Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Cultural relativism

There's an argument I'm bored of hearing and bored of responding to, so here it is and I'm never going to complain again, I'm just going to point people here. The question is "dont be closed minded, people other than western scientists have access to truths that are just as valid, how do you know that you're not wrong about creationism, alternative medicine, 2012, astrology etc". The claim is that other cultures and other modes of thinking have access to truths about the physical world that are just as valid as those of science. I want to make sure I dont overstate my response so here it is in big flashing letters.

You're so wrong about the nature of the concept of truth that it hurts me to the very core of my being. Go away and die before you throw humanity back to the stone age.

I want to make sure that I can defend what I say, so I'm going to set out what I mean by knowledge and truth, what absolute truth is and why it's a stupid and dead idea, what I mean by science, why science is a mode of generating truth, and why it's the only one that systematically works. As I was writing this I realised my section headings made sense. So here's a summary of the post, click each line to take you to the paragraph.

In the beginning are perceptions. Something is true or is knowledge if and only if it helps you to find out things about your own future perceptions. Here's the snag, sometimes, you have rules like this, and you find exceptions. So we want absolute perfect knowledge, this is impossible. You cant have certainty so lets stop talking about it. There is however a close and very useful concept, bet-my-life-on-it. Science tells you how sure to be of something. In future, assume the world will work like the theory that worked best in the past. Not doing science doesn't automatically mean you're wrong. If you're not doing science you're not useful. There's nothing cultural about this. The consequences if we dont use science are grave.

In the beginning are perceptions (See also)

Experiences, things that we see, touch, hear, think, feel etc. This is all that a mind can ever experience, by definition, it is all we can know of, you can imagine vast universes we cant see or experience in any way, who cares, there is one reality that matters, the one you, right now, are experiencing. We can have no access to, nor any knowledge of, any kind of reality other than that which we experience. We can know the colours we see, we can know the emotions we feel, we can know the thoughts we have, there is nothing else outside of your own experience that you can ever gain knowledge of.

So, we have perceptions, we lump these for easy thinking into objects, happiness for a vastly complicated state of mind, jumper for a mass of colours and textures, birdsong for one component of the sound you hear. Now we put these things together, we make a world, a reality just outside our eyes where all these things live. Now we can talk about truth.

Something is true or is knowledge if and only if it helps you to find out things about your own perceptions. 

For instance, I know that behind me is a stack of CDs, this is knowledge because if I turn around I see them. I make a prediction about what I will experience (seeing the CDs) perform the experiment (turn around) and lo and behold, there they are.

I can have knowledge about other things.

  •  I can know about music, "Mozart is good" means either that if I listen to Mozart the reaction I experience will be one of enjoyment or if a large group of people do so most of them will have facial expressions or say things that express the same.
  • I can know about art, "the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is too pink for my liking" means that if I look at that ceiling with the bright red-pinks artificially removed and replaced with a more subtle shade I would enjoy it more than if I looked at the real thing.
  • I can know about maths, "Fermat's theorem is true" means that if I am given a set of 4 natural numbers a,b,c,d and perform the calculation a^d+b^d-c^d and check it several times I will not decide upon the result 0.
  • I can know about physics, "planes work because of Bernoulli's principle not the equal transit theory" means that if I get into a plane which is not curved on the top but has a equal length top and bottom I will still experience it flying.
This is what I mean by knowledge. 

We may find a bad piece by Mozart, we may find that actually the pink is important and the ceiling would be far uglier without it, we may find a counter example to Fermat's Theorem as there is an unnoticed hole in the proof, we may find that thousands of aerobatic pilots are have lied about the shape of their wings for some bizarre reason. The goal of ancient Greek philosophy to some extent was to stop these errors happening, to find total and absolute truth.

You cannot have absolute truth, doesn't exist, sorry, nope, not going to happen. Here's why. Suppose you have some black box process that generates absolute truth, that predicts with perfect accuracy what will be experienced next after any action. There is a question. How do you know it works? You can have all the justifications you like about why it works in principle, the question is, have you soldered the joins together right, have you done the calculations right? Have you, in fact, implemented the strategy perfectly? Only one way to find out, switch it on, find out if it predicts the right things. ... This is no more absolute truth than anything else, you've no way of being certain that the thousandth time it wont break. You cannot have certain knowledge.

