Reality 101:
Basic Concepts of

Truth and Postmodernism

 ( truth by correspondence or construction? ) 

by Craig Rusbult, Ph.D.
 


This page has two main parts, plus "more" and an appendix:
Do scientists create reality?
We'll begin by quickly looking at the silly ideas that are proposed by some scholars, and are criticized by other scholars.  This will set a mood for THE MAIN PART OF THE PAGE and its Essential Concepts:
Reality 101Essential Concepts 
plus more about Reality 101Personal Comments 
Appendix: The Limits of Logic, and Radical Relativism 


 
Do scientists create reality?

Do scientists study nature, or create nature?  Somewhat amazingly,

Woolgar (1989) argues that scientists construct objects through their representations of them.  Objects, according to Woolgar, whether they are countries or electrons, are socially constructed entities, and do not exist aside from this social construction.  Science is therefore not the process of finding things that already exist, but the process of creating things that were not there to begin with.  (Finkel, 1993, p. 32)

This amazingly silly idea survived for at least 10 years in the mind of Woolgar, because Latour & Woolgar (1979, p. 64) claim that "the bioassay is not merely a means of obtaining some independently given entity;  the bioassay constitutes the construction of the substance."  This bizarre super-radical constructivism (*) — which also is illustrated when Wheatley (1991, p. 10) declares that "objects do not lie around ready made in the world but are mental constructs" — is criticized by Matthews (1994, p. 152) who explains a crucial distinction: "Where he [Wheatley] goes wrong is in failing to distinguish the theoretical objects of science, which do not lie around, from the real objects of science, which do lie around and fall on people's heads."    /   * These super-radical claims are an unjustifiable exrapolation of basic constructivist views of learning (which are accepted by most psychologists and educators) so I think the "amazingly silly" claims should be labeled using a different term, not constructivism.

        A description of the way scientists typically think about the observation of real objects (no, it is not necessary to "create the reality" of the objects) is provided by a real scientist, a cell biologist:

First, I assume that cells are real objects.  Second, I assume that other people can see and think about things the way that I do. ...  Others' basic experience of reality is similar to mine.  If they were standing where I am standing, they would see something very similar to what I see. ...  Scientists act as if...the observations made by one scientist could have been made by anyone and everyone.  (Grinnell, 1992, p. 20; emphasis in original)

A prominent philosopher gives another excellent description of truth and its relationship with reality:

Whether a statement is true is an entirely different question from whether you or anybody believes it. ...  There can be truths that no one believes.  Symmetrically, there can be beliefs that are not true. ...  The expression "It's true for me" can be dangerously misleading.  Sometimes saying this... means that you believe it.  If that's what you want to say, just use the word "belief" and leave truth out of it.  However, there is a more radical idea that might be involved here.  Someone might use the expression "true for me" to express the idea that each of us makes our own reality and that our beliefs constitute that reality.  I will assume that this is a mistake.  My concept of truth assumes a fundamental division between the way things really are and the way they seem to be to this or that individual mind.  (Sober, 1991, pp. 15-16)

Next, Sober illustrates what he considers to be a valid meaning for "thoughts becoming reality" by describing how a person's thoughts (if he thinks that he won't hit a baseball) can affect his actions (by making him swing too high).  By contrast,

What I do deny is that the mere act of thinking, unconnected with action or some other causal pathway, can make statements true.  I'm rejecting the idea that the world is arranged so that it spontaneously conforms to the ideas we may happen to entertain.  (Sober, 1991, p. 16)

These quotations, from Grinnell and Sober, a scientist and a philosopher, summarize the most important concepts of Reality 101 — in the distinction between humanly-constructed realities (our beliefs, scientific theories, baseball actions, plus cultures & values,...) and human-independent realities (electrons, bioassays, objects, or planets,...) so I'll just close this section with an example from science:  Anyone who really thinks that "beliefs create reality" should be eager to explain how the real motions of all planets in the solar system changed from earth-centered orbits in 1500 (when this was believed by almost everyone) to sun-centered orbits in 1700 (when this was believed by almost all scientists).  Did the change in beliefs (from theories of 1500 to theories of 1700) cause a change in reality (with planets beginning to orbit the sun at some time - but exactly when did this occur - between 1500 and 1700) ?

 
This section — Do scientists create reality? — is adapted from Section 4C of a page asking "Should scientific method be eks-rated?"

