The Book of Absolutes
: A Critique of Relativism and a Defence of Universals
~ William D. Gairdner
William Gairdner goes to the heart of the defining spiritual malaise of our time, showing (among much else) that relativism and tyranny, far from being opposing forces, actually collude to undermine genuine freedom.
Current dogma holds that all cultures and moral values are conditional, nothing human is innate, and Einstein proved that the whole universe is 'relative'. Challenging this position, William Gairdner argues that relativism is not only logically and morally self-defeating but that progress in scientific and intellectual disciplines has actually strengthened the case for absolutes, universals, and constants of nature and human nature. Gairdner refutes the popular belief in cultural relativism by showing that there are hundreds of well-established cross-cultural 'human universals'. He then discusses the many universals found in physics - as well as Einstein's personal regret at how his work was misinterpreted by the public's eagerness to promote relativism.Gairdner also gives a lively account of the many universals of human biology, including the controversial topic of universal gender differences or 'brain sex'. He then looks at universal concepts of both natural and international law, and ends by discussing language theory. He shows how philosophers from Nietzsche to Derrida have misused linguistic concepts to justify their relativism, even though a sustained and successful effort by serious scientists and philosophers of language has revealed myriad universals of human language, ranging from language acquisition, to word-order, to 'Universal Grammar'. From ethics to Einstein, culture to biology, law to language, "The Book of Absolutes" makes complex topics accessible to a broad audience and demonstrates that there are plenty of certainties, even in our postmodern world.
Gairdner provides his readers with an admirably objective survey of relativist thought from Protagoras to Post-modernism, whose arguments, in such diverse disciplines as philosophy, anthropology, linguistics, biology, physics, and quantum theory, he nonetheless manages to make broadly accessible. (That he has been able to render coherent the prose of the deconstructionsists Foucault and Derrida is something for which he will earn the undying gratitude of the multitudes.)
Along the way, Gairdner exposes the grossly political motivation behind the research of such pioneers of the new "science" of anthropology as Franz Boas, and the risible myths of primitive innocence confabulated by the likes of Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. And we learn that Einstein, though popularly supposed to have proven that "everything in the universe is relative", was, on his own part, persuaded that he had only demonstrated the universal and objectively knowable constants of nature. It is a little known irony that Einstein came to bitterly resent the misappropriation of his work by the demagogues of moral and cultural relativism.
Gairdner is at his best in bringing such ironies to gestation, especially as they emerge from the self-refuting logic of relativist theory itself. How would the relativist respond, one wonders, to Gairdner's point that the very declaration that all assertions of truth are relative can only mean that this assertion too is relative, and valid only for those who assert it? Or that just because differing perspectives produce conflicting "narratives" of reality (of the proverbial crime scene, for example) doesn't negate the fact that something definite and real has happened, and that its truth is ultimately unitary, however difficult to discover.
The most tragic irony is that relativism condemns us all to muteness and quietism in the face of evil. The anthropologists whose theories arose from a high-minded aversion to imperialist European illusions of racial and cultural superiority, were ultimately disqualified from criticizing those very illusions by their own insistence that all cultural practices are equal and equally valid from the internal viewpoint of the culture itself (the only viewpoint permissible). For what can one say about Nazism, for instance, save that it was subjectively "valid" for the German people who believed in its truth at the time? The inevitable logic of relativism is to declare all cultural practices, from head-hunting and cannibalism to slavery and tyranny, "morally infallible" and "beyond criticism". What's more, by denying the validity of universal moral norms of freedom and right, relativism at the same time leaves the individual defenceless against the depredations of the totalitarian state.
The main burden of Gairdner's book is, more happily, to show that there exist, in fact, any number of demonstrable universal and abiding patterns, ideas, and truths that transcend and unify all historical epochs and cultures across the world: in mathematics, theology, myth, morality, and law; and that current studies in biology, psychology, and theoretical physics are uncovering new constants of human and physical nature every day.
The Book of Absolutes is probably Gairdner's most important work to date, not that this former Olympic decathlete shows any signs of slowing down. Not since Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind has a book come along that furnishes so many insights into the morbid mentality of a civilization that has lost confidence in its certainties and itself, or that more clearly points the way up from despair. For conservative resistors, at any rate, it's nice to see tradition and truth in the role of accuser, rather than accused, for a change.