Relativism: A Contemporary Anthology — edited by Michael Krausz

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says relativism “has been, in its various guises, both one of the most popular and most reviled philosophical doctrines of our time”. I’d say of all time, at least since the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras said “man is the measure of all things, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not”. Plato strongly disagreed.

The encyclopedia offers this by way of introduction:

Relativism, roughly put, is the view that truth and falsity, right and wrong, standards of reasoning, and procedures of justification are products of differing conventions and frameworks of assessment and that their authority is confined to the context giving rise to them. More precisely, “relativism” covers views which maintain that—at a high level of abstraction—at least some class of things have the properties they have (e.g., beautiful, morally good, … justified) not simpliciter [or simply, in themselves], but only relative to a given framework of assessment (e.g., local cultural norms, individual standards), and correspondingly, that the truth of claims attributing these properties holds only once the relevant framework of assessment is specified or supplied. Relativists characteristically insist, furthermore, that if something is only relatively so, then there can be no framework-independent vantage point from which the matter of whether the thing in question is so can be established.

So we might ask whether helium atoms have two protons. Physicists and chemists would say yes, absolutely. A simple-minded relativist might say it depends on our way of thinking or our conception of the world.

Or we might ask if human sacrifice is and has always been morally wrong. Many of us would say yes, absolutely. A relativist, not being simple-minded at all, might say it depends on what culture we’re talking about. It wasn’t morally wrong for the Aztecs 500 years ago. They thought it was necessary to stop the world from ending. It should go without saying that we’re totally against it now.

Trying to understand relativism better, I read this 500-page collection of articles on the subject. More than thirty philosophy professors and a few scholars from other disciplines weigh in. The articles were mostly interesting and not too technical. However, the only conclusions I reached are that there are many kinds of relativism, some more plausible than others, and that I need to take some time and think about which kinds, if any, are plausible to me.

Truth, Politics, Morality: Pragmatism and Deliberation by Cheryl Misak

Cheryl Misak is an expert on America’s pragmatist philosophers (Charles Peirce, William James, John Dewey, et al.) and a practicing pragmatist herself. This book grew out of her doctoral thesis. It argues that the philosophical position known as pragmatism best explains how the idea of truth applies to ethical judgments. This is a “cognitivist” position in ethics, as opposed to the “non-cognitivist” view that ethical statements merely express feelings or preferences and should never be considered true or false (non-cognitivists think that saying something like “Generosity is more ethical than greed” is like saying “I prefer generosity to greed and I want you to feel the same way”).

On the face of it, it isn’t obvious that ethical statements can be true or false. Most of us think of truth as correspondence to reality (this is the “correspondence theory”). “The cat is on the mat” is true if and only the cat really is on the mat. But there doesn’t seem to be anything real for ethical statements to correspond to. How can they be true (or false)?

However, there is more to truth than correspondence. After all, what do true statements of arithmetic correspond to? And how about logical statements like “it is not the case that P and not P”? Pragmatists like Professor Misak don’t accept correspondence as the basis for truth. Instead, they view truth in terms of successful inquiry:

It is not that a true belief is one which will fit the evidence and which will measure up to the standards of inquiry as we now now know them. Rather, a true belief is one which would fit with the evidence and which would measure up to the standards of inquiry were inquiry to be pursued so far that no recalcitrant experience and no revisions in the standards of inquiry would be called for. Only then will pragmatism preserve the kind of objectivity that might suffice to attract those philosophers and inquirers who insist that truth is more than what we happen to think correct [68].

The basic idea here is that people (which people depends on the case) can try to figure out if a statement is true, whatever kind of statement it is, using appropriate methods (direct experience, scientific research, philosophical discussion, etc.) and if it looks like they wouldn’t be able to proceed any further in their inquiry, without it being a complete waste of time, the statement is true.

It’s easy to see how this approach can be applied to simple factual statements like “the cat is on the mat”, but also to statements of mathematics and logic, as well as judgments of value, such as deciding which is the most practical course of action in a given case, the ethical thing to do or the best economic policy to adopt. What isn’t easy is to know when all reasonable avenues of inquiry have been exhausted, so that no further inquiry would make a difference.

Misak discusses many issues that her position raises, and many possible objections. I found her explanations and arguments to be quite convincing. I think her hopes for the book are fulfilled:

What I hope to have shown is that there are some good reasons for thinking that we can make assertions or have genuine beliefs about what is right and wrong, just and unjust, cruel and kind; that we can inquire about the correctness of those beliefs; that our moral deliberations aim at the truth. And I hope to have shown that if we are to make sense of this, we must conduct ourselves via democratic principles — ones which encourage tolerance, openness and understanding the experiences of others [155].

