Relativism may be the most compatible worldview in a complex world

(Image source: Derek and Brandon Fletcher)

I would like to propose a specific variety of relativism, which has the following characteristics: 1) there is an a priori existing small-t truth and capital-t Truth out there; 2) but while we can know some truths, no one can know all the truths and the perfect Truth. (For the sake of convenience, I define small-t truth as concerning the observable and non-observable realities of our universe, which will both be explored later on; I define capital-t Truth as perfect, absolute knowledge.) And I further propose that this specific variety of relativism is a rational and logical worldview within a complex world.

What is complexity?

In brief, complexity is a concept that explains that social phenomena emerge as a property of complex systems through a process of iterative feedback. This originates from the concept of evolution in biology: organisms “evolve” (instead of being designed) into how they are now through a repetitive feedback process known as natural selection. This means, for example, that macro phenomena like societal poverty or wealth emerges from micro interactions of people with each other and their environment; and that the sum of these micro interactions (e.g., people talking to each other) comprise complex systems (e.g., politics).

Complexity theory has already been applied in the natural sciences. In physics, quantum mechanics tell us that matter emerges from the interactions of atomic and subatomic particles. The micro interaction of matter themselves, in turn, has led to phenomena like the Big Bang. Consequently, the micro interactions among heavenly bodies that emerged from the Big Bang has resulted into the configuration of time and space as it currently is, and then further into the environment that enables life. Finally, the micro interactions of early forms of living organisms, through the process of evolution, brings us (back) to the here and now.

Complexity theory has also been used in neuroscience and medicine. Some theorists argue that consciousness is an emergent product of the micro interactions of neurons that comprise the complex system that is the human brain. Following this logic, our thoughts and actions can be seen as an emergent product not just of the interactions that take place within our physical and mental biological systems (i.e., our bodies and the cells that make it up), but also through their interactions with their environment (i.e., the surroundings in which our bodies are located). This is why, for instance, a person’s health, which ultimately affects our thoughts and actions, is influenced by numerous factors — from one’s genetics to one’s environment to one’s socioeconomic circumstances.

Applying this to philosophy — specifically epistemology — while I hypothesise that the perfect capital-t Truth is ultimately unknowable, small-t truth is an emergent product of the complex system that is our world, which is arrived at through an iterative feedback process I will call “negotiation.” In short, small-t truth is a macro phenomenon generated by micro interactions within our complex world.

Simple observable reality

I will begin by analysing a kind of truth that, for convenience, I will call “observable reality.” Here is an example: I am currently typing this on a computer, inside a café in the city called London, located on an island called Britain, floating on the Atlantic Ocean. Here is another: the waters of the Atlantic Ocean are held down by a force we know as gravity within the planetary mass called Earth, which revolves around another planetary mass called a sun. Here is a final example: the sun is 149.6 million kilometres from Earth.

As human beings who are members of a particular human society, we know the above statements to be true — i.e., the above statements are observable realities. The fact that they are truth is an emergent product of the complex system that is language: through the English language, we can agree that I am typing this on a “computer” in a “café” in a city called “London,” and so on; through the scientific language, we can agree that gravity keeps the waters of the ocean inside the earth’s atmosphere; through the mathematical language, we can agree that physical space has a corresponding measure (in this instance, we agree on the concept of a “kilometre” and we agree that the sun is indeed 146.9 million kilometres away).

Language, however, is “negotiated” — i.e., it is a macro phenomenon emerging from the micro interactions of human beings.

As human beings we start from our own, individual, personal, relative perspectives. Through a process of negotiation with other human beings, we arrive at an agreed language that produces meaning, particularly for things we can observe. This process of negotiation can be seen throughout history: the English language evolved from a series of grunts and noises that our ancestors made (e.g., an “apple” wasn’t an “apple” until people agreed to call it an “apple”); science continues to evolve as we come across new discoveries (i.e., the scientific process is itself a negotiation process); and the same goes for mathematics and its ever changing formulae, models and theorems.

Once an agreed meaning is established, it then becomes the truth. Although of course our understanding of our observable reality evolves. This explains why new words are added to the dictionary every year; or how we have come to now believe that the earth is a sphere instead of flat; or why some mathematical equations get proven and then disproven over time.

Observable reality, therefore, is continuously negotiated, even in the more fundamental sense. Consider this hypothetical situation involving two people: Person A has a toy snake and Person B is blind. Person A is trying to convince Person B that she is, in fact, holding a toy snake. She lets Person B touch it and smell it, and she describes it to him (using their agreed understanding or definition of a “toy snake”). Person B is still not convinced (perhaps thinking it is a decapitated elephant trunk instead). A third, Person C, arrives and chimes in to triangulate the fact that Person A is indeed holding a toy snake. At all stages of this scenario, the observable reality is negotiated.

