RAW’s ·5· relativisms

“When we first begin to believe anything, what we believe is not a single proposition, it is a whole system of propositions.”
Wittgenstein, On Certainty (1972)

RAW lists four kinds of “relativism” in “The Relativity of ‘Reality’” (Neurolog #4, 1978, republished in Email to the Universe):-

  1. Semantic relativism
  2. Cultural relativism
  3. Neurological relativism
  4. Physical relativism

As RAW puts it, semantic relativism interprets “reality” relative to the level of conceptual abstraction; cultural (or anthropological) relativism sees “reality” relative to tribal “reality-maps” (including moral and aesthetic codes); neurological relativism experiences “reality” relative to the neurological structure/state of the experiencer; physical (or instrumental) relativism refers to post-Einstein-era scientific “reality” paradigms (as found in General Relativity, quantum physics, etc).

So far, so good! (Or perhaps not so good if you don’t favour relativistic takes).

A fifth relativism – a sort of meta-relativism – is mentioned by Wilson in various places, typically approached through the lens of basic conceptual pairings – eg absolute/relative, subject/object – as applied to the concept of relativism itself.

For example, Bob writes about the distinction between “Absolute Relativism” and “Relative Relativism”:

“Now, this is not to endorse what might be called Absolute Relativism — the idea that one generalization is as good as another. Some generalizations are probably much more accurate than others, which is why I have a lot more faith in the chair I am sitting on than I have in the Virgin of Ballinspittle. But these generalizations remain in the area of probability.”
– Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition

The criterion used by RAW here is accuracy. “Absolute Relativism” would presumably look like the kind of relativism that denies even the possibility of “objective” accuracy (with “objectivity” seen as meaningless rather than as unreachable in a practical sense). Later on, RAW points out that humans have “made do” or survived with “an incredible variety of metaphor-systems or emic realities” (Marxist, vegetarian, Buddhist, nudist, Polynesian totemist, monetarist, etc). He then clarifies his absolute/relative distinction:

‘Of course, this position “is” relative relativism, not absolute relativism. We say again that some reality tunnels seem better, in some ways, than others. One would not wish to live in a nation dominated by the Nazi reality-tunnel, for instance, and that is called a moral choice.’
– Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition

One critique* of moral relativism is that it supports – or seems to, based on its logic – a sort of universal priniciple of tolerance. But RAW would respond, I think, by emphasising the difference between personal or social choices/preferences (relative relativism) and implied universal principles (absolute relativism). You might choose or prefer a tolerant attitude as a result of a relativistic outlook, but without insisting on some universal principle that says you have to tolerate Nazism, for example.

That seems pretty clear regarding moral or aesthetic choices (or semantic, cultural and neurological relativism, if we’re going by the above categories) – since the whole idea of a universal vantage point appears incoherent. But what about scientific choice/preference made on the basis of greater accuracy? Although the notion of a universal vantage point seems equally incoherent in the scientific context, the very idea of “accuracy” appears to presuppose some “objective” “true” “reality” against which we measure the “accuracy” of theories and claims about “it”. Otherwise, we’re really not in Kansas anymore.

To quote RAW again:

“The Einsteinian reality-tunnel “is” better, in the dimension of predicting more accurately, than the Newtonian reality-tunnel; and that is called a scientific choice. James Joyce seems to “be” a greater writer to me than Harold Robbins; and this is called an esthetic choice.

“In every case, however, a human organism, and specifically a human nervous system… has made the choice. The scientific, the esthetic and the moral are not always distinct, either – as can be seen by studying the arguments, anywhere, for and against building a new nuclear power plant. Even in the scientific area, no choice is purely “objective” anymore, if it ever was…”
– Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition

In some contexts, it seems to me that RAW makes a case for full-blooded epistemological relativism (I’ll be exploring some of these passages in future posts); in others, it reads more like a critique of absolutist-derived certainty based on human fallibility and neurosemantic limits, etc (but without completely kicking away the remaining stands of absolutism, so to speak).

“Nothing can count as a reason for holding a belief except another belief”
– Donald Davidson

* Eg: see the entry for ‘relativism, ethical’ in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Honderich, Oxford University Press, 1995).

“The Relativity of ‘Reality’” (Neurolog #4, 1978) is available to read online here.

Posted on 7 May 2020 — comment on the Semantic Schmemantic page


One thought on “RAW’s ·5· relativisms

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  1. It might be interesting to examine estheticism in RAW’s philosophy. On several occasions he mentioned he was interested in Pataphysics (and I consider him a pataphysician, in the way he promoted imaginary solutions) – one of the core concepts of which is the equivalence of opposites. In this point of view, the nazi POV has as much value as any other, were it not for its debilitating lack of imagination. On a similar base, Alceister Crowley opposed both satanism and nazism.
    Bob was also very much into crackpots, whether obsessed with conspiracy or fringe science. Not so much for the validity of their claims but for the innocence in their dogmatic beliefs. Again, Crowley suggested fully integrating a different belief system every week and the abandoning them to stretch ones reality tunnel, an exercise Bob recommended.

    Liked by 1 person

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