Lifes Worth Knowing

Iron Sharpens Iron: Absolute Truth

In Philosophy, Religion, Thoughtful, Truth on February 14, 2012 at 9:49 pm

Iron Sharpens Iron is a new feature for lifesworthknowing, taking a broad topic and allowing the authors to discuss different viewpoints utilizing the Socratic method – edited and uploaded for more discussion on the blog. The idea is to get ideas circulating and promote discussion in the forum.

The first up is a broad topic with far ranging implications. You can follow the discussion below. Justin in bold. Jon in plain text.

It is a topic that we have discussed so many times over the years, and our opinions on the matter have shaped our lives in radical ways. It is the basic, essential question that we all unknowingly base our lives around – is there an absolute truth, and is it knowable?

This is such a broad question. We can look at it two ways, either we are talking empirical, scientific truth or “Truth” in a spiritual sense?

I think history has shown that scientific truth is always being challenged and amended. I would say that absolute, scientific truth does exist, but that it is probably not knowable. Unless our existence is a ruse or some kind of dream, then there is a physical nature to the universe. I’m not saying that it is entirely physical, but that it is at least partly physical. And as such, there is some basic, root truth. Even if that physical truth is impossibly complex or impossibly simple, it doesn’t alter the fact that by existing, there must simultaneously be a truth or description of said existence. How accurate we can be with it remains to be seen.

From a spiritual sense, I doubt there is an absolute truth. Spirituality seems to be intensely personal, and if Truth exists, I would argue that it is both fleeting and relative. I think Truth in the spiritual sense can only be experienced in the moment. To use an all too obvious example, the Bible is hardly believable if you take into account the number of translations and myriad degrees we have been removed from the original sources. When time passes, the Truth of something fades. True understanding of anything can only happen in the moment, because only in that moment can the context be experienced. How many memories morph through time? How many people have different accounts of the same events? Although the reasons for that specific confusion can be debated, the point remains that even our clearest memories are highly alterable. And so, I would argue that any existential or spiritual Truth is only knowable in the moment and as a result, forever changing.

Lets examine it on a spiritual sense, and maybe pare down the definition a little bit to ask the question “is there a spiritual truth that is universal for all of humanity?” Is there a spiritual absolute? Your reasoning drives straight into the heart of relativism, where truth can vary from moment to moment and person to person. The classic rebuttal to this argument is asking a relativist if they  “absolutely sure” that relativism is correct.  Isn’t it an absolute statement to say that there is no absolute?

Though I may or may not have been quick to use it in my youth, I now find the “Are you absolutely sure” rebuttal completely absurd. While it can be an effective way to fluster your opponent (in one simple question you force them to either retract their argument or nullify it by making an “absolute” statement), the premise is quite silly. A human making an absolute statement about the universe says nothing about the actual existence of a universal spiritual absolute. It really is apples and oranges. The question itself isn’t even really about the existence of an absolute, it is more about what a person believes about the existence of absolutes. Furthermore, the level of confidence of the person making the argument is completely irrelevant. Whether I am 90% sure, 50% sure, or absolutely sure, the point remains the same.

In a way, I believe the concept of a spiritual absolute is like a myth. Once it exists as theory and inhabits our consciousness, there is no real way to disprove it. Bertrand Russell’s famous “celestial teapot” is probably the most popular illustration of this idea. I could paraphrase, but why not quote him directly?

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics [sic] to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
  – Bertrand Russell 1952

The point is, it is not up to me to disprove the existence of a spiritual absolute. On the contrary, the burden of proof is on those who claim it exists. If I made the statement “there are no absolute truths” and somebody responded with “are you absolutely sure”, I would have to answer “As sure as I can possibly be.”  I would argue that just as a line will never touch the asymptote it approaches, so we can never be totally certain of anything. There are simply degrees of confidence.

While eloquent, your rebuttal leaves us standing on the precipice of the abyss of relativism. Many religious leaders would have you believe that without the common bond of absolutes holding us all together, we would quickly devolve in some Hobbesian state of nature, claiming that what is true for you isn’t true for me, thereby rendering laws and morals obsolete.

The practical question that we have to address then, is whether that matters. Is there really a moral absolutism that binds us all to civility that is rooted in a religious edict (like the ten commandments) or is there something else? In “The Idea of Human Rights”, Author Michael J. Perry grapples with this question and ultimately comes to the conclusion that human rights are only bound by the idea that individuals are sacred, and there exists some sort of inviolable self. This notion is inescapably religious, and despite numerous attempts to argue the contrary, Perry can’t make the case that absolute human rights can exist outside of a religious context.

