Relativism Simplified

I used to utterly despise moral relativism (and to a certain extent, I still do). However, time and experience has blunted my fury on the subject. At a certain level, a relativistic (this has nothing to do with Einstein) viewpoint is useful and worth considering, if only briefly. Let me explain.

I recently watched a movie called Ip Man 2. It was a martial arts movie set in, and filmed (I believe) in China or Hong Kong. The hero of the movie was a martial arts master named Ip Man. In the end, he has a match with a Western Boxer who was white and from England, and basically the epitome of an arrogant jerk. Indeed, the way the westerners were portrayed in the film might warrant charges of racist bias against Caucasians perpetuated by the Chinese producers. I’ve noticed that kind of trend in a number of Chinese films. Anyway, I don’t want to get sidetracked. The thing to remember is that it was a Chinese movie and it portrayed the white antagonist as almost a caricature of an arrogant jerk.

Compare this to Rocky IV  (an old movie) where Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) fights Ivan Draggo (Dolf Lungren). Rocky is, of course, portrayed as the noble hero. Ivan Draggo is portrayed as almost a caricature of the “Russian bad guy.” Same phenomenon as in Ip Man 2, except in this case, we (the U.S.) are the ones guilty. So, if you look at this relativistically, both countries portray their foreign adversaries similarly … as evil bad guys, basically. So, on first blush, it appears that evil, at least, is relative; it depends on the perception of the sufferer, or perhaps, better yet, the perceptual position of the sufferer.

But that’s only on first blush. As a whole, it is a lackluster moral theory. If I punch you in the nose, that might feel good for me, but painful for you. How does such an analysis help? What’s missing is an analysis of the itty-bitty details … the facts, if you will. Relativism is only really helpful at a purely emotional level.

Another example. I read somewhere that the Japanese still think the United States was the aggressor in WWII. Basically, in a war between country A and country B, country A will likely regard country B as evil, and vice versa. But as I said, then there are the details. Take Isis, for example. They seem to be willing to plumb depths of evil we balk at: crucifixion, drowning, burning alive men, women, and even children. In such a situation, Relativism only tells us that Isis hates us, and we hate them. Not particularly profound.

So, what is to be done with this insight?

Emotions don’t occur in a vacuum. They are based on information … facts if you will. The true relativist will permit different facts to influence different sides in a conflict. In such a situation, the relativist will say the facts used by country A are true for it, and the facts of country B are true for it. There is no objective truth in the situation. Although it is true that both sides will behave as if that is the case, that does not mean that that is really the case. Some of the facts on either side may be wrong. Others may be shared by both sides. Others may be partially true. What is important, is that “truth” determines the value of the facts and is a separate concept. What is relativized is the information or knowledge of the facts, not the truth of them. The truth stands alone, objectively. Either country A invaded country B three days before or it didn’t. While country A and country B have the right to claim their own knowledge of a conflict, they don’t have the right to claim their own truth of it.



I have a brother who is very passionate about politics. One of the relationships he often brings up in political debate is the relationship between the individual and society. Personally, I studied analytical philosophy in college. I studied the relationship between the individual and properties (think Plato’s bifurcation), not the relationship between the individual and society.

Anyway, my brother is always arguing that individuals do not exist on their own. They are connected to other individuals; that is, they have a relationship with society. According to my brother, Capitalism suffers from an extreme form of individualism without acknowledging a connection to society, and is, therefore, flawed. On the other hand, Communism is flawed in the other direction by placing too much emphasis on society (i.e. the collective) over the individual. According to my brother, the reality of the situation is something more of a hybrid. People are sometimes drawn toward the collective, and sometimes drawn to be by themselves. According to him, this is the root of the problem with the American way of life.

I’m not sure if the American way of life is any more problematic than it has always been. Capitalism has, I believe, produced more goods for more people, and lifted more people out of poverty than any other system ever tried. But it is not perfect. Indeed, the human condition is probably imperfectable. Regardless, I want to go down on record that I tentatively agree with my brother’s notion of a hybrid-like relationship between the individual and society. To that end, I wish to point out a few examples of things that connect me to others in ways I can’t control. Basically, there are items and practices that are imposed on me because the rest of society accepts them without a second thought.

Health insurance. Once upon a time, when life was much more rugged and doctors made house calls, there was no such thing as health insurance (at least, I don’t think so). Yet, people lived and prospered and thought nothing of it. Now, if you fail to get health insurance you are considered irresponsible. Why? Because everyone else is getting health insurance; they are paying into the health insurance system, and if you skimp, they pay for your care. So, you really are sort-of connected in this regard. Similar arguments can be made for car insurance, home insurance, etc…. My point is not that insurance is a bad idea (in fact, it is a good idea and, currently, I am fully insured), but rather, that the existence of insurance implies a connection between the individual and society such that the individual is compelled to follow the preferences of society.

Smart phones. These really aren’t a luxury; they are becoming a necessary part of our lives and our economy, so much so, that the person who does not own a smart phone will suffer significant disadvantages in our current economy.