REFERENCES
 


 
 
     
Reality 101 — Essential Concepts 
 

      Introduction

      Reality 101 is an appropriate title because:
      First, I'll examine only the basic concepts of reality, focusing on ideas that are simple and logical, and should not be controversial.
      Second, I'll look at only the easy questions, those that can be logically understood using the "minds" part of our "hearts and minds."  The difficult questions — which mainly involve our hearts (and values) — are delayed until later, in a brief introduction to Reality 909.
 

      Reality — Truth and Truth-Claims

      What is truth?  With a correspondence definition of truth, the truth is what actually is happening in reality, or what actually did happen in reality.
      A humanly constructed theory claims to describe and/or explain reality.  When we make claims based on a theory (by assuming the theory is true, and using "if... then..." logic by thinking "if this theory is true, then ___") we are making truth-claims about the reality of what is happening now, or did happen in the past.  Our truth-claims are true if if they are correct, if they correspond to the truth of what actually is happening (or did happen) in reality;  and our truth-claims are false if they are wrong, if they do not match the truth defined by reality.
      other terms:  The meaning of what I'm calling a "theory" and theory-based "truth claim" is wide enough to include what is sometimes called a belief, or belief system, worldview, paradigm, principle, conviction, hypothesis, conjecture, speculation, opinion, fact, certainty, conclusion, assumption, premise, idea, concept,...

      The Solar System Question
     
To illustrate important ideas about truth and truth-claims, let's begin with a famous example:  Between 1500 (when almost everyone believed that the sun and planets revolved around the earth) and 1700 (when almost every educated person believed that the earth and planets revolved around the sun), what changed and what did not change?
      Did the reality change?  Did the motions of planets change from earth-centered (in 1500) to sun-centered (in 1700)?  No.
      Did the truth change?  No.  Because truth is determined by reality, what was true in 1500 (the earth and planets really moved around the sun) was also true in 1700.
      Did our truth-claims change?  Yes.  Our humanly constructed beliefs about the motions were different in 1500 and 1700.  Thus, there were changes in the realities of humanly-constructed science, philosophy, religion, and culture, as explained below.

      Two Types of Reality
      During the 200 years between 1500 and 1700, some aspects of reality did change.  For example, in 1500 scientists said "of course" when a scholar stated that everything revolves around the earth, but in 1700 they laughed at a scholar making the same statement.  This change in response, from acceptance to ridicule, was due to a real change in a humanly constructed theory, which produced a real change in a humanly constructed social context.  By contrast, another aspect of reality (involving the motions of earth, sun, and planets) was not humanly constructed.  This "solar system reality" was independent of humans, and it did not change when we changed.  There is an important difference between humanly-constructed reality and human-independent reality.

      A modern example of humanly constructed reality is the societal agreement, adopted by consensus and institutionalized in traffic laws, that we will stop at a red light, and that in America (and in continental Europe but not Britain or Japan) we will drive on the right side of the road.
      But if there is a collision, due to someone running a red light or driving on the wrong side or making some other mistake, humans do not construct the laws of physics that determine what happens during the collision.  Yes, we can minimize the harmful results of a collision by constructing cars with air bags, collapsible bumpers, and other safety features.  But we achieve this humanly-constructed reality (in which we have safer cars) by acknowledging and understanding a human-independent reality (involving the physics of collisions).  We can build safer cars by cooperating with reality, by designing cars within the context of the physics that really exists.  But we cannot build safer cars by denying this reality, by trying to overcome it through faith in a kinder-and-gentler physics we have constructed;  during a collison we would prefer this physics, but we cannot produce it.

      If we recognize the existence of two types of reality — independent and constructed — our worldview is less simple than if we ignore this distinction and lump everything together into one category.  But a view that "splits" instead of "lumping" will see things in a way that is more accurate, and will avoid the confusions that occur when we try to think about both types of reality in the same way.
      Our thinking and communicating should be different for the two types of reality.  Some ideas about "beliefs creating reality" are rational for humanly constructed realities (for example, deciding whether to praise or ridicule a scholar, or deciding whether to drive through an intersection or stop) but these ideas are ludicrous for independent realities (such as the motions in our solar system) in which reality is not affected by belief or social agreement.
      This distinction will also help us understand the correct causal relationships.  Yes, our thoughts and actions do cause consequences when "what we think and do" is converted into constructed reality.  But for independent reality, our believing that something is true does not cause it to be true.   { We can believe that an independent reality is true because it is true (if the consequences of its existence-and-operation produce evidence that persuades us of its existence-and-operation) but the correct sequence of causation is "reality --> evidence --> belief", not "belief --> reality". }
      note:  Some highly speculative interpretations of quantum mechanics claim that human observation (or human consciousness) can directly affect reality.  But in a page about quantum physics and reality I use principles of quantum physics to explain why these "mystical physics" claims are not supported by science and why, at the quantum level and everyday level, human actions can affect some aspects of reality but not other aspects.
      This distinction is also helpful when we ask, "Are scientific theories constructed or discovered?"  Contemporary scholars claim that scientific theories are humanly constructed, and this is true, but only in some ways.  Yes, between 1500 and 1700 our theories about the solar system were constructed and they did change.  But our theories improved because we discovered more about an independent reality that was not constructed by us.  In order to construct accurate theories about a human-independent reality (like the solar system) our theory construction must be constrained and guided by what we discover about this reality.  By contrast, if sociologists are constructing theories about a society that is a humanly-constructed reality, there will be interactions between theories they are constructing and the reality they are describing-and-explaining, which (if the sociologists and their theories are influential in society) will let them help "construct the reality" of the society.  But they can do this only because society is a humanly-constructed reality, not a human-independent reality