Isn’t that an absolute that we need to acknowledge? Isn’t that the very basic level of practical application for this grand question? That every human being is endowed (by the creator or elsewhere) with certain unalienable rights? Our society is built upon that presumption, and by digging under it, we can see that it is an inherently spiritual position. Now, if that idea is intrinsically religious, it would necessitate some kind of absolute Truth. Which leaves us with an idea that would be disagreeable to many intellectuals – that there is no such thing as a universal human right if it is divorced from a soul.

I agree that my stance is one of relativism. As a matter of fact or truth, I believe that it is the only intellectually honest option. Your implication toward a descent into a “Hobbesian state of nature” and eventual arrival at a choice – “either we accept that there are absolutes, or we strip our humanity of its meaning” – is not really concerned with the pure existence or nonexistence of truth or absolutes, rather the practical application to human society.

To this point I will refer you to Rousseau and his idea of the Social Contract. Simply put, political authority is derived from people choosing to leave the state of nature, willingly giving up some personal liberties, and living under the protective umbrella of the sovereign body. I don’t wish to turn this into a political discourse or discussion, but rather, I want to borrow Rousseau’s framework and modify it to fit our discussion. You referred to spiritual relativism as an “abyss”, and to certain extent I agree. Just as a state of anarchy would be unpredictable and dangerous, so could a state of complete spiritual relativism. However, I think we keep ourselves from tumbling into the abyss of relativism in much the same way that Rousseau’s Social Contract brings people from a state of nature into unified political body. However uncreative it may be, lets call it a Spiritual Contract.

If spiritual absolutes exist, they exist only as human construction, part of a Spiritual Contract. A group of people band together around commonly agreed upon precepts, and in doing so cede personal spiritual freedom for the benefit of existing within a larger body. The main difference (how small or large the difference may be is certainly open for discussion) between Rousseau’s Social Contract and our Spiritual Contract is the end point. The Social Contract ends in a political structure, and the Spiritual Contract necessarily ends in a religious structure. I would argue that the Spiritual Contract binds its members more closely together and more fully to its ideals because it addresses more fundamental questions about identity and existence.

Up to this point, the vast majority of the world’s population derives their spiritual direction from some sort of religious structure. Often the structures bear striking resemblances to one another, and I think this is a good sign of what the core elements of the Spiritual Contract are. It should not be surprising that there are similarities just as it would not be surprising to find that a pride of lions in Tanzania has a similar social structure to a pride in Kenya.

The problem with the religious structures is they are notoriously antagonistic toward one another and willingly ignore their own fundamental truths in conflict situations. So, the question is, can we isolate and separate the fundamental contractual elements and synthesize them in order to find a set of agreed upon spiritual and moral codes? If so, does it matter that they are human construction?

Thoughts?

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  1. Amongst all of this scientific, relativist and spiritual guff, is there not simply room for the semanticist’s ‘absolute truth’? By that I mean that as an exercise of linguistics alone, the sentence “there is at least one absolute truth” can be maintained.

    It may be that at some point, such a semantic argument could be proven by science to need expansion (into “there are n absolute truths”) or alternatively limitation (“there is only one absolute truth”), but the statement “there is at least one” (which is self-referential, but that does not change the truth of the statement) can stand alone at the moment, can it not?

    Or would the semanticist be caught up by the fact that both “there is at least one” and “there is only one” could apply at the same time, creating two truths, which would then make the statement not an absolute truth?

    As an exercise in reasoning alone, one would then have to dismiss “there is only one” altogether – so perhaps we can pare it back to “there is at least one”, and leave it at that being the sole, universal, absolute, truth.

  2. Is it absolute that Justin’s text is bold and Jon’s is ‘plain text.’ AND why does Justin get bold text? I think it’s race related. But seriously, why? Alright I’m just an ass, and I love you both. This is an absolute too, just like white rice is better than whole grain, and purple sucks worse than pink… End.

  3. Pink is way worse than purple. Fact.

  4. I respect and admire you both for your consistent and honest pursuit of knowledge, life and the intersection of the two. Furthermore I appreciate the push, back and forth, between the two of you as interact on the subject.

    As you both know I unashamedly and unequivocally approach life from a biblical worldview. Yes, fellow repliers, I’m that guy that does believe Jesus is Creator and Sustainer of all life. That guy who does believe Jesus is fully human and fully God and that Jesus did die on a cross, bearing the sins of the world. That guy who does believe Jesus is reconciling all things back to God the Father by the Holy Spirit. That guy who confidently believes that one day every knee will bow before Jesus, whether in confession now or in condemnation later, to the glory of God the Father.

