Relativity of Truth or the Truth of Relativity? – November 2012

Question: Does process thought affirm the relativity of truth or the truth of relativity?

Publication Month: November 2012

This is a clever way to put a very fundamental question. It is also a wise way. The truth of relativity, which we affirm, is too often connected in people’s minds with the relativity of truth. But for process thinkers this connection is rejected. For us what has been has been, and nothing ever changes that fact. In that sense truths about the past are not relative. Similarly the structures of reality are what they are. What we believe about them does not change them.

Nevertheless, when we attend to how we appropriate and interpret either past events or the structures of reality, relativity reigns. My experience of reality is different from that of everyone else in some respects. This leads to different interpretations and theories. Even when we agree on a particular verbal proposition, we do not mean exactly the same thing by our words. There is no escape from this profound relativity. And we believe that this relativity is not only a matter of human experience and thought but also of the world we experience and think about. The actuality of any event is a function of its relations to others, and these are unique to it.

Two people looking at the same picture will not see exactly the same thing. Of course, some people may simply project something, seeing what is not there. There are out-and-out errors. But of greater interest are the perceptions which are correct but selective. That is, what one person sees is in fact there in the picture, but it may be of minor importance in comparison with what someone else sees. In other words, “truth” and “falsity” are often not the issue. Depth and breadth may describe the differences better.

I was introduced early to the idea that differences – even quite profound differences – need not entail outright error. I went to a Canadian school in Japan. In successive years we studied British history from a British textbook, Canadian history from a Canadian textbook, and U.S. history from a U.S. history book. For the most part they dealt with different topics. But occasionally a single topic appeared in all three.

An example was the American Revolution. I need not explain how important this is in the histories of the United States or how the story is told. But if you have never read a Canadian history textbook, I recommend doing so. It tells about how the rebellious colonies to the south attempted to persuade the Canadians to join them, and how the Canadians remained loyal to the mother land. It goes on to tell how courageously the Canadians resisted and repelled invasions by the rebels and how Canada gave a home to the loyalists who were so mistreated in the southern colonies.

Clearly for the Canadian account to be true does not require that the account in U.S. histories is false. But the two stories are extremely different. The British account, as I recall it, was in a paragraph that noted that while Britain was busy advancing and defending its global empire elsewhere, especially in competition with the French, some of its colonies in North America revolted, and the British decided to let them go.

More important for today’s world are the differences in the historical accounts that shape the self-understanding of Jews and Arabs in Palestine. There may be outright errors in these accounts, but even if they were completely removed, the stories would be extremely different. After visiting Jerusalem and hearing the stories of those Jews who were most supportive of Palestinian rights and those Arabs who were most open to sharing the land with Jews I was deeply depressed. Despite their admirable good will and desire for peaceful co-existence, the histories that shaped their perceptions of what was happening remained profoundly different.

H. Richard Niebuhr wrote a truly wonderful book, The Meaning of Revelation. Among other things he showed how important are the histories that shape our understanding. He was hopeful that Catholics and Protestants could overcome their differences, or at least those that made them mutually suspicious. This would require that Catholics incorporated Luther and Calvin in a positive way into their histories and that Protestants would do the same with the Council of Trent. He saw this as a possibility, and I think it has advanced considerably since he wrote. As the histories out of which Catholics and Protestants live converge, the deep hostilities that once characterized our relationships end. For many of us this has now happened, and it gives hope for the healing of other divisions.

For process thought relativity of perspective is given and will never cease to be a factor. It is certainly important to overcome the outright errors of belief to which a perspective may lead. But usually more important is the recognition that the perspectives of others display truths that we have not yet learned and to incorporate these truths. Of course, they will be differently colored in our appropriation. But our appreciation of the truths of others, and their appreciation of ours, can lead to a far richer understanding and to a shift from mutual antagonism to cooperation. With all of its problems, the twentieth century saw enormous gains on this front.

The process perspective differs from what is often called relativism in that it does not depreciate the value of what is seen from one’s given perspective. It simply recognizes its partial and fragmentary and partly distorted character. Typically it seeks to correct and expand, and, in the process, to deepen that with which one has begun. Also, from the process perspective, the fact that one’s views will always be perspectivally shaped does not imply that they cannot be improved. One’s thought will always be relativized by one’s finitude, but it can become more and more encompassing.

Whitehead’s own philosophy illustrates this. He seeks categories that can embrace both the information gained from the physical sciences and the insights of religious experience. I judge that a system of thought that accomplishes this is an advance on one that makes such coherence impossible. It remains one perspective among others. But because I judge it to be an advance over the others of which I am aware, I can choose to build upon it. I would not be building on Whitehead’s achievement if I thought that what he said was not subject to correction by further thought and experience. But to recognize it as one way among others, corrigible and limited like the others, does not lead to abandoning the judgment that it is the best available.

Perhaps at this point I cease to be a relativist. To judge something the “best” is clearly a value judgment, and precisely value judgments are often judged to be especially subject to the judgment that they are relative. My reply is that some value judgments are truly better than others!

Suppose there are three people. Two of them hold positions that are mutually exclusive. Both recognize this. A third person holds a position that affirms what is most important to each of the first two persons and shows how far they can be reconciled. I judge that (other things being equal) this is a superior position. My judgment, of course, can be challenged. Advocates of the first two positions may argue that my judgment that reconciling differences is superior has no claim of superiority over their affirmation of the superiority of their unreconciled views.

At this point we confront different value judgments. A thoroughgoing relativist may say that one such judgment has, objectively speaking, just as much justification as any other. One may hold that this is just a matter of taste. No rational argument is possible about tastes.

At this point I may ultimately come down with David Griffin on hardcore common sense as a solid ground of judgments. When I see the enormous harm that is done in personal relations and historical movements by competing positions that are subject to reconciliation, but refuse it, I cannot quite take seriously the judgment that reconciling such conflicts has no objective superiority. There may be those who favor mutual destruction over reconciliation but I cannot give equal standing to their values and to those to which I am committed. I think that most process folk, at least in practice, share my nonrelativistic values at this point.