Dogmatic Relativism versus Objective Truth

Socrates

Could we learn something from this man?

The barriers to embracing traditional, direct approaches to teaching are philosophical much more than they are practical. In fact, simple, direct methods are far less costly as well as being more effective. Those who do finally admit this experience a reduction in workload and an increase in effectiveness, and they find themselves wondering why there is so much resistance to approaches that are tried and tested, simple and straightforward.

The resistance is in the realm of ideas. E D Hirsch is anxious to point this out in The Schools We Need. He is emphatically not attacking the teachers who have been led astray by bad ideas; he pities them, along with the pupils whom they teach:

‘this book is emphatically not an indictment of teachers. They have been as ill-served as our students by the inadequate ideas and impoverished subject-matter instruction that they have been compelled to absorb in order to receive certification.’ (p15)

One of the key ideas which prevents a traditional approach is the widespread belief that objective truth does not exist. I was recently labelled a ‘moron’ on Twitter for daring to suggest that there was such a thing as objective truth. Everyone who studies the arts and humanities at university has it drilled into them by their professors that there are only multiple interpretations of reality informed by vastly different cultural circumstances. The grand narratives are over; now there are only many different competing narratives with no unifying theme.

This is all very clever and serves the professors well. It produces undergraduate essays that have a veneer of intellectualism about them, and it allows the professors to pose as liberating their benighted students from the naive assumptions which they absorbed from their more traditional parents and home communities. Admittedly, that pose is getting rather harder to sustain, as Allan Bloom points out, writing in 1987, that the education system has been geared to generating relativism for some time:

‘There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending.’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p25)

Through the education system, then, the belief in relativism has become so widespread as to constitute an assumption that underlies much of our contemporary culture. Those who deny objective truth do not, however, do so consistently. The first and most obvious contradiction in the dogmatic assertion of relativism is that it is dogmatic. There is no objective truth apart from the objective truth that there is no objective truth. The assertion is so dogmatic that those who oppose it are made to feel like heretics. When they are not simply being dismissed as ‘morons, they are labelled as ‘bigoted’ and ‘intolerant’. Relativism is, in fact, a dogmatic religion, with its own orthodoxy and its witch hunts aimed at those who dare to question that orthodoxy.

There are other, more specific ways in which relativism is not consistently applied. These relate to the pet causes of the liberals who espouse it most strongly. For example, most liberals would pride themselves on eschewing any kind of racial prejudice. As part of this, they would be horrified by anyone who denied that the Holocaust had taken place. They are right to be angry at Holocaust deniers, of course. But they do not appear to realise that this undermines their relativist faith. The insistence on the truth of the Holocaust is important. It is a specific case of the importance of objective truth, and the moral bankruptcy of relativism.

Another example can be found in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They were seeking the truth about what had taken place during the Apartheid years. They were not seeking multiple competing narratives that would be treated as equally valid. They wanted to know the truth so that there could be repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. For some reason they didn’t call it the ‘Beyond Reasonable Doubt and Reconciliation Commission’.

When something evil has been done, we seek the truth about who is culpable. We may not know everything about the act, and indeed we cannot see into men’s souls and judge their intentions, but we can be convinced, objectively, about the events that took place. How many dogmatic relativists would maintain their faith if, God forbid, a terrible crime were committed against a loved one? They would abandon it, and wholeheartedly seek the truth, if there was a shred of humanity left underneath their intellectual posturing.

It is clear to anyone who contemplates these multiple contradictions that relativism is not a sustainable position, rationally or morally. It is a modern form of sophistry, because it is only used by its proponents when it suits them, and dropped when it becomes inconvenient. In returning to sophistry, we have retreated to pre-Socratic times. We are living in the darkness of myth, not the light of reason.

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30 thoughts on “Dogmatic Relativism versus Objective Truth

  1. I believe it’s worthwhile to look at areas whose study lends superficial plausibility to the ‘there is no truth’ view, and to incorporate their valid insights into a worldview that is founded on the idea that there is a truth, however difficult it may be to apprehend.

    I believe that it is incontestable that, until recently, all children, wherever they lived, were taught a ‘tribal’ view of history and of social reality in general, which vindicated their particular state and its ruling institutions. Where the state was the state of a single tribal group, as opposed to being, in theory anyway, a ‘multi-national’ one, I suspect this was even worse.

    And I believe that this is still basically true, even in the West, although less so here nowadays: thus in 1895, British children were taught mathematics that differed little from the mathematics they learn today, even if the teaching methods have changed (not always for the better, as we know). But in their history classes, they were taught about the wondeful, benign, British empire, selflessly bringing enlightened government and modernity to the backward natives. They’re not taught that now (I don’t think they’re taught much history now at all).