      Does it matter?  Yes, the distinction between independent reality and constructed reality is extremely important.  A failure to make this distinction, or a stubborn refusal to make it, will cause confusion.  Therefore, if we want our thinking to be more precise and less confused, we will always ask "Which type of reality is it?"

      non-correspondence definitions of TRUTH 

      In the traditional correspondence definition of truth, truth is determined by reality, and a truth-claim is true if it corresponds to the actual state of reality, either now or (for a statement about history) in the past, if it matches the way the world is or was.
      But in the new non-correspondence "relativist" definitions, truth is determined by human decisions based on human criteria, not by reality:
      In a consensus definition of truth, a truth-claim is considered to be true within a community if it is accepted by most people in this community.  In a coherence definition of truth, the truth of a truth-claim depends on its relationships with other statements, on how coherently it fits into a system of statements that are considered true (by some definition);  in scientific method a theory is considered "probably true" when it is supported by evidence and logic, in a process of logical evaluation that includes coherence plus other criteria.  With a pragmatic definition of truth, a statement is true if it produces satisfactory results when it is used as a basis for decisions and actions.
      To avoid confusion, I think the word "truth" should be reserved for a correspondence definition;  we should not use the word "truth" in any other way, and when other people do use "truth" in another way, we should challenge them, gently and logically.  The non-correspondence definitions of truth — by consensus (truth is a majority opinion), coherence (truth is a logically justifiable belief), pragmatism (truth is a useful principle), or in other ways — are humanly constructed claims about what is true, so they should be called truth-claims (or theories, beliefs, principles,...) but not truth.
 

      multiple definitions of ABSOLUTE TRUTH

      When a non-relativist makes claims about absolute truth, this can be confusing because there are many possible meanings:
      • If you intend the most common meaning — a principle that is always true, in all cultures and situations, in the past, present and future — you can just call this a universally true principle or universal principle.
      • If you are making a truth-claim and are using a correspondence definition of truth, adding "absolute" isn't necessary or helpful.  Just call it a truth-claim and explain that when you say "truth" you mean correspondence-based truth which is reality-determined truth.   { If you want "absolute" to mean the opposite of "relative" your meaning will be clarified if you explain that relative truth is a humanly constructed truth-claim (based on criteria of consensus, coherence, pragmatism,...) and this may lead to productive thinking about the biasing influence (which can be small or large) of the human context in which construction of the truth-claim is occurring.
      • If you're emphasizing that a truth-claim is about an independent reality, not a humanly constructed reality, explain the difference between these two types of reality, and clarify your intended meaning.
      • If you have an extremely high level of confidence in a truth-claim, say "I'm absolutely certain this is true" and explain why you are so confident.  We should distinguish between absolute truth (which certainly does exist if we use a correspondence definition of truth) and absolute knowledge (which seems impossible for humans to attain). 

      Because "absolute truth" is overpopulated with potential meanings, which can lead to confusion and misuderstanding, we should avoid this term (by replacing it with terms whose meaning is more precise) or clearly explain the intended meaning.
      Sometimes absolute truth and relative truth are replaced by Truth (with a capital T) and truth (with a small t) but this isn't useful because many meanings are possible, so we don't know the intended meanings of Truth and truth.  And this pair of terms has an extra disadvantage, because "truth" is used in a way that, in my opinion, it should never be used.
      Similarly, the meaning of a Biblical truth is not clear.  It would be more accurate to say that you think the Bible makes this truth-claim about reality (about some aspect of the spiritual realm, or human history, or a Bible-based principle for living,...) because this will clarify the intended meaning.

