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?