then in the last resort are the
truths of mankind? They are the
irrefutable errors of mankind"
Untrue Claims of Absolute "Truth"
travels faster than sound. This
is a scientific discovery, and it
is true. It is pointless to add
that it is absolutely true, since
truth is always absolute."
Whyte, Bad Thoughts)
For a truth
to be labelled "absolute"
you need total certainty that it
will never be refuted (or amended,
qualified, reworded, etc). Anything
less would mean changing the truth's
status from "absolute"
to "relative" (or "provisional").
claimed the only way to prove a
scientific discovery "absolutely
true" is to carry out an infinite
number of experiments. But some
anti-relativists claim Popper was
an "irrationalist". However,
Stephen Hawking (who isn't often
accused of being irrational), says:
physical theory is always provisional
... you can never prove it. No matter
how many times the results of experiments
agree with some theory, you can
never be sure that the next time
the result will not contradict the
A Brief History of Time)
In other words,
science can't provide "absolute
truth". And if science (arguably
the most "objective" method
we have) can't give absolute truth,
you shouldn't expect it from [insert
your favourite authority here].
necessary for us to function.
Most scientists realise that Newton's
laws of motion are not absolute
truths, but they work okay for getting
people to the moon and back.
Our rulers don't
want us to think for ourselves on the most important
Frightened populations seem to want
simple "truth". And ruling authorities
have always been glad to provide it, via priests,
political speechwriters, the media, etc.
Cognitive relativism, otherwise known as perspectivism,
undermines authority's "truth," as
it implies thinking for oneself on all
matters. Not surprisingly, most forms of relativism/perspectivism
are misrepresented, smeared and discredited
by those who wish to maintain control.
Relativism is sometimes misrepresented as a
sort of spineless, anything-goes, chaotic, anarchic,
immoral, weak, cowardly, degenerate free-for-all.
Picture those old propaganda campaigns on the
"dangers" of marijuana you'll
surely turn into a deranged axe-murderer
and, worse, a moral relativist
(cue the screams/thunder horror soundtrack).
Cultural relativism is often portrayed as being
irrational (philosophers who write in relativistic
terms eg Nietzsche, Foucault, etc
are called "irrationalists" by people
who don't like them). Jamie Whyte's recent book
on logical fallacies, Bad Thoughts, misrepresents
relativism as something which contradicts facts:
Relativism about truth is inconsistent with
some very well-known facts, such as the fact
that the earth orbited the sun in 900AD. Cultural
Relativism entails, on the contrary, that in
900AD the sun orbited the earth. This is what
people believed, so it was then true."
Compare the above with a more accurate (in
our opinion) version of cultural relativism:
In 900AD, most people thought
it "true" that the sun orbited the
earth. Cultural relativism says that since this
"truth" was dropped following cultural
changes (eg scientific advances), how can we
be certain that the current "truth"
won't also be dropped (eg by future science).
"Is it true you ate all the doughnuts?"
We don't answer everyday questions by explaining
that truth is relative. But everyday "truth"
can be seen as relative to the extent we're
not infallible in our perceptions eg
"true, as far as I'm aware."
(The probability of our perceptions misleading
us might seem small, but it isn't zero).
It's in the "moral" realm that relativism
is most bitterly attacked and misrepresented.
For example, it's often claimed that moral relativism
removes all grounds for objecting to cruelty,
slavery, malice, etc. In fact, relativism doesn't
remove all grounds for opposing such
things just absolutist grounds. You can
object to cruelty, etc, on the grounds that
you abhor suffering no need to invoke
moral absolutes (such as "evil").
It's also argued that perspectivism allows
each individual to decide what is "right"
and "wrong", and that this is a "bad"
thing. But why is it a "bad" thing
for individuals to decide such matters for themselves?
Democracy doesn't require moral absolutism in
order to outlaw slavery. It just requires a
majority opposing slavery. Each individual is
free to decide whether to oppose slavery, and
on what grounds. That is, de facto, moral
Absolutist Control Systems
Authority (in the sense of established power)
requires "absolute" truths that aren't
open to question. Most authorities seem to hate
perspectivism because it undermines the very
thing that authority rests upon.
Take one example: market fundamentalism.
This has elevated certain economic beliefs into
absolute "truths" (eg the "truth"
that maximising profit must take precedence
over everything else, to achieve the ultimate
good, economic growth).
To question such "truths" is to
undermine the authority of those who derive
power from the market system. If you work for
a corporation, you can test this by telling
your boss that you're going to take it easy
at work, because you question the idea that
maximising shareholder profit must take precedence
over your quality of life as an employee. (You
could also point out that it's possible to work
profitably for a company without working to
maximise profits especially on
the low pay most people receive).
A sure sign that you're dealing with the type
of authority which rests on absolute "truths"
is that you're made to feel like some kind of
blasphemer, lunatic or criminal, just for raising
Perspectivism in action questioning
the "truths" of authority is
discouraged at an early age (eg in school),
often with crude behaviourist reward/punish
techniques. It's not surprising that social
reaction to relativism/perspectivism is often