Monday, January 31, 2011

Relativism: Where Rational Thinking Goes To Die

For the next few posts, I am going to address the most ridiculous, frustrating approach to thinking the world has ever produced -- RELATIVISM -- and I am not exaggerating when I say that. I do this not to simply prove a point or engage in some kind of intellectual gymnastics. I do this because relativism is more than frustrating and vacuous; it is dangerous, not only to the church within which it has taken hold, but to society in general. Relativism is a cancer that is eating up the way people see the world and interact with one another in it. It is doing this because it is corrosive to the concept of truth itself, and therefore contrary to reality.

[For those who will want to dig further, I cannot recommend the book (cover to the right), Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted In Midair, highly enough. Frank Beckwith and Greg Koukl do a masterful job refuting every aspect of relativism in this short, readable, and highly impactful treatment that I found invaluable in helping to identify and respond to the silliness of relativism. Koukl also has a downloadable (.mp3 format) talk on his website here: The Bankruptcy of Relativism. This link is to Stand To Reason's secure website so you may have to register there to be able to download the talk -- registration is free.]

Some recent conversations I have had elsewhere about this topic have compelled me to talk about it here because the claims of relativists -- and the responses I have gotten to my challenges to those claims -- beg to be refuted and shown for what they are: utter nonsense. There is just no other way to put it. Unlike some of the relativists I have encountered, I will not identify the individuals who have made these claims because who they are has no bearing on the ideas they are trying to defend. As it has always been, my goal here is to challenge bad ideas, not embarrass the people who hold to them.

That said, I will not hesitate to quote these folks verbatim to demonstrate how truly ridiculous some of the things they say are. I can promise you that if I do quote someone here, I have not made the quote up. I don't need to. Those who attempt to defend relativism do just fine making their views sound silly all by themselves.

Relativism has been around for centuries but has gone more mainstream over the last three hundred years or so as "postmodern" philosophy came more into vogue. The philosophical road to postmodernity is complicated, but a simple model to understand what it is begins during the Enlightenment (roughly 17th -18th centuries). Because of the corruption in the church, and as a reaction against it, this was the first time in human history that divine revelation was dismissed as a way to know true things. In its place, human reason and science were elevated to almost (if not actual) divine status. This brought us "modernism" and our subsequent deification of science (labeled "scientism") as the only way to find the truth about anything.

Science seemed to work. It brought us the staggering worldly successes and the technology that we are all familiar with today. Unfortunately, "scientific" solutions were also brought to bear on social issues ... and those failed miserably. Think: the French Reign of Terror, Nazi eugenics, and Soviet communism. The devastating results of trusting science as the only source of knowledge of the truth -- and the only way to fix the world's ills -- led to skepticism about whether or not we could know anything for sure. Since revelation had long since been in doubt, and since science seemed to have also led us astray, some philosophers concluded that there was nothing we could trust for sure -- and this led to the philosophy that we refer to today as postmodernism.*

Here's the thing. Modernism was born because some abused the authority and power of the church. The church needed reformation, no doubt. Similarly, postmodernism was born because of the horrific failures of modernism, which also had problems that needed to be addressed. Postmodernism is a reaction against that -- and rightfully so. But the problem with each of these philosophical trends is that they are rooted in an incomplete view of the world. For this discussion, the important thing to remember is that postmodernism is characterized by an over-arching distrust of anything or anyone that claims to know true things.

Relativism is postmodernism's degenerate offspring.

Because of the general distrust inherent in postmodernism, anyone who makes truth claims about anything is met with suspicion at best, derision more likely. This is where we hear statements like: "There is no truth," "True for you maybe, but not for me," and "Who are you to impose your morality on me?"

It's not just that postmodernists (PM) distrust you if you make a truth claim, they think you are dangerous, oppressive, intolerant and/or arrogant for doing so. This view toward truth and ethics manifests itself in both veritical (truth-related) relativism (VR), and moral (or, more accurately, ethical) relativism (MR).

In the interest of not making these posts too long, I will begin to take those on next time.


[* Those familiar with the history of philosophy will no doubt see this summary for what it is, simplistic and incomplete. That's OK. I'm not a philosopher. But my goal here is modest -- to trace the big picture as a means of understanding the foundations and motivations of postmodernism. For that, it's good enough.]

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