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Monday, 3 June 2013

The Hidden Truths of the Relativists

Alan Sokal, the physicist and uncoverer of intellectual pseuds, makes the point that relativists (if true (!) relativists actually exist) are only relativists when it comes to certain issues or subjects. For example, they are often relativist when it comes to whether or not, say, the British Empire helped, in any or many ways, African countries. They are often not relativist when it comes to the slaughter of the American Indians by the English and American colonists:

“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’ (62) 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. Thus are both p and not-p true according to a third culture – the 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, which is true according to Culture1, is false according to Culture3. Or p, which is false according to Culture2, it is true according to Culture4. 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 Culture4, and false in Culture2, that does not matter to Culture1, in which p can be either true or false. Indeed according to Culture2 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 Culture1, the statement  ‘that millions of native Americans died in the wake of the European invasion’ (62) is true. It is false according to Culture2. Perhaps it is both true and false to Culture3 (and its subcultures). Surely it is true that the earth revolves around the Sun or it does not. Why should it make a difference that Culture5 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, but only according to this culture? But 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 case, if cultures establish what is true and false, 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. 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

So it seems that relativists and postmodernists pick and choose which truths and beliefs they apply their relativist principles to. After all, Nazism was a good thing relative to the culture of Germany in the 1920s and 30s. 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 hunters
2) lesbians                              macho communities
3) Muslims                             ‘Christian fundamentalists’
4) red Indian scalpers             SS exterminators and Viking rapists

Similarly, some truths are relative and some are not:

Relative Truths                             Non-Relative or 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." (61).

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 does not 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 do not claim that, say, the pleasure domes of Kubla Khan actually existed of 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 – this doesn’t mean that the world is pink. Even Kant accepted that the transcendental ego’s a priori concepts, categories and forms do not 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 may have been valid in that it was conducive to social cohesion or whatever. However, saying that the earth rests upon a giant elephant may in some way be conducive to social harmony. That doesn’t mean that the earth does rest on an elephant, large or small. Indeed pragmatic beliefs may may, well, pragmatic, but 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 do not 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 of monotheism take God out of existence, as it were. 

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

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