RELATIVISM AND THE PROBLEM OF TRUTH CLAIMS

 

The prestige of the physical sciences has not only insured that the social sciences have tried to adopt their method. The result of this phenomenon was expressed in Positivism (scientific method alone yields True Truth). Historicism (all reality is socially constructed) is everything beyond the scope of the physical sciences merely superstitious, individual opinions. This raised the problems in the study of “primitive” society motivated by beliefs that seem thoroughly unscientific. Is belief in witches, oracles and magic medicines merely primitive beliefs? Often, cultures intermingle “superstition” and “advanced technology.” Is our cultural conception of rationality mere Eurocentricism? It is false, as a matter of sociological observation, that our culture rigorously upholds the austere standards of scientific rationality, at least as understood by the Empiricists. The ultimate issue at this juncture is the nature and consequences of Empiricism as the total scientific method! Only on empirical grounds can rationality remain the monopoly of science. The entire postmodern debate of the nature of the scientific enterprise (Kuhn, Popper, Polanyi, Feyerabend, et.al.) Is skeptical of empiricism as the epistemological foundation of science. This inadequate epistemology confuses description and explanation. The after math of Positivism can produce a paralyzing nihilism.

 

The new discipline called “Ethnomethodology” which studies everyday activities, when scientific pretensions are removed, all that seems to remain for the social scientist is to describe how participants in a society view their activities. This new methodology is a mere description, not explanation of everyday activities. The repudiation of “causal” accounts of how society gave their character and the consequent distrust of any notion of rationality standards allow little but the description of the varying viewpoints to be found and the recognition that the viewpoint of social science provides one such recognition. Ethnomethodologists uphold a policy of what they term ethnomethodological indifference, i.e., neutrality (see my essay, “The Myth of Neutrality” LCCS Library). This method examines only “formal structures” of everyday activity they restrict themselves to the task of describing members accounts (see esp. H. Garfinkel and H. Sachs, “Our Formal Structure of Practical Actions,” in J.C. McKinney and E.A. Tiryakin (editors) Theoretical Sociology, 1970; this procedure is like describing a person with cancer, which neither explains nor makes possible positive resolution of the condition).

 

This relativistic methodology criticizes social science on the ground that it distorts other realities because it views them only through the lenses of its “own system.” Here we engage the incoherence involved in talking of “many realities.” If there are many realities, we are “forced” to envisage one reality including them all. Just as crucial is the question what is the function of social science if it is prohibited from viewing other realities through the lenses of its own system.

 

The fundamental presupposition that “science” should not be arbitrarily imposed on alien systems of belief. The postmodern claim is that scientific reality is used as the standard against which all other realities are compared, i.e., native sorcery can be made to appear merely a bizarre example of aberrant drug use. The tension between “practices” being torn out of context and repudiating science can involve us in great difficulties. This attitude is represented in postmodern anti science (see my essay, “Critique of Postmodern Anti Science” in LCCS Library).

 

The cultural relativistic thesis is expressed by Mehan and Woods’ declaration that “every reality is equally real,” and they further claim that “no single reality contains more of the truth than any other.” (H. Mehan and H. Wood, The Reality of Ethnomethodology, 1975, p. 37. There is no “virtual reality”--only alternative expressions of reality. What?)

 

Note the perverse notion of Truth in addition to their curious idea of Reality. This procedure precludes any belief system of aspiration to superiority! This irrational position attacks all who treat the reality of everyday life as the “one” paramount reality. This new postmodern relativism proposes a new “View of Truth” while there cannot be “True Truth.” It is not that each system has its own window on the same truth. What counts as true is different in different systems, so no one can claim that the others are “mistaken.” This new system utilized Wittgenstein’s approval and equates “forms of life” with realities

 