The establishment of truth concerning observable reality results from negotiation involving language (including scientific and mathematical language). This macro phenomenon (i.e., the establishment of the truth) is a result of a negotiation process that entails a number of strings of macro phenomena, which themselves consist of micro interactions, and so on, such as:

String 1: Person A, B, and C must establish that: a) they can all “observe” (via any or all our senses) that there is this particular composition of matter; and b) they all call this particular composition of matter a “toy snake.”

String 2: For each person, the micro interactions that would have contributed to the establishment of the truth within their own selves would include: light from the sun travelling to earth, hitting that particular composition of matter; that light that hit the matter bouncing into their eyes; the cells in their eyes reacting to the light and travelling/sending signals to their brain; their brain processing what they see through their understanding of what that particular composition of matter is — i.e., a “toy snake” — via language.

This does not even include the string of macro phenomena that keeps each person’s body and brain alive and functioning, or that has led to the evolution of language and eventually into the understanding of what a “toy snake” is.

Complicated observable reality

At this point, we have only dealt with “simple” (for the lack of a better term) observable realities. Simpler observable realities require a simpler negotiation process (i.e., involving fewer micro interactions). So a Democrat and a Republican, for example, can much more easily establish (i.e., negotiate) the observable reality (i.e., the truth) of a toy snake when presented with one than of the observable reality of climate change.

I argue that philosophical relativism (at least the variety that I espouse) is still consistent with the establishment of more “complicated” observable realities like climate change. I do not argue — nor do I believe — that we currently live in a world where climate change may or may not be “true,” depending on one’s experience of it. I do believe that we live in a world where climate change is truth, and that climate change as an observable reality is an emergent product not just of “natural” micro interactions (i.e., interactions of elements of nature that has led to earth’s warmer atmosphere); but also of human micro interactions — i.e., the scientific process — that is, the study, research and experimentation — that has led to the knowing and understanding of climate change as an observable reality.

We cannot claim as truth what we do not know. And we only come to know through a process of negotiation: for example, in the realm of science, this is done through study, research, and/or experimentation. Similar to natural selection in the process of evolution, the process of negotiation is able to establish the truth and reject the non-truths. This is applicable to even more complicated observable realities. For instance, I would argue it is possible to know the answers to questions like: does increased regulation help combat climate change? Or is a laissez-faire approach to our society the better solution?

Knowing answers to such questions involve a process of negotiation (i.e., study, research and/or experimentation) — not just through the natural sciences but also social sciences. But obviously, since “increased regulations help combat climate change” or “free markets can protect the environment” are such complicated claims to observable realities, their establishment would tend to involve more complicated processes of negotiation. Sometimes, we may not have enough information at present and can only have an answer after some time (recall that we used to believe the earth is flat, but through a lengthy processes of negotiation — i.e., scientific inquiry — we have now rejected that non-truth). Sometimes each context will have different answers: e.g., regulation may work better in one place, laissez-faire in others.

Being vs experience of observable reality

Thus far, it seems my application of complexity theory to philosophy suggests that small-t truths are simply generated by human interactions and negotiations. The remaining question now is whether there is an observable reality a priori (i.e., outside of) our own, individual, personal, relative selves.

Using my application of complexity theory to philosophy, I would argue: yes. After all, it is not the being of small-t truth that is generated by human interactions and negotiations, but the experience of it. If a rock exists, whether or not human beings stumble upon said rock is of no consequence to its existence. Although once humans do stumble upon the pre-existing rock, the micro interactions (of their brains, and between themselves) will generate their experience of the rock (“I see a composition of matter in a particular shape!”; “A matter in that particular shape is what we would call a ‘rock’!”). The generation of this experience may come in a straightforward way; or they may disagree (e.g., “This rock is round!”; “No, this rock is triangular!”), which would induce further negotiation (e.g., “What does ‘round’ mean? What does ‘triangular’ mean?”) until they can establish the small-t truth. In any case, the rock a priori exists outside of themselves and their negotiation process.

Non-observable reality

Finally, and perhaps more importantly, complexity theory in philosophy can also be applied in the realm of “non-observable realities,” like ideas, ideologies, beliefs, faith and justice.

Consider, for example, the idea that “all human beings are equal.” This claim has gone through a long process of negotiation — some nations even fought civil wars over it — until it has been established as the truth. In fact, not long ago, science was used to justify that some human beings are more superior to others — but that has now since been rejected as a non-truth. Although, while “all human beings are equal” is already considered as an established truth to many (I would hope most) people, there are those who disagree: for instance, white supremacists or homophobes.

