A:”Chocolate is delicious.” – B:”That’s true for you, but not for me.” – A:”You dirty little relativist! Haven’t you read Paul Copan?”


I have not read Paul Copan’s book, but I love its title: True for you, but not for me. I also love the traditional Aristotelian/Aquinan term for an idea that exists only in a mind: phantasm, but since I have not been studying The Trivium, I cannot promise that the following blog post will use “phastasm” appropriately. (Well, maybe my way is appropriate for me, but not for Sister Miriam Joseph.)

I see that the page at:

http://www.bethinking.org/truth-tolerance/introductory/thats-true-for-you-but-not-for-me-relativism.htm

has handily summarized some of Copan’s words:

We live our lives relying on the belief that objective truth exists – if only we can find it. We gather evidence; weigh credibility and truthfulness; make difficult judgements. In the end, we arrive at a close proximity to truth. …

Truth is more than our subjective reporting of a car crash. It has objective existence. It has universal application.

Truth is true – even if no one knows it
Truth is true – even if no one admits it
Truth is true – even if no one agrees what it is
Truth is true – even if no one follows it
Truth is true – even if no one but God grasps it fully

Although some local authorities have given up trying to figure out who to blame for car accidents (hence ‘no fault’ insurance), truth matters. And when the stakes are raised – when a child crossing the street is struck and killed, for example – finding the truth becomes essential.

Ahem, some local authorities have given up trying to figure out WHOM to blame for car accidents.
grammar-nazi2

Carry on.

Enter the relativist. To the relativist, no ‘fact’ is in all times and places true. He argues that because everyone’s point of view is different, we can’t ever know what really happened at the accident scene. In fact, the hard-core relativist says that given the slippery nature of what the rest of us mistakenly call ‘truth’, we can’t even settle on the fact that the accident actually happened.

Human awareness is subjective, not objective. Any agreement that any “factual” event happened is intersubjective, not objective. Furthermore, drawing a line between “a car was struck here today by a motorcycle” and “chocolate is delicious” is more difficult than Paul Copan might think. Many philosophers talk about the distinction between “fact” and “value judgement” and it’s actually quite challenging to introduce the topic in less than a thousand words. I suspect that Sister Miriam Joseph would argue that a car accident is “real” and the deliciousness of chocolate is a “phantasm,” but I don’t have her book ready to hand, so I can’t find quotations to support that right now.

But the real kicker comes when our subject matter is something like the accuracy of the Gospels:

So some people, called ‘relativists’, would answer Pilate’s question ‘What is truth?’ by saying that each person decides what is true for them. Jesus claims he is true-for-everyone and not just true-for-me.

I imagine that if Jesus were to descend, here and now, to confront both Paul Copan and myself, Jesus would claim that the Gospels were written by a bunch of blockheads given to misquotation and misinterpretation. But that imagining is meaningful for me, and probably not meaningful for Paul Copan. Further, Sister Miriam Joseph might call it a phantasm, or she might call it by some less printable term.

Incidentally, one major reason I learned about formal philosophy was to deal with the philosophical malpractice of misguided religious fanatics – some of whom regard themselves as Christians. If you agree with a fanatic that some things are really real and some truths are knowable, pretty soon he’ll be pushing you to admit that his cult is the One True Repository of All Truths.

I will often use Christian dogmatism as my practice-target, but the techniques are meant for usage against all dogmatists – be they Freudian, Leninist, or whatever else they might be. The fanatic often has a few rhetorical or logical tricks, but rarely does the fanatic think calmly. The fanatic shouts because he is inspired by his dogma. His dogma is delicious chocolate to him, and he has no doubt that its deliciousness is objectively real, not a subjective phantasm.

Copan gives some example objections to relativism, some of which have more merit than others.

If my belief is only true for me, then why isn’t your belief only true for you? Aren’t you saying you want me to believe the same thing you do?

If the relativist is sincerely skeptical about the reliability of human knowledge, even a well-defined question might not be knowable.

But if the relativist is just pessimitistic about Copan’s rationality, the relativist might say, “You, Paul Copan, have a limited degree of rationality, and your twisted, insane beliefs are as real as anything that can be imagined within your mad mind. But there are others who are less insane than you.”

You say that no belief is true for everyone, but you want everyone to believe what you do.

If the relativist is spiritually aware, he will probably say that he wants everyone to believe whatever will provide enlightenment.

If the relativist is just an apologist for libertinism, then Copan’s objection is a good one.

You’re making universal claims that relativism is true and absolutism is false. You can’t in the same breath say, ‘Nothing is universally true’ and ‘My view is universally true.’ Relativism falsifies itself. It claims there is one position that is true – relativism!

Here Copan is probably shoe-horning an inarticulate opponent into Copan’s favorite philosophical system. The solution is for both of them to agree on a serious basis for philosophical discussion. Logical Positivism is one starting point.

You’re applying your view to everyone but yourself. You expect others to believe your views (the ‘self-excepting fallacy’).

Again, this is a rational objection to many apologists for libertinism, but it’s not a serious philosophical objection to an academic skeptic.

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