Tuesday, November 1, 2011

A Relative Contradiction

          Yes, I have been away for an inexcusable length of time. I wish I could say that meant I was  productively producing pounds and pounds of fiction, but alas, I cannot even say that. I have though, at the very least, gotten quite a bit of interesting reading done, some of which has given me a lot to think about, which is one of the reasons I am here, firing up the laptop again.

            Among the books I've made my way through in the last couple months, which I list here only because I recommend them all quite strongly; Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars, outlining and advocating for an aggressive approach for exploring and colonizing the Red Planet, very convincing, very compelling- Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, arguing for a rational, scientific approach to ethics, again, very convincing, very compelling- Michio Kaku's Physics of the Future, an attempt to envision human life and society a century 50, 70, 100 years from now, based on today's cutting edge research, and man, if even half of the stuff he describes pans out, we will not even recognize the world our great-grandchildren will inhabit- Michael Specter's Denialism about the human propensity for irrational thinking and how damaging it is to our society and planet, including such things as the organic foods fetish, the "natural" medicine fetish, the utterly unfounded fears concerning vaccines, etc., also, very, very good- Nicolas Wade's The Faith Instinct, arguing that a propensity for faith and religious belief must be an evolved trait, since, at first glance, those things are so damaging to an individual, evolution would certainly have weeded them out, if there was not some greater benefit conferred by religious activity, which he manages to convincingly lay out, even though I disagree with some of the conclusions he draws, which I will touch on in a later post- Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum's Unscientific America, outlining the absolutely wretched level of scientific knowledge, and willful ignorance, of the masses in a country which has led the world in scientific advances for the last century, and will continue to do so for at least another half century more, and then articulating a plan for bridging that gap- And last, but certainly not least, Sam Harris' The End of Faith, the book that single-handedly began the New Atheist movement, which I have been intentionally not reading since I started the blog, as I knew he and I intended to cover similar turf, and I had no wish to simply parrot his work. But it is, in fact, Harris' book which I would like to discuss, or at least a small piece of it, in this post.

           The End of Faith is a momentous work, by a skilled writer with a Death Star intellect, literally reducing his opponent's arguments to rubble in the span of a single, charged sentence, and with the necessary background to speak knowledgeably about religion, faith and ethics from many perspectives, having built a career in the study of philosophy, Eastern and Western religions, as well as neuroscience. If you have enjoyed anything you have read on this blog on any of these topics, The End of Faith is mandatory reading. As Richard Dawkins said, "The End of Faith is a genuinely frightening book... Read Sam Harris and wake up." (Of course, Harris was the one who inspired Dawkins to himself take up the issue of faith in the modern world in his own books.)

              But while I will have something to say a later date about the work as a whole, or pieces of it regarding faith and religion, it is actually Harris' criticism of some another, typically liberal, ideology that I would like to talk about here; specifically, relativism. While this term may not be known to the average reader, it is not all that hard to discern the gist. At the same time, there are quite a few people out there who subscribe to this ideology, even if they would not immediately recognize the appellation. For these reasons, a quick definition would be useful.

            Relativism is the belief, very commonly held among academic liberals and many quasi-intellectuals, that no one can ever really be truly right about anything in the strict sense of the word, they can only be "right" within the contexts of their culture and ideology. A moral relativist, for example, would claim that forcing women to live in a potato sack is not actually "wrong" in some absolute sense, it is just "wrong" in our culture, though it is perfectly acceptable in a culture for whom that is their belief and heritage.

            Well, if you have been reading this blog at all, you know I don't buy into that cheap nonsense. Having been through the rigmarole of a countless literary theory classes, Derrida, Sassure, Lacan, Zizek, etc. I have a pretty solid understanding of how (bored) academics came to these fairly absurd claims, and I didn't find their arguments convincing then. But when these types of beliefs trickle out of the ivory tower, I think that they are often picked up by some in the general populace simply because they are contradictory to traditional wisdom, or indeed, common sense. In other words, a Tertullian instance of credo quia absurdum, or an "I believe because it is absurd."

