To be a Catholic Christian is to reject relativism. In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, while being interrogated by Pilate, Jesus said that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Pilate’s reply to Jesus echoes through the ages, “Quid est veritas?” “What is truth?” To be Catholic is to understand the nature of truth.
The nature of truth, however, is under assault; and this assault is not unique to modern thought. The ancient philosopher Protagoras “held that everyone’s opinion was true for the person holding it.” (Roger Trigg. Philosophy Matters. Pg 65. Blackwell Publishers, Inc., Malden, Massachusetts, 2002)
Protagoras was a relativist. For a relativist, beliefs are not true for those who do not hold them. “Truth is a consequence of belief for relativism, and is restricted to those who hold the belief. I cannot expect that whatever I believe is true for anyone else, when they do not share my beliefs.” (IBID pp.59-60)
For example, I may believe that Christ is truly present, body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist. My Southern Baptist friend does not believe that this is possible under any circumstances. A relativist would accept both beliefs as being truthful propositions.
Relativism holds the view that truth is a product of a particular society, culture or tradition. Judgments, according to a relativist, “can only claim truth within the context in which they were made.” (IBID pp.152)
According to Trigg, this implies that groups define themselves into existence. “If you think a particular group exists, it does. If you think you are a member, you are.” (IBID pp.59)
The norms and conventions of society will dictate what is true and to be believed and what is not. Truth, then, defined as a product of the group to which one belongs, can morph and change in an un-ending succession of group divisions. Ultimately, by even the most minor disagreement within the group or culture, this un-ending succession will lead to groups consisting of only individuals, each of whom has a truth proposition unique to themselves. “For a relativist, who makes the norms of society the only standard, the only issues can be which society I belong to and whether my beliefs are correct by its standards.” (IBID pp.68)
For relativism to be the true reflection of reality, there can be no constraints on what is believed. Believing that there are no constraints can easily lead to moral relativism. “Morality might be seen as on a par with other local customs and questions of etiquette. It is a matter of convention, of agreement.” (IBID pp.67)
“Moral relativism, itself, will gain much of its force from a wider relativism. It is surprisingly easy to be drawn from the limited relativism about morality to a more global view, according to which it is considered wrong to impose our view of the world on others. That quickly degenerates into the comfortable position that no one can claim a universal truth, but that all our beliefs are just ‘true for’ us.” (IBID pp.67)
Another aspect of relativism is the necessity of tolerance. A relativist must tolerate the belief of anyone who may hold a different opinion. “Nothing can be thought right or wrong in itself, simply because it is considered wrong to impose one’s views on others.” (IBID pp.67)
Tolerance, when accepted as the norm must accept all existing societies and beliefs. It must tolerate difference. It embraces pluralism and celebrates differences. A tolerant relativist may not make a distinction between good and bad, right and wrong.
What are the implications of relativism? How can a relativist viewpoint help in the acquisition of knowledge? Knowledge is defined in Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary as “a clear and certain perception of something; the act, fact, or state of knowing; understanding.” (Dorset & Baber. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 1983)
Roger Trigg defines knowledge as a “true belief that is properly grounded in some manner.” (Roger Trigg. Philosophy Matters. Pg 148. Blackwell Publishers, Inc., Malden, Massachusetts, 2002)
Knowledge that is certain would be by definition un-doubtable and unquestionable. In the enlightenment, it was stressed that “claims to truth, involve claims which demand universal acceptance. That does not mean that they will be accepted universally.” (IBID pp.60)
If relativism is the way of reality, then we can never be certain of what we know. “There is no belief so daft that someone somewhere is not prepared to hold it. Even the firmest findings of contemporary science do not command universal recognition. No piece of evidence is so compelling that it cannot be rejected.” (IBID pp.60)
If truth is based only upon belief, then anything goes. Is the earth round or is it flat? Is slavery acceptable or is it not? Is genocide an acceptable means of building the ideal state? The relativist cannot condemn or support any proposition. He must look to the norms of society and determine if they are true. “The path to nihilism, where nothing seems to matter and no view is preferable to any other, beckons. There seems little point in believing anything if I can believe anything with impunity, without any idea of being constrained by the real world.” (IBID pp.61)
Trigg uses the example of our ability to translate between languages as a reason to refute relativism. “That translation between different human languages is possible, we have to conclude that relativism is mistaken. We are not all locked in separate worlds, but live in one world and react to it in broadly similar ways.” (pp.64)
Relativism makes reality dependant on belief and agreement. There is no world, then, only what we believe about the world. “Our concepts then create our world. ‘Nature’ or ‘the world’ may then depend on how we happen to think about ‘it’…Our knowledge increases and conceptual innovation is a part of that process. Scientists in the twenty-first century will not think in the same way as scientists did in the eighteenth century. That does not mean, though, that truth is relative. The physical world was the same three hundred years ago as it is now. Our ancestors just did not understand it as well. In the same way, different cultures may have different concepts, which make some translation more difficult. They all, though, have to deal with the same world and the same human nature.” (IBID pp.66)
It seems to be clear that in the relativist view of reality, philosophy has a minimal purpose at best. How can one seek after answers to the philosophical questions when there can be no certainty of truth? What is man? What is man’s relation to the world? What is the world and how does it function? Is there a God, and if so, is he involved at all in the life of man and of the world?
Can relativism withstand the scrutiny of truth? If a claim to knowledge is made, it is a claim about what is the case. To really have knowledge of something is to know what it really is, not just what I believe it to be. Plato stressed the importance of objective truth, that is, what is true independent of what people believe. If it is true for me, it must also be true for everyone else. An example that is often used is the truth proposition that the Earth is round. Historically, it was widely believed that the Earth was flat. It may be possible to find people today who would still hold this belief. However, it has been proven that the Earth is in fact round. A relativist would have to accept, for the person who does not hold this belief, that for him, the Earth is indeed flat. Reason will tell us that both propositions cannot be true at the same time. The Earth is round (a), cannot be the same as the Earth is flat, (b); a does not equal b. Philosophy must be open to re-examination. If a truth proposition is demonstrated to be true which is contrary to what one believes, then one should be open to embracing the newly found truth and discard the erroneous proposition. “There is no shame in philosophers changing their minds.” (IBID pp.8)