, and philosophers of science approach professional argumentation. Rehg is much less receptive to relativist ideas than I, but he emphasizes the importance of cogent argumentation rather than evidence as the basis of a coherent position.

    I’m not a scientist, so I’m much more interested in the cultural importance of a perspectival approach to truth. In fact, the way laymen like me use scientific information is frequently just an appeal to authority. Since science is so important to human well-being as well as the state of the environment, we need to find ways to understand the real causes of culture wars about ostensibly scientific matters like evolution, global warming and vaccination without having them turn into factoid wars where we berate our benighted foes for their denial.

  • Cogent Science in Context looks interesting, thank you for sharing! I do think scientists should be mindful of philosophy of science in their work. Scientific data is essentially meaningless if the corresponding theory and methods are flawed. Scientific theories should follow a logical progression and the terms used should be defined well so maybe Rehg goes into that in his book?

    It seems like your second point on cultural truth seems to dive into why people believe what they do in spite of conflicting evidence. I agree that “factoid wars” can certainly be unproductive. If we don’t understand the psychological motivations as to why someone will reject evidence, then no amount of facts will change their minds. But again, from my perspective, this seems to be a scientific question. We can study specific cognitive mechanisms that make people reject evidence. We can also study the social forces that create and sustain such cognitive mechanisms. So is the “perspectival approach to truth” you mention above a kind of metaphor for the psychology of motivated reasoning?

  • Richard Sanderson

    The culture wars and science wars could have taught us important lessons about the fluid, contextual, and perspectival nature of truth and knowledge.

    This, and so much of the above, could have come from the mouth of William Lane Craig or any two-bit religious apologist.

  • Richard Sanderson

    “Why am I obliged to explain in detail why there’s more than one way of knowing”

    Because you sound like you are parroting someone who offers “psychic” services to law enforcement, in a case of a missing child.

  • Richard Sanderson

    PS – It is rather shocking at how the “non-religious” community on Patheos and elsewhere, have embraced a lot of woo. I guess that is why the skeptic movement collapsed. The “skeptics” simply were not skeptical. Oh, and of course, scum like PZ Myers were involved. That didn’t help.

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    As Dire Straits put it: two men say they’re Jesus; one of them’s got to be wrong.

    Anyway, why on earth would anyone try to argue in favor of a belief, if they weren’t confident of it being correct?

  • Matt Cavanaugh

    Because I asked first.

  • Really? I would have thought WLC and his ilk believe that truth and knowledge derive from the authority of The Big G and are therefore anything but contextual.

  • Sure, the one making the argument thinks he or she is correct. But the point is to persuade people who have a different interpretation of experimental results, or a different take on cultural realities. It’s acknowledging that there’s more than one way to approach and interpret the facts of the matter, and that there’s a dialogical process involved in establishing consensus.

  • Scientific data is essentially meaningless if the corresponding theory and methods are flawed. Scientific theories should follow a logical progression and the terms used should be defined well so maybe Rehg goes into that in his book?

    Sort of. Rehg describes a lot of approaches to scientific argumentation and makes it clear that the process is a lot more complex than experiment-evidence-consensus. That’s why he emphasizes the idea of cogency: evidence doesn’t speak for itself, it has to be presented, assessed, and argued in social settings where experts interact within and between professional, economic, and ideological contexts. Just looking at scientific data on a logical or rhetorical basis ignores the social realities of inquiry. I’ll admit that as a layman, I couldn’t always understand Rehg’s justification for his hair-splitting, so I’d be interested in what someone with a research background like yours thinks of the book.

    We can study specific cognitive mechanisms that make people reject evidence. We can also study the social forces that create and sustain such cognitive mechanisms. So is the “perspectival approach to truth” you mention above a kind of metaphor for the psychology of motivated reasoning?

    I think that in a lot of instances, we tend to fetishize evidence and imbue it with authority merely to suit our rhetorical ends. Evidence should be important in a circumscribed context like a jury trial or a scientific experiment. However, even Rehg dismisses the idea that data points have any kind of logically compelling power; that’s why cogent argumentation is so crucial. It could be that we characterize someone as rejecting evidence simply because our arguments lack cogency. One person’s “evidence-based beliefs” are another person’s “motivated reasoning.”

  • I read the first chapter of his book and I think I have a better understanding of it. To me, it seems Rehg is grappling with how to best formulate scientific arguments to a variety of audiences (i.e. social contexts) and he studies this from more of a philosophical and linguistic stance. I think that’s interesting and it’s necessary to acknowledge other forces that prevent people from understanding the science we present to them.

    However, I think the different “ways of knowing” appears to reflect different social and psychological forces that bias us to interpret data differently. For example, there is a lot of research on how both liberals and conservatives will engage in “science denialism” to fit their ideologies. You can present a liberal/conservative participant with a brief summary and data from a gun control study and they will interpret the data in a way that fits their ideological narrative! But there is still a “right” answer that each of them may have missed! Our brain simply pays more attention to the things that confirm our beliefs, and less attention to the things that do not confirm our beliefs.

    Another approach for getting people to understand scientific information is to present it in a way that is consistent with their values. For example, if you can explain to a conservative how solar energy will generate American jobs, they may be more likely to support it. But again, the different social contexts (and social identities) that bias our information processing has been well-studied in the social sciences. And for scientists talking to other scientists, there are certainly ways to better formulate our theories so they are logical and rigorous. Scientists don’t always do perfect science of course, but we can clearly see a great deal of scientific progress from humans overtime!

  • Dave Maier

    What’d I tell you, Shem?

  • I owe you a fiver, Dave.

  • I think we had a similar discussion on anti-science in the comments somewhere.

    This OP is wonderfully written and well thought out.

    I can’t believe I didn’t see it before. Thanks.