Truth is relative

Earlier today I was perusing refutations to atheistic claims and discovered the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry’s website. Their article, Why believe in Christianity over all other religions?, professes an epistemological notion that appears to be a common misunderstanding among many religious apologetics: “If truth is relative, then the statement that truth is relative is an absolute truth and would be self defeating statement by proving that truth is not relative.”

I’d argue that knowable truth is relative truth because people have a relative point of view. “Truth is relative,” might better be phrased, “Truth that can be known to humans is truth that is relative to humans.” Or, more generally, “Knowable truth is relative to the observer.” It follows, then, that only a being with an absolute point of view can know absolute truth.

Have you ever seen a raven that isn’t black? Probably not. So then is it safe to conclude absolutely that all ravens are black? No. It’s extremely rare, but some ravens are albino. The point is that no matter how consistent an observation, there can always come a contradiction. Only an absolute being seeing everything at once could avoid unexpected evidence.

Another website (which I’ve regrettably forgotten) attempting to rationalize that one can know absolutes offers the following example. “If you see a dog in Alaska, you can know absolutely that there are dogs in Alaska.” This is wrong. You can only absolutely know that there are dogs in Alaska if you first absolutely know that you saw a dog and if you absolutely know it was in Alaska. In other words, it takes absolute knowledge to conclude further absolute knowledge.

And isn’t something that is absolutely true always true? Absoluteness transcends even time. Looking to the past, there was a time when Alaska didn’t exist. Go back further and dogs didn’t exist either. In the other direction, there’s future uncertainty. Perhaps when you saw the dog in Alaska, it was the only dog in Alaska. Later, after you’ve reviewed your observation and finally assert, “There are dogs in Alaska,” the dog has left, and your assertion is wrong. These examples may sound silly, but they demonstrate that human knowledge is temporal, not absolute.

Although human knowledge is relative, that doesn’t mean it’s impractical. Most likely, there are dogs in Alaska. No one can know that with absolute, God-like certainty. But such assuredness is seldom necessary.

Aren’t you saying it’s absolutely true that knowable truth is relative to the observer? That brings you right back to the original contradiction!

No. The statement, “It’s absolutely true that knowable truth is relative to the observer,” is illogical because it has conditions that limit its scope. Not all truth, but knowable truth. Not all observers, but relative observers (which is implied). A conditional statement cannot be absolute. If we allow absolute truth to have constraints, then we have a false dichotomy because there is no longer anything to differentiate absolute truth from relative truth. We must escape the colloquial use of the word “absolute,” which is merely to emphasize a statement’s (relative) validity.


17 thoughts on “Truth is relative

  1. T. Nagel: “The content of a thought may be quite independent of its particular form-independent, for example, of the particular language in which it is expressed. all of our thoughts must have a form that makes them accessible from a human perspective. But that does not mean that they are all about our point of view or the world’s relation to it…”

    sufi saying: the water takes on the shape of the container but remains water.

    Most people have thought about thought as something that does , in fact, transcend time. That was the difference between knowledge and doxa. And when we talk about ‘timeless’ classics is that a figure of speech? Of course, from a modern perspective that emphasises contingency and finitude this creates irreducible problems.

  2. “But that does not mean that they are all about our point of view or the world’s relation to it”

    It may or may not. We really don’t know.

    “the water takes on the shape of the container but remains water”

    Beautiful metaphor. But does it apply to absolute truth?

    “Most people have thought about thought as something that does , in fact, transcend time.”

    How can a thought exist without a thinker to think it? I disagree with transcendence in principle, and I imagine this might come right back to our original discussion about empiricism.

    “And when we talk about ‘timeless’ classics is that a figure of speech?”

    I’d say so. If the Earth were annihilated tomorrow, all classics will have met their end.

  3. Jason, good point. That was sloppy: thought about the truth of thought as something that does, in fact, transcend time.

    2+2 =4 is a truth that is expressed in our time-bound language but it is thought that the truth of it is beyond the particular expression.

    “we may not know”. Right. But idealism says that there can be *no* truth beyond what we can conceive. This says the opposite: there *may* be things that we do not, and cannot, know. To say that there *are* no things ( ‘objects’) beyond our conceptions is to define the limits of what is possible. And it is asked , again, what is this but an assumption?

    so, if the earth disappears tomorrow, will teh truth of 2+2=4 also disappear?

