Said Simon

Inchoate thoughts on my stuff

A dialogue on cultural relativism and truth

I’ve been thinking about truth and relativism, and I decided to have a dialogue with myself. Don’t expect this to show much careful and rigorous thought, but I do think that it offers enough food for thought to the average secular humanist thinker to be worth putting up here.

Setting: a trendy coffee shop, with abstract art from a local artist on the walls, granite tables with black leather chairs, and a very good espresso machine.

Enter Sasha and Pat, who join the queue for coffee.

Pat:’…what I’m saying is, if you were from a culture that, say, viewed pure evil as a real ontological category, believed that those who are pure evil are the servants of the evil god Jemima, and consider a preference for fake maple syrup over the authentic kind to be a sufficient indicator that one is pure evil, I’m not sure it’s fair to call any of these claims untrue. Untrue by your standards for truth, sure, but what reason to you have to view your standards as objectively better?’

Barista: ‘Would you two like a bit of maple syrup in your coffee? It’s a thing we do to make them a bit more Canadian.’

Sasha: ‘Um…no  thanks.’

Pat: [Glancing with sudden suspicion at Sasha] ‘Yes, please. It’s a maple mitzfah!’

Sasha: [as both take a seat at one of the tables] ‘The thing is, I think we can all, more or less, get on the same epistemological page, regardless of culture. I don’t mean that there is one objective standard for true in the deep philosophical sense, but I do think that if we look at what most people mean by ‘truth’, we end up seeing a more or less logical empiricist understanding when it comes to secular life. That we see something different when it comes to religion just suggests that people start equivocating, and using ‘truth’ to mean something else while acting as though they haven’t.’

Pat: ‘Or maybe many people just don’t see it as problematic if truth conditions can be met by a variety of epistemologies?’

Sasha: ‘I have no doubt of that, and I’m sure this doesn’t cause too many problems if it causes any at all, for most people. But my argument is a bit different: by the standards of justification that most people are likely to have, regardless of culture,  a realist understanding of truth and an empiricist, positivist or scientific epistemology is tenable for most enquiries.

Pat: ‘I feel like this assertion should be accompanied by a lot of empirical evidence.’

Sasha: ‘Cultural imperialist! Where I come from, formal arguments can take you far.’

Pat: ‘I can’t argue with that. Continue, please.’

Sasha: ‘Most people base their mundane or secular beliefs on the things that they’ve observed and the inferences they can make from those observation. Most people treat reality as singular and real – independent from their perceptions of it – in trying to answer the questions of day-to-day relevance. For example, if you observe that everyone who is sexually attracted to you winks at you, and this is the only time people wink at you, you will probably assume that winking is a sign of sexual attraction, unless some other set of observations you’ve made prior give you cause to not make that assumption. Perhaps you might think that winking causes people to be sexually attracted to you, but lets take it as a given that a clear temporal chain makes it hard to conflate cause and effect here. ‘

Pat: ‘Ok. I see where you’re going. You could also argue that if I claim that I can tell the difference between authentic and fake maple syrup but then fail to do so any better than someone else who claims that they can’t, in blind taste tests, most people are likely to view my claim as untrue unless I can offer a plausible reason why they should discount these results, which itself would be an appeal to previous observations and inferences.’

Sasha: ‘What is with you and maple syrup?’

Pat: ‘I have sworn never to reveal that. In any case, while I accept that most people regardless of culture are likely to follow such epistemological processes when forming beliefs about mundane things, I think that they are incapable of doing so in addressing bigger questions about meaning, morality, and value.’

Sasha: ‘I’m not a moral realist. I would never claim that logical empiricism can help us reach an objectively true definition of the good.’

Pat: ‘Right, but then there are certain ways of life which provide the framework of norms and tastes that all people must have, in some way shape or form, and when certain seemingly empirical claims are attached to them, they should be treated as semantically different, even if they look analytically similar.’

Sasha: ‘Wat’

Pat: ‘Let me explain: if you believe in the evil god Jemima, and that belief is a necessary part of your cultural system, then you are not treating that belief in the same way as a belief in what winking indicates. Your belief in Jemima is fundamentally outside the realm of doubt, because your paradigm for viewing the world is contingent upon it. Literally nothing can falsify or verify it, as surely as nothing can bring you to seriously doubt your own existence. Just because it can be expressed linguistically in a way that looks analogous to an empirical claim does not mean that its status as a proposition is epistemologically analogous. True values are only assessable in relation to other already accepted positions, and thus the more fundamental a claim, the less amenable to falsification it will be, and the more likely it will be to serve as grounds for the falsification of another belief lower on the hierarchy of certainty.’

Sasha: ‘Even accepting that a theistic belief could truly be as fundamental as the belief in one’s own existence -which I do not – you’re taking a static view of that system of “true” beliefs! What if people can be shown that they can maintain their way of life while subjecting more and more of their beliefs to a wider range of possible falsifications? If I can show that the realness of Jemima is far less fundamental than previously assumed, then Jemima can be treated as lower on the hierarchy. I think that this is possible for most beliefs, actually. The Enlightenment and modernity have shown us that beliefs can be separated into different categories, with beliefs about what ‘is’ becoming analytically distinct from beliefs about what ‘ought’! I think that this process is an inevitable result of asking what happens if we try to take the scepticism that allows us to draw conclusions on winking and apply it to everything else that we think. I think that this is possible regardless of one’s culture, because almost everyone knows how to be sceptical for at least some things. And I think that until people start this process, they are using the word “truth” in a contradictory way. ‘

Pat: ‘So? Isn’t life full of contradictions? Anyway, look at what has happened to us after having done this. You call yourself a secular humanist. How on earth to you sustain the belief that human wellbeing is of value when you have no evidence that values exist independently of your assumptions? You treat these things as true, but in the end you’re just as much of a hypocrite.’

Sasha: ‘Hey, back off! Humanism is true for me!’


One response to “A dialogue on cultural relativism and truth

  1. Jordan January 13, 2012 at 5:58 am

    It feels like this dialogue has been truncated, but other than it is very rigorous and addresses the issues along the educated, common sense routes we would expect it to

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