This new sociological method is the Sociology of Knowledge Thesis dressed in the emperor’s new clothes. Social science merely becomes one system of belief among many, at the same level as the Ozande people’s predilection for oracles. Distortion of other people’s belief and behavior systems through the window of one’s own scientific lenses, it is rationally dangerous to argue that that is all that can happen. Mehan and Wood say: “There is no way to look from the window of one’s reality at others without seeing yourself.” (Mehan and Wood, op.cit., p. 31) Once this is accepted, an infinite regress seems inevitable. Ethnomethodologists must realize that any empirical findings they make are as much the outcome of their own “reality” as of the one they are investigating. Yet, they cannot investigate their own reality without already bringing their assumptions to bear on it. Mehan and Wood maintain that their” new method is not a method of pursuing the truth about the world.” (Ibid., p. 114) From their own window how do they know that there is a “world,” i.e. universe? Instead of being the paradigm of rationality, the methods of empirical science are reduced to the status of seemingly pointless ritual that also precludes a community of shared belief/behavior systems. (Ibid., p. 167) Nothing could demonstrate more strikingly the paralyzing effects of relativism in the social sciences. It is one thing to claim that the physical sciences have no monopoly on truth, but it is another to jettison the concept of truth, reality, and knowledge. It is one thing to resist a narrowly scientific paradigm [i.e. Positivism] for rationality, but it is another to widen the latter so that the most rigorous social scientists can be no more rational than the most superstitious tribesman. The ultimate consequence of such a position is to cast complete doubt on the value or purpose of social science, or indeed of all intellectual activity.

 

Rationality As A Social Practice

 

The social sciences aim at more than a simple understanding of other cultures. Anyone can adopt the outlook of another society if they go to live in it and attempt to forget their own (e.g. Husserl’s “Epoch”). Total absorption cannot be the aim. One will find out more about Voodoo in Haiti than by setting in Chicago and New York academia, or about Sadam Hussein in Iraq than by listening to the evening news.

 

The social scientist must be detached but he or she will not be detached from his or her own culture. The very notion of scientific detachment is itself a particular cultural assumption. Every opinion is the opinion of someone and the crucial question is whether “good reasons” can be produced for the belief (see my essay, “Theories of Evidence: What is Evidence Evidence of (History, Science)?” The point of argument is lost if you are told that an apparent reason can only be what “you” think is a good reason. Without the ability to discuss what are good reasons, what is true or what is real, all talk becomes the expression of non-rational attitudes or even tastes (see appendix of paper on “Theories of Evidence”). Some may be culturally conditioned, others may be an individual matter, but all hold in common the fact that argument will not and cannot touch them. The treatment of the ideal of rationality as a cultural construction i.e., is the mere exhibition of cultural conditioned products. They have been brought up to prefer that kind of intellectual game. Is the intellectual pursuit of truth just an expression of the workings of one culture among many, or can it set the standards to which all “should” aspire?

 

This question is of vital relevance to the study of “other cultures” but it does raise a very deep issue. Richard Rorty asks it in the context of a discussion about the purpose of philosophy itself. The repudiation of an empiricist epistemology with its “sure foundations” in experience (see my essay critiquing “Empiricism” as the premier scientific epistemology and also on “Narrative Displacement” in number theory since Goedel’s theorem) leaves open the possibility that there may not be one overall framework in which rational discourse can take place (e.g., enters concern from World View Foundations; see David Naugle, World View: The History of A Concept (Eerdmans, 2002); and David Dockery/Gregory A. Thornbury, Shaping A Christian World View, The Foundations of Christian Education (Nashville, TN, 2002). There could be many different kinds of discourse. Rorty uses the terms “epistemology” and “hermeneutics” to describe two different strategies (see my papers “Search For True Truth in Cyber Space” “Terrorism of Truth: Truth and Theory in Postmodern Epistemology;” “ New Hermeneutical Horizons in Logic, Epistemology and Language;” “Philosophical and Psychological Horizons of Postmodern Hermeneutics;” “The Rewriting of History: Revisionism;” “Radical Revisionism: Enemies of Science.”)

 

Rorty asks whether there can be common ground between various discourses or whether there cannot in fact be presupposed any disciplinary matrix which unites the speakers. Is there a common rationality? Rorty declares--

 

For hermeneutics, to be rational is to be willing to refrain from epistemology, from thinking that there is a special set of terms in which all contributions to the conversation should be put and so be willing to pick up the jargon of the interlocutor rather than translating it into one’s own. For epistemology, to be rational is to find the proper set of terms into which all the contribution should be translated if agreement is to become possible. For epistemology, conversation is implicit inquiry. For hermeneutics, inquiry is routine conversation.” (R. Rorty, Philosophy and The Mirror of Nature (1980, p 318)

 

Thus Rorty wishes to hold that conversation is the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood (ibid., p. 389). Truth is not an objective matter arrived at through the correspondence of our ideas with reality. It is a matter of negotiation and of mutual understanding and compromise, if indeed it is possible to continue talking of truth at all. Rorty sees alternative social practices of justification, each presumably having to concur with the other. Without any notion of “objective truth,” he still feels it important to keep conversation going” (Ibid., pp 379 and 389) Why should philosophy continue on a pointless and trivial task? Even allowing for the metaphorical nature of the phrase “the conservation of mankind, philosophy seems reduced to the level of the idle chatter of a cocktail party. What is the status of Rorty’s own philosophical arguments? If he is not attempting to provide rational arguments, it is difficult to see what he is writing (lecturing) for. If he is, he must himself be presupposing some framework of rationality. (See my essay, “What Is A Metaphor - A Metaphor of?”)

