Friday, February 15, 2008

Pervasiveness of Relativism

Something has weighed on me for some time now.

I attend a liberal law school. To say that I am nearly alone in my theistic views is an understantement surpassed only by the fact that I am alone in my theological views. If you're unfamiliar with me, and somehow reading this blog, you'll find out eventually where I stand on those issues, but that's mostly peripheral information for now.

I was sitting in class earlier this semester and one of my classmates, a very nice, affable fellow, begins to answer a question with, "Well, if truth exists..." One might think I'm getting excited over nothing, but consider what he's saying, and also consider the position he's in.

This particular student, and I'm willing to wager the vast majority in the classroom and many across this nation and the Western world, is unsure about the existence of truth, of objective truth. In four words, he conveyed his skepticism of objectivity, of the ability of one answer to be right over an alternative. On top of that, all of us in that classroom aspire to be arbiters of law.

What is law? Simply, it is the authority of a sovereign manifested over inferior subjects. If there is no objective truth, then the reason for that power being manifested is merely due to either assent or assertion of superior power. All we are, or all we will be, as attorneys, are tools of enforcement for a system of rules that really have no reason to be in existence in the first place. After all, they can't be true, and they can't be right.

This can be examined in another layer as well; why do we punish murderers? Naturalistically speaking, if we examine a serial killer through Darwinistic lenses, the serial killer is a genetic abnormality. There is nothing wrong with him at all; he is only a statistical anomaly. Hitler was not wrong, and neither was he right, he was merely statistically in the minority.

What does this have to do with anything? Well, I have trouble imagining a lawyer that doesn't have a basis for saying murder is wrong.

I'm sure the student in question would answer with fervor and zeal in proclaiming murder is wrong, but he has no basis to. It would be inconsistent for him to do so at this point. I find that troubling as well.

Objective truth is the bedrock that the law stands on. We must allude to something higher than us in order to justify our assertions as being superior. We commonly do this with tools such as logic. We rely on logic and logic is a natural order which makes sense to everyone.

A simple example is the epistemological Law of Non-contradiction. Basically, A cannot be both A and non-A at the same point in time. If you think this is wrong, then you'd have to rely on some logical basis to prove otherwise, but you'd still have to appeal to a higher, objective authority, i.e. logic. It would not suffice to say that you don't agree because you said so; that wouldn't make sense. But really, if you're skeptical of objective truth, isn't that merely all that you can do? You can't assert something else is wrong, because you have no basis to.

God's grace be upon you.

8 comments:

Stephen said...

This looks good, Zenas! I'm looking forward to reading your posts regarding your experiences in Law School, and their compatibility with a Reformed Christian worldview!

Jason said...

What benefit is there in possessing a gigantic frontal-lobe if all you're going to do is repeat what you’ve heard in church?

Haven’t they taught you in law school that having the right answers is rarely more valuable than having the right questions?

Well, here is my question for a guy with nothing but answers: Is it the nature of a piece of legislation to be either true or false? I'm having trouble imagining a context in which one can say "This law is clearly true" or "This law is clearly false." Yet you implied in your fourth paragraph that this can be the case. So I ask, if a law is a rule governing a particular conduct, in what sense can we say it is open to being true or false?

It does make sense to say a law is just or unjust, valid or invalid. But unless we are talking about mathematical or scientific laws which have the aim of describing things as they are, then it seems to me that “true” or “false” does not apply to legislation.

And what do you mean, exactly, when you say there is an objective reality? This is in no way a phrase with a clear meaning and I sort of get the feeling that when you call something ‘objective’ half the time you really mean that it is ‘inter-subjective’.

Does god always have an objective opinion? In case you haven’t heard of it, Special Relativity theory has something to say about this. Check this video out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wteiuxyqtoM&feature=related

The idea of Special Relativity is that we do not find it to be the case that the ‘real world’ always presents us with what we like to label as ‘objective’ or ‘absolute’ truth independent of all observers. The example in the video is that simultaneous events for one person may not be simultaneous events for another person experiencing them from a different frame of reference. Reality, therefore, depends on the one observing it.

But this has theological implications too. If you asked God whether the events were simultaneous or not, he would have to answer in a way that would negate your concept of an absolutely objective reality. He would have to say for Person X they happened consecutively but for Person Y simultaneously.

I’m not sure how God would answer this from his own omniscient perspective seeing that he viewed it not just from one, or both frames of reference, but from every frame of reference available. This leads me to ask whether there is even such a thing as objective or absolute reality for God who can be in all frames of reference at any given time where things are happening both simultaneously and yet consecutively.

