Truth and relativism

Donald Rumsfeld famously said:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.

But are there also unknown knowns – things we know we can’t know? In practice we don’t know a lot, but does this mean we know nothing in principle?

Believe it or not this blog has a loose theme. I’ve posted on Christianity and  Orwell, because they both represent different facets of this thing we understand as truth. It seemed to me that Christianity was manifestly based on something that just we have no right to believe to be true. Orwell’s writings throughout, and especially the documentary Homage to Catalonia and his later novels, were about the subversion of truth for other ends, and how this would lead, inevitably if unchecked, to man’s descent into ignorance. Whether we’re talking of religion or ideology, there are powerful forces working against truth, and therefore against progress. So I intend to write quite a bit about truth. I have started this post several times, and abandoned it on the basis I changed my mind on exactly how to approach the subject – would it best to approach the subject of truth for what it is or what it isn’t? For now, I chose the latter.

People don’t believe what they don’t think is true, obviously enough. But maybe they don’t have the right reasons for thinking the way they do. But whatever they do, when arguing they make an appeal to truth. Even those that seek to deny the reality of truth argue for the truth that there is no truth, or that truth has varying meanings.

At the very least, truth has elusive qualities. Something ostensibly so simple to comprehend has an extensive history in philosophy.

While anyone making any argument generally will have to at least try to make an appeal to truth in their support they are often quick enough not to demolish or attack any counter-argument as such, but to make claims on the truthfulness of their their opponent a paramount concern. These opponents, it is claimed, see truth as “relative” or “subjective” or have “presuppositions”, and all these things have negative connotations. The odd thing is these claims, which are truth claims in themselves, most of the time go unsupported and unsubstantiated. All of this makes me concerned about the value of truth, or rather how truth is seen.

Look around us, people make excuses for untruths all the time. For example, people who have no connection with Islam can make the comment that whatever it teaches is “true to them” and therefore we should allow their views respect for no other reason. In effect this is saying that there are competing truths. Of course the Islamicists talk of their truths as the objective ones, and some of them even deign to recognise non-Muslims as having their own set of truths equally worthy of respect. But then, enough of them are convinced that they are the sole possessors of truth – not that they have any rational basis for that – that they’re willing to kill or be killed for it.

But one would think that if things were so clear-cut, then an appeal to truth would not be so bothersome. The very facts that counter-claims exist, and that recourse to “arguments” against these counter-claims often involve such scurrilous personal attacks itself tells us something of the nature of truth – that for something to have the property of being true isn’t something that we can readily identify all the time.

So truth is important for most of us, yet we still argue for our own set of truths while barely considering what the “true” nature of truth is. If we open any dictionary we can quickly find what we’re looking for.


  1. the true or actual state of a matter: He tried to find out the truth.
  2. conformity with fact or reality; verity: the truth of a statement.
  3. a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like: mathematical truths.
  4. the state or character of being true
  5. actuality or actual existence.

If one were to ask anyone what was meant by truth the answers would be close to the dictionary definitions, no doubt. But in practice this isn’t how we deal with truth. Although many things – such as triangles having three sides – are true by definition, many more, perhaps most things, are held to be true because they are supported – not necessarily proved – by evidence which has not been controverted. We don’t know with complete certainty, for example, that gravity is the effect of the bending of spacetime or that evolution has actually happened. The overwhelming evidence points to them being true in both cases, but it would only take one concrete contrary example in either case to prove them wrong. We also commonly believe things to be true merely because of the consequences of them not being so, and while this is respectable to some extent –  for instance, the view that a contradiction is impossible – it also extends to such areas as the existence of Heaven or Hell as repositories for respective believers and non-believers.

