Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Relativism, Absolutism, Religion, and Alternative Medicine

I used to think that absolutism was the hallmark of religious extremists and general cranks and nutjobs of all stripes. I also thought that it was important to recognize just how much of our perception of reality is relative. While certainly some things are completely outside of subjective perception -- e.g. if you get hit by a car, it doesn't really matter what you believe happened, you are still injured or killed -- I used to believe a lot more things were subjective than the average person believed.

While certainly many religions, and all fundamentalist religions, demand a moral absolutism, I am beginning to change my mind. I am now beginning to suspect that, excluding morality for the moment, the average person is probably too much of a relativist. And I am certain that religion and all sorts of woo rely far more on relativist interpretations of reality than on absolutism.

Now don't get me wrong, the fundamentalists and the cranks and the denialists all have their axioms and their dogma. But I believe they justify their adherence to dogma based not so much on an absolutist interpretation of reality, but on the belief that since all perceptions are subjective, "facts" become relative and therefore it is not important whether their beliefs adhere to the facts.

What inspired me to write this post was this quote in a recent NY Times article from Terry Mortenson, a lecturer and researcher for the idiot Creationist propaganda group Answers in Genesis and a spokesperson for the Creation Museum:

Everyone has presuppositions what they will consider, what questions they will ask. The very first two rooms of our museum talk about this issue of starting points and assumptions. We will very strongly contest an evolutionist position that they are letting facts speak for themselves.

Not to single out the religious, I was told something very similar from one of the anti-vax faithful at the vaccine meeting I posted about a couple of weeks ago. When I asserted that I was interested in the truth about vaccines rather than being partial to any particular approach, she responded that "the truth is different for everyone."

Okay, so... No. I certainly do not dispute that "starting points and assumptions" will have a strong influence over what conclusions a person comes to, and I readily acknowledge that rational people can come to different valid conclusions based on the same facts. However, none of this in any way erodes the idea of objective truth, nor does it give people a free pass to believe whatever they want.

Some conclusions contradict the facts, and those conclusions must be false, regardless of one's "starting points and assumptions". Even when multiple conclusions fit the available facts, we can be reasonably certain that either one or zero of those conclusions are actually true.

(Side note: I am leaving aside Einstein's general relativity, as well as quantum uncertainty, as I do not think those concepts are even remotely relevant to evolution or vaccines or pretty much anything the religious and the alties preach. Even then, there is still an objective reality. For instance, while two observers, one moving very close to the speed of light relative to the other, may measure time and space differently, their measurements are still deterministic based on observable facts, i.e. the one traveling at the speed of light can't just come up with a completely made-up measurement based on his personal "starting points and assumptions". Similarly, even when we examine the apparent randomness at the quantum level, reality still plays by an immutable set of rules. The fact that we can't precisely know a particle's mass and velocity at the same time, for example, does not mean that you can measure the mass of a proton and then assert that its velocity died for our sins.)

When I responded to the anti-vaxer, my reply was (roughly): "No, sorry, not to be an absolutist, but some things are true and some things aren't." I sort of wish I had not used the word "true", because that has an implication beyond what I meant. I think I would have preferred the words "factual" or "accurate". Certainly, perceptions are relative, and when we get into areas that are heavily influenced by perception, I think that "truth" is still a meaningful concept even as facts go flying out the door. For instance, I think the love I feel for my beautiful infant son is "true" in a sense that I have trouble articulating but which I think my readers will understand -- but it would be somewhat meaningless to talk about this feeling being "factual" or "accurate". It is a purely relative experience, and there is great value in this.

On the other hand, my son's height and weight, whether he is sick or not, the times and amounts he goes to the bathroom... these are all objective facts, and while my "starting points and assumptions" might influence my personal perception of these facts, that does not at all erode the existence of an objective reality of those facts. I might think my son is taller than he is because I love him, but if so I would be wrong, and to try to say that my guess at his height is somehow just as valid as the doctor's tape measure because I have different "starting points and assumptions" than him would be absurd.

And yet, this absurdity is fundamental to religion, alternative medicine, and all sorts of woo and crankery. It is a sneaky mental game. They state quite correctly that their different conclusions are the result of different "starting points and assumptions", but then use this to imply that their conclusions are somehow valid. This is a logical fallacy.

It is similar to the old "you can't be an atheist without faith" argument that goes something like this: You can't prove there is a God (true). You can't prove there is no God (also true). Therefore, the odds of there being a God are 50/50 (absolutely not!). I have faith that the coin comes up heads and there is a God (true), and you have faith that the coin comes up tails and there is no God (no, actually). Therefore, you are just as religious as me!, says the Christian.

Uncertainty does not imply equal probability. Similarly, variability in the conclusions people reach from certain facts does not imply equal validity. Some conclusions are more valid than others, and ultimately once enough facts are known then one conclusion must be the correct one.

