Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The absolute truth about relativism


I don’t write very often about relativism.  Part of the reason is that few if any of the critics I find myself engaging with -- for example, fellow analytic philosophers of a secular or progressive bent, or scientifically inclined atheists -- take relativism any more seriously than I do.  It just doesn’t come up.  Part of the reason is that many other people have more or less already said what needs to be said about the subject.  It’s been done to death.
 
It is also possible to overstate the prevalence of relativism outside the ranks of natural scientists, analytic philosophers, theists, and other self-consciously non-relativist thinkers.
   
As Michael Lynch notes in his book True to Life: Why Truth Matters, remarks that can superficially seem to be expressions of relativism might, on more careful consideration, turn out to have a different significance.  For example, when, during a conversation on some controversial subject, someone says something like “Well, it’s a matter of opinion” or “Who’s to say?”, this may not be intended to imply that there is no objective fact of the matter about which view is correct.  The person may instead have simply decided that the discussion has reached an uncomfortable impasse and would like to change the subject. 

On the other hand, many people seem not to understand the difference between the claim that there is no agreement about such-and-such and the claim that there is no objective truth of the matter about such-and-such.  Hence even many people who are primarily concerned to assert the first proposition rather than the second may nevertheless affirm the second one too if pressed.  And in that case they are at least implicitly relativists.  Thus, while Lynch is right that there are probably fewer self-conscious relativists than meets the eye, that is not necessarily because the people in question are all self-consciously non-relativist.  Many people just have confused or inchoate ideas about these things.

Moreover, outside of analytic philosophy and natural science, there are many academics who do express relativist views of some variety or other.  And of course, students often evince relativist attitudes.  (Every philosophy professor is familiar with the notorious “freshman relativist,” whom Simon Blackburn once characterized as “a nightmare figure of introductory classes in ethics.”)  So the subject is worth addressing now and then.  And since I get asked about it myself from time to time, I thought I’d write up a post summarizing the main problems with relativism.

Truth and relativism

What is relativism, anyway?  The best way to approach that question is by asking first what truth is.  A lot of ink has been spilled on that question, but the traditional notion -- the commonsense notion and the notion one finds in philosophers like Aristotle and Aquinas -- is that truth is a matter of conformity or correspondence between thought and reality (and, by extension, between language and reality, since we express our thoughts in language).  You have the thought that the cat is on the mat, and perhaps you go on to express this thought by uttering the sentence “The cat is on the mat.”  If the cat really is on the mat, then your thought is true, and so is the sentence by which you expressed it, because in that case the thought and the sentence conform or correspond to the way things really are.  And if the cat is not really on the mat, then your thought and utterance are false, because they fail to conform or correspond to reality.

There is nothing especially fancy or sophisticated about this.  In particular, there is nothing in it that entails a commitment to some high falutin’ “theory of truth” which attempts to analyze “correspondence” in terms of a “mirroring” relationship between Cartesian inner representations and external reality, or in terms of some sort of structural relationship between propositions and facts, or in terms of disquotation, or whatever.  Such theories are of philosophical interest, but we needn’t get into them here, because it is the commonsense notion itself -- rather than merely some technical way of developing it -- that relativism takes aim at.

Again, common sense and traditional philosophy alike say that there is or can be a conformity or correspondence between thought and reality -- between our beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. on the one hand, and the way things really are on the other.  Relativism denies this.  There are different ways one might formulate this denial.  One might say, for example, that there are no such things as true beliefs, opinions, statements, etc.  There are only people’s beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. themselves, and that’s that.  Truth drops away as a mere fiction.  People call some of these more widely accepted beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. “truths,” but this is at best a useful fiction, and we should (on this view) never make reference to “truths” without using scare quotes.  Let’s summarize this formulation as follows:

(I) There is no truth.

But the relativist need not say flatly that there is no truth.  He might say instead (and perhaps most relativists would say instead) that there is truth, but not of an absolute sort.  There is what is true for you, what is true for me, what is true for this culture, what is true for that culture, and so on.  But there is no such thing as what is true full stop, no such thing as what is true absolutely, apart from what different individuals and cultures happen to think.  That is to say, there is only what is true in a relative way (relative to those individuals, or to those cultures, or whatever).  Let’s summarize this formulation as follows:

(II) There is no absolute truth.

Formulation (II) is clearly a formulation of relativism, but some readers might wonder whether (I) is really a formulation of relativism.  For the proponent of (I) is saying not merely that truth is relative, but that it is non-existent.  He is eliminating truth, rather than relativizing it.  However, to the extent that the advocate of (I) is willing to use the word “truth” as long as there are scare quotes around it, it seems he is plausibly counted as a kind of relativist.  He is saying, in effect, that there is what this group or individual falsely calls “truth,” what that group or individual falsely calls “truth,” but there is no actual truth at all.  And insofar as he is thereby emphasizing, as the advocate of (II) does, that there is no genuine relation of conformity, correspondence, or truth between these different opinions on the one and reality on the other, he is saying something pretty close to what the advocate of (II) is saying.

Indeed, I would say that he is essentially saying the same thing as what the advocate of (II) is saying, but in a more straightforward way.  Hence it is useful to consider formulation (I) as well as formulation (II), since (II) really collapses into (I), or so I will argue below.

(Momentarily to digress: There is a parallel here to eliminativism and reductionism in philosophy of mind.  Eliminativism explicitly denies that some mental phenomenon or other -- qualia, say, or intentionality -- really exists.  Reductionism does not explicitly deny that it exists, but claims that it is “really” something other than what it appears to be.  A reductionist might hold, for example, that the quale of an experience is “really” “nothing but” a neural process of such-and-such a type.  Like John Searle, I’ve long argued that reductionist theories in philosophy of mind tend to be disguised versions of eliminativism, implicitly denying the existence of the phenomena they claim to be explaining.  Now, the formulations of relativism I’ve been considering -- formulations (I) and (II) -- are, I think, like that.  Formulation (I) explicitly denies that truth exists, while formulation (II) does not, but instead claims that truth is “really” something other than what it appears to be.  In particular, it is not a matter of a relation of correspondence between sets of beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. and a reality external to them, but rather something entirely internal to sets of beliefs, opinions, statements, etc.  And just as reductionism in philosophy of mind collapses (I argue) into eliminativism, so too does formulation (II) collapse (I will argue) into (I).  End of digression.) 

So far we’ve been talking about what is sometimes called global relativism, which denies that there is absolute truth of any sort -- moral, scientific, religious, you name it.  Local relativism is less radical.  It acknowledges that there is absolute truth in some domains, such as natural science.  But it denies, of certain specific domains of discourse, that they include any absolute truths.  Moral relativism would be the best-known version of local relativism.  It holds that, while some truths (such as scientific truths) might be absolute, no moral truths are absolute.  I’ll come back to moral relativism, but let’s look now at the central problem with global relativism, whether formulated in terms of (I) or (II).

Either self-defeating or only trivially true

The problem with formulation (I) is pretty well-known:  It is self-defeating.  For suppose we ask about (I) -- the proposition that there is no truth -- whether it is itself true or not.  If the proponent of (I) says that (I) is true, then it follows that there is at least one truth, namely (I) itself.  But in that case (I) is false, since what it says that there are no truths.  So, if (I) is true, then it is false.  Suppose the proponent of (I) says instead, then, that (I) is not true.  Then in that case too, (I) is false.  So, either way it is false.

Now, the proponent of (I) may respond by saying that this objection presupposes that there is such a thing as truth and falsity, and that that is precisely what he denies.  He might say: “Yes, if I were to claim that (I) is true, then I would indeed be contradicting myself.  But I’m not saying that (I) is true.  But neither do I acknowledge that it is false.  Rather, I refuse to speak in terms of truth or falsity at all.”

The trouble with this response is that if the proponent of (I) refuses to characterize his utterances as either true or false, then he cannot really claim to be asserting any proposition or statement at all, since a proposition or statement is susceptible of being either true or false.  His utterance of “There is no truth” will therefore have to be taken as a mere string of sounds lacking meaning or semantic content -- like a grunt or a moan -- rather than as a literal English sentence.  He won’t literally be saying anything with which we can intelligibly either agree or disagree.  He also won’t be saying anything that is logically inconsistent with maintaining that there is such a thing as truth, for the simple reason that a meaningless sound cannot be logically inconsistent with anything, since, lacking meaning or propositional content, it cannot bear any logical properties or relations (consistency, inconsistency, entailment, etc.) at all.  Formulation (I) will therefore turn out to be of no more philosophical interest than yelling “Aargh!” is of philosophical interest.

Suppose the relativist opts instead, then, for formulation (II).  He might suppose that he will be able thereby to avoid the problems with formulation (I), since he doesn’t deny that there is truth, full stop, but only that there is absolute truth.  But in fact he’s not out of the woods.  For suppose we ask about (II) -- again, the proposition that there is no absolute truth -- whether it is itself absolutely true or not.  If the proponent of (II) says that (II) is absolutely true, then it follows that there is at least one absolute truth, namely (II) itself.  But in that case (II) is false, since what it says is that there are no absolute truths.  So, if (II) is absolutely true, then it is false.  Answering “Yes” to our question will thus put the proponent of (II) into the same bind that the proponent of (I) is in if he answers “Yes” to the parallel question facing him.

So, suppose instead that the proponent of (II) answers “No.”  In other words, suppose he says that (II) is not absolutely true, but only relatively true.  It is true for him and for other relativists, but not true for anyone else.  But what exactly does this mean?

It cannot mean that the proponent’s belief in (II) corresponds to reality -- even if just “for him” (whatever that would mean) -- because that would entail that there is something external to the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. of individuals and cultures by virtue of which the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. are either true or false.  And in that case the relativist would be saying that (II) is true absolutely, which (as we’ve just seen) would be self-defeating.  So, he has to mean something else.  But what?

The only interpretation left of the claim that (II) is true “for him” would be that (II) is somehow true by virtue of something internal to his set of beliefs, opinions, statements, etc.  In particular, it must mean that the belief that (II) is true happens to be among the members of his personal set of beliefs and opinions, and perhaps also that it follows from some of the other beliefs or opinions he has in that set.  And by acknowledging that (II), being true only relatively and not absolutely, is not true for non-relativists, he must mean merely that the belief that (II) is true is not among the members of their personal sets of beliefs and opinions.  For the relativist to assert that (II) is true for him but not for others ends up being equivalent to saying something like: “I don’t myself believe in absolute truth, but other people do.” 

But that, of course, is completely trivial and uninteresting, telling us nothing we didn’t already know.  Certainly it does not entail that there is no absolute truth.  It’s just a report about some opinion the relativist finds he has floating around in his mind.  And what more are we supposed to say to that than: “Um, thank you for sharing”?

But it’s worse than that.  For the proponent of (II) is not merely making the trivial assertion that he happens to have this belief floating around in his mind.  He’s also denying that there is anything more to a belief’s being true than it’s being among the beliefs one has floating around in one’s mind.  And how, exactly, does that differ from what the proponent of (I) thinks? 

The proponent of (I) says: “There are no true beliefs, opinions, statements, etc.  There are just the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. themselves, and that’s that.  People falsely call some belief, opinion, statement, etc. ‘true’ when it happens to be among the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. they affirm.”

The proponent of (II), on analysis, essentially says: “There are no absolutely true beliefs, opinions, statements, etc.  There are the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. themselves, and a person’s belief, opinion, statement, etc. is relatively true when it happens to be among the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. he affirms.”

Verbally these claims are different, since the proponent of (II) adds the adverbs “absolutely” and “relatively” so that he can retain the word “true.”  But substantively they are identical.  Saying “There is relative truth” amounts to the same thing as saying “There is ‘truth’ in the sense of there being what people call ‘true’.”  And like the proponent of (I), the proponent of (II) thinks that there is nothing more to truth than that -- nothing more than being called “true.”  So, the latter’s notion of “relative truth” is really just the same as the former’s notion of “’truth’-in-scare-quotes.”  In which case, saying “There is no absolute truth” does not really differ after all from saying “There is no truth” -- unsurprisingly, since what the proponent of (II) calls “absolute truth” is just what common sense calls “truth.”  Formulation (II) thus really amounts after all to formulation (I), and seems not to only because the proponent of (II) uses “truth” and “true” in a novel way.  And thus it inherits all the problems of (I).

Bad arguments

So, formulations (I) and (II) of relativism are ultimately incoherent.  Another problem is that there are no good arguments for either proposition.  One well-known “popular” argument for relativism in its different versions appeals to the fact of disagreement as evidence for relativism.  The argument might be summarized as follows:

(1) Individuals and cultures differ in their beliefs, opinions, etc.

(2) So, no beliefs, opinions, etc. are absolutely true but only relatively true.

Though many undergraduates seem to find this “reasoning” compelling, it is, of course, an absolutely atrocious argument.  The fallacy should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, we can illustrate it with a simple example.  Suppose that because of a heat mirage, Fred believes that there is water on the road ahead of him, whereas Bob, who is standing at the spot on the road Fred is looking at, believes that there is no water there.  Fred and Bob thus differ in their beliefs about whether there is water on the road.  The reason, though, is not because there is no absolute truth about whether there is water on the road.  There is, absolutely, no water on the road, and Fred is just wrong.  The reason for their difference of opinion is rather that Fred is making a mistake because of the illusion generated by the heat.  So, a difference of beliefs doesn’t by itself entail relativism, so that the inference from (1) to (2) is a non sequitur

A relativist might claim that this objection begs the question against him, but that is not the case.  The objection doesn’t presuppose that there is in fact absolute truth.  Rather, the objection merely points out that the thesis that there is absolute truth but that people can make mistakes about it is an alternative way to make sense of disagreements between them, so that the relativist needs to appeal to more than premise (1) if he is validly to infer to his conclusion (2).  Indeed, if anyone is begging the question here, it is the relativist, because to get from (1) to (2) validly he will have to add some premise to the effect that differences in beliefs, opinions, etc. cannot be made sense of if truth is absolute, but only if it is relative.  And no one who is not already a relativist would accept such a premise.

On the other hand, as we have seen, formulation (II) of relativism, if it is going to avoid self-refutation, will have to be read in such a way that it is trivially true.  In particular, it is going to have to be interpreted as the claim that the relativist does not personally believe in absolute truth -- a claim which is, of course, correct, but which in no way entails that there is no such thing as absolute truth.  Relativism, on this interpretation, reduces to the trivially true thesis that people have different beliefs.  In that case, we might read (2) as just a colorful restatement of (1).  That is to say, we might read the claim that there is no absolute truth but only relative truth as entailing nothing more than that people have different beliefs and opinions.  In that case, the inference from (1) to (2) will be tautologous and thus perfectly valid.  But (2) will also end up saying something that the non-relativist can happily accept, since (of course) the non-relativist does not deny that (1) is true.

So, the inference from (1) to (2) is either a non sequitur, or question-begging, or a tautology.   And that makes it a very bad argument indeed. 

Another sort of argument for relativism is the postmodernist appeal to the influence that cultural assumptions, those in positions of power, etc. have on the beliefs that people hold.  The idea here is that what we think we “know” is what has been handed on to us by our parents, churches, schools and textbooks, governmental authorities, mass media, and so on.  And all of these sources reflect certain vested interests.  The content of the “knowledge” passed on would be different if the sources reflected different interests, and indeed is different in different societies.  This is similar to the appeal to disagreement between individuals and cultures, which we just discussed, but the emphasis on the vested interests of those in power adds a novel sinister element that is supposed to make it especially doubtful that what we take ourselves to “know” reflects any absolute truth.  (The relationship between knowledge and power is a theme often associated with Michel Foucault, though as many commentators have emphasized, it doesn’t follow that Foucault himself really intended to draw a relativist conclusion from it.) 

This argument might be summarized as follows:

(3) What people regard as true is radically influenced by their cultural surroundings, by who holds positions of power in their society, etc., and by the vested interests reflected in these sources of purported truth.

(4) So, there is no truth, or at least no absolute truth.

This is also a very bad argument.  One problem with it is that it is, like the previous argument considered, simply a non sequitur.  And once again, a simple example will illustrate the problem.  Suppose you and I are in a bar and that it is raining heavily outside but that I don’t realize that it is.  Suppose you get me to believe that it is, but not in the ordinary way, e.g. by just telling me or by getting me to look out the window.  Rather, suppose you employ various techniques to brainwash or hypnotize me into believing that it is raining.  And suppose that your reason for doing so is that you want to make absolutely sure that I will not leave the bar but will stay inside it and buy everybody another round of drinks.  Of course the example is silly, but it illustrates the point that the fact that someone has, for selfish motives, manipulated me into believing something, does not entail that what I’ve been manipulated into believing is not absolutely true.  In the example, it is still absolutely true that it is raining heavily outside.  The fact that I’ve been brainwashed by a person who just wants to get a free drink does not change that in the least.   But the same thing is true when we’re thinking on the large scale of societies and the cultural and political institutions that shape opinions within them.  Even if opinions were shaped in the most manipulative way possible and for the most suspect of motives, it simply wouldn’t follow that the opinions are not true, and certainly it wouldn’t follow that there is no absolute truth of any sort.

Once again, it will not do for the relativist to claim that this objection begs the question, because it does not beg the question.  It does not presuppose that there is in fact absolute truth.  Rather, it simply points out that there are hypothetical scenarios in which there could be absolute truth even though people are manipulated into believing things for suspect motives.  Hence the relativist needs to add some further premise to (3) if he is validly going to derive (4) from it.  And if he adds a premise to the effect that absolute truth could not even in principle exist where people’s beliefs are shaped by cultural circumstances reflective of vested interests, etc.,  then he will be the one begging the question.

A second problem with this sort of argument is that it is self-defeating -- and not merely because the relativist conclusion, considered just by itself, is, for the reasons set out earlier, self-defeating.  The argument would also undermine both its own premise and the inference from the premise to the conclusion.  For why should we accept the premise, and why should we accept whatever canons of inference would license reasoning from the premise to the conclusion?  Maybe those too are things we accept only because we’ve been manipulated into doing so via our cultural surroundings by people who have vested interests, etc.  E.g. maybe Foucault’s own books are a subtle part of the apparatus by which those in power maintain their hold over us, and are for that reason suspect.

This brings us to a third, related problem with the argument in question, which is that it is never applied consistently.  It is only ever deployed in order to undermine moral and political views the relativist doesn’t like, but not in order to undermine moral and political views the relativist does like -- even though it would in fact undermine the latter no less than the former. 

Hence, if religious claims,  or free market economics, or traditional views about sexual morality, or otherwise “right-wing” ideas are being defended by someone, the postmodernist relativist will respond by saying that we live in a society that is still very reactionary and whose ruling classes benefit from people’s accepting such conservative ideas, that contrary left-wing views are often denigrated and made invisible by being kept out of textbooks and mass media, that we ought therefore to regard all “right-wing” arguments with suspicion, etc.

But if secularist claims, or socialist economics, or liberal attitudes about sexuality, or otherwise left-wing ideas are being defended by someone, the postmodernist relativist does not respond by saying that we live in a society that has gotten very secularist and liberal in recent decades, that the journalists, professors, and entertainers who shape popular culture favor these secularist and liberal tendencies and try to promote them, that contrary conservative ideas are often denigrated and made invisible by being kept out of college textbooks and syllabi and ridiculed in movies, television, and other mass media, that we ought therefore to regard all left-wing arguments with suspicion, etc.

Now there is no non-question-begging reason why postmodernist relativism would support the first line of argument but not the second.  So, to be consistent, the postmodernist relativist will have to apply his relativism across the board and admit that it takes down all ideas – left-wing, right-wing, secular, religious, you name it.  Indeed, it will take down postmodernist relativism itself.  For given the postmodernist relativist line of argument, any system of ideas, including postmodernist relativism itself, may for all we know merely be something we’ve come to accept because we’ve been indoctrinated into it within a certain culture whose dominant members benefit from our doing so.  For example, postmodernist left-wing types benefit from students and educated people taking postmodernist relativism seriously, because this will help to promote the social and political agenda postmodernist left-wing types favor, will help to enhance the reputations of postmodernist left-wing types as serious social critics to whom attention must be paid, etc.  So, by the postmodernist relativist’s own criteria, we should apply a “hermeneutics of suspicion” to postmodernist relativism itself.

Suppose, to avoid this result, the postmodernist relativist claims that the truth of left-wing ideas somehow transcends cultural circumstances and power relationships within a society in a way that “right-wing” ideas allegedly do not, and that this is what justifies him in applying his analysis to criticize the “right-wing” ideas but not the left-wing ideas.  The problem with this is that he is now admitting that there is after all such a thing as absolute truth and has therefore given up relativism.

So, there is no way to resolve this inconsistency.   Either the postmodernist relativist applies his relativism across the board, in which case it takes down even the left-wing ideas he wants to promote, including postmodernist relativism itself; or he does not apply it across the board, in which case he ends up admitting after all that there is absolute truth.  Either way, postmodernist relativism, like other versions of relativism, ends up being self-defeating. 