 

The influence of Kuhn and the later Wittgenstein on Rorty is explicit. Yet, whether we deal with the possibility of rationality at the most general level of all, that of philosophy and epistemology at the level of scientific practice or at the anthropological level, the issue remains the same. Is rationality a social practice historically conditioned, or is it possible to appeal to standards of rationality that transcends what may be accepted at a particular place and time? It is perhaps significant that questions about rationality are so often linked with questions about “objective truth.” The assumption of a reality independent of what we think itself provides a constraint on what it is reasonable to believe. Our standards of what it is reasonable to believe are adequate if reality is created or constructed by our belief, as an idealist might hold. If, on the other hand, what we believe in no way affects the nature of reality, as “common sense” might assume and the realists maintain, it is completely possible that our assumptions about what it is reasonable to believe lead us far astray. Our beliefs may be totally false.

 

Rorty arrived at his position through repudiating empiricist views of knowledge. Yet philosophy seems cut adrift without the security of a foundationalist epistemology. Much of the difficulty derives from the claim of empiricism relied heavily on the notion of experience of the world to the detriment of any emphasis on the world as such. Consequently, once the theoretical or even cultural influences on what seemed raw experience are exposed, it is difficult to recover any conception of the world or reality which does not itself seem to be merely a theoretical or cultural/social construct. Yet without such a conception (i.e., there is a “real universe”) the hopelessness leading some ethnologists to give up ethnomethodology can soon set in. What is needed is a concept of “objective reality” which is divorced from the presupposition of empiricism and which as a consequence is not tied too closely to the methods and findings of empirical science (see my chart on the Nature of Science and Eight Mathematical Equations; and “Narrative Displacement in Science: 1624 to 2003.”) The latter may be a source of knowledge, but it claims to be the only source that has undoubtedly let many to intemperate opposition to the idea of knowledge or of objective truth.

 

How far does this illuminate questions concerning alleged superstition and possible irrationalism in primitive societies? Rorty’s (et.al.) view will not invoke rational standards and criticize a society for not abiding by them. Their standards are different from ours and we must, it seems, endeavor to enter a conversation with them without any comforting of rational framework with which to assess their views. How does irrationalism face magic, witchcraft, cultural relativism. Wittgenstein would have accepted that it was, and he was particularly critical of the anthropological work of Sir James Frazer: “Frazer’s account of the magical and religious notions of men is unsatisfactory: it makes those notions appear as mistakes.” (L. Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough, 1979, p. 1)

 

This type of move is, in fact, extremely popular with modern social anthropologists. It is grounded in a desire not to treat magical and religious practices as if they are just bad science, but Frazer seemed to be doing just that. Wittgenstine takes exception to his view that ceremonies to make the wind blow or the rain to fall will persist because such occurrences will normally take place at some time. But the cause or reasons for each happening has nothing to do with “ceremonies.” (James Frazer, The Golden Bough (1922, p. 59). We are told by J. Beattie in Other Cultures (1964, p. 209), that “magic is a symbolic activity, not a scientific one.” In order to save tribesmen from the accusation of being irrational, their activities are interpreted not as ways of making things happen, but as ways of showing how they feel about events.

Even the taking of the limitation of the Positivistic Paradigm requires rational foundation for adjudication! The limitation of the scientific enterprise requires rational judgment which, at least, affirms that Scientific Theories are not autonomous. Along with Goedel’s refutation of the autonomy of mathematics, we can now rationally assert that neither mathematics nor the scientific enterprise are autonomous, i.e. self grounding, but only metanarrative can escape irrational syllogisim. (World View is required to resolve this dilemma.) Non-scientific decisions may provide “good” or “bad” reasons for believing X or Y but good and bad reasons for belief need not be restricted to science. It may be irrational to go against the findings of science, but it does not seem rational to be restricted by its limitations. Under no circumstance can we merely continue allegiance to a narrow position, which also requires transcendent reason to make such a statement. The death of Positivism does not require postmodern cultural/epistemological relativism, where all beliefs are equal in the universe of discourse. The extreme Positivism of the Vienna Circle defined certain positions as rational and others as snot. The Vienna Circle was simply a determination to assert science as the source of rationality. It made scientific rationality synonymous with rationality.