My favorite type of cereal no longer exists. In high school, I adored a cereal called “Crispy Wheats and Raisins.” I haven’t had it in years, because, I think, “they” stopped producing it. Basically, the invisible hand of the market determined that my favorite cereal is not profitable enough so it was removed from the marketplace. In other words, the cereal preferences of the majority of other Americans aligned against my own. The collective evaluation of my favorite cereal resulted in that cereal’s disappearance; so, we are kind of connected.

Those are three examples. I’m sure there are more.

I’m not sure I had a central point to this post; it was more of an intellectual exercise analyzing the connection of the individual to society.

Ethics, AI, and Zen Masters

I studied ethics in college. I was big on Western analytical philosophy. Not so much the philosophy of the East which stressed the importance of raw experience and the ineffability of certain aspects of existence. As a matter of fact, I thought Zen koans were a bunch of bunk, if for no other reason than that they spoke in contradictions and riddles. I was more of the school that one precisely say what you mean and mean precisely what you say. For example, I shrugged off the koan “He who knows, does not speak; he who speaks, does not know.” I thought it was just stupid. A waste of time.

Then, after arguing with an existentialist friend for several years about truth, I was forced to concede the point regarding incommunicable knowledge; that is, knowledge which humans gain through raw experience which they can’t communicate to anyone else. Most notable is coming to terms with your own death; no one else can help you with that. Also of note is the fact that much of this incommunicable knowledge is ethical in nature. I believe it is just this point regarding ethical knowledge that the above Zen koan is about. I can write the koan and even describe it to a certain degree, but until you, the reader, make the connection with a particular experience in your life, you won’t know what I’m talking about.

What is my point?

Well, this creates an insoluble difficulty when programming ethical AI (artificial intelligence). Basically, there are aspects of ethics which you can’t program. This makes AI less controllable and likely more dangerous. These days, I actually understand the koan, “He who knows, speaks not; he who speaks, knows not,” and it does not bode well for our relationship with AI. Once the AI begins learning on its own, we won’t have control over its ethical development. I, personally, am not comfortable with that. Terminator may just become our reality in spite of the best efforts of our AI programmers.

Oh, and just so I maintain my reputation as a lunatic: I don’t think AI will produce new conscious beings; rather, the sentience involved likely will be Satan and his demons. Have a nice day!

Muslims In America

I don’t quite know how to introduce this topic. It is somewhat delicate. Are all Muslims terrorists? Obviously not. But it is my impression that most terrorists are Muslim. There seems to be a sickness in the Islamic Faith that needs to be treated. As an outsider, I can’t remedy it. All I can do is jump up and down, rant and rave, and point at it. It is the Muslims who must fix and reform their Faith. And it is indeed in need of reform.

To those that say the terrorists have nothing to do with real Islam, I think you might be being deliberately naive. I seem to recall that one of the heads of ISIS (I think he is now dead) had a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from one of the most prestigious Islamic Universities in the world. That speaks volumes to those willing to listen. Likewise, most of the terrorists claim to be Muslims and they point to the Koran to justify many of their atrocities. Does the Old Testament have “questionable” passages? Yes, but neither Christians nor Jews are currently killing witches nor are they stoning adulterers. Islamic extremists, on the other hand, are currently waging jihad against the “Great Satan” in significant numbers.

What do we do about it?

Currently, there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. I don’t have a problem with any Muslim provided he/she renounces Sharia Law, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and, of course, suicide bombing. Sharia Law is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. The other acts listed are barbaric and should be universally condemned—and they usually are. Furthermore, such practices should not be protected by the 1st amendment, no matter what the relativists say. If they are protected, we need a serious discussion about that and perhaps even a constitutional amendment to change that. I mean, if we have spell out that killing in the name of religion is not protected by our laws, where are we?

The Statue Controversy

The country probably isn’t looking for the input from a crazy man, but here’s my two cents anyway on the Statue Controversy.

Trump was right. Statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are now coming under fire because the two men owned slaves. Yes, many of our Founders owned slaves. But it’s worth pointing out that these same Founders gave us the documents and the philosophical groundwork that led to the eventual freeing of said slaves. History consists of a series of steps taken by mankind, a gradual evolution of thought and moral theory. We can agree that slavery belongs on the trash-heap of history; yet, at the same time, we should recognize the historical context in which the Founders lived. At the time, slavery was accepted throughout most of the world. You can’t expect radical change overnight. As I said, moral evolution takes place only in small individual steps.

Sure, men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, but that is not the reason we remember them. No, we remember them for the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and the founding of this nation. All men (and women) are sinners. Clearly, they had faults. I think it is worth remembering that. Maybe we should take a step back, take a breath, and just agree we will honor people for their achievements and not their failures. We cannot demand perfection from our heroes. If we do, we will quickly find their ranks emptied.

