Friday, February 22, 2013

Relativism and Absolute Truth

I see the world, as does everyone, through a lens that is the center of a vin-diagram of myriads of categorical sub-groups and cases.  My father once told me that two people, standing on the edge of the same forest, will choose entirely different ways to traverse it to a point on the other side.  Based on their respective vantage points, the two will need to mount different knolls, round different stumps, step over different roots, and cross different streams.  If one of the travelers should encounter wildlife of certain ferocious sorts they will change pace, alter direction, or curl into a ball with their fingers interlocked over the vital nerves and connections in the back of their necks.  Even if we all had the same goal, our life experiences, based on our individual reactions to the eventualities we encounter, would be quite different.  Some would believe this to be a case for relativism—the belief that everyone’s perspective and everyone’s reasoning is equally true.  In other words, a case for the non-existence of truth.  Those who say there is no absolute truth claim that everything in the universe is simply a matter of opinion.  Though we have different experiences in the forest, does this mean the trees do not really exist?

To deny that there is concrete truth—that some things are always and absolutely true—would leave me standing amongst those who cheat themselves out of their own existence and make the case that whatever they do with their life is of no consequence at all.  I pity them.  And while some are comfortable with that conclusion—that they don’t actually exist or that their existence doesn't actually matter—I could never be, for in doing so, I would offend my creator, who I also know, actually exists, and refuse to acknowledge the reality of the gift that is my life.

The problem with this is that everyone might feel that they are the keepers of this absolute truth.  What about when those absolute truths decided upon differ?  This is why perspectives are important.  Every single person’s perception of the world, based on their individual glimpses of realities along with imagined ones, we feel is truth.  Because we each act upon our assumptions, we should attempt to become familiar with other’s assumptions so that we may have effective and positive interactions—hence “cultural awareness” has an immensely important role.  We may believe this and at the same time know that truth still exists outside of one’s ideas.  This distinction must be made.  We refer to this person’s perception as “their truth.”  Does this make them unaccountable and untouchable to the actualities of the absolute truth?  No!  One who denies the existence of beavers might someday encounter one and be quite shocked.  Opinions only take us so far.

Many today feel, however, that all we have access to is opinion.  I disagree.  I believe there are ways of knowing things in this life.  And that one of the main reasons for our mortal existence is to grow through seeking and acquiring knowledge of the truth, which therefore, must be within our reach.  How then do each of us embark upon and continually fuel our quest for truth?  I would answer, with an exploration into the experiences of my life, the reasoning of my able mind, and sincere petitions for answers from divine sources--consider, if no one was listening, no one would answer, yet answers have come, again and again, to me and to men throughout the ages.  These things have led to my discovery of some basic truths, ever ongoing, and I invite you to embark on a similar life-long quest.  Your opinion might be that the truths I have discovered are merely opinions, and if that ends your quest, so be it.  No one can force knowing.

Readers might be thinking, "Oh, so what I think is opinion and what you think you know?"  My response to that would be, "I don't know.  What do you think?"  and then, "Have you been actively engaged in seeking answers to questions concerning what is really true?"  Do you think all experiences have equal value--that shopping online, texting pointless messages, video gaming, etc. will do as much to bring you understanding of enduring principals and real truths as observing nature, pondering things deeply, reading good books, discussing things of eternal significance and practicing and experimenting upon those things learned?  I don't.  
(I am not the prime example of always making the most of my time and recognize there is an immeasurably vast amount things yet to learn.  Every piece of wisdom I claim in this blog, I write mostly for my own benefit and reminder.  Please don't think I think I have it all figured out : )  If I thought that, it would be an end to learning.)

Socrates is famous for saying that the “unexamined life is not worth living.”  Though I halt at determining whose lives are worth living, and would think to say all lives are worth living, I like this statement.  I feel it is extremely important to determine some basic truths, to clear the lens with which we examine our lives so that the act of "examining our lives" is effective for coming to conclusions that will truly help us become better.  Our perceptions are not just something thrust upon us, but are chosen.  We should therefore begin this quest for truth so that we may chose the best lens through which to examine our lives. 


  1. Your analogy of crossing the forest is apt. No two people have the same experience no matter how one should try to make duplicate situations. This is why there is such good argument for truths being relative. When I walk through the forest with my wife I see trees, rocks, obstacles, animal signs, and notice the weight of my gun; my wife sees flowers (some so tiny she has to get on her knees), bubbling springs, spiders in their webs, and a nesting bird or two. We went the same route but did not see the same forest. If we each described our hand-in-hand adventure to a group who had never seen a forest there would bo two tales of the same thing, and thus different perceptions. Different, both true.

    If we, my wife and I, suffered a scathing scolding by an angry acquaintance, it is unlikely that our reactions, and so our recollections, would be at all the same. So the argument of relativity of truth is understandable.

    However, there are undeniable truths, as you so ably pointed out, which can be proven, as you also pointed out. The problem is that most people don't care. Their examination of truth goes no further than the things you said: What they feel and see, shopping, trading comments on facebook, a feel-good moment, and on and on.

    By the way, what did Socrates mean when he said, "An unexamined...?"


  2. By the way, Dallin Oaks, a lawyer, a law school dean, a great thinker, wrote a great article recently on relativity and truth.

  3. Here's a bit more of the text from Plato's Apology (but what Socrates said) "...For if I tell you that this would be a disobedience to a divine command, and therefore that I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living - that you are still less likely to believe. And yet what I say is true, although a thing of which it is hard for me to persuade you."

    But still have to read more of the context of the trial surrounding it. Basically he means we should (one of the greatest goods we can do, and the only thing that really makes our life worth-while) examine ourselves often with regards to living virtuously. Then the truth part comes in, what is virtuous? Is it relative? I argue there is a virtue which is not cultural or based on individual perception...

  4. Virtue is not relative. Those who might argue that it is rather have the idea that virtue is not pertinent in their world. There are no stand-alone virtues. One cannot be honest, kind, generous, modest, chaste, etc., by onesself. Virtues only are relevant in a society. If a society is godless, degenerate then don't virtues evaporate?