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Christopher Hall

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What are the educational implications of holding on to objective truth in a culture that values relativistic truth?

Besides conflict, of course! This question is deliberately broad, not focused on teachers, students, curriculum, or institutions specifically, so that the soil of it may be tilled as completely as possible through discussion.

Let's start here: if one holds that objective truth exists, then the interactions with culture, peers, professors, course content, and even the disciplines themselves must be flavored and shaped by that assertion. In a postmodern, relativist culture, this questions is somewhat pressing: there are movements in education that favor both types of truth, and that can make plugging into education, for a student, disciple, or apprentice of an opposing view, feel something like a 120V appliance being plugged into a 220V outlet. Without a transformer, step-down or step-up, these learners seemingly would not be able to approach, apprehend, or socialize around the learning because the premises behind its whole gestalt are out of phase. Or could they? What are the transformers necessary to do so? And the greater question: what are the implications for our culture? Can folks who have these two views, and therefore different educations, inherently, create a functional society together?

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    Jul 7 2013: It is not just people who are Relative/Objective. Language is too. Both words are adjectives, which, of course, are used to modify nouns. Truth is a noun. Add an adjective to it and you are identifying one particular sort of truth out of the totality of different kinds of truth.Take "warm" for example. Is an object relatively warm, or objectively warm. (See Mario's response below). So the word "warm" by itself is not an expression of truth. Philosophically the question must be asked about whether the word "truth" can properly be considered a multi-type thing. Should we expect all information to be of one type? If we agree that some truth is relative and some is objective, then it seems illogical to demand exclusive use of one type only, and to vilify the other(s). Can a society or culture be labeled as Relativist, orObjectivist? As is frequently the case in debate, terms have not been rigidly defined as to their exact meaning. Doesn't this debate center on the word "Truth"? I offer this: "Truth: Intellectual information which is accepted to be wholly consistent with verified, unfalsified information." If a definition can be agreed upon then the stress of the debate is resolved. If no definition can be agreed upon, then we are jousting at windmills.
  • Jul 5 2013: Since when are we living in a culture that values relativistic truth? Did I miss the memo that the constructivists and postmodernists had taken over? Please. You can bounce these silly ideas around in philosophy class all you want, but this absurd, fanciful, anything-goes approach will never have the strength, status, and explanatory power of science based on empirical evidence. You can believe in a flat earth or a young earth all you want to, but mere belief doesn't make it true. This ridiculous notion (based on a dumbed-down, New Agey misinterpretation of quantum physics) that we as observers create our own reality is a perverse way of blaming victims for their own misfortune. I've had it with postmodernism, cultural relativism, social constructivism. I'll be happy when these senseless ideas - based on political ideology rather than evidence - are cast once and for all into history's trashcan.
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    Jul 16 2013: Relativism is the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid, and that all truth is relative to the individual.

    objective truth: That something is true whether we believe it or not.

    Your question addresses educational implications. In the STEM areas I think we can agree that most math and sciences have a core understanding. we use "proven" / "accepted" methods and theories to advance a idea. Because we use common and acceptable terms we agree with the outcome providing there are no errors identified.

    If I were to mix two chemicals that would cause a "bad" reaction ... however I think I am right and there will be no reaction ... no matter how hard I want to believe I am right ... there is about to be a boom. I have just met a objective truth.

    However in literature I am free to think there is a lady behind the door while you believe there is a tiger. Relativism.

    I suggest that each has its place and that if one is "properly" educated, not indoctrinated, then they would hopefully have a open mind and could pursue a meaningful conversation.

    In a storm we can watch a oak tree stand solid and incur broken limbs .. during the same storm a willow gives and takes but will survive with little damage.

    I hope that your commenters are more willows than oaks ... I have learned from your question.

    I wish you well. Bob.
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      Jul 23 2013: @Bob Winner - I like your comment, so I will quote here the part I like best:

      "Relativism is the philosophical position that all points of view are equally valid, and that all truth is relative to the individual. [O]bjective truth: That something is true whether we believe it or not."

