By Mathew Goldstein
A recently published pair of studies, one from Sweden (Study 1, N = 1005) and the other from the UK (Study 2, N = 417), focused on truth relativism [Julia Aspernäs, Arvid Erlandsson, Artur Nilsson, “Misperceptions in a post-truth world: Effects of subjectivism and cultural relativism on bullshit receptivity and conspiracist ideation”, Journal of Research in Personality, Volume 105, 2023, 104394,
ISSN 0092-6566, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2023.104394
(https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0092656623000569)]. The study did not investigate causality (as is often the case with such studies since evaluating causality is more difficult than evaluating correlations). The researchers identified two types of truth relativism. One that consists of people who believe that truth depends on which culture or group you belong to, known as cultural relativism. The other consists of people who say they primarily rely on their own gut feeling to determine what is true and false. They are convinced that what they personally feel to be true is true, that is to say, that truth is subjective, henceforward referred to as subjectivism.
This study found that subjectivism was correlated with endorsing conspiracy theories, with holding on to beliefs even when faced with facts that contradict them, with claiming to find profound messages in nonsense sentences, and paradoxically, with rejecting the right of others’ to have their own beliefs. The study concluded that subjectivism remained an independent factor for these correlations after controlling for multiple plausible alternative factors, including analytical thinking ability, political orientation, age, gender, and educational level. These same correlations were not found among those who believe that truth is culture-bound. Cultural relativism was, however, positively correlated with “bullshit receptivity”.
"I think many people who emphasise a more relativistic view of what truth is mean well. They believe that it's important that everyone should be able to make their voice heard. But these results show that such a view can actually be quite dangerous," says PhD student Julia Aspernäs at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning in Linköping.
I have seen a video of a local church service where they sing in celebration of “faith facts”, undeterred by the self-contradiction. Our experiences can qualify as evidence provided they are experienced objectively from outside of oneself. Although the theologian advocates and non-theologian practitioners of Reformed epistemology characterize it as experiencing god, it is actually subjectivism in practice because what they characterize as “experiencing god” is more accurately described as some combination of feeling, imagining, overgeneralizing, over-interpreting, and the like, rendering it a subjective experience that resides primarily inside the head of the person with that experience.