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Relativism Truth and Reality

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of “How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age”
2nd edition, Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaugn, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999.

How To Think About Weird Things

Chapter 4: Relativism, Truth and Reality

  • “There is nothing so powerful as truth, as nothing so strange”, Daniel Webster

Seven men came upon a duck – or what seemed a duck. “It quacks like a duck. It waddles like a duck. Its a duck,” said the first man.

“To you its a duck, but to me its not a duck, for my belief is true for me, and your belief is true for you,” said the second man.

“In your society, it may be a duck, but in mine it’s not; truth is relative to societies,” said the third man.

“Your conceptual scheme may classify it as a duck, but mine doesn’t; truth is relative to conceptual schemes,” said the fourth man.

“It’s a duck if I believe it’s a duck, for we each create our own reality,” said the fifth man.

“If enough of us believe that it’s not a duck but a raccoon, it will become a raccoon,” said the sixth man.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s an actual duck or not; the idea of ‘duck’ is a metaphor with a deeper, larger truth,” said the seventh man.

This is a strange discussion if there ever was one. But like many parables, this one cuts deep. It may be surreal or amusing, but it’s really about the nature of truth. The first four men imply or express notions about what truth is. Their notions aren’t about what is true (what the specific truths are), but what it means for statements or beliefs to be true.

Immanuel Kant conceptual scheme

These views are far from being merely academic. Each one is taken seriously or assumed without question by many people today. Every one of us, if we make any judgments at all, adopts a notion about the nature of truth—and that notion is probably one of these four or a variation thereof. And what you assume about the idea of truth influences every decision you make.

While the statements of the last three men are not about the nature of truth, they reflect ideas that often come up when the concept of truth is at issue. These too have been influential. If you really believe them, they must radically affect the way you view the world.

The concept of truth implied by the first man’s statement is the one assumed by most people without question. It says that truth is objective — that there’s a way things are independently of what we think about them and that statements are true if they say how things are. Discovering what’s true may be difficult (maybe even impossible), and people attempting to discover what’s true are sometimes wrong. But, most people would say, there can be no doubt that truth depends on what is objectively the case. The second, third, and fourth men in our parable deny this, and many people agree with them. They assume that there is no way the world is independent of what we think about it. For them, objective truth is a worn-out myth. In a sense, because the idea of objective truth is so fundamental, its rejection is the weirdest of all weird claims.

So what is the truth about truth? In the following pages we’ll provide an answer to this question — a question that some people believe is either not worth asking or impossible to answer. Let’s proceed by looking closer at the notions about truth in our parable.

when different experiments give you the same result it is no longer subject to your opinion

“As scarce as truth is, the supply has always been in excess of the demand. – Josh Billings


relative or absolute truth 2 relative or absolute truth


This is the claim of our second man, who says that truth depends on what each person believes it to be. If you believe that a proposition is true, then it is true. In this view, truth is subjective, not objective.

Those who accept the subjectivist view must admit that statements like the following are not objectively true (or false):

The earth moves around the sun.

2 + 2 = 4.

Bachelors have no wives.

Dogs aren’t cats.

World War II actually happened.

The view that truth is subjective runs deep in the New Age movement, where disagreements have been stopped dead in their tracks by statements like “Well, this is my truth, and that’s your truth.” People with New Age beliefs, some critics say, often make such pronouncements when they’re losing an argument or when they’re faced with evidence that contradicts their claims. There’s nothing new, though, about the subjectivist notion of truth. The ancient philosopher Protagoras (c. 490-c. 421 B.C.) is thought to have put forth the first classic statement of the view, declaring that “man is the measure of all things.”

Despite its appeal to many, however, the proposition that truth is subjective has many bizarre consequences. For one thing, if we could make a statement true by simply believing it to be true, we would be infallible. We could never hold an erroneous belief because any belief we held, simply because we held it, would be true.

Furthermore, if everyone made their own truth, disagreement would be pointless. Disagreements arise when there is reason to believe that another is mistaken. If subjectivism were true, however, there would be no reason to believe that anyone is mistaken. It would be useless to try to convince anyone that they’re wrong, for they couldn’t be.

calvin hobbes new year resolutions

That a subjective view of truth renders disagreement futile often goes unnoticed. As biologist Ted Schultz observes:

“Paradoxically, many New Agers, having demonstrated to their satisfaction that objective truth is the unattainable bugaboo of thick-headed rationalists, often become extremely dogmatic about the minutiae of their own favorite belief systems. After all, if what is ‘true for you’ isn’t necessarily ‘true for me,’ should I really worry about the exact dates and locations of the upcoming geological upheavals predicted by Ramtha or the coming of the ‘space brothers’ in 2012 predicted by Jose Arguellas? (1)”

You shouldn’t, for if subjectivism were true, you couldn’t help but be right. But then again, neither could your rivals. There’s the rub. If everyone is always right, then even those who reject subjectivism would be right. The belief that subjectivism is false would be just as true as the belief it is true. The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 427-347 BCE) was perhaps the first to recognize this strange consequence of subjectivism. “Protagoras,” he tells us, “for his part, admitting as he does that everybody’s opinion is true, must acknowledge the truth of his opponents’ belief about his own belief, where they think he is wrong.”(2)

If subjectivism were true, then subjectivists couldn’t claim that their theory is any more correct than that of the objectivists. The sense of intellectual superiority felt by Schultz’s New Agers, then, is misplaced. They can’t claim the intellectual high ground because, in their own view, there is no high ground; everybody’s view is as good as everybody else’s.

“Whoever tells the truth is chased out of nine villages.” – Turkish proverb

It would be nice if we were always right, but as we all know all too well, we aren’t. Much as we must hate to admit it, we all make mistakes. Even the most fervently relativistic New Ager must confess that he or she dials a wrong number, bets on a losing football team, or forgets a friend’s birthday. These admissions reveal that reality is not constituted by our beliefs. We all recognize the truth of this principle:

We Can’t Make Something True Simply By Believing It To Be True.