 

The eagerness of many social anthropologists to emphasize the expressive character of many rituals and to stress the role of symbols in thought reflects both the influence of Positivism and dissatisfaction about its consequences. The same tendency is present in the way that some philosophers of religion try to interpret religion in Western societies. The first assumption made is that truth is the province of science and that religious beliefs cannot claim “literal truths”-- whether they are about spirits in the trees or the Trinity.

 

Some people hesitate to dismiss so completely the basic beliefs of so many. Saying that they are false, if not nonsensical, implies that those believing them are irrational. The next stage is to attempt to rescue the beliefs by showing that they have a definite function in the societies concerned and that the believers are in fact, doing something perfectly sensible. Since the question of Truth and Falsity have already been handed over to science, explanations have to be given which show that beliefs in trees have nothing to do with beliefs about what is true.

 

The same type of analysis can be, and is, given to religious beliefs in Western societies. The tacit assumption is often made that science cannot explain miracles or have any dealing with the transcendent or the supernatural. Therefore it appears that talk about God and divine intervention in the world cannot be literally true or false, and that if religious believers are not irrational they must be understood as doing something other than believing facts about the world. R.B. Braithwaite is a prime example of this type of response to empiricism. He said, “The primary use of religious assertion is to announce allegiance to a set of moral principles.” (Braithwaite, “An Empiricist’s View of The Nature of Religious Belief,” in I.T. Ramsey (editor) Christian Ethics and Contemporary Philosophy (1966, p. 63) Religion is thus reduced to a determination to live a particular kind of life. Its claims to truth are merely pictures, used as psychological aids. Recently a postmodern radical theologian, Don Cupitt, has responded to what he sees as the challenge of science: “Our highly refined and elegant scientific world picture carries the clear implication that our moralities, art and religions are purely human constructions that are in no way endorsed by the universe at large.” (Don Cupitt, The World to Come (1982, p. vii).

 

He even rejects science (eg. Anti Science) as arbiter of truth and to treat it as “one human cultural activity among others.” Reactions against positivistic science also impales “religion cannot claim objective truth. If Positivism is true, religion is strictly meaningless, since only science provides knowledge. The concept of objective truth has itself been banished. Religion can no longer be descriptive but expressive, action-guiding and symbolic.” (Cupitt, The World to Come, p. xiv)

 

Science (critical thinking) has demythologized or demystified all the things the people have traditionally lived by. This we can no longer think of God as a transcendent reality, let alone the ultimate explanation for everything. He proposes the view “that we have to make do with the use of the word “God” as an incorporating or unifying symbol. . . the whole of what we are up against in the spiritual life.” (Cupitt, Taking Leave of God, 1980, p. 97; see my bibliography on “The Death of God” in the archives of Lincoln Christian College Library).

 

Religion no longer is grounded in “True Truth,” but only fulfills a psychological function (see my essay, “Functionalism As Hermeneutic”). The religious belief must have some other function than a “Truth Function.” Note the implication of this position for evaluating “primitive religions as irrational superstitions or our postmodern cafeteria of religious beliefs! The question of rationality challenges the social scientist on at least two levels: There is the problem of how rational are the people being studied, but there is also the question of the social scientist’s own rationality. Once it is accepted that science merely forms one set of practices alongside others, social scientists are left without any standard for judging a society when scientific pretensions are removed, all that seems to be left for a social scientist is to describe how participants in a society view their activities. Mere description is not the nature of the scientific enterprise. Ethnomethodologists uphold a policy of what they term ethnomethodological indifference, i.e., they restrict themselves to study what they term “form structures” of everyday activities. They restrict themselves to the task of describing members accounts (H. Garfinkel and H. Sachs, “On Formal Structure of Practical Actions,” in J.C. McKinney and E.A. Teryakin, editors, Theoretical Sociology, 1970).

 

Belief and Rationality

 

Rationality is a relative concept. What it is rational to believe depends on what you already know (e.g., neutrality is impossible; everyone comes with a world view). Scientists can easily dismiss primitive belief in the power of magic as irrational because they possess greater knowledge about the world. In this crucial area of controversy, we must be aware of the limits of science; accepting the conflict as real need not make us lose our bearings about what it is rational to believe. The symbolistic approach makes it impossible to expose false belief and ignorance, since all beliefs are made to express sensible attitudes. John Beatties’ relativistic approach argues that magic is the acting out of a situation, the expression of a desire in symbolic terms; it is not the application of empirically acquired knowledge about the properties of natural substances (Beattie, Other Cultures, p. 207).

