Mark Linville on the Campus Coffee Shop as the First Casualty of Relativism
It is sometimes said that ours is the postmodern age, and this is often taken to mean that civilization has outgrown the benighted and oppressive notion that there is such a thing as truth. Visit a major university campus (and stray far enough from the science buildings) and the relativists may be seen grazing in "immence herds," as the orthographically challenged explorer Meriwether Lewis might have put it.
Eavesdrop in a campus coffee house (especially the one closest to the Religious Studies department) and you may pick up snippets of conversation confirming the identity of the species. "But truth is merely a social construct, tethered to our linguistic practices," insists one. "All metanarratives are transparent attempts at political domination and oppression and must be deconstructed!" exclaims another. "Truth is whatever our colleagues will allow us to get away with saying," declares a third.
In such a context, to suggest that any worldview or religious belief is simply true or, worse, false, is, as philosopher Keith Yandell put it, about as welcome as a temperance sermon in a local tavern. To claim that the practices of some foreign culture are immoral is like showing up at a black tie affair wearing a tank top and boxers.
But, despite appearances, I suggest that the relativist, like the unicorn and the griffin, is a mythical creature. As with fairies and poltergeists and UFOs, there are many rumors of his existence, but never has there been a confirmed sighting. There is, quite simply, no such thing as a relativist.
The Mythical Creature
One reason, of course, for his non-existence is the utter lack of a natural habitat. The Shangri-La of novel and movie fails to be listed in any travel brochures, and, similarly, relativism fails to make the list of plausible but competing philosophical positions. But at least Shangri-La might have been an actual place.
Travelers to Shangri-La discovered a hidden land full of wonders, but square circles were not counted among them. The land is conceivable; square circles are not. To invite one's readers to imagine the truth of relativism is to expect them to conceive the inconceivable. Relativism is false and necessarily so. It is one of those obliging views in philosophy that make their own refutation a simple matter.
The argument for this conclusion is familiar. Our would-be relativist tells us that all truth claims are relative to the perspective from which they are made. Thus, for example, the bald assertion "God exists" must be qualified. We must not say "God exists," for this is (in postmodernist terms) an illegitimate "metanarrative" we cannot impose upon others who may have their own preferred metanarratives. Rather, we should say, "God exists for Christians," leaving it open also to say, "God does not exist for Buddhists."
Once we have learned this simple lesson, it might occur to ask our instructor how we ought to apply this to relativism itself. May we say, simply, "Truth is relative"? Or is this, too, an illegitimate metanarrative? Must we qualify this statement as we did the others and say "Truth is relative for relativists"?
Neither option will do. Unqualified, the statement "Truth is relative" is self-refuting. It is hoist with its own petard. It has all the coherence of "This statement is false." For, unqualified, it urges its own truth in a decidedly non-relative sense, independent of any one perspective.
But things hardly go any better if our relativist attempts consistency by adding the qualification. For now he is telling us merely that truth is relative "for relativists," and this is to be understood in just the way that we are to understand "God exists for theists." The latter is consistent with "God does not exist for Buddhists," and so our qualified version of relativism is consistent with "Truth is not relative for non-relativists."
But what, after all, can it mean to say that "God exists for Christians" rather than simply "God exists"? Does anyone seriously think that the Maker of heaven and earth is conjured by the act of believing? And if they do, how do they reconcile this idea with the observation that God does not exist for Buddhists? Does God both exist and not exist? Surely, no one is suggesting such a thing. Are they?
All that the qualifications "for Christians" and "for Buddhists" can coherently mean is that, whereas Christians believe in God, Buddhists do not. This is coherent but it is not newsworthy. Shall we understand "Relativism is true for relativists" in the same way? Is it simply telling us what relativists believe, just as the other assertions inform us of the respective beliefs of Christians and Buddhists?
The Relativist's Truth
Unfortunately for our relativist, it cannot be understood in this way. And this is the reason there is no such thing as a relativist.
To believe something is to believe that it is true. If I believe that God exists, I believe the proposition "God exists" to be true. If our relativist believes that truth is relative, he believes that the proposition "Truth is relative" is true.
But here is his problem. In what sense are we to understand "is true"? We are back to our earlier dilemma. Either it is to be understood in the unqualified, non- relative sense, in which case the belief is self-refuting, or it has to be qualified. If, attempting to avoid self- refutation, the relativist qualifies the claim, he winds up with this cumbersome construction:
But, just as above, "for relativists" must itself refer to a belief that relativists hold. So the relativist's problem gets even worse:
Since to believe something is to believe that it is true, this statement necessarily means that:
As you can see, the relativist gets himself into a vicious circle from which there is no escape—not, at least, without abandoning relativism altogether. The "is true" clause cannot be translated away. It is like trying to throw away a boomerang; it keeps coming back.
Here's the point: Not only is it impossible that relativism is actually true, but it is equally impossible that anyone can believe that it is. And this is because the idea of belief itself is inextricably tied to that of truth.
To be a relativist is to believe that truth is relative, and this is an impossible belief. Despite the energetic gang down at the campus's coffee shops, there is no such thing as a relativist.
Mark D. Linville is Professor of Philosophy at Atlanta Christian College and author of Is Everything Permitted? Moral Values in a World Without God (RZIM Critical Questions Series). He and his wife Lynn have four grown children and four grandchildren, and live in Fayetteville, Georgia, where they attend the Christian Church.
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“Truth Café” first appeared in the September 2006 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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