January 19, 2006

Immoral relativism.

I just listened to this episode of the BBC series "In Our Time", and I think that some of what it has to say is relevant to contemporary American political and cultural debate.

The episode basically covers the history of the relativism as a philosophical idea dealing with the existence or absence of absolute truth over the past 2500 years, with particular attention paid to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it raises a few points which I would like to carry forward: First, that scientific, philosophical, and social-scientific "relativism" are all unique entities; second, that the "relativism" railed against by Benedict XVI in the lead-in quote, to wit
Today, a particularly insidious obstacle to the task of educating is the massive presence in our society and culture of that relativism which, recognizing nothing as definitive, leaves as the ultimate criterion only the self with its desires. And under the semblance of freedom it becomes a prison for each one, for it separates people from one another, locking each person into his or her own "ego".
is not a type of "moral relativism" at all, but rather the definitive rejection of the Catholic moral standard, particularly its sexual moral standard, as itself immoral. Thirdly, I would like to point out that the chief proponents of relativism today, and in fact of a sort of nearly Cartesian solipsism, are conservatives and fundamentalist Christians themselves; in an act of basic intellectual dishonesty, rigorous scientific skepticism, in which reasonable people are free to propose refinements on established scientific theories when facts render them untenable, is perverted into a scenario in which science is given the same footing as religion due to its supposed abdication of the ability to describe things as they are.

In current conservative rhetoric, all the different kinds of "relativism" noted above are conflated and then ascribed to the Left. A facile contrast is drawn between the Right, which knows what is good and true, and the Left, which is so bound up in solipsism that it refuses to take a moral stand on known evils like abortion, homosexuality, suicide bombing, and the oppression of women. This is a common editorial tack taken by our buddies over at FreeRepublic.com and wherever else it is that my dad's buddy Nick sources all of his news. This is how it works: Left-wingers (so the story goes) are opposed to, for example, the war in Iraq, not because they see it as a massive tactical blunder of the first order, but because they tacitly approve of "what is going on over there", itself a dishonest generalization of the worst behavior of guys named "Ali" the world over; it's clear that these people (the Left, Muslims, whatever you got) have no moral compass whatsoever, because otherwise they would act exactly like us. Left-wingers clearly have no values, because when they trumpet their so-called commitment to feminism, they refuse to back it up by invading countries that are backward in that regard.

This is a mischaracterization of a long-standing principle of social-scientific investigation. Sure, if you look at filthy, Marxist academia, you will find a refusal by most scholars to excoriate the subjects of their study for any perceived shortcomings. There is a reason for this: There is no damn point. I recently finished writing an MA thesis entitled Competing Models of Autocratic Power in Timurid Transoxiana (because that's what it's about). The subjects of my thesis could fairly be described as an "asshole parade", and yet this expression is wholly absent from my writing.

The reason for this is that recently, intelligent people realized that in explaining how things work, or how they happened, or even why they work or happen, value judgments are a waste of time. Sure, making a drinking vessel out of your enemy's skull is not the act of a nice man. But how would our understanding of the world be advanced if all of our writing about world leaders was just variations on that theme? Moving into a more modern, but more general, frame of reference, it is of no use to our understanding of the way political violence is legitimated in societies to dwell on dead babies.

This mode of thinking about social science has been called "relativism", but it is not the same as philosophical relativism, which is to a greater or lesser extent, depending on who is being tagged with the label, the belief that what is "true" is mutable or variable. Generally the people who are called "relativists" are simply pointing out that your perception of the world is not the same as someone else's. Under a hard-core, true relativism, nothing is real in the accepted sense because each observer's "truth" is equally true and no contradictions exist.

I have heard people claim that during the Vietnam War, some opposition to the war was due to a supposedly widespread belief that Southeast Asian culture was "incompatible" with democracy. If this were true, it would illustrate a philosophically relativist viewpoint with respect to the value of democracy. It is also kind of racist. I'll concede that some people probably said something like that, because I find a lot of hippie culture racist in the extreme. I won't concede that it was ever a mainstream reason for opposition to the Vietnam War.

These same people now claim that unwillingness to try to export the American Revolution to the Middle East is symptomatic of the same kind of racist, relativist thinking. Obviously, if we don't want the Iraqis to have democracy, there must be some reason for it - probably because we don't think they're capable. This is just a tactic. It is racist to undertake a great civilizing mission against some Third Worlders who need to be drug kicking and screaming to our level of culture and sophistication.

