The consequences of cultural relativism

Ana asked:

Explain the consequences of adopting cultural relativism?

Answer by Paul Fagan

Generally, it is fair to say that persons do not ‘adopt’ cultural relativism: instead they have it thrust upon them. To explain, the culture that a person inhabits, sets norms and standards, that inculcate a person. This may become a ‘mindset’ that a person is either unwilling or unable to reject. This affects many obvious aspects of life such as the clothes persons feel comfortable wearing or the food they prefer: however, it should be appreciated that the process sinks deep into a person’s psyche reaching areas that one may not be aware are affected.

From a philosopher’s viewpoint, this may have a major consequence which will now be explained. Firstly, for those philosophers that find cultural relativism to be a hindrance affecting good judgement, it causes problems when assessing whether persons from other cultures have behaved rightly or wrongly. Generally, one’s own inculcated variant of cultural relativism would be expected to encourage criticism of other cultures; with more criticism generated the further a culture is distanced from your own. For example, cows are sacred to Hindus but (most) westerners enjoy eating beef: hence, the Hindu would be expected to find western culinary practices reprehensible. Ideally, the good philosopher should be able to dispense with their own cultural relativism when judging others. This process, and its pros and cons, is described in more detail by James Rachels in his book The Elements of Moral Philosophy; where one chapter is entitled ‘The challenge of Cultural Relativism’ (1993 (New York: McGraw-Hill), pp. 15-29).

That said, rather than ‘adopting’ cultural relativism, its quotient existing in society could be increased if it was considered to be beneficial for that society. For instance, Aristotle wished for persons to behave virtuously, where virtue may be defined as ‘a trait of character, manifested in habitual action, that is good for a person to have’ (Rachels 1993: 163); furthermore, it may be argued that greater society should benefit from encouraging such individualistic traits as their combined action would contribute to maintaining cohesive communities (Rachels 1993: 169-170). To achieve this Aristotle recommended a common education shared by all, which would be  ‘the business of the state’  and encourage solidarity amongst citizens (Aristotle 1999. Politics: pp. 180-1

For many there would be a trade-off: one may reinforce one’s community’s values but have less understanding of the values of other societies. With this knowledge some may be tempted to deliberately promote the interests of their own societies at the expense of others. Possibly, it may be argued that this has already happened in the western world before the Second World War, where unscrupulous governments achieved a greater measure of cultural relevance in their societies by appropriating the education systems and media; in turn this was used to vilify other peoples. For the moment, Western societies have opted to foster more understanding of other societies.

In concluding, the consequences of encouraging cultural relativism can be summarised quite succinctly here: the reinforcement of cultural relativism may forge cohesive cultures, which may initially seem to be benign, but this may be accompanied by discouraging the understanding of other cultures.


Descartes and the resurrection of the body

Joe asked:

Hi, I was wondering what Descartes view of the body is after death? Does he believe in resurrection of the body as in the Christian doctrine?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What did Descartes believe? who knows? Threatened with torture by the Inquisition, Galileo was forced to recant the Copernican doctrine ‘the Earth moves’. It was a lesson not lost on Descartes, writing just a few years later. In the seventeenth century, it was no easy thing to be a man of science — a seeker after truth — and a ‘true believer’.

We can get a clue to Descartes’ religious beliefs from his enthusiastic young follower Spinoza, who wrote his first book on the Principles of Cartesian Philosophy (1663). In the spirit of Cartesian rationalism, Spinoza actively challenged the accepted Jewish view of God that had come down from the Torah and through centuries of Rabbinic commentary, arguing instead for a religion based on reason alone. He was rewarded with solemn excommunication from the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

The subtitle to Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy is ‘In which the existence of God and the real distinction between the soul and the body of man are demonstrated.’ That would have been enough to placate Inquisitors who didn’t think too hard about what it meant to possess a Cartesian soul. Perhaps they did not realize that the older, Aristotelian view of the soul as the ‘form’ of a living body is far more conducive to the Christian doctrine of Resurrection (a point noted by David Wiggins in his book Sameness and Substance 1980).

For Aristotle, the notion of a soul (in Greek psuche or ‘breath’) existing apart from a living body is unintelligible. For Descartes, on the other hand, although needing a body in order to perform physical actions, the soul is a non-physical substance in its own right. The more philosophical Inquisitors might well have reasoned (perhaps some did) that this could be considered the basis for a charge of heresy. As the idea wasn’t taken further, the point is moot.

