Friday, February 4, 2011

Relativism: Living In Candyland

[In keeping with the topic of relativism, this is a re-post of mine from a few years back that discusses the issue in a little more detail. It's kind of long but it contains a little more discussion of just why relativism is so misguided]

I want to start off by making a startling personal admission that you may find shocking. You may continue at your own risk but consider yourself properly warned. Here goes ….

I hate Candyland.

Always have. Always will. The game drives me nuts. When my kids were little, I used to find any kind of excuse to not play it with them. But, because I did not want to hurt their feelings or make a big deal about it, I was sometimes trapped into participating in the game that never seems to end. It requires no skill, no memorization, no strategy. It has no point.

It is simply a mindless game of chance in which your only claim to victory is the random drawing of the right colored card. Mindless that is, unless you are the Dad who pre-stacks the cards so that your happily oblivious kid always seems to randomly draw the exact cards he needs, in the exact order he needs to draw them, in order to reach the pinnacle of Candyland achievement – the coveted "Candy Castle."


Yes, I cheated at Candyland. And yes, I know I shouldn't be cheating. But please -- I only practiced "positive" cheating. And yes, I know that playing Candyland requires no skill or strategy because it is a game for little kids. I get it. But any game that: discourages actual thinking so blatantly; is so unsystematic and muddled that rule violations go unnoticed; can be so easily manipulated by those in positions of power; and that offers such a vacuous and unsatisfying payoff -- any game like that is a colossal waste of my time. I boycotted it years ago.

I thought I had put my disdain for Candyland behind me, until I began reading Douglas Groothuis’s book, Truth Decay, a defense of Christianity "against the challenges of postmodernism." One of the postmodern philosophers Groothuis repeatedly quotes in the book is Richard Rorty, the former Stanford professor who died last month. Rorty's death has prompted a rash of articles about him, many of which I have read over the last few weeks. In short, these events converged in my realization that we have people – serious, educated, intellectually gifted people – who live their lives based on a worldview that effectively treats morality, ethics and the pursuit of truth no differently than a rainy afternoon game of Candyland.

Let me explain ...

There are two basic ways that we can view truth. One is a view that was first formalized by Aristotle nearly 2300 years ago. This is the correspondence theory of truth. On this view, truth is propositional. As Aristotle put it in his Metaphysics, Book 4, Part 7:

This is clear, in the first place, if we define what the true and the false are. To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true; so that he who says of anything that it is, or that it is not, will say either what is true or what is false; but neither what is nor what is not is said to be or not to be ...

That is, true beliefs and propositions correspond to the way the world actually is. I could say that I am capable of playing on the PGA Tour and winning the U.S. Open. But because that belief does not correspond with the way the world actually is, my belief would not be true. The key is that what a belief is about "is not dependent on our mind believing it," as Groothuis puts it (89). "The truth value of a proposition's content is 'mind-independent.'" Whether or not something is true depends on whether or not it corresponds with objective, external reality.

Though this definition is loaded with philosopher-speak, the concept of correspondence theory truth probably seems elementary to most of us. But that's because we don't live in Candyland. Richard Rorty and his postmodern ilk, do.

Their view of truth has been given several names (constructivist, pragmatic, consensus) that each have subtle philosophical differences but all can be categorized under what Groothuis labels the coherence theory of truth. For a coherentist, all one needs to do to find truth is identify a set of statements that are consistent with one another -- that cohere together. Truth, they say, is not found, it is formed. It is constructed by the language/vocabulary used within various "communities" who decide for themselves what will be true and what will be false.

Those who hold to this view are prone to make statements like this one from Richard Rorty:

It is useless to ask whether one vocabulary rather than another is closer to reality. For different vocabularies serve different purposes, and there is no such thing as a purpose that is closer to reality than another purpose ... Nothing is conveyed in saying ... that the vocabulary in which we predict the motion of a planet is more in touch with how things really are than the vocabulary in which we assign the planet an astrological influence. (quoted by Groothuis in Truth Decay, p.93)

To folks like Rorty, we have no basis for claiming that the statements an astronomer makes about planetary motion are any more "true" than the predictions of some astrologer about the effect of those same stars and planets on your personality and destiny. Rorty, in other words, lives in philosophical Candyland -- a place where any old truth will do, as long as everyone who plays agrees to play by the same rules. You can even make them up as you go along or change them on a whim. This view is the philosophical basis for the relativistic culture that is threatening to engulf us all.

