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How Do We Know Truth Is Absolute, Unified, and Objective?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

Tom Howe, in his book Objectivity in Biblical Interpretation, makes the case that there is unity, objectivity, and absoluteness in truth.  To start his explanation, he quotes Mortimer Adler from his book Truth and Religion:

1. The human race is a single biological species, renewed generation after generation by the reproductive determinations of a single gene pool. Hence, man is one in nature— that is, in specific nature. All individual members of the species have the same species-specific properties or characteristics.

2. The human race being one, the human mind is also one. The human mind is a species-specific property found in every individual member of the species, the same in all, being subject to variations in degree. This precludes the notion that there is, within the human species, a primitive mind that is characteristically different from a civilized one, or an Oriental mind that differs in kind from an Occidental one, or even a child mind that differs in kind, not just degree, from an adult mind.

Howe observes that

These two theses, along with a third, are propounded by Adler for the purpose of attempting to identify the necessary basis for a world community in the face of cultural diversity. That basis, as Adler articulates it, is the unity of truth.

Adler explains that

To affirm the unity of truth is to deny that there can be two separate and irreconcilable truths which, while contradicting of one another and thought to be irreconcilably so, avoid the principle of noncontradiction by claiming to belong to logic-tight compartments.

From here, Howe continues by claiming

the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth demonstrate that there was not a “Hebrew” mind or a “Greek” mind or an “ancient” mind such that truth among those cultures at those periods of time were somehow different than truth today. On the contrary, truth is the same for all ages and among all peoples. The issues relating to men and God were the same issues with which we struggle today, because man is one race and one mind. The differences, then, between these ancient cultures and our modern culture is not the nature of man, or of truth, but are the social and cultural expressions of the same truths.

Given the principles of the unity of man and the unity of truth, is it possible to deny that truth is absolute or that truth is objective?  Howe thinks not:

For someone to claim that there is no such thing as absolute truth is to assert that it is absolutely true that there is no absolute truth. All such relativistic assertions are self-defeating and false. Likewise, for someone to claim that there is no such thing as objectivity is to count on the objective meaning of this very claim, which is likewise self-defeating and false. Truth is unavoidable. Likewise, objectivity is unavoidable.

To deny absolute truth or objective truth is self-defeating, for the very person who denies the absoluteness and objectivity of truth believes that their statement about truth is absolutely and objectively true.


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Comments

  • rericsawyer

    The argument AGAINST absolute truth seems to me so obviously self defeating, and so directly forcing a false position in order to get a desired conclusion that I suspect I don’t realy understand that position very well. And that means that when I assert absolute truth, I am probably not addressing the real issues some people have.

    If you were to “switch teams” for a moment, how would you understand the strongest form of the arguement against absolute truth?

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Basically the argument is this:

    People of different cultures, different languages, different time periods in history, seem to disagree with each other on matters of morality, religion, politics, science, and just about every other subject. If truth was absolute, we would see agreement on truth claims that cross culture, language and history, but we do not.Therefore we must conclude that truth is relative to a person’s culture, language, and time period.

  • rericsawyer

    That is the form of the argument I find so weak, as I expect you do.

    It presumes, among other things, that there is a perfection in human knowledge; that in certain
    fields it is impossible that there could be truth that is not known. I know of no field in the sciences that makes such a claim! Further, it assumes that, if society A and society B disagree, then A and B are both false. Stranger still, it assumes that if A, B and C all disagree, then there must be NO true answer. I know of no very compelling reason to accept any of those claims.

    Instead, I would take the starting idea that people “do arithmetic” with varying degrees of skill; any exercise producing a range of answers, clustering around some point. When I was learning a little about statistics, that clustering suggested that
    there was a reason for it –that there is some truth underneath the cluster. Not just an “average” but some truth to discover. Again, this doesn’t prove it but
    it does suggest the possibility that there is a true answer.

    Further, if many answers came in that were in a fairly narrow range, one would suspect that the truth was also within that range.

    There are of course a wide range of ethical standards around the world. They have differences, but are often strikingly similar. It seems that most often, this is used as support for the claim that Christianity is just more of the same, and it doesn’t matter which path one chooses. This time, it is taken as support of the opposite; that since they are not identical, they are obviously all false, and further, there is no truth.

    Does that side have
    a better argument?

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  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    All of their arguments are of the form:

    1. Profound disagreements about what is true occur among individuals and among populations (different relativists point to different areas of disagreement – science, morality, etc).

    2. Objective, or absolute, truth entails that there is universal agreement about truth claims.

    3. Since there is not universal agreement, there can be no objective truth.

    There is another point to be made here. Behind this argument is a universal assumption of epistemological representationalism. This is the view which began with Descartes and flowered in Kant. It basically says that humans can not know reality (the extra-mental world) directly. We can only know a representation of reality, not reality itself.