Here again we see the disconnect between social-scientific relativism and philosophical relativism. Without divorcing ourselves from the idea that democracy is the worst kind of government except for all the others, we still recognize that trying to rank different cultures one above another according to some kind of arbitrarily determined rubric is pointless.

Of course leftists want to see the entire world turn into a democracy.

One democracy. And then we nationalize the steel industry.

But having what amounts to a practical dispute about the best way to achieve democracy (which by the way is not the same as human rights, civil rights, or equal rights, which I am choosing not to address - I'm not above mentioning certain right-wing elected officials to make that point) in Iraq is not an example of relativism. That said, I'll still be laughing when democracy at gunpoint fails.

Fortunately, in addressing the subject of scientific relativism, we get to step out of the minefield that is Iraq for a minute.

And jump into the minefield that is educational policy.


Let's turn our attention to the popular fundamentalist saw, "Evolution is just a theory". That word 'theory' has a lot of connotations, doesn't it? A theory is very tentative, very vague, very formless. I mean, your Uncle Frank has a theory about the Kennedy assassinations, and we can all disagree about that, can't we? Except that's not a theory. That's a hypothesis. And we talk about the "Theory of Evolution", not the "Hypothesis of Evolution". A theory, as distinct from a hypothesis, holds up under the weight of empirically observed fact. But what can we get away with if we blur the distinction? In fact, what can we get away with if we smear all of science as "just a theory?"

So much hay has been made out of the "Conflict Between Faith And Reason" down the millennia that I almost feel bad pointing out that there really is no conflict, because Reason is the mental faculty for interpreting the data you gather with your senses, whereas Faith is the mental faculty for enjoying movies and doing badly for yourself in Las Vegas. They don't overlap at all. And yet some people who think that faith rather than reason should be the guiding principle not only of social policy but of working out problems in biology, a branch of scientific inquiry whose practitioners will on occasion suggest to us things for putting in our mouths, want us to think that they're the same.

Here, ironically, the religious right, normally so opposed to relativism in all its forms, waves relativism's flag high. Due to their facile refusal to distinguish skeptical scientific inquiry from philosophical relativism, they wind up equating science with religion. If you, as a scientist, are unhappy with the current formulation, say, of superstring theory, you are free to propose an alternate theory. You take into account all of the relevant facts that you can collect, and you devise a new theory that accounts for them. You use your reason to synthesize facts that you empirically observe. If your observed facts are wrong or inaccurate, your theory is wrong. If your theory fails to account for data which you had no way of collecting, it is also wrong but hardly your fault. We don't make fun of the ancient Greeks for their idea of the atom. This is skepticism.

The suggestion that all theories are somehow of equal value in the abstract is a creation of people who seek to downgrade science as a mode of inquiry. All theories are not of equal value. Clearly, theories correspond in greater or in lesser extents to the state of affairs they attempt to describe, and the more they do, the better they are as theories. It is dishonest to exploit some kind of Schrödinger's Cat gambit and claim that because we cannot absolutely know the truth or falsity of any theory that they are all equally valid or equally false. That is philosophical relativism as applied to science, and probably also a fundamental misapplication of quantum mechanics.

And yet it is exactly that claim that the Religious Right, opponents of relativism, make when they want to get Creationism or Intelligent Design taught in school. They claim that because you cannot know, in the same way that an omniscient all-present being would know, that evolution happened, then as a theory it holds as much water as Creationism. Never mind that you cannot know, in the same way that an omniscient or all-present being would know, that the third-to-last time you bought french fries, the carton they came in was not an omniscient, all-present being under the specie of a french-fry carton.

The difference between a good scientific claim and a bad one is that a good scientific claim is falsifiable. Religious claims, hinging as they do on revelation, prophecy, and recieved wisdom, are invariably bad science. Religion amounts to a body of normative prescriptions about right and wrong, and there is no way to reformulate them to make them observably false. They are rules, and rules don't have truth-conditions.

Okay, I'll pick up where I left off next time, with how it isn't moral relativism that the Pope should be worrying about.

Also, I'll be musing on how "relativism" is one of those words that looks wrong no matter how often you go back and retype it.

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