    Imagine us and blind people who think of the world in different ways. If we were to disappear, would the truth we have reached (assuming we have reached some truth) disappear?
    If there are beings higher than us, beings whose understanding of reality is greater than ours, does it follow that because we cannot communicate with them, or understand them, that that higher truth does not exist?

  4. To me, mathematics appears to be an emergent truth from physics and intelligence. The consistency of matter allows it to be counted or measured. Sapient beings perform the counting and measuring (and all subsequent mathematical tasks such as addition). Transcendence is thus avoided.

    I’m not saying that there are no truths beyond our experience. My argument has been that these truths, if they exist, do us little good because we have no way to detect or confirm them.

  5. Perhaps I’m misreading you. But didn’t you at one stage say that it might all be an illusion and that science has to assume or “believe” in its methods? In what way can truth, then, be confirmed..except through circularity (and this was, if I remember correctly, just the type of reasoning that you said was invalid ..the Sam Harris post)?

    “consistency of matter”.
    again, is that ‘consistency’ inherent in the way things are (i.e a transcendent truth- to use your words) or just our own subjective impression? If the latter, then what it appears you are saying is that mathematics is also , ultimately

    anyway, the point of consistency was, I think, argued by Hume and it ended up destroying the notion of causality (see B.Russell’s essay on him or Isaiah Berlin in against the current). If the consistency of matter is *only* because of *our* habits and not becuase of its intrinsic nature then it is, in fact, quite possible to imagine this keyboard turning into a horse when i come back …if the atoms re-arrange themselves. Again, I go back to the Dawkins post: it seems that you are arguing that “anything is possible”. If truth is ’emergent’ or fundamentally ’empirical’, then tomorrow the sun may not rise.
    Just becuause it has for so many years says nothing about tomorrow.

  6. Jason, the question again: if we were not here to count things, would it be the case that 2+2=4 would cease to be a truth?

    are there any fundamental laws (say of gravity, force) in the universe or would these too not be true if we did not express them or ‘count ‘ them?

    Before we were..i.e before human beings on earth, were there laws of nature..was there a truth , therefore, independent of us?

  7. “if we were not here to count things, would it be the case that 2+2=4 would cease to be a truth?”

    I’d say yes, it would cease to be true. The equation on the whole and every unit expressed within it are symbolic abstractions and have no reality outside their interpreted meaning. Thus, they require interpreters.

    “If the consistency of matter is *only* because of *our* habits and not becuase of its intrinsic nature then it is, in fact, quite possible to imagine this keyboard turning into a horse when i come back”

    Perhaps the consistency of matter is itself an emergent truth. Whatever its nature, something is consistent about it, else measuring it would be pointless and all predictability would fail.

    “If truth is ‘emergent’ or fundamentally ‘empirical’, then tomorrow the sun may not rise. Just becuause it has for so many years says nothing about tomorrow.”

    One conclusion science has made about physical reality is cause and effect, another consistent and predictable observation. If all we knew was that the sun rises and sets every day, then yes, that’s not enough to know whether it will continue to do so in the future. However, we’ve observed how and why the sun rises and sets. Knowing this, and knowing what it would take to change it, gives us enough information to be mostly certain the sun will rise tomorrow.

    I see what you’re saying about circularity. And I’m having a hard time finding a way out. All I can argue at this point is that it seems better to assume the truth of physical reality than it is to assume the truth of any other possible reality. The physical world is something we reliably perceive and interact with. What other reality has such vivid existence to us?

  8. art, music, love, spirtuality, friendship, thought ..unless one says these are *just* physical which case we’re back to a sort of circle: everything is matter, thereore everything is matter. when we assume out freedom aren’t we assumign thatwe are free from the laws of physical matter? when we think (and is not thought an ‘act’ as well) is this not another avenue for freedom in acausally ordered world. (Hans Jonas makes this point in his book, Mortality and Morality).

    but the predictability you are talking about could be just the predictability of the mind that interprets the events. to say that matter is consistent or behaves consistently is to say that it behaves according to laws that are independent of our discovering them. If we did not observe or calculate the sun’s movements , would it still move to the same physical laws?

    i.e if we’ve observed *how* then if we hadn’t observed that ‘how’ would it still be true? do its movements require on our “interpretation” like the mathematical equation?

