And now for something (not quite completely) different – Cognitive relativism in consultancy

25 Jan, 2017
Xebia Background Header Wave

Since joining the test automation unit of Xebia (June 2015), I have written some blog posts, all revolving around the topic of …, well, … test automation. However, there are a lot of other topics, across various domains, that have my interest and with regard of which I hold pretty strong, sometimes even passionate, views and opinions. These domains and topics are partially technical and partially non-technical in nature.

To be able to express my views and opinions as pertaining to the latter, that is non-technical, domains, I am launching a series of posts under the moniker of ‘something (not quite completely) different’. The qualification of ‘not quite completely’ is in place to indicate that, although these posts will address non-technical topics, they are nevertheless relevant to the world of (test automation) consultancy.

This post will be the first of these and in it I will be riding one of my all-time favourite hobby horses, namely fighting a commonly held and, as is my opinion, untenable and quite dangerous post-modern notion. It is a misconception that I have to deal with (and even struggle with) on an almost daily basis.

It is the fallacy that there is no truth in discourse (or anywhere else, for that matter), but for the multitude of subjectively held opinions that are all equally and to the same extent true and valuable. Sometimes a variation on this is, that an opinion may be true for whomever holds that opinion, while, at the same time, it may be untrue for anybody else (since we all ‘create’ our own truths which do not necessarily need to be in coherence with each other). A popular adage to summarize this view, is the often used phrase ‘perception is truth’ (or ‘perception is reality’). Most often people simply state that ‘all truth is relative’ or ‘there is no absolute truth’. Lots of people also (albeit mostly unbeknownst to them) quote his Dudeness (you may also address him as ‘Duder’ or ‘El Duderino’):


In more technical terms, this fashionable belief is often designated by the phrase ‘cognitive relativism’.

Employment of cognitive relativism is typically opportunistic in intent and, as such, bears all the hallmarks of a deus ex machina. It is a cheap, lazy, shallow, cowardly, uninformed/thoughtless and ultimately hysterical pseudo-intellectual stance, as will become apparent in the remainder of this post. Moreover, it is the ultimate discussion killer. But above all: it is absurd! Therefore, as we will see, it can be formally proven to be untrue by way of reductio ad absurdum.

Don’t get me wrong though! I do believe cognitive relativism can be a valid philosophical (or, to be more precise, epistemological) viewpoint. But most definitely not in the horridly simplistic popular form, in which I am always encountering it, whether it be during discussions in a meeting room or in posts on some online platform. And I am encountering it ever since I started as a software tester back in Y2K. … Encountering it a lot!

So, if you are having lunch or maybe just a coffee break at your desk and you would like to have some diversion that is nonetheless a bit intellectually stimulating (as I am hoping to accomplish), just keep on reading. Actually, just keep on reading even in the absence of such culinary delights. It’ll be fun nevertheless!

Organizational transition as a breeding ground for cognitive relativism

Before proceeding to refute the misconception itself, let me sketch a typical consultancy context within which I frequently encounter it and within which it is detriment to the process of individual change and, ipso facto, collective change.

A shock to the system

To put it (very) briefly, as Xebia test automation consultants we help organizations (for which it makes sense) to make the model of Cohn’s testing pyramid an operational reality. In the process of doing so, we also help testing (and testers) to make the shift-left.

Within an organization this typically amounts to a paradigm shift with the impact of a copernican revolution. The involved changes cause a shock throughout the organization, especially (though not exclusive) to testers whose current practices are usually firmly grounded in a more traditional testing paradigm and who thus suddenly find themselves being labeled as old-fashioned and who find their current mind and skill sets as well as their knowledge to be partially insufficient and/or obsolete. Regardless of the question of how much truth there actually is in those first, spontaneous impressions (a topic for a separate blog post), a substantial number of testers initially at least feel as if they have become walking anachronisms.

Now, the clients that seek our help, sometimes do so because their culture has resulted in stagnation. They have created an environment that does not stimulate change and innovation. In particular, it prevents change and innovation from being pushed bottom-up, through individual or group initiative, which is often necessary for any such change or innovation to garner true commitment and buy-in from the practitioners. People within such an organization have consequently been lulled in by the relative safety, predictability and accompanying boredom of this stable, non-changing environment, in which they are expected to not take ownership of (or responsibility for) whatever attempt at innovation. Note that this is even worse than simply not being expected to take such ownership and responsibility. On the long-term, this may (and in my experience often does) give rise to a broad range of negative dispositions amongst people, such as lethargy, apathy, cynicism, and/or fatalism. At the end of this downward spiral, you will have moulded people into actually being wary of change.