 
     
Confidence and Truth
      In science — as in most other areas of life (*) — proof is impossible, but scientists can develop a rationally justified confidence in the truth or falsity of a theory.  Why is proof impossible, and how can scientists develop confidence?  This is discussed in The Limits of Logic, which explains why modern science has given up the quest for certainty, and has decided to aim for a high degree of plausibility, for a rational way to determine "what is a good way to bet."   {* In some areas, proof is possible.  For example, in mathematics we can prove that "2 + 3 = 5" if we define each of the five concepts ( 2 , + , 3 , = , 5 ) as in our usual system of math.  But in science, and for the important questions in life, proof is impossible. }
      In most situations the perspective of most scientists is a critical realism that combines realist goals (wanting to find the truth) with critical evaluation (willing to be skeptical about the truth-claims associated with a particular theory).
      Our degree of confidence in a theory can be summarized in its theory status, which is an estimate of a theory's plausibility. *  This concept is useful because it allows flexibility in our thinking.  If status is extremely high or low, we can choose to accept or reject a theory.  But we have options because, in addition to this binary yes-or-no choice, we can also think in terms of a status (a degree of confidence) that can vary along a continuum ranging from high to low, from yes to no, with varying degrees of confidence between these extremes.  An important part of a truth-claim is the confidence assigned to it by the claimer;  there is a difference between claiming "maybe this is true" and "I'm certain this is true."   {* Our estimates of a theory's utility can supplement our estimates of its plausibility when we are evaluating theory status. }
      Thinking about theory status, with degrees of confidence, makes it easier to view theories with a logically appropriate humility because we can avoid the extremes of a silly radical relativism (which insists that if we cannot claim certainty, we can claim nothing) and the over-reaction that produces arrogantly overconfident claims (in thinking that if we want to avoid the extreme of not claiming any confidence, we must claim the total confidence of certainty).  An appropriate humility recognizes that, based on evidence and logic, in some situations only a low level of confidence is justifiable, while in other situations a high degree of confidence (which is almost a certainty) is justified.

      Is relativism illogical and self-refuting?  Some of its critics make this claim, but I disagree.  To see why, let's look at two assertions that could be made by a relativist:
      1) A statement that "all theories are false" is inconsistent and incorrect, because the statement is itself a theory, so if the statement is true, then at least one theory is true, and the statement is false.
      2) A statement that "all theories are uncertain" is not internally inconsistent because when you say "if you are correct, then your own theory is uncertain and you can't be certain about its truth" the claimer will agree that "yes, this is what I said."
      #1 is logically self-refuting, but this isn't the claim usually being made by relativists.  Instead they claim #2 (which is not logically self-refuting) by saying "we can never be certain about anything" or, with more humility, "I'm not certain that we can ever be certain about anything."
      In fact, I agree with #2 because "proof is impossible."  But the difficulty with postmodernism is that "if a good idea is taken to extremes... there may be undesirable consequences," as explained later.  Yes, "proof is impossible" but rationally justified confidence is possible, and sometimes "a high degree of confidence (which is almost a certainty) is justified."
      Unfortunately, some Christians claim that "relativism is self-refuting" in a well-intended but futile attempt to find a simple flaw in postmodern relativism.  I think serious flaws do exist, but they are not simple and obvious, so careful thinking is required.
      On the other hand, a claim that "it's wrong to say someone is wrong" is logically inconsistent, as discussed later when we ask "Is it wrong to say ‘I think you're wrong’?" and we compare The New Tolerance with Conventional Tolerance. }

