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True for You But Not for Me

by Paul Copan



IMAGINE A MULTIPLE-CAR COLLISION at a busy intersection near your home. It’s an occurrence that shouldn’t be hard to picture. It may, in fact, strike a little too close to home, as it did for my family and me in June of 1997.

Now stretch your imagination further. Assume we live in a less lawsuit-happy world. Instead of all parties silently exchanging license and insurance information and driving away without admitting even a sliver of blame, everyone runs into the intersection to explain his or her side of the story: “You pulled in front of me!” “But I had the right of way. Don’t you know red means stop?” Pedestrians who witnessed the accident from the curb interject what they saw. A trucker with an elevated, commanding view of the intersection weighs in. Then perhaps the guilty party steps forward: “Well, actually, it was my fault. I was talking on my car phone. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was doing. I caused the accident.”

For all the post-accident debate, when a police officer arrives and begins taking notes, one truth will be clear: An accident happened. And in time, other truths will be determined. Ultimately, a description of the accident will emerge that corresponds to reality.

We live our lives relying on the belief that objective truth exists—if only we can find it. We gather evidence. Weigh credibility and truthfulness. Make difficult judgments. In the end, we arrive at a close proximity to truth. We can make truthful statements that describe with reasonable accuracy how events really happened. (Or, given the right evidence, we can determine truth regarding whether the car we bought was a lemon, or how our major life decisions were right or wrong, or if God is real.) We believe that if we had a helicopter over every intersection and a video camera inside each car—to see who is on the cell phone, or shaving, or twisting up the volume—we can even discover truth about “accidents.”

Truth is more than our subjective reporting of a car crash. It has objective existence. It has universal application.

Truth is true—even if no one knows it.

Truth is true—even if no one admits it.

Truth is true—even if no one agrees what it is.

Truth is true—even if no one follows it.

Truth is true—even if no one but God grasps it fully.

Although some states have given up trying to figure out whom to blame for car accidents—hence “no-fault” insurance—truth matters. And when the stakes are raised—when a child crossing the street is struck and killed, for example—finding the truth becomes essential. Serious circumstances remind us that the difficulty of finding truth is no excuse for not looking.

Enter the relativist. To the relativist, no “fact” is in all times and places true. He argues that because everyone’s point of view is different, we can’t ever know what really happened at the accident scene. In fact, the hard-core relativist says that given the slippery nature of what the rest of us mistakenly call “truth,” we can’t even settle on the fact that the accident actually happened.

As absurd as that viewpoint seems, it has arisen as a formidable opponent to the cause of truth.

Truth Wars

So deep is the struggle over truth beliefs that many see our country entrenched in a “culture war.” Old divisions like Catholic versus Protestant are dissolving, with new divisions emerging on the basis of competing sources of truth. One side—dubbed the “Orthodox”—maintains that there are objective standards of truth and morality, stemming from God, the Bible, or the moral order of the universe. With regard to abortion, for example, this side claims that God’s law declares the fetus is a human being whose life should not be taken. Christians aren’t the only ones in the Orthodox camp. Muslims, conservatives, and traditionalists of all stripes claim to possess the truth. Whatever our other disagreements, we share the belief that a universal truth exists.

In contrast, the other side—the “progressives”—says that personal, subjective judgment defines right and wrong, truth and untruth. Choices aren’t made with regard to God’s existence. They defer to an “autonomous self,” like the woman who assumes the absolute right to make a choice about what she does with her body, or to individually and independently decide if a fetus is a human person.

The two sides fighting the culture war are becoming increasingly polarized. There’s little room left for a middle ground. This deep struggle, however, isn’t a war over far-off social issues. The “culture war” takes place daily at work, home, and school. It is at the heart of heated battles over right and wrong in sexual morality, business ethics, sportsmanship, and a thousand other everyday arenas.