Groothuis summarizes where such a view will lead (103):

...if truth is a mere social construction, with no outside reference to an independent reality, it has no ability to anchor protest, to inspire dissent, to orient the soul toward what is objectively good and to liberate those ensnared in error.

This is not how the real world works. It most assuredly is not how the Christian worldview inspires us to live. It makes ethics, values and morality into a self or society-constructed game. To reiterate my earlier reasons for rejecting such a game ...

It discourages actual thinking. The Candyland mentality is really no mentality at all. It is a worldview that discourages intellectual rigor because it is an experientially and emotionally based rationalization for aberrant human behavior. It has to be. No honestly thinking human could assert, as Rorty does, that astrology and science contain equal truth value unless they were either consciously or unconsciously disengaging their mind from the process of the pursuit of that truth. No intellectually honest human being could assert, as Rorty has, that:

I do not think there are plain moral facts out there ... nor any neutral ground on which to stand and argue that either torture or kindness are preferable to one another. (Qutoed in National Review, 7/9/07, p. 34, "Truth Was Not His Bag")

At least he got the first four words of that quote right. And from that kind of shockingly empty logic we get the inevitable consequence that ...

It is so unsystematic and muddled that rule violations go unnoticed. Rorty, scoffing at those who hold to a correspondence theory of truth, is quoted as saying:

You can still find philosophy professors who will solemnly tell you that they are seeking the truth, not just a story or a consensus but an honest-to-God, down-home, accurate representation of the way the world is. (Ibid, p. 34)

Philosophy professors like Rorty chastise those who believe in "truth" by insisting that there is no objective truth. But the irony in statements like these is that Rorty (et al) believe that their view is true! The fallacy of their logic is that, if they are right about the consensus theory of truth they have no basis on which to critique those in other "communities" who hold to a different view. But they critique them anyway because, whether they acknowledge it or not, they live in the real world -- where things are objectively true or false. They cannot escape it. They write books trying to convince you that their view is objectively true, all the while insisting that there is no such thing as objective truth.

It can be easily manipulated by those in positions of power. Just as I stacked the Candyland cards to achieve the outcome I wanted, those who hold to the coherentist view of truth set the stage for misuse of the system by those who control it. Rorty explains how those who hold to his view of truth:

...take the unit of persuasion to be a vocabulary rather than a proposition. [Their] method is redescription rather than inference. [They] specialize in redescribing ranges of objects or events ... in hope of inciting people to adopt and extend the jargon ... [and] hopes that by the time [they] have finished using old words in a new sense, not to mention introducing brand new words, people will no longer ask questions phrased in the old words. (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, p. 78)

To use "a vocabulary" Rorty attempts to avoid, this method of language manipulation can also be referred to as propaganda. As Groothuis points out, "Nazis, communists, fascists and assorted racists have excelled in such redescriptions." It was Hitler who bragged that if you tell people the same lie long enough, eventually they will accept it as being true. This is not just some unintended consequence of the application of the consensus view of truth, it is, as Rorty points out, the stated goal of those who adopt it.

It offers us a vacuous and unsatisfying payoff. The payoff for living in, or even winning at, Candyland is an empty one. It can change at the whim of players who can decide not to play if they wish, or cheat if they can, and impermanent rules that demand no adherence -- all this to reach a destination that makes no difference. While those who hold to objective truth in the real world can also misuse their power and influence, doing so demands that they suffer consequences inherent in the worldview they hold to. Players in Candyland bear no such consequence because they make or break rules to which their worldview holds no allegiance.

Living in Candyland, or under the parallel worldview of situational ethics, relativistic morality and subjective truth, leaves one without any foundation, devoid of any permanent goals, and therefore with nothing to hope for. It is the practice of living a life that serves only to fill meaningless time with pointless endeavors. For if there is no objective truth or reason beyond that we create on the game board, there can be no foundational reference by which one can measure the value or reality of one's success.

One of the critiques of the correspondence theory is that those who adhere to it are claiming to have absolute certainty about how the world really is and that they use that certainty to arrogantly and oppressively impose their views on others. But this accusation misunderstands some basic definitions. The correspondence view acknowledges that:

Truth is a property of propositions

Certainty is a property of persons

Truth is an objective property of propositions whether we choose to believe them or not. Objective realists hold that truth and morality work regardless of whether we admit to them or not, and that we deny both with the same inherent risk as stepping off a skyscraper in denial of gravity. This entails the reality of objective truth and that it is knowable. But holding to such a view of truth does not entail a claim to know the absolute truth exhaustively. Like gravity, we know and understand that it works. Our behavior acknowledges this truth even if we cannot fully understand how it works. We know, even if we do not know completely.