If we want to answer questions in the most effective way, and have good  reasons for our answers, we need to look at issues from different perspectives. That is how the pragmatists believe we should search for truth.

I want to mention one other thing. It’s common to think that the best way to find out what is true is to confront reality head on. Is the cat truly on the mat? Look at it. Make sure other people see it. Verify that it’s a cat — not a mouse — and that underneath it is a mat. Does the cat purr? Will it run away if you bother it?

Reading this book, I wondered what kind of reality can be confronted when deciding if a statement of ethics is true. It’s harder to say what the reality would be to make true a statement like “generosity is generally more ethical than greed”. Isn’t that a statement about how the world should be, how people should behave, and not how the world is (or how some mystical, supernatural realm of ethics is)? Misak’s answer is that if we try to figure out whether an ethical statement is true, we eventually get to a point where we can’t think otherwise. We end up being confronted with the brute reality of what our ethical beliefs are in the given situation. We will eventually say to ourselves “that’s simply right, it’s as simple as that” or “that’s just wrong, and there are no two ways about it”. I don’t recall hearing anyone give that answer before. It’s worth thinking about.

Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Stanley Kubrick is my favorite director and 2001: A Space Odyssey is my favorite movie. That was reason enough to read this detailed account of its creation. The book was interesting enough to keep reading, but it wasn’t really worthwhile. I already knew Kubrick was creative and intense. There were some interesting facts about ways the movie might have been different and why certain choices were made. The main thing I learned was how important Kubrick’s many collaborators were (it’s apparently true that it’s a “collaborative medium”). But there was also too much about Arthur C. Clarke, his personal life and the process of writing the novel that went with the movie. I also found the technical descriptions of various parts of the production hard to follow. What the book mainly did was make me want to watch 2001 again. Maybe I’ll see it somewhat differently now that I know more about the effort that went into making it. It might be dangerous if I see it too differently.

The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets by Thomas Philippon

Why do Americans pay more than Europeans or Asians for cellphone service that isn’t even as good as theirs? That’s a question Thomas Philippon, a professor of finance at New York University and an adviser to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, asked himself one day. He attempts to answer the question in this book. His answers aren’t encouraging.

Philippon says he will offer three main arguments:

One: Competition has declined in most sectors of the US economy. Measuring competition is easier said than done, for we can find only imperfect proxies. We will look at prices, profit rates, and market shares. None is perfect, but together they can form a convincing picture.

Two: The lack of competition is explained largely by policy choices, influenced by lobbying and campaign fiance contributions. We will look at the dollars spent by every US corporation over the past twenty years to lobby their regulators, their senators, their congressmen, and members of key committees, as well as to finance federal and state elections. We will show how these efforts distort free markets: … corporate lobbying and campaign finance contributions lead to barriers to entry and regulations that protect large incumbents, weaker antitrust enforcement, and weaker growth of small and medium-sized firms.

Three: The consequences of a lack of competition are lower wages, lower investment, lower productivity, lower growth, and more inequality. We will examine how the decline in competition across industries has effects that reach into the wallets and bank accounts of everyday Americans. We will also demonstrate why lower competition leads to less of the sort of thing that we traditionally associate with growing economies: investment, technological advancement, and rising wages [9].

The author explains that economists look at three main variables “to assess the degree of competition in an industry”:

…the degree of concentration (that is, whether there are lots of small firms or whether the industry is dominated by a few large firms); the profits that these firms are making, and the prices that customers pay….The bad kind [of concentration] occurs when incumbents in an industry are allowed to block the entry of competitors, to collude, or to merge for the primary purpose of increasing their power over market-wide pricing…[25].

In most US industries, market shares have become more concentrated and more persistent. Industry leaders are less likely to be challenged and replaced than they were twenty years ago. At the same tine, their profit margins have increased [60].

The Great Reversal is filled with data and references to journal articles, but the material is presented in digestible form (the more technical explanations are marked off from the main text). One result of all the data and all the related concepts is that the book is a kind of introduction to economics. I came away with a much better understanding of the work economists do when they look for patterns in all the buying and selling a society does.

I also came away convinced that things will only get worse — there will be less competition and more inequality — unless we reform our political culture. I already knew that American political campaigns are incredibly expensive compared to campaigns in Europe. But on average 50 times as expensive? I didn’t realize that the European Union now does a better job insuring competition than we do. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren emphasizes, we need big, structural change if we’re going to increase competition, reduce inequality and deal with the major challenge of global warming.

