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Dogmatism vs Relativism

Today I listened to some “Philosophers’ Zone” podcasts and they made some interesting points – but what what good philosophy podcast doesn’t? The subject was teaching philosophy at schools (in Australia in this case) and the teacher being interviewed made the point that it was important not to stray too far into relativism just because traditional teaching was based on the opposite philosophy of dogmatism.

So what I am saying here is that in traditional teaching the students are told what they have to know. It doesn’t necessarily go as far as telling them how to think but it gets close to that in many cases. It is too easy in philosophy to move to the opposite extreme and say that all ideas and opinions are equally valid.

I listened to some discussions going on in these classes and it was great to hear some of the principles I think are important being used by the students. For example, the first step in many discussions is to define the terms. In my experience many people never get past this first step, but if they fail to do that properly the discussion is often a waste of time.

For example, in my discussions with religious people we often argue around a point and find that we actually agree even though it looks superficially like we have opposite views. I might say there is no evidence for a god and the other person might disagree, but after another hour or two of backwards and forwards debate it turns out that the other person has a concept of god which encompasses natural laws. He might think that the most basic laws of the Universe are a type of god. I personally think that’s a ridiculous way to define god but many people seem to hold a belief of that sort. The point is that if we had defined what we mean by god to start with then the debate would have been completely different.

Another positive outcome of the philosophy classes seemed to be skepticism. I don’t mean skepticism in the usual sense implied by the dictionary definition of skeptic: “a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinion” or the philosophical sense like “an ancient or modern philosopher who denies the possibility of knowledge, or even rational belief, in some sphere”. I mean the more positive sense like: doubting and questioning any assertion unless it is supported by well researched facts.

Dogmatism isn’t necessarily always bad. Some times its quickest and easiest to impart the ideas of a subject by just stating them and not allowing any debate. For example, various properties of elements in chemistry might be best presented this way. In other areas it might be useful to present the facts along with a discussion of why those facts are well accepted, for example in cosmology. Finally there might be areas of knowledge where some debate might be useful. I hesitate to give this as an example, but the theory of evolution might be one of these. It might be useful to show why alternative views aren’t widely accepted and if this was done properly it might lead to greater acceptance and understanding of the theory.

Relativists will say that the well researched facts I mentioned above could come from many areas of “knowledge”, such as empirical, emotional or spiritual knowledge. I would say, yes that is partly true (depending on how you want to define the word knowledge), but there is good reason to believe that some forms are just better than others. Using empiricism we can demonstrate a finding to another person if they follow the same steps as we did. Other forms tend to be more subjective and depend on the individual’s pre-existing ideas and beliefs.

For example, I could theorise that stars are large balls of glowing gas at a great distance from us. A spiritual person could say they are spirits which influence our lives. I could describe how to view a star’s spectrum and compare it to a spectrum of an object on Earth and I could describe how to do a parallax measurement to establish the distance to the star. Anyone could do these tests and show what I said is true. But what tests could I describe to show that the star was a spirit? None. That’s why empiricism is a better way of understanding the world than spiritualism. Relativism is partly true: there are many ways to understand the world, but its definitely wrong to say they are all equally good!

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