Home > Faith Matters > Identifying Absolute Truth; My “Relatively” Feeble Attempt

Identifying Absolute Truth; My “Relatively” Feeble Attempt

December 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I while ago I responded to an atheist friend’s Facebook comment about blaming Republicans for (at the time) the failure of congress to pass the 911 first responder’s (Zadroda) bill allocating money to those first responders experiencing continued health issues from the response and clean-up efforts on the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City.  We went back and forth as to some political thoughts highlighting our respective positions.  I’m definitely conservative and JH is definitely liberal.  Eventually, the discussion weaved its way through the concept of grace and we ended up with my being challenged to support the notion of absolute truth.  I initially thought this would be a relatively (pun intended) easy task.  But as I began, the reality set in that I’m unable to defend absolute truth apart from the doctrines of my Christian faith.  That’s clearly not what I intended to end up with.  For me, however, this was a good exercise and after all was said and done, I thought readers of this blog might be interested in my $0.02 worth regarding absolute truth.  I don’t intend for this ‘paper’ to be the end-all of my philosophical thoughts related to the concept of absolute truth.  However, it’s a start and we’ll see where we go from here.

I appreciate the chance to think through and reflect on aspects of my Christian faith that for all intents and purposes I’ve simply taken for granted.  If nothing else, I’ve had to delve into a somewhat shallow aspect of my beliefs and I thank you for that.  Well, on to the matter at hand.

First, we need to dispense with the boilerplate stuff.  These terms and definitions come from one of the books noted below:

  • Absolutism: Principle standards, which are objective rather than relative.
  • Objectivism: Moral values and principles exist independent to individuals thereby providing norms to which something can be judged as either true or false.
  • Subjectivism: Emphasizing the individual self or subject as the creator of meaning, truth or values.
  • Relativism: Claiming there’s no such thing as absolute truth because what is regarded as true varies from person to person.  Truth, therefore, is seen as relative to a person’s time, place or circumstances.

I like the definition of “absolute truth” as a fixed point of reference that doesn’t change with respect to situations or circumstances.  An easy visual example is that of a chair placed in the center of dark room such that, even if blindfolded, one can navigate throughout the room always knowing where they are with respect to the chair.  However, if the chair moves when the person moves, there’s no longer a fixed reference point.

You’d asked for some examples of absolutes.  The only thing I actually had in mind when offering to provide “some” examples of absolutes was gravity.  However, a little brainstorming brought the below list of absolutes that are at least within the physical world:

  • Gravity – Irrespective of something’s size or mass, the object will fall to the ground at the same rate of speed because of gravity.
  • Ohm’s law – Apply one volt through a one ohm resistor and you’ll have one amp of current which equates to one watt of power.
  • A traffic light – green light means “go” and a red light means “stop”.
  • Airplane/marine external indicators – green means starboard (right) and red means port (left).
  • Food – if one doesn’t eat, they’ll (eventually) die.
  • Mathematics – 1+1=2
  • Measurements – A meter is a definitive length.  Four cups (8oz) of water will always equal one quart.
  • Reganomics – This is just to give you the ‘needle’!  {;-P
  • 2nd law of thermodynamics, which identifies the impossibility of perpetual motion.
  • Friction generates heat.
  • Boyle’s law of chemistry.
  • Infants wet their pants.
  • Time – or at least intervals thereof.
  • Nothing moves at absolute zero temperatures.
  • Water boils at 212F/100C – well, at sea level anyway.
  • The earth rotating around the sun and the moon around the earth.
  • Speed of light.
  • The Periodic Table of the Elements.
  • Dogs make better pets than cats – This is to again just give you the ‘needle’!  {;-P
  • Nobel metals don’t oxidize and thereby don’t corrode.
  • Any house project I set out to do costs >2x what is planned and takes >3x the time expected.  I have empirical evidence to prove this!
  • Cold air makes snot flow out of my nose.
  • Brain cells deprived of oxygen will die.
  • Men are XY, women are XX in their chromosomal makeup.
  • The cost of any given item is predicated on its supply and demand.

Granted, many of the above examples would certainly be considered more along the line of a “definition”.  Even so, they’re constants in that they’re true for everyone.  Given that there are absolutes in the physical world, it’s conceivable to me that absolutes exist within an intellectual and/or moral perspective.  There’d be chaos if no one played football, baseball, or any other sport for that matter by the same rules.  And too, confusion would reign supreme if we didn’t use the same language structure and word definitions.  Well, perhaps language is a weak example considering that new words are created over time and sometimes definitions change; words such as ‘mouse’, ‘head banger’, ‘weed’, ‘Google’ and ‘gay’ immediately to mind.  Nevertheless, I think the point is still valid.

It may appear simplistic, but I do believe our lives literally depend on the belief that absolutes exist and that everyone plays by the same rules in order to “get-along”.  I would submit that horrible historical events such as the Holocaust came about because absolute moral values were predicated on relativistic terms.  Didn’t Nazi leaders in WWII use Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest?  In light of that, it could it not make sense that Germany saw themselves as a superior race to the Jews and therefore began “the final solution”?  If there’s no ability to define absolute truth, then it stands to reason that any outcome could conceivably have its own justification.  As such, should the subsequent Nuremburg trials and death sentences meted out have ever been conducted?  Other horrible events with terrible repercussions also come to mind including the Sudanese genocide, modern-day suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, the Crusades during the middle ages, Pol Pot, the Dresden bombing, the intentional starvation in Darfur, etc.

