Friday, 8 September 2006

There is no such thing as absolute truth

... and I am absolutely sure of it!

Some of you find that amusing, but that's just because you're being polite. You think I'm joking, and you're flattering me with a faint smile. But I'm not joking. That is essentially the creed of the relativists and they are dead serious about it.

The irony of it, and its fatal flaw, is that the statement "there is no such thing as absolute truth" is a perfect oxymoron, being itself a statement of absolute truth. And try as I might, no matter how much I've poked at it, picked it up and shook it till it rattled, I can't get anything but an oxymoron out of it. It is a self-refuting statement.

And yet this fuzzy thinking is the new orthodoxy. There is hardly a more offensive statement you can make to relativists (and there are a LOT of them out there) than, "I have the truth." They will take issue with you for thinking there is anything like THE truth that can be found. And most especially, for claiming to have found it.

If you don't believe me, try claiming to have the Truth online somewhere. This works better than trying it face-to-face, because residual manners crumble much more easily in an online environment. Unless you make this statement on a religious (and specifically Christian, Jewish or Muslim) site, you will get attacked quite vigorously for daring to think you've found it.

Then they will undermine their own case by finding fault with the truth you have found. Consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but when someone starts with a premise that is fatally flawed and then proceeds to undermine it every chance he gets, he doesn't have much to stand on. You can't have your cake and eat it too.

If there is no such thing as absolute truth, the only answer to anybody's belief is "If it makes you happy." You have surrendered the right to debate its validity. Any protestation is both heresy and hypocrisy.

If absolute truth does indeed exist, then you can argue if you like, based on objective criteria. You can argue that someone else has found lies instead of truth, or that he has misunderstood the truth. But you cannot argue that there is more than one truth. Just as only one physical body can occupy a given space at any one time, so only one absolute truth can exist. Our understanding of it may be relative and mistaken in any number of particulars, but none of that affects it. The earth remained round no matter how many medieval minds were oblivious and even hostile to that fact. Nobody ever fell off the edge, regardless of how fervently they believed in the possibility. Truth is unaltered by our opinions and beliefs.

This is, of course, another great inconsistency of those who say they don't believe in absolute truth. They apply this doctrine in a highly selective manner. I'll bet you won't find a flat-earther among them. Objective criteria for determining truth are fine when it comes to something physical and concrete. But what about magnetism? Or sub-atomic particles? Gravity? The weak force? The vast majority of us take the existence of these things on pure faith. You won't find too many relativists - if any - doubting their existence or even giving you the choice of doubting them.

If we are prepared to believe in the truth of such abstract, invisible things without taxing astrophysicists with arrogance, why do the rules suddenly undergo such a violent shift when it comes to metaphysics? If we believe there is a physical truth to be found, why not a metaphysical truth? And when someone thinks they've found it, why not examine the validity of the criteria used, rather than upbraiding them for looking at all?

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19 comments:

valiantmauz said...

As a relativist, my personal feeling is not that "there is no such thing as absolute truth", but more that if there is such a thing as absolute truth, I, valiantmauz, don't know what it is.

And I'm good with that.

Janet said...

That is more a suspension of judgment, it seems to me. You are, theoretically at least, acknowledging the possibility of an absolute truth. "I don't know" strikes me as having the virtue of intellectual honesty. There's a lot I don't know too. I do hope to make some progress on some of it before I finish this life...

Anonymous said...

As I pointed out to a friend earlier today, anybody who claims that they know the truth, be it a small truth or a huge one, is very self-confident. In my mind no one has the power to make such a statement. But if such a being exists then they are the thing many would call God. As for me, I have yet to meet, or hear or anyone who can tell me something that is true and which they can prove.

Jeff said...

"There is no such thing as absolute truth"

Is that true?

Janet said...

I think it's absolutely untrue. That statement makes as much sense to me as a square circle.

Greenbomb101 said...

What if the only absolute truth in the whole universe is "there is no absolute truth except the statement,'there are no other absolute truths'"?

Janet said...

Greenbomb, I would ask on what basis do you believe in such an amazing exception? You've got to give some incredibly compelling reason to accept such a thing.

Otherwise, the question is on the level of all those silly ones that start: "if you could choose only one..." when there is nothing in the world imposing such a restriction.

In other words, I don't waste my time trying to formulate serious answers to nonsensical questions. If you want a nonsensical answer, I'm sure I could oblige.

Anonymous said...

Little late to the party, i guess. But the statement isn't an oxymoron at all since it's not 100% correct. It's a generalization that there is no such thing as truth, but it is largely true.