Certainty, on the other hand, is a property of persons who may or may not hold their certainty about true things. Ptolemy was certain that the Sun revolved around the Earth. But Ptolemy was wrong -- even if he was honestly and sincerely seeking to know the truth. Sincerity does not rescue certainty from falsity.

So, yes, there are those who abuse their position by imposing their views on others. But those who do so are not solely in the camp of objective realism. Wrongheaded certainty and abuse are not the traits of those who hold to any specific worldview, they are the traits of fallen human beings which, as far as I can tell, includes every one of us. The question is not about who corrupts their position with misguided certainty, the question is: Whose view of truth comports best with the way the world really works?

It sure isn't someone who is living in philosophical Candyland.

No, I think the Candyland-dwellers' problem with the correspondence view of truth lies in a different area -- with the nature and implications of what Groothuis offers as the eight distinctive properties of objective truth:

  1. It exists and is knowable
  2. It is absolute
  3. It is universal
  4. It is eternally engaging and momentous, not trendy or superficial
  5. It is exclusive, specific and antithetical
  6. It is systematic and unified
  7. It is not an end, but a means to another end

Without delving into each of these individually, it is plain that these properties are repulsive to the Candyland world of subjective-truth relativists. But none is more revolting to them than:

8. It is revealed by God

In these characteristics of True Truth, the relativist finds himself accountable to a standard, and to a Person, that he can't avoid or just explain away. True Truth is not negotiable. It is not constructed. And adherence to it is not optional -- it comes with consequence.

True Truth is not made up in a pointless little game we play for fun. It is the currency we trade with in the world we live in. And that makes it the real thing.


  1. So, you have confessed you are a cheater. Cheating at Candyland?! Bob! Absolved. (Wonderful post!)

  2. I feel so much better having "confessed." I thought it would be safe to admit it now that the youngest is almost 14 :-) I have to say I would rather be known as a reformed CandyLand con artist than a relativist of any kind.

  3. Would Groothius argue that in every case the eight properties of objective truth hold firm? By this I mean to ask if he would argue that in every situation we are capable of discovering some single "truth" which always applies, some answer or action that embodies truth fully and completely?

    Or would he admit that in many situations we are unable to discover truth, calling into question property #1?

  4. Kevin: Would Groothius argue that in every case the eight properties of objective truth hold firm?

    I hesitate to speak for Dr. Groothuis (PhD in Philosophy), but I would assume so since this is how he defines objective truth -- unless I have misrepresented his view in some way.

    Kevin: By this I mean to ask if he would argue that in every situation we are capable of discovering some single "truth" which always applies, some answer or action that embodies truth fully and completely?

    Maybe you’re missing his point. Objective truth exists independent of any “situation.” As I thought I made clear, truth is a property of a propositional claim that either does, or does not, correspond to the way the world actually is. This means that a truth claim is either true or false, and that it applies to all people, at all times, in all places.

    Perhaps you’re confusing objective truth with subjective “truth”? Or perhaps you’re making a jump to moral preferences (re: your mentioning the applicability of some action you can decide to take). Neither of these is applicable to a discussion of the existence of objective truth itself.

    Kevin: Or would he admit that in many situations we are unable to discover truth, calling into question property #1?

    Admit? The way you asked your question suggests that Dr. Groothuis knows and agrees with your assertion but is stubbornly refusing to let anyone else know it. Is that what you meant? And, again, it sounds like you are trying to turn this into a discussion of morality instead of a discussion of truth itself. Once again, you are confusing a couple of concepts. The status of a proposition as being true is simply about whether or not it corresponds to reality. How we come to know that is epistemology (how we know things), which is a totally different subject.

    All that said, I’d still be interested in your answer regarding the statements of Christ that he came to "testify to the truth" and his claim that he was "THE way, THE truth, and THE life." He didn't say, "A" truth; he said "The" truth. Do you think he was referring to a relative truth or an absolute truth when he said that? If you think his claims could be taken as relativistic, how would you defend that view?

  5. I'm not confusing anything. The difference is that you see objective truth and "subjective truth" as completely different things; I see them as two sides of the same coin. I thought I had explained this previously (in our other conversations), but perhaps not. Let me clarify.