The book’s title, The Great Reversal, refers to the fact that the US economy used to work better for society as a whole. The data shows that it was mainly in the last twenty years that competition seriously declined. Can the reversal be reversed in the next twenty?

However, after spending “hundreds of hours researching and writing this book”, the author was surprised to realize “how fragile free markets really are”:

We take them for granted, but history demonstrates that they are more the exception than the rule. Free markets are supposed to discipline private companies, but today, many private companies have grown so dominant that the can get away with bad service, high prices, and deficient privacy safeguards. Only two decades ago, the United States was effectively the land of free markets and a leader in … antitrust policy. If America wants to lead once more in this realm, it must remember its own history and relearn the lessons it successfully taught the rest of the world [287-288].

The American Pragmatists by Cheryl Misak

At least the internet doesn’t forget. I finished this book and had a question about the exact title. Right there on the first page of the search results appeared an entry from this very blog. It turns out I read this book in 2018. Who knew?

Let’s see if I agree with myself. (I see I left out a word. Now corrected.)

Well, I was concerned about trying to summarize this book today. I must have felt the same two years ago, since that earlier summary includes a lot of quotation. But I stand by every word (including the one I just added)!

I’ll simply add one thing.

Part of the author’s purpose was to counter the popular understanding among philosophers that pragmatism as a philosophical movement faded away in the 20th century under intense criticism, especially after the death of John Dewey in 1952. Misak shows it’s more accurate to say pragmatism was absorbed rather than replaced. Many of the leading philosophers in the last half of the 20th century (including former members of the Vienna Circle, as well as W. V. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, Nelson Goodman, Hilary Putnam and Donald Davidson) argued for positions quite compatible with the early pragmatists, especially the views of Charles Sanders Pierce, even though these later philosophers rarely called themselves “pragmatists”. The same holds true for philosophers in this century. It’s the label that has mostly disappeared.

The American Pragmatists is worth reading, but repetitious at times. There are only so many points you can make about a concept like “truth”. But I want to learn more about two philosophers Misak thinks highly of: Clarence Irving Lewis and Hilary Putnam. I’ve got some of their books. I should open them — that’s what a pragmatist would do.

Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

After reading Sue Prideaux’s biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, I wanted to read something from the philosopher himself. I hadn’t read anything of his since On the Genealogy of Morality — or Moralsseven years ago. I wanted to understand better what was bothering the poor man. And how he thought people should live.

Beyond Good and Evil has nine parts. Each part is composed of aphorisms or sections, sometimes a page or two, sometimes a single paragraph. Overall, it was rough going. I often had no idea what he was complaining about (he mostly complains). There were also passages like this, the meaning of which seems clear at first:

Today, … when the herd animal alone obtains and bestows honours in Europe, when “equality of rights” could all too easily change into equality of wrongdoing: I mean into a general war on everything rare, strange, privileged, the higher man, the higher soul, the higher duty, the higher responsibility, creative fullness of power and mastery — today, being noble, wanting to be by oneself, the ability to be different, independence and the need for self-responsibility pertains to the concept “greatness”; and the philosopher will betray something of his ideal when he asserts: “He shall be the greatest who can be the most solitary, the most concealed, the most divergent, the man beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, the superabundant of will; this shall be called greatness…. [sec. 212].

Nietzsche’s fundamental idea is that the most important fact about human beings is their will to power — their desire to control and create. He was convinced that Christian morality, the morality of “the herd”, with its ideas like “turning the other cheek” and “the meek shall inherit the Earth”, interferes with humanity’s will to power. In particular, it interferes with the will to power of those blessed with genius, the greatest among us. He was well aware of Goethe, Beethoven, Napoleon and Wagner, all towering figures in his opinion, but he apparently believed there would be more such tremendously accomplished figures if only everyday morality didn’t hold them back. In order to achieve greatness, a person must go beyond the standard ideas of good and evil. If one is to achieve greatness, the transvaluation (or reconsideration) of all values is necessary.

But what values should a genius live by? Is it necessary to ignore the Golden Rule? Sacrifice everything else to one’s art or projects? Ignore common courtesy? Trample other people however and whenever it feels right? After reading Nietzsche’s biography, two of his books and several summaries of his ideas, I still don’t know. I also don’t understand why he was so bothered by everyday morality. He seems to have taken the existence of common beliefs about good and evil as a personal affront.

He offers a clue when discussing what “a born, unavoidable psychologist and reader of souls” is confronted by:

The corruption, the ruination of higher human beings, of more strangely constituted souls is the rule: it is dreadful to always have such a rule before one’s eyes [sec. 269].