      We began this page by asking"Do scientists create reality?" and we've been looking at relationships between confidence and truth, including these:  when strong confidence seems justified, this confidence will not affect a human-independent reality;  and when a general humility seems justified and we are not highly confident about any current theory, truth does exist even though we don't know what is true. 
      a scientific example:  In 1600, based on the best available evidence and logic, a sun-centered theory deserved an intermediate status, and it received a mixed reception.  Some scholars argued for it, others were against it, and everyone was able to support their view with evidence, logic, and philosophy.  During a 200-year period, from 1500 to 1700, the human consensus changed from almost-certainty (but with a mismatch between confidence and truth, due to widespread belief in a theory that was wrong) to intermediate levels of confidence (that gradually, due to new evidence and improved analysis, shifted in favor of a sun-centered theory) back to almost-certainty (with belief in a theory that we now claim, with a high degree of confidence that approaches certainty, actually is true).  But during these changes in humanly constructed theories about truth, the actual truth — which was determined by human-independent reality, by the actual motions of the earth, planets, and sun — remained what it was, unchanged by human debates.
      a spiritual example:  Based on the Bible, Christians claim that God created the universe, and Jesus was resurrected from the dead. *  Are these claims true or false?  This depends only on reality, on what actually happened in history.  Because these claims are about independent reality, their truth or falsity does not depend on what you or I choose to believe.  But each of us has a worldview, which includes our beliefs about claims made in the Bible, and this "personally constructed internal reality" does influence our attitudes and actions.    {* But we should be cautious about other claims — such as those made in 1633 (about an earth-centered solar system) and 2007 (about a young earth) — that are not important theologically, and have led to a common perception of inherent conflict (and even "war") between science and religion.  These claims about "science in the Bible" are discussed in Science-Religion Conflict? (flat earth & Galileo) and an introduction to modern conflicts caused by young-earth claims and Biblical Theology for young-earth Christians. }
 

      Confidence and Faith
      Can we have faith without proof?  Yes, we have faith if we have personal confidence in God, as explained in a page that asks "Why isn't God more obvious? Can we prove God?" and concludes with a summary:
      Truth does exist, even though we cannot know with absolute certainty what this truth is.  ...
      Despite the impossibility of proof, evidence [historical, scientific, personal, interpersonal] can affect our estimates for the plausibility of various worldviews.  ...
      I'm not advocating a spiritual agnosticism that claims "if there is not enough evidence for certainty, the most rational decision is to not decide." ... I'm merely suggesting that we humbly recognize the limits of logical persuasion and the impossibility of proof, and see our world as an environment that permits free decisions and provides opportunities for living by faith in whatever worldview a person has decided to construct and accept.  ...
      God wants us to live by faith... by making daily decisions on the basis of trust in God's character and promises.

      A strong faith is consistent with a humble recognition that other people, thinking rationally, can reach different conclusions about the worldview they have chosen to "live by faith."
 

      SUMMARY
      When there is a question or discussion about truth, ask yourself:
      Are we thinking about the truth (which is determined by reality) or a truth-claim (which is a human theory about reality)?
      Is the reality analogous to movements in the solar system (human-independent reality) or is it like driving on a specified side of the road (humanly constructed reality)?  These two types of reality have different characteristics, and claims that are rational for one type can be silly for the other type.
      For either type of reality, the certainty of logically rigorous proof is impossible, but logically justifiable confidence is possible.
      For human-independent reality, a high level of confidence in a theory cannot make it true.  But even though we cannot control the independent reality of our solar system, we (individually and in groups) do "construct our reality" when we construct our worldviews and partially construct our situations.   { I say "partially" because some aspects of our situations are beyond our control. }   But even though the truth of a theory is not affected by our confidence that the theory is true (or is false), our confidence — if it is based on a solid foundation of evidence and logic — may be an indication that the theory is true (or is false).
      The questions, "does God exist?" and "does God set standards for our behavior?", are about independent realities.  But another question, "should we use the standards of God (as described in the Bible) as the basis for our individual and societal behavior?", is about humanly constructed reality.
 


more about Reality 101 — Personal Commentary 

In contrast with the main "Reality 101" which is foundational summary of basic ideas, the sections below — about Postmodernism and Reality 909 — is a personal commentary.  It contains ideas that I hope will stimulate your thinking, but is rough-and-incomplete, is not self-contained (since it assumes you're already familiar with the basic ideas of modernism and postmodernism that are described in other pages), and is not intended to provide an in-depth comprehensive analysis of the complex issues being examined.  But I think you'll find it interesting and useful.
 
 

Reflections on Postmodernism (and Modernism)

 
      Postmodernism and Language

      Postmodernists emphasize the importance of language, which affects how we think and how we interact with each other.  Yes, language is important in our thinking, communicating, and constructing of theories, as discussed in "Using Precise Language" above.  Postmodernists are skillfully using language to support their views and increase their influence.  Non-postmodernists should pay more attention to the uses of language in society.

      Where's the proof?
      When people ask "Where is the proof?" instead of "Where is the evidence?", they are implying that the evaluation standard should be the 100% certainty of proof, instead of a high level of rationally justifiable confidence based on a logical evaluation of evidence.  Unfortunately, the use of an unreasonably high standard (if we demand proof) tends to reinforce the skepticism of relativism and postmodernism, as discussed below.