    My stance all along has been that some truth is objective (or absolute, or whatever word you want to apply) and that some truth is subjective (or relative, or whatever). Truth does not exist completely under one umbrella or another; rather, certain aspects of truth are absolute while some are not.

    So, with regards to your Christ question, I would agree with your assertion that Jesus was making a truth claim that is absolute. He was referring to an absolute truth, not a subjective one. This, I think, is both what you wanted me to say as well as what I believe.

    The important thing is this: you asked if Jesus was referring to an absolute truth. I agree. The truth of his being the way, life and truth is non-negotiable and constant. But that is only one question of truth, one instance where truth is absolute.

    In many other cases, there is no absolute truth (or at the very least truth doesn't make itself clear or manifest). Now, you might argue that in those cases there is no "truth" at all or that truth doesn't apply, and that the situations are purely subjective. Okay, fair enough. If that is the case, then we are just haggling over the definitions of words. If not, I have a fundamental disagreement with you over what truth is. And I am willing to live with that.

    But if the former is the case, how can Groothuis' first property of truth hold firm? Shouldn't it be the case that truth is apparent in every situation if "it exists and is knowable"?

  6. Kevin;
    I want to be clear and fair on this so ... Before I try to answer (since we do seem to be talking past each other), can you give me an example of the type of "subjective truth" claim you're talking about? I want to be sure what you mean by that.

    Thanks ...

  7. Subjective truth manifests itself within relationships, or matters of personal preference. My favorite color is green - that is truth, but subjectively so. Subjective truth applies to anything that relies on perception.

    That's about as concise an answer as I can give.

  8. As Ayn Rand said, "Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." But the way we interact with that reality is entirely subjective, a matter of perception. By this I mean that yes, we can know the truth of addition or chemistry. But in many cases (excluding murder, rape, etc.) we cannot know the truth of our moral beliefs. They are instead subjective, subject to our perception of reality and morality.

  9. Kevin:
    Thanks. That clears things up. I am out flying all day so I don't have time to respond fully. I will as soon as possible. While I agree with you to a point (shocking, I know :-) ), I think we disagree in the fact that moral knowledge is somehow in a different category than other knowledge. I reject that secularist view and will exain why later. Also, while I love Ayn Rand's novels, you have to understand that her atheism drove her own view of moral knowledge.

    Thanks for the reply ... I'll get back to this as I can.

  10. Kevin,

    You said: Subjective truth manifests itself within relationships, or matters of personal preference. My favorite color is green - that is truth, but subjectively so. Subjective truth applies to anything that relies on perception … As Ayn Rand said, "Reality exists as an objective absolute — facts are facts, independent of man's feelings, wishes, hopes or fears." But the way we interact with that reality is entirely subjective, a matter of perception. .

    Agreed. The Ayn Rand quote is exactly what I mean by Truth. But notice that she says it is independent of feelings etc. So it doesn’t matter how you feel about truth or whether you choose to accept it. That doesn’t change anything about the truth. “The way you interact” with it has no bearing on whether or not it is true.

    Yes, there are subjective truths (opinions) but they are not statements about the truth of the object being referred to; they are statements about the subject (you). When I refer to truth I do not include subjective opinion, so maybe our difference there is a simple case of definitions, BUT, you also said …

    we can know the truth of addition or chemistry. But in many cases (excluding murder, rape, etc.) we cannot know the truth of our moral beliefs. They are instead subjective, subject to our perception of reality and morality.

    This is a different thing. It does not follow that we can know the truth of scientific-type things but that we cannot know the truth of moral-type things. Why not? Both are propositions about objective truth.

    Thinking this way is a common result of modernist thinking where issues of value, spirituality, religion etc. are thought to be irrational and personal but not “real” (like math or science). My point is that both types of things are real things that we CAN know through basic intuition and conscience (See Romans 1:20 or Psalm 19). Where the modern/postmodern philosophy sees these as mutually exclusive categories, the Christian worldview sees them as a holistic reality that we can apprehend and understand.

    Where this becomes important is in how we understand the source of moral truth. Ayn Rand’s atheism (and modernist philosophy) separates them and results in a humanism that leaves the moral status of a proposition up to the whim of person. All her characters live that to the hilt -- selfishness becomes a virtue (she says this over and over again). But a theistic view of the world sees moral reality as being grounded in God himself -- an objective reality that we must become subservient to, not define for ourselves.


Though I do not moderate comments, I reserve the right to delete any comment that I deem inappropriate. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't tolerate abusive or objectionable language of any kind.