By Michael O’Leary

Relativism still has no foundation

It seems that we have arrived in a post-truth era: Whereas the former President of the USA published scientific articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals, the sitting President denies scientific research any credibility and states that climate change has been invented by the Chinese with the intention to harm the US economy. In other terms, the sitting President believes that there is no such thing as objective truth, but that truth is contingent upon what one believes or on how one feels. Of course some truths are contingent upon what one believes: For instance, it is true that I believe that the earth is flat if I believe that the Earth is flat. However, there are also other truths that are not at all contingent on anyone’s beliefs. Take the content of my belief that the Earth is round, namely: that the Earth is round. Whether the Earth is round is not a matter of opinion. For the Earth and its shape are there independently of what we think of them. In that sense, the Earth is part of the external world. So the post-truth advocate’s claim is that truth about the external world is relative to our individual emotional states, economic ambitions, sets of beliefs, etc. In short:


  • Truth about the external world is contingent on individual factors


We could ridicule that position by asking back with two questions:

  1. Do you believe that (1) is objectively true? If yes, that view is self-contradictory, if not it is just some sarcastic mimicry.
  2. Do you also believe this about tresholds, doorposts, money on your credit card, your wife cheating on you? It seems that, quite obviously not.


But we could also be more charitable with people holding that view. This does not mean that we should psychologise them, but it is a principle of academic inquiry that we should not only look for the gaps in the opponent’s theory but also try to find the rational grounds on which they are based. This is the principle of charity.

Indeed, there are many grounds for a relativistic stance, of which we shall look at two. First, the media often have to report on events and persons about which and whom only very little is known, so the journalists have to build a story around these few bare facts. Inevitably a story will be told based on the particular perspective of the journalist or the media outlet. It is in this light that the Irish writer James Joyce calls the part of his epic novel Ulysses that is concerned with journalism Aeolus. In Homer’s odyssey Odysseus receives a bag from Aeolus which he is not allowed to open. Of course, as any classical figure, Odysseus opens the bag on his ship and out comes a strong wind that changes directions all the time so the ship gets lost in the sea. By calling his chapter on journalism Aeolus, Joyce expresses the problem that in journalism stories are built that can be just as misleading as they provide us with a sense of orientation on what is going on.

The media have a high responsibility to do their best to avoid a biased interpretation of that indetermined content, a responsibility which is jeopardised by the conflation of what is known among journalists as the separation of church and state. By “the separation of church and state” journalists understand that they should not report differently even if the report clashes with the interest of the media outlet’s sponsors. Due to the high financial pressure today’s journalism suffers from (which is mostly due to the new paradigm that newspapers should not only cover their costs but that they should also generate benefits for their investors), the separation between church and state is in jeopardy. This structural shift in turn fuels the impression that even the best journalistic work is just fake news. So, looking at the way the media work, there is at least some reason for the relativist’s claim that truth is contingent on individual factors.

The second ground for a relativistic stance is less political, less crass but just as acerbic: In academic research, there is, just as in journalism, a pressure to produce results that can be published, that can be presented to politicians, and that can be transformed into patentable technologies. In that sense, academic research is also just a social institution with its biases. However, in addition to that practical reason for relativism, there exists a further ground for doubt: Even if academic research were free of social pressures from the outside and could be devoted to finding out only the truth, it would still produce truths that will, in the near or far future, turn out to be falsehoods. In any case we know today about most of the scientific findings of the past that they have led the scientists to false conclusions. Since we know that practically all science from the past has turned out to be false after all, we have good grounds to assume that today’s scientific findings are false too. Where does this leave us with our relativist who claims that truth is always contingent on individual factors? In our fictional ideal case of academic enquiry, individual, or, for that matter, institutional factors, have by definition been ruled out. Nevertheless, scientific truth is contingent on historical factors that influence the scientists’ explanations. So the relativists’ claim in (1) should be amended in the following way:


  • Truth about the external world is contingent on individual and other historical factors


That is of course different from the original formulation, but the core of the relativistic idea, namely that truth is relative to non-truth and hence that there is no objective truth, remains intact.

On the face of it, these two reasons seem to be good grounds for a relativistic stance. Nevertheless, the relativist is in the wrong – at least when they ground their claim on these two sorts of reasons. Even though the relativist’s reasons for disbelief of the media are justifiable, the conclusion that we should be relativists does not follow. For a warranted critique of the inner workings of media outlets helps to better understand how the world works. A relativist stance does not help in that way. Likewise, with the problems of academic research: when researchers falsify results from past studies, they contribute to our understanding of how the world works by eliminating false beliefs. No relativist stance can contribute to our understanding of how the world works in that way. In this sense, the relativist stance is importantly different from their argument. Hence, relativism still has no foundation.


Summer 2017, Michael O’Leary