|Series Theme: Apologetics|
Title: 2. Questions about bad 'Relativistic Thinking'
(A poor substitute for truth)
A series that helps consider the foundations for faith
Contents for overview:
• the difficulty of possibly new material.
1. What is a Relativism and why is it Important to Understand?
• the nature of Relativism
2. What is Relativism in respect of Space and Time?
• seeing the flaws of the argument that truth changes with time
3. How does Relativism Undermine Itself?
• why it is intellectually and philosophically flawed from the start
4. Why is Relativism NOT an Objection to Faith
• application in respect of the Bible and faith.
• summary of the failings of relativism
If this is an area with which you are familiar, then you will see that what follows is very much only a basic introduction.
If you are not familiar with this area of thought, if you want to get to grips with it, you may need to read and reread these notes to catch what is being said.
Relativism is a way of thinking of many in our world today – but does it stand up to investigation, and why is it important? That's what we are considering on this page.
1. What is Relativism and why is it Important to Understand?
a) Absolute or relative truth?
We live in an age that denies there is such a thing as absolute truth .
Absolute truth simply means that there are certain things that
regardless of the circumstances.
Another way of putting it is that when we say something is absolute , we mean
Generally we live in a society, in the West at least, where relativism prevails.
b) So what is Relativism?
‘Relativism' is a way of thinking that says:
Relativism exists because of ‘bad thinking' as we'll demonstrate.
c) Creeping Relativism
Let me conclude with a story.
In 1978 I started teaching Law. My students were either Architects or Surveyors or simply those from the Construction Industry, mostly in the age bracket 19 to 24. Each year we normally had a class of about thirty and for a short period I had two classes each year of about thirty. Because they came thinking that 'Law' would be difficult, I spent the first two hour period getting them to imagine they were in a post-holocaust civilisation and they were re-establishing society. Did they need rules for their new society and if so, why? Who was to make the rules and on what basis?
Here is the crucial thing I noticed as I taught that class for the next seventeen years. In 1978 when I asked, "Do you believe there are absolutes, do you believe there are some things that are right and some things that are wrong - always? " they all answered yes. In the early 1980's two of my students said, no, they didn't believe there are definitely things that are right or wrong. It was, they said, just what the individual thought was right for them. From then on, each year, more and more students in the group took the stand of those first two. By the end of that seventeen years not a single student said they believed in absolutes. For them, now, right was what was right for you the individua l.
That is how the thinking in our society changed through the 1980's and 1990's!
2. What is Relativism in respect of Space and Time?
a) Space & Time Confusions
Relativists might say that things are only true depending from where you view them, e.g. “My cup is to the right of my plate”
i.e. something is only true depending on my perspective – where I am standing in relation to the table. i.e. it appears relative in space according to my viewpoint.
So you might hear someone suggesting, "Well that may be true for you where you are with your perspective, but it is not true for me over here with mine ."
They may also say that truth is also considered relative to history, i.e. time. So your opponent might say that what was true for people three hundred years ago is not true for people today.
That is heard as, " Well, what was true for people in the past is not true for us today . "
NB. Facts remain unchanged at a specific point of time
The above illustrates confusions that arise between opinions and fact in relation to time. The following is about confusion that relates to specific time:
Example 1: Consider this statement: “I am age 32”
That only applied in one year of my life. It no longer applies now. However it was in that year absolutely true and is always true when I refer to that year.
Example 2: Take the statement, “At 10.00am there were three bottles of milk in my house.”
Is that an absolute statement of truth? If we examine my house at that time – there were four bottles – I was mistaken, I thought there were fewer.
What changes is not the fact of exactly how many bottles existed in my home at 10.00am, but my opinion or view of how many there were.
But note also that it was at that specific time. For that specific time it was objectively true. Six hours later it changed and it is no longer true that there are four bottles of milk in my home – but there still were at 10.00am !
[NB. When we speak about truth being objective, we mean that certain things were true regardless of how you viewed them or thought about them.]
b) Historical Examples
Consider the following:
i) Flat Earth Belief example
Years ago many people believed that the earth was flat. Today we know it isn't.
