Sunday, April 12, 2009

Relativism and Science

I don't want this to be a long post, but Rose sent me this, which people should watch. Then I'll add some comments.

OK, I hope you enjoyed that.

So the question I want to address is, "How can you be a relativist?" Because, as the video says, there is knowledge. You don't walk out the second floor window, and we can extend our lifespans with medicine, and all that. It's not all a big mystery, and it's not all "anything goes."

Quite right. There is knowledge, and it's not all "anything goes." But it does not follow that relativism is false.

Listen to the video carefully. As it says, science is the willingness to change our views based on the evidence. If you can show us how homeopathy works, and how it works, says the author, I'll go running down the street shouting "It's a miracle."

To the scientists, to the empiricist, to the reasonable person, beliefs are based, through reason, on the evidence. It is precisely the mark of the unreasonable, of the unscientific, that they will not change their beliefs even in the face of evidence, that their 'knowledge' is constant, unchanging.

One should ask, rather, how can someone be an empiricist, how can someone base their beliefs and knowledge on the evidence, and not be a relativist? If one's own belefs and knowledge might change from time to time, why is it not reasonable to suppose that others' might as well?

Indeed, it is pretty evident that each of us has his or her own distinct set of experiences. A very different body of evidence on which to base their knowledge and beliefs. It would be a miracle were it to turn out that everyone's knowledge and beliefs were the same!

Yes, it may be argued that there is an element of commonality to people's knowledge, that the world is the same world for everyone, and that we go to great effort, through scientific method and repeatable, testable, experimentation, to ensure that people have the same experiences, and thus, the same knowledge and beliefs.

That's quite so, and for some big gross things - like the influence of gravity - it appears that we may be able to achieve some constancy, by carefully regulating our experiences to achieve precisely this result. But as the world is constantly changing, and as each of us is limited to our own direct limited point of view, our capacity to achieve constancy is limited, and always subject to question from the periphery, from personal experience.

Because people have different points of view, because people have different experiences, they come to mean slightly different things by their words, to develop slightly different principles of reason, to develop slightly different pictures of reality. Multiply this over a lifetime, and over seven billion people, and you have the recipe for relativism.

Our differences in knowledge and belief - our legitimate differences in knowledge and belief - lie precisely at those fault lines where our personal experiences differ. A person borne in injustice will come to have a different view of fairness than one born in a society of equality and right. A child raised in starvation will have a different view of food than one raised in plenty. Our beliefs - even our scientific beliefs - are ineliminably subject to our personal experiences. And that's a good thing, because in this is our capacity, as individuals, and as a society, to learn.

This view should not be confused with the view that it's all a big mystery and that "anything goes."

First of all, from the fact that your knowledge differs from another's, it does not follow that you cannot criticize, or have no grounds for criticizing, another's knowledge. One appeals to one's own experiences, one's own reason, and invites the other to consider similar experiences, to follow a similar reasoning, to explore and to experiment. Because we all have different experiences, our individual experience becomes a basis on which to criticize others' points of view.

And second, this does not grant any sort of license to someone who asserts some proposition on the basis of no experience, no reasoning, whatsoever. Such a person has produced exactly the opposite of knowledge, some set of statements that will not be revised, not even in the face of contradictory experience.

The fact that we each have different experiences, and hence, different knowledge, does not free us from the constraint of basing our knowledge on experience and reasoning, whatever they may be for each of us. That each of us has a slightly different basis for knowledge or belief does not legitimize the employment fo no basis for knowledge or belief.

Relativism is the open-eyed recognition that knowledge and truth are empirically bound, and hence contingent and subject to change, not the uncritical acceptance of any proposition, no matter how poorly formed and supported.

Finally: one may ask, isn't this basis in 'experience' and 'reason' itself a common, non-relative article of knowledge? Yes, one could say such a thing - but swuch a sentence remains true only if it is not examined in any sort of detail. As we push the parameters, as we come to ask for a definition of 'knowledge', 'experience' and 'reason' we find that these concepts, and the logic that relates them, vary from person to person.

The proposition "knowledge is based in experience" itself varies slightly from person to person, and its experession in a language represents an abstraction of the actual belief, as instantiated in different people, but not the belief itself. Each person wears his or her experience differently, and part of the challenge (and the fascination) of life and interaction is to understand this.


  1. Great stuff. Thanks for sharing Stephen. That was the cake, and here's some icing.

  2. s the second time I have seen this and it is entertaining no matter the number. As a science teacher, I wonder how to get my students to "cross boundaries" of understanding science concepts. How they have built their knowledge (faith, misguiding of family) up to this point affects their ability to understand and make connections.

  3. Well, sure, people experience things differently, perhaps as a result of their different 'perspectives', as you have suggested here. Or maybe through differences in their sensory abilities. And knowledge arises from experience.

    A couple of questions though. What constitutes 'evidence'?

    And in your last paragraph, what then would represent 'beliefs' and therefore 'truth', if not the articulation of it in language?

  4. Ken, you are asking for specific answers to questions I have just said will not have a specific (or unique) answer.

  5. I confess that I am confused. Are you saying that truth is relative to the individual, and therefore non-unique? Would truth not then be unique to the individual?

  6. Ken, I'm saying that knowledge and truth are based on experiences, and that different people have different experiences. Therefore, what count as instances of knowledge and truth vary from person to person.

    Additionally, a person's own experiences change over time. Therefore, what count as instances of knowledge and truth for an individual change over time.

    There is nothing mysterious about this; we see it every day. One person knows what the weather is like outside, another person doesn't. Or, yesterday you didn't know what the meaning of a word is, but today 9after reading something) you do know.