    In short, I’m that guy who both believes in Absolute Truth and revelation of Absolute Truth by God in creation, generally speaking, and the Old/New Testaments in a specific and special way.

    I do, however, see and understand that everything I just said does require and is built upon faith. A faith that the Bible describes as being “child like.” And while there is countless evidence in all scientific disciples to support the faith claims of the Bible, those claims and my belief in the Bible as Truth is based on faith. The Bible even says that without faith it is impossible to please God. So despite all of the supporting evidence across every scientific disciple (including textual criticism of the Bible itself) I am called to have faith like a child.

    Faith like my 3 year old child, who places incredible amounts of faith in her mother and I. Faith in us to care for her, love her, feed her, clothe her, spend time with her, play games with her, wrestle with her and so much more. As you both have sons I have no doubt you have watched your boys interact with you from a faith based foundation. Your dad, why would you do anything other than love and protect them? In fact, some of the greatest and most heart wrenching tragedies are those where this foundation of faith is violated. As fathers were sickened to the core when we hear of some young girl being touched by her daddy in a way she shouldn’t. Her daddy violated her foundation of faith in him and sinned violently against her.

    My faith in God is based upon the same principles as our children’s’ faith in us as fathers. He has never given me any reason to doubt him. In fact, despite “faith being the conviction of things unseen” God has given logical, rational and scientific proofs to His existence. He is not the chair who breaks under my weight that I think twice about sitting in next time.

    I remember, several summers ago, sitting with a high school student one late summer evening talk about truth, faith, life, God, Jesus, existence and a whole host of other topics. I remember being struck by his desire to think deeply (a trait not always or commonly shared by HS students) and ask good questions. And I remember our conversation reaching a point where, despite giving the best answers I could (sometimes that even being “I don’t’ know”), I shared with this young man that Christianity does boil down to faith. My prayer for this student, now man, has always been that he would place his faith and trust in Jesus Christ.

    Inherent within the discussion of Absolute Truth is an element of faith that cannot be ignored. Inherent within the discussion of Absolute Truth is an element that cannot be understood apart from faith.

    Typically where’s there’s potentially dis-agreement it’s probably best to leave politics and religion alone. Yet, here I am mixing the pot of “religion”. So it is not with a contentious or prideful heart that I submit the preceding thoughts. It is with great love and respect for the both of you that I accept your invitation to join the discussion of Absolute Truth.

    TC

    • TC,

      I understand where you are coming from; I know the place well. You would say the Absolute Truth exists, but you cannot understand it or know it without faith, correct? Think back to Russell’s analogy of the celestial teapot. You say that it exists, and I say it doesn’t. The burden of proof, then, is on your side of the argument. Several times you referenced logical, rational, and scientific proofs of Absolute Truth as you believe it exists. Would you care to expand on those proofs? I can’t say I am familiar with them.

      Jon

      • Jon,

        For you to say that Absolute Truth doesn’t exist requires you to know everything. You would objectively need all the facts (regarding everything) in front of you to make such an authoritative claim. You’re making a truth claim you cannot support because you don’t have all the facts.

        My claim for Absolute Truth is admittedly grounded in my faith that Bible is the inspired (God Breathed) , and inherent (without error in it’s doctrines and details). The authoritativeness of my claim is rooted in the authority of the Bible. However beyond a faith in the God of the Bible there are evidences of Absolute Truth that are knowable. I would submit C.S. Lewis’ argument of the “Moral Law” that he begins his book Mere Christianity with.

        Regarding scientific proofs of “God’s existence” there are hundreds of books that have been written across various disciplines. While I do not claim to be an expert in any scientific field I do believe that every discipline of science reveals aspects of who God is. I would cite, in a general way, the created world that we live that declares God’s glory and generally reveals God’s nature to man.

        Specifically I submit that Archeology as one scientific disciple that has never contradicted the Bible, but has rather proved incredibly valuable in supporting and confirming the reliability of Scripture. While some may dismiss archeology and it’s confirmation of the Bible it is incredibly important to keep in mind that a majority of digging happens and is centered around the geographic regions that the Bible speaks of. If the Bible was false, forged or otherwise un-reliable one would not be unreasonable to assume that in all the excavating that has taken place evidence would point to a denial of the Scriptures as we have. But this has never occurred. Rather all of the excavating has only served to prove the reliability of the Bible.

        The logic seems simple enough…Disprove the Bible, disprove the God the Bible speaks us. Disprove the God the Bible speaks of and you do now have an unraveling of all the Truth claims that Bible makes.

