National Catholic Register

Commentary

Relativism

A philosophy without a foundation

BY DONALD DEMARCO

August 6-12, 2006 Issue | Posted 8/7/06 at 9:00 AM

 

The Pontifical Council for Culture has published a study under the wordy title of “The Christian Faith at the Dawn of the New Millennium and the Challenge of Unbelief and Religious Indifference.” One of its key conclusions is “The urgency of learning to think, from school to university.”

It may appear surprising to some that the Catholic Church, known primarily for her foundation in faith, is taking up the role of teaching people how to think. Yet the phenomenon of not thinking, especially about crucial matters, is pandemic — both inside and outside of the Church — and often goes unchallenged.

What, we might well ask, are those people who have not yet learned to think using as a substitute for thinking? In a word, they are reacting. They react affirmatively to the settled opinions of the day that they themselves have not settled in their own minds. They parrot ideas that are trendy, media-approved and politically correct. Not only that, but they bundle their collection of unexamined ideas and wrap them up in a package they claim to be a “philosophy.”

One such philosophy, that cries out for an urgent reexamination is relativism. According to the tenets of this “philosophy,” truth either does not exist or is unattainable. As a result, since there is no reliable anchor that can ground opinions in reality, all opinions have equal merit. What is assumed to be the democratization of philosophy is really its destruction.

Relativists, despite their rejection of any sure connection with reality, are not averse to referring to reality in order to buttress their position. Einstein’s theory of relativity is often called upon to substantiate the notion that “everything is relative.” The media has been more than eager in promoting the contradictory notion that there is an objective basis for asserting that nothing is objective. For example, the Sept. 24, 1979 issue of Time carried a full-page advertisement that stated, in bold-faced letters and under a picture of Einstein: “Everything Is Relative.”

While we cannot expect people in general to understand the intricacies and complexities of Einstein’s theory, we can know enough about it to be confident that neither Einstein nor his celebrated theory is the least bit relativistic. As the great physicist himself avers, in language that calls to mind Aristotle and Aquinas, “Belief in an external world independent of the perceiving subject is the basis of all natural science.”

As far as his theory is concerned, let us consider the words of Father Stanley Jaki: “Einstein’s theory of relativity is the most absolutist theory ever proposed in the history of science. In fact, the entire success of Einstein’s theory is that it is absolutist. According to it, the value of the speed of light is independent of any reference systems and therefore has a value that is absolutely valid.”

Initially, Einstein thought of calling his theory “the theory of invariance,” because the speed of light, the “hitching-post” of the universe, is constant (or invariant). Time and motion are relative, but all that means for Einstein is that they are related to something that is not relative.

When philosophy was in its infancy, an imaginative thinker explained how the Earth was sustained in space by postulating that it rested on the back of a tortoise. The question inevitably shifted to “what holds up the tortoise”? “Why, another tortoise,” someone answered. “And what holds up the second tortoise,” someone else queried? “Well,” said a pundit, “it’s tortoises all the way down!” Such a response is not philosophical but facetious. Philosophy is supposed to culminate in wisdom, not foolishness.

Relativists are fond of alluding to the timeless aphorism De gustibus non disputandum est (concerning taste, there must be no dispute). But they ignore the more important aphorism De veritate disputandum est (concerning truth, we must engage in dispute).

Engaging in dispute is evidence of thinking. And we must engage in dispute, that is, involving ourselves in trying to figure out what is true and what is not true, because of the simple fact that the truth matters. To avoid thinking, no matter how convenient and time saving that may be, is intellectually derelict and morally irresponsible.

Pope Benedict XVI has given some popular currency to the phrase “the dictatorship of relativism.” The true relativist (if there could be one) would have nothing to dictate to anyone. He would be utterly deferential and completely respectful even of opinions that contradicted his own. The fact that relativists can aspire to the role of dictator is a good indication that it is impossible for anyone to purge himself entirely of his connections with reality.

The ancient sophist Pyrrho of Ellis, who had the reputation of not being sure of anything, was once observed fleeing from a rabid dog. Bystanders ridiculed his behavior that obviously repudiated his philosophy. Pyrrho’s meek response conveyed an inescapable truth: “It is difficult to get away entirely from nature.”

Something is relative when it corresponds to two fixed points. Between the reality of a woman and her son are the relationships of mother and child. The woman is the child’s mother, and he is her son. They are related to each other. Mortimer Adler, a Thomistic philosopher who entered the Church in his 90s, would have heartily endorsed the Pontifical Council for Culture’s commitment to helping people to learn how to think. For thinking rightly leads to truth, and truth is the only avenue to peace.

In his book, Truth in Religion: The Plurality of Religion and the Unity of Truth, Adler offers a crucial message to the world: “A great epoch in the history of mankind lies ahead of us in the [current] millennium. It will not begin until there is a universal acknowledgement of the unity of truth in all the areas of culture to which the standard of truth is applicable; for only then will all men be able to live together peacefully in a world of cultural community under one government. Only then will world civilization and world history begin.”

Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and

Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.