Jeff's Internet Guide to Relativity, Truth & All That BS

The internet has given people the ability to acquire huge volumes of data. A single afternoon of searching can put you in contact with more information than could have happened in a month at a usual all print library. This in turn means there is a lot more noise that is to say, junk, that you will meet. This blurb talks a bit about truth and tries to stick on the net (um, so I can find it when I need it) the most salient things to think about regarding truth and related topics.

On the definition of Truth

So we should start with that most famous of all exchanges on truth:

Pontius Pilate:What is truth?

Jesus: (silence)

That sums up nicely that there is no functional definition of truth. (Agnostics and atheists already think this, religious types should see now that it is the case as well.) All attempts to give truth a rigorous definition, say like continuity have failed. It will remain a primitive notion much like line and point, meaning we know it when we see it. Already this is maddening to the extreme. Don't worry, it will get worse...

The earliest attempts at defining truth (the so-called correspondence system) ran as follows: A statement is true if it has a corresponding fact in the real world. That sounds good, but eventually questions about the definition of fact and real world get us mired down. The important point of this, though for people is that truth requires reference to the outside world and other people. Attempts to define truth as beliefs that depend only on other beliefs end up sounding like we are listening to voices in our heads. Keep this in mind that truth requires some reference external to oneself. A lot of the arguments that philosophical types get into miss that fact. So just to be clear, objective truth here is used in the sense of correspondence as opposed to subjective truth which concerns statements solely from an individual. For instance, "I like the color blue" is not open to objective or even rational inquiry since there is no way short of hooking up people's central nervous systems to test this.


The big thing these days is to assume that all truth is relative. By this it is meant that truth depends solely on the perspective of the person and his or her background. Then truth is merely narration, arguments are simply to manipulate people to sharing your narration. All viewpoints are equally valid and equally true. This is comforting in a nihilistic sort of way (Nietzsche was a great fan of this) but not logically defensible and the origins of most of the rubbish you will have to sort through about getting to the truth. The main idea itself was first articulated by the Sophist Protagoras who lived roughly at the same time as Socrates. The Sophists were chiefly academics who hired themselves out as teachers so that others could learn to persuade through logical befuddlement and linguistic misleading. They were great favorites in court (legal and royal). Protagoras himself is credited with the statement that "man is the measure of all things" meaning that truth was dependent on the speaker rather than on some external objective truth. Let's delve into why this just doesn't work.

First of all, if I claim that "all things are relative" then this begs the question "relative to what"? This must correlate to something and can't have meaning otherwise. It's like saying, as D. H. Fischer pointed out, "all things are short". Without a concept of  tall there is not concept of short. Hence no knowledge can be subjective unless  some of it is objective.  Secondly, a subjective approach admits that every viewpoint is true -- including all the views that Relativism itself is false, so the doctrine is self-refuting (that in a nutshell is Socrates' response to Protagoras.) This is the self-contained reason while Relativism does not work. All nice, tidy and theoretical but that won't stop die hards from using it and it is its use in practice that will give you grief.

Uses of Relativism or I'm ok, you're not

A list of uses, good and bad.
  1. Avoiding confrontation. This is a most common approach. You disagree with the person, but don't want to make a scene, so you "agree to disagree."
  2. Never having to admit oneself, in fact, wrong. Usually people use this  as a way of side-stepping being factually wrong. It also has the added plus that if you take them to task, they will cry foul and start dissecting why you can't be like them, which completely shifts the discussion from the correctness of what they claim.
  3. Never having to admit thew other party is right.
  4. As a prelude to an ad hominem attack, willfully confusing the origin of something with its veracity.

"Avoiding confrontation" is usually a benign use and the most widespread. It is also -- from the perspective of truthfulness -- the most insidious in that it conditions us to accept this type of relativism as the right way to do things. It is for this reason we will never be rid of it. Don't get me wrong, being civil is extremely important and if you are having tea with your great aunt you'd better be prepared to use it, but this can be used against you in other contexts. For instance, many outspoken bigots know that in the interest of civility they can spout pretty much whatever they want to without fear of being opposed. Then it becomes an instrument of manipulation because over time it is less and less likely anyone will speak up, giving them a free hand. This is also a favorite of bullies too because they understand that if they get themselves livid at any opposition, people usually have far less of a stake in the argument than they do and will back down. This is how many movements are taken over by extremists and the moderates are silenced. Ad hominem attacks are common but as with all things there is a time and place for this. For instance, the fanatic who sees everything on Earth relating to his belief that walnuts are extraterrestrials. His insistence that peanut butter is the outcome of some dire epic battle really can be discounted because he said it.

A specific type of relativism that occurs in academic circles should be mentioned. Roughly the thinking runs as follows: Since truth does not exist, the whole truth exists even less, if that is possible. That is to say, since all narrations are partial, as the thinking goes, all truth is partial too in that it must be somewhat false. This is really seen a lot these days (in academics we stress and in particular the humanities) where "balanced" is equated with self-contradictory and, sadly, "profundity" is confounded with simple incomprehensibility.

