Pilate saith unto him, What is truth? And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, I find in him no fault [at all]. – John 18:38
In the extensive commentary following my column of April 18th there was a discussion of the relativity of truth. For those who may have missed it, one poster argued that truth is relative and therefore it is impossible to be certain about anything. He was sharply taken to task on that position by a number of other posters, and though I disagree with him I understand what he was trying to say, and made a reply to that effect. Since this issue has arisen on my blog before and undoubtedly will again, I think it would be a good idea for me to repeat my post here in somewhat expanded form.
In traditional philosophy the distinction is made between a factual judgment and a value judgment; the former is a judgment about the nature of objective reality, e.g. “I think this scaffold is strong enough to support my weight,” while the latter is a judgment about a subjective matter, e.g. “I think the way they treated him was wrong.” I tend to use the word truth in a philosophical sense, which can be relative; in the thread I stated that reincarnation is “true” for me, that is I have faith in it and live assuming it’s true. But for an atheist, snuffed out like a candle at death is “true” in that same sense and to a Christian, heaven and hell are “true”. Morality, eschatology and the like cannot be determined by scientific tests, and since they strike at the heart of what it means to be human they must be answered individually and are therefore relative. Facts, on the other hand, cannot be relative; they exist independent of the observer and can be reproduced by other experimenters who are unaware of the original experimenter’s results. The speed of light can be measured, is the same everywhere and is not subject to interpretation; it is a fact. And while Platonists may argue that nothing is objective and ultimate reality is unknowable, even the most dedicated philosopher expects ordinary objects to behave as they have always behaved and recognizes that for all ordinary intents and purposes physical reality is knowable; he expects that his clothes will not spontaneously combust, his bread will not poison him and the distance from his bedroom to his study will remain relatively constant unless some physical agency intervenes to alter one of those factors. And up until the end of the 19th century, nobody but philosophers or priests ever argued any differently; for most people the mundane was knowable and the spiritual could only be grasped through faith.
Unfortunately, the turn of the 20th century set events in motion which changed that; the first of these was the rise of what I call “secular religions”, of which the first was Marxism. Though these religions concern themselves with physical reality and avoid talk of the soul, the Divine or other such esoteric concepts, they are yet religions because they insist on rigid adherence to a morality and interpretation of reality (i.e. an approved set of both “truth” and facts) derived entirely from knowledge revealed in sacred scriptures by the founders of the religion. The dogma of Marxism and the various “-isms” derived from it (such as neofeminism, Afrocentrism, etc) must be accepted unquestioningly by adherents; dissidence is suppressed and any scientifically-sound facts which contradict the teachings are denied. But because these “-isms” do not at first seem like religions to the unwary, they gained a foothold in academic departments and have infiltrated many governments; the Scandinavian countries infected with institutionalized neofeminism are every bit as irrational and ideologically-driven as the staunchest theocracy.
Still, the secular religions alone cannot be blamed entirely for the confusion of factual judgments with value judgments among the modern intelligentsia; Marxism and its spawn might have remained the province of extremists and tyrants had not the very foundations of reality itself been shaken by the work of three of Marx’s countrymen named Planck, Einstein and Schrödinger. 19th-century scientists were so certain of reality that the physicist Philipp von Jolly advised Max Planck (1858-1947) against going into physics with the statement, “in this field, almost everything is already discovered, and all that remains is to fill a few holes.” His brilliant student ignored the advice, went into physics anyway and turned the field entirely upside-down by developing the quantum theory, which demonstrated that subatomic particles tend to behave in ways absolutely at odds with Victorian notions of decorum, vacillating wildly back and forth between different states depending upon the means used by human observers to examine them. Albert Einstein (1879-1955) built upon Planck’s theory and went on to propound his own, special relativity, which demonstrated that size, mass and even the flow of time itself are dependent upon the speed at which an object moves. And Einstein’s friend Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) expanded quantum mechanics still further and recognized that it appeared to be the act of observation itself which caused particles to “collapse” into one state or another, and that prior to observation such particles existed in not one state or another but both states simultaneously! He proposed a now-famous thought experiment in which a cat is placed in a sealed box with a radioactive substance and a device which will release poison gas upon detecting a particle of radioactive decay. Until the box is opened there is no way to know whether any of the particles from the radioactive material has yet struck the detector and killed the cat; if the hapless feline were the same as a subatomic particle, it could be considered to be not merely dead or alive, but simultaneously dead and alive!
Educated non-scientists encountering Dr. Einstein’s adjustable mass and time or Dr. Schrödinger’s undead kitty can perhaps be forgiven for throwing up their hands in despair and deciding that all facts are relative; if even hard-headed scientists say that the truth varies with the observer, the claims of the “-isms” that doctrine supersedes science seem to make perfect sense. But that’s because they don’t read deeply enough to understand that not only do these theories apply to very special cases (the incredibly small for quantum mechanics and the incredibly fast for special relativity), but also that the probabilities involved cancel each other out under normal conditions. Though we often hear it said that “Einstein’s theory of gravity superseded Newton’s”, in fact Newton’s is still 100% accurate for all normal applications. And though Planck’s subatomic zoo is capable of all sorts of bizarre, counterintuitive and even absurd transformations, translations and transfers, I can depend on the fact that never in my lifetime, or indeed within the lifetime of the entire universe, will my Mercedes suddenly transmogrify into a large blob of cottage cheese. Though I know my desk is actually nothing more than an electronic fog composed mostly of empty space, it will function as though solid under all normal circumstances and its properties can be determined independently by any number of observers one cares to name with exactly the same results. Were that not true science would be difficult, technology would be impossible and organic life itself – which is, after all, based on the dependability of chemical processes – would never have arisen.
A little learning, as the saying goes, is a dangerous thing; many reasonably-educated people know just enough about the weirdness of modern physics to cause them to come to totally erroneous conclusions about the nature of objective reality. This uncertainty, coupled with a widespread distrust of science engendered by the man-made problems of the modern world (such as pollution and the specter of nuclear war), has rendered many otherwise-intelligent people in academia susceptible to the asinine notion that “facts are relative”. Since that myth is extremely useful to those who wish to promote agendas whose tenets fly in the face of objective reality, such individuals have worked tirelessly to insinuate it into nearly every institution of higher learning in the United States and many in other Western countries…which is of course why we now get most of our scientists from Asia, where people still understand that philosophy is not science and objective facts absolutely can be counted on in the mundane world inhabited by homo sapiens. Unfortunately, the misguided doctrine of “relativity of facts” has been taught in American schools for two generations now, and it would take quite a while to excise the cancer even if we were assiduously working at it…which we aren’t.