    I am not in this short article defining knowledge and truth, I am simply arguing that, since they are empirically based, they are relative to the experience on which they are based.

  7. As a child, when we see magic tricks we view them in a whole different lens than that as an adult (well, actually that would be true of most adults, though not all I am sure.) My grandmother is an example. She is 97. A decade ago, we tried to explain to her how the baby bottle with my daughter's doll worked. You see, as you turn the bottle full of "milk" upside down, the milk disappears. It was difficult for her to fathom that the milk bottle was not full of milk, but a double walled container with a small portion of milk filling the thin space between the walls and making it appear as if the bottle were full. When inverted, the small amount of fluid could fit in the tip. Her experiences were limited especially in terms of any science as well as the opportunity to perhaps tear things apart to see how they work. What lens we work through (and our ability to challenge it) defines what we see.

    I think scientists are unique individuals as they have the ability to not let their beliefs or past experiences cloud what they now see and stay open to new connections or understandings.

  8. Hello Stephen

    In re-reading your short article it now appears that you equate 'evidence' to '...his or her own distinct set of experiences'. Which appears to answer the question I posed above.

    I wonder about the limitations you place on our ability to achieve constancy, as in the example of gravity. Could it be that relativism approaches constancy in its limit? i.e. while our evidence or body of experience may change, thereby impacting our knowledge and beliefs accordingly, our networked context permits the use of others' evidence (body of experience) to impact our individual (and collective) knowledge and beliefs. In the end then, our relative perspectives tend to a collective one. Agree?

  9. Kia ora Stephen

    Arthur C Clarke posited that we (that is any human civilisation) would have no common base to converse with aliens if and when they arrive. He estimated that the commonality (that you refer to between people) between humans and aliens would be so thin that it would take the most interpretive intellectual thinkers of both intelligences to work out enough commonality so that a start could be made on conversing. Forget, "Take me to your leader".

    I believe Clarke was right. What commonality of knowledge, experience and basis for reason would there be?

    So I have no problem with what you say about relativism.

    Vive le difference! -

    Catchya later

  10. Thanks, Steven. This post actually inspired me to get off my duff and start my own blog, just personal observations and thoughts...adding my personal knowledge/experience/reason/perspective on the world. I imagine we'll agree in spirit more often than in substance, or perhaps nuance, but thanks for inspiring me to begin at least...

  11. Hello Stephen-

    Isn't this really just a positivist vs constructivist sort of debate? The positivist acknowledges that her understanding is not yet complete or perfect and therefore may change based on new evidence. However, she still believes that an absolute "reality" exists and can eventually be comprehended in full.

    The constructivist on the other hand (at least in some lines of thought) views reality itself as the construction of his comprehension and thus changeable over time.

    In some ways the difference between the two seems almost semantic to me, but maybe that's just my "reality." ;-)

  12. Thanks Stephen,

    My personal experiences have lead me to change many of my previously held beliefs and 'certainties'. I no longer look to neuroscience for all my answers about life and what it is to be human. I have found some of my answers and more questions in theoretical physics.

    Quantum physics gives me hope, which neuroscience couldn't after I was forced to turn my 18 year old daughter's life support off.

    Quantum physics, ancient philosophy and even some of the ideas of Deepak Chopra have been good sources of 'knowledge' for me. They all use a different language but have many overlapping ideas.

    And what is evidence? Is anecdotal evidence acceptable? Or does all evidence have to come from a science lab or be measured and observed by numerous scientists.

    I never regarded myself as a 'relativist' but after reading Stephen's comment, I think I might be one. I have knowledge based on my life experiences. I have sat and watched three of my loved ones die and witnessed or experienced things that don't fit with 'scientific knowledge' or 'common sense'.

    I have learnt from my experiences and reading of quantum physics to be open to all possibilities and not to be so certain of my 'certainties'.

  13. To Blogger in Middle Earth: No need to consider Clarke and Aliens, consider colonialism in the 16th-19th century, NZ for example. Consider cultural differences around the world today.

    While commonality of experience doesn't exist in these examples, many common truths still struggle to form. But form they will.. over time and shared experience.

    It seems to me to be only a matter of time before science understands mysticism in scientific terms, and then we will have a common experience for the two poles, and so evidence will be recognisable and common truth will form.

    Sometimes common truths/evidence can take longer to form than we permit time for, and so we agree to disagree and commence killing each other because our common truth is "we don't have time to negotiate" and we recognise that so long as one exists, the other must negotiate.

    I thought this video was a type of killing, of a similar kind of violence, intended to remove the other so that negotiation is no longer required. Interesting that the last line referenced time.

  14. Kia ora Leigh!

    Perhaps in time sharing will not be the exclusive province of mysticism. There's a lot that Science can bring to mysticism.

    It's been my understanding that the two are nebulously intertwined. After all, wasn't astronomy and alchemy the beginnings of Science?

    Isaac Newton has been ridiculed for taking an interest in alchemy. Frankly I think his critics couldn't understand his interest. It took the passage of time to bring the Sagans and the Hawkings into the arena before the scientists and the mystics began talking the same language.

    Catchya later
    from Middle-earth

  15. Your blog popped up on googling even after a couple of years, which just shows how rare your blog is, and how simple, obvious truths are the most difficult to understand. Relativity is absolutely(!) true.

    For each of us, when "I" die, the world will end for "me". This subjective relativity is absolute for all observers, whether human or otherwise.

    What does a cloud look like from inside? Is it still a cloud? Why not?

    Isn't the internet wonderful?
    Steve G. (NY)


I welcome your comments - I'm really sorry about the moderation, but Google's filters are basically ineffective.