So while most people recognise what is meant by truth, in our common discourse we can’t always be certain about it. This provokes a number of conflicting reactions. Firstly, it’s a widely-held view that because sometimes truth appears to be beyond our grasp then this means that there is no truth, especially in the realm of the abstract or the conceptual. The areas of morality and politics are prime targets for this notion – moral truth is sometimes said to be “relative” or “subjective”. Now relativism and subjectivism are different things, but a lot of self-proclaimed relativists and subjectivists confuse or conflate the two. Moreover, relativism and subjectivism are held to be badges of honour or objects of contempt, depending on perspective – and I intend to demonstrate that those that rail against relativism and subjectivism are in many cases the best examples of relativism and subjectivism themselves. Because the moral arena is so replete with this kind of language, and because conceptual areas such as morality are ontologically of a different category from either facts about the physical world or more straightforward conceptual areas such as logic or mathematics, I’ll in the main be talking about moral truth as it is the most apt area for such a discussion – although general theories of truth will often apply

One poster said recently on the FFF that he  would not leave his children unaccompanied with a moral relativist, as if thinking that absolutism is true is itself intrinsically meritorious. The clear implication here is that relativists by their worldview alone are to be equated with child-abusers – and of course, without a clear view of what is wrong and what is right it’s easy to see how such an accusation could be made, and just as easy to see how such views can be harnessed to show that those holding them display a disreputable character. It doesn’t say, however, that people who hold to defined, objective, views of right and wrong have any objective evidence to back those views up. Indeed, William Lane Craig, in his well-known moral argument, includes the premise “objective moral values exist”. As evidence for this premise, Craig asserts that we “apprehend” the existence of objective moral values in a similar way that we “apprehend” the objectivity of the physical world – as Craig says himself “… could anything be more obvious than that objective moral values do exist? . It’s not entirely clear how Craig defines apprehend, but it’s usually taken in this context to denote an intuitive understanding. In other words, Craig makes a claim for the objectivity of moral values based on the subjective thoughts of those making such claims. Make of that what you will, but also in order to attempt to refute any opposing argument, he makes use of quotes from some non-theistic scientists and philosophers, who clearly don’t “apprehend” any such thing. Craig’s argument is a monumental failure, and indeed he goes on elsewhere to defend genocide. But this is not because it’s wrong so much as how he approaches it. I could go on at great length to refute every sentence of such chicanery but that’s not the purpose of this blog entry.

So is truth relative? (Cognitive) relativism – of which moral relativism is a sub-category –  is the “sceptical position that asserts that the truth of a proposition depends on who interprets it because no moral or cultural consensus can or will be reached“. In other words, it is the position that holds that there is no way of stepping outside our experience or beliefs when considering the “trueness” of a proposition – truth is always truth in context. While the truth value of a proposition (not necessarily all propositions) is relative to a particular standpoint, no single standpoint enjoys unique privileges.  It  has to be said that relativism has been a remarkably successful doctrine for centuries, at least in the descriptive sense, despite our “apprehensions”. And it continues to be so. Every time someone utters the conversation-stoppers “it’s a matter of opinion”, “who is to say” or (worst of all) “to each his own” this can be seen as a triumph for relativism. It’s easy to see the attraction of relativism – for one thing, it’s said that relativism encourages tolerance (which is supposedly a good thing as it apparently promotes a way of life in which rights are respected) – but more importantly, relativism can be seen as one escape route out of the impasses of agnosticism and / or non-cognitivism.

But relativism is an untenable doctrine. This should be abundantly clear because the central premise supporting it is contrary to the idea of relativism itself. Relativism itself cannot be true in context. And it is a confusion to think that an opposition to relativism by necessity implies a lack of tolerance or respect for others or their views – the cause of intolerance is dogmatism, not objectivity. This is a simple (or simplistic) view of relativism but more sophisticated versions fare no better. Most apologists for relativism tend to divert attention away from the individual and speak in terms of culture, society or politics, following the example set by consensus anthropology of the early 20th Century. It is certainly true that cultural norms correlate strongly, though not invariably, within a region or some other grouping.

Cultural relativism is a more sophisticated view than the simple relativism outlined above. And it is important insofar that it takes the definition of truth a step beyond that of the dictionaries. For truth can be looked at in more than one way, philosophically. Generally when we speak of truth we (perhaps unwittingly) are speaking of metaphysical truth – conformance to reality. But cultural relativism is concerned with epistemology – truth as knowledge. Now epistemology is commonly concerned with the truth value of propositions but also comes into play when it is thought that such propositions can have no solution, at least not an objective solution. There are plenty of valid epistemologically-subjective statements, to be sure, virtually always concerned with tastes or preferences – for instance I prefer plain crisps and Budvar. These are real matters of opinion. But many things to be matters of opinion are anything but. For example read the following quote from the anthropologist Donald Symons (taken from Steven Pinker’s book  The Blank Slate).

