Saturday, August 8, 2009

A Practical Rejection of Material Relativism

The philosophies of Immanuel Kant have influenced the modern mind a great deal. In fact, perhaps he is one of the most influential philosophers of today's postmodern thinking. Kant's theory of the difference between noumena and phenomena, the difference between the world as it appears and the world as it actually exists, has been used to call into question whether we can really trust our senses and whether we perceive the same things that others perceive. In particular, this perceptual skepticism has led to the modern paradigm of relativity.

In its most basic form, modern relativity is a belief that since you see things one way and I see things another way, perhaps the truth is that both views are equally correct and we are just looking at the universe in different ways. A common illustration used is an image of several blind men touching an elephant. One blind man feels the elephant's legs and thinks that the elephant is like a tree. Another feels the elephant's side and thinks that the elephant is like a wall. The third blind man feels the elephant's tail and thinks that the elephant is like a rope. The relativist suggests that perhaps our experience of the world is much like the blind men, that we have different conceptions of the universe and that though we each lack information, perhaps each person's view is equally correct. After all, the elephant is somewhat like a tree, a wall and a rope, although the elephant is certainly more than that. In like manner, the relativist suggests that perhaps each person's experience of the world is true and valid and that all philosophies are correct in so far as they go.

I will not deny that there do exist some real perceptual differences between one person's view of the world and another, especially in abstract conceptual matters. Also, I think that each person's experiences, thoughts and perceptions are of value and are worth learning from. Additionally, I appreciate the humility that stems from a realization of one's own limited knowledge. However, there are some major flaws with relativistic philosophies. For one, relativism is a self-defeating philosophy since it lacks internal consistency. The self-contradicting nature of relativism is certainly a strong argument against such a worldview, but there is a much stronger one. And this is it:

No one actually believes in relativism!

Now, I will readily grant that there are many who claim they believe in relativism, and that it is a very tolerant and open-minded sort of belief. I don't doubt that. However, I do find it quite perplexing that even those who claim to believe in relativism actually don't. Moreover, in this essay I will clearly show you that no rational human being believes in material relativism. In my next essay, I will show you that no rational human being believes in philosophical or conceptual relativism, either. I don't necessarily mean to say that a person couldn't believe in relativism, but I simply seek to show that no person actually does.

Though many people have many diverse beliefs about many things, there are a few things that we all firmly believe in. These things we are so convinced of that we would consider them to be self-evident and wouldn't even characterize them as beliefs. In particular, all people believe the following two things: first, all people believe that their sensory perceptions are trustworthy; second, all people believe that their sensory perceptions of the world are largely similar or identical to the perceptions of others. More simply, we believe that we experience the real world, and that others also experience the same real world.

The first premise that we all trust our sensory perceptions is based on practical, experience-based evidence. For example, as you are reading this, you believe that the words your brain tells you that your eyes are seeing actually exist. You do not for a second consider the unlikely possibility that this essay is simply a figment of your imagination, nor do you suppose that your eyes are misinterpreting reality and that perhaps this essay is actually a photograph or a drawing. Likewise, if you listen to a song on the radio, you do not question the nature of your sonic experience. You firmly believe that your experience of the world is exactly like, or at least mostly like your perception of it. You are completely convinced that you can tell the difference between purple and green, between a car and a cat, between the flavor of a grape and the taste of a grapefruit, between the scent of a flower and the stench of a skunk and between one spoken word and another. Every day, you interact with your world with complete confidence that what you perceive actually exists and that you perceive it correctly. You are completely convinced that if there is some difference between what you perceive and what actually exists, the difference is very small and practically negligible.

The second premise that we all believe that others experience the same world we do is also based or practical, everyday evidence. When children are taught their phonics in preschool and kindergarten, there is no-one who is concerned that what appears to be the letter "C" in my world might look like an "F" in your world. Likewise, we all assume that an object appearing blue will also appear blue to everyone else. If I cook some fresh fish filets over rice, I don't have to worry that my food doesn't exist in your world--of course it does! In a business presentation, I know that the slideshow on the wall exists in everyone's world alike and that the information it contains is equally accessible to all present. When parents tell their kids not to play in the street, the parents are completely convinced that streets do exist in their children's world and that streets are the same sort of thing in their children's world. We all believe that the world and the perceptions we experience are largely similar or identical to others' experience of the world.