If anyone has ever been one, Nietzsche was a born psychologist. Perhaps he was speaking for himself in this passage. He must have viewed himself as “strangely constituted”. After he lost his mind, he suffered from extraordinary delusions of grandeur, describing his frequent contacts with the leading statesmen of Europe and sometimes referring to himself as God.

Scholars have determined that Nietzsche was not a German nationalist or an anti-semite. Some say the notion of the Übermensch was not central to his philosophy. So it was surprising to read some of his strongly-worded views. For example:

… that what is right for one cannot … by any means be right for another, that the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men, in short that there exists an order of rank between man and man, consequently also between morality and morality [sec. 228].

Every elevation of the type man has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society — and so it will always be: a society which believes in … orders of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other [257].

The noble caste was always in the beginning the barbarian caste: … they were more complete human beings (which, on every level, also means … “more complete beasts”) [257].

The essential thing in a good and healthy aristocracy is [that it] accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of innumerable men who for its sake have to be suppressed and reduced to imperfect men, to slaves and instruments. Its fundamental faith must be that society should not exist for the sake of society but only as a foundation and scaffolding upon which a select species of being is able to raise itself .. to a higher existence [258].

One has to … resist all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of the strange and weaker, suppression, severity, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and, at the least and mildest, exploitation… Exploitation … pertains to the essence of the living thing … it is a consequence of the intrinsic will to power [259].

There is master morality and slave morality … The noble type of man feels himself to be the determiner of values, he does not need to be approved of, he judges “what harms me is harmful in itself”, he knows himself to be that which … accords honour to things, he creates values [260].

A morality of the rulers [says] that one has duties only toward one’s equals; that towards beings of a lower rank, towards everything alien, one may act as one wishes or “as the heart dictates” and in any case “beyond good and evil” [260].

The grander, more manifold, more comprehensive life lives beyond the old morality; the “individual” stands there, reduced to his own law-giving, to his own arts and stratagems for self-preservation, self-enhancement, self-redemption [262].

Egoism pertains to the essence of the noble soul, I mean the immovable faith that to a being such as “we are” other beings have to be subordinate by their nature, and sacrifice themselves to us … “it is justice itself” [265].

Nietzsche’s ethical theory might be called “aristocratic egoism” — self-centered behavior for the natural aristocrats among us (not the aristocrats with hereditary titles); a reasonable amount of respect for other aristocrats; and everybody else knowing their place. Who knows how many impressionable readers have taken these ideas seriously enough to have acted on them? The man wasn’t joking when he wrote: “I am dynamite!”

In conclusion, the best thing I can say about Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil is that I no longer feel the need to understand its author.

Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum by Lee Smolin

Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist who is dissatisfied with the state of theoretical physics. He is not alone in being dissatisfied. Physicists have two wonderful theories —  quantum mechanics (which deals with the very small) and general relativity (which deals with the very large) — that don’t fit together. Some of them have been trying for decades to reconcile the two theories. In addition, there is a lot about quantum mechanics that seems crazy or at least paradoxical. It’s been argued, therefore, that the theory is incomplete.

Smolin believes that there is a fundamental reality separate from our perceptions that underlies both quantum mechanics and general relativity. He would like to figure out what that reality is. He says this makes him a “realist”.

The first part of the book discusses what Smolin calls “anti-realist” views, primarily the so-called Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics (sometimes referred to as the “shut up and calculate” view). He then outlines some competing views, such as Einstein’s, according to which quantum mechanics is incomplete.

In the final chapters, he offers the beginnings of his own theory. I won’t try to explain it, but he begins with an idea proposed by the brilliant German philosopher Gottfried Willhelm Leibniz (who died 300 years ago). Leibniz suggested that the universe is composed of an infinite number of simple substances called”monads”. The Wikipedia article on Leibniz says “each monad is like a little mirror of the universe”, i.e. a mirror reflecting all the other monads.

Near the end of the book, Smolin offers a one-sentence summary of his theory:

The universe consists of nothing but views of itself, each [view being from the perspective of] an event in [the universe’s] history, and the [universe’s] laws act to make these views as diverse as possible [271].

For Smolin, time is a fundamental feature of the universe. Space isn’t. Space emerges from events. Furthermore, the fact that space isn’t fundamental helps explain how two particles that are millions of miles away from each other can be “entangled”, so that an effect on one can immediately affect the other. That’s the idea of “non-locality” that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance”.

Smolin is sure that he doesn’t have all the answers, but he believes it’s worth trying to find them. If you’d like to know more, you’ll have to read the book or find someone else to explain it. There are diagrams and no math!