If only one person in the world held down a terrified, struggling, screaming little girl, cut off her genitals with a septic blade, and sewed her back up, leaving only a tiny hole for urine and menstrual flow, the only question would be how severely that person should be punished, and whether the death penalty would be a sufficiently severe sanction. But when millions of people do this, instead of the enormity being magnified millions-fold, suddenly it becomes “culture,” and thereby magically becomes less, rather than more, horrible, and is even defended by some Western “moral thinkers,” including feminists.

Islam and its apologists provide us with countless examples (perhaps all the more so to us because we are viewing the world from outside Islam). One only has to think of the treatment given to Salman Rushdie during the Satanic Verses affair. Not only was Rushdie’s life threatened by some members of that uniquely barbaric religion, but he was also subject to criticism from other areas, including the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie (“I well understand the devout Muslims’ reaction, wounded by what they hold most dear and would themselves die for) and ex-President Jimmy Carter (“This is the kind of inter-cultural wound that is difficult to heal. Western leaders should make it clear that in protecting Rushdie’s life and civil rights, there is no endorsement of an insult to the sacred beliefs of our Moslem friends“), holding that he, by his actions, brought his misfortune upon himself. Runcie should have said “kill for” instead of “die for”, but only cultural relativism could explain such behaviour. Again, incongruously, such pleas for tolerance and understanding express just the opposite, as the lack of tolerance for Rushdie’s activities shows. It is interesting that these relativistic defences of Islam come from an Anglican and a Southern Baptist, which shows just how pervasive the cultural relativist view is, although they were by no means Rushdie’s only such critics.

Cultural relativism has arisen as a reaction to a doctrine that itself could be termed “semi-relative” – ethnocentrism. Recall that relativism is the combination of the two propositions that, firstly, truth is relative to a particular standpoint, culture or ideology, and secondly, that there is no single privileged view. Ethnocentrism rejects the second proposition while maintaining the first. No doubt those who could be called ethnocentric would dispute this, claiming that their view was indeed uniquely privileged, albeit accepting that opposing views are truly ethnocentric. The issue of cognitive privilege seems to correspond strongly to the opposing conservative – liberal positions on many issues.

The opposite of relativism is absolutism. But absolutists also reject ethnocentrism on account of its view of truth as cultural or political expression. This means that from the absolutist perspective, ethnocentrism is just a partial variant of relativism, the difference being simply that ethnocentrists are prepared to make value judgements on other cultures while cultural relativists are not. In practice ethnocentrism and cultural relativism coexist quite happily within individuals – people can and often do simultaneously condemn Qur’an burning and suicide bombing, for example. From the outside it seems undeniably correct that we tend to think in ethnocentric terms – the problem being the difficulty in separating the cultural truth from the absolute truth. Does absolute truth influence culture, or does culture tend to generate a belief in absolute truth? Moreover, the existence of competing absolutisms leads us to suppose that belief in absolutism is mere cultural expression.

Evidence for this is plentiful. For one thing, we don’t generally believe today everything that we used to believe. Although racism, sexism and homophobia still undoubtedly exist, they are nowadays frowned upon (outside fundamentalist Christian circles, at least). Absolute truth (in the inferiority or pejorative differences with other races, women, or homosexuals) would have always been true if they were true in the past or not been true in the past. If absolute truth, by its nature, cannot change, and yet attitudes have, it must be true that it is culture that has changed – or evolved. Yet many of the racists of yesteryear and the anti-racists of today were or are happy enough to claim a source of objective, absolute, truth as support. The combination of an acceptance of moral or scientific progress and a belief in that absolute truth exists, and is known now, is unsustainable. For another thing, cultures that were once combined and now separated often have very different beliefs – for example, attitudes to marriage, public versus private provision or gun ownership. Very often, as in these examples,  the reasons for our beliefs are either ingrained and unconscious, or coherent with other beliefs. Although culture does play a part in belief formation for an individual I’m not suggesting that for any region or group that that culture is homogeneous.