      Reading what is here on TED - on multiple threads, I find it very encouraging to find someone who clearly gets the difference between objective & subjective; Objective truth vs. Relative truth. That difference is absolute - but only in the context of time. Newtonian physics was objective truth for over 300 years. Isaac Newton's laws of motion are still objective truth, except in the case of Einstein's work. When things are the size of atoms or the size of solar systems & galaxies, Einstein's physics works much better than Isaac Newton's. But the proven mathematical formulae in both remain a objective truth. If you are an engineer or a fighter pilot or a bridge rigger - you cannot ignore Newtons' physics. If you are a rocket scientist or a physical chemist or a computer-electronics engineer- you have to resort to Einstein's formulas when Newtonian physics breaks down. But objective is objective. Real is real. Nothing here is negotiable. Mess up & nothing will work. Mess up badly & lives might be lost.

      If I have a political opinion or a religious opinion or a preference or anything else . . . that is relative to me. I can believe in God or I can believe in faeries; or both. That too is relative to me! Relative to right & wrong is the law. Facts are absolute (as determined by the court). How the law applies to the facts, is relative. Applying the law to a proven pattern of facts is an academic evaluation, & depends upon human judgment. But a jail sentences is as objective a consequence as it gets.

      I think I get objective vs. relative. But guys with PhDs in Philosophy have their own definitions of these words. THAT is the part I am no so sure about. Comments?
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        Jul 23 2013: Philosophy: examination of basic concepts: the branch of knowledge or academic study devoted to the systematic examination of basic concepts such as truth, existence, reality, causality, and freedom.

        Like lawyers philosophers argue words and meanings .... like the famous Bill Clinton argument to the courts, " That all depends on what is ... is."

        For people who are basic and honest we just ask what do you mean .... or why.

        I want a doctor to speak doctor to other doctors and plain talk to me. It all turns out to be the same only one is in Latin. These people discuss morals and ethics .... you and I know that doing "that" is wrong ... not a lot of talk needed.

        We see it in the lawyer speak in the ballots: If you vote yes your are against it ... if you vote no you are for it. Enough to make a preacher cuss.

        So don't be sad heartened by the PhDs .... right is right and wrong is wrong ... all the talkin in the world ain't gonna change that.

        Thanks for the reply. Bob.
  • Jul 8 2013: I'm afraid, there is no such thing as ' objective truth ';
    objectivity is the illusion of every subject.
    But there can be a collective subjective 'truth' that is created and nourished for the purpose.
    With time it is elevated to the status of ' objective truth '
    People who don't know it walking around the 'objective' world of the people who do.

    Just don't accept everything that comes down the pipe :)
    • Jul 9 2013: Is that objectively true or just your opinion?
    • Jul 10 2013: Well, that means that you may or may not be afraid that there's or there's no such thing as objective truth ...

      That objectivity may or may not be an illusion of every or not subject ...

      :)
  • Jul 6 2013: There are objective truths, no doubt about that. For example; only a fool will describe the North pole as warm and overpopulated. That death comes to all humans is not a subjective truth.
    Subjective truths are invitations to questions and analysis. In researching and finding answers the process of education thrives.
    • Jul 7 2013: Actually, I disagree with your examples of objective truths. The North Pole may not be warm and populated from your perspective or mine, but if you somehow grew up in the South Pole then you would believe that the North Pole is warm and even overpopulated. Objective truth is a philosophical theory that is defined as a truth beyond human perception or personal feelings. My point is that our personal perception interferes with finding good examples of objective truth.

      I do believe that subjective truths are invitations to questions and analysis. But I am sure that the current education system is not focused on finding answers but instead in preparing the less advantageous for the blue collar workforce and advanced students for a higher paying career. Sadly, our present education system suppresses creativeness and questioning; instead it has a (lecture—homework—lecture—homework—test) system. This of course, may not be true, I may be missing out on an elitist, predominantly white, super school where theorizing and questioning is the motto.
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    Jul 4 2013: And who decides what is the objective truth?
    With all due respect, Dude, you have a way with words!
    Talking about talking.
    Learn about Quantum Physics.
    The Naked Truth.
    • Jul 7 2013: Quantum Physics is the reality that you have been taught. Science is constantly changing. I hope you know that. Humans constantly learn, and I can't even imagine what people will discover about the 'Naked Truth' and Quantum Mechanics 2,000 years from now. (Assuming humans are still around.)

