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.