So does this make me an absolutist of sorts? I'm not sure. I must admit, even when it comes to morality, I am not particularly a relativist. Certainly cultures disagree on what is moral. But I think the vast majority of those disagreements fall into one of two categories:

The first category encompasses things which I don't think are really morality at all. A benign example would be the Hindu prohibition against eating cows. We can argue all day about the morality of eating meat, but I think one would have difficulty making a decent argument that it is moral and/or ethical to eat a goat but not to eat a cow. (All other things being equal, that is... I am assuming neither animal came from a factory farm) Even though one culture finds this immoral and another finds it moral, I don't think it really qualifies as a moral judgment at all. It is merely culture. Maybe it is more similar to "etiquette" than it is to morality, albeit a strongly proscribed piece of etiquette.

The other category is when one of the cultures is just flat out wrong. And yes, I really did say that. Fuck your cultural relativism, when people are put to death in Iran just for being homosexual, when girls in Africa have their clitoris lopped off in some misguided attempt at piety, when boys in the FLDS church are dumped on the streets of Salt Lake to fend for themselves, these things are wrong, and I will not apologize for saying so.

So I guess the only things left where I am a relativist are things that are obviously personal (ranging from the trivial, like taste in music, to the profound, like familial love) and things that are arbitrary customs (like a prohibition against a certain food).

Does this make me an absolutist? Intolerant? Closed-minded? I sure hope not..


  1. "The first category encompasses things which I don't think are really morality at all. ... Maybe it is more similar to "etiquette" than it is to morality, albeit a strongly proscribed piece of etiquette."

    I think the word you want here is "taboo." There is a Hindu taboo against eating beef, just like there is a (fundamentalist) Christian/Jewish/Islamic taboo against homosexuality. Authoritarians often elevate their own little taboos to the status of morality, and hence try to force them on other people (without necessarily following them themselves). Morality is about not causing suffering, alleviating suffering, and treating everybody fairly.

  2. That's a good way of putting it. Maybe my attempt to categorically separate harmless "taboos" from wrongheaded morality is a false dichotomy. Or maybe, I have the dividing line wrong. I was thinking the first category was mostly harmless, and the second category not so much.

    Maybe a better taxonomy is to divide it into two categories: One has a taboo elevated to the status of morality, which can range from annoying to extremely harmful depending on the taboo. The Christian prohibition on homosexuality would be a good example. The other category would be where an attempt at true morality was made, but it turned out all wrong -- like the concept of eye-for-an-eye.

    Or maybe trying to categorize it is folly to begin with :D I think you are right though that "taboo" is a better word for what I was originally referring to.

  3. I just brought up the word "taboo" because I'm tired of the religious trying to steal the word "morality" for all their little rules, ranging from the trivial (eating beef, using a tape recorder on a Saturday, saying/not saying various words) to the vicious (mutilating girls, killing men or women who have consensual sex you don't like). I used to think we could concede to them the word "morality" and use the word "ethics" instead, but I now think that is counter-productive and that we have to take back the word "morality" and give them only the word "taboo." And we have to point out how immoral many of their taboos are.

    I really liked your post. "It's all relative" is a nutty and potentially harmful approach to life. My friend's version of that, "whatever works for them," drives me almost as crazy as her "it was/wasn't meant to be."

  4. Why, let's put this here instead of Pharyngula, I guess I should spread my comments more anyway. Frankly, I did not read the whole article, but just want to make a statment along the lines of

    "the truth is different for everyone".

    Okay, so... No.

    I believe that where humans aspire to reflect upon or even transcend their biology, they have to reach a consensus regarding certain, self-imposed rules (I am a consequentialist, so these rules should meet certain criteria of causing the least net harm compared to all alternatives). In this world, this broadly corresponds to the declaration of human rights. Anyone wanting to join the game has to subscribe to it and stick to the rules.

    These are absolute values because we agree to subscribe to them. We can argue about them to find a consensus, but once we agree, they are binding, making misogyny, racism, child labor and whatever deplorable anytime, anywhere, no matter how different the culture.

    Regarding empirically accessible truths, though, I would not even grant a discussion on what is "true" and what is not, because the existing theory of science pretty much covers anything there is to say about the epistomological status of "knowledge" and how it is achieved. In principle, there is no "belief" in scientifically achieved knowledge, only evidence... if more evidence supports theory A than B, theory A is (for now) the most reasonable one to adopt. The complicated thing is to quantify evidence, and if we were able to do this, to boil things down to a single figure in "units of relevance", many discussions were to cease immediately. The tiny straws of "evidences" a creationist clings to, for example, would be utterly marginalized by a mountain of hard evidence from all fields of scientific enquiry.

    Granted, humans are humans, and political interest might, under certain circumstances, indeed lead to a distortion of evidence... but more often than not, the existance of these presumed interests is itself highly dubious, amounting to little more than a conspiracy theory which cannot be falsified.