The above is obviously from a “dark side” of humanity.  But consider something thing from a different perspective.  Perhaps Mother Theresa should have been burned at the state for having been nothing more than a little pimp hussy with her young Indian charges.  Truly, there needs to be some sort of objective in which to define actions and behaviors as either wicked or good – or even somewhere in between.  To me, then, the implications of not having a “foundation” or a “truth gauge” can ultimately lead to disastrous applications.

Within this context, I sense the opposite of absolute is relative.  Perhaps a good example of someone claiming an absolute perspective versus a relativist perspective is Ann Landers.  Years ago, Ann advocated that sex before marriage was wrong.  Later, however, when asked why she had changed her mind, Ann’s response was, “Times have changed [and] we have to keep up with times.”  Speaking with regard to sex before marriage always being wrong (I can’t confirm that’s what she meant, but for the sake of argument we’ll assume so), Ann spoke as an absolutist.  That Ann changed her mind with respect to keeping up with the times would then indicate that she really had no absolute values regarding sex before marriage.

If it feels good, what the heck – do it!  Without a basis for values, can there be a basis for morality?  In addition, without morality, can there be societal standards that govern behavior?  Rape 10 year-old girls – what’s the problem?  Who’s to say that it’s right or wrong?  Questions pertaining to individual or corporate morality, it would then appear, have to be made relative to a stated source for the governance of that morality.  Legalize marijuana – is there a right or wrong here?  Do the benefits of legalizing marijuana for medical use outweigh the potential of more people getting hooked on drugs?  And again, perhaps that’s not the best example – but for now, it’s the best I can come up with.  Put this way, if one’s values are relative, then one’s own sense of morality is by definition relative.  Can there be a definitive right or wrong or only assumptions based upon one’s own perceived values of right and wrong?  Collectively, then, what a corporate people group would agree to as right or wrong would have to be their definition of what constitutes right and wrong.

Given that there can be no absolutes for a relativist (at least as I see it), I’d submit that the philosophical aspect of relativism is at best confusing considering:

  • If a relativist thinks something is true for everyone, then he believes in an absolute truth and can no longer call himself a relativist.  Therefore, hasn’t he just taken an absolutist position?
  • Billy Graham believes God exists.  An atheist, however, doesn’t believe God exists.  For both to be right, God would have to exist and not exist (which I believe to be untenable because I believe God does exist).  In a similar manner, how can we state that a cup of coffee is either hot or cold unless we have a reference?  Perhaps there’ll have to be arguments made later to justify the existence of God – but for now I’m trying to keep things close to the surface.
  • Everyone knows the math statement: if A=B and B=C, then A=C.  However, in regard to Billy Graham (A) believing in God (C) and the atheist (B), denying God’s existence (D), I think the logic would go something like: if A=B and C=D, then A=C, A=D, B=C and B=D.  But this can’t make sense because by definition of (A) & (C) are opposites as are (B) & (D) aren’t the same.  As such, these statements would have to be considered not true – or at the least, undefined.
  • If there’s no “standard”, no one can ever be wrong since there’s no way of determining right and wrong.
  • If something is true for one, does it remains true even if it’s considered wrong by someone else’s “standard”?  Suddenly we’re back to a lot of undefined statements.
  • If one claims no such thing as absolute truth, haven’t they then assumed that no “view” can be true?
  • On what basis can such claims for the opposites of right and wrong coexist?

How is it that those who don’t believe in any form of absolute truth or objective morality insist on making objective moral statements against those who do?  Can a relativist insist on using terms like “wrong” and “evil” instead of something more “relativist” such as: “It’s neither right, wrong, good, bad, or indifferent.  It just is.”  Or, perhaps the relativist could say, “I don’t like it but if you do, I’m okay with that.”  This thought seems consistent from the title of a book written in the early 1970s, I’m OK, You’re OK.

So, if truth isn’t subjective, the next question has to be how do we know what truth really is?

  • Most people will not deny they exist or that they can reason.
  • We know we exist because we’re aware of our existence.
  • Truth corresponds to facts.
  • We’re aware of some facts such as matter and reality.
  • Is there a way to know the source of this reality?
  • Even agnostics will admit to the “logic of cause and effect”.
  • What was the “first cause”?  How did the universe begin?  Is God a logical concept?
  • Without God, where did matter come from?

Descartes famous line, “I think therefore I am” is interesting in that it illuminates one’s own existence and that we have the required capacity to reason.  We know we absolutely exist and therefore if someone were to say to us that we didn’t exist, rationale thinking says that it’s impossible for both of these claims to be right. Then again, things can appear to be true at some times and not at others.  Around the time of Columbus, many people believed the earth was flat.  Today, however, we know the earth is a sphere.  Someone might infer that the truth has changed.  But in reality, it didn’t.  The earth has always been a sphere even when people believed it was flat.  The truth of the earth’s physical shape did not change but I think it’s safe to say that people have changed from holding a false belief to a true one.  In essence, our beliefs with respect to the shape of the earth now correspond with the facts.

In summary, then, for someone to then say that there’s no such thing as absolute truth is to state an absolute and from my feeble understand, this is a contradiction of terms.  Yet, everyone seems to have an innate sense of right and wrong.  Who hasn’t been “cut-off” while driving?  The immediate reaction is anger and rage, flipping the ‘bird’ at the other driver and shouting out, “You stupid %#$@&% idiot!”  Even small kids understand the unfairness of an action when, say, someone cuts in front of the line for an ice cream cone.  Lying in legal court proceedings is perhaps a violation of another absolute and courts have laws regarding perjury in order to ensure compliance to the law.  From where do we get this innate sense of right and wrong?

Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to state that there are absolutes.  The question, then, becomes whose absolutes do we follow?  How, then, do we know that one’s absolutes are indeed absolutes?  On this point, I think we get to the crux of the issue.  Being honest here, I’m sympathetic to those who’d say the Christian idea of absolute truth is intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted and even exclusivist.  Christianity’s claim is not that it’s one truth among many.  Instead, Christianity claims to be the only channel through which truth is communicated.  I’ll concede, that sounds rather exclusive.  In reality, though, Christianity isn’t the only faith-belief doctrine that claims to be exclusive.  Even a cursory examination of, say, Islam reveals its exclusive claims of truth through Allah and the necessity of Jihad.  It’s fascinating to observe the degree to which Western people generally condemn Christianity for its self-proclaimed tenants.  Yet the adherents of Islam are in essence given a pass for their self-proclaimed tenants that are in my mind much more punitive to the non-Muslim infidel.  However, that’s probably a different subject altogether.

Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore a “diminished evaluation” of other beliefs (faiths?) when biblical scriptures such as John 14:6 state: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”  The thought occurs to me as I’m thinking back on our conversations about ‘grace’ – I fully agree and understand that if the truth the Christians professes to possess is only proclaimed for others to live by but not those within the “Christian community”, who would want to believe Christianity’s message?  Along the same line, even if Christians fail to live up to the standards of their faith; do those failures necessarily illuminate false doctrine?  Perhaps those failures are better defined as ignorance of the Christian faith or the inability of Christians to uphold to their faith?

To that point, I think C.S. Lewis said it best when he concluded that everyone has to come to a point where they determine that Jesus is either lord of the universe, a liar, or some kind of lunatic.  Cultural trends come and go with the passage of time.  Hey, if nothing else, thank [our supreme being] that we aren’t heading back to the disco days anytime soon.  Those colorful bell bottomed polyester leisure suits, fat belts and heeled shoes were the pits!  However, I do miss the hair!!!!  Nevertheless, the basic message of Christ as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ has remained for nearly two thousand years.

My daughter once explained to me that the concept of absolute truth might be more clearly defined by the concept of non-truth (or falsehood).  Intolerance is (to me) a good example.  Are people who believe in absolute truth intolerant?  Wouldn’t tolerance be putting up with error and not accepting all views as true?  So, if tolerance is putting up with error, doesn’t that assume that there is truth?  You can’t have error without the concept of truth much like you can’t identify whether a cup of coffee is hot or cold without a reference. To me, a belief system composed of objective truth that claims to be founded on a fixed point of reference is the only consistent way of living and thinking.  I would therefore submit that absolute truth gives a firm foundation for decision-making and the implementation of principles into our daily lives.

The End

I apologize that it’s taken me a lot longer than I expected to piece this little ditty together.  Yet, after reading through this “tome”, I’m not sure that I’ve adequately answered your question or provided sufficient reasons or examples as to the existence of absolute truth.  I think I devolved into what I already have believed for some time.  and, maybe that’s okay.  That’s where I am – believing that absolute truth exists both in the physical world as noted above and within the intellectual world as I’ve tried to argue here.  It was my intent to prove absolute truth exists apart from having to lean on my Christian faith.  Nevertheless, I ended up where I did if for no other reason than because I see my Christian faith as the epitome for absolute truth which is best exemplified through the life of Christ.  Christ’s life and teachings are the basis for my standards of morality et al in spite of the fact that Christians (and certainly myself include) all too often aren’t examples of living a life predicated on Jesus’ teachings.  Maybe it’s possible to understand partial absolute truth with reason and logic apart from Christianity.  Then too, maybe I’m concluding that the ultimate source for absolute truth is beyond our finite abilities of reason and logic and perhaps for that realization of truth to be found, we have to be open to the source of absolute truth.

Well, agree or disagree – there you have my $0.02 worth.  Feel free to comment, question or challenge anything said.  As you’ve perhaps sensed, I enjoy healthy debate, deep discussion and having to dig deeper into things about which I really ought to have a better understanding.  Without your gentle prompting, this would not have happened.  So, thank-you.

Final note: I regret not having done a better job sourcing quotes, logical constructs, and miscellaneous thoughts that aren’t my own.  It wasn’t my intention to plagiarize per se. What I thought was going to be a relatively simple explanation got exceedingly complicated rather quickly. And, I’m guessing people who’ve studied philosophy are not at all surprised. Still, looking through a couple of philosophy books and checking out some web sites I visited, miscellaneous notes were scribbled down here and there and it didn’t take long before I lost track of what came from where. I should have done better in this regard – if only to go back to particular sources for further consideration. But I didn’t. Even so, a couple of books I drew from for definitions and some lines of reasoning in compiling this piece are Philosophical Issues and Problems, by Joseph Bien & William Bondeson and Understanding the Times, by David Noebel.

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  1. January 11, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    It should be clarified up front: I’m not an atheist. I may still end up that way, but in fact, I’m an English Traditional Witch.

    • Bob
      January 12, 2011 at 7:52 am

      Thanks for the clarification, John.

  2. January 12, 2011 at 12:42 am

    Here we go. I’ve tried to respond to everything and stick fairly close to the topic. Easiest way to do things was to include your original and then my comments. I’ve picked up from where I started commenting. We’ll see how this works when pasted in from Word.
    ——————————————————————————-
    >>It may appear simplistic, but I do believe our lives literally depend on the belief that absolutes exist and that everyone plays by the same rules in order to “get-along”. I would submit that horrible historical events such as the Holocaust came about because absolute moral values were predicated on relativistic terms.

