Relativism, Knowledge, World

Well, well, well.

So, first of all let me say that Marcos had a good point when he brought up the discussion on Moral and Epistemic relativism. But I guess it is important to note that, as with anything in philosophy, general terms that end in “ism” are overall a bad clue to what is going on in the debate. Surely, we need those terms for pedagogical reasons, or even as a compass to guide the general terms of a discussion, but still, c’mon people…

It seems to me that Boghossian’s point towards Relativism could be summarized as 1) “even a relativist must believe in something”, and that believing in something indicates something that is not relative, that is,  “A has a belief”. Let’s leave it for now that the content of the belief “A” is in the open, and it may be very well that this belief does not correspond to any fact in the world. However, there is another point in Boghossian that seem to be relevant, that is, 2) “facts are facts independently of the mind of the relativist”.  Now, point 1 can be true of both moral and epistemic assertions (considering we want to distinguish both, to begin with). Point 2 seems to be especially true for epistemic assertions, say, for the facts in the world “out there”.

But it seems that we need to distinguish here between different kinds of relativistic positions that would respond to these points differently (forgive me the tautology). Now, what are we calling a relativist? Is a relativist someone who argues for the nonexistence of facts in the world? That is, a radical skeptic? Anyone who does not fit this radicalism, then, is a “contextualist”, but not a “relativist”? I ask that because it is rather important to understand who we are talking to when we say, for example, that “facts about the universe are independent of the mind”. Well, it seems to me that you do not need to be a relativist to ask “How so?”.

How do we separate facts “out there” from the possibility of describing those facts “out there”? Again, most relativists could agree that there are more or less adequate ways to describe objects out there, and even a radical relativist could (and I think would) allow us to say that we should express our beliefs about the world in more, rather than less, coherent ways. What I mean by that is even if a relativist believes that the external world is an illusion, or, that there is no external world, he  could at least grant us that since we are in this (illusory) situation where we use a (illusory) language, we could at least look at objects in a way that is more or less adequate.

Now, it seems to me that Boghossian is attempting to point at anyone that does not look at the world in a objective-realist mind frame is looking at the world as a relativist. There are views that are more or less relativistic, but they are all relativistic insofar they deny a certain objectivity to the way we describe the world “out there”.

It is curious to note that it seems that everyone outside the “objectivist” basket described above would hardly agree on anything but that it is a bit hasty to say that because there are facts out there, these facts exist independently of a mind capable of describing those facts.

Say that all organic life ends on Earth. Tomorrow. Now, it is still the case that all satellites currently orbiting Earth will still be orbiting it tomorrow. Who will say so? Who will comprehend them in that way? How can something be existent if there is nothing asserting its existence? The objectivist can not answer this question without resorting to some “absolute” notion of mind. And it’s funny to see the show of a objectivist making claims that resemble claims of a theologician. After all, the only thing asserting the existence of objects in a scenario without actual minds to assert existence will be the mind of god – however you want to call it. This blog suggests forty-two. Maybe sixty-four.

Again, most relativists do not claim that “anything goes”. They just claim that “somethings go”. Marcos brings the example of facts of nature, like “Jupiter has 64 satellites” as something “factual, real, and independent of the mind”. Again, how far are we willing to go with this example? First of all, this presuposes an ontology of concepts as something necessary. Maybe it is best to describe some cosmical objects as satellites, some other as planets, some others as comets, and etc. But is there a necessity to the process of labeling here? Furthermore, is the process of labeling (as necessary as it is) independent of minds capable of labeling? Even an objectivist must concede, at some point, that objects are related to minds capable of understanding and conceptualizing objects. Otherwise these objects only exist “in silence”, and that’s no meaningful existence at all. Granted, it might be best to look at the world in a coherent way and to look at objects in a certain fashion. That’s all fine. Again, most relativists (in the way Boghossian describes relativists) would agree with that. The problem is to make the leap from a general form (ideal) of conceptualization and description into an objective idealization and description.

Relativists have the upper hand here, it seems to me, until Boghossian – or any objectivist – can show us how it is possible to describe states of beings without minds to describe states of beings. And it would preferable if one could do so without any claims to an absolute, ever-present, mind.

One comment

  1. Thought-provoking post!

    I think that the structure that allows our perception to exist proves the existence of something out there (that is, the structure). And there is the state of things that existed before this structure came to life. So, to me, the big question is how can we group things that do and do not “exist out there”, but both groups of things are populated.

    In any case, these paradoxes you described are very interesting and hard to get rid of.

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