If we could, the world would contain a lot fewer unfulfilled desires, unrealized ambitions, and unsuccessful projects than it does.


To avoid the absurd consequences of subjectivism, some people, like our third man, adopt the view that truth is relative to societies. This theory, known as social relativism, holds that society – not the individual – determines what is true. If your society believes that a proposition is true, then it is. Something can be true for the French, but false for the Chinese; true for the ancient Greeks, but false for us. Since individuals can be mistaken about what their society believes, individuals are not infallible. But society is. As philosopher Roger Trigg points out, in social relativism

“[the] possibility of false beliefs is ruled out, so that a whole community could not be judged mistaken. What its members believe is true for them, just as what we believe is true for us. Facts are then dependent on the way people think, and no room is left for the idea that things can be the case whether anyone thinks they are or not. In other words, the possibility of something being objectively the case is ruled out. Truth must always be considered relative to a society. whether it consists of the believers in a particular religion, the holders of a certain scientific theory, the members of one tribe, or any other identifiable grouping. (3)”

The social relativist, then, trades individual infallibility for social infallibility. But is this a wise trade? Have we any more reason for believing that society is infallible than that individuals are? It wouldn’t seem so. Society used to believe that the Earth was flat, that the sun orbited the Earth, and that storms were caused by angry gods. In each case, society was wrong. We must conclude, then, that:

Just Because A Group of People Believes That Something Is True Doesn’t Mean That It Is.

Groups are just as prone to error as individuals are – perhaps more so. We can’t justify our beliefs by claiming that everyone shares them, for everyone may be mistaken. To attempt to do so is to commit the fallacy of appeal to the masses.

Moreover, if society is infallible, it would be impossible to disagree with society and be right. Since truth is whatever society says it is, any claim that society is wrong would have to be false. Thus social reformers could never justifiably claim that truth is on their side.

According to social relativism, then, our founding fathers were deluded in believing that there were truths that applied universally to all people regardless of what society they belonged to – truths like:

* everyone is created equal

* everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

* and everyone has the right to alter or abolish any government that becomes destructive of these rights.

If truth is relative to society, no such universal truths exist. Whatever society says goes. Here’s tyranny of the majority with a vengeance.

In this animated image created by Matt Groening and released by Twentieth Century Fox, the entire town of Springfield is transformed into an angry mob, in a scene from "The Simpsons" movie. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Matt Groening)

In this animated image created by Matt Groening and released by Twentieth Century Fox, the entire town of Springfield is transformed into an angry mob, in a scene from “The Simpsons” movie. (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox, Matt Groening)

But suppose (as may well be the case) that our society agrees with our founding fathers that not all truth is socially constructed. Does this mean that social relativism is false? According to the relativist doctrine, it does.

You see, social relativism faces the same problem that subjectivism does: If every society’s belief is as true as every other’s, then a society’s belief that the opposite is true is also true. Just as a subjectivist must recognize the truth of another individual’s opposing view, so a social relativist must recognize the truth of another society’s opposing view.

This means that no one can legitimately criticize another society. As long as a society is doing what it thinks is right, no one can defensibly claim that what they’re doing is wrong.

Suppose, for example, that during World War II the German people agreed with the Nazis that the Jews should be exterminated. If so, then, according to social relativism, the Holocaust was justified. Since the Nazis were just doing what society said they should, they were doing the right thing. What they did might not have been right for us, but according to social relativism, it was right for them. Like Protagoras, we have to recognize that their point of view is just as valid as our own.

If you disagree – if you believe that what the Nazis did was wrong even if they had the support of the German people – then you can’t be a social relativist, for you have admitted that society can be mistaken. Given the history of civilization, such a conclusion seems unavoidable. Society has been wrong about many things: that kings have a divine right to rule, that letting blood cures disease, or that women shouldn’t have the right to vote, just to name a few. So the doctrine of social relativism has little to recommend it.

Photo: Randen Pederson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/48394718@N00
Photo: Randen Pederson, https://www.flickr.com/photos/48394718@N00

Since social relativism holds that what makes a proposition true is that society believes it to be true, it follows that whenever individuas disagree about the truth of a proposition, what they must really be disagreeing about is whether society believes it or not. But are all of our disputes really about what society believes? Suppose we disagree about whether the universe contains black holes. Can we really resolve this dispute by simply polling the members of our society? Of course not. Even disagreements about morality can’t be settled by opinion surveys. Whether abortion is moral, for example, can’t be determined by simply canvassing the populace. So truth must be more than just social consensus.

If truth was created by social consensus, then there could be no truth in the absence of consensus. In other words, if no view claims a clear majority, no view is true. Usually, when there is no consensus, people try to create one by persuading others of the truth of their position. But if social relativism is true, to do so is to attempt the impossible because without consensus, no one can legitimately claim to have the truth. In other words, according to social relativism, there can be no rational persuasion in the absence of consensus. The only form of persuasion available in such circumstances is brute force. For the social relativists, then, might makes right – not a comforting thought for those of us in the minority.

Even if truth is manufactured by society, it wouldn’t be any easier to find, for there is no single society to which each of us clearly belongs. Suppose, for example, that you were a black Jewish communist living in Bavaria in the 1960s. What would be your real society? The blacks? The Jews? The communists? Bavarians? Unfortunately, there is no way to answer this question because we all belong to a number of different societies, none of which can claim to be our real society. So not only is social relativism not a very reasonable theory, it’s not a very useful one either.

Cultural relativism excuse violate human rights Shirin Ebadi

Universal Human Rights

To embrace social relativism is to reject the notion of universal human rights. As you might expect, the most vocal proponents of social relativism are the most flagrant violators of human rights. Columnist Ellen Goodman had this to say about the UN conference on human rights held in 1993 in Vienna, Austria:

“The first conference on human rights in twenty-five years was called in the heady months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A world that had been divided into East and West, locked into a Cold War and superpower politics, was turned inside out. There was real hope that the human rights impulse which had been released in Eastern Europe would catch on across the world. . .. But in recent years a backlash of sorts has emerged, especially from some Third World governments in Asia and Africa. Waving the banner of multiculturalism, they have come here to insist that their countly cannot be judged by some universal standard but only by its own “particularities,” its own cultural and economic context. They resist the notion that democracies or human rights strings should be tied to financial aid from the West or North.