      (BTW)The 'talking about talking' attack, is not a valid argument because then you are also talking about talking. It's a never-ending circle of stupidity because you are equal to anybody choosing to express their beliefs on this site.
    • Jul 8 2013: Truth is always naked and obvious, but we can't see it or comprehend.
      What we can perceive as Truth must have something on.
      I like Quantum Physics' way to dress the Truth too, it looks true enough :)
  • Jul 2 2013: My first question would be "whose objective truth are we talking about?" If we only look at "objective" truth, we must first establish the parameters of that then we can move forward with the discussion.

    As the example, from previous, of religion, we are not dealing with such a stable object. We can hardly discuss this issue without considering cultural norms and values. This could be a very meaty and in depth discussion of what we all believe.
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    • Jul 1 2013: Example of an objective truth: let's say God. This is a hot topic on this thread. : ) In a couple of other posts, I've made the attempt to outline what I think would be a serious pedagogical implication of this, namely how a student or teacher views a discipline. Consider the difference in the way one understands history if they see it as an unfurling of God's revelation versus a random set of events and circumstances?

      I'll also posit that some truths, like scientific or mathematical truths (if we step aside from Godel's arguments) are objective within their own systems. No disputing these. There would be some dispute, however, on the nature of those discipline's origins, and that could make for large variance in the way those are taught depending upon your objective or subjective, relativistic stance.

      Example of someone who bases their live on objective truth: a thoughtful Christian.

      The challenge, of course, is stepping past the epistemological point there.
      • Jul 1 2013: The problem being that thinking that Christianity is objectively true is but a belief. Therefore such "truth" depends on the subject's beliefs (it's both subjective and relative).
        • Jul 1 2013: What if it was? How would that change the teaching/learning?

          I just posted back on your comment above. See what I'm saying about perspective: I'm using Christianity because it's a common cultural reference point in our culture, but there could be others. Not trolling for Jesus here, but I am looking for a good conversation, and that requires some reference points.
  • Jul 1 2013: oh,I think truth is just the truth,is there objective or relativistic ?
    • Jul 1 2013: There could be. I'm speaking of truth in origin, and therefore in understanding of the big picture (and also the pedagogy involved in teaching or learning about a subject). Consider the example of history. An objective (I'll hold on to the Christian model for now, since it provides a good framework for argumentation) truther would say that history is the unfurling of God's revelation. A relativist would have a hard time pinpointing history as telic or not. Historical facts may not change (what really happened, not what various parties would say happened), but what is history itself? This would have a profound impact on the way the subject is taught.
      • Jul 2 2013: The truth means no matter how long and how you observe it,it is true.in my conception of truth,I would like to use' 0 and 1' to present.it.it means ture or not ture alternative.
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    Jul 29 2013: OK as far as I can tell, that's how we put together a functional society in the first place. There is nothing new here. There is truth then there is practical application. There is math, and there is english. People tend to rank one above the other. Doesn't mean they can't work together.
  • Jul 29 2013: Is the contribution of post-modernism to shift education away from objective truth really true? Or is it deconstruct the argument that there is enduring, objective truth and replace it with another 'truth' which has a veneer which allows for different interpretations of truth (truth is subjective) but in substance is really just another form of objective truth (that there is no objective truth). This actually can lead to a final position that seems to me nihilistic - that one cannot question the objective truth that truth is subjective. At least modernism allowed for genuine scientific inquiry where ideas win. Post-modernism, from my limited experience leads to a veneer of inclusivity but in reality delivers intolerance.
  • Jul 29 2013: Being honesty is the best policy.I think being a teacher,learn to describe the facts is always the one part of truth to be conducted one generation to another.
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    Jul 29 2013: I ran out of space below...

