Saturday, October 31, 2009


Relativism can be summarised in many ways, some of which are pithy, some of which are earthy, some of which are rather salty. The most important point about relativism is that it is the bastard child of the idea that there is no absolute reference point in the universe. That might be true of an infinite universe with no centre; it is not true of our human universe, which has no choice but to be anthropocentric.

That said, things like moral relativism can be compared to robot artificial intelligence when applied to shape/colour combinations and asked to make qualitative judgements about them. For example, consider a large blue sphere and a small red cube: which of them is closer to the ideal of a medium-sized blue cube? Or a medium-sized green cylinder?

This is the problem; given any complex single human concept such as morality, you can apply various schemata to decompose it into dimensions. Then you will find that it is hard to say which dimensions are more important, because if you've done it right, they should be orthogonal — that is, not related to each other at all.

For example, the classical idea of what ought to be learnt comprises three dimensions: what is truth, what is goodness, and what is beauty. Neil Postman and Howard Gardner between them pointed out that teaching mathematics, history and art would thus suffice for a full basic curriculum; in theory, the argument went, mathematics is all about defining truth and falsehood, a grasp of history would teach the difference between good and evil, and art (or music) would teach the difference between beauty and the lack of it.

That's obviously far too simplistic. You'd end up asking if art could be seen as false or evil, or if mathematics could be seen as beautiful, or if history could be false. These seem like legitimate questions, and the difficulty of answering them drives people into relativism (or insanity, which is about the same thing). The fact is that we believe in absolutes. A relativist must believe that there is a relationship of some sort between the things he connects by relativism; this relationship either exists or it does not, and if he claims that it is of unknown quality of existence, then he makes his own argument dubious.

In my last few months of research, looking at so-called Eastern and Western paradigms, I've found only two differences worth noting. Firstly, the original languages of thought expression were different; this made both sides believe that the other side had something fundamentally different. Secondly, the historical and cultural backgrounds were different, and each side made the most of it to claim exceptionalism or reverse exceptionalism.

That's all nonsense. As the Preacher said, there is nothing new under the sun. The same kinds of thoughts have been expressed in every civilisation, in every faith, and in every language. It is only the problem of information demodulation or decryption that has made it seem not so. The only different thoughts are thoughts linked to material objects or phenomena that have not been observed before by someone else.

A person who has watched the intense event of childbirth is not exactly the same as another one who has done so, but he is very much different from one who has not seen such a thing at all. A green ball may not be a blue ball, but it is definitely more of a kind than a red cube would be with either.

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