Before you say it, you can have certain knowledge of those perceptions you are experiencing right now at this instant, there they are, you really are experiencing words right now. But just about anything else you cant be certain of. Winston Smith contends he is certain that 2+2=4, I challenge you to prove that fact using Peano arithmetic whilst in a torture chamber and tell me again that you're sure. And Descartes, cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am. He says that he experiences thoughts, this is knowledge of his current perceptions. And then goes on to deduce certain knowledge from that. The next step, literally the next unavoidable step in this logic is God, specifically a good catholic God, who despite appearances, does not and would not deceive us. At best this is hard to justify as sure and certain.

 The next time someone says that science doesn't know everything or that science might be wrong, agree wholeheartedly. Welcome them into the reality of epistemology. Tell them to take the next logical step. We have talked about "bibly". We have defined "bibly". We have agreed that "bibly" is impossible. Now we will stop talking about, thinking about and generally wasting time with "bibly". It's close enough to new year to make this a resolution. I will never again waste my time discussing with anyone the concept of absolute truth and will instead point them at this. 

People seriously and massively underestimate how many things they would bet their life on. And here I mean a literal wager, if you're right you get slight convenience, if you're wrong you die right then. Things I bet my life on today include but are not limited too:
  • Mum didn't poison my tea.
  • There's nothing wrong with the electrics near the shower that would shock me.
  • My laptop is not booby-trapped.
  • The ticking noise is my watch not a bomb.
  • I can safely use metal objects in and near a live toaster as long as I make sure the circuit of least resistance does not contain my body.
  • The can I got out of the cupboard was sealed and branded, thus there is no reason to make any checks at all that the beans in it were not rotten or otherwise inedible.
  • I can safely jump the bottom 3 steps without breaking my neck.
  • I can safely rub anything I find inside a tube marked "bonjella" into a mouth ulcer.
This concept of something so sure that you would happily bet your life on it is very useful. Obviously it's a psychological phenomenon so the expected odds of dying to make the bet seem worthwhile vary. But roughly we can say people get on a plane, the odds of dying in a commercial jet are one in 2 million, so anything that happens more than that is incredibly certain.

Science I define and imagine in very broad terms. I dont want to defend the exact procedures of peer review journals, they have several known biases and flaws. My concern is to explain a way of tlking about knowledge in a way that systematically works. So I'd give the following definition. In science we generate theories. A theory is a set of predictions about future perceptions. Generate several of them, then run an experiment, that is, experience some perceptions. 

If you've got one theory that does a lot better than the others add it to your pile of working theories. Throw the others in the bin, they're useless. But, here's the thing. Now when you generate theories about that kind of thing you must add your current one to the pile. Theories that work cant be rejected because you're bored of them, and theories cant be kept safe in your pile of working theories because you dont want to test it again.

Notice though that I said "if you've got one theory", often you wont. Sometimes for simple reasons, a theory that talks about some black box saying "it will flash 4 times then 4 times" is the same as one saying "it will flash 8 times". Sometimes one theory works just as well as another because it's rare to see a situation where they disagree. The classic example is the geostationary theory. It's very very rare to see something that you'd expect to look different in a geostationary world. As it happens, some things do exist, the fixed stars aren't fixed, Foucault pendulums do their thing etc. But for normal purposes you can bet your life on the geostationary theory's predictions coming true. The sun will rise in the East just as surely as the Earth will rotate to the West.

This is also sometimes just a case of calculations. Einstein's theory of gravity had over half a century of good observations showing it to be better than Newton's around the time of the Apollo 11 mission. And NASA duly ignored it and used Newton, because frankly if they'd used Einstein's equations on 1960s computers they's still be working the trajectory out today. 

Sometimes the world is just odd and the best scientific theory anyone could reasonably have come up with just turns out to not work. Before the European discovery of Australia it was very reasonable (and correct) to say that the best scientific theory was that all swans ever were white. Then the black swan turns up. I bet if we scour the historical record we can find some crazy monk smashed off his face on something who proposed the existence of a black swan before the 1600s. This person would not be wrong. There are black swans. But he would have been not doing science, he would have picked a theory that didn't predict things well. 

You cant generate reliable knowledge without doing science. You might be right, you might be right a lot. But when you're right you've no reason to think you'll get more right as time goes on. That's what science does. If you do science then the number of times doing the same kind of thing your pet theory may be huge today. You may not predict a bumble bee can fly, or that chemical elements can be broken down. But you can rest assured that every experiment you do, every time you do some science you're becoming less wrong. Every time you do the process above, generate new theories and test them against old ones, at worst you keep your old theory, so you know nothing new and you'thoriesre just as wrong. But sometimes you'll be lucky, you'll pick a better theory and you'll become less wrong. You'll never again be so wrong about the universe.