Consider another idea, one that is a derivative of the claim “all human beings are equal”: the idea of human rights. Human beings are not supernaturally endowed with human rights; rather, many within our society collectively agree that human beings bear certain unalienable rights — the right to life, the right to education, the right to be treated equally and without discrimination, and so on. And while it is fair to say “all human beings are equal” is a robust established truth, the idea of human rights, on the other hand, is still an in on-going negotiation process. After all, there are still totalitarian regimes that do not recognise them, which is why many people are still fighting for their rights.

But, like observable reality, some non-observable realities are more complicated than others. While “all human beings are equal” has been established as truth for most of society, some existential claims remain without a firm consensus. For example, is it possible to establish as truth the claim that “happiness is a better measure of human wellbeing than income”? Or that a particular God is “the one true God”? Or that “Western culture is better than indigenous culture”? Or that “there is life beyond death”?

Establishing the truth for these non-observable realities is difficult because they are complicated; this means they require complicated negotiations, and involve multiple strings of macro phenomena and long chains of micro interactions. At the moment, I am led to believe that we may ultimately not be able to establish some of these, and other similar claims, as truth because of various factors, including the limits of our capacity for knowledge and the sheer volume (and depth) of the negotiations we would need to undertake. After all, as far as I can observe, and as far as we have established to be true, we are flawed and finite human beings. That is, we do not have the requisite resources or time to come to a sufficient knowing and understanding of these kind of things.

The importance of negotiation

All small-t truths are part of the perfect capital-t Truth; while some small-t truths can be known and understood, the perfect capital-t Truth can never be fully known or understood. And the macro phenomenon that is the establishment of small-t truths is an emergent product of a process of negotiation involving strings and chains of micro interactions within our complex world.

For instance, the establishment of the English language, as well as the scientific and mathematical languages, have had to be negotiated — which involved strings and chains of micro interactions between human beings. The establishment of the truth of the observable reality of “toy snakes” and “climate change” has been negotiated through these languages; the establishment of the truth that “all human beings are equal” has also been negotiated; the claim to truth of “universal human rights” is still being negotiated, but there is substantial progress. On the other hand, the claim to truth of certain religious, ideological or cultural beliefs still have a lot negotiations to overcome — perhaps, as flawed and finite human beings, we may never overcome them at all. It is easier to establish the truth to simpler claims than more complicated ones; and even if claims are established to be the truth, not everyone will accept them (after all, there are still those among us who believe that the earth is flat).

Using complexity theory to explain this particular variety of philosophical relativism does not argue that there are no truths; it hypothesises that, while capital-t Truth is unknowable, small-t truth is an emergent product of negotiation that can be established. Because no one knows the capital-t Truth, and because small-t truth is negotiation, no one, therefore, has a monopoly on truth. It is also hard to establish who is “right” or who is “wrong”; after all, more complicated claims require more complicated negotiations.

Using complexity theory, therefore, emphasises the importance of negotiation: for observable realities, this could entail developing the language, as well as the scientific and mathematical inquiry (i.e., study, research and/or experimentation); for non-observable realities, the importance of fighting for what we believe and claim to be true.

I would also like to clarify and emphasise that the process of negotiation particularly for non-observable reality is not merely consensus building. It entails a social dialectic — one that involves establishment of small-t truths about observable realities (through natural and social sciences), discourse utilising language (including scientific and mathematical language), and meaning-making; it is also affected by history and social relations. That is to say, the establishment of claims like “all human beings are equal” is not simply done through persuading as many people possible to believe that “all human beings are equal”; rather it undergoes a social dialectic process influenced by many factors within our complex world until one could claim as truth that “all human beings are equal.”


On a final note, while we all begin from our own, individual, personal, relative perspectives, in the course of our life we undertake many negotiation processes to arrive at what we believe. And if we are fortunate enough — like many linguists or scientists or mathematicians or human rights activists or politicians or religious leaders or academics — we can then come to a point where our beliefs and claims are established as truths (or at least, where we have convinced other people to also believe or claim what we believe or claim). In this process of negotiation or establishment, we can either sit on the sidelines or actively participate. So, for instance, as someone who claims and believes in the truth of climate change and human rights, I try my best to take part in the negotiation process with other human beings in society to establish these claims and beliefs as truth. In other words, I fight for the truth — so that (hopefully) in the near future, we could collectively agree that “the grass is green” is as true as “climate change is real”, or that “the sky is blue” is as true as “all human beings are equal.”

Humanitarian — by nature and by profession. Altruism, behavioural science, complexity, decolonisation, development, economics, philosophy, systems thinking.