There are serious questions that emerge out of any clash of countries or cultures, but many of the governments claiming special exemptions to universal rights are abusers of those rights: Burma, China, Yemen, Syria and others that a jaded UN spokesperson called ‘the usual suspects.’ In stark contrast, activists in these countries disagree with their own government’s view of ‘cultural differences.’ They insist there is no culture that favors discrimination, torture, ‘disappearings.’ In a strong speech on opening day in which he proposed an international tribunal, Secretary of State Warren Christopher put the issue bluntly: ‘We cannot let cultural relativism become the last refuge of repression.’

At the heart of the human rights movement in this fractionalized world is the notion that these rights are the same everywhere for everyone. As [UN Secretary-General Boutros] Boutros-Ghali said, these values are the way ‘we affirm together that we are a single human community…a world community that accepts anything less is just flags flying in the wind.” (4)



Common sense tells us that neither individuals nor societies are infallible. Both can believe things that are false, and something can be true even if no individual or society has ever believed it. To preserve these insights, some relativists, like our fourth man, have claimed that truth is relative not to individuals or societies but to conceptual schemes.

A conceptual scheme is a set of concepts for classifying objects. These concepts provide categories into which the items of our experience can be placed. Just as the post office uses pigeonholes to sort mail into deliverable piles, so we use our conceptual schemes to sort things into meaningful groups. Different people may sort things differently, however. One person may believe that an item falls under one concept while someone else may believe that it falls under another, So even though two people share the same concepts, they may apply them differently. (5)

A harmful truth is better than a useful lie. – Thomas Mann

To account for individual and social fallibility, the conceptual relativist must maintain that simply believing something to fall under a certain concept isn’t enough to make it so. There must be a fact of the matter as to how it should be classified, and that fact can’t be determined solely by belief. What is it determined by then? According to the conceptual relativist, it is determined, at least in part, by the world. So the conceptual relativist must admit that the world plays a role in determining what’s true. (6)

Although the world constrains the truth, conceptual relativists do not believe that the world uniquely determines the truth, for in their view there is no one way the world is. Rather, different conceptual schemes create different worlds.

For the conceptual relativist, the relationship between conceptual schemes and the world is analogous to that of a cookie cutter to dough. Just as dough takes on whatever shape is imparted to it by a cookie cutter, so the world takes on whatever properties are imparted to it by a conceptual scheme. The world has some properties that are not affected by the conceptual scheme, just as the dough has some properties that are not affected by the cookie cutter. This is what allows the conceptual relativist to account for mistaken classifications. Nevertheless, in an important sense, the world is a product of a conceptual scheme. As philosopher Nelson Goodman puts it, conceptual schemes are ways of making worlds. (7) So people with different conceptual schemes live in different worlds.

Conceptual relativists contend that it is possible for one and the same proposition to be true in one conceptual scheme and false in another. But is this really possible? No, because one and the same proposition can’t be both true and false. To suppose otherwise is to violate the principle of non-contradiction discussed earlier. As philosopher W. Newton-Smith puts it, “propositions are individuated in terms of their truth conditions. It is just incoherent to suppose that the same proposition could be true in [conceptual scheme A] and false in [conceptual scheme B].” (8)

Propositions with different truth values can’t be identical, any more than lines with different lengths can be identical. Since one and the same proposition can’t be true in one conceptual scheme and false in another, conceptual relativism can’t be correct.

Here’s another way to look at it. According to the conceptual relativist, the world as we know it is constituted by our conceptual scheme, and our language refers to the world as we know it. But if the language of each conceptual scheme refers to a different world, then it’s impossible for these languages to share any common meanings. As philosopher Chris Swoyer explains:

“Put simply, the problem is that to get a strong version of relativism we need some one thing that could be true in F and false in F’ [where F and F’ are different conceptual schemes, or frameworks]. And whatever its exact nature, it will surely involve meanings. We need not demand anything so strong as strict synonymy, but unless two sentences have roughly the same meaning, there will be no justification for speaking of something that is true in one framework and false in another. Yet if F and F’ involve ‘different worlds,’ as a natural interpretation of the strong relativistic conception of truth requires, how can a sentence of F mean, even roughly, the same thing as one of F’? The problem is that the sentences of F and F’ are about different things, and any move from F to F’ seems simply to involve a change of subject.” (9)

The situation, then, is this: Conceptual relativism makes sense only if two different conceptual schemes can share the same meanings. But if meaning is constituted by conceptual schemes, two different conceptual schemes can’t share the same meanings. So conceptual relativism doesn’t make sense.

If the world really was constituted by conceptual schemes, it would be difficult to account for the fact that people with different conceptual schemes can understand and communicate with one another because access to a shared world is a necessary condition of translation. Philosopher Roger Trigg explains:

“The result of granting that ‘the world’ or ‘reality’ cannot be conceived as independent of all conceptual schemes is that there is no reason to suppose that what the peoples of very different communities see as the world is similar in any way. Unfortunately, however, this supposition is absolutely necessary before any translation or comparison between languages of different societies can take place. Without it, the situation would be like one where the inhabitants of two planets which differed fundamentally in their nature met each other and tried to communicate. So few things (if any) would be matters of common experience that their respective languages would hardly ever run parallel.” (10)

Since translation is possible among all the different conceptual schemes we know of, the world must not be constituted by conceptual schemes.

Translation requires a common point of reference. Consequently some argue that the very notion of an alternate conceptual scheme makes no sense. Donald Davidson, for example, claims that if we can translate an alien’s utterances into our own, our conceptual schemes must be essentially the same. And if we can’t translate the alien’s utterances, we have no reason to suppose that the alien species even has a conceptual scheme. (11)

As long as we don’t take truth to be relative to conceptual schemes, however, we need not reject the notion of alternate conceptual schemes. An analogy may be helpful here. Instead of viewing conceptual schemes as cookie cutters, we can view them as maps. The countryside can be mapped in many different ways. For example, there are road maps, topographical maps, relief maps, and so on. Different maps will use different symbols, and the features that are represented on one map may not be represented on another. But this doesn’t mean that those who use different maps are traveling on different terrain.