Why insist on resurrection? Because without a body, the notion of ‘reward’ or ‘punishment’ is all but meaningless. If there is no reward or punishment, in any real sense, then the idea that God has ordered the world ‘for the best’ is no longer believable. The guilty who escape punishment in this world must be made to pay for their sins. The innocents who suffer will be compensated by a blissful afterlife. Meanwhile, the majority who have sinned but not sufficiently for eternal damnation, can look forward to a few hundred or thousand years in Purgatory examining in detail each and every time they strayed from the path of Christian virtue before they are finally released.

As an atheist, I value the philosophy of Descartes for the questions it raises our conception of the mind and its relation to the physical world. This isn’t about belief but about logical argument. It remains the case that the Cartesian view of the soul is compatible with resurrection of the body, so if you are a Catholic then you do not have to feel that your beliefs have been challenged at the root. That was perhaps enough to save Descartes from the grasp of the Inquisitors.


Are psychology and materialism compatible?

Lecho asked:

Are Psychology and Materialism compatible?

Answer by Danny Krämer

This question boils down to the question of the relationship between psychology and the other natural sciences. Descartes famously argued, that body and mind must be two very different substances. But since the scientific revolution, it is difficult to defend some form of dualism. How should the two substances interact — and they for sure do, because I can consciously move my body by thinking about it — without contradicting the natural laws like the law of energy conservation? But it is also a difficult question how a materialist worldview can explain the mind. I will talk now about some materialist proposals. I start with the theories that I find rather unplausible and end with the one I think is the most promising.

First, there is eliminative materialism. This form of materialism argues, that the predicates of our folk psychology, like belief, wish or desire are empty. When we talk about the behaviour of other people, we explain their behaviour by reference to their beliefs and desires. The eliminative materialist says, there is nothing like a belief or a desire that can be identified by neurobiology. These concepts are like the concept of phlogiston. They are concepts of a bad theory and when we have a better theory we can drop these concepts altogether. So materialism is not compatible with folk psychology but with a psychology to come, the eliminativist argues. I think that is just a very bald speculation about the future of science. Today there is no reason to believe, that our best psychological explanations will not contain the concepts of our folk psychology. Most of psychology is belief-desire-psychology and neurobiology is not even close to explain the complex behaviour of human beings without the concepts of beliefs and desires.

The reductive materialist is something more liberal. He thinks there will be a theory reduction. Psychological predicates will be reduced to predicates of neurobiology and in the last instance to physics. What does this mean? Let’s take the predicate “pain”. The reductive materialist thinks that the predicate “pain” will be identified for example with the predicate “c-fibres firing”. Every time someone is in pain her c-fibres fire. Do this reduction with all psychological predicates and you have a reduction of psychology to neurobiology. Psychology and Materialism are compatible because the predicates of psychology are coreferential with some predicates of physics. But there are some problems with this proposal too. For example, pain may be realised in humans by firing of the c-fibres. But what about an octopus or a martian? They do not even have c-fibres but they may still be in pain — the octopus shows clearly pain behaviour if you hurt him. That is the so called argument from multiple realisations.

How to solve the problem? The most promising form of materialism is, I think, nonreductive materialism. That means you believe that everything supervenes over the material, i.e. if you destroy all matter there will be nothing left. But you do not think there must be some theory reduction to make this claim true and you can bring good reasons why some predicates cannot be reduced to physical predicates. I think the reason for that is, that most of the predicates we use are multiply realisable. Take the predicate “money”. Money can be made of paper, metal and even bits on a computer. Most of the money nowadays is virtual money. But if you destroy all computers and all the cash, there will be no money any more. Or take “pain”. Pain is realized in humans, let’s pretend, by firing c-fibres, in martians maybe by some organ made of silicon. These are predicates that are more abstract than for example a predicate of physical science. “Electron” only refers to electrons. But “money” can refer to paper, pieces of metal or bits in a computer. What counts here is not the material but the role the thing plays in a wider context, or like Aristotle would say its form. But still: destroy all matter and there will be no money and no pain whatsoever.

So all these forms of materialism argue that Psychology and Materialism are compatible, and I think, some form of nonreductive materialism is true.