Therefore, when people are being confronted with the disruptive changes proposed by me and my colleagues, these attitudes immediately manifest themselves in coffee corner slogan’s, such as: “I didn’t sign up for this”; “We are doing just/already fine without all of that new stuff”; “This hip thing won’t make any difference either”; “Nothing ever changes around here anyway”; “All of this new stuff will have blown over within a few months anyway”; “It makes no difference what I’m doing within this joint anyway”; “By the end of this year, we’ll all be running after yet another fad anyway.”

So, we always hear a lot of ‘anyways’.

All of that is a typical, initial gut reaction: denial and/or downplaying of the impact, feasibility, usefulness and/or sustainability of the new approach. But then it doesn’t go away and it doesn’t carry less of an impact. People realize that management as well as key technical stake holders are serious and committed. Additionally, only now, they realize that the world around them, outside the safe confines of their current employment, is changing as well. It dawns on them that there is nowhere to run. And that’s when the mentioned shock occurs and suddenly a sense of urgency and inevitability permeates the organization and, especially, the test population.

Consequently, the denial and disbelief, as initially expressed through the cynicism and such, now makes way for anxiety. Anxiety over the realization that change is inevitable and that an extremely challenging individual and collective effort will have to be made so as to not be left behind. Understandably, all of this often evokes fear and awakens insecurities that have laid dormant, usually for quite some while. Fear and insecurity about the ability (or lack thereof) to actually make the required changes in terms of knowledge and skill set. Because of this, some people also start to perform soul-searching to determine whether they want their careers to continue along this new path. And sometimes they find that they lack the ambition and motivation (or the self-confidence) to do so.

Rebels without a cause

That is the moment when some people start to resist the proposed changes, in what looks like a panic reaction, by trying to stop the inevitable or, at the very least, to slow it down. They use various strategies in doing so. I will try to write about these strategies in another post.

However, one of these strategies is prolonging the change process through slowing down decision-making with regard to implementing certain measures: people start to question everything and initiate intense discussions about every little detail. For instance, through maintaining that the proposed measures will be counter-productive or are not fitting the specific situation of the team or organization. Even if that is evidently false and they find themselves unable to back up their position by even a single valid argument. Even worse, because of the flimsiness of their propositions, they have to face an abundance of counter-arguments. And that’s exactly the moment in which they start to employ cognitive relativism (amongst other such gimmicks) as a tactic.

When people realize that the various points they wished to make are untenable, they suddenly turn into relativists. Note that before that moment, there was not a trace of relativism to be found in their discourse: at all times they were making absolute truth claims with regard to their statements. And that’s exactly why I am calling cognitive relativism an opportunistic device: it’s nothing but a last-resort ‘schtick’, functioning like a deus ex machina. Because only now, as it becomes apparent that they cannot defend their position through logical argument, people suddenly assume their alter ego of the postmodern (pseudo-) philosopher. As they would like to hold on to their untenable statements, they try to end the discussion as a ‘draw’, by resorting to the most absurd of discussion killers: that there is no absolute truth, but only individual/subjective ‘truth’ (i.e. subjective perception) and that therefore ‘my truth’ is not ‘more’ true or more valuable than ‘their truth’. So, according to them, although we formally/logically contradict each other, both of our ideas can be (and actually are) true and, therefore, both can be maintained as valid and sound stances. That, then, or so is their expectation, will end the discussion and we both get to retain our viewpoints. That’s one reason, why I am calling relativism lazy and cowardly. But there is more … .

A dangerous affair

Of course, such a stalemate is not very practical, to say the least. Even worse, the relativistic attitude can be contageous and can be sowing the seeds of doubt in others. Especially with those who are maybe already struggling with their insecurities and/or motivation. And that may seriously undermine the change process, both in terms of effectiveness and progress. It may prevent authentic buy-in and commitment.