      Modernism and Confidence
      appropriate humility is not the same as maximum humility:  Sometimes the evidence for a truth-claim is so strong that, for practical purposes, it seems rational to adopt a feeling of certainty about the truth of this claim, to consider it "proved beyond a reasonable doubt."  For example, some claims made by science — that the earth is roughly spherical, rotates, and orbits the sun once a year, or that heavier-than-air objects will fall through air toward the earth — seem so well established that it is difficult, and it might be unwise, to avoid thinking of them as "facts" about which we can be certain.  For these claims, it is appropriate to say "there is very little rational justification for humility."
      Although a claim of "certainty" cannot be justified by rigorous logic, I think that — despite the protests of skeptics — we can have a high degree of rationally justified confidence in most of the truth-claims made by modern science.  {details: The Limits of Logic, Radical Relativism}
      But for balance, we should also acknowledge the limitations of science:
      A reason for caution is the recognition that some theories we once thought were correct (re: planetary motions and other phenomena) are now considered wrong.  Similarly, some of our current theories could also be wrong.
      A potential source of error is the widespread assumption of methodological naturalism in science, which guarantees that — no matter what is being studied, or what is the evidence — the scientific conclusion must always be that "it happened due to natural causes."  But if anything in the history of nature happened due to a non-natural cause, a naturalistic assumption will force scientists to reach a false conclusion about this part of the history.  {details: Searching for Truth in a Closed Science}

      Modern versus Postmodern? (Coexistence and Partial Agreement)

      Currently, postmodernism supplements modernism, but has not replaced it.  Both perspectives exert strong influence.  To some extent, the type of reality affects the type of influence.  Modernism, which emphasizes the authority of science, is more influential for questions about independent realities.  And postmodernists try to dominate discussions about the process by which constructed realities are constructed.
      But there are overlaps and interactions.  For example, most postmodernists prefer to believe the naturalistic conclusions required by the naturalistic assumptions of the current scientific establishment.  And both perspectives can use the authority of naturalistic "scientific conclusions" (which are actually nonscientific assumptions) as a basis for for labeling other views "unscientific," thereby marginalizing these views and minimizing their influence in society.
 

      Pluralism is not Relativism

      pluralism is not the same as relativism:  The existence of many views (pluralism) does not indicate that all of these views are equally credible (as claimed in extreme relativism), any more than the existence of many answers on a multiple-choice exam indicates that we can have no basis for thinking that any of the answers is more plausible than the other answers.
      Some of the main claims of Christianity (such as the deity and resurrection of Jesus) are rejected by other religions, and these mutually exclusive claims cannot both be correct.  For some claims — for those that are unique to Christianity, so the claims of Christianity and other religions are mutually exclusive — a "one way" approach is not only logically justified, but is logically necessary;  for these claims, either Christianity is correct (and other religions are wrong) or Christianity is wrong.   { But some exclusivist claims/attitudes are not logical or helpful, and I think Christians should cooperate with non-Christians more often, and more effectively, in our mutual pursuit of goals that we agree will be beneficial for individuals and/or society. }
 

      A Postmodern View of Truth  (Do we create truth?)

      Some perspectives on truth blur the line between belief and reality.  For example, "Postmodernism affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate. ... There is no absolute truth; rather, truth is relative to the community in which we participate." (Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism)   { Even though Grenz is reporting on postmodernism "from the outside" and (like me) is not a proponent, I think he accurately summarizes postmodernist views. }
      The first sentence correctly acknowledges the fact that human beliefs are constructed by humans.  But the second sentence confuses these beliefs with reality.  It would be correct to say "beliefs about truth are relative to the community..." but he says "truth is relative to the community" thereby equating truth with belief, with "whatever we accept as truth."  This definition of truth is a serious error because confidence in a truth-claim cannot make the claim true.  { As emphasized in Part 1, to avoid confusion we must distinguish between human-independent reality and humanly constructed reality. }

      Is it rational to reject relativism?
      As explained earlier, one claim of relativism — that proof is impossible — is justified, and most non-relativists agree.  If we cannot challenge postmodern relativism by arguing that it logically refutes itself, should we accept it?  No, because there are other reasons for rejecting relativism in its more eqaqxtreme forms.  We should not move from reasonable moderate relativism to unreasonable radical relativism.  We should avoid the undesirable consequences that occur when — if someone declares that "if you cannot claim certainty, you can claim nothing" — a good idea is taken to extremes.  For the important questions in life, most rational people will agree that even though the certainty of logically rigorous proof is impossible, we can (and should) aim for a rationally justified confidence.  A reasonable amount of relativism is logical and wise, but "too much" is foolish.

