Friday, July 01, 2005

Relativism

+JMJ+

A reader writes (I'm a little excited, because this is the first time I've ever been able to type that on a post):

i was having a discussion with a friend on absolutism, which he claims does not exist... that nothing is absolute except for God because nothing else will be true and stand the test of time.
Those are always fun.

i was wondering if you could help me out here in explaining absolutism to my friend.
"Ask and ye shall recieve..."

God bless
And you as well.

p.s. love the blog
Well, thank you!

As it happens, I was thinking of doing something on relativism soon anyway, so now I've got a good excuse.

The next time that you talk to your friend, the first thing you may want to do is have a slight clarification of terms. From what you are saying, it doesn't sound like he's using the term "absolute" in the standard way. The way it looks like he is using it is to say that only God is unchangeable and eternal, which is quite correct. He may just be saying the right thing in the wrong way. The next thing is to clarify what he means to say that only God is true. You can say that only God is truth itself, not unlike when Jesus said "I am the way, and the truth, and the life." (Jn. 14:7) Or when Aquinas said that "Truth Himself [ie, Jesus] speaks truly, else there's nothing true" in his great poem Adoro te Devote. What you can't say is that everything is false except for God. For one thing, if that statment were true, then it would demonstrate that there is at least one thing true outside of God.

Most good arguments against relativism, incidentally, take the form of pointing out contradictions of that nature: that it's wrong to "impose one's values on others", except of course, for the value of not imposing your values on others; that any statement of relativism is going to be an absolute statement; of subjectivism is going to be objective; or that the sentiment that "The only truth is that there is no truth" (according to our good friend Frederick Nietzche) practically disproves itself, if you think about the words for more than 30 seconds while engaging common sense.

Once y'all do that, then the real fun can begin! The core of absolutism is very simple: truth exists, and is not determined by our opinions, but by what is actually out there in the real world, facts that do not change from person to person, but remain the same for all people. So, obviously, an explanation of truth is going to be needed.

One thing you may wish to do is to clarify the distinction between truth and being, which appears to me to also be an issue with him. With a proper definition of truth in hand, and a way to defend the definition, the merit of absolutism should become fairly clear to anyone. The two things are very similar, but still distinct. Truth is dependant on reality, without being exactly the same thing. Aristotle had a wonderfully concise definition of truth in The Metaphysics: "A man speaks truth when he says that which is, is, and that which is not is not; and speaks false when he says that that which is not, is, and that which is, is not." (Ia:i)

As a side note, if you ever hear someone talking about the "correspondance theory of truth", that would be it: that a thing is true because what we have concieved in our intellects about it corresponds to how it is outside of our minds, in reality. You can also mention that truth isn't determined by what will be, but what is, so saying that absolutism is false because eventually things will no longer be as they are is not particularly valid. It is true to say that I am alive, despite the fact that 70 years from now I'll probably be feeding the worms with my fellow Jesuits at the cemetary in Grand Coteau, LA.

The common response to this given by the relativists (and their country cousin, the skeptic) is the question: "so how can we be sure that what we experience, what we sense and conceive in the intellect is actually outside of it? We never leave our minds, so how do we verify things as true?"

That our minds are able to accurately recieve information through the senses and intellect is what must be the first principle of philosophy. The interesting thing about first principles is that you can't prove them, but you can't deny them, either. If you try and prove them, it will be circular reasoning, if you deny them, you will end up with a gross contradiction. You can, of course, demonstrate the impossibility of denying them, however. If a person thinks that the mind is unreliable, they will come to an unusual problem: this unreliable mind has somehow managed to stumble upon what would be one of the greatest facts of all. G.K. Chesterton put it quite well in what might be the best introduction to Aquinas' philosophy yet written, St. Thomas Aquinas

[E]ven those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of cognition of any reality is real. The answer is that St. Thomas recognised instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously; that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask. [...] If a man feels that all the movements of his own mind are meaningless, then his mind is meaningless, and he is meaningless; and it does not mean anything to attempt to discover his meaning.
If you will allow me to borrow some wit in the same vein as Chesterton, those who say that our minds cannot know what is really true do not know what they are talking about.

The best argument against this principle would have to be that there are people whose senses aren't quite working properly(such as those who are blind and deaf) or who may have a problem with reasoning, such as Downs' Syndrome. Simply because one person can hear something does not indicate that something can be heard. More still, just because a multitude can hear something is no more evidence, since you can decieve the many in a similar manner as the one. It could very well be that the deaf person is hearing what there is to hear-nothing-and that the rest of us are decieved.

The answer is that we determine things such as blindness to be defects not because they are possessed by the majority, but because the eye is designed to see. If it cannot see, then what it is designed for is being prevented, which would be what it means for a thing to be defective. Similarly with the ear and other such things.

So that should about do it for you, I hope. Let me know if there is anything else. In the mean time, I suspect that I will put up another post or two along the same topic over the course of the next several days.

+Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam+

"To err is human, to persist in erring is devillish."
-St. Augustine

2 Comments:

At 3:34 AM, Anonymous susie said...

thank you! i look forward to whatever else it is you have to say on the matter :-)

 
At 5:32 PM, Anonymous susie said...

hmmm, after talking to my friend, a few more things came up...
he argues that there is a difference between truth and absolute, the difference being that anything absolute must withstand the test of time whereas truth does not have to do that. he says there are no tangible absolute truths, because we have no way of knowing that these tangibles will exist tomorrow... i don't know what to say to that.

 

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