Practicing Pluralism (or, Why Your Brain Won’t Fall Out if You’re Open-Minded)

“Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out.”

I’ve had many people toss this pithy little turn of phrase in my direction many times over the years. Not once has one of them ever actually explained what they mean by it. Here’s how their message comes across:

  1. “People who disagree with me are stupid.”
  2. “I think I’m witty.”

If one were to give the benefit of the doubt to another who uses this phrase, one could say that they are expressing their distaste for relativism in religious truth, ethics, etc.

Relativism is the philosophical position that there is no absolute truth to a given matter. Therefore, what is true (or right) for one person is not necessarily true (or right) for another. Therefore one person (or culture) cannot pass judgment on another person’s (or culture’s) beliefs or ethics. Relativism is a cop-out and easily debunked.

Philosophically speaking, relativism is “hoist with its own petard” (a phrase that appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, among other places). A petard is an antiquated explosive weapon, a kind precursor to the grenade or landmine. If a petard were to detonate in the face of the one setting it, that soldier was said to be “hoist with his own petard” or “destroyed by his own weapon.”

Such is the fate of relativism as a philosophical theory: It is self-contradictory, refuted by its own argument, hoist with its own petard.

If one claims that there is no absolute truth in religion or morality, then one must hold this belief to the exclusion of all other beliefs. To the extent that relativists hold themselves to be correct in their relativism, they are absolutists. This is a logical contradiction.

Similarly, if one holds that all perspectives are equally valid and there is no ultimate truth (as relativists do), then they must necessarily regard absolutism as a philosophical perspective of equal value alongside their relativism. This too is a logical contradiction.

This is why we say that relativism is “hoist with its own petard.” It contradicts itself and falls apart under the weight of its own argument.

Relativism is a cop-out. It’s a way of ending dialogue when one party is sick and tired of debate over a particular issue. It could be argued that those who say “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out” are actually encouraging people to stay engaged in the process of critical thinking, rather than take the easy way out (i.e. adopt relativism as a philosophically weak non-position).

If this were what folks meant by “Don’t be so open-minded that your brain falls out,” then I would heartily agree. However, I’ve noticed the opposite to be true. In my experience, those who use this phrase are falling into a similar trap as relativists: They are refusing to engage in the process of critical thinking. They are unwilling to consider viewpoints other than their own and are derisive of those who do. In sense it is their own brains that are “falling out” (or “being stifled”) due to minds that are too closed to engage in rigorous debate. Ironically, they fall into the same hole as relativists, but from the opposite side.

A further mistake they often make is their failure to distinguish between relativism and pluralism. We’ve already defined relativism as the position that there is no absolute truth, therefore what is true for one person is not necessarily true for another. A robust pluralism, on the other hand, states that there is an ultimate truth, but it cannot be fully known by one person or captured by a single perspective.

Take the parable of the elephant, as told by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa:

A number of blind men came to an elephant. Somebody told them that it was an elephant. The blind men asked, ‘What is the elephant like?’ and they began to touch its body. One of them said: ‘It is like a pillar.’ This blind man had only touched its leg. Another man said, ‘The elephant is like a husking basket.’ This person had only touched its ears. Similarly, he who touched its trunk or its belly talked of it differently. In the same way, he who has seen the Lord in a particular way limits the Lord to that alone and thinks that He is nothing else.

Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant

The relativist would say that there is no elephant and each blind man was equal to his counterparts in accuracy. The pluralist would say that the elephant is real and its reality is greater than each blind man’s individual experience.

Another way I have described pluralism to my students in the past is to imagine a statue illuminated by spotlights. A light placed on one side of the statue will illuminate some features while leaving others in shadow. A light placed on the otherside will have an opposite effect. The relativist would say that there is no statue. A reductionist might limit discussion to those parts of the statue that are illuminated by both lights (e.g. those who reduce conversations about religion to discussion of the “golden rule”, an ethical principle that appears in multiple religious traditions). Pluralists, on the other hand, see the statue and take note of what is illuminated, where the lights overlap, and what parts remain in shadow.

Pluralism is the virtue of humility, applied to the life of the mind. Practicing pluralism requires of us a high degree of empathy and goodwill for one’s interlocutors. It requires that we remain critically engaged with one another and honest with ourselves. Being a pluralist is a moral commitment to love one’s intellectual neighbors as oneself. Being an open-minded pluralist, in this sense, is the exact opposite of one’s brain falling out. I would daresay it is the human mind at its best.

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