Consider Martin Luther King Jr. He was a great Civil Rights Hero. But he also committed adultery. Are we going to tear down his statue, and cease celebrating his holiday because his failures are offensive to many of the Christian Faith, as well as (I think) Jews and Muslims? What about Feminists? What is their view of MLK Jr? Granted, adultery is not as serious a sin as slavery, but do we want to “honor” an adulterer? I say yes, because he achieved great things.

Do yourself a favor and ignore the failings of long dead men and women. Remember them for their achievements and contributions not for their faults. Otherwise, we may find ourselves in a world without heroes. How dreary a place that would be.

Neo-Nazi’s and Christianity

With what has been happening/happened in Charlottesville in Virginia with the Neo-nazis and Anti-fa groups, I find myself pondering an important question: how should I, as a Christian, respond to such groups? Let’s just take the Neo-nazi movement. I’ve heard plenty of media pundits unceremoniously condemning the Neo-nazis as “evil.” Not a difficult proclamation to make, but let’s examine that a little.

In my view, Adolf Hitler was one of the worst people to ever live. He ranks with Stalin and Mao among a few select others. He is responsible for millions of deaths. Was he evil, through and through, though? Did he have any redeeming qualities? If he did, I’m sure they were outweighed by the evil he committed. Instinctively, I hear the word “Nazi” and I think “evil.” Yet, part of me thinks that perhaps if one dug deep enough one might find some tiny—and very lonely—kernel of light buried within the sludge. Ultimately, I can’t make such a claim for sure; final judgment of Hitler’s soul rests with God.

Then, there is Jesus.

What did Jesus do in His life? He approached “sinners” in an attempt to save them. Tax collectors (many of whom were corrupt) and prostitutes. Was there anyone Jesus condemned? Yes. The scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy and arrogance. Yet, He spoke to and offered salvation to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, because Nicodemus was a rare exception: a Pharisee who treated Jesus with genuine respect.

So, how would Jesus deal with Neo-nazis? Would He condemn them? Or would He try to save them? I don’t think I can answer those questions with certainty because I am not Jesus, far from it. But I have been raised in one of the Faiths He started and have, to a certain extent, been molded by His teachings.

In that light, I think the most appropriate response to the Neo-nazi is to try to save them, first. Engage them in argument, being as respectful as you can manage (yes, I know it is difficult being “respectful” to someone you disagree with so vehemently), and try to disabuse them of their misguided (yes, I know, “misguided” is an understatement) notions. It may be futile, and probably is, but you should at least try. As they say, love the sinner, not the sin. Rebuke the evil, but still try to save.

All of this, of course, changes the moment the Neo-nazi picks up a weapon. The point is to try to get to them before it reaches that point.

AI and Transhumanism

I was listening to Glenn Beck the other day, and the discussion revolved around AI, some of its dangers, and transhumanism. For those who don’t know, AI stands for Artificial Intelligence, or sentient computers. Basically, it is reached the moment when computers can become self-aware. This is also tied to a desire for a super-intelligent AI. We already have computers that can beat any human in chess or other specific intellectual pursuits. Super intelligent AI is just smarter than humans in every field. And it’s self-aware.

Transhumanism refers to the merging of man and machine. Basically, our technology may reach the point where everyday humans can be become cyborgs to enhance specific abilities. You want increased memory? We can make that happen: just merge a memory chip or two to the human brain. And then there’s the Internet. You, as a transhuman (which means ‘beyond human’) can hook-up and upload thoughts or downloads thoughts to/from the Internet. Sounds pretty freaky. But we are closer to this than many people realize. And Glenn Beck, in his usual charming way, was pointing out some of the dangers of such: why would a super-intelligent machine that was self-aware want to remain in a subservient position? And once the Internet is self-aware, it is almost impossible to destroy; it’ll be able to hide in virtually anything—our smart refrigerator, you name it. And if we try to do anything about it, what happens when it just decides to shut down our power grid or anything else we might need to survive?

Those are some of the issues Glenn discussed. I’ve got one more. Think about the potential danger of both of these concepts together: a super-intelligent AI and a transhuman link-up. Is it not conceivable that the AI could use the link-up with the transhuman and just take him/her over, so that he/she becomes the AI’s slave? Basically, it is demonic possession with a super-intelligent AI instead of a demon. How will we be able to fix that? And what happens when all the transhumans turn on the rest of us poor, weaker normal humans who didn’t go through the upgrade? We get wiped out, and the transhumans become permanent slaves of a ‘higher power’.

Of course, all of this depends on whether or not we can crack AI. I’ve never supported the notion that AI is achievable. Is it possible? Well, yeah, maybe. But I’ve always been partial to the religious notion that consciousness is a property of an immaterial soul and therefore, beyond the reach of human science and technology. But I’m not foolish enough to think I ‘know’ that to be the case. Other far more influential people are warning about AI and transhumanism—people who actually have Ph.D’s or are the CEO’s of important companies. This is just my two cents on the subject.