    Absolute moral principles may or may not exist but most of what we’re using in society is relative. The Holocaust was not predicated on relativism; the Holocaust was predicated on prejudice and the supposed superiority of Christianity.

    >>Didn’t Nazi leaders in WWII use Darwin’s principle of survival of the fittest?

    No, in fact, they started from a complete myth of an Aryan “pure” race and went from there. It was a classic case of someone coming up with a false premise that they made up to justify their prejudices and devolving because that one false premise made everything else possible. (As an exercise, let me refer to you Bertrand Russell’s classic answer to a student’s challenge “From the falsehood that 2 equals 1, prove that you’re the Pope.”)

    >>In light of that, it could it not make sense that Germany saw themselves as a superior race to the Jews and therefore began “the final solution”?

    No, the Germans used the shift in the economy from agricultural to industrial that dispossessed most of the working class to fuel their propaganda that it was all the fault of the Jews, that good Christians were being forced out of jobs and made to suffer, and that Jews needed to be run out of the country and killed. This isn’t a proof that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened because relativism masqueraded as absolutism; if anything this was racial absolutism masked as Christianity. FWIW, the popularity of fascism in the US right now is being fueled similar by a similar shift in the economy (from industrial to information/service).

    >>If there’s no ability to define absolute truth, then it stands to reason that any outcome could conceivably have its own justification.

    Yes.

    >>As such, should the subsequent Nuremburg trials and death sentences meted out have ever been conducted?

    Yes. Because while we might say that killing is wrong, it’s more the case that killing is GENERALLY wrong. It is also IMO acceptable for society to say “You are so completely dangerous and unhuman that you have sacrificed the right to continue to live.”

    >>Other horrible events with terrible repercussions also come to mind including the Sudanese genocide, modern-day suicide bombers in the Middle East and elsewhere, Stalin’s purges in the USSR, the Crusades during the middle ages, Pol Pot, the Dresden bombing, the intentional starvation in Darfur, etc.

    Yup. Or directly funding terrorist training camps, torture, and slavery as Pat Robertson did with Charles Taylor to get diamond and gold mining concessions in Liberia. (cf. http://groups.google.com/group/misc.activism.progressive/browse_thread/thread/dca03c4012450e0c/f230a667e3ff73d5?pli=1)

    >>The above is obviously from a “dark side” of humanity. But consider something thing from a different perspective. Perhaps Mother Theresa should have been burned at the state for having been nothing more than a little pimp hussy with her young Indian charges. Truly, there needs to be some sort of objective in which to define actions and behaviors as either wicked or good – or even somewhere in between. To me, then, the implications of not having a “foundation” or a “truth gauge” can ultimately lead to disastrous applications.

    You can have rules of behavior that are not necessarily absolute but are generally accepted.

    Sidenote: Mother Teresa’s organization is not what you think it is. It’s medically incompetent, corrupt, and has never released information on where the millions of dollars in money and supplies go. Hundreds of people who went over to India to work there have left and actively state that the Missions of Charity should be closed down. I can provide links and contacts to people who are over there now for that reason.

    >>Within this context, I sense the opposite of absolute is relative. Perhaps a good example of someone claiming an absolute perspective versus a relativist perspective is Ann Landers. Years ago, Ann advocated that sex before marriage was wrong. Later, however, when asked why she had changed her mind, Ann’s response was, “Times have changed [and] we have to keep up with times.” Speaking with regard to sex before marriage always being wrong (I can’t confirm that’s what she meant, but for the sake of argument we’ll assume so), Ann spoke as an absolutist. That Ann changed her mind with respect to keeping up with the times would then indicate that she really had no absolute values regarding sex before marriage.

    And? New information requires new conclusions.

    >>If it feels good, what the heck – do it! Without a basis for values, can there be a basis for morality? In addition, without morality, can there be societal standards that govern behavior? Rape 10 year-old girls – what’s the problem? Who’s to say that it’s right or wrong? Questions pertaining to individual or corporate morality, it would then appear, have to be made relative to a stated source for the governance of that morality. Legalize marijuana – is there a right or wrong here? Do the benefits of legalizing marijuana for medical use outweigh the potential of more people getting hooked on drugs? And again, perhaps that’s not the best example – but for now, it’s the best I can come up with. Put this way, if one’s values are relative, then one’s own sense of morality is by definition relative. Can there be a definitive right or wrong or only assumptions based upon one’s own perceived values of right and wrong? Collectively, then, what a corporate people group would agree to as right or wrong would have to be their definition of what constitutes right and wrong.

    Okay, you’re making a silly leap here. You’re going from the idea that if something is relative, then none of it matters. You’re making no case for this. There are societal rules for the continued existence of the society that are relative TO THAT SOCIETY that are nevertheless important. And yes, your example of legalizing marijuana vs. getting people hooked on drugs is a really bad one. You and I both know that marijuana isn’t a gateway drug, or, if you don’t know it, consider yourself so informed.

    Let me give you an excellent example of relativism: Leviticus. Yeah, you know, that book of the Torah with all the really stupid rules? Those rules were being presented as absolutes with the highest possible moral authority, but it’s patently obvious that they’re just relativism wearing a coat of many colors. There are idiots who try to selectively apply a few of those rules these days, but they’re just pulling garbage out to support their own personal prejudices, because anyone who actually tried to live by Levitican law who isn’t an ignorant peasant polygamous shepherd living with slaves and wives who are chattel is not going to fare well.