Anyways, maybe it was this conception of 'reality' that caused your classmate to question the notion of 'truth' in the first place. Maybe he is a Reformer much like yourself who just finished a book on Einstein and had this stuff bouncing around in his head. Or maybe he is, as you fear, a thoroughgoing relativist out to kill children and eat them for breakfast because there is no reason not to. So I can see why you would rather talk smack behind his back before you ask him about his actual perspective on the issue — engaging people with different views on life is time consuming and difficult and often leaves you feeling worse that you would have had you just spent that time hitting your head against a brick wall.

Zenas said...

To answer your question: It depends on the goal you're attempting to reach. I cannot say what the goal of the individual legislators are, but I know that I, myself, want the law, whether it be legislated or through common law development, to reflect what is just and right, otherwise I see no justification for the development and enforcement of law.

Sure, one may answer that it is for order, harmony, peace, etc., but then I simply must ask the question: what in the worl makes those things good? I have an answer for that because I'm a Christian. An atheist does not. Natural selection doesn't provide an answer for morality, only a justification through the enforement of the statistical majority's will. That doesn't make that right and, again, I ask the question what makes that good?

I can say from my position that a law is clearly true or a law is clearly false because I have an objective standard to draw a conclusion from. One without such objective standard cannot draw those conclusion. Hitler is always such a shining example. I can say that Hitler's genocide of the Jews was wrong and cite the objective Word of God to do so.

One without an objective authority is unable to do that. You can't appeal to morality, because morality doesn't exist without an author, and if humans are the authors of morality, then one human is not able to tell another human they are morally wrong. If humans are the authors of all answers via their perceptions, then you are violating societal mores at this moment by providing some basis, you believe, to show that I am in some way mistaken.

Scientific statements all all subject to philosophical interpretation. Naturalism is the scientific philosophy which currently shades the realm of that discipline. The only subject I can give you as being objectively true or false is mathematics and what I am talking about, logic, would seem to be a derivative of mathematics.

Your question, "Does god [sic] always have an objective opinion?" is illogical from the assumed worldview of this blog. God lacks an opinion because an opinion carries iwth it the connotation of being suggestive. God's mandates are not suggestive, whether they be the moral commandso f the Pentateuch or the physical laws that govern the created world we live in. some you are allowed to break, i.e. don't kill. some you are not, i.e. gravity. If you attempt to break either of them, you will meet with stunning retribution. Opinion is a word foreign to the notion of diety.

Forgive me for not watching the video. I won't watch videos out of convenience to me. I can read much faster than people can talk, and that's not something specific to me and I assume most people can do the same, ergo I simply read.

From your example given of special relativity, which I grant may be one example given of many, or it might be the weakest one, what you address as reality seems to be mere perception. The fact that one person observed Events A, B, and C in that order, but yet another only observes Events A and C does not negate the reality that Events A, B, and C occurred, in that exact order. It doesn't effect it in the least. Our perceptions are limited, granted, but I think Descartes would fall on my side of the argument when it comes to the basic reliability of the senses.

Your theological example, again, plays bait and switch with the terms reality and perception. You can't assume that reality and perception are interchangeable, but rather have to prove it. Here, it is presupposed that reality is not based on perception, because as a lawyer, if I don't have circumstantial evidence, I don't have much of a case. *grin* What I mean is, if someone didn't percieve the gun going off and shooting victim X, does that mean in reality it didn't happen? Certainly not. Perceptions aside, we can forensically deduce what occured.

As to your last paragraph, you assume much and the paragraph itself seems to be laden with straw-men in an attempt to make some attack on my character personally. You have insufficient information to make all of the inferrences you just made and mal fide seems to be the tone of the closing. I do hope you're not upset about a little old blog post.

God's mercy be upon you.

Agilius said...

>> Does god always have an objective opinion? In case you haven’t heard of it, Special Relativity theory has something to say about this. Check this video out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wteiuxyqtoM&feature=related

I'm not sure what great point this video is supposed to illustrate, but I watched the video, and both observers saw exactly what you would expect them to see, given the properties of light. The video *doesn't* show that the reality of the event happened differently for each observer.

If I yell across a canyon, and I hear my voice 3 seconds later, did I yell when I thought I yelled, or 3 seconds afterward? Same experiment, essentially.

Agilius said...

>> Does god always have an objective opinion? In case you haven’t heard of it, Special Relativity theory has something to say about this. Check this video out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wteiuxyqtoM&feature=related

I don't know what great point this video is supposed to show, but I've seen it, and both observers saw exactly what you would expect them to see, given the properties of light.

The video *doesn't* show that the actual event happened differently for each observer.

If I shout across a canyon, and 3 seconds later I hear my words again, did I shout when I thought I did, or 3 seconds later. Same experiment, essentially.