The truth about the earth hasn't changed, only people's opinions, now based on modern technology. What is not true today is the unfounded belief of hundreds of years ago.
ii) Demon Possession example
The Gospels clearly show Jesus dealing with demons, spirit entities that had taken up residence in human beings. Today those who minister in this realm know without a shadow of doubt that there are such personalities who speak with an entirely different voice, give supernatural strength and dominate a person with fear and evil. Exorcists also know that with a word of command that individual can be released from such an entity, never to exhibit those features ever again.
Relativists, who are atheists, simply write off the New Testament practice as an outdated belief without realising that the experience is exactly the same today.
What has changed today is that there are people, having nothing to do with this area of activity, who now speak against it without knowledge.
c) Some Conclusions
What we can conclude from these brief considerations is:
We should not be confused:
d) Putting it into Practice
At the moment, if you are new to this way of thinking, you may not have noticed how it crops up in everyday conversations or media discussions.
Be on the alert in the future and watch for these ways of thinking and be clear in your mind what is going on.
3. How does Relativism Undermine Itself?
As with so many of these philosophical arguments, they undermine themselves by definition and practice.
With Relativism there are a whole variety of ways it undermines itself:
Relativism maintains there are no absolute truths.
However to maintain relativism is true is to declare it is absolute, i.e. it is self-defeating
ii) Reliance on absolutes
Even more, relativism depends on appealing to factual truths to prove itself – which is relying upon a standard that it denies.
If relativism is true absolutely for everyone, it is false by definition. If it is only relative, relative for who? Does it apply for me, for you, for who?
iv) Problems of Opposites
A relativist may says, “Well God exists for you, but he doesn't for me.”
He either does exist or He doesn't exist. They can't both be true.
What the person actually means is, “You believe but I don't”, but belief is not the same as factual reality.
v) Problem of accusation
A relativist accuses the Christian believing in absolutes of being narrow minded and bigoted. Yet in claiming that relativism is right, the relativist is doing exactly the same as the absolutist.
vi) By Application within Society
For any society to have Laws, we have to maintain they will be applied to every citizen. We do not allow that one law can work for one person and another law for another person.
We impose moral absolutes, at least as far as the Law goes! We also impose this in business practices, in science and technology and medicine.
We only disregard it when we wish to act selfishly, but even then to disregard the requirements of society or of behaviour generally, means we bring upon ourselves a variety of unpleasant consequences.
vii) By Personal Application
Every person without exception believes in certain absolutes. It is the only way we survive. You believe it is absolutely wrong for me to kill you or your family.
There are a myriad ways that we will each apply this in our own lives for protection and for well-being.
In practice we do NOT believe in relativism when it comes to the way you will behave towards me!
4. Why is Relativism NOT an Objection to Faith?
Faith is built upon the Bible.
The cry of "What is true for you, may not be true for me" actually means, "I will not let my opinion be swayed by historical arguments."
i.e. if the historical background to the Bible as stated elsewhere on these pages IS as stated, then my opinion needs to be adjusted in the light of the objective truth about how the Bible came to be.
It God does exist and the Bible does contain His design for mankind, it is for EVERY person.
e.g. it speaks about the state of every human being who:
The cry of "What might have been true in the past is not true for today" actually means:
If the Bible is accurate is assessing the human problem, that is a problem which is the same at any point in time for any person.
The unique answer put forward is applicable at any point in history. Time is irrelevant, perspective is irrelevant , in the face of the evidence that can be assessed, as will be seen on later pages.
The purpose of these questions is to help you go back over the material and take it in. We suggest you highlight, copy and paste these questions and put them into your own word processing package and then alternate between them and the text and put your answers in your word processed page under each question.
1. What is Relativism?
1.1 What does ‘absolute truth' mean?
1.2 How does relativism deny there are absolutes?
1.3 Why, do you think, relativism is an enemy of the Bible?
2. Space & Time
2.1 How might a relativist dismiss the Bible?
(Don't worry about the rest of this fairly complicated section if it
appears confusing – it is only for those wanting deeper understanding)
3. Undermining Itself
3.1 Choose two of the seven ways given that relativism is undermined, that
particularly make sense to you and say why.
4. Not an Objection
4.1 What conclusion is drawn that suggests that relativism is not a real
objection to real faith?
5.1 Which of the summary points stands out most strongly to you?
(You will come along relativism is two other following pages because it is
so important in today's thinking)