Friday, January 06, 2017

Introducing Students to the Subjectivist Fallacy

Warren Dunes State Park, Southwest Michigan

In my MCCC philosophy classes I am introducing students to, among other things, the "subjectivist fallacy." Viz., to the idee of "subjective truth." This is a hard concept for students to grasp, since they have been baby-boomed into being subjective relativists.

The subjectivist fallacy makes its appearance in statements like this: "X is true for me, but not for you." Or, for me it is true that X, but for you it is not true that X." Nonsense. Because if something, anything, is true, it is true for everyone past, present, and future.

But what if I like Coke better than Pepsi, and Linda likes Pepsi better than Coke (which she does)? No matter. Consider the statement (a statement is a sentence that is either true or false, that either affirms that a certain state of affairs obtains or does not obtain) John likes Coke better than Pepsi. That is a statement. If it is true, it is true for everyone; if false, it is false for everyone. If it's true, than what is it that is true? It is: John likes Coke better than Pepsi. What this statement is not claiming is that Coke is better than Pepsi. That's an entirely different claim, and one that seems much harder to logically arrive at.

In logic there are no such things as "true for me" or "false for you" or vice versa. I am now typing on my laptop. That is true. For all (though this surely is a trivial truth).

The logic text I use is Lewis Vaughn's The Power of Critical Thinking: Effective Reasoning About Ordinary and Extraordinary Claims. Vaughn exposes and debunks the subjectivist fallacy on pp. 50-51. Pay attention.
  • "The truth of a claim does not depend on what a person thinks." (Such, as e.g., John thinks Coke is better than Pepsi.) "That is, your believing that something is true does not make it true."
  • 'The idea that truth depends on what someone believes is called subjective relativism, and if you accept this notion or use it to try to support a claim, you're said to commit the subjectivist fallacy. This view says that truth depends not on the way things are but solely on what someone believes. Truth, in other words, is relative to persons. Truth is a matter of what a person believes - not a matter of how the world is."
  • "You've probably encountered subjective relativism more often than you realize. You may have heard someone (maybe even yourself!) say, "This is my truth, and that's your truth," or, "This statement is true for me."
  • Logic, and critical thinking, on the other hand, "is about determining whether statements are true or false. But if we can make a statement true or false just by believing it to be true, then critical thinking would seem to be unnecessary."
  • Critical thinking is used "to find out whether a statement is true or false - objectively true or false." Which mean, if a statement is true, it is true for everybody, and if it is false, it is flase for everybody." Consider the statement Hindus believe there are 330,000,000 gods/avatars. That statement is true, and can be argued for sociologically. But philosophers are more interested in the statement There are 330,000,000 gods/avatars. If that statement is true, it is true for everyone, theists and atheists alike. If it is false, it is false for everyone, even though Hindus believe it to be true.
  • Yes, some things about ourselves "are relative because they are one way for us and another way for someone else." You may like Coke, but someone else may not. Your liking of Coke is then relative to you. "But the truth about these states of affairs is not relative."
Vaughn says subjective relativism is implausible for two reasons.
  1. If we could make a statement true just by believing it to be true, we would be infallible. We could not be wrong about anything. But "personal infallibility is, of course, absurd."
  2. Subjective relativism is self-defeating. "It defeats itself because its truth implies its falsity. The relativist says 'All truth is relative." If this statement is objectively true, then it refutes itself because if it is objectively true that 'All truth is relative, then the statement itself is an example of an objective truth. So if 'All truth is relative' is objectively true, then it is objectively false." Which is, of course, absurd.
It will be a bit of a battle trying to get this across to my students, since most are (unknowingly) subjective relativists.