Why Should You Believe It?

Relativism has a long history in our intellectual culture, and takes several different forms, such as relativism about knowledge and truth, ethical values, aesthetic quality, and cultural norms, to mention a few. Paul Boghossian’s book concentrates on the first of these. The basic idea he opposes is that claims to objective truth and knowledge, for example the claim that hydrogen atoms have one electron, are in fact only valid relative to a set of cultural attitudes, or to some other subjective way of perceiving the world. Furthermore, according to relativism, inconsistent claims may have what he calls “equal validity.” There can be no universally valid knowledge claims.

There is a traditional refutation of relativism, as follows: The claim that all truth is relative is itself either relative or not. If it is relative then we need not accept it because it is only valid relative to somebody’s attitudes, which we may not share. If it is not relative, but absolute, then it refutes the view that all truth is relative. Either way relativism is refuted. Boghossian considers this traditional refutation and though he thinks it is serious, he does not regard it as decisive. For one thing, most relativists regard it as a kind of logical trick. They think that they are possessed of a deep insight, that all of our knowledge claims are made relative to a certain set of attitudes, cultural norms, and prejudices. This insight is not refuted by logical arguments, or so they suppose.

The currently most influential form of relativism is social constructivism, which Boghossian defines as follows: “A fact is socially constructed if and only if it is necessarily true that it could only have obtained through the contingent actions of a social group.” The social constructivist is anxious to expose construction where none had been suspected, where something that is in fact essentially social had come to masquerade as part of the natural world. Many social constructivists find it liberating because it frees us from the apparent oppression of supposing that we are forced to accept claims about the world as matters of mind-independent fact when in reality they are all socially constructed. If we do not like a fact that others have constructed, we can construct another fact that we prefer.

What do relativism and social constructivism look like in practice? Boghossian gives a number of striking examples. According to our best evidence, the Native Americans arrived on this continent from the Eurasian landmass by crossing over the Bering Strait; but according to some Native American accounts they are the descendants of the Buffalo people, and they came from inside the earth after supernatural spirits prepared this world for habitation by humans. So here are two alternative and inconsistent accounts. Some anthropologists say that one account is as good as the other. As one put it, “Science is just one of many ways of knowing the world. [The Zunis’ worldview is] just as valid as the archaeological viewpoint of what …

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Fear of Knowledge’: An Exchange December 17, 2009