The terrain is what it is. Whatever is true in one map is true in another. So changing the nature of the representation doesn’t change the nature of what’s represented. Different conceptual schemes represent the world differently; they don’t create different worlds.

Since different maps are used for different purposes, it makes no sense to say that any map is absolutely better than any other. Some maps are good for some things, and some are good for others. The goodness of a map will be determined by how well it helps us accomplish our purposes. So we may agree with the conceptual relativist that there is no one “best” way of conceptualizing the world. But this doesn’t mean that there is no one way the world is.


All generalizations are dangerous, even this one. – Alexandre Dumas Fils

The foregoing considerations weigh heavily against relativism. But the most serious flaw of relativism in all its forms is a purely logical one: it’s self-defeating because its truth implies its falsity. That is, it refutes itself. According to the relativist, the statement “All truth is relative” is true. But in what sense is that statement true? Is it objectively true or relatively true? Either way, the relativist is in trouble.

To refute a universal generalization, all you have to do is find one counter-example to it.

For example, if someone says that all ravens are black, all you have to do to refute the claim is to find one non-black raven. If someone says that all truth is relative, all you have to do to refute it is to find one objective truth. If the proposition ‘All truth is relative” is an objective truth, it refutes itself because it serves as its own counterexample. So if the statement “All truth is relative” is objectively true, it’s objectively false.

To avoid such self-contradiction, relativists may claim that the statement “All truth is relative” is only relatively true. But this won’t help, because to say that is just to say that relativists (or their society or their conceptual schemes) take relativism to be true. Such a claim should not give the non-relativist pause, for the fact that relativists take relativism to be true is not in question. The question is whether a non-relativist should take relativism to be true. One should do so only if the relativist can provide some objective evidence for believing that relativism is true. But this is precisely the kind of evidence that the relativist can’t provide for, in this view, there is no objective evidence.

So the relativist faces a dilemma: If he interprets his theory objectively, he defeats himself by providing evidence against it. If he interprets his theory relativistically, he defeats himself by failing to provide any evidence for it. Either way, he defeats himself. Philosopher Harvey Siegel describes the dilemma this way:

“First the framework relativist must, in order to join the issue with the non-relativist, defend framework relativism non-relativistically. To defend framework relativism relativistically (i.e., “according to my framework, framework relativism is true (correct, warranted, etc.)”) is to fail to defend it, since the non-relativist is appropriately unimpressed with such framework-bound claims. But to defend framework relativism non-relativistically is to give it up, since to defend it in this way is to acknowledge the legitimacy of framework-neutral criteria of assessment of claims, which is precisely what the framework relativist must deny. Thus to defend framework relativism relativistically is to fail to defend it; to defend it non-relativistically is to give it up. Thus framework relativism is self-defeating. (12)

And anything that is self-defeating cannot be true.

self-contradiction 2 Self contradiction 1

The problem with the relativists is that they want to eat their cake and have it too. On the one hand, they want to say that they or their society or conceptual scheme is the supreme authority on matters of truth. But on the other hand, they want to say that other individuals, societies, or conceptual schemes are equally authoritative. One can’t have it both ways. As philosopher W. V. O. Quine explains:

“Truth, says the cultural relativist, is culture-bound. But if it were, then he, within his own culture, ought to see his own culture-bound truth as absolute. He cannot proclaim cultural relativism without rising above it, and he cannot rise above it without giving it up.” (13)

If individual, social, or conceptual relativism were true, there would be no standpoint outside of yourself, your society, or your conceptual scheme from which to make valid judgments. Without such a standpoint, however, you would have no grounds for thinking that relativism is true. In proclaiming that truth is relative, then, the relativist hoists himself on his own petard, he blows himself up, so to speak.


The foregoing considerations indicate that truth isn’t relative to individuals, societies, or conceptual schemes. Belief is often relative to these things because different individuals, societies, and conceptual schemes often have different beliefs. But that doesn’t mean that truth is relative to them, for as we’ve seen, you can’t make something true by simply believing it to be true. The upshot, then, is that:

There Are Objective Truths

In other words, there is a way the world is. We can represent the world to ourselves in many different ways, but that which is being represented is the same for all of us.

So the concept of objective truth is not optional, something we can take or leave. Each time we assert that something is the case or we think that something is a certain way, we assume that there is objective reality.


Each time a relativist denies it, he entangles himself in self-refutation and contradictions. In the very argument over the existence of objective truth, both those who accept it and those who deny it must assume it or the argument would never get off the ground.

One must accept the truth from whatever source it comes – Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides)

The truth may not be helpful, but the concealment of it cannot be. – Melvin Konner

Truth is a great flirt – Franz Listz

Knowledge is a true belief

knowledge is true beliefs

Knowledge is a justified, true belief

“But wait,” you say. “Still, there must be some things that are ‘true for me’ and not ‘true for you.’ If I say that I hate opera, isn’t that statement true for me? If I love Bart Simpson, have a pain in my left leg, or am bored silly by discussions of politics, aren’t these assertions true for me?”

Clearly there are things about ourselves that are relative – that are a certain way to us and a different way to others. Personal characteristics – peculiarities of psychology and physiology – are to relative persons (Jane likes pizza, but Jack doesn’t, Jane has a mole on her nose, and Jack doesn’t). The effects that anything might have on a person are also relative to that person (Jane is intrigued by quantum mechanics, but Jack isn’t, loud music gives Jane a headache, but not Jack). Certain states-of-affairs, then, may be relative to individuals.

But the truth about those states-of-affairs isn’t relative!