Janet said...

Support your assertion, please.

F.B. said...

Janet, you are using a very old, complex, difficult and purely semantic paradox as an argument in support of your theological claims. That's veeery naughty! While there's no painless way of untangling this paradox, but here goes it anyway...

Semantic paradoxes in formal and natural languages can be resolved by the following principle:

TRUTH AND FALSITY ARE ALWAYS ULTIMATELY ROOTED IN THE STATE OF THE WORLD.

I.e., if a sentence is either true or false, then either it is a boundary sentence - made true or false by the world of non-semantic facts - or it is semantically connected to at least one boundary sentence, from which its truth value can be traced. If we accept this as a constraint on our account of truth, then all of our problems dissolve.

The first obvious consequence of this principle is that no sentence such as the self-referential "absolute truth" sentence can be either true or false. Such sentences are denoted in the field as "completely unsafe sentences", because by definition they have no semantic connections (backwards paths) to the boundary, their truth values cannot be rooted in the boundary, and therefore cannot be rooted in the world. We therefore need a third truth value for such sentences. This third truth value is "ungrounded".

Your sentence about absolute truth is a classic example of an ungrounded sentence, which is clearly not the best type of sentence to base any arguments on.

Kerry said...

I don't get it.

Isn't it absolutely true that I have blue eyes or that I am 6 foot tall. Aren't these things absolutely true?

Ben said...

This entry will be mostly about the psychology of people who care about absolute truth(s) and how the self-refuting line of argument is irrelevant.

The last comment gets at an important point. What do people mean when they say that 'absolute truth' does or does not exist? I.e. what do people mean by 'absolute truth?' Is there a difference between 'truths' and 'absolute truths.' I think there is but it is not the distinction that most people intend. Sure, its true that some people are six feet tall, that the sky is 'blue', and that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. These are truths, but they are not, what philosophers call, 'necessary' truths. That is, they are contingent and could have just as well been otherwise. It isn't necessary that at least one person on earth is six feet tall or that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. It is necessary, however, that a triangle has three sides and that all bachelors are unmarried, eligible males. We can test to see whether something is a necessary truth if its denial leads to a contradiction, e.g. a triangle does not have four sides, Tom is a married bachelor, etc.

Yet if this were all that people ever meant by absolute truth, then this kind of discussion would not be taking place. The term, therefore, is much more loaded in its ordinary usage. People who contend for so called absolute truths mean much more than, "it is absolutely true that a triangle has three sides," and so on. Going much further, I would contend that 'absolute truth' as such matters little to those defending its existence or possibility. It is a very specific kind of absolute truth that defenders have in mind. To see why consider the statement: There is only one absolute truth, and it is the statement that there are no other absolute truths. I.e., the set of absolute truths has only one member, a statement that says it is its only member. (Note, it is no longer saying that the set does not exist.) Suppose we allow for this. The statement is no longer self refuting. (And this really all I am trying to show here). Sure, it's an absolute truth. But, will this make advocates of absolute truths happy? Not likely.

By absolute truths then, people who contend for their existence must mean something like moral truths or the existence of God. But if timeless moral truths and the existence of God is what is meant and intended by absolute truth, then the statement 'There are no absolute truths' is no longer self refuting. It just says 'There are no timeless moral truths' or 'God does not exist.'

I've been switching back and forth, using 'absolute truth' and 'absolute truths' interchangeably. This might be an important distinction. With respect to whether there is/are or is/are not absolute truth(s) it is helpful to notice that no so called postmodern philosopher or writer ever claimed or still claims that there was no such thing as 'Truth.' Rather their claim is that there is just more than one 'Truth.' I'll wait to defend this claim against vicious relativism until someone brings it up.

F.B., You should know better than to be an outright positivist. What state of the world does the statement "Truth and falsity are always ultimately rooted in the state of the world" link up with? Sounds like an ungrounded sentence to me. Nice try though.

Anonymous said...

This entry will be mostly about the psychology of people who care about absolute truth(s) and how the self-refuting line of argument is irrelevant.

The last comment gets at an important point. What do people mean when they say that 'absolute truth' does or does not exist? I.e. what do people mean by 'absolute truth?' Is there a difference between 'truths' and 'absolute truths.' I think there is but it is not the distinction that most people intend. Sure, its true that some people are six feet tall, that the sky is 'blue', and that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. These are truths, but they are not, what philosophers call, 'necessary' truths. That is, they are contingent and could have just as well been otherwise. It isn't necessary that at least one person on earth is six feet tall or that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. It is necessary, however, that a triangle has three sides and that all bachelors are unmarried, eligible males. We can test to see whether something is a necessary truth if its denial leads to a contradiction, e.g. a triangle does not have four sides, Tom is a married bachelor, etc.