    Two thoughts just came to my mind, things Niels Bohr said: "The opposite of a great truth is also true." So engender that understanding and foster that sort of respect between the two 'movements'. And also, "Every great and deep difficulty bears in itself its own solution. It forces us to change our thinking in order to find it." I will happily concede that says what I meant to say much better. In the context of this debate, I take it to mean "We have the solution to this great and deep difficulty of objective truth versus relative truth, and perhaps the solution is not to think of it as one versus the other, but to promote the idea that they are allies, they are complimentary, and want to value both, because they work best together, each in its own special way."
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    Jul 29 2013: That was a very well-written debate proposal, except perhaps the question isn't significantly broad enough. With the very last question you frame the entire debate in terms of dualistic thinking, "these two views." Isn't that a bit like talking about American politics in regards to only Republicans and Democrats, to use an extreme but handy example? Specifically, might it be important to consider a third movement, more grassroots in nature (no pun intended) that already exists and is developing on its own a balanced appreciation for both objective truth and relativized truth? I think that there are more people like that out there than your question presupposes there aren't.

    None of us, well, most of us, aren't kept awake at night by the fact that light is both wave and particle. Rather, we all seem to have developed an intuition for when to think of it as a particle and when to think of it as a wave depending on which manner of thinking best suits our needs in the given situation. Setting aside all the other incredible associations humankind has always made between 'light' and 'truth,' truth, being both objective and subjective, is like light, being both wave and particle. Could we perhaps benefit simply from recognizing that truth, in the sense we are discussing it, is of two natures, two forms, simultaneously, that one is not better than the other, but that at certain times it may be more appropriate to look at in one 'light' instead of the other 'light.'

    I would like to think that differences and difficulties between these two 'movements' could best be mediated simply by bringing attention to this reality, that not only do both exist but that they are two sides to the same thing. How can 'folks who have these two views' not find it at least a little easier to 'create a functioning society together' if they can be made to realize that it is to their own benefit to be able to see things both ways.
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    Jul 19 2013: philosophy..around,and around....BUT real minds and their hearts are between the word smiths as you debate,,,so as an experienced walker of many cultures and peacekeeper my job is to speak about the different ways each group experiences and bring to the table their "truth"..As for ultimate truth...because so little of Dark matter is known..70% some say...I will not attempt this quantum leap and will attempt to deal mostly in relative truth...for avoiding suffering,reducing tension,aggression. WHY.?..I sometimes suspect that some people are in fact not experiencing the same reality as me,,,I dont think they are untruthful..so their experiences are included in this difficult balancing act.I cannot prove others are in fact not in my reality..but all their actions,behaviour indicates a different scale of response,,,hence lets attempt to draw their collective views closer by kindness,the arts,shared experience...then..and only then will this vision of objective truth work...somehow cerebral distance is a inhibitor to our quest for joy...and no on will submit to leaving their view till you create an attractive truth that draws them..
  • Jul 19 2013: May be a bit far fetched, but this reminds me of an issue in my state with how to teach children who are Spanish speaking immigrants in an English speaking culture. Would It be acceptable to educate in Spanish only? they would still have the knowledge but not the ability to use it in there current social environment.

    When it comes to whatever the truth is for you, as an educator you have to prepare the student to move and function within that culture and beyond. To help them understand their truth and put that aside in order to work from some common principles right? That's maturity.

    I would think that respecting someones truth and accepting it on some level (at least in appearance) and moving on to what the student needs to know about the field of study would work out fine. Could I not study paleontology and be a Christian? Can I be an atheist and still reference 2400b.c? I think so. hehe
  • Jul 15 2013: All truth, except death, can be objective and change over time. The important thing is that we question everything/everyone so that we can continually grow and learn and hope to become better individuals.
  • Jul 12 2013: one of the best articles , but i dont really agree
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    Jul 12 2013: Morality is a funcion of human action an interaction. It exists as a describer in the moment of action. The human is a neurological process, largely. As matter in motion, he is a fixed truth. He definitely needs energy to continue his metabolism. His action is determined by his neural wiring. A healthy brain is one which creates healthy connections between data condusive to both the metabolism's ongoing process and the brain's ongoing process. I submit if two such bodies of matter interact, there is an ideal possible future where both process are sustained neurologically and physioligcally. The greatest moral good is the one which achieves this sustinance. The lowest immorality is one which results in death; second to that, one which results in damaged neurological/physical processes.

