Epistemological relativism, before being asserted, was an accusation, formulated in particular against Thomas Samuel Kuhn (challenge taken up by Paul Feyerabend).
George Lakoff defines relativism in his book Metaphors We Live By, as a rejection of subjectivism and objectivism to focus on the relationships between them, that is, how we relate our current experience to the previous one. This attitude brings him closer to the anti-realism of Pierre Duhem and Henri Poincaré (quoted by Alan Chalmers in What is this thing called Science?): the value of a scientific theory is comparable to that of a library catalog, it is its utility, and not the fact of knowing whether it is true or false. Bruno Latour points out that the opposite of relativism is not universalism but moral absolutism.
In the book Life in the Laboratory, Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar show that the naive description of the scientific method according to which the success or failure of a theory depends on the result of a single experiment does not correspond to real practice of the laboratories. Since an experiment can produce inconclusive data attributed to a fault in the experimental device or the procedure, the skill of the scientists, acquired during their training, consists in sorting out the data which must be kept and those which must be discarded. A process that, to an “uneducated” outsider, can be seen as a way of ignoring data that contradicts scientific orthodoxy. They thus defend the idea that the objects of scientific study are “socially constructed” in laboratories, that they have no existence apart from the measuring instruments and the specialists who interpret them. More broadly, they view scientific activity as a system of beliefs, oral traditions and specific cultural practices.
In a book on Pasteur, Latour sheds light on the social forces that intervened in the scientist’s career and how his theories were ultimately accepted by society. By giving ideological reasons to explain the more or less favorable reception of Pasteur’s work in different circles, Latour seeks to undermine the idea that the acceptance or rejection of scientific theories is essentially, or even usually, of the order of experience, of proof or of reason.
Epistemological relativism was sarcastically criticized by Richard Dawkins.
Paul Boghossian became famous for his very strong positions against epistemological relativism. His book The Fear of Knowledge received the Choice Award for the year 2006. In postmodern circles, Boghossian is known for his response to the Sokal Affair.
Cognitive relativism is a variant of epistemological relativism that espouses a view that knowledge is the product of a construction and therefore cannot be held to be objective. This has the consequence that all scientific truth is only relative and provisional, and perhaps knowledge of the real in the absolute is impossible. Even mathematics, despite its rigorous logical precision, is marked (since the work of the logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel in the first half of the 20th century) by a fundamental incompleteness which is illustrated by propositions whose undecidability is irreducible. So relativism suggests that even mathematics is only a projection of our brain functioning, our language and our perceptual system onto reality and not its objective description; that they tell us nothing in fact about the actual reality.
This point of view would however be opposed, according to the quantum physicist (and Nobel Prize winner) Eugene Wigner, the unreasonable efficiency of mathematics for the natural sciences, because he observes that mathematics, a human intellectual construction, nevertheless seems to marry closely the conditions of application to reality of physical theories, even in their empirical dimension, and always improve the experimental predictability of these theories. This question of the knowability of the real, which relativism calls into question, is also at the heart of the theory of the influence of consciousness in the problem of measurement in quantum mechanics, well illustrated by a particular thought experiment, the Wigner’s friend paradox, proposed in 1961 by the same Eugene Wigner.
The concept of cultural relativism is important for philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Philosophers explore how the truth of our beliefs may or may not depend on, for example, our language, our worldview, our culture…; ethical relativism by providing an example. For their part, anthropologists try to describe human behavior. For them relativism refers to a methodology with which the researcher tries to suspend (or bracket) his own cultural bias to understand beliefs and behaviors in their local contexts.
Moral (or ethical) relativism is the idea that it is not possible to order moral values through the use of ranking criteria.
Idealist thinkers, like Kant, will seek to demonstrate the uniqueness of “Morality” by secularizing Christian morality which is intended to be unique and universal.
Naturalist thinkers, such as Spinoza or Nietzsche, will retain the plurality of human morals while trying to find criteria by which to evaluate a value (“What is the value of a moral value?”). Favoring or harming life is the criterion most often encountered among materialistic thinkers.
Critics of relativism
Among the claimed opponents of relativism, Pope Benedict XVI denounced in a speech on April 18, 2005, the day before his election “a dictatorship of relativism which recognizes nothing as definitive and which gives as its ultimate measure only its own ego and desires.” According to Benedict XVI, who warns against the dangers of relativism, “the fruit that endures is the result of all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of warming hearts, words that open the soul to the joy of the Lord.”
Critics of relativism, such as Alan Sokal, have pointed out that the claim that “there is no absolute truth” is trivially self-contradictory. Indeed, if the proposition is admitted as true, then it must apply to itself, and is therefore false. Similarly, the simplifying statement “Everything is relative” could be subject to this demonstration.
In the physical sciences, so-called relativistic theories lead to a distinction between the postulates of the theory and the validity of the theory. So even general relativity, despite what its name might suggest, does not suppose an absolute relativity. On the contrary, relativity, as employed by Albert Einstein in particular, is built on the assumption of invariants, such as the speed of light. In this sense, the theory asks us to concede the existence of absolutes. However, to go beyond the sole stage of logical validity, the conclusions of the theory must correspond to the results obtained during scientific experiments. In case of mismatch, the theory will be invalidated by the experiment. Otherwise, the experiment supports the theory, but does not validate it absolutely. Strictly speaking, the theory is also not invalidated by experience, since errors in the execution and analysis of experiments remain possible.
(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)