Yet another argument sometimes thought to support relativism is the appeal to tolerance.  The idea here is that belief in absolute truth leads to dogmatism and intolerance, which can therefore be counteracted if we affirm instead that truth is relative.  But there are two problems with this argument.  First, the conclusion doesn’t follow from the premise.  Even if it were the case that relativism would promote tolerance and undermine dogmatism, that simply doesn’t entail that relativism is correct.  Even if believing in Santa Claus had various psychological benefits, it wouldn’t follow that Santa Claus exists; even if believing that Sally is in love with you would make you happier and healthier, the sad truth may nevertheless be that Sally hates your guts; and in general, the fact that believing a certain proposition p may have various good effects, by itself is no reason to think that p is true.

Second, the premise is in any event false.  Relativism does not promote tolerance and undermine dogmatism.  On the contrary, relativism promotes dogmatism and intolerance.  As Lynch points out, if there’s only what is true for me and what is true for you, but no such thing as what is true full stop, then there is also no such thing as being wrong, being in error.  To be true, on the relativist view, just amounts to being a part of some person or culture’s set of beliefs, opinions, etc.  And for any of these beliefs, opinions, etc. to be wrong or erroneous would require that there be absolute truth over and above these sets of beliefs and opinions, to which they fail to correspond.  But if you are never wrong -- if everything you believe is true for you -- then why shouldn’t you dogmatically cling to whatever it is you believe?  And why not go the next step and deny toleration to those who disagree with you?  (Indeed, why couldn’t those who reject tolerance as an ideal defend their rejection on relativist grounds?  Why can’t they say: “It is true for me and for my culture that intolerance and dogmatism are good, so nyah nyah!”)

Moral relativism

Finally, we come to moral relativism.  Suppose someone rejects global relativism, so as to avoid all the problems identified so far, and instead endorses only a local form of relativism, with respect to moral claims specifically.  He admits that there is absolute truth in some domains of discourse, such as natural science, at least some parts of philosophy, and so forth.  But he claims that there is no absolute truth where morality is concerned.  There are the moral claims you think are true, the moral claims I think are true, the moral claims this culture says are true, the moral claims that culture says are true, and so forth.  But there is, the moral relativist holds, no such thing as a moral claim that is true full stop, in an absolute way.

So far, this version of relativism will not be self-defeating in the way that global relativism is.  But it nevertheless has problems that are similar to the problems with global relativism.  First of all, recall that I argued that formulation (II) of global relativism collapses into formulation (I).  That is to say, to claim that all truth is relative is implicitly to deny that there is any such thing as truth at all.  The claim that there is no absolute truth but only relative truth really differs only verbally and not substantively from the claim that there is no truth, but only the beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. that people falsely call “true.”  But by the same token, saying that there is no absolute moral truth but only relative moral truth really differs only verbally, and not substantively, from the claim that there is no moral truth, but only the moral beliefs, opinions, statements, etc. that people falsely call “true.”  So, though moral relativism seems not to be eliminating morality but only relativizing it, in reality it is eliminating it in a disguised way.  Implicitly it is saying that there are no moral truths at all, that morality as such is an illusion.

One consequence of this is that it will not do to claim that moral relativism is any more likely to promote tolerance and undermine dogmatism than global relativism is.  On the contrary, moral relativism too can only give aid and comfort to intolerance and dogmatism.  For if morality is an illusion, there can be no moral reason not to be intolerant and dogmatic.

But even if moral relativism did not implicitly undermine all morality, it would still facilitate rather than undermine intolerance and dogmatism.  For if there is only what is morally true for me and what is morally true for you, but no such thing as what is morally true full stop, then there is also no such thing as being morally wrong or in error.  For, again, if there is nothing outside your set of beliefs (in this case, beliefs about morality) by reference to which they can be judged wrong, then there just is no such thing as being wrong.  And if you can’t be morally wrong, why shouldn’t you be dogmatic about your moral views, and intolerant of competing views?  Again, why couldn’t someone claim, on relativist grounds: “For me and for my culture, it is morally good to be dogmatic about our moral beliefs and to be intolerant of anyone who disagrees with them”?

There are other problems with moral relativism.  One of them is that the standard popular argument for it is just a variation on the first argument for global relativism considered earlier.  In particular, it is an inference from the premise that cultures differ in their moral beliefs to the conclusion that there are no absolute moral truths.  And this argument is just as bad as that earlier argument.  For one thing, it too is simply a non sequitur.  (You might as well argue that since cultures have disagreed about geography -- since some of them left North and South America off their maps, included Atlantis, etc. -- it follows that there are no absolute geographical truths.)  And as with the earlier argument, attempts to save this argument from being a non sequitur will only turn it into either a question-begging argument or a tautology.

Another well-known problem with moral relativism enters the picture if we add to it (as some moral relativists would) the thesis that it is wrong to judge other cultures except by their own moral standards.  If this were correct, then we couldn’t condemn chattel slavery, genocide, etc. if these practices reflected the moral norms of the societies in which they occurred.  Indeed, we would have to criticize those who worked to end slavery, genocide, etc. for violating the norms of their cultures.  Yet many relativists would (rightly) condemn these practices and praise those who worked to end them.

The problem of inconsistency runs deeper than this, though.  For consider again the thesis that it is wrong to judge other cultures except by their own moral standards.  Is this thesis itself absolutely true or only relatively true?  If the moral relativist says that it is absolutely true, then he has admitted that there is after all such a thing as absolute moral truth, and thereby undermined his own position.  But if he says that it is only relatively true, then his assertion turns out to amount to little more than the uninteresting claim that moral relativists think it is wrong to judge other cultures except by their own moral standards, though non-relativists don’t think this is wrong.  In other words, when coupled with the thesis in question, moral relativism, like global relativism, turns out to be either self-defeating or trivial.

So, moral relativism, like global relativism, is a complete mess.  As with any other philosophical position, there are moves that might be made to try to salvage the view, but the trick in this case is to do so without either falling back into the incoherence problems we’ve considered, or ending up so qualifying the position that it is no longer really relativist at all.  And that is, I submit, a trick which cannot be pulled off.

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177 comments:

moduspownens said...

Perhaps, this is a naive question -- as I already have what I think is satisfactory answer -- but then why do so many of the erudite leftists embrace this postmodernism and relativism? E.g., Rorty or continentals like Adorno. It's a clearly identifiable mistake, conflating the ontic with the epistemic/doxastic. Bill Vallicella on his blog aptly and hilariously calls it the "continental shuffle," and this says nothing to all the entailed incoherence Prof. Feser has spelled out. The position is untenable, yet there many who tend to it, whose ranks include some of the most influential thinkers of the past century.

My answer is that leftists don't care about truth; they only care about power and how it relates between the "haves" and the "have nots" of society. Then it's a matter of moral outrage, diagnosis and swift, decisive action in service to the end of altering the polis to conform to whatever shape their preferential vision demands it to take. Apart from the not-relativistic assumptions, both moral and ontological, taken that vitiates their dialectic while they make it, I can't help but feel dumbfounded that many of these people wholeheartedly believe in the nonsense they're espousing.

It may be because I'm a millennial and surrounded by peers who eat this stuff up -- even the philosophically-minded ones think Nietzsche is the end all, be all of philosophy -- but does anyone have a better explanation why this position is as popular as it is in non-philosophy academic and other elitist (journalists, the rich and famous) circles in addition to the masses? I'm at a loss.

DeusPrimusEst said...

Moduspownens,

A simple and direct answer presents itself: because, as has just been artfully demonstrated at length, relativism has no rational basis at all. Therefore, its apparent hegemony must be due to either 1) ignorance or 2) pure irrational will, perhaps because it is useful, or else makes one feel good/happy, etc. But you already knew this, I think. I'm sorry I can't be more helpful.

John Moore said...

It might be helpful to distinguish between truth and an expression of truth. You can think of truth as conformity or correspondence between thought and reality, but it's simpler just to say that truth is reality itself. Truth is what actually exists.

Some expressions bear a useful symbolic relationship to reality, so we can say those expressions are true. On the other hand, truth would still exist even if no one knew about it or stated it as a fact.

It's handy to speak of truth as that which exists, because it means relativists are denying anything exists at all.

Bob said...

Hennessy tastes good.

Is this an absolute truth or a relative truth?

Eoin Moloney said...

@Bob

While there are smarter people than me on here, my first idea would be to suggest that this statement is an absolutely true statement (say, "Hennessy tastes good to me") about something (namely, the enjoyable taste that *you* experience while consuming Hennessy). It just so happens to be a truth claim about an experience that is available to only one person, namely you.

Let me be corrected if I err, but isn't "tasty" something like "A taste which I like"? So, Hennessy absolutely has such-and-such a taste, but whether or not this taste is pleasurable is a question about our opinions, about what we happen to find pleasurable.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Who is this post supposed to be about? The arguments for relativism given here aren't those of anyone I know of usually identified as a relativist (e.g., Nietzche, Kuhn, Deleuze, Herder, Margolis, etc.). Is there somebody significant out there actually advancing these specific arguments?

DNW said...

"... why do so many of the erudite leftists embrace this postmodernism and relativism? ..."

Well, ask Rorty himself.

DNW said...



" Who is this post supposed to be about? The arguments for relativism given here aren't those of anyone I know ..."


Rereading the first paragraphs may help.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

DNW:

The first paragraph talks about who is not a relativist. It doesn't say anything about who actually is. The second and third paragraphs identifies Michael Lynch as someone who is not a relativist.

Perhaps you're talking about the fourth and fifth paragraphs, which identify "many people", "the people in question," "many academics," and "the freshman relativist"? That doesn't clarify things much.

Anonymous said...

The more interesting skepticism is not that truth doesn't exist, but rather that it can't be known. It therefore, practically doesn't exist.

Brandon said...

Perhaps you're talking about the fourth and fifth paragraphs, which identify "many people", "the people in question," "many academics," and "the freshman relativist"? That doesn't clarify things much.

I think he was talking about your question "Is there somebody significant out there actually advancing these specific arguments?" The post (1) is clearly not restricted to things put forward by 'significant' people and (2) does not at any point focus on any particular group of people at all; it is a general discussion of an abstract position that can be seen to be implied or suggested for different reasons by various claims or approaches to argument.

DNW said...

Thomas M. Cothran said...

DNW:

The first paragraph talks about who is not a relativist. It doesn't say anything about who actually is. The second and third paragraphs identifies Michael Lynch as someone who is not a relativist.

Perhaps you're talking about the fourth and fifth paragraphs, which identify "many people", "the people in question," "many academics," and "the freshman relativist"? That doesn't clarify things much.
September 9, 2015 at 8:05 AM

I was talking about the introductory paragraphs which stated why he doesn't talk about relativism all that much: how admittedly its prevalence can be overstated; yet, " while Lynch is right that there are probably fewer self-conscious relativists than meets the eye, that is not necessarily because the people in question are all self-consciously non-relativist ..."

He's referring to a general and sometimes "inchoate" set of assumptions or an intellectual disposition, not a specific school.

Doesn't seem too problematical. But I don't know what they've recently been teaching students in cultural anthropology class or introductory philosophy nowadays, so your particular mileage may differ. Quite possibly not the same retread sixties crap we got in the early eighties.

Jeff S said...

A long time ago I watched a Youtube-broadcasted debate between William Lane Craig and an atheist whose name I can't remember, though he looked sort of like Steve Jobs I think. In that debate I sort of remember the atheist side-stepping Craig by claiming that the phenomenon of 'social agreements' replaces any need for 'cosmic truth'. Ie. there is nothing 'cosmically' wrong, or objectively immoral, about the KKK killing blacks; but rather, humans tend to agree that the KKK killing blacks is a bad thing, and that is enough to be cause for deep concern/squelch the KKK's persecution of blacks.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

"The post (1) is clearly not restricted to things put forward by 'significant' people and (2) does not at any point focus on any particular group of people at all;"

With respect to point 1, my question is not whether the post is restricted to the claims of significant people, but whether it applies to any of them.

Perhaps it's a methodological objection. Take the case of writers who think they can disprove "religion" by simply constructing an idealized set of arguments, without investigating what particular religious people actually think and why.

Constructing an idealized "relativism" without establishing whether it applies to any real relativists, and whether, if it does so apply, it fairly captures the reasons they have for being relativists, strikes me as quite similar.

I'm not saying Eds doing that, and I'm not asking for pinpoint footnotes; I'm just curious who the post is about. If it's not actually about anyone, then I have my answer.

Brandon said...

Take the case of writers who think they can disprove "religion" by simply constructing an idealized set of arguments, without investigating what particular religious people actually think and why.

If by 'without investigating' you mean in a particular case rather than ever, this is not only an entirely reasonable thing considered on its own, it is something everyone actually does on a regular basis. For instance, you just formulated an idealized rational approach, attributed vaguely to a certain group of 'writers', without any investigation into what particular people in this vague group actually think and why. But this is perfectly reasonable: you are making an idealized point, as general methodological objections almost universally are, and as long as you aren't pretending to do something else, it is entirely appropriate.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

DNW:

It looks to me like Feser is talking not only about an implicit and uninformed relativism (in paragraph 4), but also about explicit academic forms of relativism, which he specifically points to in Paragraph 5. Even Derrida's most inattentive followers wouldn't be able to dissemble that reading of Feser's text.

DNW said...

DNW:

It looks to me like Feser is talking not only about an implicit and uninformed relativism (in paragraph 4), but also about explicit academic forms of relativism, which he specifically points to in Paragraph 5. ...

September 9, 2015 at 9:04 AM"


Feser says,

"Moreover, outside of analytic philosophy and natural science, there are many academics who do express relativist views of some variety or other. "

"of one variety or another"

Is that the passage you mean? If so, do think that that statement is really a problem? So if some college kid reading that thought, "Yeah, my instructor was just raving about Ruth Benedict" you would disagree that just that kind of reaction might satisfy the reference?



Feser also says,

" So the subject is worth addressing now and then."

I'm sure after this he will wonder if it is ...

See, the problem is, that Feser has written a casual piece.

You yourself apparently do not deny that there are academic relativists, in fact you seem to imply that there are. But as Feser is almost casually generalizing from broad experience, he doesn't seem to satisfy your criterion of accuracy.

Perhaps if you do have a rigorous "relativist" in mind, one who better satisfies your criteria than the commonly implied allusions to modern disciples of Protagoras, or Comte, or Boas, Benedict, and Mead, will do, then add the names.

I guess if you really want to argue what genuine relativism, is, or should properly be taken to be, you can do that as well.

Mr. Green said...

Bob: Is this an absolute truth or a relative truth?

Both.

Step2 said...

The more interesting skepticism is not that truth doesn't exist, but rather that it can't be known. It therefore, practically doesn't exist.

I thought that was Kant's position. Per Wiki this passage from Lectures on Logic: "Truth, it is said, consists in the agreement of cognition with its object. In consequence of this mere nominal definition, my cognition, to count as true, is supposed to agree with its object. Now I can compare the object with my cognition, however, only by cognizing it. Hence my cognition is supposed to confirm itself, which is far short of being sufficient for truth. For since the object is outside me, the cognition in me, all I can ever pass judgement on is whether my cognition of the object agrees with my cognition of the object. The ancients called such a circle in explanation a diallelon. And actually the logicians were always reproached with this mistake by the sceptics, who observed that with this definition of truth it is just as when someone makes a statement before a court and in doing so appeals to a witness with whom no one is acquainted, but who wants to establish his credibility by maintaining that the one who called him as witness is an honest man. The accusation was grounded, too. Only the solution of the indicated problem is impossible without qualification and for every man."

I've always used relativism with a physics meaning in the background. Which is to say that truth exists, nothing in relativity disputes facts exist, but the frame of reference determines how those facts are received. It isn't necessarily that people try to "spin" things to fit their preconceived notions but there are external forces and bonds which to some extent dictate how we experience the world.

The original Mr. X said...

Anon.:

The more interesting skepticism is not that truth doesn't exist, but rather that it can't be known. It therefore, practically doesn't exist.

Can we know that truth can't be known?

Edward Feser said...

Thomas Cothran,

The immediate inspiration for the post was that in the last couple of weeks a teacher I know (not a philosophy professor) complained of half baked relativist ideas she was hearing from her students, and a student I know complained of half baked relativist ideas he was hearing from a professor (not a philosophy professor). And over the years I’ve heard, and heard about, other non-philosophy professors expressing similar half baked ideas, and (like probably every professor) I have had them expressed by students as well. So, it seemed that a post on the subject might be worthwhile, so that when people asked me about this subject I could direct them to it.

Its immediate target is not any particular prominent thinker, then (such as the ones you named), but rather the half baked and inchoate relativism one hears from students and from academics who are not professional philosophers but just casually toss out this stuff they half remembered from their lit crit classes, or wherever.

This is one reason why it is not correct to compare what I say in the post to “writers who think they can disprove ‘religion’ by simply constructing an idealized set of arguments, without investigating what particular religious people actually think and why” (to cite your words). I do not address any specific relativist writer by name, but that does not entail that I am just making up some imaginary target. It is not an imaginary target, but rather the kind of “pop” relativism one hears from students and from some non-philosopher academics when they wax philosophical. And “pop” ideas can be worth discussing and criticizing if they are influential, and if they obscure people’s understanding of more serious ideas.

Furthermore, there are writers sometimes characterized (rightly or wrongly) as “relativist” -- including writers I think are interesting and important, like Feyerabend, Kuhn, Rorty, Foucault, and others -- who sometimes state things in a loose way or in an over-the-top way, which might seem to suggest (rightly or wrongly) that they are saying things like the relativist theses I criticize in the post. Whether or not they really do mean to be expressing such relativism, it is worthwhile examining why it would be a bad idea to take their positions in that direction.

There are also writers who are not necessarily associated with relativism per se but who do seriously entertain the idea of giving up the notion of truth -- for example, eliminativist writers like Churchland and Stich, whose inspiration is scientism rather than sociology of knowledge or the like. Hence to consider whether a thesis like (I) is coherent is by no means to discuss some purely idealized view which no one has taken, even apart from the question of whether some big name relativist author has explicitly expressed a proposition like (I).

Anonymous said...

Ed,

Regarding your response to Thomas Cothran: have you addressed 'the best arguments for relativism' as opposed to these 'pop' arguments anywhere you could point me to?

I would love to read it, as personally I see this question as central to the entire scientism vs religious debate (hence it being 'done to death’; people recognize the importance of the question even if subconsciously). I would add that the concept of truth is far more fundamental than being “a matter of conformity or correspondence between thought and reality”. Truth, with a capital ‘T’, speaks to the nature of Reality/God Itself, and far transcends human ‘thought’ or its correspondence to that Reality.

I don’t understand the proposition that “there are also writers who are not necessarily associated with relativism per se but who do seriously entertain the idea of giving up the notion of truth”. Isn’t it a clear either/or? Either you believe in the Absolute or you don’t.

I always considered the illogicality of the statement: ‘there is no truth’ to be the most succinct proof of the Divine we have.

Ty said...

@DNW:

That segment by Rorty hurt my soul. I can't. I just can't.

Edward Feser said...

Hello Anonymous,

It seems you misunderstood me. I didn't say there are better arguments for relativism than the bad ones I discussed in the post. There aren't. (The phrase "best arguments for relativism" which you put in quotes is your phrase, not mine.)

What I said is that there are writers sometimes characterized as "relativists" who I think are interesting and important. But I would also say that either they are not really relativists when properly understood, or that the relativist aspects of what they say are not the interesting or important aspects.

Anonymous said...

Thanks step2. Please correct me if I'm wrong in any of this. It seems Kant presumes that cognition is the only access we have to the object, but I thought the AT position assumed that sense knowledge was a kind of self-evident first principle. This coupled with the principle of operation “agere sequitur esse” means the substance is mediated per accidents. Since it requires metaphysics and epistemology to refute, its more interesting.

Justin said...

Here's a thought:

"Let us first of all recollect the profound distinction ... between Reality and truths. There is only one Reality, the Principle of all manifestation, embracing everything (intellectual and otherwise), unlimited and in consequence impossible to include in any formula, that is to say inexpressible. There is, on the contrary, an indefinite multitude of truths, aspects correctly perceived by our mind of refractions of Reality on the human intellectual plane. Each expressible truth is only an intellectual aspect of Reality, which in nowise excludes other aspects that are equally valid; for each expressible truth carries a limit within which it exists and outside which it ceases to exist. Within its limit a truth manifests Reality; outside its limit it fails. Every truth should then be seen as a duality: in so far as it manifests Reality--that is in so far as it is valid--and in so far as it does not manifest Reality--that is in so far as it is valueless."

DNW said...

"Ty said...

@DNW:

That segment by Rorty hurt my soul. I can't. I just can't.
September 9, 2015 at 9:22 PM "


LOL

You have to admit that it's worth the price of admission just to hear the organisms tell it just like they think it is.

Kinda clears the air. Might be cold. Might look like social violence looms almost inevitably, but at least you can see who and what you are actually dealing with.

Tony said...

Within its limit a truth manifests Reality; outside its limit it fails. Every truth should then be seen as a duality: in so far as it manifests Reality--that is in so far as it is valid--and in so far as it does not manifest Reality--that is in so far as it is valueless."

