Cognitive Relativism

by Matt Slick

Cognitive relativism affirms that all truth is relative.  This would mean that no system of determining truth is more valid than another system and that there is no objective standard of truth to be found or claimed.  It would, naturally, deny that there would be a God of absolute truth.  It would also deny the belief that rational thought can discover and verify truth.  But, cognitive relativism does not deny that there are differences in perspective in different cultures.  In fact, it affirms them.  The issue with cognitive relativism is that there is no epistemological (method of knowing something) system that is inherently superior over another.  Of course, this seems to be self-refuting since it claims that its own principle of relative truth is absolutely true and uses it to determine that cognitive relativism is true.

Many believe that this relativism is self-contradictory.  So why has relativism gained a foothold in modern society?  I think there are several factors contributing to its acceptance.

First, the success of science has increasingly promoted the idea that true answers are found within science.  Many people believe that whatever "scientists" tell them is factual -- and even good.  When science cannot answer something, it simply states that the truth will become known later.  With this, people have faith in science, and the only absolute is that what we know now may not be true later.  Thereby, it can undermine absolute truth.

Second, with the broad acceptance of the evolutionary theory, God is pushed more and more out of the picture.  Without God as a determiner of what is true and not true, we are left to do and believe "what is right in our own eyes."

Third, we are encountering more and more diverse cultures in the world.  This tends to make us more comfortable with the idea that there is more than one way to do something, more than one way for a culture to operate, more than one way for something to be true or right.  This isn't necessarily wrong, but it does contribute to a denial of absolutes.

Fourth, increasingly, the content of film, academia, and literature is moving away from the notion of the absolute and towards relativism.  These media help shape our culture.

Fifth, there is an increase in relativistic philosophies, particularly those found in the New Age movement which teaches that there is no absolute truth and that each person can create his own reality.  Though this movement is part of the relativistic "problem," it is well permeated into society.

Sixth, past philosophers such as Wittgenstein, Khuh, Kant, Marx, and Neitsche, have influenced the thinking of many with their relativistic principles and attacks on absolute truths.


The problem I see with cognitive relativism is that it denies the possibility of absolute truth.  Furthermore, I believe cognitive relativism is easily refutable with the following example of a logical absolute:

Something cannot bring itself into existence.

My proposed logical absolute is indeed logical and always true.  Let’s look at this.  For something to bring itself into existence, it has to perform an action.  But for something to perform an action, it must first exist.  If it first existed, then it cannot bring itself into existence because it already is existing.  Likewise, if something does not exist then it is not possible for it to bring itself into existence since it isn't there to do anything. 

This is an absolute truth and it is knowable.  Since it is absolutely true, cognitive relativism, which states that all truth is relative, is false.


About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.