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Relativism  
Posted by Brigid on October 10 2007, 12:19 » Uploaded 10/10/07 13:26  

Brian, could you possibly repost that long response about relativism that you origianally posted to the old MH board. Thanks, Brigid x

 
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Comment 01 – Brian D October 10 2007, 13:35

Not sure if this is the one you mean, Brigid, but it's the only one I could find:

Damn, I thought I'd got away with not explaining. Claims of "absolute truth" or "absolute good (or evil)" are untestable by observation or measurement. They result from appeal to "Pure Reason". The Skeptics (in ancient Greece) saw relativity as inescapable (Xerox never experiences things exactly like Exxon). But Plato and Aristotle attempted to escape it with an appeal to a "Pure Reason" which didn't depend on our fallible senses. These days, all but a small minority of conservatives in philosophy circles realise that this search for Pure Truth failed. But it seems to live on in some political "debates".

"Absolute truth" and "absolute evil" can never be demonstrated, merely asserted. And "70% absolutely true" makes no sense - absolutism implies an either/or (two-valued) logic: either something is absolutely true or it isn't.

The "relativistic" alternative appeals to the fact that we actually evaluate and make decisions based on observations and measurements. This generally implies multi-valued scales and probabilities. Even if your observation/measurement involves a clear dichotomy: "Joe is happy" vs "Joe is unhappy", when you bring in multiple observers (or multiple observations by a single observer over time), you inevitably end up with scales and probabilities (outside of necessarily true statements - true-by-definition formalisms - of course).

"Joe was unhappy 95% of the time at work"
"Joe was unhappy 2% of the time whilst relaxing at home"
"20 observers reported that Joe was unhappy at 09.15 on Tuesday"
"3 observers reported that Joe was happy at 09.15 on Tuesday"

(This holds even for relatively well-established scientific "laws", which aren't seen as absolutely true, but as "corroborated so far" by a finite number of experiments. Incidentally, 20th C. scientists came up with multi-valued logics to replace the Aristotelian eithor/or. John von Neumann's 3-valued logic, "yes, no and maybe"; Anatole Rapoport's 4-valued logic, "true, false, indeterminate and meaningless", etc. Most claims of "absolute truth" and "absolute evil" would fall into Rapoport's "meaningless" category, as they can never be tested - Rapoport regarded forever-untestable statements as "meaningless").

The above "Joe is unhappy" example might seem frivolous. But consider a possible future headline: "IRAQIS HAPPIER NOW THAN UNDER SADDAM". Then consider the "debates" about whether Iraqis really "are" or "aren't" happier. Multiple social indicators tell us something (often something important) which generally can't be reduced to "Iraqis are happier" (or the inevitable tabloid follow-up, "ULTIMATELY THE IRAQ WAR WAS A GOOD THING").

The best way to avoid Dubya's rebranded Aristotelian logic ("Saddam's regime is evil", "you're either with us or with the evil terrorists", etc) is to avoid it yourself. And you don't avoid it by mirroring it - eg by saying (or indirectly implying) "capitalism is evil", or similar. The most you can say is "Capitalism has effects X, Y, Z, etc, according to studies A, B, C, etc". That's usually damning enough for most unEvil people.

Comment 02 – Brigid October 11 2007, 10:24

Thanks Brian, yes that's it.

 

 

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