Relativism and democratic epistemologies are filling the vacuum left by religion- so much so that Pope Ratzinger declared that we lived in a “dictatorship of relativism”. And even a broken Pope can be right twice a day (even if it’s for completely irrational reasons).
What are these epistemologies about? Basically, they tell us that truth is determined by group belief, usually collective entities such as “family”, “religion”, “culture”, “the country” or “the law”. Democracy, as a specific form of relativism applied to social organization, holds that the truth is determined by popularity. Utilitarianism, another specific form of relativism, holds that morality is determined by what benefits the greatest number. In the general relativist perspective, truth has nothing to do with individual values, rationality, or the examination of reality. All epistemology is inherently collectivist.
I think it is fairly obvious to see why the religio-political contingent loves relativism and uses it explicitly and implicitly as much as possible. Relativism reifies them as the roots of reality itself! At least ancient religions only reified the king as a “god” amongst “gods”. But like Christianity, relativism is a dictatorship with invisible masters which aims to destroy moral autonomy. They have a common moral goal- to eliminate dissent through the imposition of arbitrary (at least in a non-memetic sense) rules that derive their legitimacy from collectivism. Relativists who adopt minority positions will even go so far as to declare themselves to be immoral (and accept any punishment meted out by the majority) in order to maintain the legitimacy of the collective, rather than deny relativism.
Relativism suffers from numerous fatal problems as an epistemology. The most obvious of these problems is its self-contradictory nature. As I discussed earlier in “Belief is not a Terminus.”, all non-rational methods must simultaneously contradict reason and yet piggyback on it in order to even exist. For the relativist to extract the necessary information in order to determine truth (if only by listening to an authority figure), he must use the machinery of reason- his senses, his conceptual understanding and his logic. So like anyone using non-rational premises, he is contradicting himself every time he does so.
Like any religion, relativism falls into major “origin” problems as well. If group beliefs are our standard, then how do group beliefs themselves emerge? Either they are the product of a magical process, or they somehow emerge from individual beliefs (by popularity for example). And in democratic systems these beliefs are mostly motivated by propaganda. So in essence relativism is a gigantic circular reasoning- the collective says X is true because the collective says X is true.
Adding to this problem is that we must ask: who gets to determine what the “culture” says? Remember that the “culture” is an entity transcendent to any single person’s behaviour. It is by definition not observable. So someone must be appointed who can tell us what the “culture” is, just like someone must tell us what the Sound Bite Morality implies. That person or group will inevitably either be an exploiter or a ruler. What would a mere individual know about what the collective is?
Another conceit relativists have is that someone who is not “part of” a “culture” or “country” cannot criticize it. But being “part of” it does not make one know what it is- just gives one the right to criticize something one cannot know. If anyone understands this nonsense reasoning, please explain it to me.
Due to the popularity of relativism, it is rare that relativists find the need to defend their religion. In order to bolster their argument that collectivism is a valid epistemology, they sometimes invoke the concept of “consensus science”. Science being the most successful of man’s enterprises, it is natural that all belief systems try to attach themselves to it, and relativism is no exception. And like all those other belief systems, relativism fails to do so convincingly. Science does work by consensus, but definitely not in the relativist sense. The scientific method involves testing other people’s results and an open dialogue. Such processes imply individual truth-seeking, and relativism does not admit any individual truth-seeking.
All truths in science begin with the investigations of an individual or a few individuals, and come to be accepted only after a long process of doubt and questioning. This is as it should be in any progressive, self-correcting system. A system where all beliefs are accepted immediately is too chaotic to correct itself, and a system where beliefs are not accepted even after the accumulation of sufficient evidence will not progress at all.