At one point doesn’t everything seem relative? What even is truth if not that which is true relative to the person?
This echoes the philosophy of relativism. It states that truth is relative to the individual. There is no absolute truth, according to the relativists. If there is one, we cannot know it. Because everything is relative to the individual, anyone and everyone has an equally justified truth claim; even if two claims clash, they are both true. Relativists, of course, do not make any absolute claims to truth. Except perhaps the claim that all is relative. Which is quite ironic.
Back in May of 2021 when I was taking an absolutely brilliant online course on understanding Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, a giant epiphany struck me.
Einstein’s (weird) paper in 1905 challenged Newton’s conception (which was widely held) that time was absolute.
Exactly how did young Einstein criticize such an elegant theory? Why, with a thought experiment of course! The child-like sage imagined how it would be like to ride on a beam of light.
Leaving the eccentric thought process that led to the creation of his theory behind and coming now to the actual theory, the Special Theory of Relativity says that space and time are relative. Time dilates and space contracts in “special” cases where the speed of light is involved. What you see and what I see is relative to each of us (i.e. to our place and speed).
I was learning all this in the course. It was weird and took its time to make sense to my classically accommodated brain but it was very very interesting.
Then one day, out of the blue, it dawned on me.
Isn’t EVERYTHING relative?
Of course the most profound bit of EVERYTHING was that it involved the mightiest of all, the capital-T Truth.
Truth herself seemingly became relative to me then and there.
I did not know then that relativism was a thing. I did not even bother to search about it. I was convinced that I had just formed an astounding new theory: the theory of “everything being relative”.
Not so soon later, I discovered that the epiphany I had once had, on the relative nature of everything—Truth including—was actually the common idea of an age-old philosophy called relativism.
I had simply extrapolated Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity to EVERYTHING and surprisingly that certain thought overlapped with one of the most popular philosophical doctrines of all time.
Then I sort of started to think of myself as a moral relativist. Of course I didn’t think EVERYTHING was relative. Nor did I think science and the laws of nature were relative in their intrinsic form. But I did believe that what people thought of as true or as good or bad was relative to themselves and their culture.
Then I read The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch. And I’m no longer a relativist in any sense of the word.
Firstly, right off the bat; relativism is self refuting. Which means it successfully refutes its own theory as false. If all is relative, I could say that all is not relative and I would be correct as looked at from the lens of relativism. Ironically then, at the heart of relativism is a seemingly absolute claim (“all is relative to the individual”).
Next, relativists are impotent in the face of evil. They take all stances as equally true. They will non-judgmentally accept even the most objectively evil act possible as “good” if the people who commit the sin come with good intentions and themselves think they are doing good. Thus, relativists pose danger to civilization. (And that’s one reason why you do not see a relativist with high political power.)
Now fallibilism, something I came across in the book, is the stance that you could be wrong. That unlike in relativism, there actually is something to be wrong about.
Knowledge is never justified. It is conjectural and may turn out to be false. We cannot attain the ultimate Truth but we can always correct our errors. In embracing the fact that you could be wrong about something you realize the opportunity present for making progress (and improvement).
That’s pretty much all there is to fallibilism.
But the implications of this are immense. And this is also an easily misunderstood stance when first heard about. So let’s unpack a little bit.
The common conception of knowledge is justified true belief (JTB). Which is that, knowledge or truth needs to be justified. This can either be done, think the justified truth believers, through evidence (if all I ever observe are white swans, then I can justifiably conclude that black swans do not exist because the evidence doesn’t suggest the existence of them), or through dogma (for example, whatever is written in the Bible is the word of God and hence is justified and true), or through the relative nature of things (believing that truth, morality and ethics are relative—so everyone’s stance is justified according to the context of their arrival at the conclusion).
But this stance of JTB really breaks down easily and justifying knowledge or truth is really a pointless chase. Here’s why.
- Evidence can always be overturned. With greater evidence, a black swan might magically pop into existence where it was formerly justified that only white swans exist. And so believing that a conclusion is “true” is rather futile. However strange that sounds we must accept that we cannot attain final truth as a fact about knowledge creation.
- Dogma does not take knowledge creation into account. Dogmatists believe that all to be known is already known and anything against their creed is plainly wrong. They will accept their dogma even after it has been falsified by a better explanation. And this is where the problem lies. A lack of progress or a false understanding of the world might in the worst case, lead the dogma and the dogmatists into extinction.
- Relativism, as already critiqued, is self-refuting.
Out of them all, it is fallibilism that does not need any justifying, which, as established, is a futile task.
Fallibilists think even our most precious theories could turn out false (i.e be falsified) with a better explanation of reality. Like Newton’s beautiful theory which was criticized by Einstein. We are all infinitely ignorant and that is what makes continual progress possible (and necessary!). Hence, fallibilists do not talk in terms of absolute nor relative truth. Only objective truth. Explanations and knowledge about the world could be falsified with proper criticisms to them. But even false theories can be useful. For example, we still launch rockets applying Newton’s (false) equations derived from his (false) theory.
Solving problems through knowledge and making progress ad infinitum is at the heart of fallibilism. Relativism dismisses any act of judgment and justifies all claims to truth. Fallibilism rejects any form of authority and justification.
And that’s why I am no longer a relativist (sorry Einstein!).
- Shoutout to the incredible online course I took on Coursera. Larry Lagerstrom, the course instructor, does a very cool job explaining Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity even for the extreme lay person. Definitely worth investing the time. (There’s so much amazing free knowledge online!)
- Fallibilism — Brett Hall
- The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch