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:
Pilate:What is truth?
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
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
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.
- Avoiding confrontation. This is a most common approach. You
disagree with the person, but don't want to make a scene, so you "agree
- 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
dissecting why you can't be like them, which completely shifts the
from the correctness of what they claim.
- Never having to admit thew other party is right.
- 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
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
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
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
discourse will dislodge this thinking and all efforts at appeasement
be dismissed as admissions of guilt.
No Shit -- 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
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?
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.
- As stated above, shooting the bull is just how a lot of people
- Someone with strong contempt for someone will try BSing them.
- Since it feels good to do it ("empowering" in the current popular
lingo), this is done to inflate one's perceived importance.
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
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
Pursuing the Truth
So now we've talked a bit about truth and we want to know the
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
this begs the question of how everyone knew to get one in the first
but the point is that back then there were far fewer sources to contend
Today the analog would be to do some web search, but just because there
references ("hits" in web slang) to a given source does not mean
other than a lot of people refer to it. It is easy for machines to
links or have badly skewed results. What to do?
Widespread agreement that the source is valid in whatever community
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
have to be known. Richard Rorty first articulated what I think the crux
the matter is in the so-called astronomers vs. astrologers split. The
is that valid sources tend to make very clear what their methods of
information are and are open to discussing them. So astronomers will
you to sleep with minute discussions of how optics are used in
how their last paper was refereed. Astrologers just sort of pick it all
from the Ether or have a "feeling" that something must be true.
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
serious questions and handles them in a communal way is more likely to
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
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
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
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
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.