      Is it wrong to say "I think you're wrong"?
     
New Tolerance and Conventional Tolerance
     
A claim that "it's wrong to say that someone is wrong" certainly seems intolerant, even though it's often made "in the name of tolerance";  in addition, it may be self-refuting (logically? morally?) because the claimer is doing something — saying "it's wrong to..." — that he has declared to be wrong.
      Saying "it's wrong to say someone is wrong" is logically inconsistent (and is hypocritical) and claiming "it's wrong to say ‘I think you're wrong’" is even worse.  But modified versions of this claim — "I think it's wrong to say someone is wrong" (or "I think it's wrong to say ‘I think you're wrong’"?) — can be more difficult to logically analyze, and more difficult to challenge.  And should our analysis distinguish between specific types of behavior, as when a person says "it's wrong to say that premarital sex is wrong" without self-contradiction, because in making this claim he is not doing the particular thing (saying "premarital sex is wrong") that he claims is wrong?
      Can a choice (and consequent action) be morally wrong?  Almost everyone will think that some choices, such as murder, are immoral because it's obvious that another person is being harmed.  But other choices, such as sex between unmarried consenting adults, are controversial.  Some people will defend a particular choice, others will criticize it as immoral and unwise.  When critics express their views and are themselves criticized (because "they're interfering with the free choice of other people and it's none of their business") they can respond, "I have a right to hold my views and express them."
      Is this — as claimed by proponents of "the new tolerance" and manifested in "politically correct" laws about "hate speech" — a question of responsible speech?  If it's wrong to shout "fire" in a crowded theater, is it also wrong to say "you're choosing to behave in a way that is immoral and unwise"?  This is a good question, but I think the analogy is weak because there are important differences between the two situations.  Whether your actions are verbal or nonverbal, when someone says "your actions are wrong" the consequences can be harmful or helpful, or both.  Some of the extremes of political correctness occur when there is a narrow focus on the potential harms of "hate speech" while the potentially beneficial effects are ignored, and the importance of free speech is minimized.  In my opinion, people should be free to express their views about moral choices and actions.
      Let's compare two views of tolerance: postmodern and conventional.  In a strange twist of language, a postmodern new tolerance can produce intolerance;  this occurs when the new tolerance — which claims that tolerating other views (and choices, actions,...) requires an absence of criticism — prevents some views from being expressed and considered.  By contrast, conventional tolerance — which encourages open communication, a respectful acknowledgment of disagreements, a mutual commitment to courteous thoughtfulness, and listening with an intention to understand — promotes attitudes and actions that usually are beneficial for individuals and for society.

 
      Reality 909

      Earlier, in two introductions and a disclaimer, I say: "I'll look at only the easy questions, those that can be logically understood" and "[this page] is not intended to provide a comprehensive analysis" and "the topics it does cover aren't treated with the depth that is deserved."  But humility is more appropriate for some aspects of the page than for others.  For the easy questions — those involving logic (such as two types of reality and the logical fallacy of self-refutation) — I think that (considering the relatively short length of this page) the analysis is comprehensive and logical.  {and the analysis continues in another page}  But the difficult questions — those that are most important, but cannot be logically understood — are not treated with the depth they deserve.
      Hopefully, the logical foundation in Reality 101 will help us avoid much of the silly dialogue (with each side misunderstanding the other) that occurs between proponents and opponents of postmodernism.  But questions remain, and they are the focus in the following post-101 sections.  { an IOU: Eventually, I'll return to these sections and will expand them, or (more likely) I'll find web-pages where others have examined these questions more carefully.  But for now, what you see below is all there is. }

      Religion and Policy

      The Bible is clear about some truth-claims and some principles for living.  In other cases — for example, when we ask "What would Jesus drive?" — it is more difficult to know what the Bible teaches.  In these cases, humility is especially appropriate, and declarations that a person or group is promoting "the Christian perspective" should be made with caution, and should be open to questioning.  Perhaps simply saying that it's "a perspective based on (or inspired by) a Christian worldview," or something like that, might be better.
      Should we use Bible-based Christian principles as a foundation for public policies?  This is a difficult question, and it won't be discussed here except to say that both extremes seem unwise.  We shouldn't have a "theocratic government" that tries to mandate Christian beliefs.  But we shouldn't try to keep Christian values out of the public sphere because, when making decisions about public policies, Christian perspectives should be considered just as relevant as other perspectives.

