2006 : WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA?

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Zellerbach Family Professor of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania; best-selling author
Relativism

 

In looking back over the scientific and artistic breakthroughs in the 20th century, there is a view that the great minds relativized the absolute. Did this go too far? Has relativism gotten to a point that it is dangerous to the scientific enterprise and to human well being?

The most visible person to say this is none other than Pope Benedict XVI in his denunciations of the "dictatorship of the relative." But worries about relativism are not only a matter of dispute in theology; there are parallel dissenters from the relative in science, in philosophy, in ethics, in mathematics, in anthropology, in sociology, in the humanities, in childrearing, and in evolutionary biology.

Here are some of the domains in which serious thinkers have worried about the overdoing of relativism:

• In philosophy of science, there is ongoing tension between the Kuhnians (science is about "paradigms," the fashions of the current discipline) and the realists (science is about finding the truth).

• In epistemology there is the dispute between the Tarskian correspondence theorists ("p" is true if p) versus two relativistic camps, the coherence theorists ("p" is true to the extent it coheres with what you already believe is true) and the pragmatic theory of truth ("p" is true if it gets you where you want to go).

• At the ethics/science interface, there is the fact/value dispute: that science must and should incorporate the values of the culture in which it arises versus the contention that science is and should be value free.

• In mathematics, Gödel's incompleteness proof was widely interpreted as showing that mathematics is relative; but Gödel, a Platonist, intended the proof to support the view that there are statements that could not be proved within the system that are true nevertheless. Einstein, similarly, believed that the theory of relativity was misconstrued in just the same way by the "man is the measure of all things" relativists.

• In the sociology of high accomplishment, Charles Murray (Human Accomplishment) documents that the highest accomplishments occur in cultures that believe in absolute truth, beauty, and goodness. The accomplishments, he contends, of cultures that do not believe in absolute beauty tend to be ugly, that do not belief in absolute goodness tend to be immoral, and that do not believe in absolute truth tend to be false.

• In anthropology, pre-Boasians believed that cultures were hierarchically ordered into savage, barbarian, and civilized, whereas much of modern anthropology holds that all social forms are equal. This is the intellectual basis of the sweeping cultural relativism that dominates the humanities in academia.

• In evolution, Robert Wright (like Aristotle) argues for a scala naturae, with the direction of evolution favoring complexity by its invisible hand; whereas Stephen Jay Gould argued that the fern is just as highly evolved as Homo sapiens. Does evolution have an absolute direction and are humans further along that trajectory than ferns?

• In child-rearing, much of twentieth century education was profoundly influenced by the "Summerhillians" who argued complete freedom produced the best children, whereas other schools of parenting, education, and therapy argue for disciplined, authoritative guidance.

• Even in literature, arguments over what should go into the canon revolve around the absolute-relative controversy.

• Ethical relativism and its opponents are all too obvious instances of this issue

I do not know if the dilemmas in these domains are only metaphorically parallel to one another. I do not know if illumination in one domain will not illuminate the others. But it might and it is just possible that the great minds of the twenty-first century will absolutize the relative.