Translation: every true proposition, when taken together with its express and implied qualifiers of meaning, validly reflects reality. Every proposition which, taken together with its express and implied qualifiers of meaning, does not reflect reality, is false.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

Thanks for the clarification. I had wondered whether given the increased intermingling of analytic and continental philosophy there was a corner of broadly analytic philosophy that was adopting some form of relativism. I do think you're right that there's a sort of explicit but unrefined relativism, and that it's different from developed philosophical positions that are often labelled (rightly or wrongly) as relativism. (I also appreciated the fact you took care not to simply paint someone like Foucault as a relativist.)

I would in any case be quite interested to see a treatment of Kuhn or Foucault (or even MacIntyre!) who have a fleshed out view of a certain sort of relativism. Maybe it's just a personal interest, since I find Thomist metaphyics quite compelling, but I tend at the same time towards some kind of historicist epistemology. But while Thomists have spilled a lot of ink on the likes of Kant and Heidegger on the continental side, and contemporary, scientifically minded analytic philosophy on the other, it seems there's a gap with the likes of Kuhn, Feyerabend, or Foucault.

Scott said...

@Justin:

With all respect to Monsieur le Docteur Benoit, let me try my hand at a translation to complement Tony's.

Original:

There is…an indefinite multitude of truths, aspects correctly perceived by our mind of refractions of Reality on the human intellectual plane. Each expressible truth is only an intellectual aspect of Reality, which in nowise excludes other aspects that are equally valid; for each expressible truth carries a limit within which it exists and outside which it ceases to exist. Within its limit a truth manifests Reality; outside its limit it fails. Every truth should then be seen as a duality: in so far as it manifests Reality--that is in so far as it is valid--and in so far as it does not manifest Reality--that is in so far as it is valueless.

My translation:

Lots of things are true, so there are lots of propositional truths. Each such truth is consistent with all the others. Also, every such truth is a "duality" in the sense that it's true of the things it's true of, and not of anything else.

Chris Kirk said...

@John Moore:

". . . it's simpler just to say that truth is reality itself. Truth is what actually exists."

Waal . . . truth is a *relation*, though not typically relative. If (absurdly) there were no knowers, not even God, there would be no truths; but there could still be things in relations with each other. Also, scholastic tradition put the primary part of the relation in the knower, not the thing known. 'True and false are in the mind' - And good and evil are in the things themselves. I find that's a tough pair of propositions to convince students of, since they tend to believe it's the reverse.

Chris Kirk Speaks

Step2 said...

It seems Kant presumes that cognition is the only access we have to the object...

It seems you are correct.

...but I thought the AT position assumed that sense knowledge was a kind of self-evident first principle.

Unless perception is considered to be entirely separate from cognition then the asserted AT position is irrelevant to Kant's claim. In any event, most AT defenders minimize the role of empiricism as determinant of truth.

This coupled with the principle of operation “agere sequitur esse” means the substance is mediated per accidents.

Too much jargon.

Justin said...

Scott and Tony:

Yes, certainly, you could put it that way, though I don't quite see why there is a need for "translation." I think what M. Benoit is getting at (thanks for outing me) is that the articulation of Reality--i.e., a truth, which may be a proposition but not only that; the bare perception of an object could be called a truth (after all, one must see the cat on the mat before articulating "The cat is on the mat," whether internally in thought or externally in words); hence the stress on "intellectual and otherwise"--is necessarily limited while the Reality it articulates is infinite. Benoit goes on to relate this distinction between truths and Reality to the distinction between the individual and the universal, which could fruitfully be recast in terms of a distinction between the relative and the Absolute. One further short quote, and then I have done. Anyone interested in reading more could go to the source:

"What takes place in me when I discover a truth, when there appears to me suddenly a relation uniting intellectual elements until then separated? I see clearly that I have not fabricated this new truth with old material; I have not fabricated it, I have received it; it has appeared in my consciousness in a moment of inner relaxation. Whence has it come to me? From a source within me ... from the Principle [God, if you prefer] which creates the whole Universe as it creates me. My truth has come to me from 'something' universal. From the universal my truth has taken on, in my individual consciousness, a form, a limitation; it has 'enformed' itself in my mind in accordance with my particular structure, in conformity with my personal style of thinking. [And I guess that explains the need for translation!] In acquiring this form, my truth has acquired the possibility of being conceived and expressed, but it has also acquired, beside the aspect which manifests the original Reality and which therefore is valid, the aspect which does not manifest Reality and which, in consequence, is valueless. The truth that I have expressed, in so far as it manifests Reality, is of a universal nature; it is, on the contrary, of an individual nature in so far as it does not manifest Reality and is valueless. In other words, that which is valid, worthy of consideration, in the truth that I express does not belong to me-as-a-distinct-individual, and has not properly speaking any connection with my particular person. ... If there exists an evident relation between the form of thoughts expressed and the particular structure of the man who expresses them, there is no relation between this structure and the truth of the thoughts, with what the thoughts manifest of Reality."

Or as William Blake wrote c. 1800: "Every man's wisdom is peculiar to his own individuality." That's relativism. But That inexpressible, infinite "something" (call it what you will) that gives birth to wisdom is universal, and absolute, and is in all of us, at least potentially.

Chris Kirk said...

@ Step2:

". . .but I thought the AT position assumed that sense knowledge was a kind of self-evident first principle."

No is the short answer.
Modern 'evident, justified' is not quite the Aristotelian 'demosntrated'; Moderns use it broadly, Aristotelians narrowly for discursive argument, with steps ('composing and dividing'). Early Modern epistemology talks about self-justifying things because it is searching for certainty, and starts with our ideas. Aristotelian epistemology is 'realist' in a way: it does not worry that the world will somehow utterly deceive us at bottom.

Proper sensibles (colors, sounds etc.) are called indemonstrable, but in this system that entails we cannot be 'mistaken' about them. I think it's best to think of that as something like 'it's not your fault': if you're wrong about that color-patch for example, it's due to defective eyesight, non-standard lighting, tricky fabrics etc.

The ethicist Stephen Darwall says that pre-Modern ethics had a 'metaphysical guarantee' that all real goods harmonize. I suggest a parallel notion for pre-Modern epistemology of an epistemological guarantee: ultimately, knowledge is attainable. If ripe Gala apples truly are red, that fact just will be accessible to well-functioning knowers. That may be behind Aristotle's charming metaphor that gaining knowledge is like soldiers in a rout, and then one soldier at last stops and makes a stand, and others rally around him. He just finds it inevitable that typically this happens spontaneously (under proper conditions). Thus in a way knowledge is ridiculously easy to obtain in Aristotelian theory.

CKS

Step2 said...

@Chris Kirk
I think it's best to think of that as something like 'it's not your fault': if you're wrong about that color-patch for example, it's due to defective eyesight, non-standard lighting, tricky fabrics etc.

So for the white/gold vs. blue/black dress, I'm confused on how 'it's not your fault' transforms to 'cannot be mistaken'.

Scott said...

Step2:

I'm confused on how 'it's not your fault' transforms to 'cannot be mistaken'.

I don't know whether this is what Chris Kirk has in mind or not, but Anna Marmodoro would say (rightly, in my view) that an object really has all the colors with which it might appear to us under any conditions. At the very least, it has to be of a nature that can contribute causally to an experience of that color, and in that case (since a cause can't confer what it doesn't in any way possess) the color must really be "in" the object. In that case, we can't be "mistaken" about whether an object really "is" the color we see when we look at it (though I suppose we might mistakenly misidentify the color we're seeing).

It's also, I think, important to note that, according to A-T (or even just A), we perceive objects, not just "colors." Even if we can in some way be mistaken about colors, that wouldn't entail that we could be mistaken about objects (though, as in hallucinations, we can presumably be mistaken about whether we're genuinely perceiving "objects" at all in the first place; moreover, merely perceiving an object doesn't entail that we're correct in everything we think we know about that object).

As for the dress specifically: most of that will sort itself out just fine as long as we keep in mind that what we're really perceiving is not a "dress" but a small, two-dimensional image of a photograph of a dress.

ThatGuy said...

I would disagree with Prof. Feser's summary of the pop relativists' position as "there is no absolute truth".

The problem with phrasing their position in this manner is that it makes use of the very dichotomy(truth / falsehood) that they don't believe pertains. A relativist would not defend this statement as either true or false. Rather, they'd claim it to be meaningless or nonsensical. They would argue the same about the statement "there is absolute truth".

I think a better description of the relativist view would be to compare it to the natural scientist's approach to modeling the physical world. You will rarely hear a scientist worth their salt claim that a law, theory, or model is true or untrue, except perhaps as a sloppy shorthand. Instead, they would argue that the model accords with the available data, leaving open the possibility of revision should contrary data arise.

In the same way, a relativist wouldn't ask if something is absolutely true or not. They'd ask the more pragmatic question: Does assuming such and such accord with our observations. If those conditions are met, then you can call it "true" with the tacit understanding of its provisionality.

I can picture Prof. Feser responding, "Ah, but you have contradicted yourself, as you are now covertly positing the absolute truth of this 'scientific approach'". I would respond that I am not, and that even this "scientific approach" may be discounted should a more useful approach arise. Thus, it's not absolutely true, just provisionally, like everything else.

Tony said...

A relativist would not defend this statement as either true or false. Rather, they'd claim it to be meaningless or nonsensical. They would argue the same about the statement "there is absolute truth".

A half-way smart relativist might TRY to take that approach, but the problem is that it is still impossible. You have to not only get rid of positive and negative statements about "truth", you have to get rid of positive and negative statements about EVERYTHING ALTOGETHER. You really have to completely do away with the indicative mood in speech. You have to stop using propositions, period.

Which no human ever has or ever will. Even relativists. They may SAY that "it is meaningless" about the proposition "there is no absolute truth", but they don't actually think that the expression "it is meaningless" is actually meaningless. Yet it is a proposition, it is in the indicative mood, it is the mind TRYING to express a truth. If they really thought it was meaningless, they wouldn't bother saying it, now would they?

Here is how you know you have run into a real, true, honestly complete relativist: HE WON'T SAY IT. He won't talk about it. Because talking about it is meaningless. Everything he can say about it will fail to say what he means. Hence true-believers in relativism cannot pass on their understanding. It is only the frauds that can be doing so.

Tony said...

You will rarely hear a scientist worth their salt claim that a law, theory, or model is true or untrue, except perhaps as a sloppy shorthand. Instead, they would argue that the model accords with the available data,

Such scientists are comfortable leaving open whether the current theory is "true" or only the closest approximation thereof so far. But they are not OK with leaving open whether empirical data can falsify a theory. The whole point is to be able to move forward and PROVE that a thesis was wrong. Parmenides says heavy things fall faster? Well, let's check. By golly, heavy things don't fall faster. That theory is out the window: it was wrong. False. Error. Untrue. We might not be able to prove "gravitation" theory, but we can disprove errors that contradict empirical data.

Chris Kirk said...

@step2:

Scott was nice to try to save me, but he should have used the ball of that stick (gently) instead.

I put it poorly. Errors about proper sensibles are not mistakes *in reasoning*; because they are not arrived by reasoning. It's hard-wired.

Unlike the early Moderns, the aristotelian tradition just doesn't worry much about being mistaken in a sub-rational mode like sensing. Mistakes happen, but they aren't paradigm cases. I should have argued like so: In the act of sensing proper sensibles they 'cannot be otherwise' presented to us. Add what I'm calling the epistemic guarantee, therefore you are not *typically* mistaken under natural conditions (or, uh, evolution!) - or you typically need not worry such mistakes are pervasive.

(Most quotes culled from my memory of *De anima II.6-7 and III.1-3, and *De sensu*)

CKS

Tony said...

So for the white/gold vs. blue/black dress, I'm confused on how 'it's not your fault' transforms to 'cannot be mistaken'.

Not sure what you mean. The billion people who saw it in photos did not see the original object in the original lighting. They saw various technologically produced inexact copies of a technologically produced inexact copy: secondary copies that had varying amounts of different shades therein, as compared with the FIRST copy, which itself held different amounts of the elements than the original did. On my phone the shading was different on my wife's phone. When you blow up one sample to show ONLY the middle of a gold / black spot, and blow up the very same spot on another phone, you get manifestly different-looking things. Because on the phones you are actually seeing different things - different mixes of red, green, and blue, for instance. (not to mention different amounts of black or gray back-stopping the pixels on physically different screen media.) They looked different because they were different.

That did not really even speak to the problem at hand.

And I support Scott's point. We could make it clearer with a different example. When I come in from outside in 0 degree weather, and touch a 60-degree mug, I say "ahhh, that's warm." A second person walks out of the sauna and touches the SAME mug and says "oooh, that's nice and cool." It's the same mug, at the same temperature. We need not suppose that the mug fails to have a REAL property that is reflected in both sensations, nor that it harbors some freakish non-sensory property that is neither warm nor cool nor ANY kind of temperature at all, but something completely other like "spin" or "charm". That would be an unnecessary reduction of the power of sensation regarding heat. Yes, the sense of touch (with respect to heat) does, actually, depend on the relation of temperatures. That's how the sense faculty works.

The sense of sight WORKS on correlation of light from objects with light from nearby objects, (not independently), so the very same object looks different in different lighting - this is an example of sight WORKING, not of sight failing to report the world "correctly." What we assert ABOUT the sensation may be true or not true, depending on whether what we assert takes into account variation in the lighting, the surrounding nearby objects, etc in order to understand the sensation.

Anonymous said...

"A relativist would not defend this statement as either true or false. Rather, they'd claim it to be meaningless or nonsensical."

Is it true that it is meaningless or nonsensical?

Anonymous said...

@step2

Defining terms:

The principle of operation is a self-evident principle in AT tradition which states that action follows being (agere sequitur esse) or more clearly, the nature of a thing's being determines the types of actions or operation it is able to perform. It conversely means that one can know something about the being of a thing by the way it acts. For the accidents (operations, actions, qualities etc) reveal the essence.

Combine the general reliability of the senses (CKS) to report what is presented to them, and the fact that thing itself in its essence is mediated or communicated through what we sense, real knowledge of thing itself is possible.

If our contact with reality is twofold (the concept in the mind and sense knowledge), we can examine one and then examine the other and then make a judgement if they congrue. Its not to say that our judgements can't be false, but that they are not defacto cut off from the thing itself in reality.

ThatGuy said...

Such scientists are comfortable leaving open whether the current theory is "true" or only the closest approximation thereof so far. But they are not OK with leaving open whether empirical data can falsify a theory. The whole point is to be able to move forward and PROVE that a thesis was wrong. Parmenides says heavy things fall faster? Well, let's check. By golly, heavy things don't fall faster. That theory is out the window: it was wrong. False. Error. Untrue. We might not be able to prove "gravitation" theory, but we can disprove errors that contradict empirical data.

Agreed. But the larger point I'm making is that scientists do not, nor need to, appeal to an absolute conception of truth to prove or disprove a hypothesis. They make a full stop at the observational data available. They do not go on to say, "And thus it is absolutely the case now and forever that heavy things don't fall faster." They say, "Given our experimental findings, we'll proceed with the understanding that heavy things don't fall faster."

Which no human ever has or ever will. Even relativists. They may SAY that "it is meaningless" about the proposition "there is no absolute truth", but they don't actually think that the expression "it is meaningless" is actually meaningless. Yet it is a proposition, it is in the indicative mood, it is the mind TRYING to express a truth. If they really thought it was meaningless, they wouldn't bother saying it, now would they?

I never said the expression "it is meaningless" is meaningless. I said the expression "There is no absolute truth" is meaningless. You're making the same error I warned about in my original post, which is to now try to force me to evaluate the truth / falsehood of the statement "It is meaningless." It's as though I said, "I don't believe in unicorns," and you respond "Well do unicorns drink water." They neither do nor don't drink water, they don't exist!

My statement "To say 'There is no absolute truth' is meaningless" is intended not as a true or false proposition (although humans seem hardwired to evaluate things in this manner, which is understandable as it is a useful shortcut to avoid adding qualifiers to every statement). The statement, like all statements I would argue, is intended not as a descriptor of some absolute reality but as a means of doing some work, the work in this case being the cessation of using absolute truth and falsehood as evaluation criteria. Instead of asking, "is such and such true or false," I would ask, "is such and such useful for our present purposes, does it get us somewhere, does it have explanatory legs."

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

My statement "To say 'There is no absolute truth' is meaningless" is intended not as a true or false proposition[.]

In that case it's not at all clear why anyone should pay any attention to it. If you don't mean to assert anything, what makes your statement a "statement" at all? What are you stating? And if you're not stating anything, why should we care what you're saying since there just isn't any "what" that you're saying?

But wait:

(although humans seem hardwired to evaluate things in this manner, which is understandable as it is a useful shortcut to avoid adding qualifiers to every statement).

So you do mean to be asserting something, but it's qualified and you just don't have the time to add all the qualifiers? Or what?

(And is that really the best reason you can think of for humans to be "hardwired" to regard statements as asserting propositional content?)

Instead of asking, "is such and such true or false," I would ask, "is such and such useful for our present purposes, does it get us somewhere, does it have explanatory legs."

Well.

You can, of course, "ask" whatever you like, and if your interest is not in whether "such and such" is true but merely in whether it's pragmatically useful, then by all means go right ahead and ask only those questions—the first two of them, anyway.

But…"explanatory legs"? If you're interested in explaining things, you're going to find yourself interested in truth and falsehood in very short order; otherwise you're doing it wrong.

ThatGuy said...


But…"explanatory legs"? If you're interested in explaining things, you're going to find yourself interested in truth and falsehood in very short order; otherwise you're doing it wrong.


I'm not sure I agree. Could I not explain the workings of a computer without involving myself in higher order questions about the absolute truth or falsehood of my explanations? I'm arguing for a provisional understanding of truth that is always accompanied by the tacit caveat that it is open to revision. I can still use the words truth and falsehood, just not in the absolute sense proposed by Prof. Feser above.

My original point was that asking if the statment "There is no absolute truth" is absolutely true or false is meaningless sense it forces a relativist to ascribe to a category (absolute truth / falsehood) that they don't ascribe to.

Edward Feser said...

ThatGuy writes:

My original point was that asking if the statment "There is no absolute truth" is absolutely true or false is meaningless sense it forces a relativist to ascribe to a category (absolute truth / falsehood) that they don't ascribe to.

But I addressed that very objection in the post, in the paragraph beginning:

Now, the proponent of (I) may respond by saying that this objection presupposes that there is such a thing as truth and falsity, and that that is precisely what he denies...

True, I addressed it with respect to formulation (I) rather than formulation (II), but the same points apply in either case.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

Could I not explain the workings of a computer without involving myself in higher order questions about the absolute truth or falsehood of my explanations?

Sure. You could also use a map to find your way around Brooklyn without involving yourself in higher-order questions about the absolute accuracy of the map. But in fact, the map either is or isn't absolutely accurate, whether or not you need to raise the question for practical purposes.

I'm arguing for a provisional understanding of truth that is always accompanied by the tacit caveat that it is open to revision.

It sounds as though you're conflating at least the following issues: whether there are any propositional truths that we know to be in no need of revision; whether there are any propositional truths that are not in fact in need of revision whether we know it or not; whether, for any propositional truth, it's practically possible explicitly to state all of the implicit qualifiers that make it absolutely true; whether that's even theoretically possible; and whether the concept of "absoluteness" ever applies to propositional truths even in principle. You claim to be arguing for this last one, but as far as I can see, your actual arguments tend to hop back and forth indiscriminately among the first four and leave the fifth entirely untouched.

You also have a problem that Tony has pointed out: that if a propositional truth needs to be revised, that's presumably because its revision will bring it into closer proximity to ("absolute") truth. If that's not the reason for revising a proposition truth, you'll need to explain what is.

Moreover, I'd be inclined to say that if a proposition is in need of actual revision (rather than just careful elaboration/explication to state all of its "qualifiers") in order to be "absolutely true," then as it stands, it's strictly ("absolutely") false even if it's a good approximation. It's the revised proposition that is "absolutely true," and that's a different proposition.

I realize you're claiming not to need the concept of "absolute truth" in the first place, but a similar consideration seems to me to apply to your unlimitedly-revisable propositions. At the very least, I think you need to acknowledge that a proposition and its "revised" version are two different propositions, and you should probably also acknowledge that the second is in some way "truer" than the first even if by that you (think you) don't mean "closer to absolute truth."

Alex said...


I simply don't agree with Ed's too easy whitewash of analytical philosophy here. And I can't agree with his similarly too easy dismissal of relativism. While I can't write in as much detail as I would like to, here's some high level points that I might throw out there:

1. If we take Nietzsche to be our model for relativism (he may be a bad choice, but let's just run with it for the moment), he never denies that there are or may be some truths about physical objects (for example). He argues that these truths are comparatively unimportant compared to the philosophical, moral or cultural interpretations of the truths about the physical objects. Further, he argues that there is no truth about philosophical, moral or cultural matters. So, even in the case of perhaps the most important or thorough-going relativist, he did not advance the caricature that Feser argues against here.

