Definitional Dancing III: Absolute Truth

This series has been discussing some debated definitions. In Part 1, I discussed the definition of atheism. I continued that discussion in Part 2 and applied it to discuss the definition of religion. Essentially, I implored the reader to ask whoever they’re conversing with to define their terms so you’re on the same page. Today, I’ll conclude this series by applying my own advice: we’ll be asking what’s meant by “absolute truth”.

I was once asked, “Do you really believe in absolute truth?” I will never forget the tone and face of the gentleman I was talking to. It was a combination of astonishment and pity. Our society is saturated with an overwhelming push towards pluralism. The idea of believing in absolute truth is considered crazy; scandalous even. But my question is: what does that even mean?

At first glance, it seems the term “absolute” is redundant. Isn’t something that is true, just, well, true?

Perhaps an absolute truth is an objective truth. That is to say, something that is true independent of human thought. Since they are true independent of human thought, they are true for everyone. This would be claims like “WWII ended in 1945”, “the Moon exists”, or “the Earth is nearer to the sun than Pluto” You can be wrong about them. This could be contrasted with subjective truth, something that is true dependant on human thought. This category of truths would be things like “X tastes better than Y” or “Team A is a better team to cheer for than Team B”. The term “absolute” would then be to differentiate against subjectivity.

If this is correct, is there no absolute (objective) truths? Clearly there are. I have already given 3. What about “The earth is roughly spherical”, “I must exist to be able to read this sentence”, “1+1=2”? All these seem to be absolute truths. And, most importantly, what about the claim “there is no absolute truth”? Is that true for everyone? If yes, then there is at least one absolute truth, namely, that there aren’t any, so the claim is false. If it’s not true, then why is that being pushed on everyone? It’s just false, so we can move on.

Perhaps an absolute truth is not simply an objective truth, but an objective truth that carries some importance, perhaps in regards to how people live their lives. It seems to me, though, “1+1=2” seems to fit this category. Imagine if I had two loonies. Put them together, and, by golly, there’s 3 dollars! It would drastically effect everyone’s lives, from our pay cheques to the economy as a whole, not just how we fill in our answers in elementary school. Heck, you could birth twins and get three kids! What about the spherical nature of our planet? That, for sure, caries some huge implications; from how gravity works to whether the ancient explorers would have gone for quite a tumble. And, again, “there is no absolute truth” seems to fit this category as well. If there was no important objective truths, I’d want to know! That seems pretty important. So it seems to be self-defeating again.

Maybe the use of the term is to simply say an absolute truth is a religious truth. Claims like “God exists” or what Jesus said in John 14:6 are meaningless, as there isn’t any truth value. They can neither be true nor false. Why do I say that? Even if we say religious truths are false, it is at least true that they are false. Or, to put it another way, the proposition “Religion X is false” would be a true proposition; constituting a religious truth. That’s why if there is no absolute truth the claims must be meaningless. This, however, is prima facie absurd. Either God exists or He doesn’t. Jesus was either right or wrong. Plus, “there is no absolute truth” would be, under this definition, a profound religious truth. Everyone who holds to a religion would have their lives drastically altered if they discovered what they believed was meaningless and without truth value. It is, therefore, once again, self defeating.

Continuing from the last attempt at a definition, perhaps to say there are no absolute truths is to say we can’t know any absolute truths; we can’t know any religious claims. Maybe it’s epistemological. We can’t know God exists, even though He either does or doesn’t, regardless of what we think. First, no one sticks the word “know” in there, so this seems initially implausible. But if this interpretation is correct, how do they know that? What justification do they have for believing that? Moreover, again, the claim we can’t know any religious truths seems to itself be a profound, seemingly known, religious truth. I think you might see the general pattern emerging.

Possibly, an absolute truth is a moral truth. Maybe they’re saying there is no absolute moral right and wrong. Interestingly, this is generally followed up by the familiar claim “…as long as you don’t push your beliefs on anyone else” or something along those lines. Doing otherwise is often charged to someone as a moral fault. The claim that no one should be pushing their beliefs, though, is an immediate contradiction to the initial claim, so there’s at least one absolute truth. But would they really be willing to commit to the position that there are either 0 or 1 moral absolute? What about the holocaust? Was that morally wrong? What about selflessness or love? Are those good? I think this claim is only talk.

It seems that to be committed to the idea that there are absolute truths is just to say there is such a thing as reality. Does reality exist? You can’t answer no; it would be self defeating, as you would be saying that in reality, reality doesn’t exist. If you still want to say no, I can just ignore you, I guess, since you’re not real. Absolute truth, whatever that actually means, seems to be a staple of our world. I can’t find a way that it isn’t self-referentially incoherent, blatantly false, or (most of the time) both to say otherwise. As Beckwith and Koukl would say, our feet are planted firmly in midair without absolute truth. We can’t really get around it.

Summing up, definitions depend on their context and it’s important to define your terms, as well as to ask others to define theirs. Many disagreements can be avoided if we were willing to clarify what we mean. Moreover, these definitions in-and-of-themselves aren’t that important. We would like to know about reality. Essentially, pick your battles. Definitions, even though I just spent a whole series on them, generally aren’t all that worth the time. There is no need to dance around with each other over semantics.

Of course, in order to avoid this dancing, we need to define our terms clearly and precisely as best we can and be willing to ask what someone else means prior to forming our response (i.e. listen first, respond second). It can be useful to discuss what someone means, like the term “absolute truth”, to get rid of lazy catch phrases, silly buzz words, or some intellectual cobwebs. But we shouldn’t get caught up in the terminology in-and-of-itself. Let’s debate deeper realities than terminology as much as we possible can.

I hope this has been a fruitful series for your thoughts. Happy musings!

Keep pondering,

Aaron

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