But these beliefs must have come from somewhere. While it’s apparent that much of our nature as humans has followed an evolutionary path (in terms of biology) these differences have to be explained elsewhere. Much of modern philosophy has attempted to put such cultural differences into perspective. Indeed, probably the most influential of modern philosophers – starting with Nietzsche but arguably from Kant –  have taken the view that truth is not absolute or that we have no reliable method of discerning truth, albeit that there are differences between them. For example, the pragmatist Richard Rorty, who saw no material difference between truth and justification as goals (what problem do you want to solve and what difference does it make how you solve it?). In other words our beliefs are determined by what serves our purposes rather than their objective truth.

Certainly, we see examples from history of the primacy of justification, even from science. Notoriously, data from the relative head sizes of white and black people has been used in the past as justification for racism and slavery. It need hardly be said that the researchers involved were of one particular race. We still see today the projected view that homosexual men have had distant fathers and overbearing mothers, as another example – this is also used as support for a pre-existing point of view despite having little or no empirical support. I do readily admit that it is difficult to step outside of our existing views, and this is true for everyone. Nevertheless, these examples show that there is no necessary connection between justification and truth.

I could give many examples of postmodern or idealist philosophy supporting relativism but will just mention one more. Michel Foucault believed that knowledge in practice is the result of an entire system of institutions and power relations, which together shape our cultural views. While it is no longer news that worldviews mould our experiences as much as our experiences mould our worldviews, Foucault contended that the way our worldviews are formed are themselves reflective of sociological forces – such as politics, science, media – that dictate not so much what we believe as how we believe it. Read a newspaper, watch the TV news (or a reality show), write a blog entry etc. – what is happening is an acceptance of what relationships are involved when knowledge is manufactured, distributed and packaged and therefore what standards we should accept when evaluating truth. As Foucault says:

The important thing here, I believe, is that truth isn’t outside power, or lacking in power … truth isn’t the reward of free spirits, the child of protracted solitude, nor the privilege of those who have succeeded in liberating themselves. Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it includes regular effects of power.

‘Truth’ is to be understood as a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.

‘Truth’ is linked in a circular relation with systems of power which produce and sustain it, and to effects of power which it induces and which extend it. A ‘regime’ of truth.

In other words, beliefs are true because they are powerful rather than powerful because they are true. This says little or nothing about the nature of truth, except, perhaps, that it needs redefining if Foucault’s view is to be accepted.

Two questions arise:

  • Are Foucault and Rorty giving accurate descriptions of the nature of truth?
  • How should we view truth in the light of this?

Any time one hears someone say that we operate under a “shared moral consensus” or such like they probably heard someone who listened to someone that browsed an article by someone that attended a lecture given by a professor that read Rorty or Foucault while an undergraduate. Defunct philosophers are as ubiquitous as defunct economists, it would seem. However, we see the view of truth as a slave to pragmatism all the time. Consider reactions to the scientific consensus on global warming, where at least one group in the debate rejects the opposing view on pragmatic grounds . Probably the best example from recent history was that of Lysenko. Lysenkoism was politically successful for a time because contemporary Western views of biology and genetics were held to reflect a bourgeois institutionalism, and therefore incorrect – those that contend that the Soviet Union was underpinned by Darwinism should take note. The results of this for the Soviet Union were disastrous – quite apart from any other failings of that system – and Lysenko has been completely discredited.

Usefulness as a measure of truth doesn’t deny that some things can be true – just that the reasons for truth are not what we would commonly accept. It is now more useful to believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun, for example.(I don’t know the details, but I would imagine if it was believed within NASA that the Sun revolved around the Earth then the Voyager explorations within deep space could not have happened, so therefore the heliocentric model is more useful from that standpoint). Any prior beliefs can be discarded. But those prior beliefs were useful in their own turn, and therefore the pragmatism of Rorty is unashamedly built on shifting sands. Similarly the idea of truth as a reflection of power relationships only holds good while those power relationships are stable – and they never are.  While these “postmodern” theories reject the subjectivism of simple relativism they are in practice the same thing. Any attempt to be critical about what passes for truth can only be true if it is either useful or politically, culturally or socially acceptable, which it can’t be if it’s being critical of what is useful or politically, culturally or socially acceptable. In practice things do change – we condemn rather than condone slavery, for example – but this also undermines postmodernism. Taking this example, it is impossible to rationally criticise slavery from within a political, cultural or social system for the reasons outlined above, so therefore it’s held that critics are speaking the “truth” from the standpoint of their own culture. But if truth is what passes for truth within a culture and yet contradicts the truth from another culture we are left with the same problem given to us by simple relativism. Truth cannot contradict truth, it is said, with good reason (more of this at a later date).