2. Numerous analytical philosophers agree or have agreed with Nietzsche's arguments in my point one. Indeed, this agreement was so prevalent during a very long era of analytical philosophy that almost no moral or political philosophy of any note was being done for a nearly a half-century. It's true that analytical philosophers did not point to Nietzsche as the basis for their thought, but that's because of what I will talk about in point 3.

3. Relativism actually has a deep foundation in some of the most foundational thinkers that analytical philosophy is based upon. We're particularly talking Hume here, whom I interpret to be roughly the same type of relativist as Nietzsche. Both Hume and Nietzsche agree that there are some essentially minor truths about physical objects, but everything important is really determined by sentiment (in Hume' language) or by the superman transvaluating all values (Nietzsche). Hume's relativism, unlike Nietzsche's, is actually quite well represented in the academy: we see it frequently on this very blog when folks pop up and say that physical truths exist but moral or political truths do not.

4. We can't ignore that Ed is trying to fuse the history of analytical philosophy into his Thomism. But that is simply impossible. You can't take Hans Reichenbach's statements that all metaphysical statements are by their nature nonsensical statements and make that compatible with Aquinas. And, we'll be tempted to say Reichenbach was one philosopher - which intentionally ignores how the immense influence and power Reichenbach had within analytic philosophy of his day. And plenty of other analytical philosophers of his time agreed with him - Reichenbach was hardly some sort of outlier, but squarely in the center of the analytic philosophy of his time.

Edward Feser said...

Alex writes:

Nietzsche... did not advance the caricature that Feser argues against here.

What caricature? I never even mentioned Nietzsche, and I explicitly said in my reply to Thomas Cothran above that my main target was not any big name thinker but rather the inchoate and half baked relativism one sees in students and some non-philosopher academics. So how can I have been attacking a caricature of Nietzsche's views?

Nietzsche's argument... was so prevalent during a very long era of analytical philosophy that almost no moral or political philosophy of any note was being done for a nearly a half-century

This is just wrong. That didn't have anything to do with Nietzsche, but rather with the prevalence of positivism, scientism, and the like for much of the early history of analytical philosophy.

And re: Hume, he was not a relativist. He was a subjectivist vis-a-vis value, but that is not the same thing. He also thought certain moral sentiments were more or less universal in human beings.

And re: this:

We can't ignore that Ed is trying to fuse the history of analytical philosophy into his Thomism. But that is simply impossible.

Sure we can ignore it, because (a) it isn't true, and (b) even if it were true, it would be irrelevant for purposes of the present post. Where the hell did I ever express agreement with Reichenbach? And even if I was committed to the bizarro synthesis you bizarrely claim I am committed to, how would that have anything to do with the specific arguments of this post, which non-Thomists and non-analytical philosophers could happily accept?

Really, where are you getting all this stuff?

Step2 said...

@Scott
At the very least, it has to be of a nature that can contribute causally to an experience of that color, and in that case (since a cause can't confer what it doesn't in any way possess) the color must really be "in" the object.

I think a system of absolute truth which confers a significant color range within a simple dress is, if you'll forgive the pun, coming apart at the seams.

@Chris Kirk
I should have argued like so: In the act of sensing proper sensibles they 'cannot be otherwise' presented to us. Add what I'm calling the epistemic guarantee, therefore you are not *typically* mistaken under natural conditions (or, uh, evolution!) - or you typically need not worry such mistakes are pervasive.

I would counterclaim that atypical situations can be very significant and "trivial" mistakes can have cumulative effects which may extend to paradigm cases. Back that guarantee up with some serious money and then we'll continue.

@Tony
We need not suppose that the mug fails to have a REAL property that is reflected in both sensations, nor that it harbors some freakish non-sensory property that is neither warm nor cool nor ANY kind of temperature at all, but something completely other like "spin" or "charm".

Depends on the type of mug. More seriously, your argument appears to fatally undermine transubstantiation which I'm confident you aren't trying to do.

@Anon
If our contact with reality is twofold (the concept in the mind and sense knowledge), we can examine one and then examine the other and then make a judgement if they congrue. Its not to say that our judgements can't be false, but that they are not defacto cut off from the thing itself in reality.

Of course Kant doesn't treat conceptual understanding and sensibilities as distinct "contacts" with reality. They are two integrated processes of a unified cognition. While I support the notion our senses communicate the world to us, hopefully in a reliable manner but perhaps not, it seems this communication is for the most part translated through our conceptual understanding.

Alex said...

"This is just wrong. That didn't have anything to do with Nietzsche, but rather with the prevalence of positivism, scientism, and the like for much of the early history of analytical philosophy."

1. I never argued that it was due to the influence of Nietzsche, but is an organic growth out of initially Hume, but also many of the nineteenth century English philosophers. I do not find Hume's making some sentiments near-universal to be an argument that he was not a relativist, or at least, that those readers of Hume who become relativists were or are not grossly antagonistic to Hume's general argument.

2. The question must be asked then: why was analytic philosophy so easily susceptible to all these things, which I presume you are viewing negatively? Ignore Reichenbach - we have to admit that scientism and positivism were at minimum extremely widely held and quite popular viewpoints inside of analytic philosophy for at least two or three generations.

"Where the hell did I ever express agreement with Reichenbach? And even if I was committed to the bizarro synthesis you bizarrely claim I am committed to, how would that have anything to do with the specific arguments of this post, which non-Thomists and non-analytical philosophers could happily accept?"

You're making claims that you do not run into relativists because it's rare in analytic philosophy (among other reasons). But that claim is problematic, certainly with regards to moral relativism. Perhaps you are encountering some strange subset of analytical philosophers, but it's a well-known component of analytical philosophy that, at minimum, many of it's leading figures for a very long period thought that there simply was no such thing as moral truths at all (Reichenbach being merely one who held that, but there were many others). Perhaps that has somehow drastically changed in the recent past or you are speaking only anecdotally of the people you know who are not necessarily representative of the entire analytic philosophy community (which would rather blunt the claim that most or all analytic philosophers agree with you about moral relativism.)

"What caricature? I never even mentioned Nietzsche, and I explicitly said in my reply to Thomas Cothran above that my main target was not any big name thinker but rather the inchoate and half baked relativism one sees in students and some non-philosopher academics. So how can I have been attacking a caricature of Nietzsche's views?"

The problem with condemning half baked relativism among students (which should indeed be condemned) is that that judgement too easily elides that analytic philosophy itself was (or is) complicit in popular or vulgar moral relativism, or, perhaps better stated, that analytic philosophy has traditionally been an enemy of both of any moral philosophizing at all and of Thomist moral philosophy particularly. At minimum, that analytic philosophy was and is the dominant school of philosophy has been at least somewhat harmful to the efforts of neo-Thomist philosophers doing moral philosophy. Many would and have said that numerous noted figures in analytic philosophy over a very long period of time were openly and even viciously hostile to attempts to do any moral philosophy at all, and some significant number of those figures were explicitly opposed to neo-Thomist moral philosophy. You are asserting more agreement between analytic philosophy and neo-Thomist philosophy than has traditionally been the case. Perhaps that traditional antagonism has changed - which would be an excellent development, but not a development that has actually happened from what little I know (I hope I am wrong!)

Scott said...

Andy:

You still seem to be conflating analytic philosophy (which is a matter more of style than of any particular outlook) with logical positivism or something. To put it broadly, analytic philosophy and Thomism have been on speaking terms since, oh, 1950 or so, and they've been getting along fairly well since at least 1970.

Indeed, the term "analytical Thomism" (coined by John Haldane) has been in use for about a quarter of a century now, in reference to a pretty well-defined body of Thomistic and neo-Thomistic philosophy carried out in the analytic style and spirit.

Even aside from Thomism, I can't offhand recall any major figures in analytic philosophy of the last fifty years who have been "openly and even viciously hostile to attempts to do any moral philosophy." And even before that, utilitarianism (which, whatever else is wrong with it, isn't "relativism") was pretty popular among analytic philosophers, and I'd hardly describe G.E. Moore as hostile to ethics either. Here, too, I suspect you're thinking of something like the "emotivism" of early analytic philosophy.

I won't say that Brand Blanshard personally dealt the deathblow to that early sort of analytic philosophy in his 1962 opus Reason and Analysis, but I will say that analytic philosophy since that time hasn't been as you describe it.

Scott said...

Sorry—1964, not 1962.

Scott said...

(I cut my philosophical teeth on Blanshard some three and a half decades ago, so you'd think I'd know when R&A was published. But I was born in 1963 and I can never remember whether the book appeared the year before or the year after I did.)

Tony said...

My statement "To say 'There is no absolute truth' is meaningless" is intended not as a true or false proposition (although humans seem hardwired to evaluate things in this manner, which is understandable as it is a useful shortcut to avoid adding qualifiers to every statement). The statement, like all statements I would argue, is intended not as a descriptor of some absolute reality but as a means of doing some work, the work in this case being the cessation of using absolute truth and falsehood as evaluation criteria. Instead of asking, "is such and such true or false," I would ask, "is such and such useful for our present purposes, does it get us somewhere, does it have explanatory legs."

@ ThatGuy:

To start from the end, "explanatory legs" is just an attempt to explain reality. I.E. an attempt to SAY what corresponds to reality. The measure of such statements is, indeed, reality. This is what makes some statements in need of revision, they are less "like" to reality than it is possible to say. Which clearly undermines the object expressed in this:

the work in this case being the cessation of using absolute truth and falsehood as evaluation criteria.

It is the REALITY toward which the revision is hopefully closer that is the measure of the effort of revising. It is unnecessary to think of reality as being "absolute" in any special sense, it need only be understood to be real. To have revised a statement to make it comport more with reality than the prior statement is, precisely, to make reality the measure.

Which implies the possibility that SOME statements are unlike reality, and are understood to be unlike reality, which means they are false. Even if we cannot offer a statement that adheres to reality so whole and entire so that it cannot ever be revised to be made better, we can offer a statement that is false.

is intended not as a true or false proposition (although humans seem hardwired to evaluate things in this manner,

Until I find an argument that ceases to use propositions, and ceases to use the indicative mood, I have no reason to THINK that any other way of evaluating "explanatory" formulations but according to correspondence or non-correspondence with reality is being urged. "It's not that I intend to KILL you, you understand, it is merely that I intend to chop your head off so that you cease operating so you will no longer interfere with my designs, that's all. It is the cessation of your operation that I intend, not "killing" you." For this discussion, it is necessary to stop using shortcuts that lend themselves to being mistaken as to your meaning about this, so the requirement is that you express your meaning WITHOUT using propositions and without the indicative mood.

Hardwired to do so, aren't you. Yes, that's a problem: you have no tools of language to express your meaning clearly enough to be "explanatory" without those pesky propositions. Well, you'll have to invent them if you want a successful argument....errrr, explanation, I fear. For the very use of propositions gives the game away.

William Brown said...


"ThatGuy" said....

" But the larger point I'm making is that scientists do not, nor need to, appeal to an absolute conception of truth to prove or disprove a hypothesis. They make a full stop at the observational data available. They do not go on to say, "And thus it is absolutely the case now and forever that heavy things don't fall faster." They say, "Given our experimental findings, we'll proceed with the understanding that heavy things don't fall faster." "

Yes,but this is merely a description of how the scientific method works. What it implies is that we are moving toward a fuller description of truth, which must be absolute (if it weren't, then there could be no scientific method), even if we never fully arrive at it (which I think it can be argued we could not, as we are not God). BTW, these arguments are very helpful not only in arguing for absolute truth but also in an apologetic for the God's necessary existence, but that's another topic. "ThatGuy" makes points that are useful, if unintentionally, in an argument for absolute truth and for the existence of God.


"ThatGuy" said...

"My statement "To say 'There is no absolute truth' is meaningless" is intended not as a true or false proposition...."

Then what other kind of proposition is it? Just curious.


"ThatGuy" "....(although humans seem hardwired to evaluate things in this manner"

Which leads one to wonder why.

"......which is understandable as it is a useful shortcut to avoid adding qualifiers to every statement)."

Seems a clumsy explanation to me; just sayin'.


"ThatGuy" "...... The statement, like all statements I would argue, is intended not as a descriptor of some absolute reality but as a means of doing some work, the work in this case being the cessation of using absolute truth and falsehood as evaluation criteria. Instead of asking, "is such and such true or false," I would ask, "is such and such useful for our present purposes, does it get us somewhere, does it have explanatory legs." "

Again, without the concept of absolute reality and absolute truth (they are the same), there is no scientific method. "Explanatory legs" implies or is just another way of saying 'absolute truth'. The "useful" and present purposes" statement is a very slippery and nebulous (I'd say inchoate) goal. It certainly can have almost nothing to do with the question of the existence of absolute truth.

William Brown said...

Alex said (9-11-2105)....

"3. Relativism actually has a deep foundation in some of the most foundational thinkers that analytical philosophy is based upon. We're particularly talking Hume here, whom I interpret to be roughly the same type of relativist as Nietzsche. Both Hume and Nietzsche agree that there are some essentially minor truths about physical objects, but everything important is really determined by sentiment (in Hume' language) or by the superman transvaluating all values (Nietzsche). Hume's relativism, unlike Nietzsche's, is actually quite well represented in the academy: we see it frequently on this very blog when folks pop up and say that physical truths exist but moral or political truths do not."

I'm curious about these "minor truths" as well as the statement, "everything important is really determined by sentiment". So, real absolute truth is determined by sentiment? That's what you seem to be implying these guys are saying. Denial of absolute truth seems to me to create some awfully muddled ideas. But I'm just a farmer and maybe relying too much on common sense.

Alex said.....

"4. ....... You can't take Hans Reichenbach's statements that all metaphysical statements are by their nature nonsensical statements and make that compatible with Aquinas....."

Are you including that metaphysical statement in this proscription?

Fred said...

I have never read Kuhn or Feyerabend, though I've read about them. I have read Foucault and Rorty. Of course I read them in the context of literary criticism courses rather than philosophy courses, so that may be where the disconnect lies. But from what I read and the way it was taught, it is extremely difficult for me to see how one reads either F. or R. as non-relativist. Take for example Foucault's contention that "discourse creates its own object." How can that be read non-relativistically?In his essay on Mendel, he says that Mendel's discoveries were "monstrous" because they were not "dans le vrai" of scientific discourse. I've always thought that essay was either absurdly relativistic (genetics wasn't true until scientists started talking about it) or trivial (Mendel's discoveries couldn't be understood or used until science had, in effect, "caught up" with him). It's been longer since I've read Rorty, so I don't remember details, but he seemed to be of the opinion that "truth" is whatever the consensus of a group decides is truth, prompting this limerick from a philosophy professor:

Truth is what peers let you say
Wasn't true said at the APA
So Richard Rorty
Changed peer groups at forty
Now his statements get truer each day

All that is the scenic route to the question, can someone please point me to non-relativist writings or interpretations of Foucault and/or Rorty?

ThatGuy said...

Prof. Feser said:

ThatGuy writes:

My original point was that asking if the statment "There is no absolute truth" is absolutely true or false is meaningless sense it forces a relativist to ascribe to a category (absolute truth / falsehood) that they don't ascribe to.

But I addressed that very objection in the post, in the paragraph beginning:

Sorry, I should have addressed that part of your original post more directly, although I do think I spoke to it indirectly in one of my earlier responses. You said:

The trouble with this response [denying the validity of the categories of absolute truth / falsehood] is that if the proponent of (I) refuses to characterize his utterances as either true or false, then he cannot really claim to be asserting any proposition or statement at all, since a proposition or statement is susceptible of being either true or false. His utterance of “There is no truth” will therefore have to be taken as a mere string of sounds lacking meaning or semantic content -- like a grunt or a moan -- rather than as a literal English sentence.

My argument is that denying that a claim is absolutely true does not negate its status as a claim open to refutation or affirmation. Just as scientist will avoid stating whether a given theory, even a well-established and observationally sound one, is absolutely true, so too will a relativist replace the question of absolute truth with that of provisional truth, which as you point out in your original post is really not a definitive “truth” claim at all, but a way of saying it accords with our experiences and reasoning as of now, and also that it is certainly susceptible to revision down the road. And just as no one would argue that a scientist stating E=MC2 is gibberish, so too should no one argue that a relativist who doesn’t subscribe to the notion of absolute truth / falsehood is speaking gibberish either, since in both cases the proposition is advanced provisionally rather than absolutely, regardless of how well-grounded it may be.

Scott said:

Sure. You could also use a map to find your way around Brooklyn without involving yourself in higher-order questions about the absolute accuracy of the map. But in fact, the map either is or isn't absolutely accurate, whether or not you need to raise the question for practical purposes.


So we agree then that things can be explained without resorting to claims about absolute truth and falsehood, because earlier that was in contention. You say the map is either absolutely true or false, I say it doesn’t matter just so long as it gets me where I need to go.

Scott said:
You also have a problem that Tony has pointed out: that if a propositional truth needs to be revised, that's presumably because its revision will bring it into closer proximity to ("absolute") truth. If that's not the reason for revising a proposition truth, you'll need to explain what is.

I’d argue that the reason for revising a proposition is that it no longer accords with the available data. Whether or not this revision gets us closer to an absolute truth is beside the point, just so long as it gets us closer to our observations, experiences, etc.

ThatGuy said...



Tony said:

To start from the end, "explanatory legs" is just an attempt to explain reality. I.E. an attempt to SAY what corresponds to reality. The measure of such statements is, indeed, reality. This is what makes some statements in need of revision, they are less "like" to reality than it is possible to say.

I don’t think explanatory legs is an attempt to explain reality. I think it’s an attempt to explain a matter at hand. Whether or not that matter at hand corresponds to an absolute reality is not my business so long as the explanation gets me what I need. See the example above of explaining how a computer works. If someone explains to me how to turn on a computer, open a word document, type a thank you note and print it out, I will take their explanation as “true” if I am able to perform these tasks afterwards. If I were to ask the explainer at the end of their explanation whether or not his explanation is absolutely true, he’d probably look at me like I’m insane and respond, “I don’t know, but it works.”

Tony said:
Until I find an argument that ceases to use propositions, and ceases to use the indicative mood, I have no reason to THINK that any other way of evaluating "explanatory" formulations but according to correspondence or non-correspondence with reality is being urged.

I think we’re agreeing here. The only difference is that what you call reality in some absolute sense I call experience and observation, which is subject to change. Given this potential for change, the “truths” deduced from our experiences and observation are subject to change as well, and thus provisional.

ThatGuy said...

William Brown said:

Yes,but this is merely a description of how the scientific method works. What it implies is that we are moving toward a fuller description of truth, which must be absolute (if it weren't, then there could be no scientific method), even if we never fully arrive at it (which I think it can be argued we could not, as we are not God).

I disagree that the scientific method implies we are moving towards a fuller description of an absolute truth or reality. I also see no basis for your claim that without the notion of absolute truth there could be no scientific method. On the contrary, I see the scientific method as a brilliant means of dispensing with the notion of absolute truth altogether.

All the scientific method provides is a means of verifying or falsifying hypotheses based on observational data. It makes no claims about these hypotheses correspondence to or departure from absolute truth, only about their aligning with available observational data gathered through replicable means. When the scientific method verifies a hypothesis, it doesn’t indicate that the hypothesis describes some absolute reality, only that it accords with the observations available to us as of now.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

So we agree then that things can be explained without resorting to claims about absolute truth and falsehood, because earlier that was in contention. You say the map is either absolutely true or false, I say it doesn’t matter just so long as it gets me where I need to go.

And I'm saying the fact that the existence of "absolute" truth doesn't matter to you for your limited, practical purpose doesn't mean that it doesn't exist.

Nor does the fact that you needn't expressly rely on it in explaining how a computer works alter the fact that it's presupposed in the very possibility of explanation. As Tony notes, you're implicitly relying on it in making indicative statements at all.

Call it what you like, there's no getting around the fact that any explanation is supposed to conform to reality—and reality is "absolute" if it's there at all.

ThatGuy said...

@Scott

I would say all truths are intended for limited (and by limited I don't mean narrow) purposes. In launching spaceships to the moon we make use of Newtonian physics even though we know that Newtonian physics has been subsumed by general relativity. Same goes for general relativity which has not been made consistent with quantum physics. Are either of these more or less true? No, they have great explanatory power for their circumscribed matters. That explanatory power makes no appeal to absolute reality or truth, just to the observable facts. You can keep claiming that they make "tacit appeal" to absolute this or that, but you'll have to do a better job explaining how and why.

Greg said...

@ Fred

All that is the scenic route to the question, can someone please point me to non-relativist writings or interpretations of Foucault and/or Rorty?

