Earl Morris on truth, history, science, and relativism

Source: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/10/the-ashtray-this-contest-of-interpretation-part-5/

For those who truly believe that truth is subjective or relative (along with everything else), ask yourself the question – is ultimate guilt or innocence of a crime a matter of opinion? Is it relative? Is it subjective? A jury might decide you’re guilty of a crime that you haven’t committed. You’re innocent. (It’s possible. The legal system is rife with miscarriages of justice.) Nevertheless, we believe there is a fact of the matter. You either did it or you didn’t. Period.

If you were strapped into an electric chair, there would be nothing relative about it. Suppose you are innocent. Would you be satisfied with the claim there is no definitive answer to the question of whether you’re guilty or innocent? That there is no such thing as absolute truth or falsity? Or would you be screaming, “I didn’t do it. Look at the evidence. I didn’t do it.” Nor would you take much comfort in the claim, “It all depends on your point of view, doesn’t it?” Or “what paradigm are you in?” When I was investigating the murder of Robert Wood, a Dallas police officer, and the capital murder conviction of Randall Dale Adams for that murder, would it make sense to describe my viewpoint as one paradigm, and the viewpoint of the Dallas police as another? Surely, we had different ways of looking at the evidence, different interpretations of the evidence, different ways of looking at the crime. Suppose someone said, there’s no way of comparing these two paradigms. They’re incommensurable. You can’t say one is true and the other false. There is no absolute truth. Perhaps they could gussy up the claim by citing police procedures and practices. Different traditions of looking at crime scene evidence. . . .

The difficulty of ascertaining the truth in history is often confused with the relativity of truth. Two very different concepts. (We may have difficulty fixing the exact date and location of the Battle of Hastings, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen at a specific time and place.) “The past,” as L.P. Hartley has written, “is a foreign country. They do things differently there.” [90] But when Homer speaks of the “sun,” is he speaking about a different object than T.S. Eliot? If Newton were to give Einstein a copy of the “Principia” and Einstein were to give Newton a copy of “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies,” would they be unable to understand each other or their respective theories? There would be a discussion, perhaps even disagreements about ideas and principles. Clarifications would be needed. But would they look past each other in numb stupefaction? The past may be a foreign country, but I do not believe that people there speak a language that we can not understand.

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