        TC

      • TC,
        You are really missing the point of the teapot illustration. Again, the burden of proof lies with those who believe something exists, not those who question its existence.

        I agree that disproving the Bible would absolutely undermine the entirety of the Christian faith. To that point, are you defending the literal truth of the Biblical account of human history (like the Earth being less than 10,000 years old, humans coexisting with dinosaurs, a 500 year old man building a boat big enough to hold at least two of every animal on earth – including dinosaurs? – and living on it with them while the planet was so far under water that even Everest was submerged, that same 500 year old man and his 3 sons repopulating the entire earth, another man living for days in the stomach of a fish…to name a few headliners from the early chapters)? If you are, I would strongly caution you against invoking science and archaeology as support for your arguments.

        To be honest, I have been down this path many times before, often with little to no resolution. Tempting though it may be, I really don’t want to turn this comment section into a conflict between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Perhaps I will devote a column (or series of columns) to the topic of Biblical legitimacy, but for now let’s just agree to disagree.

        As for Lewis’ Moral Argument, forgive my memory, but is that the lord, lunatic, or liar proposition?

        Jon

  5. Pink stands for breast cancer awareness and purple stands for vikings. Christian Ponder. Need I say more? And I thought I’d add a gangster name too

  6. Justin and Jon,
    I find your blog to be extremely interesting and thoughtful. Some of the issues (like Absolute Truth) are ones that I previously haven’t given much thought. So it’s been enjoyable to read your thoughts and consider alternative perspectives.

    Please don’t judge the fact that I’m just a former comm major, from a conservative Christian institution, and my depth of thinking seems rather shallow compared to what you fellows consistently offer…BUT I’d still like to add a few comments for the sake of conversation 🙂

    I agree with Jon, in that “the burden of proof lies with those who believe something exists, not those who question its existence.” I also agree with TC that to claim that there is (or isn’t) Absolute Truth requires you to know everything. I think that these support the concept of faith and choosing to believe something is true based on your interpretation of the evidence or in spite of no evidence.

    But regarding the areas of religion and faith, I have thought about this often. I have considered (more so recently) that there are huge areas of my belief in Jesus that I cannot prove or begin to understand — but I think that is a crucial part of Christianity, or a relationship with Christ – if everything that God promises or claims to be true could be proven, seen or understood, that by nature would mean that we as humans have the same level of comprehension/thinking as God. Obviously that is not true (if you believe in the sovereignty of God, which I do).

    Conversations with guys like you inspired this brief post about faith (http://upwordthinking.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/faith-factor/). I think that faith in God (or perhaps any sort of ultimate authority that is not living in the present), by its very nature, requires belief in things unseen.

    In the above post, I write, “Sometimes I am afraid of sharing about my faith for fear of being asked a question I can’t answer; for fear that I can’t provide enough evidence. For many people, faith isn’t enough. Thinking that something is true, simply because you choose to believe it despite any real evidence, goes against everything the world teaches us.

    Again that reminds me of how much God wants me to stand out from the world. He wants every part of my life, including my level of faith, to defy what the world says is right. He wants me to stand firm on his truth, even if there are things that can’t be proven, seen or understood.”

    Keep up the good work with these posts. Like TC said, I admire your continual pursuit of deeper knowledge and understanding of the world you live in. But I’m choosing faith on this one, and to believe that there is no Absolute Truth, only degrees of confidence (as Jon stated) which can often be determined by faith.

  7. No one is going to argue that it takes the faith of a child to believe in the Christian God. I will argue, however, your point that God has given “logical, rational and scientific proofs to His existence.”

    Because the fact is…there is no scientific proof that God exists. There is archaeological evidence that events in the Bible did occur…such as the Jewish exile in Egypt, but the fact that those events show up in the historical record do not automatically validate the claims that Jesus is the Son of God.

    Archaeology would actually be the prime example for the skeptic to point to as a scientific discipline that has contradicted the Bible over and over. It is a massive misconception to say that most of archaeology occurs in geographic regions of the Bible, because there are hundreds of sites across the world that show that the Earth is not 6,000 years old. The great Rift Valley of Africa shows thousands of years of human history that occurred well before the creationist’s starting point. Even the recently excavated tar pits in Colorado show a myriad of animals that were very clearly alive 13,000 years ago.

    While still struggling with the intellectual boundaries of Christianity, I used to convince myself that there was no proof of God because if he made himself too apparent, we would not need faith, and there would be no basis for a relationship with God without faith. By that logic, Christians should take pride in the fact that there is no logical, rational, or scientific evidence for God because that is the only way that a Christianity can work. And by the same reasoning, they should avoid any attempt to prove God.