So, let’s see how we may take the wind out of the part-time relativist’s sails and thereby discourage the usage of this highly fashionable approach to sabotaging any discussion that takes an undesired direction. Of course, all of this will have to be done by way of rational argument and it is therefore questionable whether the relativist, who as such holds an inherently irrational stance, will be susceptible to those rational arguments. After all, our amateur relativists are not interested in logic, truth or reality, but only in being able to stubbornly and dogmatically maintain their viewpoints and, more often than not, in coming across as subtle, clever and profound. So let’s expose cognitive relativism for the shortcut to thinking that it in fact is, by uncovering it’s utter ridiculousness. That should provide you with enough cannon balls to tear the relativist’s sails so as to let the winds of change blow freely.

Relativism refuted

I have chosen two approaches to refute cognitive relativism. There are many more.

Firstly, I will show that cognitive relativism always ends in formal, logical contradiction and, hence, absurdity. You would assume that people can see this for themselves, since it seems to be a pretty obvious thing. But in my experience, most relativists are not aware of the self-contradictory nature of their statements. Surprisingly, it is difficult to make them realize this even when trying really hard to do so. The latter was, actually, one of my motivations for writing this post.

Secondly, I will provide you with a powerful and incontestable counter-example to the relativist’s ‘law’: the principle of non-contradiction.

Through reductio ad absurdum

A while ago I encountered the following on LinkedIn:

Quote Aurelius

There are quite a number of problems with this one, as soon as you stop taking it for granted merely because Aurelius wrote it, and start thinking (critically) for yourself.

The latter, i.e. lack of (critical) thinking, is actually the first problem that strikes me when I see posts like that. Stuff like this is never explicated, let alone critically examined. Neither by the original author, nor by the ones that post such cheap and shallow aphorisms, nor by the legions of people who subsequently ‘like’ it without any (substantial) comment. It typically is adhered to solely on the basis of ‘authority’: if some famous historical figure says it, it must be true and we should all be impressed. This is another reason I call cognitive relativism ‘lazy’: proponents generally do not think or argue for themselves but, rather, typically refer to some such figure in the hope that it will impress the hell out of everybody and shut them up. Just ask yourself how many likes the above aphorism would have yielded, if Aurelius’s name would have been omitted and the one that posted it had claimed the statements to merely represent his own beliefs? Generally, relativists also have not done any research into the areas of logic, theory of mind, theory of truth or the philosophy of language. And without that basis, they will simply not be capable of critical thought with regard to the fundamental philosophical concepts that they are making statements about, such as truth, knowledge, relativity, universality, etc. And without the ability to critically examine an idea, I believe that one is not entitled to an opinion with regard to that idea. Especially when that idea pertains to such fundamental concepts and, as such, can have a great effect on how people view the world.

If we do start thinking critically, immediately problems start to arise. For example, in the case of Aurelius’ quote, the problem that we never see ‘pespectives’ or ‘truth’. This may seem to be nothing but semantic nitpicking, but it most certainly is not, since we are trying to make profound statements with regard to some of the most fundamental philosophical concepts. So you gotta be rigid folks! What we do see are images, that are being ‘projected’ on our retina’s and which are (supposedly) representations of (supposedly) external realities. And, indeed, these images are but a limited representational (or sensory) perspective. Now (depending on with truth theory one adheres to), truth might be considered as the correspondence of such an image (or other sensory data) and the (relevant aspect of the) external reality it is supposed to represent. This correspondence itself, however, can never be an object of sensory perception! Which constitutes one of western philosophy’s perennial problems: the ‘problem of the bridge’ between subject and (external) object (a.k.a. the ‘subject-object divide’). So, Aurelius’ statement that we never see (the) truth is not an insight at all, but more of a tautology, since it is inherent to the concept of ‘thruth’ that it is not perceivable by one of our senses. ‘Truth’ is therefore also neither an alternative nor a contraposition to ‘perspective’, since perspective pertains to the domain of sensory perception and not of truth (at least not in an immediate fashion). Aurelius’ aphorism may seem to be deeply profound at a first, shallow glance, but it actually is not profound enough. Not by a long shot. Thinking in aphorisms is thinking through short cuts: thinking that is too fast and too little. In other words, thinking that is way too lazy. Unfortunately, the latter is a sign of our times.

