A Mistaken Argument for Relativism

14 September 2006 at 9:03 am 2 comments

| David Gordon |

A very popular argument among postmodernists and other inhabitants of the Kingdom of Epistemological Darkness goes like this: We see things only from our own perspective, and we can never grasp the truth as it is in itself. All observation is “theory-laden”.

Of course we see things from a point of view, but it doesn’t follow from this that we are not making an objectively true judgment about what we see. I’m now, for example, looking at a computer screen in normal light. Is there any reason to think that the computer screen isn’t really there, or that my view of the screen is distorted? In the absence of reason to think otherwise, it is entirely rational for me to accept my common sense belief that I am viewing a real screen. The argument from perspective mistakenly assumes that the “real” object exists at no point of view at all. As Jim Sadowsky puts it, the claim is that because we have eyes, we can’t see.

In like fashion, the argument that  observation is theory-laden assumes that our theories block access to the world as it really exists. But some of our theories, at least, are true, and known to be true. The argument for relativism relies on an equivocation in the meaning of “theory”. In one sense, a theory is a speculative belief that is not known to be true. We can, in this sense, speak of the theory that intelligent life exists on other planets than Earth in our galaxy. Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn’t; we don’t know. In another sense of the word, a theory is a statement that goes beyond a “pure observation statement”, if such a thing exists. In this sense, perfectly obvious claims, e.g., elephants weigh more than sociologists, count as theoretical statements. To say that a statement is theory-laden, in this second sense, gives us no reason whatever to doubt its truth.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nicolai Foss  |  14 September 2006 at 9:28 am

    Excellent post! A couple of classic lines there: “the Kingdom of Epistemological Darkness”. “Elephants weigh more than sociologists” (now, there is something for Omar to think about!).

  • 2. Filter  |  14 September 2006 at 10:15 am

    I like to see postmodernism be called “Kingdom of Epistemological Darkness” but I think the post treats it unfairly. The postmodernism point is not “because we have eyes, we can’t see” but “you don’t see, your eyes do”.

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