Let’s say that Jane loves white wine and Jack doesn’t. On their first dinner date, Jane says, “I love white wine.” Is Jane’s statement true for her but not true for Jack? No. Her statement reports a fact about herself, and because she does love white wine, her statement is true. It’s not true for her and false for Jack; it’s just true. If Jack says, “I don’t love white wine” his statement refers to a fact about himself and is also true for both of them. In each statement, the “I” refers to a different person, and so the statements correctly report on different states-of-affairs.

Now we come to the fallacy that seems to give many people their most compelling pretext for rejecting the concept of objective truth. It’s the claim that belief in objective truth leads to – or is synonymous with – intolerance and arrogance. It says that objectivists tend to think they have a monopoly on truth and eventually are tempted to repress those who disagree with them. Weren’t all persecutions in history perpetuated by those who believed in objective truth and knew beyond douht that they alone possessed it? Relativism, on the other hand, is supposed to foster tolerance, implying that different views are entitled to equal respect because they’re all equally true.

We’ve probably all known people who thought they were in possession of the truth and couldn’t abide anyone who disagreed with them. But this fact doesn’t have any bearing on the real question here: Does belief in objective truth necessarily entail intolerance and arrogance?

The answer is no. The objectivist believes that when there’s disagreement, it’s theoretically possible to determine the truth through rational argument. After all, if there is a way things are, then the only way to resolve disputes is by appeal to that way. But as Trigg points out,

“there is no reason why someone who believes that basic disagreement can admit of solution firstly should arrogantly assume that he himself has a monopoly of truth, and secondly should then make others accept his views by force. The mere fact that a disagreement is capable of solution does not of itself suggest which side is right. When two sides contradict each other, whether in the fields of morality, religion or any other area, each will recognize (if they are objectivists) that at least one side must be mistaken. There need be no contradiction between strongly believing that one is right and yet realizing that one could be wrong. Arrogance is not entailed by any objectivist theory.” (14)

True, an objectivist might indeed be tempted to force his views upon others – but so might a relativist. A relativist might use force to get others to agree with him because he has no other recourse. After all, he can’t persuade anyone by appealing to objective standards or using rational argument since he doesn’t believe that’s possible. If he wants to persuade others, what is left besides force and manipulation?

Certainly, dogmatism isn’t ruled out by relativism. It crops up among relativists just as it does among some objectivists. It’s apparent, for example, among some who have espoused New Age subjectivism. So relativism doesn’t entail tolerance, any more than objectivism entails intolerance.

Also, if the relativist does embrace the virtue of tolerance, she once again gets herself stuck in contradictions. If she says that tolerance of other views is a good thing, does she mean that this is objectively true or not? If she means that it’s objectively true, she denies her relativism because she regards something as objectively true. If she means that it’s only relatively true that tolerance is a good thing, then she must admit that the opposite view could be equally justified. Consequently she can’t consistently claim that everyone should be tolerant.

The relativist may say that some things are true for her and some things are true for others, and we should respect the right of people to be different. But she can’t consistently uphold this right – she can’t say that others should respect this right. (After all, someone could believe just the opposite and, since all positions are equally true, there is no reason not to act intolerantly.) She can’t even condemn those who would trample this right. She can say only that she supports it.

On the other hand, there’s no contradiction at all for the objectivist who says all of the following: Statements are objectively true or false; it’s often difficult to tell whether statements are true or false; we may be mistaken about their truth or falsity; and, because of our fallibility, we must be tolerant of those who have opposing views and uphold their right to disagree.

Understand this as well: Just because there is an objective reality (and thus objective truth) doesn’t mean that people can’t view this objective reality differently. In fact, some people are tempted by relativism precisely because they are aware that there are different perspectives on reality – and plenty of disagreements about it. But it doesn’t follow from the existence of disagreements and differing perspectives that there is no objective reality or objective truth.


Truth does not do so much good in the world as the appearance of it does evil. – François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac

Our fifth man is not alone in claiming that people create their own reality. Many people, past and present, have embraced this idea and thought it both liberating and profound. Shirley MacLaine, for example, declared in the introduction to her book Out on a Limb:

“If my search for inner truth helps give you, the reader, the gift of insight, then I am rewarded. But my first reward has been the journey through myself, the only journey worth taking. Through it all I have learned one deep and meaningful lesson: LIFE, LIVES, and REALITY are only what we each perceive them to be. Life doesn’t happen to us. We make it happen. Reality isn’t separate from us. We are creating our reality every moment of the day. For me that truth is the ultimate freedom and the ultimate responsibility.” (15)

Later, to the amazement of her friends, she followed this claim to its logical conclusion to solipsism, the idea that I alone exist and create all of reality. In “It’s All in the Playing,” she tells how she scandalized guests at a New Year’s Eve party when she expressed solipsistic sentiments:

“I began by saying that since I realized I created my own reality in every way, I must therefore admit that, in essence, I was the only person alive in my universe. I could feel the instant shock waves undulate around the table. I went on to express my feeling of total responsibility and power for all events that occur in the world because the world is happening only in my reality. And human beings feeling pain, terror, depression, panic, and so forth, were really only aspects of pain, terror, depression, panic and so on, in me…I knew I had created the reality of the evening news at night. It was my reality. But whether anyone else was experiencing the news separately from me was unclear, because they existed in my reality too. And if they reacted to world events, then I was creating them to react so I would have someone to interact with, thereby enabling myself to know me better.” (16)


In 1970, long before MacLame spoke of creating reality, a book called The Seth Material was published. It was to be one of many best-sellers based on the words of a putative entity named Seth (a personality “no longer focused in physical reality”) and “channeled” by novelist Jane Roberts. A major theme of the book is that physical reality is our own creation:

“Seth says that we form the physical universe as un-selfconsciously as we breathe. We aren’t to think of it as a prison from which we will one day escape, or as an execution chamber from which all escape is impossible. Instead we form matter in order to operate in three-dimensional reality, develop our abilities and help others…. Without realizing it we project our ideas outward to form physical reality. Our bodies are the materialization of what we think we are. We are all creators, then, and this world is our creation.” (17)

So do we make our own reality? First, let’s be clear about the meaning of this claim. If it’s just another way of saying “Truth is subjective,” we now know that this view has a big problem. It means that there’s no objective reality, which, of course, is to say that there’s no objective truth. As we’ve already shown, this claim is unreasonable.

