Why Relativism Won’t Do

Socrates Death IIn the dialogue between Socrates and Theaetetus, as recorded by Plato, Theaetetus is presented as holding the opinion of Protagoras. Theaetetus explained to Socrates that “he who knows anything perceives that which he knows, and, as it appears at present, knowledge is nothing else than perception.”( Plat. Theaet. 151e)

Protagoras, according to Socrates, said “that man is ‘the measure of all things, of the existence of the things that are and the non-existence of the things that are not.’”(Theaet. 152a) Socrates interpreted Protagoras to mean that “individual things are for me such as they appear to me, and for you in turn such as they appear to you – you and I being ‘man’”(ibid).  Socrates presented peritropê case against that opinion in 159a-171e.

Some doctrines of relativism hold that what we mean by saying proposition p is true is that p is true for an individual i who believes p. When I assert something like: “it is true that that grass is green”, what I mean is that, “it is true that that grass is green for me”.

Following that chain of reasoning, all truth, we are led to believe, is relative to its believer in a given context. A proposition is not “truth” in and by itself, but only “truth for” its believer.

Now, like Socrates would have said, “come now, let us examine [this] utterance together, and see whether it is a real offspring or a mere wind-egg.” (151e) I think this form of relativism is a mere wind-egg. When I say to you that p is true, I am expected to give reasons why I think p is true or why I think you should also think that p is true. But if I say to you, p is true for me, I would not be surprised if your answer is: “good on ya’ Prayson, that is good for you, so what?”

If we reduce truth to truth for an individual, including a relativist holding such view, then the proposition “all truth are relative” is also true for its believer (i.e. a relativist holding such a view). If that is true, we can simply answer that relativist with, “good on ya’ that is good for you, so what?” If she wishes us to also believe that it is true that truth is relative not only for her but also for us, then she would have peritropê her own case against herself.

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 12 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921.


On Objective Truth


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

Plato’s Refutation of Relativism



In Theaetetus, Plato set to give arguments against Protagoras'(c 490-c. 421 B.C) epistemological relativism namely “Man is the measure of all things” or Whatever a person believes to be true is true, or that every person’s opinion is correct. Plato records the following dialogue between Socrates’ discussion with Protagoras:

Socrates: ” So you believe that each man’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s.”

Protagoras: “That’s correct.”

Socrates: “How do you make a living?”

Protagoras: “I am a teacher”

Socrates: “I find this very puzzling. You admit you earn money teaching, but I cannot imagine what you could possibly teach anyone. After all, you admit that each person’s opinion is as good as anyone else’s. This means that what your students believe is as good as anything you could possibly teach them. Once they learn that each person is the measure of all things, what possible reason would they have to pay you for any further lessons? How can you possibly teach them anything once they learn that their opinions are as true as yours?”

In short, Plato shows how self-refuting epistemological relativism is.  The opinion P is Q and P is not-Q as “Man is the measure of all things” and ” Man is not the measure of all things” are equally correct in epistemological relativism which is absurd.

What to conclude then:  When faced with two contradicting opinions, Either one is false or both are. Both can not be true. POW! A bullet in Epistemological relativism head.

Read More: Life’s Ultimate Questions, An Introduction to Philosophy, Ronald H. Nash

Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part II

Edited: Matthew Flannagan

In my last post, Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part I, I sketched Tooley’s distinction between a deontological and an axiological argument from evil and argued that Tooley rejects the axiological version because it rests on controversial ethical claims that are likely to be rejected by many theists. I outlined Tooley’s deontological version and explored the moral assumptions it is based on and Plantinga’s criticism of these.

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Tooley, Plantinga and the Deontological Argument from Evil Part I

Edited: Matthew Flannagan

This two-part series criticises the deontological argument from evil proposed by Micheal Tooley in The Knowledge of God, the print debate between him and Alvin Plantinga.1 My critique proceeds in four parts. Initially I will sketch Tooley’s distinction between a deontological and an axiological argument from evil and will argue that Tooley rejects the axiological version because it rests on “controversial ethical claims;”2 claims that are “likely to be rejected by many theists.”3 Then I will outline Tooley’s deontological version and focus on the moral assumptions upon which it is based and Plantinga’s criticism of these. This will conclude Part I of the series. Continue reading

Atheist Tooley’s Problem Of Evil Refuted

William Lane Craig April 2010 News Letter

William Lane Craig

Michael Tooley has developed a very complicated argument against God’s existence based on concrete examples of terrible evils in the world like the famous Lisbon earthquake. Alvin Plantinga has remarked that Tooley has thereby done us a service, for if an argument as carefully developed as his fails, it’s very unlikely that any better argument from evil against God’s existence will be found. Here is part of my response to Dr. Tooley’s argument:

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