Lately I have been considering myself a relativist. To cast away the kneejerks, I don’t consider all belief systems equally valid (with caveats1). Wikipedia sums it up nicely:
… that truth is always relative to some particular frame of reference, such as a language or a culture.
I have noticed an increase in my opposition to what I am currently calling “scientific realism” — the belief that discoveries made by science are true, and other things are false (basically just an incarnation of absolutism). Yesterday I had an impassioned argument (still in good fun, though) with my roommate about our differences in perception. I noticed my emotions firing up around this subject, a symptom begging me to analyze its cause. Humans get very emotional when their thoughts approach a shattering of a core belief, so I am curious if one is near.
This time, instead of a philosophical persuasive essay, I’m just going to write down some of my observations.
In the conversation with my roommate Monty (who I consider quite intelligent), mostly a battle over semantics, I found the following ensemble of his ideas to leave an impression on me:
- Newtonian gravity is false, and General Relativity is true.
- If he lived 200 years ago, Newtonian physics would be true.
- One thing cannot be more true than another (except in the trivial case of one thing being true and the other false, of course).
- General Relativity and The Standard Model, which are mathematically incompatible, can both be true at the same time.
- He hasn’t yet seen any evidence that would suggest there are things that can’t eventually be explained by our current scientific ideas.
Taken together, these ideas are fascinating to me. They indicate a different definition of truth than the one I use, and I’m fascinated because I don’t have a concept that I could substitute for it. On surface interpretation, these statements seem inconsistent to me, so I am really curious about the concept from which they arise. (I am pretty sure (5) is just a fallacy though: what would such evidence look like?)
I have met others who claim that they do not have beliefs. I find this to be common among scientific realists. I wonder what definition of “belief” they use to be able to consider themselves devoid of it; so far when I have pried I am just evaded. There are two reasons I evade inquiries: (1) I am not taking the conversation seriously, which may be because it is threatening my beliefs, or other reasons; and (2) the inquiries are using words in ways that don’t have meaning to me, so I answer in riddles that bring out the dissonance2. I usually assume they are doing it because their beliefs are being threatened3; what makes me curious is the possibility that they are evading because of (2)4. Perhaps I am using “belief” incorrectly when asking that question.
Among Skeptics, there is another possible reason to avoid the word “belief”: because it is very close to “faith”, the buzzword of the enemy. Maybe they use the word “truth” to mean what I call “belief”… but then the idea that someone’s beliefs can be false would be nonsense.
I think most of my anti-realism comes from a desire to (at least give due diligence to) respect the belief systems of others. I think I may start considering “true” to be a value judgement (which, as an experiment, I am trying to avoid). I had a debate with a young earth creationist, a belief system I typically have a hard time respecting. After a long time, I think I heard an essential difference, when he said (paraphrasing): “I believe there is a God because I don’t want to live in a world without a God.” That indicates to me a different relationship to truth — that truth and desirability are related concepts — and opened to me the possibility of respecting his belief system a little more.
Dan Piponi made a brilliant comment on twitter during a conversation about realism: “I don’t think ‘reality’ means much. It’s just a placeholder to make the sentence grammatical.”
1 What exactly does a belief system being “valid” mean?
2 This will happen, for example, if you ask me whether I believe extra-terrestrial life exists, because I get hung up on the definition of “life”. People seem to acknowledge the subtlety of that word, but then keep using the word anyway as if the inability to define it is no big thing: “you know what I mean.” No, I actually don’t.
3 Probably because it confirms my superiority.
4 Possibly because it threatens my superiority.