Encounter with a Relativist
This past weekend I was out with my girlfriend at a café in Santa Barbara. She ran into an acquaintance of hers, who turned out to be a fanatical new-ager and relativist. Soon they were talking about astrology. My girlfriend said to her friend, referring to me, "he’s a skeptic," (which I consider to be a compliment, of course.)
But I was outed. Oh boy, I thought, here we go. I never cease to be amazed at how the more unfounded a person’s assertions are, the greater offense they seem to take when challenged or asked for documentation. I was going to try to keep my mouth shut.
But then the relativist started talking about how important astrological charts were to a person’s life. (Apparently, she partially makes her living as an astrologer.) I asked her how she thought it was possible for a distant planet to affect a person’s life on Earth. She said. "You know, it’s just energy waves." I said, well, I understand gravity and I understand light. She said, well they’re the same thing, they’re just both energy waves. I said, no, not exactly. Light is an electromagnetic wave, gravity is a quite different property of matter. Gravity is a force arising from the curvature of space-time in the presence of mass. I said to her, either way both are governed by the inverse square law, meaning that the strength of the force or electromagnetic wave falls off with the square of the distance.
Therefore, I told her I could understand how the moon could affect people, since it affects the levels of the oceans. It’s also known to affect women’s menstrual cycles, so looking at the moon as a human influence makes sense. But, I said, what about Jupiter? How does Jupiter, for example, have any influence on human life on Earth. She replied that Jupiter doesn’t have any influence on its own, it only has influence as part of a conjunction with other plants such as, say, Mercury.
I said to her, I still don’t see how any combination of planets can affect a person on Earth. We’re too far away. You haven’t provided a mechanism whereby such connection would be meaningful. There is no evidence that astrological charts have any bearing whatsoever on a person’s fortunes or outlook on life. She proceeded to get more and more flustered by the discussion, and began to bring up anecdotal evidence from her own life, and she says, she personally "knows" all sorts of people who are affected by their astrological chart, and that she "knows" that astrology is a valid science.
Then she began to challenge the fact that gravity and light are different phenomena. She said something about the "crystal at the center of the earth." She said, of course, “gravity is the strongest at the center of the earth.” I explained to her how at the center of the earth, gravity would be neutral because it would be canceled out by the pull from the the mass that would be surrounding any observer on all sides. In other words, I explained, if there was a hole drilled all away through the earth and a person fell down the shaft toward the center of the earth, they would oscillate back and forth many times, slowing down because of air resistance, and finally come to rest at the Earth’s center. She said to me, "well, you believe that." I said no. That can be determined experimentally and empirically. It is a fact.
Then she trotted out the "science is just a belief system” argument. I explained why that was not true. I explained that there was an absolute “state vector” for the natural universe. I explained how that “state vector” governs the actions and placement of all matter, and is not subject to human modification, only human discovery. I said, after all, "truth is not relative, knowledge is not relative." She got even more upset, and began to loudly assert that “Of course everyone knows that knowledge is relative” and anyway, “her truth” was not subject to discussion.
At this point, my girlfriend asked, didn’t she think that genetics had more to do with human predispositions than astrology? The astrologer replied, well, maybe that would be true if we had "all 12 strands of our DNA in place." She then began a long explanation as to how humans only have two out of 12 possible strands of DNA and that once we are perfected as a race, we will have a perfect cylinder of 12 strands rather than a partial spiral, as it is today. I rolled my eyes. If it hadn’t been for the fact that my girlfriend knew this person, I wouldn’t have continued in the discussion past the first few sentences. I consider these kinds of discussions to be sort of like trying to explain differential calculus to a kindergartner — utterly fruitless and wholly unsatisfying for either party.
Why does no one dare challenge other people’s "sacred beliefs?" Well, what if the beliefs are just plain wrong? What if "beliefs" fly in the face of physics? After all, the majority of people used to "believe" the earth was flat. Should those "beliefs" have been "respected?" I’m sorry, but new-agers have been getting away with rhetorical murder. It’s time for this nonsense to stop. It’s time for some standards of knowledge to be enforced in conversation. Otherwise we run the risk of a good portion of meaningful human discourse degenerating into gibberish. I would honestly rather have silence than converse with someone who has banished all reality from their world view.
My parting shot to the relativist was to recite the recoil argument: "Are you really sure that all truth is relative?" Yes, she replied. "Well, isn’t that, in and of itself, an absolute statement?”