Questionable Motives

October 14, 2011

Can we know what’s true in reality?

I keep coming across this notion that all truth is relative, so that scientific findings accomplished by man should be understood to be less reliable that the certainties that can be assumed deduced from faith-based beliefs.

I admit, this argument drives me nuts. The latest was from reader Daniel who argues that Truth is a being with whom we can have a personal relationship, and that atheists lose effectiveness in theistic discussions when they fail to appreciate this special relationship the faithful have with their ‘truths’ cum manifestations of various gods. One responder wrote:

In a life filled with people whose individual realities depend on their personal perceptions instead of the true unprejudiced reality, our belief systems…our truths, if you will, are definitely biased. Everyone’s reference points are based on their perceptions of their experiences. Even our perceptions of the truths […] are subject to unreliability because we are who we are and our eschewed views. Only one who has the life of God in him can hope to taste of truth and only as we constantly examine ourselves and stay in fellowship with Him can we hope to interpret that truth correctly.

So I responded:

I think Feynman’s quote here is apt when it comes to trusting beliefs and perspectives:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

How do we not fool ourselves? Respecting the method of science – by using what is known as methodological naturalism – is an excellent starting point. The products of this method speak for themselves: so far, they work for everyone everywhere all the time. How is that ‘relative’ just because it always maintains room for doubt?

This notion – that what is true is somehow relative to one’s subjective experience and beliefs – is probably one of the most common yet odious opinions bandied about as if it were widely accepted as correct. It’s not. It’s an epistemological placebo for the intellectually lazy.

Yes, Virginia, there is a reality, and we can actually know something about it if we choose to make the honest effort. Pretending that our subjective faculties prohibits this discovering of reality is the worst kind of apologetics because it assumes we cannot know without certainty… and confuses anything less than certain with something less than what’s true in reality. This little shell game of substituted word meanings tries to make anything less-than-certain equivalent – and that’s where it veers off the twin paths of reason and reality and inserts the term ‘relative’ as if that were appropriate answer to this warped thinking. It’s not. It’s dishonest.

The physical laws of nature are not relative just because someone is so intellectually impoverished that they can only appreciate probabilities of P=1 to equate with what’s true and knowably so. It does not bolster this misunderstanding to pretend that all other and lesser probabilities are equivalently ‘relatively true’. That’s absurd and demonstrably so. To assume that anything less than certain means it is equivalent to something unknown is ridiculous by all practical measurements unless someone is honestly and equally surprised each and every morning that the sun rises. Such a person isn’t intellectually lazy but brain-damaged. Even so, few people are actually so dull and unimaginative that patterns in nature are either unrecognizable or equally untrustworthy.

To call anything less than certain ‘relative’ is a gross distortion of how much we can know and trust about that knowledge of reality we have gained. Relativism is an intentional and misleading excuse to try to make equivalent faith and fact, as if Ergo Jesus is a legitimate answer in place of I don’t know because I have some element of uncertainty. Relativism argued on the basis of this subjectivity is just broken thinking petrified into ignorance by a lack of intellectual honesty.

Any thoughts?


  1. I have come across his argument recently from my sister in law, who at a family wedding tried to convince me that a homeopathy was an equivalent treatment to chemotherapy, because chemotherapy doesn’t work for everyone and therefore homeopathy must be true or as equally true as chemotherapy in the treatment of cancer.

    By applying this logic – you could say that no one should stop at red traffic lights, because not all people crash when they drive through one…

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — October 15, 2011 @ 4:35 am | Reply

    • Wow. How frustrating. Where does one even begin to explain what causal efficacy means and why it matters to someone already convinced that water dilution increases potency of pathogenic memory… but not the potency of fecal and urinary memory? I have found that this belief in alternative, complimentary, and now integrated woo (such nice words) is usually based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what placebo (and/or nocebo) means. The woo is usually revealed when you ask someone to explain how the mysterious healing actually transfers from the method to the patient… and we stumble across the same kind of apologetics so common in religious ‘explanations’: some mysterious supernatural agency at work, that science doesn’t know everything, that there’s more to healing than empirical tinctures produced in some lab, that there is a conspiracy against the faithful, that the sympathetic researchers are targeted by non believers, yada yada yada. Funny, that

      Comment by tildeb — October 15, 2011 @ 8:05 am | Reply

  2. There are things that we know, and things that we don’t know. And things that we know we don’t know. And things that we don’t know that we don’t know.
    (Sorry–couldn’t resist). Reality–what a concept! (Sorry. Again).

    Comment by Davey — October 16, 2011 @ 12:40 am | Reply

  3. “Faith-based” reality bears NO reemblance or relevance to what is actual reality. If you believe that only god can make a tree, that is your prerogative, but
    there is an abundance of scientific research that shows how trees are actually made, and your belief does not change that.

    Comment by Davey — October 16, 2011 @ 12:45 am | Reply

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