    And yet, if there is objective truth in history, we ought to be able to use the exact same textbooks and other teaching material, in every school in the world. Palestinian children and Israeli children, for example, should be able to agree on the facts of their history, even if they take different sides in that conflict.

    Because we cannot agree on a single, ‘objective’ view of history (which would necessarily offend every nation and tribe, all of which have committed terrible crimes, or were too backward to have the means to do so), the ground is prepared for the view that ‘there is no truth anyway, it all depends on your point of view’.

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    • It doesn’t follow that objective truth in history means that everyone will study the same events, so textbooks would still vary even without self-contradicting postmodern theories.

      It’s a very odd idea that, because lies have been told in the past, therefore no one can tell the truth.

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      • Yes, not everyone will study the same events. American high school history textbooks will not dwell on how many Philippinos the Americans killed when they occupied that country after defeating Spain, or on the behavior of American soldiers in Mexico when we invaded that country, and so on. This is not lying, exactly, just being economical with the truth.

        Similar omissions or changed emphases will be present in the textbooks of all other countries, often to a far greater degree.

        Then when the kids get to college, in the West, at least, they may — depending on what college they go to — learn a different story: not a flat contradiction of the facts they were taught in high school, but a filling in of the inconvenient facts that were omitted. This provides the intellectual background for ‘relativism’.

        Another contributing factor is the rapid dying out of religion: each religion teaches that it, alone, has objective truth, and if you know what is good for you, you’ll affirm it. But the influence of religion is melting away.

        Relativism pours in to fill the space left, which is a shame, because there is an objective truth, that stands above national, racial, tribal interests, It’s just that it can offend practically everyone.

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  2. Relativism has always been a slippery slope argument. It sounds good but it you are on the short end of certain applications of it the taste will be unsavory. The fact is there are certain actions that work with the way the world was designed and consequences aren’t always immediate.

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  3. @Martin Robinson:
    “would not transubstantiation be contrary to ‘reason’?”
    It would depend by what you thought was within the remit of the rational, I suppose.
    We suffer in the UK from an unfortunate equating of Reason with (Modern) Science. When I asked one of my pupils what he meant by X ’causes’ Y. He dutifully explained using solid (inductive) scientific reasoning: moving from specific cases to a more general rule. I asked him then what ‘causation’ therefore was (rather than examples given of it). I was looking for his empirical evidence for causation – a lab-based approach if you will. He found that trickier, obviously, but he could see that there was a genuine question there, which was great. (Now, you and I both know that Hume applies that kind of scepticism to the question of causation but my purpose was pedagogical: to get a bright boy to interrogate his assumptions and try and work out questions for himself.) We also looked at some of the examples of deductive reasoning that logic gives us and that mathematics makes use of. He agreed, therefore, that reason could also look at those areas of human enquiry also and not just the domains of the natural sciences. He understood that these areas were not reducible one to another but were complementary. We then looked at certain ethical questions – notably questions of justice and inequality – and, there too, he accepted that ‘justice’ was not a notion that was readily reducible to the biochemical but was certainly open to rational scrutiny. Patiently, then, he came to understood that there was more to reason than ‘science’.
    So far so obviously philosophical, I think you’ll agree – and apologies for all the shortcuts, assumptions, non sequiturs. Even more of them below!
    One of the cultural disadvantages of being British is that the effects of the opening of hostilities between Philosophy and Faith which happened during the Protestant Reformation (“Reason is the Devil’s harlot” Martin Luther) made it much more difficult to keep a link with a prior tradition where Theology was a logos – a rational structured enquiry into the givens and content of Faith. So the Lutheran emphasis on ‘Faith alone’ eventually became quasi-synonymous with Blind Faith or Fideism. Asking questions of the givens of Faith (what Revelation tells us) and using your intelligence to seek to understand it – became a sign of a lack of faith rather than an act of faith!
    Accordingly, the rationalists on the one hand (more in the Empirical tradition here in the UK) and the fideists on the other (broadly from non-conformist traditions with highs and lows down the centuries: the Fundamentalist revivalists movements in the 19th century for example were fideistic rejections of a rationalism that had already become hostile to non-empirical truth claims) ended up having a ‘dialogue of the deaf’. This is pretty much where they still are today whenever you see Prof Dawkins debating a Fideist opponent.

    All of that is in turn part of the background to the Nietzschean Perspectivism that has utterly contaminated ALL of the Humanities departments EVERYWHERE since it was first articulated by that brilliant, troubled, genius. I’d suggest that – for Humanities at least – we can agree that the consequences are devastating (to my mind it leads directly to the absurdities of No Platforming) but we don’t know how to row back from it because there would be so much to call in to question in order to do that. Alasdair MacIntyre was prophetic, therefore, back in the 1980s when he described the new Dark Ages that were already upon us at the end of his book ‘After Virtue’. (The short answer solution is that we need more Aristotle – see Prof David Oderberg at Reading University – amongst others, of course.)