We need to remember that the culture war isn’t all that new. The belief that universal, objective truth (1) does not exist (“alethic skepticism”) or (2) cannot be known (“epistemological skepticism”) is certainly no newcomer to Western civilization. The sophist Protagoras (born approximately 500 b.c.) maintained that the human community is the standard of truth. Plato cited him as saying that “man is the measure of all things.” Consequently, any given thing “is to me such as it appears to me, and is to you such as it appears to you”— a surprisingly modern sound!

Although relativism has intermittently appeared and reappeared throughout history, its dominance of a culture is new. As Christians, we are likely most aware of how a relativistic view of truth has soured society’s attitude toward religion and its truth claims. Today religion is increasingly pushed aside by secularizing influences such as the university, the media, and politics. Rather than having a major voice in public life, religion has been relegated to the private and the personal. Rather than being a matter of truth, it is all just opinion. But looking beyond the religious domain, relativism implies that the pursuit of any truth is an exercise in futility. It clearly entails the obliteration of all knowledge, including scientific, moral, and historical truth.

The Many Faces of Relativism

Relativism is everywhere. Although the list is certainly long, we’ll select some of the main manifestations of relativism within our society.

Objective relativism is the view that the beliefs of a person or group of persons are “true” for them, but not necessarily for others. Ultimately, says this brand of relativism, no truth is universally, objectively true or false. One person’s “truth,” which really amounts to opinion, can conflict with another’s “truth” and still be valid. Objective relativism (also known as “epistemological relativism”) challenges the very existence of truth. (Epistemology is the study of knowledge—an examination of how we know what we know, our underlying assumptions, and the validity of our knowledge.)

Religious relativism
maintains that one religion can be true for one person or culture but not for another. No religion, therefore, is universally or exclusively true. Religious beliefs are simply an accident of birth: If a person grows up in America, chances are good that he might become a Christian; if in India, that he will be a Hindu; if in Saudi Arabia, that he will be a Muslim. If what one believes is the product of historical happenstance, the argument goes, no single religious belief can be universally or objectively true.

Moral relativism maintains that there are no moral absolutes, no objective ethical right and wrong. Moral values are true—or “genuine”—for some, but not for others. Since there are differing expressions of morality in the world, there is no reason to think that one is any more true and objectively binding than another. The implication is that statements of value (for example, “adultery is morally wrong”) can be true for some but false for others. Something is wrong—sleeping with the boss, stealing paper clips, or leaving work early—only if you think or feel it is wrong.

Cultural relativism
says that what is immoral in our culture is not necessarily immoral in another culture. No one, therefore, can judge another culture’s moral values. Philosopher of science Michael Ruse illustrates this view well. Ruse refers to the once widespread Indian practice of suttee, the burning of a widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, which was later outlawed by the British: “Obviously, such a practice is totally alien to Western customs and morality. In fact, we think that widow sacrifice is totally immoral.” That may be what Westerners think, yet Ruse says it is wrong to judge suttee as a bad thing. Obviously, the same principle means we shouldn’t condemn slavery in America, genocide in Africa, or female infanticide in China.

Historical relativism
maintains that historical truth differs over periods of time. The interpretation of historical “truths” in one generation may be replaced by a subsequent one. As an example, consider Columbus Day. A generation ago students wrote reports extolling the discovery of America by Columbus. Today—if the holiday is observed at all—Columbus is cast as an evil conqueror. Historical relativists believe that researching and debating the facts of the matter would be futile.

Scientific relativism asserts that scientific “progress” is nothing but one theory being replaced by another. It is best exemplified by philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, who maintains that Einstein’s physics replaced Newtonian physics not because Einstein’s theory was closer to correct or a truer description of reality, but merely because paradigms shuffled. In scientific relativism, there is no such thing as objective truth, even in the “hard” sciences. There is no common language between proponents of one scientific theory and those of another, and what is true or rational in one scientific perspective is not so in another.

