Space City Skeptics

The Official Blog of the Houston Skeptic Society

Absolute truth: does it exist?

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"You can't handle the truth!" In the film, A Few Good Men, Lt. Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and Lt. Cdr. Galloway (Demi Moore) attempt to uncover the Truth about Col. Jessep's (Jack Nicholson, pictured) role in the death of a soldier. Photo: Warner Brothers.

A friend recently asked my opinion on the existence of ‘absolute truth’. By the term ‘absolute truth’ I’m assuming we mean things which are objectively true, independently of our perception or ideas about them. In looking at the question, “is there absolute truth?” I’d begin by imagining just what it would mean were we to answer “no” as do the philosophical postmodernists. Does that mean that reality is determined by our minds? In other words, the closet has nothing in it until I open the door (that is a literal example by the way – not metaphorical!). Another example would be to say that germs really were not the cause of disease until we looked for them, at which point the universe changed. In such a world, it would be hard to imagine how the consistency we see in our observations maintains itself. But even if we were to imagine it does so because we are all truly of one mind, or some other explanation, it still doesn’t get us out of the predicament that to suggest this sort of illusory universe is an extraordinary claim for which we have no evidence.

Another possibility might be that the universe exists objectively and independently of our minds and perception, yet it is in a constant state of flux, meaning any ‘truth’ we establish changes from moment to moment. While it’s true that all things are in flux (even the laws of physics ‘evolved’ in some sense as the universe expanded), we can phrase certain statements more completely to account for that.

So, it’s really difficult to imagine a sound alternative to their being an absolute truth. Even in cases where our fanciful imaginations can pull off some illustriously self-consistent mental model whereby there would be no absolute truth, it inevitably fails the test of Occam’s Razor. Therefore, I’d have to go with there being an absolute truth. As strong supporters of science and the scientific method (which presumes an independently existing reality to even operate), Humanists are not postmodernist – they are modernists. There have, in fact, been several articles in prominent Humanist magazines criticizing the postmodern-left and their critique of science.

How do you define what is meant by ‘absolute truth’? It means the same thing a six year old imagines when you talk about what is true and what is false. It’s quite simple: there is one reality that is ‘just so’. If your statement is consistent with that reality, it is True. If it is not consistent with reality, the statement is False.

But here is the problem / error / issue / important point:

People often confuse this with the separate matter of whether or not we can know what those absolute truths are with complete certainty. In his book Natural Atheism, David Eller ludicrously defines “knowledge”. He has a very over-exaggerated certainty with regard to what he calls ‘facts’. Eller imagines that if we use correct ‘reason’ and our information is correct, that we will then be able to arrive at ‘facts’ which we can know are True, and this knowledge can be distinguished from ‘opinions’ or ‘beliefs’.

In my view (and in the traditional view) all of our thoughts on what is so are belief. ‘Knowledge’ is justified, true belief. Beliefs can be sound or unsound, rational or irrational, based on solid grounds or flimsy grounds, justified or unjustified, true or false. In these things, you have deductive matters and inductive matters. In deductive matters, when our logic is sound and if our premises true, then we can know with certainty that our conclusion must be true – but this doesn’t get us very far in practical terms. The problem is that we often don’t know for certain whether our premises are true. Furthermore, if we are making a mistake in our logic (especially for highly complex matters), we would not realize it. So, in any given case it is always possible we are wrong. As for inductive matters that is even worse because inductive logic, by its very nature, does not result in infallible statements. Most of the really important and useful thinking we have to do involves induction and in these cases, it is possible to have correct premises, perfect logic, make no mistakes, and yet still be wrong.

So… there almost certainly is a single absolute objective Truth, but we can only know that Truth subjectively. There is always the possibility we are wrong. This is why we must build in certain safeguards to our conclusion-making – both in our daily lives and in science so as to minimize our errors as much as possible. In science these things are formalized into practices and policies. They include things like: requiring confirmation from others through independent peer review and experiment, presentation of all methods and showing one’s work, the aforementioned Occam’s Razor, and requiring extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. This is an imperfect and ongoing practice, but the only way we can be humble about our limited ability to know.

What about absolute truth in ethics? While many of my Humanist friends disagree, I believe even in ethics there is Truth. Even in a universe where reality ultimately boils down to nothing but “atoms and the void”, I believe the answers to ethical questions are objective and independent of our ideas, opinions, or beliefs about them. Whenever we answer an ethical question, we are either objectively correct or incorrect in that answer, just as if I had said that 2+2=5. Knowing that ethical Truth is another matter and something I plan to go into more in the future.

Thanks for reading!

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Written by DT Strain

November 24, 2009 at 12:51 pm

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