    So – to come to your question is transubstantiation contrary to reason? No.
    But can the truth of it be attained by human reason without the grace of Faith? No.
    So if not, can human reason be graced with Faith in order to attain the truth of it and believe it? Yes.
    And does that giving of grace violate human reason and require me not to think rationally about it? No.
    So what happens to human reason when it opens itself to the grace of Faith?
    It receives new truths to contemplate and seek to understand. ‘Faith seeking understanding.’
    To use the old Thomistic dictum: Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it.

    Revelation from God gives us things that are hard for us to understand, I can see that.
    There may be two reasons why they are hard to understand:
    Either, 1. They are gibberish or nonsense: ‘The circular perpendicular ate the unkind Tuesday’. Logical Positivism consigns all Revelation to such a category and washes its hands of it.
    Or 2. They contain too much for us to understand and we fail to grasp it – like learning a new language, or doing calculus.

    I suggest transubstantiation is of the second, not the first kind of truth claim. But that does not make it ‘contrary’ to reason.
    It’s not un-intelligible as those from the Logical Positivist school contend: there’s nothing there to understand.
    Rather, it is supra-intelligible: There’s too much there to understand.
    That kinda makes sense – since it is supposed to come from God….

    So whilst I can’t explain it in empirical, lab-based terms satisfactorily for my resolutely empirical intelligence, I can understand why I can’t explain it in those terms.
    And that, for my part anyway, sounds eminently rational…

    I’m sorry I’ve pontificated AT you.
    Teacher on holiday…
    Always a danger!
    Mind how you go.

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    • Thank you Liam for your considered reply to my meanderings. Logos is, indeed, important, Heraclitus referred to it as the universal everlasting idea and where even opposites come together and that, literally, ‘the word’ comes to us from the bible as being made flesh is supremely important to this discussion. And as much as I love Aquinas and Aristotle, I also love Hume and Kant, but let us put this to one side. The extremely thoughtful article above is something I mostly agree with, the pay off however about reason and myth is something which I question. If one goes back to the Ancient Greek understanding of logos and mythos we see them originally used interchangeably but later this similar usage became thought of as very unwise, they were both ways to the ‘truth’ but very different ways. Logos, the world of ‘reason’ and, I would suggest ‘mythos’, the world of stories, or art, and indeed the ‘spiritual’, would include the Christian ceremony of the eucharist, myth, ceremony and ritual belong together.

      Of course ‘reason’ does not have to be purely scientific, the tradition of logic goes back much further than our modern understanding of ‘science’, but to set it up as anti myth is one thing, but to denigrate myth is another. I see mythos as an important part of human understanding – it can be a way to access truth, to me the bread and wine symbolise this. Now, I understand for a Catholic fideism is rejected, and that reason (the truths that concern the relations between God and man) can, according to the catechism: wholly transcend the visible order of things, which I would see as, maybe, implying the role of faith I would have to bring this back to one important point:

      The wine does not turn into the blood of Christ and the bread does not turn into the body of Christ, even arguments around ‘God being in all things’ are attempted to explain this but I can only use reason to explain that this idea belongs to ritual, to myth, but is no less important due to that.

      The Anglican view rejected the dogma of transubstantiation, the Catholic view now (since the 90s?), I believe, states that:

      “The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the Eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements. The term should be seen as affirming the fact of Christ’s presence and of the mysterious and radical change which takes place. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place.”

      The use of the word ‘mysterious’ can cover all sorts of ground… the rejection of ‘how’ this might occur leaves a wide variety of interpretations open allowing the Catholic and Anglican Mass to converge. Now, my theological understanding is scant but this does seem a way to bring together different ‘truths’ by using the word ‘mysterious’ puts this firmly into the area of mythos as opposed to reason.

      For me, as an atheist, of course it is not mysterious at all… but I do love the myth, so when I attend church it is the mythos that opens up ‘truth’ or ‘truths’ to me, I can undergo a spiritual experience as I can through listening to music etc. so to me the darkness of ‘myth’ is not a place of dark at all but an equal though different place to that of reason and that both can enlighten us.

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      • Martin, I would be wary of what you read about Catholicism ‘changing’. The whole point of the Catholic faith is that it does not change. Like it or loathe it, there it stands.

