RE: Iconoclasm (was: Chunking intelligence functions)

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Fri May 11 2001 - 05:18:51 MDT

> As for your assertion that my distaste for cultural relativism is
> religiously derived, does that mean that science, which states that
> Einstein's theory is THE law of gravitation and superior to any law of
> gravitation that uses an inverse-cube law, is religiously derived?

Indeed, I do think that, at its heart, Western science's quest for "one true
equation" underlying everything can be directly derived from Judeochristian
religion with its "one true god."

Perhaps the universe is not actually structured such that there is one
compact pattern that explains everything, either in the domain of spiritual
experience or in the domain of physical law. Perhaps there are multiple
overlapping patterns.... This is how it seems right now in the physics
domain -- quantum theory and general relativity being examples of deep,
overlapping, difficult-to-unify patterns -- but we, our archetypal view
being the Judeochristian "one true law" approach, persist in believing there
MUST be an elegant underlying unifying equation.... Perhaps the one who
creates the next great physics theory will be an AI who lacks this bias!!

> Cultural relativism is not a means of finding truth; it is an excuse for
> avoiding the social discomfort that sometimes accompanies the act of
> expressing an uncomfortable truth or a truth which is not widely held.
> Cultural relativism is a defection in the game known as Finding the
> Truth. Things can get better only if people are willing to speak the
> words "better" or "worse".

I think that both cultural relativism and "absolute truthism" (to coin a
phrase to characterize the opposite extreme) can be used in good or bad
ways. [Yes, I'm aware that the notions of "good" and "bad" in the previous
sentence can be interpreted in either a culturally relative or an absolutist
way. I believe that sentence is true under BOTH interpretations.]

You know that classic picture that looks like either a vase or a pair of
faces, depending on how you look at it. Or the Necker cube, which can look
like it's pointing in, or out. Perhaps reality is like this in some
respects, but with vastly more than two complementary views. One can make a
mathematical argument in this regard, though I don't have time to do so
right now.

I agree that some of the advocates of cultural relativism are habitual
abusers of the notion. On the other hand, so are some of the advocates of
absolute truthism.

For instance, it seems extreme to me to claim that music from all different
cultures can be "compared" in some way, so that the best Chinese opera can
be judged objectively against the best Western opera. Yet, within a single
culture, comparison is much easier -- there's something close to a consensus
about which Western operas are great and which are not, and which Chinese
operas are great and which are not. Traditionally, adherents of absolute
truthism claimed that Western music was intrinsically superior to all other
forms of music, which were somehow primitive and intrinsically inharmonious.
Actually, to a large extent, these critics just had culturally-biased
"ears". On the other hand, it also seems extreme to me to claim that all
forms of music are equally good -- some cultures, for instance, really ARE
(in my intuition, and overall cross-cultural human consensus) more musically
prodigous than others.

Real truth seems to be an interesting mix of absolutism and relativism;
either extreme attitude is an unproductive one.
I think that a mix of absolutism and relativism is best. Funnily enough,
this is what most humans have evolved to profess.

> > The thing is that there is just not enough objective data to
> choose between
> > two political parties as similar as the ones we have in the US. So the
> > choice largely comes down to bias, or habit.
> There are more than two parties.

Sure. I was assuming that our "default person" had made the consensus
decision to vote for a candidate who had a plausible chance of winning.

I myself didn't make that consensus decision; I voted Green in the last
Presidential election, whereas my mom voted Democrat and my dad voted
Communist, just for the hell of it, because he wanted to vote for Bush but
his wife threatened to kill him if he did ;>

> My personal philosophy is unambiguous on this topic; it says "You
> shouldn't believe something because it benefits you; you should believe
> things because they're true."

I'm looking forward to your absolute and incontrovertible definition of

> > Nietzsche said "People believe what they need to believe in order to
> > survive."
> Screw him.

he's dead. yuck.

>Science isn't somebody's opinion.

It's no individual's opinion, but it may be a mass nonlinear superposition
of many peoples' opinions.

The "physical world" itself may be this, actually. This is the direction in
which quantum gravity leads us.

> Ben, take a stand on something. You'll feel better.

Eli, take a few hits of blotter acid...

The merits of cultural relativism will flood into your head like you can't
even imagine ;>


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