In Defense of Relativism

There are two types of facts in the world.  I know it sounds odd to say that, but it’s true.  There are facts that are true no matter what and there are facts that are contingent.  That probably still sounds odd, so I’ll give some examples.  A fact that is true no matter what is that force equals mass times acceleration.  It doesn’t matter where you are, when you are or who you are, F=ma is a fact.  An example of a fact that is contingent is that the New England Patriots won the last Super Bowl.  This is only true after Super Bowl XLIX, but before Super Bowl L (Do you think they will use the Roman numeral for 50?  It doesn’t look all that impressive.) or between Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVII or between Super Bowls XXXVIII and XL.  When put like this, it seems rather trivial, but distinguishing between these two types of facts is important.

The reason it is important is that contingent facts are much more common than many people realize.  Plato did an excellent job of demolishing relativism over 2000 years ago by mis-characterizing it, and it has yet to fully recover.  As a result, people either assume that facts are eternal and universal and relegate contingent facts to the realm of opinion or they assume that there are no facts and everything is relative.  The above example shows a fact that is true, but not eternal.  An example of a fact that is true, but not universal is that water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Celsius).  This is only true at normal sea level air pressure on Earth.  A pressure cooker in an average kitchen raises the boiling point of water considerably, and carrying a pot of water up Everest will lower it considerably.  This may sound smart alecky, but it shows that the boiling point of water is contingent on where the water happens to be.  Accepting this could matter if someone is trying to sterilize something.

One reason it is important to distinguish the two types of facts is that whole areas of human activity are built around contingent facts.  Mostly any fact having to do with economics and politics is contingent.  Even something as basic as the “law” of supply and demand is only true within a certain type of market economy.  Keeping this in mind can help us fix real world problems.  If the fact that deflation is bad is a contingent fact and deflation is caused by a shift in supply and demand, which is also contingent, it opens up more ways to make things right.  If economic laws weren’t contingent, an economic downturn would be akin to a natural disaster.  Unfortunately, too many people take that view and real solutions are never found.

Another reason it is important to distinguish between no matter what facts and contingent facts is that the former need to be addressed differently.  Since people don’t see a difference between politics and physics and economics and chemistry, they treat physical facts as if they are political and vice versa.  They discuss vaccinations as if they are discussing the education curriculum.  They discuss climate change as if they are discussing a tax increase.  They are fundamentally different types of issues.  Vaccinations only work if virtually all of the population is included.  There are myriad ways to successfully educate a child.  When you add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, climate change results.  When you raise taxes, all kinds of different things can happen.

We need to distinguish the no matter what facts from the contingent facts so that we stop debating the things that are true no matter what and focus our debates on the facts that can be changed.  Not all facts are contingent, but some are.  This simple realization can really help.

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