Aesthetic relativism
is most easily understood as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Recalling the litter of student-produced “art” scattered around the grounds of his university campus, one friend points out the remarkable ability of contemporary artists to produce works that even the artist’s mother doesn’t like. One person’s trash might be another person’s art, and one observer’s standards for art are just as valid as another’s. Going far beyond relativism, postmodern art abandons truth and utterly devalues human beings and the created order. Rather than being merely provocative, postmodern “art” can at times be destructive or degrading. Postmodern artists (can we call them all artists?) consider the emotional reaction of their audience to be part of their work of art—such as an artist’s photograph of his own bowel movement or a crucifix submerged in urine. Artistic standards such as technical excellence, creativity, and the capturing of universal and enduring human experience are shunned by postmodern artists.

The Implications of Relativism

In the middle of a war—whether in the broader culture or around the water cooler—no one goes on with life as normal. Society’s battles over truth have far-reaching effects. Given the pervasiveness of relativism in our society, we ought to briefly consider some of its implications. Having noted the examples of relativism above, you have no doubt also noticed the following effects.

One implication—at least on the religious front—is that persuasion is prohibited. On many university campuses, evangelism—the taboo word is “proselytizing”—is viewed as “cramming your religion down someone’s throat.” Obviously, trying to persuade or evangelize another implies you have truth to proclaim—and that you think your listeners may well be wrong.

This brings us to a second implication: To be exclusivistic is to be arrogant. Given the number of different religious beliefs in the world, to claim to know something that others are ignorant of therefore must be wrongheaded and erroneous! Moreover, exclusive claims—especially about the uniqueness of Christ for salvation—are often confused with Western colonialism and imperialism—nothing more than bigotry and narrow-mindedness, a Western imposition of ideas upon unknowing or unwilling hearers. (To be sure, non-Christians have in some cases good reason to be critical of us. Christians invite hostility when they shout that Christianity is true and exclusive—and equally loudly proclaim that other views contain no truth at all. Christians can indeed appreciate much of what is true within other faiths. Since all truth is God’s truth, moral truths, for instance, can be found outside the Bible—just as truths from mathematics, history, and science can be. Exactly what or even whether the Christian should seek to learn from or imitate ethical non-Christian religions, however, is another, more complicated, matter.)

A third implication is that tolerance is the cardinal virtue. To imply that someone is wrong is terribly intolerant, especially when tolerance is popularly but erroneously defined as being open to and accepting of all ideas. What homosexual activists call tolerance, for example, is unconditional acceptance of their lifestyle as legitimate and right. As we will see later, this attitude of open-mindedness actually turns out to be empty-headedness. It lacks discrimination and any criterion for acceptability. In the words of Allan Bloom, “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good by using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.”

Might Makes Right

A final implication of relativism perhaps best explains how our arguments over truth can begin to feel like a war: In the absence of the possibility of truth, power rules the day. That is, once truth is whatever we say it is, asserting power over others is a natural next step. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) wrote that the obliteration of God—and therefore all objective standards for truth and morality—would usher in an age of nihilism, the rejection of all objective meaning and value. All that is left is the will to power, by which only the fittest survive.

Stanley Fish at Duke University, well-known for his repudiation of objective literary or moral standards, has said, “Someone is always going to be restricted next, and it is your job to make sure that the someone is not you.” Many special interest groups today, though certainly not all, operate on this principle: Because they have no objective standards by which they operate—no evidence that what they advocate is good or right—they can only exert power to legitimize their views, to let their voices be heard and provoke change. Government or other social structures become weapons of power, wielded by the cultural elites and interest groups that have grabbed more influence and power than the other side.

Again, this has been observed from long ago. In another of Plato’s dialogues called the Gorgias, a man by the name of Callicles asserts that justice is really only the rule of the powerful over the citizens of a state. Whatever is best for the rulers is naturally just for Callicles. Morality is arbitrarily reduced to power.

This is the environment into which we speak—relativistic, power-conscious, hostile to truth claims, especially those that flow from faith. Though relativists claim to own the label of “tolerant,” as we critique objective and moral relativism we will see how this incoherent, self-contradictory philosophy is far more dogmatic and narrow-minded than Christianity is. It is strangely ironic that, despite allegations that Christians are bigoted and narrow, the Christian’s absolutist position is not only true but consistent and compassionate.

