Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Relativism and Truth

Quests are meaningless without goals, a distinct “somewhere” which must be reached. This is true even if that goal is ultimately unattainable, because even if ultimately impossible the goal still drives the energy of the knight-errant and gives his work direction. Without such a goal, human activities are reduced entirely to mere work, in the pejorative sense of sheer business. While countless such goals have come and gone throughout the course of human culture, one goal that seems to be nearly universal in its appeal is the goal of truthfulness - that is, of attaining some sort of harmony between oneself and reality. Truth at its simplest is nothing other than the correspondence between our beliefs (and, one might include, our subsequent actions) and reality.
Humans do not have an unmediated access to reality, however - except, perhaps, one’s access to one’s own inner “space,” the private sanctum of the self which is truly not shared by anyone else and which it is impossible to escape short of true madness or death. Even here, though, we must accept the possibility of self-deception, delusion, and ignorance which can distort or obscure our self-knowledge. Additionally, our inner dialogue is a dialogue mediated by symbols. As for the rest of reality, our experience is mitigated through a variety of representations or symbols that are both physiologically and socially determined. A representation is not unreal - that is, it is not that representations lack some sort of existence - but what distinguishes a representation from other objects in reality is that a representation conveys information about an object other than itself - as, for example, the phenomena of the color green might carry the information that there is a large bush only a few meters from where I am standing whose pigments reflect light of about 550 nm wavelength. Since I have spoken about representations in another note, I will simply sum up the fact that all of our perceptions - that is, the entirety of the world we encounter - is a collection of representations produced by the interaction between our physiology and the rest of reality. Furthermore, our forms of both representing and communicating about that reality with others all takes place in the form of symbols whose meaning is entirely dependent upon socio-cultural contexts and which are all ultimately human products.

These facts combined introduces an inescapable type of relativism: the relativism of representation. Insofar as we do not have a direct apprehension of objects as an object but rather only have an apprehension of objects through the representations provided by our senses, and further because our claims, apprehension, and communication about that object takes place only through the means of socio-culturally contingent symbols, no statement can simply stand as an uncontestable absolute - that is, as a statement which stands above our beyond the possibility of future revision or correction. Even a statement of seemingly necessary truth, such as the law of non-contradiction, is subject to this possibility. First, because the reality which it seeks to describe is fundamentally “larger” than the representations of it to which we have access, we are always in the position of possibly being in the dark about an important aspect of that reality. Second, because the combination of symbols we use to represent reality imposes upon its meaning the requirements of its own peculiar grammar and syntax, we cannot be certain that the symbols themselves introduce novelty or distortion into the aspect of reality which we seek to describe. Third, because these symbols are themselves not static and indeed introduce a variety of hermeneutic difficulties, the perceived (and, indeed, intended) meaning of an identical set of symbol can vary quite immensely even amongst similarly socialized peers. In short, the very nature of representations renders statements of absolute truth (including this one, it might be wryly noted) implausible.

What then? As I remarked, the end of the preceding paragraph may have evoked the obvious objection, “What about your own statements? If you do not believe that statement to be an absolute statement, it means it is open or subject to correction - which means, you must accept that that statement is potentially false.” I believe this objection, although quite popular, is misguided in a number of ways. In the first place, the recognition that a statement is possibly false is quite different that the belief that it is false. Nothing I have said necessarily points to an attitude of constant self-doubt that feels it necessary to mumble sadly at the end of every statement, “but I might be wrong.” Indeed, I have noted that despite the unavoidable shortcomings of the representations which constitute the world of our experiences, those representations do indeed represent reality. We are not cut off from reality - rather, these representations form the bridge and link with reality. We are not simply receiving the sensory impression that we are touching a flower - we are really touching it, and even if that touch is a representation of the flower rather than the flower itself it is still indeed representing information about that flower. From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, we developed the senses we did because the information those senses provide about reality give us an actual advantage over creatures that lack such senses. This advantage is simply that through these senses we are able to understand more about our reality and act in advantageous ways upon that information.

The access to this information about reality is what allows the evaluation of statements as true or false. Since truth is the harmonization of our beliefs with reality, we are able to use whatever information we have access to, and the best symbols and cultural representations we have access to, in order to fashion beliefs that harmonize with the given information as best we understand it. The flipside of saying that we might not have all the information is to say that the evaluation of our beliefs should proceed solely on the basis of the information we do have. Tomorrow, we may sprout organs that let us see things about reality which challenge beliefs currently assumed to be true, and in this case the representative relativism of our beliefs will be unveiled, but without such an event we must continue to assess the truth of things by comparing our beliefs with the reality as we know it through our currently available representations of it.

Indeed, the relationship between reality, our sensory representations of reality, and our cultural and social symbols for that reality is dialectic and dynamic and not reducible to a mere one way causal mechanism. Insofar as our senses portray information and subsequently allow us to craft symbols to represent that reality, those same crafted symbols allow reflection upon the entire process - reality’s relationship to our senses, our senses upon our symbols, and vice versa. The set of symbols is open to self-critique in the face of the information about reality which we gain through our senses and which we gain a better understanding of precisely through the manipulation of that information made possible through our cultural symbols. The symbols allow us to see relations between the pieces of information we garner through our sensory representations, relations which themselves can be represented and then used as a tool to revise or correct a growing body of knowledge. This is the dialectic of the human quest for knowledge.

In summary, then, it must be noted that the human quest does have a goal: truth. Reality is only partially subject to human manipulation, and even that manipulation assumedly must follow the “rules” of reality. But to say that reality is not relativistic - and that, therefore, the “standard” for truth is not relative, but is an external absolute - is very different from saying that our statements and beliefs about reality - and our subsequent truth evaluations of those claims - are not relative. We encounter reality through limited means and can express it only through limited means: in short, our claims and beliefs are always by their very nature tentative even if we express them to ourselves as absolute (indeed, the question of why we tend to think of our claims in absolute, rather than relativistic, terms is interesting in itself). This relativism is not a call to wholesale methodological doubt nor a reduction of all our knowledge to sense experience - after all, we gain insight not only through sense experience, but also through the construction and manipulation of symbols representing the reality we experience and providing the possibility of non-empirical or rational insights. It is, however, a call to what I would call fallibilism: the constant awareness of beliefs as possibly subject to revision or correction. Such fallibilism recognizes all human epistemological claims - whatever the methodological or ideological source and justification for those claims - as ultimately conditioned by human biology and artifice even if it is representative and derived in some way from a reality.

As a final note, I am again well aware that this theory is self-critiquing - that is, it presents in itself a reason to suspect that it might be subject to revision and correction. I would simply note that I would not wish it to be any other way.

1 comment:

  1. This is very well done. I do apologize for not responding to this earlier but I was thinking about serveral issues that you have raised, both in this essy and in the past. I have recently read a monograph by Philip Esler called "Lazarus, Martha, and Mary" it is about prototypes in honor-shame cultures such as the one that produced the Gospel of John and I felt that it was relevant for how we think about our sacred past and contemporary issues. All to often philosophers and theologians have felt the need to seperate the kernel of "universal and timeless" truth from our text and tradition, that they fail to see that engaging in critical dialogue with our past and present can produce exraordinary results. Which is what I think you are trying to say, that many of our treasured notions are time conditioned and that we should respect that instead of dogmatically trying to project it on to all of reality.