Archive for August 30th, 2007

Relativism all over again

Posted on August 30, 2007. Filed under: Musings, Philosophy, Science, Spirituality |

This post decided to write itself after a friend’s inquiry and a few other posts caused me to ponder yet again the topic of Relativity. The friend said he’d heard that I consider myself a Relativist, and would I explain, please?

I generally don’t favor labeling myself, particularly with words ending in “ist”, “ian”, “at” or “ant”. I’m relatively sure I’m a human. I have a bit of a moral code, which is maintained by me at my own expense, and based on wisdom gleaned from many traditions, cultural conditioning, and even thinking about it a lot. Having said that, I do find that among the philosophical positions on offer, the term “pragmatic relativist” fits me the best.

I enjoy operating much of my interaction by at least considering what is known in our culture as the Golden Rule. I appreciate that this “rule” has been around for millennia, and is represented in many traditions. The preceding link gives access to the language of thirteen of them.

I don’t reject or employ any course of action, or method, or system based on moral principles or usefulness alone. My relativity comes into play when I choose to view each situation independently, and consult my own guidance for the appropriate stance for each.

When I was quite young, I kept company with a friend who wanted to discuss philosophy. Great! Love it! But when I would express my views, this person would sometimes call me a “dirty rotten relativist” and declare discussion was no longer possible. Well that was true. Said “friend” soon became—not one. But the interaction did get me to inquire into philosophy and meaning. If someone was calling me names, I at least wanted to know what they were talking about!

My understanding of “relativism” begins and ends with science, with a visit from philosophy in the middle. The Principle of Relativity existed in science long before Einstein’s famous equation and the Theory of Relativity. The Principle states that any law of nature should be the same at all times; and scientific investigations generally assume that laws of nature are the same regardless of the person measuring them. Ironic, given today’s theoretical physics experiments indicating the observer having a profound effect upon the observed.

Science did obtain the term “relativity” from relativistic philosophy. A decent introduction to the philosophy is here. I find myself most in agreement with the views of Richard Roty, towards the bottom of the article. He claims that nothing meaningful can be said about Truth. I also enjoyed the section titled “Relativism: pro and con.” I agreed with most of the points made in the “con” part, but did not consider them “cons”! They tend to back up my position.

It’s fascinating that philosophers and scientists have both disliked sharing the same term for their viewpoints, and believe the science and the philosophy have nothing to do with each other. It seems that the more the field of physics is probed, the more it resembles philosophy. I look forward to a time when the philosophy and the science cannot be distinguished.

I believe that relativistic philosophy has no quarrel with traditional religion, although I often read that relativism is the enemy of values and religion. I close with a quote from Bradley Lacke’s review of Relativism: Feet Planted Firmly in Mid-Air (love that title!):

You cannot “dis-prove” relativism. Relativism is not a truth-value system. Relativism is not a hypothesis or a theory. You cannot employ logic puzzles and make generalizations about what “relativists do” or “say”, or point to “inconsistencies” in a relativist’s actions, and say that you have refuted relativism. Relativism is not a platform or party line. Amen!

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