How does this relate to relativity? Namely, for material relativity to be true, we must experience different worlds, and both of our worlds must truly exist as experienced by each person. What's true for you, must actually be true for you and what's true for me must actually be true for me. Now, given the above two premises, it is quite clear that nobody believes that we live in different worlds. I believe that the real world I experience is exactly the same as the real world that you experience, even though our perceptions might differ very slightly. The table that exists in my world is the very same table that exists in your world, and it exists as a table and not as a computer, a chair or a couch. The reason that Paris, Washington D.C. and Beijing exist in both my world and yours is not a fluke or coincidence--we live in the same real world!

If this is true, (and obviously everyone believes it to be true and bears witness to such truth by their very actions and words), then it follows that where there are perceptual differences, at least one perception must be incorrect. Returning to the elephant analogy, it is perfectly acceptable to notice a different aspect of the elephant, so long as you are experiencing the elephant. But, if you are touching the side of the elephant and feeling it's tough skin, and I claim to be touching the elephant but say that the elephant feels small and very furry, it is quite apparent that one of us is either lying, confused, or touching a different animal. You would quickly try to correct me or help me to find the elephant that I have obviously missed. Therefore, even the relativist firmly believes that we all live in the same real world, and that since there is an elephant in your world, the same elephant also exists in my world, because it is the same real world.

How then does one account for true perceptual differences? Given that the real worlds exists, there are two different types of perceptual differences possible. First, one may perceive less than actually exists. This would be sensory impairment. Second, one may perceive more than actually exists. This would be a form of hallucination. Let us examine each of these conditions in more depth.

Sensory impairment is a condition where a person experiences less than actually exists. There are numerous forms of this. For examples, I have a brother who is blue-yellow colorblind. To him, certain shades of green are indistinguishable from blue, and certain shades of yellow are indistinguishable from violet. Though he does experience the world as it actually exists, because of his visual impairment he is unable to experience the full range of colors that exist in the world. A completely blind person is unable to experience light in any form. Likewise, a completely deaf person is unable to experience the sounds that exist in the world and can never enjoy aural communication nor delight in hearing music. A sensory-impaired person experiences the world truly but not fully. However, it is certainly clear that though their experience is less than the experience of a normal person, that the world itself still contains whatever sights and sounds the sensory-impaired person is unable to experience.

When one perceives more than actually exists, this is categorized as a hallucination. Often one hears of people who hear voices when there is no-one around who is speaking. There are many drug-induced states that leads people to see people or things that are not actually there. One could possibly hallucinate about something crawling across one's skin or someone touching one's body when no-one is there. In these cases, the person is experiencing something that does not actually exist as a result of a mental disorder or a chemical imbalance. The very diagnosis of such disorders is performed by doctors who can correctly identify what is reality and what is not and can determine what is causing such faulty perceptions.

In both of these cases, we see that when a person experiences more or less than actually exists, the difference is not in the world, but in the observer. And these conditions are not the experience of a different world, but disorders that prevent them from fully recognizing all that is real. As such, perceiving an altered version of the world is a suboptimal condition and is a form of handicap. Therefore, we do see that there are some minor differences in people's perception of the world, but in such cases, at least one person's perception is flawed and suboptimal.

What then has been shown? We have seen that all people trust their sensory experience of the world and that all people believe that others experience the same real world. Given that there is one real world, any experience that is inconsistent with the world as it actually exists, is a form of distortion. Therefore, we do not believe that all perceptions of the world are equally true or valid. We believe that most sensory perceptions that people have are correct, and that when someone sees more or less than what actually exists, that they are incorrect. In terms of blind men feeling an elephant, all perceptions of various aspects of the elephant are correct as long as one is correctly perceiving the elephant. In other words, we all believe that, "What's true about the world for me is also true about the world for you because we live in the same real world, even if one of our perceptions of it is slightly flawed."



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    Get several clues.

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