             I have yet to think deeply about this, or come up with a satisfying explanation as to why, but it has in fact been my observation that certain people tend to latch on to beliefs simply because those beliefs go against the grain. Those people are generally those whose lives also go against the grain- I'm thinking of artists, anarchists, etc. (but those are just examples). This is not meant to be a slight on people who think of themselves as such, but I do find it a little depressing when I see this happen to otherwise intelligent people, since it is really just a cheap intellectual trick to appear thoughtful and profound, without actually doing the hard work that it would take for one of us to be those things. But I digress...

           Anyway... what I found interesting in reading Harris was that his book was the first time I encountered in print the refutation of relativism that I myself have been satisfied with for years. I had always considered it odd that in all of the books I have read that discussed relativism, no one had articulated what I consider to be such an obvious and absolute dismissal of relativism. So it was refreshing to see Harris finally articulate it, and in pretty much exactly the same manner I had considered it. It goes like this-

            Let's stick with moral relativism, although the same argument applies to relativistic notions of science, knowledge, etc. The moral relativist would claim that we should respect all cultures and belief systems, because we cannot judge them by our own Western standards. If it is part of their culture to saw off their daughter's clitoris, then who are we to tell them that practice is wrong? It is their culture, and their beliefs. In other words, there is no absolute right and wrong, just what each culture comes to accept.

            Ah, and there's the rub. The problem with making a claim like this is that it itself is not relative, but absolute. If there is no absolute right and wrong, then who is to say that tolerance of other's beliefs is itself "right?" Sure, a few hundred years of democracy, pluralism and liberalism, among other things, have taught the West that, generally speaking, tolerance of other people's beliefs and culture is a good thing. But it is our cultural bias that makes that seem logical. In other words, tolerance is merely a relative good, but to be a relativist, you have to claim the universal good of relativism, which is clearly a contradiction.

             This leaves relativists in a bit of a quagmire. They have two choices, either accept the contradiction, which is effectively saying, "Everyone else's "good" is only relative, but my Good is universal." This not only goes completely against the spirit of relativism, it is as conceited as all hell. In fact, it is hard to imagine a more condescending, patronizing and imperialistic way of viewing the world. (It is true that much of liberalism is imperialism in fancy clothes.) Or they can say something absurd like, "We should only expect Western liberal democrats to be tolerant, since that is only a good in their culture. In cultures where intolerance is considered "good" then it is, in fact, the right way to act." Unfortunately, it is often this latter narrative that plays out in the real world.

        So is tolerance a bad thing? Of course not. It is just that it is as absurd, and as quickly self-contradictory, to make "tolerance" the universal good as it is to make the same thing of money, power, faith, reason, science, "mystery," nature or anything else people try to hold aloft. All of these things have some utility, though some far more than others (I'm looking at you, faith, you useless piece of...)

             I don't think it takes a rigorous philosophical to demonstrate that tolerance is good. And at the same time, I think it only takes a very brief one (above) to demonstrate that there are, in fact, limits to this. What does this mean in the real world? It looks like that will have to be the subject of the next post. 


  1. Ah, welcome back.

    Were I a superstitious person, I would find it uncanny how often your subject matter lines up with topics enjoying top billing in my brain. As it is, I find it a lovely bit of serendipity.

    I've been very close to internet-fisticuffs on several occasions lately, all prompted by a blogger who divides her time more or less evenly between being insanely, reflexively judgmental where her pet issues are concerned, and whining (I was previously unaware that the printed word could so closely approximate audible sniveling) that people take things too seriously and everyone should just lighten up and accept everything anyone else says as an opinion.

    My immediate instinct is launch any one of the many simple analogies that would demonstrate how ludicrous and dangerous that position is, but when I envision the inevitable inane back and forth that's likely to follow, I die a little inside and decide it's not worth it.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  2. yet again you have articulated a belief that i hold, but could never have explained so eloquently.