Aside from this and other fundamental problems that I have with Aurelius’ terrible sophisms, the first sentence of this quote is actually a good example of fashionable cognitive relativism. Even at the slightest examination, it reveals the utter absurdity of any such relativism. Let’s take a closer look.

The problem that immediately arises, is the following: is Aurelius’ claim, that there is always just opinion and never fact, an opinion or fact? Well, Aurelius himself evidently claims it to be a fact and not just his opinion. This follows from his usage of the universal quantifying expression ‘everything’ (∀x). So, his statement actually disproves/contradicts/conflicts itself. That is, it is a counter-example to itself: the idea expressed in the statement is itself apparently an example of an idea that is claimed to be not just an opinion, but a universally applicable fact. In other words, it is not true that everything is just opinion. Or is it? But if it is, then Aurelius’ statement is still not true!

This internal, logical contradiction is inherent to every relativistic claim. It manifests itself even more clearly in the most frequently employed form of the relativist’s stance: ‘there is no absolute truth’. I have heard that one countless times. Again we must ask the relativist: is this true just for you then … or for all of us? In other words: is the truth of this statement absolute (is the statement universally applicable) or not? If it is true absolutely, then there is absolute truth and so the statement is false. But if it is not true absolutely, then there is (or at least can be) absolute truth out there and the statement is also false.

It just doesn’t make any sense … whatsoever. It’s absurd!

Fact is (no pun intended), that you cannot maintain cognitive relativism and at the same time make absolute cognitive claims about it! You could, linguistically, but it would only make you look foolish. This is because, as we have just seen, if you persist in propagating cognitive relativism in the form of absolute statements (that is statements through which you claim the universal relevance, applicability and truth of the idea conveyed in those statements), your statements can (and will) be reduced to absurdity. That is, to formal, logical contradiction.

Unfortunately, many proponents of cognitive relativism are dogmatic to the extent of religious zealotry, in that they will even go so far as stating that logical contradiction does not invalidate an idea as untrue, non-sensical or meaningless. Thus, to them, logical contradiction is actually irrelevant, because it is itself subject to relativism. This, in effect, amounts to denying the applicability of the so-called principle of non-contradiction, which is one of the three most fundamental laws of formal logic. That’s why I call cognitive relativism ‘hysterical’. And I don’t mean it’s funny!

However, as we will see in the next section, denying the absoluteness of the principle of non-contradiction, is itself absurd (i.e. a logical contradiction) and therefore cannot be used to counter the reductio ad absurdum as applied in this section. But that is actually just an added bonus. Because our primary objective in the next section will be to demonstrate that the principle of non-contradiction is a refuting counter-example to the relativist claim.

Through counter-example: the principle of non-contradiction

To be able to invalidate, or reject, an absolute truth claim, such as the claim that there is no absolute truth, it takes only one valid counter-example.

Here, I have chosen the so-called principle of non-contradiction, which holds that:

Something cannot, at the same time, in the same sense and with regard to the same aspect, be true and false.

Somewhat more formal/symbolic:

not(A and not-A)

In other words, it is impossible for A and not-A to both be true (at the same time and in the same regard).

So, if we were to agree on the meaning of ‘A’ (implying a.o. that it is well-defined, unambiguous and fixed), then it would be evident and self-explanatory to us that: not(A and not-A). It follows, then, that we cannot reject this law, by referring to the ambiguousness (and other properties) of natural language, which may cause two people in a debate to assign different meanings to the term ‘A’, in which case it could be possible that both are right, at the same time, when one posits ‘A’ and the other posits ‘not-A’. The qualification ‘in the same regard’ makes sure that we cannot bring forward such an objection.

Now, having clarified that, to deny the absolute validity and applicability of this principle (or of any of the three fundamental logical laws, for that matter) leads to absurdity and hence to proof of the opposite.

The absurdity follows from the fact that every denial logically presupposes (or implies) that that which is denied cannot be true at the same time (and in the same sense) as it is being false. That is to say that the principle of non-contradiction must be asserted or postulated in every act of denial. In yet other words, the principle of non-contradiction is the very foundation of any denial, is embedded into the act of denial as it’s very heart and essence. And thus the principle is implied in every case in which something is denied (or affirmed, for that matter).

