I’ve been puzzling over the paradox of absolutism and relativism. These are two philosophical meta-views. Absolutism is the view that there is a single correct philosophical view. Relativism is the view that there is no single correct philosophical view; there are multifarious perspectives and beliefs, but none of them are privileged as the one reality.
Both of these meta-views have problems. The problem with absolutism is that whenever we identify one view as the single correct one, we exclude all of the other views. If we pick materialism, or Eastern mysticism, or Christianity, as the correct view, then we exclude all the others.
We end up either ignoring everybody who disagrees with us, or getting into interminable arguments. What’s more, we miss out on a lot this way, though we don’t necessarily realize it. If a lot of people hold a view, it probably has a lot of truth and profundity to it; otherwise, why would people believe it? Surely there is a lot of widely believed garbage; but can we really maintain that everything outside of our favorite paradigm is garbage? So this is the problem with absolutism.
The problem with relativism is that it seems fairly obvious that there are truths about reality. If three people look at a table, all of them see a different table. We have a massive possibility space, and each of us experiences only a minute fraction of it. There are infinite possible perspectives on the table, and all of them are different tables. But, even so, there is clearly a single table underlying all of these perspectives!
We never know all of the details of the table; we never analyze it fully and exhaust everything that can be thought about it. The table transcends every possible perspective on the table; it lies beyond them and is the unattainable limit of all of the perspectives. It is an objective reality which we will never fully know.
Relativists must go through the most difficult contortions to explain away this objective reality and justify why there is in fact no table, why there are only different points of view which postulate slightly different subjective tables.
I look at this situation and feel that a synthesis is needed. We have two meta-views, both of which have a lot of merit and both of which are inadequate. How can we reconcile absolutism and relativism?
I think that people tend towards absolutism for a lot of reasons. We want to know what’s going on. And when we find a perspective that resonates with us, it can be very easy to be sucked into it. It exerts such power over us that we know it to be correct. The absolutist has a spiritual sort of power supporting their view; it magnetizes their being and brings all things under its sway.
And again, there are a lot of reasons that people tend towards relativism. The relativist is certainly one who grasps diverse views with ease, and who has a deep-set egalitarian virtue which does not wish to leave anything out. They can see a multifaceted quality of existence which is not available to the absolutist. There is an inspiring sense of infinity in their relativism, where no word is final, where there is always something to be added.
So, what will our synthesis look like? First, let us remember that we do not know everything. Our theories have truth to them; but they are not the final truth. There is always a theory which surpasses our existing knowledge, which accounts for the data we have not accounted for and resolves the problems we have not resolved.
Every paradigm (materialism, Eastern mysticism, Christianity, etc.) has noticed some facets of reality which the others have not noticed. Each has things that it treats very well; and each has things that it accounts for poorly. Each has holes and shortcomings. Each is biased. There are no unbiased thinkers on philosophy, just as there no unbiased thinkers on ethics or politics.
We can always arrive at a superior theory; and we can always synthesize the theories that we have to create new theories which aggregate their insights. (The process of synthesis is not a simple lumping together; it is an exquisitely delicate and artful process.)
I think that the incompleteness of all theories is a metaphysical fact. The universe consists of points of view, and the universe is infinite. It is a possibility space; not a random, chaotic possibility space, but a profoundly organized and parsimonious possibility space.
Disorganized data can always be transformed into organized understanding. The universe isn’t confused; we are the ones who are confused.
Remember Godel’s incompleteness theorem. Mathematics is infinite. But mathematics is still elegant and parsimonious, both in the parts we know and in the parts we do not know.
There are only perspectives. But some perspectives are super-perspectives. They are perspectives that are so grand, so massive, so powerful and full of truth that they are capable of swaying the masses and creating whole universes within themselves.
I refer not only to the major philosophical paradigms, but also to the moments on LSD when one understands more deeply than one has ever understood; to the people who have a mission in life; to enlightenment. The fact that none of these are final does not diminish their value. Surely a super-perspective is something worth having.