The introduction to the 30th-anniversary edition (written by Michael Williams) denies that Rorty is a relativist:

Rorty's attack on philosophy-as-epistemology got (and gets) him a bad name in certain philosophical quarters. His work's favorable reception outside departments of philosophy contributes to this by linking him with the excesses of postmodernism. To his critics, Rorty is a skeptic, a relativist, an irrationalist, and a nihilist. He is none of those things. Rorty is not an epistemological skeptic but rather a skeptic about epistemology. A philosophical skeptic holds, or pretends to hold, that any view is as good as any other. Rorty doesn't think this for a moment. Rorty's view is that skepticism (along with relativism, etc.) is the dark side of epistemology. Epistemology aims at a wholesale justification of our beliefs about the world (with a resultant downgrading of beliefs that resist appropriate grounding). Accordingly, skepticism is where you end up if you think that epistemology ought to work but doesn't What leads to skepticism is not inadequate epistemology but the very idea that knowledge, justification, and truth are objects of theory. Without this idea, the project of wholesale justification would not seem intelligible. (xxvii)

And:

Am I underestimating the extent of Rorty's skepticism? What about his remark, outrageous to sober epistemologists, that being justified is saying whatever your conscience or your society lets you get away with? Answer: it is just a gloss on epistemological behaviorism. The point is not that "justified" (a term of approval) means "socially accepted" but that, in practice, the only way of getting anything decided is conversationally: by discussion. What Rorty teaches is not skepticism, or relativism, or irrationalism, but modesty. As he puts it in a late paper, if we could give up our addiction to underwriting current ideas with philosophical gimmicks, "we might become able to dispense with words like 'intrinsic,' 'authentic,' 'unconditional,' 'legitimate,' ... [and] get along with such banal expressions of praise or blame as 'fits the data,' 'sounds plausible,' 'would do more harm than good,' 'offends our instincts,' 'might be worth a try,' and 'is too ridiculous to take seriously.'" (xxviii)

So the response is basically a (Rorty-flavored) Wittgensteinian one. He doesn't want to deny that there is absolute truth; but he wants to say that when philosophers talk about absolute truth, they can't really be making claims to more than (basically) warranted assertibility (because of his epistemological behaviorism and his appropriation of Quine and Sellars). This is Rorty-flavored Wittgensteinianism, I say, because it's not like, say, Hacker-flavored Wittgensteinianism, which would say that talk about absolute truth is meaningless or nonsensical. (Not to say Hacker is a relativist or would say that about absolute truth. I just mean that Hacker appropriates Wittgenstein in order to claim that certain expressions are just senseless, whereas Rorty focuses on behavior.)

I find Rorty pretty challenging. I think he goes about materialism ("materialism without identity") in what's probably the "right" way, and he's much more refreshing to read than, for example, Churchland. (He also, evidently, has greatly influenced Alasdair MacIntyre.)

William Brown said...

ThatGuy said...

"I disagree that the scientific method implies we are moving towards a fuller description of an absolute truth or reality."

So you deny that scientific research and discovery is moving us closer to a more accurate description of reality? I know I'm just restating your sentence, but I find your claim astounding. Only an unchanging reality can support the scientific method. If reality changes then science is just shifting sand, and would not build on itself.

ThatGuy....

"All the scientific method provides is a means of verifying or falsifying hypotheses based on observational data. It makes no claims about these hypotheses correspondence to or departure from absolute truth...."

I think you'd be disagreeing with the great majority of scientists over the past 3000 years.

ThatGuy said....

"You say the map is either absolutely true or false, I say it doesn’t matter just so long as it gets me where I need to go."

It gets you where you want to go because it is accurate (ie: true). Gosh, my four year old could have told you that.

"ThatGuy" said....

"Whether or not that matter at hand corresponds to an absolute reality is not my business so long as the explanation gets me what I need"

So it's more important that you have your needs met (I'd argue that it's your wants and not your needs), than that your life is aligned with some sense of external reality/order? That does not leave much room for virtue or even altruism.

ThatGuy said....

" If I were to ask the explainer at the end of their explanation whether or not his explanation is absolutely true, he’d probably look at me like I’m insane and respond, “I don’t know, but it works.”

But if you reworded it slightly and asked if his explanation was accurate (ie: true)he'd say yes. After you followed his directions you'd say yes as well. If it was an extremely complex operation, then his explanation was closer to absolutely true; any other explanation would not have produced the desired result.

ThatGuy said....

"In launching spaceships to the moon we make use of Newtonian physics even though we know that Newtonian physics has been subsumed by general relativity."

General relativity & quantum mechanics has not subsumed Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics is accurate within its circumscribed realm of reality. Just as science is useful within only part of reality (a very small part, I'd add; reality is much bigger than what science can investigate). Hence, Newtonian physics can be used with complete success to pinpoint a space craft in it's path.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

That explanatory power makes no appeal to absolute reality or truth, just to the observable facts. You can keep claiming that they make "tacit appeal" to absolute this or that, but you'll have to do a better job explaining how and why.

You've already done the work for me by acknowledging that explanations appeal to observable facts. At that point the appeal to truth/reality isn't even tacit any longer.

ThatGuy said...

@Scott

You're mistakenly, or maybe disingenuously, projecting epistemological baggage onto my use of the word "fact" that isn't there. Given the context of its usage, it should be obvious that it's meant to indicate something measurable or consistently apparent, not something absolutely true.

Scott said...

It's meant to indicate something real, isn't it? Tony has already pointed out that "absolute(ly)" doesn't add anything of significance there; real is real.

Greg said...

@ ThatGuy

Measurable against what? Against the result that your measuring instrument tends to generate?

moduspownens said...

"consistently apparent"?

As in regularly occurring? As in A-type events regularly precede B-Type events? Well, if that's the case, a'Hume we go and all the accompanying goodies too: causality, science, the self, etc.

Though, I imagine you really don't like the term "matter of fact" and its "epistemological baggage" either...

Scott said...

"It is what my test measures." (Alfred Binet, in reply to the question, "What is intelligence?")

Fred said...

Greg,

Thanks for the reply. You've given me a lot to think about. From what you wrote, though, especially your second italicized paragraph, it looks to me like Rorty is engaged in the same "oscillation between the preposterous and the platitudinous" (as John Searle put it) that I found in Foucault. If he's saying that social consensus makes something true or false (which, Michael Williams to the contrary notwithstanding, is certainly a plausible reading of what he's saying) that's preposterous. If all he's saying is that science or other endeavors seeking knowledge require social interaction of some sort, that's platitudinous. If a critic accuses him of the absurdity of the first reading, he can retreat to the second. Then as soon as the critic leaves the room, it's back to the preposterous. That's actually the tack taken by most postmodernists in my experience. I call it the pomo shuffle.

Fred said...

It occurs to me that Derrida's essay on translation is a classic example of the pomo shuffle. He seems to say in that essay that translation from one language to another is impossible, which is preposterous, but he leave open the possibility that all he's saying is that meanings cannot be lifted whole and complete without remainder from one language and deposited whole and complete without remainder in another. Any first year foreign language student could tell you that.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

One more thing.

You're mistakenly, or maybe disingenuously, projecting epistemological baggage onto my use of the word "fact" that isn't there.

I think you're failing to make an important distinction here.

Neither I nor anyone else am/is suggesting that you mean your use of the word to carry any such "baggage"; we're all well aware that you don't intend it to. However, that doesn't mean you aren't inadvertently committing yourself to certain consequences or presuppositions anyway. The latter is the point.

Your mention of disingenuousness makes me suspect you're confusing the two, as though I might be deliberately misunderstanding or misstating what you mean, when the whole point is that what you mean doesn't exhaust what you're logically committed to.

The amazed absolutist said...

The problem considered in this article can be fixed by a little touch on formulation II: "There is no absolute truth, except for this statement." Just as Sola Scriptura's problem with the biblical canon can be fixed by a little touch on Sola Scriptura: "the Bible is the supreme authority in all matters of doctrine and practice, except for the identifcation of the books of the Bible, which are these: ..."

Seriously speaking, now, it is amazing that this kind of BS can be held with a straight face in some sciences. Because anyone sustaining relativism in a natural science would be immediately kicked out of the respective scientific community.

Greg said...

@ Fred

From what you wrote, though, especially your second italicized paragraph, it looks to me like Rorty is engaged in the same "oscillation between the preposterous and the platitudinous" (as John Searle put it) that I found in Foucault. If he's saying that social consensus makes something true or false (which, Michael Williams to the contrary notwithstanding, is certainly a plausible reading of what he's saying) that's preposterous. If all he's saying is that science or other endeavors seeking knowledge require social interaction of some sort, that's platitudinous. If a critic accuses him of the absurdity of the first reading, he can retreat to the second. Then as soon as the critic leaves the room, it's back to the preposterous. That's actually the tack taken by most postmodernists in my experience. I call it the pomo shuffle.

I think that's a pretty just critique.

A couple qualifiers: He doesn't seem overtly relativistic to me. He just seems like a thoroughgoing pragmatist who tries to push questions of pragmatism's viability under the rug by way of Wittgensteinian response. I don't recall anything that seems to say that social consensus makes truth; but he does do things like substitute pragmatist jargon where one would ordinarily expect, say, the assertion of a proposition's truth.

The other thing is that you can make the second horn a little less platitudinous. I suppose that he wouldn't merely say that science etc. requires social interaction of some sort; he probably would not grant that he has to retreat that far. He'd rather look at the behavior e.g. of scientists. Sometimes they might slip into language that seems to propose absolute truth; but he'd say (I suspect) that in practice, those claims have to mean that such-and-such fits with the data, has no viable alternative, or whatever.

The distinction is pretty subtle, but he does seem to avoid the ridiculousness of some relativists. For he can maintain that without saying that there's no such thing as absolute truth.

I am quite doubtful that such a move works. Unfortunately, I have the same reservations about MacIntyre's project, parts of which are easy to take relativistically. The responses by MacIntyre's followers seem to make the same shuffle.

Mike James said...

I am not a global or moral relativist. But I think that it is possibly the case that the universe is logically sound but morally neutral; if this is indeed the case, then one could believe in the existence of truth - i.e., what is the case is trivially what is true - while not believing that there is a possibility to say what ought to be the case regarding human relations or actions. The problem is that we simply do not know whether the universe is in fact morally neutral. So at best we are left speculating, not obtaining certainty.

William Brown said...

Mike,

I assume by "morally neutral" you mean a universe lacking any absolute morality. Can a "morally neutral" universe allow for the existence of good and evil? Is that universe possible, given our experience? Sorry if my questions are overly basic.

Scott said...

I'm not sure why we need to know whether the "universe" is morally neutral in order to be able to say what ought to be the case regarding human relations or actions.

"The deliberate taking of innocent human life is wrong."

"Nay, 'tis perhaps not so, for the universe may be morally neutral!"

"Um…what?"

William Brown said...

Scott,
Yes, that what I was getting at. I was going to mention an example that GK Chesterton used, whereby the moral relativist is quick to express moral outrage when he is kicked in the shins (and we've all heard the classic about the reaction of the relativist student who arbitrarily gets an F on his paper).

Scott said...

William Brown:

Yeah. I see you posted while I was composing my own post; we couldn't have been more than half a minute or so apart. (Just to be clear, my post was directed at Mike James; when I wrote it, I didn't know there would be an intervening post.)

Mike James said...

@William Brown

N.B.: I mean by 'universe' 'everything that has existed, does exist, and will exist.' And I mean by 'a morally neutral universe' a universe that merely exists and, whatever its ultimate structure, is coherent but does not have a preference for what we do or what it does to us; note that I am not assuming materialism; I am, however, assuming a universe that, no matter how much we unravel it, will never reveal preferences for actions we take. This may very well be the case; but I do not believe it. If this were the case, then morality would seem to reduce to what William Lane Craig calls 'a socio-biological adaptation' having no higher grounding than human beings.

Mike James said...

@Scott

I believe we do need to know that if we are to say that some of our moral preferences are certainly true and not merely plausibly or implausibly true. For example, if the universe (i.e., everything that exists) is morally neutral, then when some humans say that we should not take innocent life, they are expressing not truth about what ought to be the case but merely an opinion; and, regarding what ought to be the case, opinions differ drastically. One tribe of humans likes to engage in a soft form of incest; to another tribe, any form of incest warrants the death penalty.

E.Seigner said...

Mike James, And I mean by 'a morally neutral universe' a universe that merely exists and, whatever its ultimate structure, is coherent but does not have a preference for what we do or what it does to us;

In what way would the universe show that it "does not have a preference for what we do or what it does to us"? By having no causality? Because, you see, causality is a mechanism by which the universe seems to be telling about its preferences...

Mike James said...

@E.Seigner

This is very subtle stuff, and I am not philosophically up to discussing it carefully. But the gist of what I am getting at is the following: It may very well be the case that the universe exists with (i.) causation, with (ii.) complete logical soundness, but what we do on earth, so long as it is in principle possible, does not matter ultimately. So truth would be possible, if such a universe were the case, alongside moral relativism; for truth would merely be what is the case.

William Brown said...

E. Seigner said.....

"In what way would the universe show that it "does not have a preference for what we do or what it does to us"? By having no causality? Because, you see, causality is a mechanism by which the universe seems to be telling about its preferences..."

Yes, and the universe has laws which 'speak to' a definite preference for for what we do and what it does. It sure did not have to be this way. The fact that the laws exist and that they are what they are (and that we can discover them!) never ceases to amaze me (understatement).

PS- I deleted and re-posted my comment since it went out of order (two of us typing at the same time), and did not make much sense following Mike James' comment.

Mike James said...

By the way, the reason why I am making this case is because I think a lot of people mistakenly believe that if one is a moral relativist, one cannot believe in truth. But I think that one can, without contradiction, be a moral relativist and also believe in truth.

E.Seigner said...

Mike James, By the way, the reason why I am making this case is because I think a lot of people mistakenly believe that if one is a moral relativist, one cannot believe in truth. But I think that one can, without contradiction, be a moral relativist and also believe in truth.

I'm familiar with this sentiment, but it so happens that truth is a moral category. If you believe in truth, you believe in morality, even though you may dismiss all those other unfashionable virtues, such as humility, fidelity, diligence, etc. I have not yet seen anyone make a good case for how truth has no link to morality. Would you like to try?

Mike James said...

@E.Seigner

I have never heard someone say that truth is a moral category; perhaps it is. Can you explain this a bit for me? I do not see, at a glance or even further inspection, why this should be so; for example, there are, it seems, plenty of truths that have nothing whatsoever to do with morality, such as the truth that, if I continuously drink water, I will eventually die from doing so. Like Hume (if I have understood Hume), I feel as if what is the case is distinctly separate from what ought to be the case.

Scott said...

Not to gang up on you, Mike, but this is ambiguous:

For example, if the universe (i.e., everything that exists) is morally neutral…

Does "everything that exists" here mean the universe taken as a whole, or does it mean each individual existing thing in the universe? Either of these might be "morally neutral" even if the other one wasn't.

It could be, for example, that the universe as a whole doesn't have any preference about what we do, but that individual human beings were nevertheless so constituted that moral categories did apply to us by nature. (At the very least, and without even bringing in the role of rationality, it might be that the universe contains beings for whom things can be objectively good and bad. In that case such "good" and "bad" might be said to be "relative" to each such being, but that wouldn't be a very interesting sort of relativism; what was good and bad for each one would still be a matter of objective fact, and "that X is good for A" would itself be an absolute truth.)

Also, do you intend your "universe" to include God?

William Brown said...

"....it seems, plenty of truths that have nothing whatsoever to do with morality, such as the truth that, if I continuously drink water, I will eventually die from doing so. Like Hume (if I have understood Hume), I feel as if what is the case is distinctly separate from what ought to be the case."

But is suicide not a moral concern? Maybe you need to give another example.

Mike James said...

I think that the mere truth 'If I drink water continuously, I will eventually die' does not involve moral issues such as suicide, which involves subtle questions of intention; the issue of morality and suicide would be involved in truths such as 'X believes it is immoral to drink water continuously till X dies.' I still do not see how truth itself - i.e., simply what is the case - relates in any way to morality; I can see how truth relates to morality if Christ is God; for then what is the case, i.e., what Christ taught, is true; and so it therefore becomes true that one ought to love one's neighbor as oneself.

Scott said...

Mike: And why couldn't that be true even if Christ weren't God? It seems entirely satisfactory to argue for it on the basis of natural law. On what basis do you rule such arguments out*?

----

*Especially since (some of us would say) if Christ is God, then we have it on the authority of His Church that Scripture is infallible, and that very Scripture teaches that some matters of good and bad, right and wrong, are knowable quite apart from any special revelation.

Scott said...

Or perhaps, instead of "especially since," I should say that your final point undermines itself, since if Christ is God, we can conclude that some moral truths are accessible to natural reason.

William Brown said...

Mike James said...

"I think that the mere truth 'If I drink water continuously, I will eventually die' does not involve moral issues such as suicide, which involves subtle questions of intention; the issue of morality and suicide would be involved in truths such as 'X believes it is immoral to drink water continuously till X dies.' I still do not see how truth itself - i.e., simply what is the case - relates in any way to morality; I can see how truth relates to morality if Christ is God; for then what is the case, i.e., what Christ taught, is true; and so it therefore becomes true that one ought to love one's neighbor as oneself."

I see what you mean James. I also see that my point was not a good one.
From a certain human perspective (perhaps not from God's perspective), morality only comes into question when humans are involved, since only humans can conceive of motive, intention, etc. An animal, and certainly the rest of creation does not reason in these ways, or at all.
It also seems to be true, in my small ability to understand, that morality may be another category from the universe of what is true or real. The question may be, "is morality a subset of truth ("what is")?". And if so, how is it related to the universe? I suspect I'm confusing many issues and terms.

Mike James said...

@Scott

Thanks for your replies; I'll come back to them tomorrow and try to answer them; I have to get going for now.

Fred said...

Greg,

"Fits the data" seems a bit of a dodge to me. How could one theory fit the data better than another unless one is closer to the truth than the other? The only options seem to be pure luck or some kind of Foucauldian discourse creating its own object. The first seems highly unlikely given the consistent success of science; the second seems blatant magical thinking. I do recall Rorty judging truth claims by their "usefulness" but unless he elucidates that criterion in works I haven't read, he never actually says useful for what to whom. Slavery, for example was awfully useful to the planters, for the slaves not so much. I seriously doubt Rorty would approve of slavery, but if "usefulness" is the only criterion of truth or morality, he has no basis for declaring slavery intrinsically immoral. It's perfectly ok if you're a planter, not so great if you're a slave. I am a bit of a MacIntyre fan, but I absolutely see your point. He does seem to favor "tradition" because it is more internally consistent than "encyclopedia" and "genealogy" rather than because it comports better with what the world and/or human nature is like.

Anonymous said...

Five related statements about the nature of Reality, and of the mind too.

Real intelligence is tacit or intrinsically wordless living existence.

The ultimate nature of the world and how it is arising is inherently and tacitly obvious, if you remain in a state of total psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises.
To remain in a state of total psycho-physical oneness with whatever and all that presently arises, you must necessarily and always presently, Realize inherently Love-Blissful Unity with whatever all all that presently arises.
Separation, or total psycho-physical contraction from the world, or whatever and all that is presently arising, is, unfortunately, precisely the first and constant, and inherently problematic, thing done by ALL those who make efforts to find out or to account for, how the world is arising, and What Is its Ultimate Nature.
Separation, or total psycho-physical self-contraction, is the first and foundation gesture made by anyone who has a problem, or who is seeking, or who is making an effort to account for anything whatsoever.
Pleasure-seeking, Happiness-seeking, or Unity-seeking efforts of every kind are always only parts of a strategic and always unhappy adventure. And such effort and adventure are entered into only by those who are already, presently and totally, separating themselves in and from What IS, and such adventurers are seeking only because they are already, presently and totally, separating, or psycho-physically contracting themselves in, and from. What Is.

If you were TRULY aware of mind, you would not want it to go on. It is a terrible, horrific source of bondage.It is a dreadful fear-saturated trap. Human beings are not only trapped in the mortality of their physical bodies, they are trapped in the absurdity of mind, and endless hall-of-mirrors from which there is no escape.

All false views are, necessarily, of the mind. Nevertheless, no right or correct view, IS itself Reality Itself or Truth Itself. Indeed, mind itself is - in and of and as itself - the fundamental form, and the root-source, of ALL false views.
Mind is merely the egoic and entirely conditional mode of association with Reality. Whereas Reality Itself is inherently mindless and egoless, or always Prior to mind, or to the total body-mind, and to the mind's presumed separate self.
Mind is merely every presumed ego's method for attempting to "figure out" Reality. Nevertheless, the actively self-presumed ego-"I" has NO possible means to actually "figure out", or to know and (thus) control Reality Itself.

The seeking effort to acquire, achieve, or experience a static condition, or even an ultimate permanent state of ANY kind is both false and fruitless. And it is a constant generator of both disturbance and weakness in the comprehensive psycho-physical or whole bodily sense and order of well-being.

E.Seigner said...

Mike James, I have never heard someone say that truth is a moral category; perhaps it is. Can you explain this a bit for me? I do not see, at a glance or even further inspection, why this should be so; for example, there are, it seems, plenty of truths that have nothing whatsoever to do with morality, such as the truth that, if I continuously drink water, I will eventually die from doing so. Like Hume (if I have understood Hume), I feel as if what is the case is distinctly separate from what ought to be the case.

You seem to restrict truth only to the domain of "is", but truth cannot be restricted this way. To take your example, it's "true" that one would die from continuously drinking (only) water, but on your restricted interpretation this fact in itself tells you nothing about whether you should do it or abstain from doing it or do something different. It doesn't even tell you whether you should acknowledge the fact or perhaps you are free to ignore it and even go on affirming statements contrary to the fact. Your restricted concept of truth leaves you stranded here.