    But supposedly this stuff actually worked. Or at least the Levites wanted us to believe that it worked. Most of the rules are pretty stupid in application, but most make a little sense if you figured out how they came into being (shellfish, e.g.).

    We can say that there are societal rules that are appropriate to us here and now, but even the rules we have here and now in the US are not the rules we had 100 years ago in this country and are definitely not the rules that apply to other cultures even today. Many fine examples of this are given in Boswell’s excellent book “Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe,” which carefully explodes any possible argument by the ignorant about “family values” as if they were monolithic, concrete, and unchanging.

    >>Given that there can be no absolutes for a relativist (at least as I see it), I’d submit that the philosophical aspect of relativism is at best confusing considering:

    • If a relativist thinks something is true for everyone, then he believes in an absolute truth and can no longer call himself a relativist. Therefore, hasn’t he just taken an absolutist position?

    Incorrect. I may take the view that it’s wrong to do something for the society we’ve got and the way we want to treat people, but that doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be wrong for all times and places. (I’m trying to think of an example here.) To imply an absolute truth means that I think something would be wrong for all times and places, and there may well be things I can think of. But those are also based on premises that I am taking that are in turn either societal or personal.

    • >>Billy Graham believes God exists. An atheist, however, doesn’t believe God exists. For both to be right, God would have to exist and not exist (which I believe to be untenable because I believe God does exist). In a similar manner, how can we state that a cup of coffee is either hot or cold unless we have a reference? Perhaps there’ll have to be arguments made later to justify the existence of God – but for now I’m trying to keep things close to the surface.

    Incorrect. The cases aren’t parallel. If Billy Graham cares to prove that there’s a God, and specifically, HIS God and not the Flying Spaghetti Monster, then he is more than welcome to do so. But this is currently an untestable hypothesis. Coffee, on the other hand, will be testable in very specific fashions, where temperature is directly measurable as molecular activity and its effects.

    • >>Everyone knows the math statement: if A=B and B=C, then A=C. However, in regard to Billy Graham (A) believing in God (C) and the atheist (B), denying God’s existence (D), I think the logic would go something like: if A=B and C=D, then A=C, A=D, B=C and B=D. But this can’t make sense because by definition of (A) & (C) are opposites as are (B) & (D) aren’t the same. As such, these statements would have to be considered not true – or at the least, undefined.

    Incorrect. These statements are, in fact, undefined, because the premise of God is untestable. And, again, you’re making an unstated assumption of one God, one flavor of God, and that Billy Graham has the remotest idea of God. What if we all die and we discover we’re on Mount Olympus and the Greeks were right? This would make both Billy Graham *and* the atheist wrong. You’re using a two-valued logic that is both inapplicable and untestable. (Look at Pascal’s famous quote about why he believed in God. He failed completely because there was an assumption that he was believing in the One, Right, True, and Only God, something that you can’t get Protestants and Catholics to agree on even now.)

    • >>If there’s no “standard”, no one can ever be wrong since there’s no way of determining right and wrong.

    Incorrect. If you accept, for example, that treating any human being as less than yourself is wrong, then you have a basis to derive a set of ethical principles that may allow for the formation of a functional society. (You could just as easily work from a premise that white Christians are superior to everyone and come up with a society; we’ve seen it done many times in the past and the present, but it’s not a society I want to have anything to do with.) Humans are herd animals. We are not Jeremiah Johnson living alone in the woods as the Libertarians might have us believe; we need a society to function and accomplish things. From the societal rules, you can establish things that are right and wrong. English common law, the basis for most of the law in this country except Louisiana, has many examples where things are relativistic and not absolute, but they work just fine.

    • If something is true for one, does it remains true even if it’s considered wrong by someone else’s “standard”? Suddenly we’re back to a lot of undefined statements.

    Sure. If you think Jesus is Lord or the Flying Spaghetti Monster created everything or that we’re random chunks of the cores of dead stars, then does my disbelief of this concept mean that your belief can’t exist? Your belief may be testably stupid, such as the Flat-Earthers, but we’re lacking any testability of godhead at the moment, which means that there’s no decision on what’s definably true and not in that particular venue. When you say that we’re back to a lot of undefined statements, you’re skipping over the idea that there can be many versions of truth that can co-exist. If you’re looking for an absolute truth that says “God exists in the form that I believe,” the floor is all yours to come up with a proof for testability. Until then, you’re right: an untestable belief is by definition undefined.

    • >>If one claims no such thing as absolute truth, haven’t they then assumed that no “view” can be true?

    Nope. See above.

    • >>On what basis can such claims for the opposites of right and wrong coexist?

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at here.

    >>How is it that those who don’t believe in any form of absolute truth or objective morality insist on making objective moral statements against those who do?

    As I recall, one of the most popular is to point out the hypocrisy in the beliefs of those who are claiming those. Usually the people who are claiming absolute truths are throwing them around as a judgment. It’s not like it’s sport to find the flaw in that.

    >>Can a relativist insist on using terms like “wrong” and “evil” instead of something more “relativist” such as: “It’s neither right, wrong, good, bad, or indifferent. It just is.” Or, perhaps the relativist could say, “I don’t like it but if you do, I’m okay with that.” This thought seems consistent from the title of a book written in the early 1970s, I’m OK, You’re OK.

    You haven’t read the book, I think, as that’s not what it’s about. It’s about self-acceptance.

    As far as what the relativist might think for what’s okay or not, I think it’s safe to say that the idea of “As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, you should do what you like.” Hurting other people is wrong (there’s something I can accept as a reasonably absolute truth, but it’s not handed down from on-high; it’s because that’s the world I want to live in) and hurting yourself is just plain stupid. But if something actually hasn’t hurt somebody, then what’s the fuss? Does it matter if I… oh, eat shellfish or pork? If I’m allergic to it, then it’s dumb, but otherwise, so what? Who has been injured?