What MacLaine and Roberts mean by “We create our own reality,” however, is a more limited claim than that there’s no objective reality. They want to say that we each create physical reality. We each create the Milky Way galaxy, the trees in the park, the cat next door, the office building on Main Street, and the electrons whirring in our hands and the heavens. The solipsist would go one step further and say, “It’s not that we each create our own universe. I alone create it – and the appearance of other minds as well.”

Notice also that even if your mind somehow creates everything in the universe, there would still be an objective reality and an objective truth. There would be the objective facts about your mind – it would be a certain way and not some other. There would then be the objective truth that you were omnipotent.

So even if you were a god making worlds by the very act of believing that those worlds existed, a statement would still be true only if it says what is the case in objective reality – regardless of whether you had a hand in bringing about some of that reality. Even as a god, you couldn’t escape the three principles discussed earlier. So do we each make physical reality?

At one time, Ted Schultz was attracted to this idea, but he soon came to have doubts about it.

“I began to wonder about the logical extensions of ‘consensus reality,’ ‘personal reality,’ and the power of belief. Supposing a schizophrenic was totally convinced that he could fly. Could he? If so, why weren’t there frequent reports from mental institutions of miracles performed by the inmates? What about large groups of people like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who devoutly believed that Jesus would return on a particular day? Hadn’t he failed to appear twice in that religion’s history (in 1914 and 1975), forcing the faithful to reset the dates? What if the inhabitants of some other solar system believed astronomical physics to work differently than we believe they do on earth? Could both be true at the same time? If not, which would the universe align itself with? Does the large number of Catholics on earth make the Catholic God and saints a reality? Should I worry about the consequences of denying the Catholic faith? Before Columbus, was the earth really flat because everyone believed it to be? Did it only ‘become’ round after the consensus opinion changed?” (19)

What could be more appealing than the notion that if we just believe in something, it will come true? Just the same, as Schultz indicates, there are serious problems with the idea that belief alone can transfigure reality. For one thing, it involves a logical contradiction. If it’s true that our beliefs can alter reality, then what happens when different people have opposing beliefs? Let’s say that one person, A, believes p (a statement about reality), and p therefore becomes true. Another person, B, however, believes not-p. and it becomes true. We would then have the same state-of-affairs both existing and not existing simultaneously – a logical impossibility. What if A believes that all known terrorists are dead, and B believes that they’re not dead? What if A believes that the Earth is round, and B believes it’s flat? Since the supposition that our beliefs create reality leads to a logical contradiction, we must conclude that reality is independent of our beliefs.

The mind does not create what it perceives, any more than the eye creates the rose. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored. – Aldous Huxley

Solipsists can avoid this problem because, in their view, there is only one person in the world and hence only one person doing the believing. But is it reasonable to believe that there is only one person in the world and that that person creates everything there is by merely thinking about it? Consider your own experience.

You have a leaking faucet. You position a bucket to catch the drops. You leave the room. When you return, the bucket is full of water, the sink is overflowing, and the carpet is soaked. Simple events like this – and billions of other experiences – lead us to believe that causal sequences continue whether we’re experiencing them or not, as though they were independent of our minds.

You open a closet door and – surprise! – books fall on your head. The last thing on your mind was falling books. It’s as though such events are causally connected to something outside your mind.

You fall asleep on your bed. When you awaken the next day, everything in the room is just as it was before you drifted off. It’s as though your room continued to exist whether you were thinking about it or not.

You hold a rose in your hand. You see it, feel it, smell it. Your senses converge to give you a unified picture of this flower – as though it existed independently. If it’s solely a product of your mind, this convergence is more difficult to account for.

Every day of your life, you’re aware of a distinction between experiences that you yourself create (like daydreams, thoughts, imaginings) and those that seem forced upon you by an external reality (like unpleasant smells, loud noises, cold wind), If there is an independent world, this distinction makes sense. If there isn’t, and you create your own reality, the distinction is mysterious. The point is that the existence of an independent world explains our experiences better than any known alternative. We have good reason to believe that the world – which seems independent of our minds – really is. We have little if any reason to believe that the world is our mind’s own creation.

Science writer Martin Gardner, in an essay on solipsism, puts the point like this:

“We, who of course are not solipsists, all believe that other people exist. Is it not an astonishing set of coincidences – astonishing, that is, to anyone who doubts an external world – that everybody sees essentially the same phaneron? We walk the same streets of the same cities. We find the same buildings at the same locations. Two people can see the same spiral galaxy through a telescope. Not only that, they see the same spiral structure. The hypothesis that there is an external world, not dependent on human minds, made of something, is so obviously useful and so strongly confirmed by experience down through the ages that we can say without exaggerating that it is better confirmed than any other empirical hypothesis. So useful is the posit that it is almost impossible for anyone except a madman or a professional metaphysician to comprehend a reason for doubting it.”(20)

If there is indeed a world out there independent of our minds – a world not fashioned by our very thoughts – then the principle stated earlier takes on added meaning: Just because you believe something to he true doesn’t mean that it is true.


The basic idea behind the sixth man’s claim is that if enough people believe that something is true, it literally becomes true for everyone. We don’t each create our own separate realities, we all live in one reality – but we can radically alter this reality for everybody if a sufficient number of us believe. If within our group we can reach a kind of consensus, a critical mass of belief, then we can change the world.

Probably the most influential articulation of this idea was a book called “The Crack in the Cosmic Egg” by Joseph Chilton Pearce.(21) In it, Pearce asserted that people have a hand in shaping physical reality – even the laws of physics. We can transform the physical world, or parts of it, if enough of us believe in a new reality. If we attain a group consensus, we can change the world any way we want – for everyone.

