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Monday, 3 June 2013

The Hidden Truths of the Relativists

Alan Sokal, the physicist and uncoverer of intellectual pseuds, made the point that relativists (if true (!) relativists actually exist) are only relativists when it comes to certain issues or subjects. For example, they're often relativist when it comes to whether or not a traditional family is a good thing.They're often not relativist when it comes to the slaughter of the American Indians by the English and American colonists. 

This is how Alan Sokal puts that point:

“Jean (Bricmont) and I were in Brazil… at the University of Sao Paolo… we had long discussions with anthropologists who refused to admit that a culture’s cosmology could be objectively true or false. Their beliefs about the origin of the universe or the movements of the planets could only be judged true or false relative to a culture. And not just questions of cosmology, also questions of history. So we asked, ‘Is the assertion that millions of native Americans died in the wake of the European invasion not an objective fact of human history, but merely a belief that’s held to be true in some cultures?’ We never got a straightforward answer from them." (Intellectual Impostures, 62)

If truths are only "true or false relative to a culture", then everything that every culture believes to be true will be true (according to each culture). What is true according to a culture becomes true by definition! That is, if a culture believes p, then p is true because that culture believes p to be true. If another culture believes not-p, then that will also true according to that other culture. Again, by definition

Does that mean that both p and not-p true may be true according to a third culture – a culture which looks at the other two cultures? Perhaps this culture can believe p and not-p and they too will be true by definition according to this culture. 

Alternatively, p, what is true according to Culture 1, is false according to Culture 3. Or p, which is false according to Culture 2, it is true according to Culture 4. And so on...

None of this matters, of course, because cultures define what is really true according to themselves. So if p is true in Culture 4, and false in Culture 2, that doesn't matter to Culture 1, in which p can be either true or false. Indeed according to Culture 2 perhaps p can be both true and false in relation to its own subcultures

Sokal realises the problem with this rampant relativism. 

According to our Culture 1, the statement  "that millions of native Americans died in the wake of the European invasion" is true. It is false according to Culture 2. Perhaps it's both true and false to Culture 3 (or its own subcultures). Surely it's true that the earth revolves around the Sun. Why should it make a difference that Culture 5 believes that the earth revolves around the moon or that the moon is made of cheese?

What about the culture which believes that all beliefs are objectively true? What about the culture that thinks that post-modern relativism is false and pernicious? Is relativism still... well, true; though only according to this culture? 

So which culture is relativism relative to? Surely not America and Europe at large. Perhaps relativism is only true according to a handful of universities and publishing houses in America and Europe. In that's the case (that cultures establish what is true and false), then how small can a culture actually be? A single university department? A group of people within that university department? Two people within that department?

Some things are indeed "objectively" true to relativists, postmodernists and post-structuralists. For example, that racism is wrong. That sexism is wrong. However, that the British Empire was largely benign in nature is objectively false to them. Similarly, that "fox hunting is a good thing" is objectively false to most of them.

So it seems that relativists, postmodernists and post-structuralists (as well as their offshoots) pick and choose which truths and beliefs they apply their relativist principles to. After all, National Socialism (Nazism) was a good thing relative to the culture of Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Similarly, relativism is a bad thing relative to very many cultures today.

Similarly, some minorities are good and some are bad:

Good Minorities                   Bad Minorities
1) blacks                                fox hunters2) lesbians                              macho communities3) Muslims                             ‘Christian fundamentalists’4) red Indian scalpers             SS exterminators and Viking rapists

Similarly, some truths are relative and some aren't:

Relative Truths                             Objective Truths
1) Capitalist democracy works.       Sexism is bad.2) The Christian God is male.         British imperialism was disastrous.3) Islam is violent.                           Islam is a peaceful religion.

It’s not surprising, therefore, that an anthropologist said (to Sokal) that 

"science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. The Zunis’ world-view is just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about".

Of course there are many ways of looking at the world. Sokal wouldn't deny that. He would accept non-scientific ways of looking at the world. That doesn't mean that we (or he) should accept every way of viewing the world - both past and present.

For example, Sokal happily accepts poetic visions of the world. Nonetheless, poets don't claim that, say, the "pleasure domes" of Kubla Khan actually existed or that Gandalf existed. Poets use myth and fiction in order to state truths about the world and human existence. We can accept the mythic utility of prehistoric cultures. That doesn’t mean that we should believe that the sun moves around the earth or that there are lay lines under the surface of the earth. Indeed we can ‘"know the world" through pink sunglasses – that doesn’t mean that the world is pink. Even Kant accepted that the transcendental ego’s a priori concepts and categories don't reflect what he called the "noumenal world" – the world "as it is in itself". 

So from the viewpoint of prehistoric myth (or even post-historic myth), worldviews may well be valid in many ways. However, what they state is the case may not be the case. A myth might have been valid in that it was conducive to social cohesion or whatever. However, saying that the earth rests upon a giant elephant may also - in some ways - be conducive to social harmony. That doesn’t mean that the earth does actually rest on an elephant. Indeed pragmatic beliefs may be... well, pragmatic; though they still may not be true. They may not reflect how the world actually is. Our "will to believe" in tooth fairies may have certain beneficial consequences (it does for young children). That doesn’t mean that tooth fairies actually exist. Belief in God, too, may be valid or pragmatically useful. That, in itself, wouldn’t bring God into existence. In any case, believers in God don't believe in His existence because such a belief (or even His actual existence) is valid or pragmatically useful. They believe that He actually exists. Nor would the negative consequences (as it were) of monotheism take God out of existence. 

In these senses, viewpoints aren't the issue. What matters are the assertions found in these viewpoints – whether they are true or false or whether they tell us what is and what isn't the case.

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