    This skepticism about knowing reality dominates modern philosophy and is a fundamental presupposition of virtually every academic who denies objective truth.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    I do not know whether there is such a thing as absolute truth, but I think the point is largely moot. As a finite being, I can never be certain that I know the absolute truth.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,
    I think you are misunderstanding what absolute truth is. It does not mean comprehensive or infinite knowledge of everything. It simply means that something is universally true, for all people, at all times, in all places. The existence of this kind of absolute truth is undeniable. To deny it is self-defeating.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    I understand perfectly well what you mean by absolute truth, but as a finite person, I cannot be sure what circumstances prevail in all times, and for all people and, in all places. I still have to extrapolate from the circumstances I do know. Therefore, I am unable to determine whether something is in fact absolute truth even if I believe it to exist.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,

    Is it absolutely true that you are a finite person?

    Is it absolutely true that you have to extrapolate from circumstances you do know?

    Is it absolutely true that you cannot be sure what circumstances prevail in all times, and for all people and, in all places?

    Is it absolutely true that you don’t know whether absolute truth exists?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    I don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that I am a finite being. I don’t know how I would go about establishing the absolute truth of that proposition.

    I don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that I have to extrapolate from my circumstances. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know of another method.

    I don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that I cannot be sure what circumstances prevail in all times, and for all people and, in all places. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know of a way to be sure.

    I don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that I don’t know whether absolute truth exists. I can’t think of anything that would lead me to believe that I could.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Is it absolutely true that you don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that you are a finite being?

    Is it absolutely true that you don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that you have to extrapolate from your circumstances?

    Is it absolutely true that you don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that you cannot be sure what circumstances prevail in all times, and for all people and, in all places?

    Is it absolutely true that you don’t know whether it’s absolutely true that you don’t know whether absolute truth exists?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    As far as I can tell, these propositions are true. I don’t know whether they are absolutely true.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    As far as you can tell? Really? You really want to qualify knowledge of your own inner thoughts with “as far as I can tell?”

    What we have here is an infinite regress where you don’t actually know anything (knowledge being justified true belief). You are unwilling to affirm even that you know what your own thoughts are, and thus you are even worse off than Descartes, who at least acknowledged that it was absolutely true that he existed. Are you also not sure about that?

    When someone prefaces statements about their own inner mental life with “as far as I can tell,” we have sunk into radical skepticism.

    Can’t you see how crazy it is to say you aren’t absolutely sure you know your own thoughts? If you have doubts about your own thoughts, then why should we listen to anything you say? If what you say is uncertain to even yourself, then it is even more uncertain to everyone else.

    So let me ask you again. Is there nothing that you are absolutely sure about, that you can affirm as absolutely true?

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    According to your theology, Jesus was fully God. Nevertheless, there were things that he didn’t know. If even an infinite being can have gaps in his knowledge, why should it be unreasonable for me to be uncertain about whether something is absolutely true?

    I don’t see anything odd at all about a person not fully understanding his own inner thoughts. I think it’s pretty typical. I would think that it is much crazier for someone to think that they knew all their inner thoughts absolutely.

  • http://toughquestionsanswered.com Bill Pratt

    Vinny,

    You are again misunderstanding what I mean by “absolute truth.” Absolute does not imply comprehensive or infinite knowledge.

    You said, “I would think that it is much crazier for someone to think that they knew all their inner thoughts absolutely.” I never said that you need to know all your inner thoughts absolutely. I have asked you to merely affirm one inner thought, just one. Yet you refuse to admit that you know even one of your own thoughts absolutely.

    As for Jesus, his lack of knowledge was not as God, but as man. Christians affirm that Jesus has two natures, one divine and one human. As a human, Jesus did not know everything, but as God he did. But this is completely irrelevant to whether absolute truth exists.

    I am not saying that you have to have infinite knowledge. I am not saying that you have to absolutely know everything. I am asking you if you know one single thing absolutely, and you have repeatedly answered “no.” You are content to go on an infinite regress of denials of absolute knowledge.

    You have not affirmed that you exist. You have repeatedly denied knowing if any of your reflections on your own thoughts are absolutely true. You aren’t even willing to affirm that you do not affirm anything.

    You either don’t understand what I mean by absolute truth or your position is that of radical skepticism. After seeing what you write on the blog, I’m picking the first option. You are definitely not a radical skeptic, because you really do believe that you absolutely know many things to be true.

  • http://youcallthisculture.blogspot.com/ VinnyJH

    Bill,

    No. I understand what you mean by absolute truth perfectly well.

    I think there is a very high probability that I exist, but I don’t think that I know it absolutely. I think there is a very high probability that all questions of knowledge are questions of probability. There are many things that I would assess to be true to a very high probability, but I cannot think of any about which I an so certain that I would assess to be absolutely true.

    There is no radical skepticism to it, just a simple acknowledgement of the limitations of human knowledge.

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  • ricky clark

    Bill I just wanted to say that I absolutely know that I exist and I absolutely believe in absolute truths:-)

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