This analysis has barely scratched the surface of relativism, of which I have been routinely, albeit ignorantly, accused. Relativism is not the view that there is no truth or falsity, no right or wrong. Rather, at its simplest, it is the view that we can never divorce truth from our experience of it. Even the most mundane belief we have is taken from the vantage point of the individual, or the individual within a belief system – it is metaphysically impossible to take a correct cognitive view of the subject-object relationship from the point of view of the object. That uniquely-privileged standpoint – the standard definition of truth as correspondence with reality – is forever and by necessity denied to us. We are left with nothing except that truth is relative to an individual, to a culture or to an ideology and the ultimate criterion of truth turns out to be coherence with that belief system. I wouldn’t deny that essentially truth must be coherent, but the relativist view starts with coherence and works backwards from there. But once again, this notion fails when applied to itself – is relativism itself no more than cultural expression or is it absolutely true? Is relativism false only from the standpoint of metaphysical realism? Is realism just a presupposition?

But it must be said that relativism, of various sorts, is the dominant philosophy whether admitted or not, and probably always has been. And it depends on the view of the limitations of reason as an epistemological tool – indeed some variants of relativism denote reason as just another cultural viewpoint. We don’t know everything (this much we do know), but this doesn’t mean that we can’t know in the future what we don’t know now. However, the idea that there things that we can’t ever know is pervasive, and understandable given the scientific standpoint that knowledge is provisional. Even those that call themselves absolutists are often relativists in disguise from this perspective. Take, for example, the idea that failure to acknowledge divine revelation leads inexorably to relativism – in essence this is a confession that reason is limited, even given that they don’t have too much understanding of what relativism actually is. We often also hear these same people candidly admit to the insufficiency of reason – this is what “faith” is, after all – or decry those who disagree of having reason as “their god”. I will say more about reason at a later date. But their own view is ineluctably relativistic at least in part, depending as it does not only on a deprecation of reason but on a source of truth indistinguishable from their imaginations and also reflective of and a source of both a political and cultural tradition. In other words, religions can be seen as ethocentric. And of course, religious apologetics – the all-too-human work of explaining the divine – with its emphasis on culture, coherence and the goal of defence of a particular viewpoint come what may. Anyone in any doubt should read chapter 1 of William Lane Craig’s book On Guard, where among other dubious things Craig says:

I’m not saying that people will become Christians because of the arguments and evidence. Rather, I’m saying that the arguments and evidence will help to create a culture (my emphasis) in which Christian belief is a reasonable thing.

So, as far as I’m concerned, religious belief is undoubtedly relativistic. I accept that accusations of relativism are tossed around like confetti when assessing the beliefs of others, and as I pointed out, I have been ignorantly accused of relativism enough times to know this. Nevertheless, the way that relativism is framed makes such accusations easy to make. I do hope that anyone reading this would take the view alongside my own that relativism, in whatever form, is philosophically untenable. Therefore truth is not relative, whatever it is. As I said, many people, including religious believers, see reason as an insufficient method of determining truth. but they also agree with me that if truth exists then it exists outside of our consciousness – I make no special claim here, as I said that relativism (at least the simple variant) is easily refuted. This poses a problem, which we could call “the problem of relativism” because the two conflicting beliefs have to be reconciled, it is thought. But religious believers take the worst of all worlds by constructing a being which can only be imagined, not demonstrated, and giving that being particular qualities that satisfy the arguments.

But the word relativism is so abused that even some self-confessed relativists actually belong to other philosophies, such as nihilism or non-cognitivism. It is these philosophies, not the idea of an entity that subjectively dictates truth outside our experience of it, from  that present the greatest challenge to any notion of realistic, objective truth. There need not be cognitive dissonance between relativism and absolutism, idealism and realism. I had intended to include such things as non-cognitivism and subjectivity in this blog entry, but time and space have dictated otherwise. Hopefully I can get round to some  further writing on what truth isn’t before looking at what truth is, with any luck not at such great length.


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