Thursday, October 10, 2013

Against Postmodern Relativism

Looking from our family room
into our kitchen

Simon Blackburn, retired philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge and currently research professor at the University of North Carolina, has a nice essay in Prospect - "After Relativism." This is an especially relevant article for me since I just finished teaching my logic students about the irrationality of subjective relativism and social relativism; viz., that truth is, respectively, relative to persons, or to societies. Both forms are irrational, since: 1) if they were true, then we would be infallible (which is of course absurd); and 2) the claim Truth is relative is self-defeating since, if it is true, then that truth is only relative to the person or society that believes it. (See Vaughn, The Power of Critical Thinking, Ch. 2 - the text I'm using in my logic classes.)

Blackburn observes: "Every philosopher knows of the "freshman relativist," quick to assert dogmatically that everything depends on how you look at it, that if one group thinks something then it must be true for them, and at the end of the line, just "whatever."" The "postmodernist" climate has nurtured this relativist frame of mind,"  which considers the logical (yes, logic!) idea of objective truth; viz., the belief that there is a world outside of our subjective minds that is what it is independently of what we might believe about it. This is the world all scientists believe in and study, none of whom are postmodern relativists. While it's true that truth may be hard to determine, this does not imply that, therefore, truth is relative. Because, logically again, that claim is absurd and self-defeating.

Logic professors such as myself face and combat and hopefully surgically remove the relativistic disease from our young, relativistic freshmen. How might we accomplish this? Blackburn writes: "A better tack is not to try to kill relativism, but to draw its teeth. Relativism thrives when people do not have to shoulder the burden of actually coming to a conclusion. When it is vital to do so, relativism disappears." Enter, again, the doctor, or the research scientist, or the lawyer, or the mathematician, or the moral philosopher. Or you, riding a bicycle and seeing a truck bearing down on you, and turning away because the statement A truck is now bearing down on me is objectively true rather than "true for you but not for me." Blackburn writes: "After the bus thunders past, vindicating my judgment that there was traffic coming, I am not likely to entertain the thought that it would have been true for someone else that there was none."

Some things are simply false. Objectively. Some things are objectively true. Determining the truth status of a statement may be difficult, but this does not therefore infer relativism. What's then needed, says Blackburn, is "experience and judgment."