  9. Why this need for things to exist beyond physical reality? There is what we observe and what we imagine. What other capacities for perception and knowledge do we have? Maybe if we all looked within ourselves and saw the same spiritual realm, we could agree that a spiritual realm exists. But we don’t all agree. What we “see inside” is incredibly diverse. That tells me spirituality and the like are imaginary, not real. Even if one individual or group was correctly perceiving a spiritual realm, how can anyone else tell if they’re correct or if another individual or group’s understanding is correct? There are too many possibilities and no way to refine them. So it’s a pointless pursuit.

    If no one is around to observe physical laws, then what does it matter if or how they exist? Maybe reality is a collective hallucination. Regardless, it’s predictable. And we can use that predictability to create technology and medicine and other things. What good is truth (or lie, for that matter) outside its utility?

  10. We don’t all agree..that can hardly be used as an argument i think Jason. On those grounds, most people have , over hoistory, agreed that there is some form of reality-let’s call it a spiritual reality-beyond the physical. I can’t imagine that all people would agree that the world and everything in it -including ourselves-are mere matter.

    Even we take just philosophy or thought, there are many who are realists and believe that there is a reality that stretches beyond what we know..and wouldn’t scientists also say that reality is independent of the methods they use to explain it (how else would objectivity be possible?).

    you make this distinction again: there is what we know *and* what we imagine. But if we could all be living as brains in a vat-as you contend-then it is not clear to me that we could even make that distinction. Even if we put to one side the vat issue, under a materialist monism , there wouildn’t be even what we imagine since this itself would, ultimately, be the result of physical processes. As Nietzsche once profoundly said..doing away with the real means that Appearance also disappears!

    But let’s stick with the question since it does matter from the perspective of what we’re trying to get at. Do physical laws exist independently of our describing or explaining them? If the answer is yes, then it seems to me that your initial position that truth is all relative-in the sense that it is *only* in the mind-is untenable.

    Reality may be a collective hallucination but regardless , it is predictable. This doesn’t make much sense to me since it could well be the hallucination that is inducing the perception of predictability and so the word ‘regardless’ seems inappropriate.

    anyway, on this issue of predictability I think Ulrich Beck has some interesting things to say… the more we know it may turn out that there are “unknown unknwons” to quote that great natural philosopher, Rumsefeld! :) Hannah Arendt also made the point: by acting ‘in’ nature we are opening up processes that we simply cannot forsee.

    But my main point remains: if diversity is a reason for the lack of truth of a view then the view that physical reality is the only reality would also have to be abandoned if one is to be consistent. No?

  11. What good is truth outside utility? well, for me Jason this is obvious and so it very difficult providing ‘arguments’ for it. Perhaps this goes down to temperaments and not just ideas?

    We believe in rights that are outside utility and then the question might be posed : do we mean by utility the benefitt of the whole person , the person as he *truly is* (a position taken by the Church) or the benefit to his desires?

    do we take short-term untility or long -term (this has been re-opened by Layard and his book, happiness)
    do we take subjective desires as utility and are there qualitative distinction in utility (Mill’s point , which remains persuausive).

    Can’t elaborate on this right now but if you get the chance you must look at Amartya sen’s great little book, Ethics and economics.

    Keep well,


  12. People may have agreed that there’s a reality beyond the physical, but that hardly lends it validity. Besides, they have never agreed on what that reality is—arguing it even to the point of oppression, war, and genocide. My point was that there’s no way to know what reality exists beyond the physical because there are no means to confer with each other. That is why the spiritual realm is a battleground, and probably always will be.

    The distinction between physical and imaginary is the difference between external and internal experience. There is no evidence for spirituality in what we observe outside ourselves. We rely on thoughts and intuitions for such ideas.

    Do physical laws exist independently of our describing or explaining them?

    I don’t know. But my argument is that we don’t need to know. Physical laws are useful to us. That’s all. Practical reality is paramount. All other “knowledge” is quite literally useless.

    We believe in rights that are outside utility and then the question might be posed : do we mean by utility the benefitt of the whole person , the person as he *truly is* (a position taken by the Church) or the benefit to his desires?

