Friday, July 09, 2004

Refuting the Alethic Relativist, Part One

The alethic relativist holds that truth (Gr. aletheia) is relative. Some call this cognitive relativism. I prefer to avoid this appellation because it tends to conflate truth and knowledge, which are obviously distinct. (If S knows that p, then p is true; but a proposition can be true without being known by any (finite) mind.) To be relative, of course, is to be relative to something. Among candidate relata are individuals, social groups, cultures, conceptual frameworks, historical epochs, species of critter, and others besides. Thus there are different types of alethic relativism depending on the parameter to which truth is said to be relative. This
being understood, there will be no harm in speaking simply of truth as relative.

‘Truth is relative’ is elliptical for ‘Truths are relative.’ This is because we encounter truth only in the form of particular truths. A truth is a true truth-bearer. A truth-bearer is any entity that can be characterized correctly as either true or false. Not everything could be a truth-bearer: a belief, but not a banana, could be reasonably said to be true or false. My belief that a particular banana is ripe is either true or false; but the banana itself is neither true nor false. Of course, one could speak of a ‘true’ (genuine, real) banana as opposed to a ‘false’ (fake, artificial) banana; but these uses of ‘true’ and ‘false’ are not relevant to this discussion.

There is an issue in the philosophy of language concerning which entities play the role of primary truth-bearer: sentences in the indicative mood? Sentences in the indicative mood from which all indexical elements (demonstratives, tenses of verbs, etc.) have been removed? Beliefs? Abstract objects such as Fregean propositions? Utterance-events? We may set aside this technical question for present purposes. All we need is the notion that a truth is a true truth-bearer, whatever truth-bearers turn out to be. Now consider

R. All truths are relative.

(R) is the characteristic thesis of the alethic relativist. The relativist asserts it because he thinks it is true. Think of a multiculturalist who asserts that all truths are culture-relative. One gets the impression that (R) is often asserted as absolutely or non-relatively true, as simply representing the way things are independently of our beliefs and desires, as a sort of insight with a serious claim on our attention, and thus as amounting to the robust

AR. It is true that all truths are relative

and not as amounting to something anemic like

RR. It is relatively true that all truths are relative.

Relativists behave as if relativism is something that needs to be noted, and faced up to, something the recognition of which will make us more ‘enlightened,’ less ‘dogmatic,’ something whose truth will set us free from ‘prejudice,’ and so on; they don’t usually intend something limp-wristed like: it is merely true in my personal opinion that (R).

But (AR) -- absolute relativism -- is obviously self-contradictory. For if (R) is true, then, given that (R) applies to itself, it follows that (R) is relatively true, which contradicts (AR). Of course, one might maintain that (R) does not apply to itself, that (R) does not fall with the scope of the universal quantifier, ‘all.’ (R) would then be a meta-level assertion about a base level of ‘ordinary’ truths. I plan to discuss this option in a separate post. For now, however, the crucial point that the reader must focus on is that (AR) is self-refuting if taken to apply to itself – which is of course the most natural way to take it.

A logically consistent relativist must therefore retreat to (RR), relativized relativism. This is a forced retreat if the relativist is to avoid self-contradiction. But then his position becomes curiously self-vitiating. One problem is to specify what relative truth could possibly be.

Consider the property of being-believed, whether by an individual or a group of individuals, or the individuals of a particular historical epoch, or social class, etc. This is a relational property: necessarily, to be believed is to be believed by someone. Thus the following ‘theory’ is wholly unproblematic:

B. All believed-propositions are relative.

Note that

B*. It is believed that all believed-propositions are relative

is also unproblematic, unlike (AR).

So if all the alethic relativist means by the relative truth of a truth-bearer is the truth-bearer’s being believed, or accepted, or affirmed, or endorsed, or held, or sincerely asserted, then the alethic relativist is saying something unproblematic. But he is also saying something completely trivial, completely uninformative. In other words, he is not saying anything at all about the nature of truth when he says that truth is relative, but simply replacing truth with something quite distinct, namely, the property of being-believed, a property all will agree is relational. He is simply changing the subject. The topic was truth, and what the alethic relativist seemed to be wanting to say was something about its nature, namely, that it is by its very nature relative. But if relative-truth is just the property of being-believed, accepted, etc., then nothing has been said
about truth at all.

To sum up. The aletheic relativist either asserts his thesis (R) as absolutely true or as relatively true. If the former, his thesis is self-refuting. If the latter, then his thesis avoids self-contradiction only to face a dilemma: either relative-truth is the same as the the property of being-believed, or it is not. If the former, then the relativity of truth boils down to an uninteresting triviality. If the latter, then it remains wholly unclear what could be meant by the property of relative-truth, and the thesis (R) perishes of semantic indeterminacy.