Human consensus does not generate reality Ursula Goodenough

In recent years, this extraordinary thesis – that if enough people believe in something, it suddenly becomes true for everyone – has been enormously influential. It got its single biggest boost from the hundredth-monkey phenomenon mentioned in Chapter 1, a story told by Lyall Watson in his book “Lifetide”. This tale has been told and retold in a bestselling book by Ken Keyes called “The Hundredth Monkey,” in a film with the same name, and in several articles.


Here’s the story: Watson tells of reports coming from scientists in the 1950s about wild Japanese monkeys on the island of Koshima. After the monkeys were given raw sweet potatoes for the first time, one of them, named Imo, learned to wash the sand and grit off the potatoes by dunking them in a stream. In the next few years, Imo taught this skill to other monkeys in the colony. “Then something extraordinary took place,” says Watson.

“The details up to this point in the study are clear, but one has to gather the rest of the story from personal anecdotes and bits of folklore among primate researchers, because most of them are still not quite sure what happened. And those who do suspect the truth are reluctant to publish it for fear of ridicule. So I am forced to improvise the details, but as near as I can tell, this is what seems to have happened. In the autumn of that year [1958] an unspecified number of monkeys on Koshima were washing sweet potatoes in the sea, because Imo had made the further discovery that salt water not only cleaned the food but gave it an interesting new flavor. Let us say, for arguments sake, that the number was ninety-nine and that at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday morning, one further convert was added to the fold in the usual way. But the addition of the hundredth monkey apparently carried the number across some sort of threshold, pushing it through a kind of critical mass, because by that evening almost everyone in the colony was doing it. Not only that, but the habit seems to have jumped natural barriers and to have appeared spontaneously, like glycerin crystals in sealed laboratory jars, in colonies on other islands and on the mainland in a troop at Takasakiyama.” (22)

Watson uses the story to support the consensus-truth thesis. But you might ask at this point, “Is the story true? Did these events really happen?” (Many people who retold the story in books and articles never bothered to ask this question.)

If it did happen, it would be of enormous scientific interest. But it still wouldn’t constitute proof of the thesis that a critical mass of humans can make something true for everyone else. For one thing, the evidence could easily support alternative hypotheses. Perhaps the potato-washing habit wasn’t really spread, but resulted from independent experimentation and learning by different monkeys (in other words, other monkeys learned it the way Imo did). On the other hand, if the story didn’t happen, this wouldn’t prove that the consensus-truth thesis was false, either. It would simply mean that one potential piece of empirical evidence that would justify our relieving in the thesis was not valid.

As it turns out, the story didn’t happen, at least not as told by Watson and others. Watson has admitted that the story wasn’t literally true.

Like the seventh man in our chapter-opening parable, some people may declare that it doesn’t even matter whether Watson’s tale is literally true because it’s a myth or metaphor. Myths and metaphors, they say, have their own kind of truth. Well, this latter point is true enough – myths and metaphors can, indirectly, say things about reality, just as literal statements can. There’s a problem, though, if the point is supposed to imply that in myth or metaphor, concerns about truth or falsity exist. A claim about reality, whether embodied in mythic or metaphoric language or not, is still a claim about reality. As such, its either true or false, and dicovering which is still a job for critical thinking.

Regardless of the literal truth of Watson’s story, though, we can still scrutinize his thesis. In “Lifetide” he says, “It may be that when enough of us hold something to be true, it becomes true for everyone.”(24) If by this he means that consensus belief by groups of people can literally alter physical reality (Pearce’s notion), he’s mistaken, because this notion would entail a logical contradiction, as we’ve seen.

But he may have something else in mind. He may mean that people’s consensus beliefs don’t really alter reality (that is, what’s true); they just change other people’s beliefs (what people think is true). If enough of us fervently hold certain beliefs, then somehow everyone else will suddenly come to hold those beliefs too. Once the magic number of believers is attained, nonbelievers everywhere become believers.

This view conjures up the chilling specter of instant, mass brain-washing (see the box “On Good Myth and Bad Myth”). But the possible unpleasant consequences of these views are no grounds to judge them false. As an empirical claim, a hypothesis, about how people acquire their personal beliefs, we can judge its validity only by considering it alongside alternative hypotheses and asking which is the best of the bunch – which is superior or most likely to be true. As we’ll see in later chapters, often the choice comes down to which hypothesis has the most supporting evidence.

There are, in fact, commonplace alternative hypotheses explaining how people come to hold a certain belief: they want to believe what their friends believe; they’ve been manipulated by messages from television, radio, print media, movies and more; their belief is psychologically comforting; they fear adverse consequences for not believing; their belief makes sense (is justified or is supported by evidence).

The list could go on. Each of these explanations has been confirmed by an enormous amount of empirical evidence, in both science and our daily experience. On the other hand, the notion that beliefs get inserted into everyone’s minds by a critical mass of believers has, so far, no clear empirical support. Just as there’s no reason to believe that we can make something true by simply believing it to be true, so there’s no reason to believe that we can make others believe that something is true by simply believing it to be true.

Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes. – Jawaharlal Nehru, 1st Prime Minister of India

“On Good Myth and Bad Myth”

Psychologist Maureen O’Hara was the first to publish a skeptical analysis of Lyall Watson’s hundredth-monkey story of a paranormal critical mass of consciousness. She’s aware that many have embraced the tale as a significant myth. She acknowledges the importance of myth in our lives but contends that as a myth, the Watson story is “profoundly non-humanistic” and a “betrayal of the whole idea of human empowerment”:

“There are major contradictions in the present idealization of critical mass – seen not only in the Hundredth Monkey story, but in the ideologies of such organizations as “est“, Bhagwan Raineesh, and the “Aquarian conspirators.” In promoting the idea that, although our ideas are shared by only an enlightened few (for the time being), if we really believe them, in some magical way what we hold to be true becomes true for everyone, proponents of the critical mass ideal ignore the principles of both humanism and democratic open society. The basis for openness in our kind of society is the belief that, for good or ill, each of us holds his or her own beliefs as a responsible participant in a pluralistic culture. Are we really willing to give up on this ideal and promote instead a monolithic ideology in which what is true for a “critical mass” of people becomes true for everyone? The idea gives me the willies…”

“My objection to the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon, then , is not that it is a myth, but that it is a bad myth, and that it draws its force not from the collective imagination, but by masquerading as science. It leads us (as I have tried to show) in the direction of propaganda, manipulation, totalitarianism, and a worldview dominated by the powerful and persuasive – in other words, business as usual….”