Propaganda (defined as the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views & interests of those advocating said cause) requires  relativism and movements as diverse as the Nazi, Soviets and the current crop of Islamic militants embrace it. Part of this is that they reserve ultimate truth for themselves, but apply relativism to all others as a way of being as unsympathetic as possible. Stalin rejected "bourgeois objectivism" with famous antagonism, reserving an the immutable truth of the Party. Islamic fundamentalists have a revealed Truth, but are quick to ride everyone else into the ground for being anti-Islam -- they start with the assumption that any statement by the other side is anti-Islam and then invoke relativism to discredit it. No amount of rational discourse will dislodge this thinking and all efforts at appeasement can be dismissed as admissions of guilt.

No Shit -- Bull

Bull as best anyone can come up with comes from the Latin bulla (= seal which showed authenticity) which is the name given to an official papal document from the Catholic Church. A much later addition was the standard American suffix "shit".  Harry G. Frankfurter wrote a wonderful little book called On Bullshit which you should read in toto. He makes a very profound observation, which is to say exceedingly simple and we all wish we'd thought of it first, to wit, that since relativism rejects truth, this leaves little else for people to do except discuss their feelings about whatever the topic is. Key is that someone who is BSing you has no interest in the truth, so you cannot hope to convince them of anything. This is quite distinct from lying, in that a liar knows the truth and tried to guide you away from it. When someone is talking about something they do not understand, it is BS, not lying. What are the most common uses of BS?

  1. As stated above, shooting the bull is just how a lot of people talk.
  2. Someone with strong contempt for someone will try BSing them.
  3. Since it feels good to do it ("empowering" in the current popular lingo), this is done to inflate one's perceived importance.
Again, I see BS as a bit of a social necessity - making polite chit-chat nobody will hold you too. Those that are good at it are deemed smarter and more likable than others, so we will never be rid of this.

People talk all the time about things they know nothing about. This is prevalent in popular thinking and as an example, it has even become ensconced that government ought to be run that way by the man on the street, with every dowdy housewife having her say during the evening news on Bulgarian bauxite import quotas. Once truth is relativized, "correctness is abandoned in favor of sincerity," as Frankfurter puts it. [For what it is worth, the Founding Fathers had nothing but contempt for direct democracy, equating it with mob rule and instead felt that public oversight of capable administrators was the best government.] In internet forums BS is the standard form of communication. Hopping into the middle of a discussion with something like a well thought-out opinion grounded in facts is apt to get you some truly livid responses. Trust me on this one. It is the social aspect of the interactions that is important, not the content. Keep that in mind when dealing with people who use BS a lot.

A special note is about academic BS.  G. A. Cohen made a good observation that academics have their own special version of it. Whereas layman, amateurs that they are, take to BS to suspend truth, academics go one further to suspend meaning. Academic gibberish, as we call it, has the charming property that if you negate it, the meaning does not change, proving that it has no meaning.  A great and often cited example is from none other than Martin Heidegger himself. Between two editions of his book “What Is Metaphysics?”  we find the following. "Being can indeed be without beings” (1943 edition) and  “Being never is without beings” (1949 edition).  Need we say more?

Pursuing the Truth

So now we've talked a bit about truth and we want to know the following: how likely is it that some source is valid? In the Good Old Days people could find this out easily by going to the local library and using one of the standard references, such as Webster's dictionary. (Oh, I know that this begs the question of how everyone knew to get one in the first place, but the point is that back then there were far fewer sources to contend with.) Today the analog would be to do some web search, but just because there are many references ("hits" in web slang) to a given source does not mean anything other than a lot of people refer to it. It is easy for machines to generate these links or have badly skewed results. What to do?

Widespread agreement that the source is valid in whatever community are certainly a prerequisite. The Alfred Wegeners of this world are few and far between and even if you find one, the standard wisdom is always going to have to be known. Richard Rorty first articulated what I think the crux of the matter is in the so-called astronomers vs. astrologers split. The idea is that valid sources tend to make very clear what their methods of acquiring information are and are open to discussing them. So astronomers will bore you to sleep with minute discussions of how optics are used in telescopes or how their last paper was refereed. Astrologers just sort of pick it all up from the Ether or have a "feeling" that something must be true. Different astrologers will have different interpretation of the same information, whereas astronomers tend not to and if they do can articulate how their tools imply their results.

What's more again there is a social aspect. Received knowledge is never open to interpretation unless you are divine. Objective truth, as stated earlier, requires not merely external things but some sort of agreement on them. A community that invites serious questions and handles them in a communal way is more likely to give valid information and objective facts than, say, a cargo cult.

Of course the best examples of this are good Science, since Science itself is a methodology for investigation, but folks love to confuse the results of Science with the method, especially when they don't like the result. Bad Science is getting more prevalent especially at universities where attempts to introduce the methods to the Humanities are found (statistical dissections of Shakespeare's writings are amusing, but not terribly illuminating). Part of Science is that there must be testable hypotheses that can be explicitly negated and many fields just don't have this. For instance, claims that Stalin became a dictator because of his potty training have no business being dignified with the term Science since there is no way to prove or refute them. My gut feeling with such undertakings is that they are driven often by an anti-intellectual bent on the part of the researchers, a drive to publish or perish for tenure and just being assholes (did I say that outloud?) That will be another rant for another day though.