Factual Relativism

Factual relativism or epistemic relativism is a mode of reasoning which extends relativism and subjectivism to factual matter and reason. In factual relativism the facts used to establish the truth or falsehood of any statement are understood to be relative to the perspective of those proving or falsifying the proposition. Factual relativism is contested by factual universalism.

One school of thought compares scientific knowledge to the mythology of other cultures, arguing that it is merely our society’s set of myths based on our society’s assumptions. For support, Austrian-American  philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend’s comments in ‘Against Method’ that, The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing’ and ‘First-world science is one science among many’ are sometimes cited, although it is not clear if Feyerabend meant them entirely seriously.

The Strong program in the sociology of science is (in the words of founder David Bloor) ‘impartial with respect to truth and falsity.’ Elsewhere, Bloor and Barry Barnes have said ‘For the relativist [such as us] there is no sense attached to the idea that some standards or beliefs are really rational as distinct from merely locally accepted as such.’ In France, anthropologist Bruno Latour has claimed that ‘Since the settlement of a controversy is the cause of Nature’s representation, not the consequence, we can never use the outcome -Nature- to explain how and why a controversy has been settled.’

Yves Winkin, a Belgian professor of communications, responded to a popular trial in which two witnesses gave contradicting testimony by telling the newspaper ‘Le Soir’ that ‘There is no transcendent truth. […] It is not surprising that these two people, representing two very different professional universes, should each set forth a different truth. Having said that, I think that, in this context of public responsibility, the commission can only proceed as it does.’ The philosopher of science Gérard Fourez wrote that ‘What one generally calls a fact is an interpretation of a situation that no one, at least for the moment, wants to call into question.’ British archaeologist Roger Anyon told the ‘New York Times’ that ‘science is just one of many ways of knowing the world… The Zuni’s world view is just as valid as the archeological viewpoint of what prehistory is about.’

This view is criticized by many analytic philosophers and scientists. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, in their book ‘Fashionable Nonsense,’ say that ‘if we adopt the customary […] notion of truth, then cognitive relativism is patently false: since a proposition is true to the extent that it reflects [some aspects of] the way the world is, its truth and falsity depends on the way the world is and not on the belief or other characteristics of any individual group.’ Things are especially problematic for social scientists: historians (for example) want to draw conclusions from available documents about how things actually are; it’s hard to do this when you deny that such discovery is possible.

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