    >>So, if truth isn’t subjective, the next question has to be how do we know what truth really is?

    • >>Most people will not deny they exist or that they can reason.

    Yes, although many of these people would be wrong on the latter, however. A great many people do not have the intellectual tools necessary to reason, but ignorance/stupidity create their own blind spots.

    • >>We know we exist because we’re aware of our existence.

    Yes. Generally accepted Cartesianism.

    • >>Truth corresponds to facts.

    Yes.

    • >>We’re aware of some facts such as matter and reality.

    Yes, generally, although we are now beginning to touch on the idea of sheaved dimensional existences that suggest that reality is in fact more subjective or arbitrary than we might’ve thought.

    • >>Is there a way to know the source of this reality?

    Possibly.

    • >>Even agnostics will admit to the “logic of cause and effect”.

    Where causality can be established, yes.

    • >>What was the “first cause”? How did the universe begin? Is God a logical concept?

    1. We don’t know. 2. We’d thought the Big Bang, but that’s been changing in the last five years or so. 3. Logical? No, because God is not a testable concept.

    • >>Without God, where did matter come from?

    This is a meaningless question. This is like Bill O’Reilly’s classic statement recently of ‘I don’t understand how tides work; therefore, Jesus!’ How the Worm Ouroboros or Apophis the Great Serpent or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster fit in with the question of matter is undefined and undefinable, let alone untestable. You can simply say “Where did matter come from?” and still have a question that’s ultimately undecided.

    >>Descartes famous line, “I think therefore I am” is interesting in that it illuminates one’s own existence and that we have the required capacity to reason. We know we absolutely exist and therefore if someone were to say to us that we didn’t exist, rationale thinking says that it’s impossible for both of these claims to be right.

    Not necessarily. We do not know that we’re not in a Turing box, for example. Our existence would be subjective at that point. Indeed, a great deal of Christian mysticism and the Hindu concept of Maya (among many others) are based on the question of what reality is. But let us suppose someone came up to me and said “You don’t exist.” What is that to me? Either I exist, as I believe, or I don’t. If I do, then I do. If I don’t, then in my own subjective experience, I still do; therefore, I do. (This is very much like why I think predestination is so stupid: even if I don’t TRULY have free will, then it sure looks from my POV like I do; therefore, I’m playing the game as if I do have free will and there is no predestination, because WTF?)

    >>Then again, things can appear to be true at some times and not at others. Around the time of Columbus, many people believed the earth was flat. Today, however, we know the earth is a sphere. Someone might infer that the truth has changed. But in reality, it didn’t. The earth has always been a sphere even when people believed it was flat. The truth of the earth’s physical shape did not change but I think it’s safe to say that people have changed from holding a false belief to a true one. In essence, our beliefs with respect to the shape of the earth now correspond with the facts.

    Yes.

    >>In summary, then, for someone to then say that there’s no such thing as absolute truth is to state an absolute and from my feeble understand, this is a contradiction of terms. Yet, everyone seems to have an innate sense of right and wrong. Who hasn’t been “cut-off” while driving? The immediate reaction is anger and rage, flipping the ‘bird’ at the other driver and shouting out, “You stupid %#$@&% idiot!” Even small kids understand the unfairness of an action when, say, someone cuts in front of the line for an ice cream cone. Lying in legal court proceedings is perhaps a violation of another absolute and courts have laws regarding perjury in order to ensure compliance to the law. From where do we get this innate sense of right and wrong?

    You’ve picked a wonderful example here. The idea of standing in line and not cutting is not universal. For example, in Poland, people don’t queue: they cluster and push. It’s not being rude; that’s just how they do it. IIRC, in Sweden, it’s okay to move up in line if you ask each person, and that’s not considered rude, either. So where we get this innate sense of right and wrong is societal. It’s our upbringing. If you were in Poland and were standing in line and people just dashed in front of you, you’d be upset. But you’d be reacting based on your upbringing and not on some absolute truth.

    >>Therefore, I think it’s reasonable to state that there are absolutes.

    You haven’t shown any yet, unless you’re talking about something like the speed of light.

    >>The question, then, becomes whose absolutes do we follow? How, then, do we know that one’s absolutes are indeed absolutes?

    You don’t. Even the speed of light appears to have changed very shortly after the Big Bang. The math is suggesting that it started out higher and then just changed.

    >>On this point, I think we get to the crux of the issue. Being honest here, I’m sympathetic to those who’d say the Christian idea of absolute truth is intolerant, narrow-minded, bigoted and even exclusivist.

    Fine words. Yup.

    >>Christianity’s claim is not that it’s one truth among many. Instead, Christianity claims to be the only channel through which truth is communicated.

    Yes, which is why it is so greatly amusing to see a-holes like Pastor Tim in Fla claiming that HIS version of Christianity is the only possible one. Or people who get really upset with the “unChristian” morality expressed by the Christians at http://www.libchrist.com. Or the Protestants and the Catholics (all different versions thereof). I’ll certainly concede that it sounds rather exclusive.

    >>In reality, though, Christianity isn’t the only faith-belief doctrine that claims to be exclusive. Even a cursory examination of, say, Islam reveals its exclusive claims of truth through Allah and the necessity of Jihad. It’s fascinating to observe the degree to which Western people generally condemn Christianity for its self-proclaimed tenants.

