Richard Dawkins, relativism, and truth
Abbas Raza of 3Quarks Daily takes Richard Dawkins to task for some of his sloppy pronouncements about relativism.
Abbas quotes this passage from Dawnkins' Devil's Chaplain:
A little learning is a dangerous thing. This has never struck me as a particularly profound or wise remark, but it comes into it's own in the special case where the little learning is in philosophy (as it often is). A scientist who has the temerity to utter the t-word ('true') is likely to encounter a form of philosophical heckling which goes something like this:There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit's entrails, or the ravings of a prophet up a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.
I share Abbas's irritation.
As Abbas notes, Dawkins isn't really holding himself above the philosophical fray on truth. He's actually defending a correspondence theory. Correspondence theories of truth hold, roughly, that truth is correspondence to a fact. According to the correspondence theory, true statements are true because they bear the correct relationship to the world. This commonsense view turns out to be much more problematic than you might think. For example, it's hard to explain what it means for a sentence or a proposition to correspond to a fact.
It's important to remember that when philosophers talk about truth, they're usually talking about a property of statements. When we're speaking more casually we sometimes use "the truth" as a synonym "the way things are." Philosophers who study truth are looking for a very precise technical understanding of the linguistic, logical, and empirical factors that must align in order for a statement to be true.
Dawkins accuses philosophers of believing that The Facts are relative to a speaker or a culture. In fact, most analytic philosophers don't believe anything like that. Most of the technical work on the nature of truth is an attempt to specify how facts and beliefs must align in order to make statements true.