"That’s True for You, But Not for Me.”

ON ITS SURFACE, relativism sounds relaxed and easygoing. Only when we think through the implications of relativism and apply them rigorously to life do we see the hidden dangers of being so “accommodating.” As Alister McGrath writes,

It is utterly wrongheaded to say that something is “true for you but not for me.” For example, what if I think fascism is true and you think liberal democracy is equally true? Should the fascist’s repression be tolerated by the believer in liberal democracy? If not, on what grounds? Why not permit Stalinism or Satanism or Nazism? Without criteria to determine truth, this relativism fails miserably.

Most of us don’t want to live in that world. Relativism, however, isn’t merely emotionally offensive. It doesn’t hang together logically. As a worldview, it cannot be sustained.

At the beginning of his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul gives some advice to his “son in the faith” Titus, who is ministering to the people of Crete. Titus is facing a fair amount of hostile ideas. As if to say, “What did you expect?” Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan. He tells Titus, “Even one of their own prophets has said, ‘Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.’ ” Most Bible readers catch the irony of the statement. If all Cretans are liars, then can Epimenides himself really be trusted?

The statement of Epimenides and relativism suffer from the same flaw. Epimenides claims to speak truth about the people of Crete. Yet he contradicts his truthfulness by calling himself a liar. Why believe Epimenides? Relativism claims to speak truth about at least one thing—namely, that truth can be “true for you but not for me.” Yet it contradicts itself by claiming nothing is really true or false. Why believe the relativist if he has no truth to utter?

The claims of relativists are like saying, “I can’t speak a word of English” or “All generalizations are false.” Our most basic reply to the relativist is that his statements are self-contradictory. They self-destruct. They are self-undermining. The relativist actually falsifies his own system by his self-referential statements like “Everyone’s beliefs are true or false only relative to himself.” If claims are only true to the speaker, then his claims are only true to himself. It is difficult to see why his claims should matter to us.

To be consistent, the relativist must say, “Nothing is objectively true—including my own relativistic position. So you are free to accept my view or reject it.” Of course, usually when the relativist says, “Everything is relative,” he expects his hearers to believe his statement and adjust their lives accordingly. And he expects his statement concerns all statements except his own! Of course, the relativist doesn’t likely believe that his relativistic position is simply true for himself. Thus, the relativist commits a second error—“the self-excepting fallacy,” claiming a statement holds true for everyone but himself. Oddly, the relativist is unwilling to relativize his relativism. And he is also unwilling to generalize his relativism since he makes himself an exception.

It’s fair to point out to the relativist that statements like “That’s true for you, but not for me” are not only self-contradictory but guilty of this self-excepting fallacy. While this statement often shuts the door on further conversation, it need not. An appropriate response to such a relativistic statement might be this: “You obviously assume the universal validity of the statement ‘Something could be true for one person but not for another,’ but you imply that it is applicable to everyone’s beliefs but your own. But if you are being consistent—if your statement is only true for you, then I see no reason to think it applies to me.”

Relativism misses on a crucial test of internal consistency. “Something can be true for one person but false for another” fails to meet its own criterion for truth. Think about it: While a worldview can be internally consistent or logical yet still be false, no worldview can be true if it contradicts itself.

Deflating “That’s True for You, But Not for Me”

If my belief is only true for me, why isn’t your belief only true for you? Aren’t you saying you want me to believe the same thing you do?

You say no belief is true for everyone, but you want everyone to believe what you do. You’re making universal claims that relativism is true and absolutism is false.

You can’t in the same breath say, “Nothing is universally true” and “My view is universally true.” Relativism falsifies itself. It claims there is one position that is true—relativism!

You’re applying your view to everyone but yourself. You expect others to believe your views (the “self-excepting fallacy”).

Copyright © 1998, Paul Copan
Published by Bethany House Publishers
ISBN 0–7642–2091–8

Chapter one of Paul Copan's book True for You, But Not for Me. Used with permission from Bethany House Publishers. All rights are reserved.

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