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      • @Martin Robinson
        I wonder whether contemplation might not be the activity that bridges some of these contrasts you make. It seems to me that it does: Aesthetic contemplation – a setting sun, a Bach cantata, a fine claret. Affective contemplation – a new born in his mother’s arms, two lovers oblivious to the world, being with a dying loved-one. Intellectual contemplation – ‘grasping’ that tricky mathematical problem, ‘understanding’ the ideas of an author, ‘seeing’ the solution to a problem, ‘working out’ how to finish a line of poetry.
        These activities allow us to attain with different parts of our being – our senses, our bodies, our intelligences, our hearts – things which give us joy, which fulfil us, which ‘finalise’ us. Being “in the zone” as a sports player, a performer, a craftsman is analagous I’d suggest. These diverse experiences share a ‘feeling fully alive’ aspect to them which is significant.
        Faith (its objective aspect – a truth content claimed to be revealed) and faith (its subjective aspect – my assent and belief, with an element of affective trust that bridges someway the epistemological gap of ‘proof’ – as we hear from Doubting Thomas) offers us truths to contemplate that unite all of those different aspects in a particular way and will often reflect as much our (created) differences as they do the richness in being of The One being revealed. Thus, the Faith is a relationship (of love with God and with our neighbour), a Teaching (of truths to come to understand) a Liturgy (physical, of the senses, bodily engaged in worship)…. For the timebeing you are not persuaded by the intellectual truth claims but there is an aspect to the aesthetic (and possibly the relational) that you still find merit in – and a way of communicating something of the truth and in this I think you’re right. Whilst I think it a mistake to formally separate those different aspects – still less to divorce them (grrrr! those ridiculous Enlightenment philosophers that would praise religion for its social utility as ‘glue’ whilst dismissing its truth claims – as if lies can ever be a glue that is going to last!) we can distinguish them because they are distinct.
        In God, of course, they are all one.
        But then God is eternally and infinitely simple….

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  4. Just my two bits here.
    Ever since St Vincent of Lerins first articulated it – clarifying and by so doing proving his point – Catholic doctrine and dogma can most certainly develop but only along the lines of what already has been given in the Deposit of the Faith. Therefore, Catholic teaching, much like the Church – to use Jesus’ own image – is like the mustard seed that grows into a tree. There is continuity in those growths and changes because they are developmental and organic – there is not rupture. I’d contend that ‘ruptures’ lead to schism and splits which, of course, the Church has seen much of down the centuries.
    In Aristotelian language: the essence of the Church remains the same, the potentials inherent in the Deposit of the Faith are actualised.
    Or, to use Revelation itself, it’s as Jesus says in John chapters 14-16: The Holy Spirit will be given to ‘lead you in to all truth’ to ‘tell you the things to come’ and ‘to remind you of all that I have told you.’
    Thus: Catholic teaching is always the same in its origin and essence and finality: it comes from God.
    In its expression over time it has indeed changed but that change has not changed the essence. Where the essence of it has changed – well, its become another reality: Protestantism, say.

    Lastly thanks Martin about the mythos/logos points. I’m going to go away and have a think about that and reply either later today or tomorrow.

    I’m guessing you’ve both discovered Edward Feser’s blog, right?

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  5. I don’t understand how a blog post which seemed to express a preference for “objective truth” could include at least one reference to “God”.

    I am even more confused that a number of comments have then taken on a religious flavour.

    Does one need to have a traditional education oneself to see how “God” and “objective truth” belong in the same post and comments?

    I’ll get my coat……

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    • God and objective truth uneasy bedfellows, Brian?
      In Manichean, Goodies vs Baddies terms this is how I divide the world:
      Baddies: Pretty much everything to do with child-centred learning, Humanities ever since, for the want of argument, Nietzsche declared the death of God, radical scepticism, relativism in Ethics, Scientism (the material reductionists) Nihilists (there are no truth claims because there is no such thing as truth), Fundamentalists and Fideists: those who say “we don’t need to think and analyse we just need to submit and believe blindly.” These groups all share a radical suspicion of reason and its capacities to attain to truth.

      Goodies: Grammar geeks, Science, Mathematicians, non-sceptical Philosophy, non-relativistic Ethics, non-Fideistic Believers: i.e. those who want to subject their Faith claims to rational scrutiny and will, likewise, want to subject all truth claims to rational scrutiny (including the implicit truth claim you’re making that if you claim there’s such a thing as objective truth it’s impossible to claim that God exists). These groups all share a radical confidence in the human intelligence’s capacity to learn, discover and grow.

      In that sense, as a believer in God I’d suggest that the fact that you believe that there is such a thing as objective truth puts you very much in cahoots with someone like me. You and I would probably disagree about the objects the human intelligence can enquire in to and the tools at its disposition to make truth claims about those objects but, by the sound of things, we both hold that there is truth ‘out there’ that can be attained. Many, many, many of our contemporaries do not.

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  6. Pingback: Is This Post True? | gibrown

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