    (“Tenets.” Sorry; I hate sounding pedantic, but this has been bugging me.)

    There are many different religions that claim they’re the One Right, True, And Only Way To God. I tend to believe that this is a social virus construction, designed to foster the existence of the religion and build up brownie points in the afterlife rather than actually help anyone follow the path.

    >>Yet the adherents of Islam are in essence given a pass for their self-proclaimed tenants that are in my mind much more punitive to the non-Muslim infidel. However, that’s probably a different subject altogether.

    I’m sure that if I had grown up with an abundance of Muslims, I might feel less trustful of them. And there are some cultural things about personal territory-marking in Islam that I find really obnoxious and counterproductive. Nevertheless, it’s not the Muslims who knock on my door to convert me, talk about “family values,” and generally act as a blight on the cultural landscape in this country. If Christians were overwhelmingly like Quakers, we’d all be a lot better off.

    >>Nevertheless, it’s hard to ignore a “diminished evaluation” of other beliefs (faiths?) when biblical scriptures such as John 14:6 state: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” The thought occurs to me as I’m thinking back on our conversations about ‘grace’ – I fully agree and understand that if the truth the Christians professes to possess is only proclaimed for others to live by but not those within the “Christian community”, who would want to believe Christianity’s message?

    That would be it, yup. I’ve had a lifetime of my beliefs being bludgeoned by Christians who want me to believe in their good intentions. Sorry, does it say “Born to pay retail” here on my forehead? I’ve seen Christians running around loose over and over and over; trusting their good intentions would be foolish in extremis. There are definitely a few good ones. But as soon as religionists of any brand start talking about “morals,” particularly how mine don’t measure up to the supposed standards of their imaginary friends, I reach for my wallet and weapons, because no good can come of them.

    >>Along the same line, even if Christians fail to live up to the standards of their faith; do those failures necessarily illuminate false doctrine? Perhaps those failures are better defined as ignorance of the Christian faith or the inability of Christians to uphold to their faith?

    I wouldn’t go down this path, as we have to accept that we have 2000 years of experimental data that shows Christianity as a failed social experiment. If it’s successful spiritually is something that will be knowable only after death and very possibly only after the death of someone who is a Christian: consider the idea that we create our own afterlife according to our belief system, so what we believe is what we get. I doubt I’d find a Christian afterlife, but you wouldn’t be likely to find mine, either.

    >>To that point, I think C.S. Lewis said it best when he concluded that everyone has to come to a point where they determine that Jesus is either lord of the universe, a liar, or some kind of lunatic. Cultural trends come and go with the passage of time. Hey, if nothing else, thank [our supreme being] that we aren’t heading back to the disco days anytime soon. Those colorful bell bottomed polyester leisure suits, fat belts and heeled shoes were the pits! However, I do miss the hair!!!! Nevertheless, the basic message of Christ as ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ has remained for nearly two thousand years.

    Again, this is a two-valued logic that denies the possibility of other belief systems. It takes as a premise the concept that there is only one true path to God and that heavily edited Bible is it.

    (Actually, disco made a brief return in Ireland and the UK in the late 90s, albeit with natural fabrics rather than polyester. Small blessings, eh?)

    >>My daughter once explained to me that the concept of absolute truth might be more clearly defined by the concept of non-truth (or falsehood). Intolerance is (to me) a good example. Are people who believe in absolute truth intolerant?

    Only the intolerant ones. You can believe in an absolute truth and not knock on people’s doors to pester them about it.

    >>Wouldn’t tolerance be putting up with error and not accepting all views as true?

    Not necessarily. For example, my branch of witchcraft doesn’t believe in proselytizing. We wait until people ask us. Anything else is an insult to the Gods. Similarly, Jesus didn’t say anything about God to the one person on the cross who didn’t ask him about it, but just to the one who did, and only after. We may have an absolute truth but we may also recognize that you can’t tell people about it until they’re ready to hear it.

    >>So, if tolerance is putting up with error, doesn’t that assume that there is truth?

    Or a relativism. The Dutch Church, the Southern Baptists, and many other Christian denominations believed in the superiority of white people (and many still do). They could cite Bible passages to prove this, all of them vague and fuzzy and usually relying on the story of Cain and Abel. This was wrong, as they were treating other humans as less than themselves. Most of these people have since recanted. But it was all relativism masquerading as absolute truth.

    >>You can’t have error without the concept of truth much like you can’t identify whether a cup of coffee is hot or cold without a reference.

    Yes, you can: coffee can be measured absolutely based purely on molecular and chemical activity without reference to something outside itself. It might be difficult, but you could do it. You can also do things that are harmful and have consequences to yourself and others within a completely relativistic system that are classable as “error” for any of a number of reasons. (Remember, you have to define what “error” is, too; that’s not an absolute, either.)

    >>To me, a belief system composed of objective truth that claims to be founded on a fixed point of reference is the only consistent way of living and thinking. I would therefore submit that absolute truth gives a firm foundation for decision-making and the implementation of principles into our daily lives.

    Well, if it works for you, swell. You need to tell me an absolute spiritual truth and I’ll be glad to look at it. I haven’t seen any absolute truths except for scientific principles and, as we touched on, those may not be quite as absolute as we’d thought.

