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Thursday, January 29, 2004

About relativism; there are four kinds.

(I don't mean that as an absolute fact. There are many complex ways that issues of relativity may enter into thought. This list is just suggestive of some interesting ones.)

There is harmless relatvism: that is there are many ways in whuch things are true or important relative to a position or perspective but in a way that is not epistemologically or otherwise problematic. For example I could be closer to a tree that we are both looking at than you and thus the tree looks bigger to me than it does to you. So you might say that the the tree looks taller relative to than it looks relative to you. But in this case, its relativity (of perspective) that explains the apparent discrepancy. In this case, relativism is the answer rather than the problem.

There is serious relativism: The problem here is the fact that all of our beliefs are according to one or another perspective. Human beings do not have beliefs at all except that they have them from some or another point of view. This leaves open the possibility that while it may appear to me that p is true but to you that p is false, there is no ultimate perspective which either one of us can entertain which will settle absolutely whether or not p is true independent of all perspectives. This is the problem of relativism. The next two kinds of relativism are responses to this problem.

There is hyper-relativism: The hyper-relativist argues that we underestimate the problem with serious relativism. It is not merely that each person or group has there own "truth" from their own perspective. The fact is that we pass through an indefinite number of perspectives every second of our experience. We are alternate perspective generating machines, each one of us at every moment has a radically distinct perspective on everything than they had the moment before. Further, if we could per impossible stop time and develop our perspective of the moment we would see that each perspective generates a completely alternative worldview with its own inner coherence. The serious relativist thinks that the problem involves the inability to select the truth from perhaps a "handful" of different world-class worldviews that are all equally credible. The hyper-relativist goes further and says that in fact there are a potentially infinite number of worldviews that we occupy moment by moment, just by occupying time, that are all ultimately incomensurable with each other so that the idea of choosing a worldview at all is radically absurd.

There is what I call soft relativism. This group points out that while the problem of serious relativism is important, it is not completely hopeless. The hyper-relativist position itself reduces to an absurdity since it implies that we really do not communicate even with ourselves much less each other and that seems evidently false. Further, some perspectives are clearly mistakes in that they are internally self-destructive. Further, also it seems evident from the phenomenology of culture and from descriptive metaphysaics that there is such a thing as the common perspective of the human species such that qua being a member one has at least some point of contact with other human beings that makes truth and communication possible.

So we can at least narrow the field to certain perspectives that hold up better than others. The further point that Polanyi, Newbigin, and MacIntyre are making in various ways is that these viable perspectives have longstanding histories and positive track records of coping and accomodating to cognative challenges which they have met with impressive success. (There are examples of perspectives that have survivied for thousands of years without any development at all because the society which holds them never faced any cognative threats -- one thinks of tribal amazonian cultures like in the movie "The Emerald Forrest" ("Funny, I don't remember the Edge of the World being this close to the village before.").) So surviving perspectives have been tested and continue to be teasted by encountering circumstances and being exposed to other world perspectives. So while not able to describe themselves as absolute truth, they arguably have a viable verisimilitude given their track record.

This is still a soft or mitigated relativism in that the situation remains that two solid perspectives may come up with competing verdicts about the truth of a judgement about something with a solution. But defenders point out that a completely perspectiveless view is not really possible or desirable. A "God's eye view" or a "View from Nowhere" can only see the world as utterly devoid of personal points of view and would only see the world as it would appear without activity, intentionality, purpose, representation, etc., a completely passive homogenious object (which is what you have with the ice block view of the universe). Subjectivity and relativity are an important and necessary aspect of philosophy and truth seeking, not just pure objectivity.

Where this may lead to Lewis's one great ethical tradition ("the Tao") is in the necessity of recognizing a common human nature and perspective which would also include the moral point of view.

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