Thursday, March 29, 2007

Honestly, for me truth is relative

I have witnessed many debates over the truth, whether it be evolution versus creationism or intelligent design, one version of evolution versus another, atheism vs. theism, secularism versus religion, and repeatedly I've seen the idea of what truth is or is not come up as a way to suggest that the "other side" is intellectually or philosophically bankrupt and therefore unreliable.

One thing that pops up is the issue of absolute versus relative truth. Although many times what people are really discussing, if you look at what they say and not just the terms they use, is subjective versus objective. That is, is there some fundamental reality that we all share? If so, then the state of that reality is thought to be independent of the observer(s), and hence objective. On the other hand, even if this is the case, because each person has limited senses, perception, awareness, cognitive abilities, life span, and a unique history and set of ideas, beliefs and experiences, the "map" of reality we each have filtered through our individual physical, mental, and emotional filters and processors is going to be somewhat different than everyone else's "maps". Hence our own admittedly limited and biased view of reality is referred to as being subjective. Therefore a common tactic in debate is to question the objectivity of an argument being put forth, which then begs several questions:
  • which truths are (or "should be" viewed as) subjective?
  • which truths are (or "should be" viewed as) objective?
  • is objective or subject truth always or even generally preferable for all debates and choices?
  • is there really a completely objective reality?
  • if there is, and if we value approximating it, how do we do so most reliably?
There are those (who I personally think are correct) who suggest our "maps" of reality will always remain very flawed, but that there are methods for improving the odds of editing a less flawed set of maps. Philosophers spend quite a bit of time on the issue, and in particular philosophers of science have written quite a bit about the issue, which I cannot do the remotest bit of justice here. But now there is at least a minimal reference to what is meant by "objective" versus "subjective" truth, which as I mentioned is often confused with "absolute" versus "relative" truth.

Generally when the term absolute truth is used in the aforementioned debates, particularly online, it is intended to refer to a truth which is self-evident and observable in all circumstances, i.e. undeniable. It is something that cannot conceivably be shown to be incorrect or seriously challenged in any way. Its validity is incontrovertible. And quite naturally, whatever is being argued for is given the label of absolute truth, as if to say that any counter-argument is automatically facile rubbish that is most certainly and irredeemably wrong. Unfortunately, perhaps through definition by contrast, relative truth is implied to be baseless, unreliable, and virtually promiscuous. That is, unlike the rock of changeless perfection envisioned for absolute truth, relative truth shapes itself to fit wherever it is needed to justify whatever is wanted, changing colors with each passing fad or movement, as slippery as a greased pig - you just can't pin it down.

I think that this view of relative truth is misleading at best. It is really a combination of elements from extreme skepticism, nihilism, and other subjectivist "-isms" that seems to be a nice counterpoint to the idea of an absolute truth, which by definition, is also the pinnacle example of objective truth. But if one looks at the term, relative simply refers to being "in relation to" something else. So relative truth actually means "true with regard to..."

To what? Your senses? Reason? Your intuition? Conventional wisdom? Cultural values? A tradition founded on a particular set of interpretation of a sacred text? That depends on each person and what they believe to be a reliable yardstick and arbiter for the issues that matter most to him or her. And what kinds of truth? Moral truth? Spiritual truth? Empirical truth? I have heard the suggestion that perhaps "truth" should to more subjective values (i.e. when is killing justified?) and that "accuracy" refers to more objective ones (i.e. what is the average distance from the Earth to the Sun?), but this semantic shuffling does nothing to change the fact that accuracy is just a measure of reliability, and that the measurement and its value are subjective creations (that is, someone decided that a particular amount of space between two celestial bodies should be quantified in a particular manner, but how and why is not "objective"). So while accuracy may be an important element in some kinds of truth, accuracy alone is not an alternative or substitution for it.

In the end, though, we all anchor our concept of "truth" (whatever the specific proposal or belief, and whichever category of truth it may be considered to occupy) on something, and hence our ideas of truth are relative to that something. Even people who say, for example, that the Bible is absolutely true, are in fact anchoring their beliefs on an interpretation of the Bible. That is, there beliefs are relative to their understanding of the Bible. Given my previous suggestion of how absolute truth is used, it seems logical to suggest that no single event, belief, or idea is and of itself going to be "absolutely" true as it must exist in relation to everything else (and yes, this is starting to sound like it is going to tie into the idea of interdependence found in Dharmic religions, especially the notion of dependent co-arising taught in Buddhism). Hence the truth of any one thing is dependent on its reference to everything else. Does that mean, then, that absolute truth is really just a fiction? An illogical concept that only sounds like it has some actual meaning?

I think that's a good question. Not the most pressing question of our (or any) time, but a nice puzzle to mull over, a brain teaser of sorts. I suppose that if pressed, I would wonder if absolute truth isn't "a" truth but the Truth, not static revelation from a particular branch of religion or science but the constantly emerging nature of existence itself, rising and falling simultaneously in a ceaseless act of creation and not limited to or captured by any human endeavor and yet experienced by all.

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