What is true and acceptable in a particular culture at its particular point of history, according to doctrines of relativism, may be untrue and unacceptable in another culture. Truth, following these views, varies with time and place in human history. It is not absolute but dynamic.
Friedrich Nietzsche conclusion leveled against Philosophers who thought of ‘man’ as an aeterna veritas; “But every thing has become: there are no eternal facts, just as there are no absolute truths”(Nietzsche 2007, 13) is commonly echoed by relativists.
“If the practice of reasoning, evidence and proof” explained R. W. Newell, “cannot occur independently of ‘the environment within which arguments have their life’ then giving our reasons to people who lack our environment will be of no use” (Newell 1986, 103).
This article maintained that even though, as Newell pointed, “knowledge, truth, certainty, objectivity – cannot be appreciated for what they are without understanding their connection with human action”(ibid, ix) our beliefs and assertions do not shape reality. If our beliefs or assertions align with reality, they are true and when they do not, they are false.
No Eternal Facts, No Absolute Truth?
Borrowing two components of Peter van Inwagen’s thesis that there is such thing as objective truth: (A) A belief or assertion is true or false depending upon whether or not it rightly exemplifies the state of affairs actualized, and (B) actualized state of affairs exists and has the features that are by and large independently of an individual’s belief and assertion. (van Inwagen 2009: 93)
Let’s assume that John believes or assertions:
1. It is true that 2 + 3 = 5
2. It is true that a circle is not a square.
3. It is true that earth is not the centre of the universe.
It seems that John’s beliefs or assertions rightly exemplifies particular state of affairs at all times and in all places, thus culturally, linguistically, and socially independent. If that is true then these beliefs or assertions’ truth-value are permanent. They are unchanging. They are absolute.
1 & 2 seems uncontroversial, but for 3, a relativist may argued, for-example, it is true for John that the earth is not the centre of the universe, but this may not be the case for Jack who lived before sixteenth-century astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) and was influenced by Ptolemaic system of astronomy. For Jack, it is true that earth is the centre of the universe.
Thus John’s and Jack’s assertions though contradictory are both “true” relatively to their time and place in human history. We have truth relative to John and truth relative to Jack.
If our beliefs or assertions could shape reality, viz., actual state of affairs, then this relativist view seems plausible. But our beliefs or assertions do not shape reality. If it is true that the earth is not the centre of the universe, then this states of affairs is true independently of John and Jack’s beliefs. It was true in Jack’s time, as it is in John. After it’s actualization, it is true then, it is now and it will be true in the future.
If Jack asserted that the world is the centre of the universe then he was wrong, then, now and in the future. Jack believing it to be true does not magically make it true.
Newell, R. W. (1986) Objectivity, Empiricism and Truth. Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Van Inwagen, Peter (2009) Metaphysics. 3rd edition. Westview Press.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (2007) Human, All Too Human. Trans. by R. J. Hollingdale Cambridge: Cambridge University Press