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Epistemological relativism and integration

Should mature adult thinking as a psychological capacity be described as epistemological relativism, then? As mentioned, some descriptions (such as Kramer’s, 1983) of mature cognition come rather close to descriptions of epistemological relativism in philosophy, and this is problematic. Relativism as such is a rather weak position. What is relative to what, why, and in what sense? In general, epistemological relativism in philosophy allows there to be contradictory belief systems, i.e., groups of statements, which can, despite being contradictory, be justified or even known.23 However, in order to merit closer scrutiny, epistemological relativism must recognise that there are some non-relative standards with respect to which it can be assessed whether a belief system (let us call it S2) is such that it should be accepted alongside another one (let us call it Sj) as true although some beließ in S2 contradict one or more belief in S].

This general viewpoint can be illustrated by an example. Let us imagine a biologist, who studies rabbits and hares. In her free time, she also writes fables for children with animals such as hares, foxes, and bears as protagonists. The statements that constitute her biological studies about hares contradict some statements in her fables. For instance, although in her studies rabbits flee from foxes, in her fables they might face their fear, talk to the fox and be feisty rather than fearful. A form of epistemological relativism claiming that such an example leads to an alternative belief system, namely that of fables, which competes with the belief system of biological studies, is not a plausible one. A position that poses no restrictions to the standards used to evaluate which belief systems be accepted as true although contradictory, would be absurd. One can imagine, for example, that the status of an alternative true belief would be ascribed to one so that, say, the third word of each sentence of the biologist’s studies is written in reverse direction. It is obvious, however, that such a conversion does not have any credentials for truth.

With respect to the original example, it should be noted that one can of course claim that the fables convey some important truths about facing one’s fears, for example, but this does not mean that such truths in the fables should be read literally and taken to replace or challenge the claims that the biologist makes in her scientific studies. Similarly, famous examples from seemingly contradictory claims between the Genesis and the theory of evolution (whether the human being was created on the sixth day of creation or developed from an ancient precedent of apes) is not typically taken to imply two different criteria for evaluating which of these accounts is true. It can rather be suggested that the Genesis is a myth or a creation story that as such does not undermine the truth or the epistemic justification or scientific evidence for the evolution theory.

A more important question with respect to epistemological relativism and adult cognition would be what kind of standards are used by mature cognitive agents to evaluate which belief systems to accept to have an equal claim to being true and which ones to reject. It is also important to stress that being a relativist about knowledge does not necessarily imply that one is aiming at a more comprehensive overview about things: an unrestricted relativism of an “anything goes” type does not directly support the quest for improving one’s own views, attitudes, and conceptions. If all views and collections of them are equally acceptable, why should one strive for any cognitive development? Such a quest for improvement rather requires standards that can be used to critically evaluate which views are sustainable and which ones are not as well as the assumption that one should aim at better and more accurate views in the way of the example of the colour of oranges: to find theories, general views, and notions that allow one to recognise merely apparent contradictions and proceed to form a more unified and complex view that can explain why certain simplified positions seem appealing.

However, it is important to stress that this as such is not epistemological relativism. The kind of respect for different viewpoints that is characteristic of the cognitive component of wisdom (Kallio, 2016; see Chapter 2), as described in today’s psychological discussion, does not entail that, for instance, any claim someone holds would have equal status to any other in terms of epistemological justification. An important distinction in this context is the following: a cognitively mature person seems to accept that everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, this is quite different from taking any opinion as having an equal epistemic justification as any other. For instance, if someone says, “human beings did not evolve from ape-like creatures because I never saw that happen”, this person is merely disregarding the research and the scientific evidence for the theory of evolution and not offering evidence that would genuinely compete with the evidence that backs the theory. Similarly, it would make no sense to say that there are no acceptable epistemic criteria for solving a controversy about whether it is raining or not between two people one of whom is standing outside and perceiving the situation (saying that it is not raining) and another person who is inside with his ears blocked by headphones and eyes blinded by a blindfold (who is saying that it is raining simply because he feels like that). Therefore, although both of these people are entitled to their opinions, only one of them has access to such standards that can be taken as relevant, generally applicable criteria for epistemic justification.

Rather, it can be suggested that a mature adult way of thinking is characterised by integration as the term is used in developmental psychological studies. In order to illustrate what integration means, let us assume a situation in which there are different viewpoints concerning immigration in some groups of people. The types of opinions can be labelled as “highly restrictive”, “moderately restrictive”, “moderately positive”, and “highly positive”. These views conflict and offer multiple perspectives to the same phenomenon: one is saying that immigration should be heavily restricted, another one that it should be moderately restricted, a third one that it should be moderately encouraged, and a fourth one that it should be strongly encouraged. Although it is questionable whether there is any absolute truth in such moral or political matters, the example can be used to illustrate a mature adult way of thinking in terms of integration. One of the reasons why it can do so is that the situation is emotionally complex.

According to Kallio (2011), integrative thinking is more than just adding pieces or opinions together. It would hardly make sense, let alone to exemplify mature thinking, to say that one must be everything from highly positive to highly restrictive with respect to immigration. Consequently, integration is not just a sum of things, as in dialectical thinking synthesis is not just a combination or group of former-level thought objects. Integration of these viewpoints might for example mean to take all perspectives and their background emotions into account. For instance, the anger that is driving the highly restrictive view is seen to arise, for instance, from many people losing their jobs and creating the fear that they will not find new ones if more people enter the community. Integration thus understood does not mean that one should accept everyone’s views as true — as mentioned, there may not be one true position in these matters. Rather, integrative thinking grants that the person with views that one might reject oneself is still accepted as a person whose feelings are recognized and respected. Those views are therefore understood and integrated to the other views of participants of the group, and perhaps an agreement can be reached on something, such as the importance of local values and work, while there is disagreement about other matters. Integration, therefore, can be taken to mean integration of intellect and emotion (see Labouvie-Vief, 1990, has explored this kind of integration process; see also Edmondson & Hiilser, 2012).

Moreover, mature integrative thinking can also assume some general ethical standards or principles, such as non-violence and hence maintain that whatever one’s view on immigration, for example, it should be peacefully expressed and defended. Therefore, a mature adult way of thinking is far removed from a view that takes all knowledge claims and ethical principles to be merely relative. Respecting others’ feelings and other people as persons is central for integration as a mature adult way of thinking, and this does not mean taking all views to be true. Therefore, integration should not be identified with relativism in philosophical epistemology.

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