 

Charles Taylor points out that modern science has been able to develop because we have disciplined ourselves to “register the way things are with regard to the meanings they might have for us. A chasm has appeared between the detached view of reality exemplified by science and the richly meaningful world as delineated by symbols. . . . But exactly for this reason, it is probably going to be unhelpful in understanding people who are very different from us.” (Charles Taylor, “Rationality in H. Hollis and S. Lukes, eds., Rationality and Relativism, 1982, p. 97; see my essays, “the Search For Meaning in Our Postmodern Culture” and “The Search For A Criterion of Meaning.” In order for rational discussion to be possible we will need common semantic loads on terms such as Truth, Rationality, Meaning and Symbol, etc. Historically Western thought developed from Epistemology (Truth) Scientific Method to Hermeneutics (Relevance, i.e., what does it mean to me?).

 

Thus the very idea of a symbol as opposed to what is objectivity or scientifically, true itself arises from a scientifically based society. Unless we are conceptual relativists, restricting the application of concepts to the societies in which they originated, this is beside the point. Other cultures may not recognize the symbolic nature of their beliefs. This is a fundamental problem in interpreting other cultures.

 

The objections against superstitious beliefs and practices is based in the scientific world view, which is the concern for predictive success. Science in principle can predict new outcomes--only if the predictive explanation is grounded in knowledge. Without knowledge, science has no predictive capacity. (e.g., God’s sovereign knowledge and human freedom. Knowledge per se does not “cause” outcomes, either in science or God predictive prophecy, but there could be no predictive prophecy nor scientific prediction without true knowledge in its causal-connection).

 

Ultimately, the issue should be the Truth of beliefs rather than its Rationality (e.g., Idealism is internally consistent, i.e., rational but not true. Animism is internally rational but not true. This criticism applies to all religions, including Judaeo Christianity; the only difference is the evidential historical foundations of the Biblical claims. The evidence alone enables us to move from mere rationality to True Truth; see appendix on Theories of Evidence; and James Sire’s book, Why Believe Anything?

 

Description and Explanation of Symbol and Ritual

 

D.Z. Phillips gives a Wittgensteinian account of what is ritual when he declares:

Where rituals express a wish, to know in what sense the ritual acts out the wish, we should have to take account of the role played by the ritual in the details of the lives of the people who celebrate it.” (D.Z. Phillips, “Primitive Reactions and The Reaction of Primitives,” Marett Lecture, Oxford, 1983, p. 18)

 

Phillips, however, refers to an example also used by Winch of mountain dwellers, who before specifically religious expressions develop in their language, contemplate the mountains, prostrate themselves before them, celebrate rites in relation to them, in such ways that we call them primitive religious responses. . . .Later they speak of gods in the mountains. Ritual and stories develop which can be said to be about these gods. Must we then say that talk of the gods expresses the existential presuppositions of the primitive reactions? The fact that this belief was expressed in religious practices before it was properly articulated does not mean that, when it is articulated, it should be rejected. Phillips would doubtless claim that what is meant by-- there are gods in the mountains--can only be understood by locating the ritual in the life of the people. The ritual could not live on without the belief in gods, i.e., existential commitment. When the existential belief is removed from the ritual, the ritual soon dies. The same issues obtains in Lord’s Day worship; once the sophisticated philosopher of religion accounts for it as a purely Freudian expression our symbolic activity with no presupposition that God is being worshiped, it becomes much more difficult to participate on the same term as before. The “Seeker-Friendly” success gospel, etc., entertainment mode is a case in point. What you win them with is what you win them to!”

 

The social role of belief should not be confused with the reason why a belief is embraced (I Corinthians 2.15) Its content is distinct from its consequences. In this dynamic of “worship” there can be a subtle slide from what is believed to the fact that certain belief is held. Why should primitive beliefs and practices persist even though there were “poor” ways of manipulating the real world. Without continuing powerless ritual, a social structure would/might fall apart.

 

The next section will examine some of the implications and consequences of the Freeman/Mead controversy.

 

Dr. James Strauss, Professor Emeritus

Lincoln Christian Seminary, Lincoln, IL 62656