Jason said...

About a law being true, I understand you want the law to reflect God’s truth, but you still failed to explain how a proscriptive statement can be labeled true or false without breaking the rules of grammar. You brought up Hitler only to say that what he did was wrong. Notice that you did not say that his legalization of murder was false.

[Natural selection doesn't provide an answer for morality…]

You are quite wrong on this. Since you are one who likes to read, let me recommend E.O. Wilson’s book On Human Nature or just about anything in the field of sociobiology regarding kin selection or reciprocal altruism or just do a journal article search for “evolution of morality”. You might also like Evolution and Ethics: Human Morality from a Biological and Religious Perspective. In any of these sources you will find that helping others at the cost to oneself is completely consistent with Natural Selection and has been supported empirically just as predicted by Darwin in the Origin. It is amazing that not only humans, but just about every other social animal has altruistic behavior. But of course we are the only one’s who have labeled such actions as moral.


[Forgive me for not watching the video]

I can forgive you for not watching the video, but not for your botched up understanding of Special Relativity theory. It is clear that you should have watched the video or at least informed yourself about Relativity before you spoke about it. The video was great because it illustrated a phenomena that can be hard for some to visualize from a book.

It’s not that one person experienced Event A then B and C while another experienced only A and C. The idea is that one experienced A and then B while another says both events took place as one single simultaneous event AB and still another third person experienced B then A. All of these are valid experiences and no one is right from the perspective of any cosmic observer. Each person can empirically prove that for them the events happened as described, they could even video tape it if they wished to. But this isn’t the only problem proponents of ‘objective reality’ (whatever that means these days) face. Einstein also proved that measurement and time are also relative to one’s frame of reference. So one person would time an event as happening for time A, another for a longer time of B and another for a shorter time of C, but they all observed the same event. And with regards to measuring dimensions, you could have three different measurements of the same object’s length depending of one’s frame of reference.

May scientific literacy be upon you.

Zenas said...

I bring up Hitler to say he was wrong because I can because that is consistent with my worldview. It is my assertion to say you cannot without borrowing from my worldview. I would have thought that point would have been clear but perhaps it wasn't.

I am familiar with the theory that social mores can and are hewn from evolutionary processes but that assumes way more than you or any other evolutionist is allowed to assume. Also, altruistic behavior does not show the existence of morality or moral decision, but merely a self-sacrificing function inherant within all animals, if I assume that all animals, or almost all, exhibit altruistic behavior. The mere existence of it does not prove how moralality devlops from natural selection, because you're assuming morality, i.e. borrowing from my worldview, in order to call altruism moral. You cannot call altruism moral on its face, which is what you're doing. You admit as much in the last sentence. If it is we who put labels on everything, then they're arbitrary anyway and completely relative. We therefore have no reason to tell someone else it is morally wrong to murder. Only that it is contrary to what we believe is conducive to evolutionary survival, which then begs the question, why should we pursue evolutionary survival? What makes that right?

Einstein's theory is no problem to the idea of objectivity because, again, the fact that experience differs according to the subjective or relative state of mind or location still does not alter the fact that there is an objective occurence taking place that is occuring in a certain manner, regardless of if it can be percieved in a pure manner or not. It must exist in this way regardless of the type or location of the perception that is recieving the information about it.

You're just dodging things at this point Jason. :P

God's grace be upon you and may His Light drive you from your darkened mind.

Agilius said...

>> About a law being true, I understand you want the law to reflect God’s truth, but you still failed to explain how a proscriptive statement can be labeled true or false without breaking the rules of grammar.

"True" is a property of claims which represent reality as it is. A law is true if it represents morality as it is; So, a law can only be true if there is an objective morality, which is addressed later in your post.

>> In any of these sources you will find that helping others at the cost to oneself is completely consistent with Natural Selection and has been supported empirically just as predicted by Darwin in the Origin.

We aren't saying that societies' perceptions of morality don't change; We are saying that societal mores are either right or wrong depending on whether or not they conform to the objective standard of morality.

On another note, Natural Selection is not a phenomenon that is unique to the Evolutionary worldview. In every worldview under the sun - except maybe that of solipsism - those that don't jump off bridges without parachutes, etc., tend to survive longer than those that do.

>> But this isn’t the only problem proponents of ‘objective reality’ (whatever that means these days) face. Einstein also proved that measurement and time are also relative to one’s frame of reference.

Notice that you claim the following objective truths: "this isn't the only problem", "Einstein also proved". Denying objective truth is a self-refuting claim. Even the claim that "I don't know if there is objective truth" is an objective claim that you truly don't know something.