Yet if this were all that people ever meant by absolute truth, then this kind of discussion would not be taking place. The term, therefore, is much more loaded in its ordinary usage. People who contend for so called absolute truths mean much more than, "it is absolutely true that a triangle has three sides," and so on. Going much further, I would contend that 'absolute truth' as such matters little to those defending its existence or possibility. It is a very specific kind of absolute truth that defenders have in mind. To see why consider the statement: There is only one absolute truth, and it is the statement that there are no other absolute truths. I.e., the set of absolute truths has only one member, a statement that says it is its only member. (Note, it is no longer saying that the set does not exist.) Suppose we allow for this. The statement is no longer self refuting. (And this really all I am trying to show here). Sure, it's an absolute truth. But, will this make advocates of absolute truths happy? Not likely.

By absolute truths then, people who contend for their existence must mean something like moral truths or the existence of God. But if timeless moral truths and the existence of God is what is meant and intended by absolute truth, then the statement 'There are no absolute truths' is no longer self refuting. It just says 'There are no timeless moral truths' or 'God does not exist.'

I've been switching back and forth, using 'absolute truth' and 'absolute truths' interchangeably. This might be an important distinction. With respect to whether there is/are or is/are not absolute truth(s) it is helpful to notice that no so called postmodern philosopher or writer ever claimed or still claims that there was no such thing as 'Truth.' Rather their claim is that there is just more than one 'Truth.' I'll wait to defend this claim against vicious relativism until someone brings it up.

F.B., You should know better than to be an outright positivist. What state of the world does the statement "Truth and falsity are always ultimately rooted in the state of the world" link up with? Sounds like an ungrounded sentence to me. Nice try though.

Ben said...

This entry will be mostly about the psychology of people who care about absolute truth(s) and how the self-refuting line of argument is irrelevant.

The last comment gets at an important point. What do people mean when they say that 'absolute truth' does or does not exist? I.e. what do people mean by 'absolute truth?' Is there a difference between 'truths' and 'absolute truths.' I think there is but it is not the distinction that most people intend. Sure, its true that some people are six feet tall, that the sky is 'blue', and that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. These are truths, but they are not, what philosophers call, 'necessary' truths. That is, they are contingent and could have just as well been otherwise. It isn't necessary that at least one person on earth is six feet tall or that the Lakers play in Los Angeles. It is necessary, however, that a triangle has three sides and that all bachelors are unmarried, eligible males. We can test to see whether something is a necessary truth if its denial leads to a contradiction, e.g. a triangle does not have four sides, Tom is a married bachelor, etc.

Yet if this were all that people ever meant by absolute truth, then this kind of discussion would not be taking place. The term, therefore, is much more loaded in its ordinary usage. People who contend for so called absolute truths mean much more than, "it is absolutely true that a triangle has three sides," and so on. Going much further, I would contend that 'absolute truth' as such matters little to those defending its existence or possibility. It is a very specific kind of absolute truth that defenders have in mind. To see why consider the statement: There is only one absolute truth, and it is the statement that there are no other absolute truths. I.e., the set of absolute truths has only one member, a statement that says it is its only member. (Note, it is no longer saying that the set does not exist.) Suppose we allow for this. The statement is no longer self refuting. (And this really all I am trying to show here). Sure, it's an absolute truth. But, will this make advocates of absolute truths happy? Not likely.

Ben said...

Sorry for the triple post.

Anonymous said...

Anytime I think I found the truth something always contradicts it so I no longer believe in an absolute truth.

If anybody can find the absolute truthto the meaning of life and how to be happy despite never having any prayers/wishes answered then I will be forever in their debt.

Anonymous said...

I am a beliver in past lives in which cause/effect laws carry over from one life to the next due to actions created which explains why some people who don't deserve it are 'lucky' and get ahead in life and those who do never get the luck they need and whatever is in-between.

I personally am sure I have made very stupid mistakes in a previous life so I don't get the luck I deserve.

Ron Decker said...

Thank you so much for your punch line... "square circle"... I got a good serious laugh out of this:)

Anonymous said...

Please do not be offended by this, this is my oppinion that there is no such thing as nonsense. In this world, there is an infinite amount of oppinions. None of them, wrong. When a question is asked, common or uncommon, instead of merely an answer, more questions arise. We should not rule anything out, calling it nonsense.

 

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