The complete concept of truth includes truthfulness. As a minimum, you must acknowledge facts as they are and operate in accordance with them, not in denial of them. Truthfulness is clearly a "should" - there's nothing physical compelling you to choose truthfulness over simply shrugging when faced with any fact, "So what? Nevermind!"

But when you do mind, when facts matter to you so that you acknowledge them and you do your best to live in harmony with them, then this is truthfulness, a moral commitment. This is how truth inescapably straddles the domain of "should" too.

Mike James said...

'[B]ut on your restricted interpretation this fact in itself tells you nothing about whether you should do it or abstain from doing it or do something different. It doesn't even tell you whether you should acknowledge the fact or perhaps you are free to ignore it and even go on affirming statements contrary to the fact. Your restricted concept of truth leaves you stranded here.' -E.Seigner

Precisely. I believe it is not impossible for it to be the case that the world is like this and that one is not obliged to believe or to affirm or to live according to what is, trivially, simply the case. If it is possible that the world is like this, then it follows that one can be a moral relativist and also believe in - while not necessarily adhering to or believing that one ought to adhere to - truth. That is my very simple contention - that one can be a moral relativist and believe in the existence of truth, because it may very well be the case that the universe is logically coherent but morally neutral.

I see no reason to believe that truth itself entails that one ought to or must believe in it and, as you write, 'operate in accordance with it'; one would, by necessity, not be able to contradict by action the logic of such a universe; but surely not being able to so contradict that universe's logical structure does not entail that one ought to or must believe this to be the case - and even more certainly not that one ought to or must believe in simple truths such as that humans live on a planet, that fire can burn human flesh, etc.

Now, I myself certainly do not believe that the world is merely a coherent entity that is morally neutral. But I cannot prove that it is not. At best I offer evidence and arguments that, when combined, raise the probability that the universe is not morally neutral - evidence such as (i.) the feeling that morals are properly basic, (ii.) that the same morals tend to be found in every culture and in every human (as Catholics say, the moral law is written on one's heart, it seems), etc.

Thank you for your reply.

E.Seigner said...

Mike James,
That is my very simple contention - that one can be a moral relativist and believe in the existence of truth, because it may very well be the case that the universe is logically coherent but morally neutral.


This contention is a bit too simple. Nobody's denying that you can be a moral relativist and believe in the existence of truth at the same time. You can also publicly affirm sanctity of life and privately be a serial killer. It's just that these two are inconsistent with each other.

If you have commitment to truth, then you affirm at least one moral value (to its absolute, it seems). In this sense you are not a moral relativist. If you are a moral relativist with regard to other moral values, well, it's understandable because it's actually pretty hard work to be perfectly consistent.

However, from anyone's personal ability to be morally inconsistent while logically coherent, it doesn't follow that the universe is logically coherent but morally neutral. The universe doesn't follow our personal whims, abilities and tendencies. Rather, we follow the liberties and constraints as given in the universe. We can follow the liberties as much as we feel like (and it's pretty amazing how much is permitted) and we follow the constraints (such as the constraints of place and time) because we must.

Moral constraints in the fibre of the universe work precisely like commitment to truth. You can decide to ignore facts, but you will immediately see that anarchy follows from this in your personal life and in your individual mind. Similarly, chaos will follow from lack of commitment to duties, from sloth, gluttony, etc. They all work the same way, because they are all moral categories. One may not like it that commitment to truth is a moral virtue (an "ought" in Humean terms), but any like or dislike makes no difference here.

Scott said...

Anonymous:

In other words, you think, and say, that whatever you think or say is false; indeed, you think and say that whatever anyone thinks or says is falsified merely by the fact that they think or say it.

Thanks for playing. Don Pardo has some lovely parting gifts for you.

ThatGuy said...

Scott said:


Call it what you like, there's no getting around the fact that any explanation is supposed to conform to reality—and reality is "absolute" if it's there at all.


I disagree and have provided you multiple examples of explanations that don't appeal to reality or absolutes, just observation.

This line of discussion began with Prof. Feser's claim that to deny the categories of absolute truth and falsehood is to speak gibberish. I proceeded to cite the natural sciences as an area where plenty of claims are proven, disproven, refuted, and revised without any reliance on absolute truths or falsehoods, and no one would accuse a scientist of speaking gibberish.

So to me it seems the ball is in your court to flesh out how and why absolutes are tacitly implied, or necessary for, the possibility of an explanation.

ThatGuy said...

Greg said:

Measurable against what? Against the result that your measuring instrument tends to generate?

Ultimately against our sense organs, but a measurement can take many forms depending on the sphere under investigation.

For scientists, it would be whatever instruments are reliable and capable of testing a given hypothesis. And yes, you'd measure the "truth" against the result the instruments generate, since that's the point of an instrument.

Now before you go and claim I'm thereby ascribing absolute truth to the result of an instrument, I'll preempt you and say no, I'm not. I'm ascribing provisional "truth" or accuracy to the results of the instrument. More refined or sophisticated instruments could at some point disprove previous findings, at which point revisions to the "truths" yielded by the former instruments would be needed (as indeed has happened repeatedly throughout history).

ThatGuy said...

William Brown said:

So you deny that scientific research and discovery is moving us closer to a more accurate description of reality? I know I'm just restating your sentence, but I find your claim astounding. Only an unchanging reality can support the scientific method. If reality changes then science is just shifting sand, and would not build on itself.

I don't deny that scientific research is moving us closer to a more accurate description of some absolute reality, I claim that we have no means of knowing whether it is or not.

The best we can hope for is better models (be they mathematical, physical, or logical) to describe the observed universe. Whether the universe that makes itself available to us for observation and measurement corresponds to some absolute, unchanging reality is entirely unknowable.

William Brown said:

I think you'd be disagreeing with the great majority of scientists over the past 3000 years.

You'll have to provide some examples. Here are quotes from a few of the great scientists of our age as to their view on the matter:

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth. - Richard Feynman

These examples bring us to a conclusion: There is no picture- or theory-independent concept of reality.Instead we adopt a view that we call model-dependent realism: the idea that a physical theory or world picture is a model (generally of a mathematical nature) and a set of rules that connect the elements of the model to observations. This provides a framework with which to interpret modern science...

[Model-dependent realism] is based on the idea that our brains interpret the input from our sensory organs by making a model of the world. When such a model is successful at explaining events, we tend to attribute to it, and to the elements and concepts that constitute it, the quality of reality or absolute truth.
- Stephen Hawking

As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality. - Einstein

ThatGuy said...

William Brown said:

[The map] gets you where you want to go because it is accurate (ie: true). Gosh, my four year old could have told you that.

So we agree we verify the accuracy of the map based on our experience using it, that's a good consensus to build off of.

However, we diverge in that you go on to take the unfounded step in stating that my experience using the map successfully indicates its correspondence to some absolute reality.

I say it does no such thing, it just shows itself to be accurate for my present purposes. I, nor you, nor anyone, have a means of validating the map's absolute accuracy outside of our experiences using it. And since our experience of the map will always be finite and limited, so too must be the "truth" of the map itself.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

So to me it seems the ball is in your court to flesh out how and why absolutes are tacitly implied, or necessary for, the possibility of an explanation.

No, I think the ball is still in your court to explain why you're not (as I said three days ago you were) confusing truth with such other things as certainty, certitude, verifiability, and closeness of approximation. Your latest round of posts is just more of the same.

Again, talk of "absolutes" adds nothing here, and you still haven't bothered explaining how you think statements can provide explanations of reality without in any way referring to it. Indeed, in one of your latest replies to William Brown you've shifted the ground of discussion to "absolute reality" while acknowledging that explanations are true of the "observed universe." So you've yet again acknowledged the very thing you insist that I'm supposed to be demonstrating. (Moreover, we can add yet another confusion to the list: you're now confusing truth about possibly non-absolute reality with supposedly "non-absolute" truth about absolute reality.)

When you get this incoherent mess sorted out, decide what it is you really want to argue for, and make an argument for that, perhaps then the ball may be in someone else's court.

ThatGuy said...

Scott said:

No, I think the ball is still in your court to explain why you're not (as I said three days ago you were) confusing truth with such other things as certainty, certitude, verifiability, and closeness of approximation. Your latest round of posts is just more of the same.

I'm not confusing truth with verifiability and closeness of approximation, I'm saying that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand for verifiability and closeness of approximation. And since what is verified is always subject to revision, and since an approximation is always just that (approximate), then what we call "truth" can not be absolute either.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

I'm saying that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand for verifiability and closeness of approximation.

But of course you're not saying it's true that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand, etc. Or that what is verified is always subject to revision. Or that an approximation is always approximate. Or that what we call "truth" can't be absolute. Or that this last statement logically follows from the previous ones.

(Your use of "either" is also questionable, since none of the properties you'd already listed—being a shorthand, being subject to revision, being an approximation—is a way of not being absolute. A's being a shorthand for B, for example, is as "absolute" as anything.)

William Brown said...

ThatGuy said

"I'm saying that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand for verifiability and closeness of approximation."

Is this a standard or common definition of 'truth'?
Whether we can verify it or not (and to what degree) seems irrelevant to the questions at hand. To use your jargon, Truth is what it is that we are nearing in approximation or what it is that we are verifying. I do, however, think that without a conception of God, it might be impossible to conceptualize the meaning of the word.

Tony said...

You're mistakenly, or maybe disingenuously, projecting epistemological baggage onto my use of the word "fact" that isn't there. Given the context of its usage, it should be obvious that it's meant to indicate something measurable or consistently apparent, not something absolutely true.

I'm saying that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand for verifiability and closeness of approximation.

No, let's stop making up definitions for whatever we please. Things that are, are real whether you call them just "facts" or "absolute". Let's not impose a different measure of the real than that it be real.

I measure a block in an experiment, and as I see the scale I get "72.4 grams". It is a FACT that I really read the scale read "72.4 grams". There is no point to trying to distinguish the kind of factness of my observation and the kind of factness of the actual weight of some ball of steel that happens to weigh 60 pounds. The reality of my observation is real, and that's all there is to it. That's the fact. So is the real weight, whatever it happens to be. Neither of them are in need of "absolute" to them to clarify them from some other kind of reality. What is, is.

Truth is the correspondence of the mind and what is. Suppose I read in a news story where the reporter knowingly lied about a politician, saying "he did take campaign money from Warren Buffet", but my eyes mis-take the words and I think I saw "he did not take campaign money..." and I accept the story as true. Because in my mind I hold a proposition, "he did not take campaign contributions", and because that happens to be the reality, I have a truth. The fact that I hold the truth for poor reasons, in fact I hold the truth in a way that is not supported by reliable standards of verifiability, and I cannot claim to hold the proposition with certainty, DOES NOT IMPLY that I don't hold a truth in my mind. I have a truth, simply and merely because what I hold corresponds to reality.

Let's take another example. The following is proposed as "the reason to accept that man is a rational animal": All A's are B. Pigs are animals. Pigs can fly in a blue moon. Some man sang "Blue Moon." Therefore man is a rational animal."

I can state that this argument is ABSOLUTELY WRONG, even if I don't know whether man is exactly or only approximately rational animal. It is ABSOLUTELY TRUE that this is a bad argument. It is ABSOLUTELY TRUE that this argument, if held in the mind as valid, would not be an instance of the mind corresponding to reality. Even if a person held the conclusion, and holding the conclusion possessed a truth (because man really is rational animal), even so the person would not hold truth _by_reason_ of holding to the argument as being valid. His holding the argument to be valid would be error, not a "somewhat more distant approximation" to truth.

[NB: in the above paragraph, all uses of "absolute" can be dispensed with because they add nothing to the expressions, it was all just blather.]

That there are many things held in the mind only as opinions, or approximations, or tentative attempts to achieve truth, means that there are many ways of trying to approach to truth. That's because truth is the object of the mind. And when there is correspondence between the mind and what is, the mind has truth. When the mind has this truth (that the politician did not take money from Buffet) only by opinion, or only by approximation, or only tentatively rather than certainly, these are kinds of incompleteness as regards the degree of certainty about what is, they are not deficiencies with respect to the rightness of the proposition apprehended.

Scott said...

William Brown:

Whether we can verify it or not (and to what degree) seems irrelevant to the questions at hand.

That's because it is. If truth were nothing more than verifiability, then "unverifiable truth" would be an oxymoron and it wouldn't even make sense to deny (never mind "affirm") that there was any "absolute reality" of which we happened to lack knowledge.

But surely there either is or isn't life on the planet Neptune right now even if we're never able to verify it either way. Suppose there is; then There is life on Neptune right now is true. Or suppose there isn't; then It is not the case that there is life on Neptune right now is true. Truth doesn't wait on verification.

Nor does it make any difference whether our current belief about whether there's life on Neptune might be altered by further evidence. Of course it might. And that's because our belief might be wrong (that is, not true): there might be life on Neptune even though we think there isn't, or there might not be even though we think there is. In either case, the truth is what it is, independently of whether we believe it or not.

Nor do approximation, imprecision, or vagueness affect the matter. Perhaps the truth is that there are eleven coins in a certain box. Then it's true that there are eleven coins in the box; it's also true that there are about ten coins in the box, that there are fewer than a thousand coins in the box, that there are at least eleven things in the box that are not mice, and that there's something in the box. Indeed, all of those things are "absolutely" true, as the word "absolutely" is simply redundant in such a context.

Nor do we need to invoke God in order to conceptualize the basic meaning of "truth." It's the conformity of the mind/intellect to reality.

Scott said...

I see Tony posted while I was writing. It's probably needless to say that I agree with him, but it's probably worth noting that when he says "correspondence" and I say "conformity," we mean the same thing.

William Brown said...


Scott said...

"Nor do we need to invoke God in order to conceptualize the basic meaning of "truth." It's the conformity of the mind/intellect to reality."

That might be true and perhaps my statement is not germane to the theses of this thread. However, it seems that whilst we live in state of uncertainty re. truth, even as we get closer to it through discovery, theology, and philosophy, there is a mind (in whom we are 'imago dei') that does know truth about all things. Without that mind some of "That Guys" ideas may have validity. It seems that a mind that knows all truth might be necessary somewhere in the argument.

My thoughts here are obviously nebulous. Every once in a while it makes sense (in a flash of insight), and then later I forget why :)
These ideas have been developed more fully by Augustine (or Aquinas) I think.

Jack Ferrara said...

@Scott
Your point on verification is interesting and reminds me of a discussion I had with a hardcore materialist: he chewed out my support of theistic evolution by saying it's "unfalsifiable," saying I could claim any crazy idea (like "the tooth fairy did it") and there wouldn't be any way to potential prove or disprove it, so wouldn't it make more sense to simply go with what I have immediate experience with than to speculate...I went on to discover that "falsification" was what replaced "verification" in Analytic circles...I'd be interested to hear your perspective Scott.

Santi Tafarella said...

Feser has largely muddied, rather than clarified, what the central issue is here. It’s not a matter of truth, but confidence-level.

I, like virtually every other 21st century fan of people like Adorno, Rorty, and Foucault, accept that there are an infinite number of logically possible ways the world can be, but only one way it actually is. But it doesn’t follow from this that only one language of interpretation can be overlaid upon this reality.

The cosmos and God (if God exists) aren’t speaking. If either spoke, there would be no need for interpretation. It would be the word with the bark on it. But God, for example, hasn’t told anybody why She let the Holocaust happen. That makes for difficulties. And our evolutionary lineage rests along a continuum, so even if we could know the objective sequence of evolution perfectly, we would not be able to declare with equal objectivity who the first member of our species was; who the first human was. Our species boundaries within our own lineage would go on being a matter of debate.

So Nietzsche’s exaggeration is nevertheless largely in the ballpark: interpretation may not be all, but it very nearly is. This leads people like me to a pragmatic pluralism and historicism combined with reality testing in the same way that it leads Stephen Hawking to model dependent realism. Hawking believes the absolute truth is “out there,” but he’s not 100% confident that we’ve arrived at the final theory. And he wants his theories specified in ways that predictions can be drawn from them and tested.

Until the truth gets here (via the Second Coming, or God or Nature speaking), the interpretive models we work out that seem the most plausible and humane to us will have to do. And since we live in a democracy, they will entail persuasion, not proclamation.

So every reasonable person is not just a critical thinker, but is self-critical (doubts herself). Doubting is good. Hermeneutic suspicion attentive to human frailty and our embeddedness in history is good. Whether one’s proclivities run to the humanities or the sciences, the prudent and sensible reasoner, left or right, recognizes that she possesses many contingent cultural and temperamental biases (some of which we are aware, many of which we are not).

I suspect it’s hardly controversial, even in these threads, that Einstein’s emotional attachment to steady-state theories of the cosmos and his youthful love of Spinoza made it quite difficult for him to accept expansion models of the cosmos and quantum theory (“God does not play dice”). Einstein was a man of his time, and we can see in retrospect the cultural and biographical factors influencing his conclusions.

That’s not being a relativist, that’s looking at human reality as it is, not bracketing metaphysics and claims from history and the self-correcting mechanisms of experience and empiricism.

Metaphysical systems are not mathematics. Many things confidence men and dogmatists peddle as absolute truths derived from first principles are not certain. Emphasis on the word certain.

Gottfried said...

Feser has largely muddied, rather than clarified, what the central issue is here.

And yet, as usual, your response is not to address any of Feser's actual points, but to shake your jujus and chant your spells. Are you really such a fool that you haven't noticed they have no effect here?

William Brown said...

Santi Tarafelli,

It seems that you admit to an ultimate reality, and attribute the idea to others, but then you go on at some length, with a fair amount of popular (I'd say faddish) jargon, about how hard it can be to know it. I'm not sure what the point of the sermon was. Maybe you can rephrase your main point again without the catch phrases. Who are the bad guys, confidence men, and dogmatists you mention?

BTW, I think that the universe is speaking, pretty loudly and clearly.
Perhaps it's the language that you don't hear.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Scott said...

Maybe you can rephrase your main point again without the catch phrases.

Don't hold your breath.

ThatGuy said...

Scott said:

But of course you're not saying it's true that what we call "truth" is just a shorthand, etc. Or that what is verified is always subject to revision. Or that an approximation is always approximate. Or that what we call "truth" can't be absolute. Or that this last statement logically follows from the previous ones.

I feel like we already went over this.

You're suggesting that I can't make statements without grounding them in some absolute definition of truth. As I said before, and provided examples to support, statements and explanations are proffered all the time without resorting to a mind-independent (i.e., absolute) standard of truth. Rather, when we call something "true," what we're really saying is it aligns with our experience, observation, data, etc. As all of these are contingent, so too must be all "truths."

To summarize, what is required to make a claim is not reference to Truth with a capital T, but to observation and experience. Thus, it doesn't matter if the arguments I make are true / untrue in any absolute sense (and I would argue that this is ultimately unknowable anyways and so meaningless to attempt to evaluate). What matters is whether or not my arguments are the best (i.e., most supported by evidence) available to us as of now. I am asserting they are.

ThatGuy said...

Tony said:

Truth is the correspondence of the mind and what is.

I'll let Kant respond to this. The below quote was pulled from wikipedia:

"(...) Truth, it is said, consists in the agreement of cognition with its object. In consequence of this mere nominal definition, my cognition, to count as true, is supposed to agree with its object. Now I can compare the object with my cognition, however, only by cognizing it. Hence my cognition is supposed to confirm itself, which is far short of being sufficient for truth. For since the object is outside me, the cognition in me, all I can ever pass judgement on is whether my cognition of the object agrees with my cognition of the object."

Tony said:

The reality of my observation is real, and that's all there is to it. That's the fact. So is the real weight, whatever it happens to be. Neither of them are in need of "absolute" to them to clarify them from some other kind of reality. What is, is.

I'm not sure what you mean when you say "the reality of my observation is real."

I believe you're claiming that reality is real. However, you - and all of us - only have access to "reality" (which you seem to think of as mind-independent) through our minds / senses. So it's nonsensical to make claims about the nature of reality itself when the only reality we have access to is the contingent one proffered to us through our senses. And if our only access to reality, which you posit is the measure of truth, is contingent, then so too is truth itself.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

I'll let Kant respond to this.

That's a mistake. ;-)

As I said, when Tony says "correspondence" and I say "conformity," we mean the same thing. As I didn't say but perhaps should have said, one reason I prefer the term "conformity" is that it avoids misunderstandings like Kant's (and yours). "Correspondence" can suggest to the unwary that some mental entity is supposed to "represent" some external object by "corresponding" with it point for point.

That more-or-less Lockean representationalism is emphatically not what either Tony or I is/am defending. My view, and I feel safe in saying that it's Tony's too, is that in any act of cognition, the real object itself is what we "cognize," and any images or concepts we use are only that by which we "cognize" it. There's no need to "compare" anything; the object itself is what we're directly aware of, by means of percepts and concepts (which themselves have, quite literally, the very same forms as their objects).