    >>I apologize that it’s taken me a lot longer than I expected to piece this little ditty together. Yet, after reading through this “tome”, I’m not sure that I’ve adequately answered your question or provided sufficient reasons or examples as to the existence of absolute truth. I think I devolved into what I already have believed for some time. and, maybe that’s okay. That’s where I am – believing that absolute truth exists both in the physical world as noted above and within the intellectual world as I’ve tried to argue here. It was my intent to prove absolute truth exists apart from having to lean on my Christian faith. Nevertheless, I ended up where I did if for no other reason than because I see my Christian faith as the epitome for absolute truth which is best exemplified through the life of Christ. Christ’s life and teachings are the basis for my standards of morality et al in spite of the fact that Christians (and certainly myself include) all too often aren’t examples of living a life predicated on Jesus’ teachings. Maybe it’s possible to understand partial absolute truth with reason and logic apart from Christianity. Then too, maybe I’m concluding that the ultimate source for absolute truth is beyond our finite abilities of reason and logic and perhaps for that realization of truth to be found, we have to be open to the source of absolute truth.

    Definitely: if there are absolute truths, then we need to be open to their existence.

    Here’s something that might completely undercut the idea of Christian absolutism as you’re thinking about it:

    Premise: your knowledge of Christianity is based on the Bible in its current form (66 books and so on).

    Premise: we can postulate that, although there are cultural changes in the translation and lost context, that much of this can come through in translation, so it is not necessarily a requirement that we all learn to read Aramaic to truly know the Bible.

    Premise: the generally accepted books of the Bible have a measure of provenance to them.

    Problem: there are other books to the Bible that have provenance that is equally good, but they weren’t politically accepted. Consider the collection of books now known as the Apocrypha. They present additional material. Consider the Gospel of Thomas, from the Nag Hammadi Library, which has excellent provenance, but paints a different picture of the nature of Christianity. Consider the Gospel of Judas, which seems to have been excluded from canon largely because it pissed Irenaeus off. If we can include as canon the casual opinions of a usurper like Paul, we could certainly include other gospels that actually have good provenance.

    Conclusion: Your knowledge of Christianity is relativistic, based only on the popularly accepted mainstream US Protestant interpretations founded on the Western/Roman half of the Council of Nicea, and not those bad Byzantines, who believe differently. Does having a relativistic belief this affect your overall belief? Even if you accepted my conclusion, I don’t think it’d make a difference: you’d still be a Christian and happy in your faith as it is. But look at the bright side: you could’ve been brought up to be a dick like Pastor Tim instead of the really decent guy I know you to be.

    I can also tell you the secret behind the Holy Trinity if you like. It’s profound, important, and moving, but it’s not quite the mystery you’ve been led to believe. And it’s actually understandable. It all comes from the cultural context that Christianity came from… but it’s not been really popular with Christians. Pity.

    >>Well, agree or disagree – there you have my $0.02 worth. Feel free to comment, question or challenge anything said. As you’ve perhaps sensed, I enjoy healthy debate, deep discussion and having to dig deeper into things about which I really ought to have a better understanding. Without your gentle prompting, this would not have happened. So, thank-you.

    You’re very welcome, Bob. You’re a decent guy and I like talking to you about this.

    >>Final note: I regret not having done a better job sourcing quotes, logical constructs, and miscellaneous thoughts that aren’t my own. It wasn’t my intention to plagiarize per se. What I thought was going to be a relatively simple explanation got exceedingly complicated rather quickly. And, I’m guessing people who’ve studied philosophy are not at all surprised. Still, looking through a couple of philosophy books and checking out some web sites I visited, miscellaneous notes were scribbled down here and there and it didn’t take long before I lost track of what came from where. I should have done better in this regard – if only to go back to particular sources for further consideration. But I didn’t. Even so, a couple of books I drew from for definitions and some lines of reasoning in compiling this piece are Philosophical Issues and Problems, by Joseph Bien & William Bondeson and Understanding the Times, by David Noebel.

    No worries. I’ve had to go check my references in a number of cases, too. Did I remember that it was the Council of Trent that cleaned up the Protestant canon? I probably should’ve, but I didn’t. Did I remember Irenaeus’s name? Not a snowball’s chance of that one, either. I needed to look that kinda thing up to make sure I had it all right.

    • Bob
      January 12, 2011 at 8:17 am

      Thank-you, John for the time and effort you put into reading through and commenting on what is essentially my first philosophy essay. I appreciate the detailed comments and clarification of your own perspectives. I spent, what was to to me, an inordinate amount of time writing and compiling this ‘paper’ and enjoyed the effort immensely. There’s something satisfying to think through and come to some level of understanding that was not previously comprehended. And as I stated at the outset, I wouldn’t have done this except for your gentle challenge. So again – thank-you, my friend.

      It’s interesting to note that my daughter, a recent U/MN graduate with a minor in philosophy and very evangelical in her Christian faith, had similar criticisms with regard to the logic I applied and the examples I came up with or otherwise noted. She suggested I read through C.S. Lewis’ book Mere Christianity from which I might gain a more foundational premise for the justification of the beliefs I hold. Perhaps I will and then write a “Rev_1”. We’ll see.

  3. January 12, 2011 at 11:47 am

    You’re quite welcome, old bean. And yes, I agree keenly about the idea of ‘writing to learn’ where you’ve discovered a logical conclusion out of your beliefs that hadn’t been obvious before.

    That’s very interesting that your daughter said much the same thing. C.S. Lewis is not bad and did a fair job of separating the Church of England beliefs that made his personal life difficult from the concept of a “pure” Christianity, although it was certainly colored with the Western beliefs about Jesus being the Son of God. I’d recommend that book.

    Thank you again for taking the time to write the essay. I’m honored.

    (I just reread what I posted last night. I think I did a fair job of saying what I wanted. Do let me know if you want to know the mystery of the Trinity; I would’ve posted it last night but I had run out of steam.)

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