How Not to Argue Against Relativism

A favorite among Christian apologists is the use of self-refutation arguments to undermine relativist attacks on their position. Yes, it is clear that the statement “all truth is relative” is self-refuting if meant as a universal claim. But that isn’t the problem. The problem is when apologists actually believe that relativism can be dismissed with such cavalier ease. Indeed, there are more complex and nuanced versions of relativism which are immune to self-refutation and call for a more thoughtful apologetic response.

In my view, any relativist worth her salt will avoid making universal statements about her own position. Instead, she will defend her view by means of an inductive generalization – using particular examples to show that human experience is highly conditioned by time, space, embodiment, language, and worldview. Based on these examples, the relativist will argue that humans lack a neutral basis on which to evaluate knowledge claims because the criteria we employ are already worldview-dependent. Consequently, there is very little (if anything) we can claim to know because we can’t extricate ourselves from our worldviews to compare them with an objective reality.

Seeing a rabbit or a duck depends on your perspective. Likewise, the relativist says that human knowledge is determined by the culture, language, and worldview of the knower.
Your ability to see the head of a rabbit or a duck depends on the perspective you bring to the picture. Likewise, the relativist says that human knowledge is determined by the cultures, languages, and worldviews that people bring to their investigations

At this point, the clever apologist can retort by saying, “‘the statement that knowledge claims can only be assessed by worldview-dependent criteria’ is itself worldview-dependent.” But this is a lame reply. It simply refuses to engage with what the relativist is arguing for: she is not trying to make a universal statement. She is making an inductive inference about the historically conditioned nature of human experience. The apologist actually needs to engage with this claim on the basis of arguments and evidence, instead of placing whatever the relativist says in “quotation marks” and then dismissing the remark on self-referential grounds.

So how should an apologist respond to relativism? In my view, the best approach is to ask the following: to what degree do worldviews influence how we see and reason about things? It seems clear that worldviews exert a strong influence, but it far from obvious that they completely determine how we see things. I can think of at least three reasons why this is so:

First, it appears to me that I bump up against a world that pushes back on me and challenges my preconceptions. This world can be interpreted in many ways, but it won’t let me interpret it in just any old way. Some interpretations are better than others and they can be compared on the basis of theoretical virtues such as explanatory scope, power, coherence, etc. Similar comparisons can be made between worldviews, though to a more limited extent.

Second, I may never fully understand another worldview from “the inside” but I can still have a partial grasp of it. By learning another language or living in a foreign culture I can discover common points of contact with people. With time I can allow my perspective to be reshaped, revised, corrected and even supported by the views of others.

We aren't forced to choose between total neutrality or relativism about knowledge. There's a lot of room in between.
We aren’t forced to choose between total neutrality (on the one hand) or relativism (on the other). When it comes to human knowledge, there’s a lot of room in between.

Third, relativism is often based on a false dichotomy which dissolves upon examination. The dichotomy says that either I have a completely neutral standpoint from which to know things, or my knowledge is totally determined by a worldview. As indicated above, there is a lot of middle ground between these two extremes, so the apologist need not assume a position of neutrality in order to defend the truth claims of Christianity. As the old adage goes, we may see through a glass darkly – but we can still see!

To sum up, an apologist should respond to relativism by showing how it overestimates the impact that worldviews have on the way we knows things. It is correct to say that worldviews shape us, but it is far from clear that worldviews totally determine our attempts to know things. Such a response is more in keeping with the spirit of the relativist’s position and it wins credibility with listeners who already suspect that self-refutation attacks on relativism are a cheap debater’s trick.

4 thoughts on “How Not to Argue Against Relativism”

  1. This makes sense to me, though I’ll add the disclaimer that I’m not a philosopher or even a very logical person. I struggle to see past my particular worldview; I’m currently trying to engage with others different from myself to see things from their viewpoints. I’ve run across folks who claim that everything we believe is based on cultural norms and dismiss any notion of absolute truth. This post gives me some methods for engaging with them, and I appreciate it.

    1. Sure. I can discover that raven-1 is black, that raven-2 is black, that raven-3 is black, etc, therefore by induction (i.e. generalizing from particular instances) I can conclude with a high degree of probability that the next ravens I encounter will be black. It’s possible that there are albino ravens, so I cannot make a deductive statement about all ravens without exception, only an inductive statement. I argue that relativists about human knowledge are doing something similar when arguing for their position.

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