If it were not implied, the very act of denial would be completely meaningless and non-sensical! When you deny (the truth of) a statement, it is always implied or assumed that you belief and assert (with and through that very act of denial), that the statement cannot, at the same time and in the same sense, be true also. When you deny something, you are always also implicitly saying that the opposite (i.e. the affirmation of that something) is not the case. You never say: I deny that this is the case, but it could be the case also. No, you know very well that it can never be the case and not be the case at the same time and in the same regard.

Consequently, you cannot deny the principle without, at the same time (through the very act of denial), affirming it. Therefore, such denial constitutes a logical contradiction.

As a matter of fact, apart from being logically impossible, denying the absoluteness of the principle of non-contradiction, dissolves the very possibility of meaningful (rational) communication. The principle of non-contradiction is the very foundation of all rational discourse: without it we can no longer assert or deny anything. It would mean an end to all rational discourse, since without it, we would stop making sense. We would have but one option left: to stop communicating altogether. Denying the principle is, therefore, one of the most irrational acts that one can perform and, once again, borders on the hysterical.

To summarize: denial of the universal applicability of the principle of non-contradiction leads to absurdity and therewith to proof of the opposite. This, in turn, invalidates the claim that all truth is relative or that there is no absolute truth.

A final note: there may be some that will try to counter the above by stating that at the sub-atomic level, logic breaks down. I will not go into this here, but let me say that I would be pleased to take up the debate in the comments and make an argument for the falsity (or at least debatability) of this notion.


Cognitive relativism, in its naive form that is, is a dangerous epistemological stance and can seriously delay or even harm efforts to bring necessary change to some organizations. It counts as one of the most erroneous, dangerous and, quite frankly, despicable misconceptions that have seeped out of the postmodern Zeitgeist.

The good news is that cognitive relativism dissolves at the very first, superficial examination. If consequently thought through, it nullifies itself, since such a train of thought will always lead to logical contradiction and, hence, absurdity.

However, that does not stop some people from picking up and passionately keep hanging on to relativism. One reason they do so, is that relativism is fashionable (as people suppose it makes them appear profound) and fashion and appearance are valued more in postmodern society than the actual ability for thorough and rigid logical thinking, as the latter takes time and is laborious (which, unfortunately, in our times is to be avoided at all costs). Once under relativism’s spell, it’s zealous proponents are substantially less susceptible to logical argument (because everything may fall under their universal relativism). They also start believing in (and are pleased by) their self-proclaimed profoundness. All of which makes it difficult to reach them and talk sense into them. Wielding their relativism, however absurd, they have an effective instrument to sabotage any discussion that is taking an undesired or maybe even threatening course. Or any discussion that they simply can’t follow anymore. Since most people are not well-versed in formal, logical thinking and debate, they are generally unable to counter the relativist’s fallacies and, worse, sometimes even turn into postmodern relativists themselves. They enter the phantom zone, turn to the dark side. Are assimilated, zombified. … Oh dear.

Therefore, in an attempt to contribute to what hopefully soon be a turning of the tide, I hope that this post will provide people with equally effective instruments, to engage in these discussions and come out on top. Because the relativistic hordes have got to be stopped! Cognitive relativism is an extremely arrogant anthropocentric stance in the sense that it tries (but, ultimately, fails) to make the human mind, the human perception to be alpha and omega and to be the centre of the universe and the ultimate measure of all things.

Finally, to any relativist that might be reading this, I would like to say: become an informed, educated relativist. As I have said in the introduction, cognitive relativism can be a valid epistemological position. But it will first have to become much more than the utterly naive and simplistic sophism ‘all truth is relative’. So start to think, really, really hard, about the nature of (and relationship between) thought, language and (the rest of) reality. To help you out and give you a head start, you might read relevant articles from the likes of David Hume, Gottlob Frege, Bertrand Russel, Rudolf Carnap, Saul Krippke, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Willard Van Orman Quine, Peter Strawson and/or others.

If you fail to do so, well, then your claims will remain to be … just like, your opinion, man!

Qxperts. We empower companies to deliver reliable & high-quality software. Any questions? We are here to help!


Get in touch with us to learn more about the subject and related solutions

Explore related posts