"I have actually persuaded L.* that not all truths are relative," I told Corliss. We were speaking on the phone. "At least I got him to stop saying that all truth is relative. Well ... at least I have gotten him to stop saying all truth is relative within earshot of me. This truthiness-silence has lasted for all of several months now!"

"You've accomplished something that I have never achieved with any of my undergraduates," said Corliss.

So perhaps I have accomplished a Historical First: I have persuaded a person who had been espousing a terribly-naive but terribly-common relativism (I think of the young mother on Oprah who insisted: 'if my toddler insists that violet is orange, then in her world violet is orange.' ) ... I have persuaded this person -- at least for some measurably long stretch of time -- that not all truths are relative. I think anyone who has attempted this will know firsthand the strength of the current she is swimming against.

Now it is not impossible that Ralph has succeeded in convincing one or two of his undergraduates that not all truths are relative . . . or that -- God forbid! -- no truths are relative. Whenever one of his naively-extreme-relativist undergraduates bitterly complains about the gross injustice of the crummy grade she has received on her sucky paper, he tells her: "But according to you, my opinion about your paper is just as good as yours, right?" There is some chance that this line of attack has jolted one student or another out of her naive undergraduate relativism.

However, in the absence of any thoroughly definitive documentation to the contrary (for example, a Philosophical Note like this one, published on the web or anywhere else), I will risk staking a claim to the label 'Historical First.' As such, it is worth recording in full gory detail for all posterity -- or at least for for that segment of posterity whose endpoint is identical with the endpoint of the lifespan on the web of this philosophical note.**

So this note has several purposes. (1) To celebrate my historical achievement. (2) To serve as a kind of epinikion*** to L., who, fittingly enough, is an athlete and a wannabe boxer. (3) To outline one route one might take in convincing a philosophical neophyte that truth is not relative. (Not relative, that is, in a sense that I will explain shortly.) If the neophyte is bright enough to articulate a theory of what relative truth is supposed to consist in, and how it differs from non-relative truth, one has a chance of attacking his belief in a way that stands a chance of persuading him. (4) To serve as a semi-respectable argument against a rather naive theory of truth. The emphasis here is on (3), however, rather than (4); the question I am pursuing is not 'what is the best argument against naive relativism,' but 'what will make naive relativism absolutely unacceptable, at least for a countably-long moment, to someone like L.?' (5) To make fun of L. (6) To make fun of me. (7) To function, in the process, as part of a PSI of Cliff Wirt, which is how this entire site is organized.

Before moving on, I want to dwell a moment on (3). The theory of truth that L. advances is that for a proposition p (say, 'there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq' ) to be true, it is sufficient that p be strongly believed by ... well, mainly by a group of people. That p is true relative to that group and their strong belief. I demolish this notion of truth by a thought experiment showing it is possible for p to be true without any creature in the universe believing that p. (I will be accepting for the sake of argument L.'s assumption that there are no (ahem!) non-creatures such as God transcending the universe.)

As I will show in a separate essay, this thought experiment illuminates not only the question of truth, but also the question why the computer query language SQL sucks so badly. The same muddled thinking drives both the 'all truths are relative' mantra and the disastrous mistakes in the design of SQL that cause certain queries to give results that are incorrect in the real world.

Let me start in media res****.





* Also sometimes known as lijoydevilsadvocate, sometimes as <not meant literally of course>that Scoundrel</ not meant literally of course >, and sometimes as <not meant literally of course>that Nutcase></not meant literally of course>. Some of the more metaphysically-inclined of L.'s colleagues have speculated that these descriptions apply to L. in all possible worlds; that is to say, they are necessary truths, and part of L.'s trans-world identity. But I would not go this far; the mere fact that one cannot think of L. without the label <not meant literally of course>Nutcase</not meant literally of course> (in particular) coming to mind does not suffice to show that this label applies to L. in all possible worlds. Anyhow, L.'s disposition is <yes this is pure unadulterated irony>sweetly modest</yes this is pure unadulterated irony>; he is just happy that these appellations -- he seems positively flattered by them -- apply to him in this one measly actual world, without worrying about the grander, more metaphysical ways they may also apply to him.

** So why do I talk funny like this? I've had my neurons severely and permanently rearranged by this stuff.

***No, I don't know ancient Greek. I just came across the concept of an epinikion here, in Anne Carson's ECONOMY OF THE UNLOST, and it seemed (a) to fit (minus the formal part) some of what I am doing here. An epinikion, by the way, is a victory ode, or a"formal praise poem, or epinician ode, in honor of a victor in the athletic games [including boxing].... Praise poetry addresses itself to an individual who has chosen to test the limits of human possibility and momentarily succeeded. His flame is burning very bright. Looking at it we feel both love and hate.... Ancient Greek epinician poets are candid about the natural human ambivalence that greets excellence in other people, and they take seriously their own function of counter-balancing private emotion with communal reasoning.... ...Pindar is certainly the most famous epinician poet of the Greek tradition." To continue with Pindar for a moment, who praised his athletes as akin to the young men 'whom Poseidon the mighty Earth-holder desired.' This from the blurb on Amazon for Pindar's odes: "Pindar praises the victor by comparing him to mythical heroes and the gods, but also reminds the athlete of his human limitations." The hero is god-like, and sometimes even achieves the status of a god -- at least for one brief, shining moment.

***Yes, I do know what that means -- 'into the middle of things,' or less formally, 'into the thick of things.'