“I most emphatically cannot agree that the “Hundredth Monkey myth empowers.” In fact, I believe it to be a betrayal of the whole idea of human empowerment. In this myth the individual as a responsible agent disappears; what empowers is no longer the moral force of one’s beliefs, not their empirical status, rather, it is the number of people who share them. Once the magic number is reached curiosity, science, art, criticism, doubt and all other such activities subversive of the common consensus become unnecessary or even worse. Individuals no longer have any obligation to develop their own worldview within such a collective – it will come to them from those around. Nor are we called on to develop our arguments and articulate them for, by magic, those around us will catch them anyway. This is not a transformation myth impelling us toward the fullest development of our capacities, but one that reduces us instead to quite literally nothing more than a mindless herd at the mercy of the “Great Communicators.” The myth of the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon is more chillingly Orwellian than Aquarian.”(25)

Additional reading

Gardner, Martin. The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. New York: Quill, 1983.

Krausz, Michael. Relativism, Interpretation and Confrontation. South Bend, Ind.:
University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.

Scheffler, Israel. Science and Subjectivity. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967.

Siegel, Harvey. Relativism Refuted. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1987.

Trigg, Roger. Reason and Commitment London: Cambridge University Press, 1973


1. Ted Schultz, “A Personal Odyssey Through the New Age,” in Not Necessarily the New Age (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1988), p. 342.
2. Plato, “Theactetus,” 171 a, trans. F M. Conford, The Collected Works of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1961), p. 876.
3. Roger Trigg, Reason and Commitment (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 2.
4. Ellen Goodman, column in The Morning Call, June 15, 1993, p. All.
5. Israel Scheffler, Science and Suhjectivily (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1967), pp. 36ff.
6. Chris Swoyer, ‘True For,” in Relativism: Cognitive and Moral, ed. Jack W. Meiland and Michael Krausz (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), p. 97.
7. Nelson Goodman: Ways of World Making (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1978).
8. W. Newton-Smith, “Relativism and the Possibility of Interpretation,” in Rationality and Relativism, ed. Martin Hollis and Steven Lukes
(Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982), pp. 107-8.
9. Swoyer, “True For,” p. 101.
10. Trigg, Reason and Commitment, pp. 15-16.
11. “Presidential Address” (Speech made to the Seventieth Annual Eastern Meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Atlanta, December 28, 1973).
12. Harvey Siegel, Relativism Refuted (Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel, 1987), pp. 43-44.
13. W. V. Quine, “On Empirically Equivalent Systems of the World,” Erkenntnis 9 (1975): 327-28.
14. Trigg, Reason and Commitment, pp. 135-36.
15. Shirley MacLame, Out on a Limh (New York: Bantam Books, 1983).
16. Shirley MacLame, It’s All in the Playing (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), pp. 171-72.
17. Jane Roberts, The Seth Material (New York: Bantam Books, 1970), p. 124
18. Martin Gardner, The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (New York: Quill, 1983), pp. 30-3 1.
19. Schultz, “Personal Odyssey,” p. 345.
20. Gardner, Philosophical Scrivener, p. 15.
21. Joseph Chilton Pearce, The Crack in the Cosmic Egg (New York: Julian Press, 1971).
22. Lyall Watson, Lifetide (New York: Bantam Books, 1979), pp. 147-48.
23. Ron Amundson, “The Hundredth Monkey Debunked,” in The Fringes of Reasons A Whole Earth Catalog, ed. Ted Schultz (New York: Harmony Books, 1989), pp. 175-80.
24. Watson, Lifetide, pp. 148-49.
25. Maureen O’Hara, “Of Myths and Monkeys: A Critical Look at Critical Mass,” in Fringes of Reason, Schultz, pp. 182-86.

Excerpted from Chapter 4 of “How to think about weird things: Critical thinking for a new age” second edition, Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaugn, Mayfield Publishing Company, 1999.


Objectives: 2016 Massachusetts Science and Technology/Engineering Standards
Students will be able to:
* plan and conduct an investigation, including deciding on the types, amount, and accuracy of data needed to produce reliable measurements, and consider limitations on the precision of the data
* apply scientific reasoning, theory, and/or models to link evidence to the claims and assess the extent to which the reasoning and data support the explanation or conclusion;
* respectfully provide and/or receive critiques on scientific arguments by probing reasoning and evidence and challenging ideas and conclusions, and determining what additional information is required to solve contradictions
* evaluate the validity and reliability of and/or synthesize multiple claims, methods, and/or designs that appear in scientific and technical texts or media, verifying the data when possible.

A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas (2012)
Implementation: Curriculum, Instruction, Teacher Development, and Assessment
“Through discussion and reflection, students can come to realize that scientific inquiry embodies a set of values. These values include respect for the importance of logical thinking, precision, open-mindedness, objectivity, skepticism, and a requirement for transparent research procedures and honest reporting of findings.”

Next Generation Science Standards: Science & Engineering Practices
● Ask questions that arise from careful observation of phenomena, or unexpected results, to clarify and/or seek additional information.
● Ask questions that arise from examining models or a theory, to clarify and/or seek additional information and relationships.
● Ask questions to determine relationships, including quantitative relationships, between independent and dependent variables.
● Ask questions to clarify and refine a model, an explanation, or an engineering problem.
● Evaluate a question to determine if it is testable and relevant.
● Ask questions that can be investigated within the scope of the school laboratory, research facilities, or field (e.g., outdoor environment) with available resources and, when appropriate, frame a hypothesis based on a model or theory.
● Ask and/or evaluate questions that challenge the premise(s) of an argument, the interpretation of a data set, or the suitability of the design.

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