    I’m almost finished with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene which explains how altruism and other moral concepts such as ‘rights’ could very well have originated from biological evolution. “Utility,” therefore, is replication and the means to that end.

    Love, friendship, art—these are evolutionary byproducts. I don’t think that decreases their significance, however. What’s interesting about being human is that we can give meaning to things. With our minds and our ability to communicate, we can evolve ideas that transcend, in part, our biology. Though this is still replication, we have more of a choice than we do with genes as to which ideas to create, adopt, change, and pass on to others. I would call these ideas the genes of conscious evolution, a.k.a. memes.

    Surely, ideas have meaning even if they’re only ideas. Love can be explained almost entirely by biology. What’s left are our meaningful thoughts and feelings about love that overlay its biological existence with something more cultural or personal. That aspect of love is experienced only in our minds. But it is only what we experience in our minds that matters!

  13. I’m too tired to argue this any more ! :)
    Love can be explained by biology !
    Hmm..i always thought it was chemistry :)

    Jason, all i can say in your case is : corruptio optimi pessima

    As Bush is fond of saying …hearts AND minds !

  14. Love can be explained by biology !
    Hmm..i always thought it was chemistry :)

    Actually, it’s biological chemistry ;)

    We have some fundamental disagreements that our (or my) existing knowledge and rhetoric can’t yet address.

    I understand your position more than I’ve let on. Your views resemble many of my own. However, I’ve been deliberately challenging my old ideas for many months now and have found myself a perpetual skeptic in the process.

    At this point, I have discovered a common question underlying all my recent writings: What does life mean to me? I need a sense of purpose. I have no god or spirit to grant it. I have no belief in absolutes at all. If my existentialist views are correct, only I can define my purpose. So that’s what I must do.

    You’ve been a generous and helpful companion in these quick but critical steps of this soul-searching journey, Khalid. I haven’t had a philosophical discussion like this in years, perhaps never. I’ve enjoyed it with a passion. It makes me want to learn more.

    I’m seriously considering going back to school.

  15. Man is the measure of all things. Man measures according to his sense of reality, of truth but has no way of confirming his truth beyond his scope of knowledge. About love being explained by bio-chemistry, it is futile to state that a man made science is accurate in measuring a feeling. Bio-chemistry may only be able to measure the physical reaction in the body but it can’t explain why it exists. From my humble point of view, truth, real absolute truth exists even beyond time but man is not able to determine it, only a superior being, one that transcends time and who is able to see all at all times may determine it. This would imply that man being the measure of all things is nothing but a big error and all our man measures, our man science are not a reliable source of truth.

  16. Absolute truth is always true, but the conditions which render it true can change. A time may come when there are no dogs in alaska. That statement would be absolutely true as well. Alaska has always been Alaska. The connection between the word “Alaska” and object it represents is very new, but Alaska(the object) has always been. Well, maybe not always… I’m sure the dirts shifted around a bit. But Alaska is not disqualified from being classified as an absolute on the basis of what people decide to call it. “A rose by any other name…”

    It cannot be proven(by us) that something actually exists. All senses and cognition are subject to error, but that does not mean they are in error. They could be. Just because you can’t prove something to be completely true doesn’t mean that truth is relative. It just means you can’t prove it. It just means that it could be relative. There is no certain way to solve this dilemma.

    I understand that there is no way of knowing something with G-d-like certainty. I guess that’s why G-d makes sense. All of these uncertainties terminate when there is a Standard that is dependent on nothing else. It is because It is. Some people consider it an easy way out because no rationale is necessary. But that’s not much different from your view(from my perspective). You have no rationale, your arguements are rooted in something that cannot be verified. Both of our conclusions are currently not subject to scientific analysis. I mean, I can’t use a meter stick to prove I’m right, nor can you.

    Relativism is self-supporting and impervious to criticism according to it’s own nature. People are ordinarily skeptical of the existence of G-d for similar reasons, no?

    I mean to be to the point. These are my humble observations.

  17. Oh, and I am a skeptic. There is a quote that goes something like “There are no guaruntees in life, only assurance enough.” I believe in absolute truth while understanding that I cannot prove it to be absolutely true.

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