    While intensely personal, the issue of faith is of little consequence to a discussion about absolutes. It is merely tangential. Stating that there are absolutes because you personally have faith is a statement of unvalidated opinion that doesn’t really have a place in a philosophical discussion. Unless you can tender up an argument for a broad absolute truth that doesn’t require faith as a linchpin, we are left in the very capable hands of our first commenter, Mark, who was able to reach a conclusion that we can all agree on… that there is at least one absolute truth.

    -justin

    • If there is actually a teapot orbiting the sun, I bet it’s boiling, and people would pay top dollar for that cup o’ tea!

    • It appears as though I was right and am in fact, not intelligent enough to participate in these conversations. But still, good work!

      • Not true at all. I don’t even have a degree, so who am I to talk, right? Seriously, we get really passionate about this stuff, but it is inherently a personal thing. As such, each opinion is valid and useful. We really appreciate the perspective. Under no circumstances would I say I have the answers, just trying to work them out as best I know how.

        Jon

  8. Jonny and Justin,

    The truth is.. the truth you know may change.

    When two people experience the same event, it is not percieved in the same way. Environment and biology play a huge role in a persons perception. What is and what you percieve may be two different things. Personally, I have found that my truth can be wrong, so it changes.

    This constant search for truth, makes me think that it can be found. How? I am unsure.
    Why do we question our existence? Why do we search for the answers to life? Unless, it is in our nature to question them, so that we find them. As far as we know, a plant does not ponder the meaning of life. It germinates, grows, eats, produces oxygen, then
    eventually dies. (it has it’s purpose)

    We are animals, we want to survive, but we also want more. We want happiness, we want fulfullment. Whether there is one truth or many truths, I think they are there for us to find or maybe to be revealed.

    Thank you for thoroughly distracting me from my homework with this wonderful blog.

    -Liv

    P.S. Upward thinking girl, It really bothers me that you do not think you are intelligent. Do not believe that, you are selling yourself short.

    Also, T Yizzle to the Lizzle E rizzle Smithzzle, I wouldn’t pay anything for that tea. The water is probably evaporated. 🙂

  9. It is with trepidation that I enter the fray here. You guys are really rough on your commenters…As if you hold all the answers. However, you’ve allowed me to be involved in your conversations over the years, so I join.

    I do agree with Amoyer… I’m probably not intelligent enough to participate in your conversations, but that has never stopped me before : ). I did take some time and checked in with some more intelligent people, namely C. S. Lewis and came away with some thoughts that I think express my opinions. They’re not answers, but questions to add to the mix.

    Moral relativism says anything goes..but does it? Is it better to beat a child or to hug that child.

    C.S. Lewis points to the nature of most any quarrel as a clue to what we truly believe. Inherent in the quarrel is a concept of fairness, as in “how would you like it is someone did that to you?” When we make that statement we are speaking “to some kind of standard of behavior (we) expect the other person to know about. Where do you think that standard originates?

    Lewis also talks about Tao, “the doctrine of objective value”, accordingly, some things are true and others are false; somethings are right and others are wrong. These standards transcend time and place. If we live outside the tao, ie: moral relativism – all value judgments are arbitrary. They usually give way to the raw assertion of whim or power. If everything rests on my opinion, then why should I not impose my opinion by force?

    • I would never say that I, or we, have the answers. I will admit to scrutinizing opinions and beliefs intensely (both my own and others), if only to see what holds up and what doesn’t. There is nothing sinister, ill tempered, or otherwise negatively intentioned in our discussion or rebuttals. I agree with Liv’s comment, what we know is in a constant state of flux. That is what makes this so much fun!

      Is it better to beat a child or hug a child? It depends on the result you are seeking. I agree with Lewis, a concept of fairness or some derivative of “the golden rule” is present at the core of most if not all conflict. Where does it originate? I would argue that it has developed as an effective social tool or construct for harmonious group dynamics. It is part of our culture, learned and passed on from one generation to the next. Examples of altruism and some manner of empathy are found in many animal species, even in such undignified examples as rats and bats. It is not surprising then to find the most socially advanced creature, humans, have an intricately developed social or “moral” code.

      I would also agree with your point that a society that adheres to a morally relativistic code is susceptible to impositions of force or whim. However, I would counter that this weakness is exactly why we find the existence of a “spiritual contract”. To borrow another metaphor, it is kind of “check and balance”. Rather than the sense of fairness being linked to any absolute moral standard in the universe, I would maintain that it is an element of culture that exists for the pragmatic benefit of social harmony.

      As to the question of tea, I would buy it so long as it wasn’t green tea. I don’t understand the popularity.

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