Your reply is also not entirely relevant to your claims about the intellect, since the sort of "cognition" you're addressing here (through Kant) is really sensory-perceptual rather than intellectual. That's Kant's fault, not directly yours; the confusion between images and concepts was rampant when Kant wrote, thanks in large measure to the very empiricists to whom he took himself to be replying. But imagination and conception are two entirely different things, and even if sensation and perception worked the way you say they do, that would leave the question of the intellect untouched as far as I can tell.

I'm also not sure how many times you need us to point out that "absoluteness" (or for that matter spelling truth with a "capital T") adds nothing of consequence here before you start trying to defend your implicit claim to the contrary. Maybe you can begin with this:

What matters is whether or not my arguments are the best (i.e., most supported by evidence) available to us as of now. I am asserting they are.

You're asserting, then, that it's true that your arguments are the ones best supported by the evidence we have now. Presumably you would deny, though, that your assertion is absolutely true. What do you think the word "absolutely" adds here? Either the current evidence best supports your argument or it doesn't; whichever of these is the case, there's nothing "relative" or "non-absolute" about it.

Santi Tafarella said...

Hi William:

My main point is that, in a democracy, critiques of certainty check the dogmatist’s broad appeal in ways that the dogmatist then grouses about by calling it relativism.

Thus Feser writes, “[E]mphasis on the vested interests of those in power adds a novel sinister element that is supposed to make it especially doubtful that what we take ourselves to ‘know’ reflects any absolute truth.”

Notice this almost paranoid complaint is stated as a generalization, roping in everybody (“we”) who is not “sinister.”

But make the complaint specific, and we get to the crux of the matter: “Emphasis on the vested interests of [the church] adds a novel sinister element that is supposed to make it especially doubtful that what we take ourselves to ‘know’ reflects any absolute truth.”

That tears it. It’s not really truth at stake, but dogmatic certainty.

The general complaint about relativism conceals the real source of conservative complaint: the deconstruction of certainty.

Timocrates said...

@ Santi,

Thank you for wasting everyone's time with that woefully lame comment. You may have succeeded in making a few people somewhat dumber, which in your world I imagine is called Progress!(TM).

My main point is that, in a democracy, critiques of certainty check the dogmatist’s broad appeal in ways that the dogmatist then grouses about by calling it relativism

Which is said with such wonderful certainty. Hypocrite much?

Thanks for coming out but you should try batting in the junior leagues before trying out for the majors.

ThatGuy said...

Scott said:

My view, and I feel safe in saying that it's Tony's too, is that in any act of cognition, the real object itself is what we "cognize," and any images or concepts we use are only that by which we "cognize" it. There's no need to "compare" anything; the object itself is what we're directly aware of, by means of percepts and concepts (which themselves have, quite literally, the very same forms as their objects).

I'll need you to expand and clarify on this because it strikes me as a very bold, and unsubstantiated, view. How could it be that we directly apprehend "the real object itself" when our senses are notoriously unreliable and all experience is by necessity facilitated through these fallible organs of ours?

John West said...

How could it be that we directly apprehend "the real object itself" when our senses are notoriously unreliable and all experience is by necessity facilitated through these fallible organs of ours?

It would be good if you could expand on what you mean by "notoriously unreliable".

Glenn said...

[W]hen we call something "true," what we're really saying is it aligns with our experience, observation, data, etc. As all of these are contingent, so too must be all "truths."

IOW, '2+2=4', which is true, is only contingently true -- and there are conditions, which either exist or might exist, under which '2+2=4' might be false. One wonders what these conditions might be.

Captain Obvious said...

Gottfried to Santi: "Are you really such a fool"

Yes.

Santi Tafarella said...

Feser writes: “The idea here is that belief in absolute truth leads to dogmatism and intolerance, which can therefore be counteracted if we affirm instead that truth is relative.”

No. That’s not the idea here. It’s 100% certainty that one possesses the “absolute truth” that’s the problem. The issue has never really been truth in the abstract, but broad metaphysical truth-claims in the concrete, held with the same certainty that 2+2=4.

100% certainty is not combated by a liberal like me with, “Truth is relative,” but with “There are an infinite number of logically possible ways the cosmos can be, but there’s only one way the cosmos actually is. So why do you express 100% confidence that you’ve hit upon the singularly right language of meaning for one and all people and things? What’s your evidence for this astonishing claim? Why is everybody, save you and your tribe, hopelessly stupid, badly motivated, and living in error?”

This question draws the confidence man or dogmatist out of his bubble of rectitude. The way he answers lifts the Oz curtain (rarely pretty, as the responses immediately above by Timocrates and Captain Obvious illustrate). He falls from his heavenly pedestal of metaphysics, authority, confidence, proclamation, and imperative into the messy realm of justification, history, dialogue, and the sublunary (life as actually lived beneath the moon)--and shows what he’s made of.

Will he:

--engage in ad hominem, accuse the doubter of “relativism,” and blow blue pipe smoke across the intellectual chessboard--before walking away?

--call a consideration of history or experience in relation to a grand truth claim an attempt to introduce a "sinister" genetic fallacy? (The genetic fallacy, by the way, is largely a canard. When you’re abducting to the best explanation, working out a reliable narrative of origins surrounding a grand truth claim raises or lowers confidence that you’re actually on the right track; it’s a form of reality testing).

--stay and reason until, low and behold, the dogmatist finds himself back on planet Earth, a contingent human being in history like the rest of us, being talked away from the precipice of 100% certainty?

The democratic antidote to the confidence man or dogmatist’s 100% confidence is not relativism, but sustained dialogue--or the witnessing of him fleeing it.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

You need me to "expand" on the view that when we see an apple, what we see is an apple?

Possibly you're confusing this view with some other (such as that we're always seeing an apple whenever we think we are, or that we can't be mistaken about its color, or something). I suspect as much from your remark about the supposedly notorious unreliability of "the senses", which suggests that you're (among other things) confusing sensation with perception and/or still not managing to shake off the strange, strange view that all we ever perceive are our own cognitions. At any rate I don't know how else to account for your difficulty in accepting that in any genuine causal process of perception, the (relevant) cause is the real object that one is perceiving.

But as John West says, it will be hard to tell unless you do a little expanding. I think it's your turn; frankly, I've lost count at this point of the direct questions you've ignored.

Glenn said...

(The issue has never really been truth in the abstract, but broad metaphysical truth-claims in the concrete, held with the same certainty that 2+2=4.

(Possibly one such broad metaphysical truth-claim is that that which is not might come to be, provided something already actual facilitates its emergence. This, however, is -- to an obstinate obtruder such as Santi -- open to question, subject to doubt, and, to boot, something to be strenuously resisted.

(And because am obstinately obtruding liberal like Santi strenuously resists the 100% certainty of broad metaphysical truth-claims, such as the one just mentioned (the gist of which is not at odds with the subject of one of his recent spewings, i.e., the gist of which is not at odds with his so-called 'dependent arisings') he, quite naturally, resists being other than as he is, i.e., he refuses to be booted (in either of two ways), does not change and remains the same.)

Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn said...

(One sad thing -- which sad thing simultaneously is a funny thing -- is that the aforementioned obstinately obtruding liberal is a professor of literature and is fascinated with The Wizard of Oz, yet gives every indication of failing to see in what way that story might have some relevance for him.

(The story, as is well known, has to do with a young person who suffers a blow to the head, and subsequently has a dream.

(The content of the dream is driven or fashioned, and not insignificantly, by an inclination for self-pity, and a desire to be relieved of it, as well as by disgruntlements and resentments harbored and nursed by that young person.

(The young person in the story does eventually wake up, and, quite mysteriously, the earlier disgruntlements and resentments are presently dissipated.

(Given his resistance to the experience of that the observation of which underlies the previously mentioned broad metaphysical truth-claim (i.e., given his resistance to change), whether a similarly fortuitous awakening might be experienced by the lit[tle] professor is certainly open to question and subject to doubt.)

Glenn said...

Scott,

Re the deleted comment, 'twas on the money it was. So I thought. I had said, "...the gist of which is not at odds with...". What I should have said is, "...the gist of which, upon a surface appraisal, is not at odds with..." As the substance of the deleted comment had made clear, "the gist of which is" indeed and in fact "very much at odds with..."

Chris said...

Santi,
Man, when left to his own subjectivity, tends to gravitate temperamentally to one one of two opposite poles of intellectual blindness: either fanaticism , which is passional absolutism, or to relativism. Both positions entail a kind of false- and therefore self-righteous- humility (if this be the term to describe what amounts to a forfeiting of critical intelligence). Both, moreover, are equally self-interested, because that is the nature of error. Finally, both, albeit each very differently, make an absolute of the relative- fanaticism by dramatizing the letter of the law and relatvism by sentimentally divinizing the peripheral or the non-essential.

" All things being equal, the polarizing difference (between the two positions) is more a question of psychological style or of means than of substance, to say nothing of the fact that any fanatical absolutism is perforce relative in direct measure to its exclusivism, just as, conversely, any relativism eventually verges on absolutism in that it erects ignorance as the only possible constant of human experience." - Mark Perry

Now, it must be maid clear that it is all too easy to confuse absolutism with fanaticism- the relatvist very conveniently does not see any difference at all- when in fact fanaticism is an ugly parody of absolutism.

Santi Tafarella said...

Glenn:

I may have a deeper Freudian reason for bringing up Oz here, I don't know. But one of the reasons I'm conscious of is that Feser's iconic blog image has him leaning forward with his copious forehead, Oz-like, as if to say, "Ye dare to approach this Great Intellectual Oz?" It's an endearing image for Feser to choose of himself; it's playful and an invitation to energetic exchange with all-comers. It's Joe Frazer coming at Ali.

Confidence is always attractive.

But if you're going to be in the role of the confidence man and intellectual charger, somebody has to play Dorothy, squinting with red lipstick on, trying to figure out the weird spell being cast on followers. I don't mind the gender bending.

Glenn said...

Well, hmm...

Feser's iconic blog image has him leaning forward with his copious forehead, Oz-like, as if to say, "Ye..."

"...get a large-than-life sized image projected on a screen in the The Wizard of Oz, and someone hiding behind a curtain. But notice: I'm looking you straight in the eye, and what you'll get from me will be as straight as my gaze."

I don't mind the gender bending.

Apparently, you also don't mind the dreaming.

ThatGuy said...

Scott said:

You need me to "expand" on the view that when we see an apple, what we see is an apple?

I quoted the section I'd like you to expand on, which is the position that we directly apprehend the real object itself.

Your rephrasing of it as "When we seen an apple, what we see is an apple" is a tautology and so not in need of clarification.

My request was for you to substantiate the claim that what is represented as an apple in our minds conforms to what is out there in the world. All we have access to is our mind's representations, so how could we establish the conformance of these representations to anything outside of our minds?

Also, I did my best in my previous replies to respond to the overall gist of your questions and counterclaims. If there are particularly important questions you feel I missed please re-state them and I'll be sure to speak to them directly.

ThatGuy said...

Also, when I say our senses are notoriously unreliable, I simply mean to indicate that our senses prove faulty all the time. We think we hear the phone ring when it isn't, we mistake a shadow for a bird, etc. Not to mention all the altered states that can arise from brain injury, genetic defects, drug usage, lack of sleep, etc, which to me shows our senses are not some absolute window into the world but rather our brain's best guess as to what is going on around us. Whether or not this guess is accurate is unknowable to us, the only measure we have of its accuracy is whether it allows us to function.

Scott said...

Glenn:

Re the deleted comment, 'twas on the money it was.

Thanks. I deleted it only because I thought it was ever so slightly mean for no good reason.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

My request was for you to substantiate the claim that what is represented as an apple in our minds conforms to what is out there in the world.

And since that request is based on the assumption, which I've already expressly denied, that I think there is a "representation" of an apple in our minds that has to conform to its object in the sense you mean, I'm afraid I can't fulfill it.

Again, this is going in circles; you're still neither acknowledging any of the distinctions any of us have tried to make nor explaining why you don't need to acknowledge them, and you're still perpetrating elementary confusions (e.g. between "mistak[ing] a shadow for a bird" and not perceiving any real object at all) even after they've been repeatedly pointed out to you. So I'm going to bow out now.

Glenn said...

(Santi,

(Apparently, you also don't mind the dreaming.

(Look at it this way: if you're fortunate enough to live long enough to be old, creaky and without vitality, you won't have the energy to sustain a vitriolic attitude (even if you should want to), and then certain things will be clearer. For example, you may recognize the shenanigans of your earlier life (earlier with respect to that time; current with respect to the present) for what they are: shenanigans instigated, fueled and sustained by annoyances, grievances, pet peeves, disgruntlements, resentments, misunderstanding, lack of understanding, the misdeeds of others, injuries suffered, indignities borne, etc., etc., so on and so on. But why wait until then? That clarity is available now. A consequence of having that clarity now is that you're not old, creaking and lacking in vitality, but still young, healthy and vibrant. And rather than flailing about in a dream, being run for the purposes of self-medication and self-entertainment, you get to enjoy a genuine life which, primarily, is not governed by the unpleasant things previously mentioned. When the old trash (pew) is gotten rid of, the kitchen no longer smells (whew).)

Glenn said...

Scott,

Thanks. I deleted it only because...

I kind of figured that might have been the case. Although, and as I think may you know, that isn't what was referred to when I said it was on the money. In the relevant context, the term "empty" indicates a lack of the very substance upon which the act/potency distinction rests (which is why my phrasing originally should have had the qualification that was added only later).

ThatGuy said...

There's no need to "compare" anything; the object itself is what we're directly aware of, by means of percepts and concepts (which themselves have, quite literally, the very same forms as their objects).

This seems to be the meat of our disagreement, which I've asked for elaboration on and you've declined to do. You claim that we're directly aware of the object itself. I'm asking how that could possibly be. Since you don't seem interested in answering that question, I suppose I'll have to dig up my copy of Prof. Feser's Scholastic Metaphysics and see what's in there, since I assume your position aligns with it. Nice chatting though.

Scott said...

ThatGuy:

[All right, one more time. One.]

You claim that we're directly aware of the object itself. I'm asking how that could possibly be.

…while nevertheless acknowledging that "when we see an apple, what we see is an apple" is a tautology, and insisting that I explain how, on what you suppose is my view, "what is represented as an apple in our minds conforms to what is out there in the world" [emphasis mine].

If* by "what is represented as an apple in our minds" you mean (as you seem to mean) a sort of mental representation, then you're asking for elaboration of a view I don't hold. I've already explained that our minds and the apple have, quite literally, one and the same form, and all of your questions about how this could possibly be the case betray a fundamental lack of understanding.

When we perceive an apple, the object of our perception is the apple, full stop. It is what we are seeing when we see it. We are not "seeing" our own cognitions of colors and shapes and so forth; we are seeing the apple. The apple is the cause that stands at the head of the perceptual process by which we come to perceive (you guessed it) the apple.

"But how can this be when our senses are so notoriously unreliable?" Our "senses" have nothing to do with it. If we're misled into thinking we perceive an apple when we don't, then we're not perceiving an apple. We're perceiving something else (or just having a hallucination) that we're misinterpreting as an apple. But whatever it is that we're really seeing is the real object of our perception.

In short, there's nothing to elaborate on here. You're simply not understanding the view you want me to elaborate on and asking irrelevant questions about it.

It's as though I were to say that when I eat an apple, the real apple is the object that I'm eating, and you were to keep asking how this can possibly be the case when what we're really eating is our own digestive juices, which may somehow fail to "correspond" to the real apple.

----

*I say "if" because, strictly interpreted, "what is represented as an apple in our minds" just is the apple. But if that were what you meant, you wouldn't be disagreeing with me.

Scott said...

For clarity: "…betray a fundamental lack of understanding of that view."

Scott said...

By the way, the difficulty we're encountering here illustrates the truth of the dictum that when you get the metaphysics right, the epistemological issues tend to sort themselves out without much fuss.

(Okay, it's not really a "dictum" apart from the fact that I just now said it. But I'm heavily paraphrasing an observation of, I think, Paul Vincent Spade's, and I'm pretty sure Ed has made a similar point.)

Scott said...

Sorry for posting so many times; this will be the last in the series. I just wanted to note than when I say "our senses have nothing to do with it," I mean that sensation and perception are two different things, and that we can perceive objects even via senses that may in some thus-far-unspecified sense be "unreliable"—not, of course, that our senses have no role at all in our faculty of perception.

And since I'm posting again, I may as well add (or rather make explicit) that what are often characterized as unreliabilities in our "senses" really have to do with perception rather than mere "sensation." I don't know how one would go about experiencing a sensation of redness wrongly. But we might, on the basis of such a sensation, mistakenly believe we're perceiving a red object.

I suspect something like that was in John West's mind when he asked ThatGuy to elaborate on the alleged notorious unreliability of the senses, and I know it was in mine.

moduspownens said...

Santi,

You write: "No. That’s not the idea here. It’s 100% certainty that one possesses the “absolute truth” that’s the problem. The issue has never really been truth in the abstract, but broad metaphysical truth-claims in the concrete, held with the same certainty that 2+2=4."

Fine fair enough. Yet, then you continue:

"100% certainty is not combated by a liberal like me with, “Truth is relative,” but with 'There are an infinite number of logically possible ways the cosmos can be, but there’s only one way the cosmos actually is. So why do you express 100% confidence that you’ve hit upon the singularly right language of meaning for one and all people and things? What’s your evidence for this astonishing claim? Why is everybody, save you and your tribe, hopelessly stupid, badly motivated, and living in error?'"

Therefore, I feel compelled to confront a liberal like you and point out that these claims are asserted rather brashly and boldly, with "100% certainty," to borrow your parlance. For instance, the claim about all the "possible ways the cosmos can be, but there's only one way the cosmos actually is..." is the sort that relies on the broad concrete metaphysics you are skewering and not the mathematical propositions like 2+2=4 you distinguish as capable of being derived with 100% certainty. Hence I eagerly retort, Santi, "Why do you express 100% confidence that you’ve hit upon the singularly right language of meaning for one and all people and things? What’s your evidence for this astonishing claim? Why is everybody, save you and your tribe, hopelessly stupid, badly motivated, and living in error?"

This also brings me to that coda about "tribe(s)" being "hopeless stupid, (and) badly motivated..." Why are you so keen to speculate on the attitude of Feser? I'm assuming it's he who is target to your chastisement, as "tribe..." indicates some microaggressive verbal violence and latent animus against Feser and his Western God, racist-fueled colonialist cultural heritage that he dares to somehow legitimize by his articulation and defense of Christian theism as developed by primitive white men, from which your secular privilege inoculates you. Am I right? I've always been poor at deconstruction, and often you're ambiguous, Santi, as to whom you're accusing of vapidity, Feser or the general practicioners of the "old metaphysics." It seems like you have an axe to grind against both, the genus (Feser) and its greater species (Thomistic realist philosophy), and you come here to grind it regardless of whether your morally-tinged outrage with Feser and or the tradition he espouses are directly related to topic at hand. Any way you slice it, it's poorly veiled ad hominen invective and not a robust, veritable line of reasoning that's not relevant.

So I fully concede I find your charges of intellectual bankruptcy against him and or theistic realists (I can never tell) ill conceived, perplexing and unfounded: How is Feser culpable of ad hominem attacks when he makes no particular mention of anyone or specific groups an any length and just describes and criticizes relativist positions/arguments? Where does he or anyone here erroneously play, let alone use, the "genetic fallacy" card?

Moreover, you do realize it's logically consistent to be a fallibist and an upholder of truth as being objective and or absolute? I don't why you are so insistent to ascribe to Feser and the rest of the us the position of being "100% certain" -- how do you infer that -- and therefore dogmaticists. The nature of truth, whatever it might be, is in no causal relation to the dogmaticism people exhibit. Beliefs about the world, sure, but truth as a metaphysical correspondence to it, no.

So again you have nothing -- Feser has available arguments that are rational attempts at justification -- but your bloviation that very closely describes and indicts yourself.

John West said...

It's worth reading John Searle's new book.

Tony said...

Let me clarify what I meant:

What Scott said. (Thanks, Scott, that was a lot easier for me.)

I will add one little addition in response to ThatGuy:

I simply mean to indicate that our senses prove faulty all the time...which to me shows our senses are not some absolute window into the world but rather our brain's best guess as to what is going on around us. Whether or not this guess is accurate is unknowable to us, the only measure we have of its accuracy is whether it allows us to function.

Even hypothetically allowing what you call "faulty" to be faults, manifestly it isn't "all the time". It is, rather, a LOT less than all the time. When you reach for a glass of water, you usually get it. When you drive down the road, you mostly successfully manage the sides of the street, the yellow lines, the stop signs and pedestrians, etc. Because, if you DIDN'T, there would be all sorts of repercussions as evidence that your "perceptions were wrong". In fact, we have very good evidence that our senses work pretty well indeed.

If you want to call that some kind of "merely allows us to function" but is not evidence that they are reporting "accurately", I have to ask what WOULD be, philosophically, evidence to you that they are reporting what is? If by (your) definition there could be no such evidence, then haven't you set the wrong kind of bar? Are you asking for the wrong kind of substantiation of what is? How would you know? You would be in the position of having senses be faculties for "we know not what" rather than faculties for sensing.