      Ethical Systems and Behaviors
      The advantages of different ethical systems can be debated.  I think Christian ethical principles and commandments are best because they come from God, who knows us (he designed and created us) and wants the best for us.  But should nonbelievers be persuaded by this reasoning?  Will they be better people, and will we have a better society, if they follow ethics from the Bible? Or should they decide that a nonreligious system of ethics -- such as making decisions based on "the greatest good for the greatest number of people" -- is better for individuals and for society?
      These questions won't be discussed here.  Instead, I will ask four other questions, and will discuss the third question.  Is ethics a human-independent reality (with standards decreed by God) or a humanly constructed reality (with standards negotiated by humans)?  What is the relative importance of choosing a particular ethical system, and of actually living according to the ethical demands of whatever system is chosen?  Would we have a significantly better society if everyone behaved in a way that promoted the greatest good for the greatest number of people?  Who will be more motivated to behave in this way: Christian believers or agnostic/atheistic nonbelievers?
      In making ethical decisions, usually most nonbelievers are not highly motivated to behave in a way that would produce the greatest good for the greatest number of other people.  Instead, they mainly want to promote what is good for themselves, or for a small circle of family and friends.  The other people can fend for themselves.  By comparison, Christians are more motivated -- although it still is a challenge to "live by faith" instead of following our natural selfish instincts -- to focus on thinking and behaving in a way that promotes the good of others, because we know that God wants us to do this, and we believe that eventually God will reward us, later in this life or in heaven.  And we believe that God spiritually inspires and empowers us, through the Holy Spirit, to do acts of selfless love.
 
 



 
    APPENDIX

    The two summaries below are from a page that asks, Should scientific method be eks-rated? , and "makes modest recommendations, based on a simple principle (that if a good idea is taken to extremes without sufficient balance from rational critical thinking, there may be undesirable consequences) and an assumption that undesirable consequences should be avoided."

      The Limits of Logic (Summary for Section 2)

      Yes, there are limits.  It is impossible, using any type of logic, to prove that any theory is either true or false.  Why?  If observations agree with a theory's predictions, this does not prove the theory is true, because another theory (maybe even one that has not yet been invented) might also predict the same observations, and might be a better explanation.  But if there is disagreement between observations and theory-based predictions, doesn't this prove a theory is false?  No, because the lack of agreement could be due to any of the many elements (only one of these is the theory being "tested") that are involved in making the observations and predictions, and in comparing them.
      Or the foundation of empirical science can be attacked by claiming that observations are "theory laden" and therefore involve circular logic, with theories being used to generate and interpret the observations that are used to support theories.  This circularity makes the use of observation-based logic unreliable.  And when this shaky observational foundation is extended by inductive generalization, the conclusions become even more uncertain.
      Yes, these skeptical challenges are logically valid.  But a critical thinker should know, not just the limits of logic, but also the sophisticated methods that scientists have developed to cope with these limitations and minimize their practical effects.  By using these methods, scientists can develop a rationally justified confidence in their conclusions, despite the impossibility of proof or disproof.
      We should challenge the rationality of an implication made by skeptics — that if we cannot claim certainty, we can claim nothing.  Modern science has given up the quest for certainty, and has decided to aim for a high degree of plausibility, for a rational way to determine "what is a good way to bet."
 

      Radical Relativism (Summary for Section 3)

      An extreme relativist claims that no idea is more worthy of acceptance than any other idea.  Usually, relativism about science is defended by arguing that, when scientific theories are being evaluated, observation-based logic is less important than cultural factors.  But if theories are determined mainly by culture, not logic, in a different culture our scientific theories would be different.  And we have relativism.
      As with many ideas that seem extreme, radical relativism begins on solid ground.  Most scholars agree with its two basic premises: the limits of logic and the influence of culture.  But there is plenty of disagreement about balance, about the relative contributions of logic and culture in science, about how far a good idea can be extended before it becomes a bad idea that is harmful to rationality and society.
      This section ends by asking, "Does scientific knowledge improve over time?"  Although a skeptic may appeal to the impossibility of proof and the fallibility of science, "the best way to bet" seems obvious.  To illustrate, imagine a million dollar wager involving a "truth competition" between scientific theories from the past, present, and future: from 1404, 2004, and 2104.  Would a relativist really be willing to bet on theories from 600 years ago?



 
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Here are other related pages:

Tolerance and Truth
(in the context of worldviews)

Modern Quantum Physics:
Does science show that we create reality?

What about Einstein's Theory of Invariance?

Should "scientific method" be eks-rated?

Worldview Education for Christian Living

OTHER PAGES
by Craig Rusbult
(about education, worldviews, origins,...)

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