Saturday, 5 September 2015
ON ABSOLUTE TRUTH
Last September’s Philosophers’ Café topic was “Truth and Its Enemies.” As usual in discussions of this kind, a debate about absolutism vs. relativism occurred. Are there absolute truths or are all beliefs/truth-claims merely relative to one’s culture or individual point of view? Here are a few preliminary thoughts on the subject. The short answer is yes, there are absolute truths, but my analysis won’t make absolutists very happy.
First, it's not clear whether the term 'absolute' adds anything to the concept of truth. If a belief is true, isn't it absolutely true? These days, people constantly use the word as a kind of emphatic substitution for 'yes.' “Do you believe O.J. killed his wife?" "Absolutely." 'Totally' is another one. "Did you enjoy the concert?" "Totally." Perhaps in philosophy we can identify a more significant use of 'absolute' that might send our current inquiry off toward a more satisfactory understanding. I'm not so sure.
What is the opposite of 'absolute truth' in our context? We might think it's 'relative truth.' What could that mean? For one, it could mean that a given belief is peculiar to a particular culture, e.g. orthodox Jews believe they are God's chosen people. When thinking about such examples, people often say, "Well, it's true for them." Which is just another way of saying they believe it. The opposite of this would be a belief that is true for everybody, meaning that it is something that everyone believes. But that is not what people usually mean by an 'absolute truth.' A belief shared by everyone might be wrong.
Religious dogmas, of course, are often expressed in absolutistic terms, but a claim by someone that the Bible or a Papal Bull contains absolute truths does not establish those doctrines as absolutely true. They're just asserted as such with much "roaring and bawling," as philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it.
A more philosophically respectable notion of 'absolute truth' might refer to beliefs that cannot be wrong, that are true for all time - even in all universes - regardless of how many people accept them. Are there such truths? Absolutely(!). Understood in their relevant contexts, I take the following to be examples of 'absolute' truths:
1. Truths about my immediate experience here and now, e.g., I am seeing a computer screen before me. Ok, I’m not always at my computer, so how can this truth be timeless. It can’t, but there is a class of truths about me and my computer that avoids this objection. The timeless version: at time t, CM is seeing a computer screen before him, where t is a variable that stands for any particular time. Many instantiations of this formal proposition, whether past or future are timelessly true. (The present instantiation is ambiguous.)
2. All truths about the past. In the year 49 BC, Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River on his way to Rome. (Of course, that belief might be false, but if so some other statement will be true, e.g. it was in some other year that J.C. crossed the Rubicon or it was some other river, or even that J.C. never existed.)
3. All mathematical truths, e.g. the Pythagorean Theorem, at least when someone is thinking about it.
4. Many empirical generalizations, e.g. if you, a human constituted as all humans are at this time in history, step in front of a moving bus, you will be injured or killed. (If you want to argue that this is only a highly probable truth and therefore not absolute, fine: state it as a probability and then that statement will be 'absolutely' true.)
It may be objected that my approach is just to throw a net over every kind of truth there is, leaving no room for an opposite to 'absolute truth' at all. But that is my point - the term 'absolute truth' does not delineate a species of truth different from other kinds of truth. The opposite of 'truth,' whether absolute or not absolute, is simply falsehood. I propose dropping the term 'absolute' from this kind of discussion altogether. Then we could get on with the really tough question: what are the criteria of truth and falsity in beliefs?
This is not to say there is no issue of relativism vs. non-relativism. I am only suggesting that, because of the negative connotations of the word 'absolute,' a better way of formulating the issue would be in terms of, say, 'objective vs. relative.' Thus, the question would be "Is objective truth about the world possible, or are all truth-claims merely relative to a person's culture or their own subjective belief system?"