If you're not doing science then you're thinking of theories (you have to be, otherwise you cant talk about the world), you're doing experiments (looking at the world is an experiment) and then by laziness, stupidity or dishonesty you're picking the wrong theory. If you pick the wrong theory then there's no reason at all it should be better than your old theory, theories about the world that are good are hard to come by. If you randomly think of a way the world could work almost all the time you'll be wrong. And if you're not doing science you've actually got a worse than average chance of getting things right. The mind has well known biases that mean that you'll actually be wrong in predictable ways.

There's nothing cultural about this.

There's nothing at all in my idea of science that is western, white, anglo-saxon, male, protestant or anything else. Chemistry (al-chemy) is from the Islamic empire, ancient astronomy as far apart as China and the Maya was incredibly accurate. And, I dont know about you, but all the people I know pushing BS "wisdom of the Maya" or anything else are exactly western, white, anglo-saxon, male, protestants. The one bloke they get on who looks a bit foreign is the descendant of the Mayan who's there to say it's all BS.

There's nothing western imperialist about saying other cultures had ideas that are observably wrong. To say to a voodoo doctor that there's nothing in the potions and incantations and his success is due to the placebo effect isn't to denigrate thousands of years of culture. It's simply to say that those thousands of years are an artistic legacy not a scientific one. Middle class guilt is not a valid reason to say something false. There is only what you see, there is only one truth about any question. Sometimes a dude with white skin finds it, sometimes a dude with black sin does, sometimes there's even a woman involved. But the way you discover that truth is science.

The consequences if we dont use science are grave.

And this notion of truth as reviled by science isn't some strange abstract idea that doesn't really matter. This concept of truth is the most fundamental. What will I experience. Importantly this is the only concept of truth that can be employed in moral thinking. I'm not going to get into what a morally right or wrong action is, all I care about is that there clearly are some. You can have all the amoral theories you want, you'll still be annoyed if someone stabs your mum.

If it would be immoral to do something because of the consequences then we must use the scientific notion of what the consequences will be. We must judge all actions for what they really are. A lot of people have an intentional idea of morality (only having good intentions counts). Which would be great were not the road to hell paved in good intentions. If, like me, you consider the consequence of the action to be morally important then it is clearly a moral duty to understand the world well enough to act. Science is the only way to do this.

To hand out sugar pills to people with life threatening illnesses if this has the consequence of getting in the way of medicine that really works is immoral. If you dont know that is the consequence then you need to understand the universe better before you can act. To take a gamble with someone else's health cannot be moral, to do this because you are too lazy or dishonest to do real science is despicable.

To enact public policy that is clearly shown not to work or which has no scientific basis is folly in the extreme. Public policy has real moral consequences. We must judge it on those consequences in people's lives. This is why we must be scientific about politics. This is why I'm not dogmatic about economics. I'm right wing by instinct, but Economics is not yet good science. In the next centuries I hope it will become good science, but for now a reasonable person can disagree about economics with no evidence whatever. So I dont bet anything important on my economic ideas being right. There are however things that are well understood.

  • Re-offending rates in various forms of criminal justice
  • Effective forms of public health campaigns including safe vaccinations
  • Educational strategies to reverse educational differences between rich and poor
  • Environmental consequences of various means of energy production
To believe something non-scientifically is to be systematically more wrong about reality. To act contrary to reality is to act with immoral consequences. 


  1. Hello,

    I work for the PeaceJam Foundation and we have been working with Mayan Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum for 15 years.

    We recently completed a documentary called 2012: The True Mayan Prophecy (49 minutes) and it features actual Mayans including Rigoberta Menchu Tum - the 1992 Nobel Peace Laureate. Everyone puts words in Mayan's mouths but what did they really say? Not only do we have Rigoberta delivering the truth, but her Elders and Shamans, too. The doc also features the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking of what 2012 will bring us. Answers can be found here

    Each view of this documentary costs USD $1.99. In this country you can't buy a Big Mac for that price. The money raised will benefit the PeaceJam Foundation and the Rigoberta Menchu Tum Foundation.

    Or you can watch Sting and his friends discuss 2012 for USD $30.

    Can you let your readership know about this?


    Ivan Suvanjieff
    PeaceJam Foundation
    11200 Ralston Rd
    Arvada CO 80004
    303 455-2099

  2. Nicely put. I would refer friends and relatives to your URL, but I bet they'd stop reading after "Go away and die..." If you removed the stuff in red at the top of the page, I would refer them to your comments. Also, there are a couple of typos, I believe "sin" -> "skin" and "reviled" -> "revealed".


Feedback always welcome.