Santi Tafarella said...

moduspownens:

You wrote: "[T]he claim about all the 'possible ways the cosmos can be, but there's only one way the cosmos actually is...' is the sort that relies on the broad concrete metaphysics you are skewering..."

I agree. I don't think one can reason with a person who rejects that sentence.

And I'm not skewering AT metaphysics, I'm pointing out the obvious: that the language is being put in check today by more useful languages.

There are many, many excellencies surrounding Scholastic reasoning and Aristotle. For instance, Aristotle's four causes assist vision in many contexts, though I agree with scientists that it would be a dead-end to revive final causes as a project for scientific progress. That's not going anywhere after Darwin.

The fact that final causes in scientific theorizing isn't going anywhere after Darwin is an example of how one language (Darwin's) puts a check on AT metaphysics' contemporary range of use.

But Aristotle's method of genus-species definition is wonderful, and obviously useful, so that's a plus. Thinking about essence-accident is useful in certain contexts--and less useful in others (as in relation to irreducible variation along a continuum in evolutionary theory).

So again, this is Darwin putting AT metaphysics in check again.

But one can't even reason absent Aristotle's three laws of logic, so chalk one up for the classical philosophy team. They figured that one out first. Everyone else is belated. And in aesthetics, mimesis is an insight-generating tool for reflecting on art and literature. Yeah!

But there are other languages, not just Aristotle's, for talking about art and literature. You have romanticism, structuralism, formalism, post-structuralism, new historicism, social text theory, etc.

So as some of the above examples suggest, there are powerful checks on Thomism's contemporary usefulness. If Aquinas was a chess piece, he'd be a king with a limited range of good 21st century options.

Evolution is especially problematic for Thomism. One of Feser's greatest errors is his downplaying of the consequences of Darwin for systematic Thomism. A contingent evolutionary cosmos, not tending toward anything in particular, and with species lineages and species variations laid out along continuums, can only ever be pragmatically characterized, so a silent God combined with Darwin leads to Rorty. If you're angry about this, take it up with God (who made evolution and Rorty, and chooses not to speak).

So the bottom line is that the Thomism has limited spheres of applicability. Feser is a wonderful expositor of that tradition. But Thomism is just one among many useful languages. It's a tool, as all languages are tools. And we have better ones.

Santi Tafarella said...

Chris:

Here's the continuum you're presenting to me: passional absolutism, intellectual absolutism, relativism.

I would offer an alternative continuum for placing the opinions of people: God's talking; God probably exists, but isn't talking; God probably doesn't exist and isn't talking; God doesn't exist--and obviously ain't talking.

Notice that two of these (the poles) express 100% confidence, while the two in the middle grayscale their opinions. (Someone might say, "On a scale of 1-100, I'd put my confidence in God's existence at 70.")

And yet everybody on this continuum is an absolutist in this sense: they would all agree 100% with this statement: "There are an infinite number of logically possible ways the cosmos can be, but there’s only one way the cosmos actually is."

You can't really reason with anyone who won't accept this statement, so there's not much point in putting the rare ghost-birds we call relativists on this continuum. There's probably no such thing as a consistent relativist in any event.

And notice that three of these four take to democracy like a fish to water. Whether God is an empty Buddha or Thomistic Being—or doesn't exist at all—three of them agree that God isn't talking (at least not in any obvious way that we can all agree on). It means, if God isn't talking in any obvious way, we've got to talk to one another and work out language maps that deal with our reality in ways we take to be useful.

But if God's talking, and we have 100% certainty that we know what he's saying (arrived at by revelation, intellect, or intuition), that means we've got to proclaim what God's saying, and conform to his singular map. Dialogue among equals becomes trickier; flexibility and compromise become trickier; deploying diverse maps over the same reality becomes trickier.

But even those persuaded that God is talking can still be good democrats if they also conclude, at minimum, that God isn’t talking in a way that is obvious to more than a chosen few. That leaves room for tolerance of diversity (civil gay marriage, the flourishing of other religions, etc.).

And so long as there is free speech and diversity, it’s not relativism that weakens confidence of opinion (theist or atheist), but good ol’ fashion historicist and critical questioning, critique, and dialogue. Like the difficulty of keeping entropy low, it's hard to stay at an orderly and tidy 100% level of confidence of opinion where you're hearing from diverse others--even if you're Aquinas or Spinoza.

Epistemic closure (where you wall yourself off in confirmation bias, filtering opinions rigorously) is far more insidious than relativism could ever make itself. A consistent relativist can't reason in any event. But closing oneself off to the outside world is very common behavior.

This is why historicism ought to inform the confidence levels of intellectual metaphysicians. Metaphysics divorced from outside influences can readily become rigid and dogmatic, icily shutting down things such as gay marriage a priori, indifferent to facts on the ground. Intellectual metaphysicians (in my opinion) ought to find in themselves the humility to say, "My syllogisms, first principles, and systems look airtight to me, but I still might be wrong--even spectacularly so. Einstein, based on first principles and his love of Spinoza, missed the quantum physics train ('God doesn't play dice'). I need to learn from reality testing, democratic experiment, vulnerable dialogue, and experience. I need to look into Galileo's telescope when that opportunity presents itself. I need to temper my confidence, knowing that the easiest person to fool is oneself."

This isn't yielding to relativism, it's putting an end to one's cognitive dissonance. It's returning from heavenly speculation to the sublunary (contingent life as lived beneath the moon; one's actual existential situation).

Gottfried said...

"...the easiest person to fool is oneself."

I don't normally give advice like this, but you really ought to get this tattooed on your forehead.

Tony said...

The fact that final causes in scientific theorizing isn't going anywhere after Darwin is an example of how one language (Darwin's) puts a check on AT metaphysics' contemporary range of use.

The fact that behavioral psychologists, after decades of trying to do without final causality, tentatively have come back to including final causality as among the necessary ingredients of understanding reality, puts a check on JUST HOW FAR even Darwinian scientific modeling controls scientific language.

A contingent evolutionary cosmos, not tending toward anything in particular, and with species lineages and species variations laid out along continuums, can only ever be pragmatically characterized,

In the continued absence of any direct proof of a single instance of macro-evolution without the intervention of outside agency, all the not-quite-truly-Darwinian evolutionary argument for species variation on a continuum as opposed to natures and essences presents is JUST an argument for one explanation among many possible for the data available, and does not definitively constrain the allowable language by which we metaphysically understand the underpinnings of science. The bottom line is that the preference for one explanatory approach rather than others is, still, at the level of preference rather than proof.

Chris said...

Santi,

What, exactly, is your objection, if any (not sure), to what Professor Feser said?

Dennis said...

A contingent evolutionary cosmos, not tending toward anything in particular, and with species lineages and species variations laid out along continuums....

Tony, Chris, when Santi is saying that, I think the best interpretation to give him is with the Hobbesian one by accepting the thesis that, 'Nature is in motion.' Contra the Aristotelian thesis that 'Nature tends towards rest.'

Asher said...

How about this formulation:

There probably is absolute truth but as human beings exist, currently, our puny brains are incapable of grasping such a truth.

Also, do you consider W.V.O. Quine a relativist?

Alex said...

Scott,

I'm Alex, not Andy. Sorry it took so long to respond. There are many difficulties I see both in your comments and in general.

1. As you indicate, analytic philosophy in some sense does not exist anymore as a coherent entity. It therefore becomes unclear why Thomists should regard the occasional support of some analytic philosophers on some questions as particularly interesting or worthwhile. Can't Thomist philosophy stand on it's own two feet without needing the crutch of favorable words from such a feeble entity and a failed project as analytic philosophy?

2. You can't just say, well, "now some analytic philosophers make occasional noises about moral philosophy that aren't too bad". What analytic philosophy's grotesque inability to do any plausible moral philosophy for several generations means is that the system of analytic philosophy was deeply and inherently flawed. It's not just some random result of analytic philosophy (at least, in it's heyday) that it could not plausibly do moral or political philosophy. (And, I would argue, still can't do so.) It was driven by analytic philosophy's most deeply held ideas that it could not do so.

3. I agree that analytic philosophy started to fragment in the early 1960s from criticism like Blanshard's. However, analytic philosophy really didn't self-correct. For many more decades, it continued as a school even though, internally, many of its top virtuosi knew the project had largely failed. Yet they insisted on retaining oversized amounts of their power over academic philosophy, including such things as repeatedly conspiring to make sure the APA would be exclusively controlled by analytics, for just one instance.

Santi Tafarella said...

Tony:

You wrote: "The fact that behavioral psychologists...[now use] final causality...puts a check on JUST HOW FAR even Darwinian scientific modeling controls scientific language."

Well, yes. Darwin checks Thomism and other languages check Darwin. But aren't you, in making this observation, making my point? The truth can be one; our language maps limited and multiple.

Nature doesn't speak, we speak. And if God isn't speaking, we again are forced to speak, overlaying maps on the singular reality that serve our particular purposes. You can, for instance, talk about the cosmos in Newtonian terms or Einsteinian terms, and get pretty far with either language, depending on what you are trying to do.

But you might say: Einstein's vision encompasses Newton's, and is therefore the more powerful language. Likewise, perhaps you take the view that you can give a Thomistic reading of Darwin that encompasses Darwin, proving Aquinas's language to be the more powerful language; the language that most closely corresponds with the ultimate truth.

In turn, I might claim that reading Aquinas in the light of Darwin yields more interesting insights; more truth. Harold Bloom used to say that a Shakespearean reading of Freud was more powerful than a Freudian reading of Shakespeare.

But I actually share Isaiah Berlin's view that useful languages generally can't be put into a hierarchy and harmonized into a synoptic vision.

Berlin's famous example is that the language of individual liberty and the language of equality can't really be held in a single vision. I also hold with Rorty (for another example) that the language of one's aesthetic projects and the language of politics cannot be held in a single vision. No one can tell you when to stop painting landscapes and become Mother Theresa.

I believe we should beware of recipe books, especially in an evolutionary universe where variation is the engine of change. Aquinas' Summa is a recipe book. It's insufficiently specified for facts on the ground.

Evolution is the opposite of Thomism. It doesn't tell any particular variation what its evolutionary strategy ought to be in encountering its contingent environment. Evolution does not provide a singular map or recipe book for guiding one's next move. No one can tell a Galapagos tortoise whether to stop and eat or to keep moving to the next location. These are survival gambits that each variant tortoise puts forward on the natural selection casino table.

We too put forth our gambits. Think Antigone. When does one bury one's brother, and when does one obey the King? Is there a prescriptive language that can hold both of these in a single vision, dictating her next move?

When Sartre was asked by a young man whether to join the French resistance against Hitler or go on attending to a sick mother, Sartre said, "I can't tell you, now choose."

I think a final theory is possible with physics, but absent God speaking, knowing all there is to know about how nature works isn't going to tell you whether or not gay and lesbian marriage is okay. In this sense, the language of democracy checks the language of physics (at least its applicability). Gay and lesbian marriage is a life variation that is in need of democratic and evolutionary experiment, not proscription in advance.

This is why evolution and democracy are problematic for the Thomistic language. A cookbook with recipes for adhering to a golden brown Golden Mean only works if variation from the mean is bad; if diversity, experiment, and gambits are bad. But in evolution and democracy, variations, diversity, experiments, and gambits aren't bad. They're the signs of life.

Scott said...

Alex:

Sorry about the name mixup; I have no idea where I got "Andy."

Anyway, I have little interest in defending "analytic philosophy" as such, especially if you're going to insist on identifying it with specific views that are no longer generally held by those working in the field that now goes by that name.

However, as a style of and an approach to philosophy, it's marked by some important virtues, including a high standard of logical rigor and close attention to precise definition. Thomism isn't somehow failing to stand on its own when it appreciates these virtues, which after all it has long practiced anyway. (And at any rate Thomism has always accepted truth from wherever it appears.)

The real point is that philosophers who aren't Thomists are discovering that when they exercise the aforementioned "analytic" virtues, they find themselves returning to views that Thomism has held all along, sometimes without even recognizing them as Thomist (or Aristotelian). Why you think Thomism is relying on a "crutch" when it recognizes this, I do not know.

And for the record…

You can't just say, well, "now some analytic philosophers make occasional noises about moral philosophy that aren't too bad".

…I didn't.

DNW said...



Somebody remove its batteries ...

DNW said...

A dead day, a moribund thread, and the first time ever I don't quote what I am remarking on, relying on position alone, Scott steps between me and my target in the second or two it takes to type 4 words. LOL

Gottfried said...

DNW,

Even if a dozen comments had popped up while you were typing, I think the "it" to which you were referring would be pretty clear.

ThatGuy said...

@Scott

Thanks for the response. I think we're coming at this question from two different frameworks so it seems best that, like you suggested, we call it day. I've dusted off my copy of Scholastic Metaphysics and will see if that clarifies matters.

Glenn said...

"And how prone to error the imagination is, when left to itself alone and unaccompanied by experience and the precepts of a true philosophy, is well known to anyone with the slightest experience.

"Merely try some brief excursion and see whether you will not withdraw the standards and sound the retreat, and gather fresh forces that you may return to struggles of this kind with increased powers.

"If you would earn rewards in this camp you must first devote your whole labor and the penetration of your mind to the investigation and sifting of all such things as closely touch upon the matter in hand and serve it."

-- Emanuel Swedenborg (notorious for his denigration of Catholics and disparagement of scholastics (even while envying the former and borrowing from the latter))

Santi Tafarella said...

The idea of "the relativist" is the ghost-bird that stands-in for a multitude of right-wing ambivalences; it gives diverse anxieties a single target.

Anxiety about "the relativist" is invariably an anxiety about evolution, variation overthrowing essences, and diversity. What is really dangerous is not "the relativist," but the irreducible continuum, where no individual conforms to the Golden Mean, yet is heard from democratically. The dogmatic Phallus at the end of the mind fares poorly in open global competition.

So blame a single target, the "relativist," for the decline of the Phallus. It's just easier.

The decline of the Phallus has to be a sinister plot; a willful thing; something to be derisive and angry about. It can't just be impersonal. It's got to be more than simply evolutionary diversity playing itself out in a contingent cosmos.

Even if that's the way the world actually is. Even if that's the truth.

So the concern here is not really about the preservation of truth, but the preservation of a favored prejudice dogmatically taken to be the truth.

Multiple anxieties have been distilled into single targets throughout human history. We all know the instances. In this instance, the intellectual conservative's fright mask is "the relativist," but behind it is evolution.

Chris said...

Santi,

Do me a favor, just reign in the fluff and talk straight.

You dogmatically reject human access to truth (which amounts to a rejection of truth) all in the name of truth?

Gottfried said...

First two sentences of the OP:

I don’t write very often about relativism. Part of the reason is that few if any of the critics I find myself engaging with -- for example, fellow analytic philosophers of a secular or progressive bent, or scientifically inclined atheists -- take relativism any more seriously than I do.

So in rarely writing about relativism, Feser has really been attempting to conceal his anxiety about relativism, which is really an anxiety about evolution, variation overthrowing essences, and diversity...



...



Gosh, Santi. I think the problem may be that your mind is just too subtle for the likes of us. We've lived our entire lives hiding behind Oz curtains and refusing to look through telescopes, just like that apocryphal bishop. Truly, there is no hope for us. Time to shake the dust of this place off your feet and never look back, Santi. Never look back.

Dennis said...

I will say, I'm not that deluded to think that Santi will pay attention to what we say, I simply thought that the argument had more to give than what the rant has to offer.

DNW said...

Chris said...

Santi,

Do me a favor, just reign in the fluff and talk straight.

You dogmatically reject human access to truth (which amounts to a rejection of truth) all in the name of truth?
September 20, 2015 at 12:02 PM "


Your question regarding the point of Santi's little performance probably opens up an issue which can be profitably addressed.

The Santian, despite his occasional professions to the contrary, doesn't believe in, or at least have a meaningful definition of, "truth".

Like many, he believes that he can spin a kind of reality out of vocal acts. Whether you grant that there is an obvious kernel of non-trivial truth to that notion, or wish to go whole secular mystery-religion hog and blend it into a number of other crackpot dogmas, seems to me to make all the difference.


In any event, like his master Rorty, he has shrugged off any interest in truth, in favor of the tactic of manipulating, or coping with, the environment. And one of those manipulating mechanisms is rhetoric: verbiage intended to frame discussions and elicit the desired emotional reactions and behaviors from the target. This, in aid of some end or other which is itself presumed immune from critical analysis and ultimately pointless in itself. Thus, techniques intended to deliver organic satisfaction formally replace a quest for understanding; identification with the universe, the not-self, supposedly replaces the vulnerable ego, and removes the anxiety caused by a potential confrontation with nothingness, by psychologically merging with the nothing.

Now, whether the average Santian would stick to this line of monist emergent evolution bullshit if you strapped him to a board and threatened him with vivisection, I cannot say. But in less dire normal circumstances, as he seeks to manipulate and cope with a political and social environment which includes others uninterested in the Rortian "details of his life", it's the path he has chosen as his best bet.

One last comment. Many here have remarked on the peculiar status he has accorded "EVOLUTION", given his non-teleological worldview. Just how this "evolution" is supposed to carry all the morally tinged rhetorical freight he loads it up with, when "it" however defined, whatever it is supposed to be, is itself reduced to a non-teleological tautology, is a mystery only Santi himself can answer. This comical reverence, prostration before a term which on Santi's own premisses can have no "ought" about it, seems patently ludicrous.

The question is: is he so stupid he cannot see it?; or, so crazy that he just keeps jabbering on despite the obvious incoherence of his song and ultimate futility of his project?

Scott said...

Chris:

As DMW says,

Many here have remarked on the peculiar status he has accorded "EVOLUTION", given his non-teleological worldview.

…as well as on e.g. his bizarre view that X can't have a form/essence if X's great-great-…-great-grandchildren might have different ones. The answers to these and other obvious questions (some would say "fatal objections") not only have not been forthcoming, but have been met by more of the same attempts to conjure spirits from the vasty deep merely by reerererererepeating catchphrases about them. That, for the record, is why so many of us no longer bother.

Serge said...

The thread was threatening to become the most boring one in the history. I mean, Professor chose not to call names and stayed pretty civil.

So, I thought who would defend an abstract relativist?

But then someone jumped in and said: "You say the map is either absolutely true or false, I say it doesn’t matter..."

Then someone else popped up and said that Feser's image is "playful and an invitation to energetic exchange with all-comers".

Then he also said: "The dogmatic Phallus at the end of the mind fares poorly in open global competition."

Whatever you think about EVOLUTION, you can not deny the entertaining value of the discussion.

DNW said...

"The answers to these and other obvious questions (some would say "fatal objections") not only have not been forthcoming, but have been met by more of the same attempts to conjure spirits from the vasty deep merely by reerererererepeating catchphrases about them. That, for the record, is why so many of us no longer bother. "

Entering into a presumed dialog, you attempt to reason. In return you get incantation, hectoring horatory, and a recycled emergentism resurrected as a kind of jury rigged pseudo-teleology - or at least as its rhetorical place holder.

In these torrents of illogic we are informed that an historical event which has per the informant's own worldview no objective meaning, and social significance for only 20 percent of the world's population, has made it impossible to ever believe in Providence again.

We are authoritatively informed that God is not speaking, though the existence of scriptures, saints and crackpots alike endlessly assert the contrary; and, there is no credible evidence that the author is interested in interrupting his self-gratifying masturbatory activities in order to listen.

We are further told that an impersonal and indifferent process "EVOLUTION", which in the final logical reduction can hardly even be dignified by the name of a "process", performs "experiments". Apparently these "experiments" are blind forces acting blindly on other forces to no purpose ... with what randomly oozes out of the interstices being the result of the "experiment".

All hail, genuflect, and self-sacrificially bless its name. If it points to the author's desired political end, that is.

It seems we all more or less walk backwards into the future. The question that divides is whether the traces we leave and the look of the retreating background provide material for deductions as to whether we are headed for any place in particular and whether the thinking that we apply to the small patterns and intentions of our operative preoccupations, can be efficaciously applied in anyway to grasping the larger reality which seems to have no immediate obvious intentions or operator.

Santi says he thinks not. Fine then. But the gibbering idiot just won't stop goddamn talking like he thinks it does.

DavidM said...

Scott: "utilitarianism (which, whatever else is wrong with it, isn't "relativism") was pretty popular among analytic philosophers"

I wonder about this. In the absence of any plausible substantive account of the human good (something true of all versions of utilitarianism or consequentialism), it seems that utilitarianism naturally ends up as preference-satisfactionism. And is there are reason for saying that such a view is non-relativistic? And doesn't the same apply to any kind of Rawlsian view, that eschews metaphysically grounded accounts of moral concepts in favor of politically grounded (i.e., politically contrived) ones?

Rae said...

I have interviewed several people about morality and most of the people that I have talked to hold the belief that truth is relative. Something that is true for you is not true for someone else. But as this post talked about there are things that are absolutely true. Truth is that which corresponds with the way that things actually are. Something is not true just because you believe it to be true. Relativism, on the other hand, says that there is no such thing as right and wrong, no absolute truths. To that I ask, "Is that absolute true?"