    It is not a moral statement that a serial killer kills and feels good. It is no more a statement of good, than that a good tasting hamburger is a morally good hamburger. We use words to define reality within the human context. The truth is that definition is irrelevant outside the human context. A good definition is one which accurately defines; the best description is the most accurate. Science would agree, it seeks an absolutely correct description by affording itself only statements it can prove to be true, and making no statements beyond that.

    Alas, the science of human interaction cannot yet be scientifically measured. Soft-sciences have tried, and their observations have been useful, but none of these processes can make definitive statements of truth. It is possible that technology and science may one day converge to be able to describe the ideal situation between two individuals perfectly, but it is not there. Until then we must rely on a hologram of science: philosophy. We use such conjecture to make statements about what we don't know. We don't know what's best for ourselves. We can only know by pursuing accurate definitions. I'd expand more, but alas, I have no more room...
  • Jul 12 2013: Excellent concern, because it is a process that shapes student and popular thought as to how to "determine" weather the truth is relative or objective.

    Most people view the world in terms of a supernatural creator. That evolutionary cultural reality means in terms of our natural history most of us have been subject to and taught authoritative dogma as to how things came to be. It is the tradition of followers. Faith can be and often is comforting, especially in our earlier ancestral history, when life could be brutal and short.

    Obviously, there are different faith views of how things came to be -- so enter the world of relativistic truth. To accommodate all these diverse and elaborate authoritative religious differences we have protected this liberty by deciding each has merit and needs to be respected and promoted via tax payer funding. Of course, the craziest notion of all contends that religion is all nonsense because physical reality computes so nicely even without a creator.

    Human life has been transformed by technology, education and design nearly over night during the recent Modern Era of our history. Religious authoritative script was discarded in favor of objective truths that defines the empirical nature of the physical world sought by these independant adventurous explorers of knowledge and objective truths.
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    Jul 9 2013: The best way to see if folks can have diametrically different views of truth, and if a society with both types of folks in it, can function is the experimental method. Try it and see.

    Education is a tricky word. I have sat and endured endless hours (no, years!) of inanities coming out of the mouths of teachers and professors. They got paid. I warmed the seat. It was called education. In the back row, I'd hide, reading books like the Analects of Confucius and Mao's writings on guerrilla warfare and so on. I got an education. Once in a while I'd listen because I had a 'teacher' who actually had something interesting to say. And very occasionally I'd learn a lot (my high school Modern European History course comes to mind).

    I'm into facts. Lots of folks into 'relativistic truth' are not. They have their lives; I have mine. Ditto ideologues. They cherry-pick their facts to fit their religious or political opinions. I avoid them. As I said, I'm into facts. I think on my own. Many 'educators' want to 'mold minds'. I never had much use for having my mind molded, so I just blew them off. And I've lived a good life.

    As the U.S., Egypt, Pakistan, and any number of other nations try to cope with True Believers, I just think back to the 'stolen time' I swiped... reading Eric Hoffer.
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    Jul 8 2013: Sorry but I don't understand the question. Could you elaborate in Englilsh?
  • Jul 8 2013: Let's start here: if one holds that objective truth exists....

    does it? Woody allen & I think not....

