Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Relativism Sucks

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By relativism I mean the “it’s all relative” sort as opposed to the tamer versions (saying that only some truths are relative, e.g. “This tastes good” being relatively true since different people have different tastes). While there are many varieties of relativism, I’ll consider only a few here.

Shoot-Myself-In-the-Head Relativism

Let’s call an absolute truth one that is true for all frames of reference, and a relative truth a truth that isn’t an absolute truth. Truth-value relativism says that truth is relative to some frame of reference. What is a frame of reference? It can vary depending on what flavor of relativism one uses, e.g. individuals, cultures, or time periods. Let R be a placeholder for whatever frame of reference the relativist wants to use. One version of relativism then says this:
For all frames of reference R, no truth is true in all R.
A somewhat oversimplified way of putting it is “No truth holds for all people at all times.” But is this version of relativism itself true for all frames of reference R?
  • Yes. If the answer is yes, then the statement contradicts itself, because the statement would be true for all R (e.g. each individual), when the statement entails that no truth is true for all R.
  • No. If the answer is no, this leads to a contradiction, because it says that holds for all frames of reference R.
Either way, we get a logically incoherent form of truth-value relativism.

Save-Me-From-Myself Relativism

To simplify, I’ll consider the “true for me but not for you” sort of relativism, where a person believing that proposition p is true makes p true for that person. In this case then, save-me-from-myself relativism becomes:
For all individuals, all truths are relative truths except for this one.
This version of relativism has the benefit of not immediately shooting itself in the head, but it’s still problematic. For example, there exist people (e.g. me) who believe that this proposition is true: Two plus two equals four, and this proposition is not a relative truth. Even according to this milder version of relativism, Two plus two equals four, and this proposition is not a relative truth is a relative truth, which is logically incoherent. A true proposition that ends with ...and this proposition is not a relative truth being a relative truth is self-contradictory. Examples could be multiplied; all you need is some frame of reference R in which “Two plus two equals four is true, and this proposition is not a relative truth” is true, and a logical incoherency is generated for relativism.