    Murder's immoral.
    - Immorality is subjective.
    - Yes, but subjectivity is objective.
    - Not in a rational scheme of perception.
    - Perception is irrational. It implies imminence.
    - But judgment of any system of phenomena exists in any rational, metaphysical or epistemological contradiction to an abstracted empirical concept such as being, or to be, or to occur in the thing itself, or of the thing itself.
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      Jul 12 2013: So, there is no transformer because objectivists are always wrong?
  • Jul 8 2013: Even the most stout-hearted scientifically minded person might go to the vitamin store and purchase something that markets itself as a helper for something that ails them. What they purchase may have dubious scientific cause to believe in it. They do this because part of being human is to experience emotion. Often times our own emotions are as powerful, distant and hard to deal with as the emotions of others. It is one of life's great challenges to learn to manage emotion, both in dealing with others within the context of our relationships and in dealing with ourselves.

    Our emotions are not our enemy. Just because they are unreasonable does not make them somehow impossible to fit into the framework of life. The problem lies in not understanding what they are telling us. If you are angry it means something needs to be done, not necessarily that you have to hit something. Anger may actually exist to tell you that you need to improve your communication skills. We could use the message to begin thinking or we could chose to entertain the emotion to the point where we become sorry. The same goes for falling in love, lust, greed, fear, etc. They are all trying to tell us something the voice for which has to necessarily cut across whatever we are doing.

    The trouble is to interpret the message. Perhaps, if you know yourself, it is easy to figure out that you have made some bad decisions and an emotion is telling you to reconsider them. Maybe you are following a pattern you have failed to recognize, but the emotional signal has been triggered nonetheless? Managing ourselves can be as difficult as managing other human beings. It you don't take a wholistic, from both the objective and subjective sides, approach it is probably far harder to do it than if you do.
  • Jul 8 2013: There are no taxes in several primitive societies as well as 10 industrialized countries which are blessed with excess natural resources (i.e. oil etc.)
  • Jul 7 2013: The only objective truth I can think of is death.
  • Jul 5 2013: Well, you leave yourself open to different points of view and fresh ideas are always able to pour in. I would characterize myself as an objective truth type of person, but many of the "level 10" problems society faces today require "level 10" solutions which can only be contrived through a collaboration of sound thinkers - not too mention that we objective folks may be able to sang a few reletive folks for our side (lol).
    • Jul 5 2013: THANK YOU for not immediately shutting down upon reading 'objective truth'! I absolutely agree with the collaborative effort of finding those solutions! There is a premise that I notice has climbed in to almost everyone's post, and that is that objective truth people are either a) closedly religious; b) out of touch with reality; or c) just nuts. : ) Most have failed to see the hypothetical nature of this problem, and most have tipped their hand on being prejudiced to boot. I've been very surprised to see this, really. It looks like a problem for sociologists, psychologists. theologians, and children, because they're the ones who are going to have to grow up in this kind of world.

      That said, your last sentence hits the mark on what I'm wondering: HOW can that connection occur in a classroom? There are some hurdles to overcome, certainly. What would you say would be the primary set, from the students' and/or the teachers' perspective? I would assume trust and humor are givens, neither of which have manifested themselves in this thread until you came along. Thank you.
      • Jul 8 2013: "An education that is understood in complexity terms cannot be conceived in terms of preparation for the future. Rather it must be construed in terms of participation in the creation of possible futures."
        -Dennis Sumara
  • Jul 2 2013: Your individual point of view is your own absolute truth. It is subjective to perception. What you believe is common sense might be "relative" in other people's mind. Even if every single human being came to believe a certain concept to be a fact, that fact is not necessarily the absolute truth that cannot be given another sense in the future.
  • Jul 1 2013: "What are the educational implications of holding on to objective truth in a culture that values relativistic truth?"

    I think that this question contains unwarranted assumptions. I don't think that I live in a society that values "relativistic truth," and I would wonder why would anybody think that their society *values* relativistic truth, and which truths are those. To value something is to hold it in high regard. There might be things that can only be true of some other thing is true, which would make them relative truths. Let's us suppose that so far every truth looked as if it's dependent on something else. Then we would have a scenario where so far we could not but discover relative truths. I doubt that such discovery would mean that we, or our society, *values* relative truth, but rather that it has not found something whose truth was independent of anything else.

    The unwarranted assumptions is what made me suspect that this debate had a religious motivation.