Is Truth Absolutely Relative?

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The word fallacy comes from the Latin word fallacia, which could also be translated as “deception.” A fallacy is a misleading or unsound argument that can be either accidental or intentional. This will be the first in a series of posts dedicated to understanding and responding to logical fallacies.

The first logical fallacy we’ll look at is:

Self-Referential Incoherence

A self-referentially incoherent claim is one which, when applied to itself, refutes itself: Such as when a man says, “I can’t speak a word of English.”

Let’s take a look at some other examples of self-referentially incoherent propositions and worldviews. We will divide them into three groups: relativism, skepticism, and scientism.

Relativism

Batman-vs.-Relativism-Part-3

Several years back, I ministered with a team of young adults in Ireland, hosting day retreats for high school students. After one particular retreat, a teenage boy came up to my friend, Charity, and me and declared, with an air of condescension, “This has all been very interesting, but there are no absolute truths. Everything is relative.” Without missing a beat my friend looked at him and asked, “are you absolutely sure about that?”

The young man didn’t know what to do with himself. He took a step back and gasped. He realized then and there that epistemological relativism (a fancy term meaning that nothing we come to know can be said to be objectively true) is self-refuting.

Another example of this absolute relativism can be seen in the song I Gave You All, by the band Mumford and Sonswhich contains the lyric, “How can you say that your truth is better than ours?”

By this, they almost certainly mean that it’s arrogant and incorrect for a person or group to claim that what they know to be true is truer/better than what another person or group claims to be true. If this is what they mean then the lyric is, again, self-refuting, for the question itself implies a claim to knowledge that they think to be “better” than others.

Skepticism

skepticism

A few years back I had a discussion with a man who said he was an atheist. I spoke at some length with him, laying out what I considered to be good arguments for the existence of God. In response to each premise I offered, he offered a dismissive shrug.

At one point he stopped me, saying, “Look, human reason is so fallible, either there is no such thing as truth or, if there is, we have no way of knowing it. It’s arrogant to say otherwise.” Without realizing it, my friend made three self-referentially incoherent propositions:

1) Infallible certainty that we cannot have infallible certainty.

2) Assertion as a truth that we cannot know truth,

3) Assertion as a truth that if anyone asserted anything to be true, he must be arrogant.

When I pointed out these things to him, he said, “I guess that’s the difference between you and me. I see the value in skepticism.”

“Well, so do I,” I said. “But you’re not simply saying that you’re skeptical about some truths, but of all truth!”

“That’s right. I think it’s the only intellectually honest thing to do.”

“But to be skeptical of all truth would lead you to be skeptical of your skepticism, which would entail you becoming more certain!”

Scientism

scientism

Scientism is the belief that one should only accept as true that which can be shown true by the scientific method.

This is an impoverished view of human knowledge that cannot account for logic and mathematical truths (which science presupposes but cannot prove), ethical truths, and metaphysical truths—such as the existence of the external world, or that the past is real.

Most devastatingly, however, scientism is self-referentially incoherent: You cannot show by the scientific method that one should only accept as true that which can be shown true by the scientific method.

The fact is that the existence of truth is self-evident. As St.  Thomas Aquinas, in the thirteenth century, wrote, “The existence of truth is self-evident. For whoever denies the existence of truth grants that truth does not exist: and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is true: and if there is anything true, there must be truth.”

What are some self-referentially incoherent statements you’ve heard made?

Ps For a great short treatment on relativism you should get Chris Stepfanick’s booklet, Absolute Relativism

9 thoughts on “Is Truth Absolutely Relative?

  1. should it be… “and, if truth does not exist, then the proposition ‘Truth does not exist’ is NOT true:”? =]

  2. Scientism is indeed a problem.

    The Scientific Method is also known as the Inductive Method which is a valid way of finding out how nature operates. The Inductive (Scientific) Method examines evidence gathered from observations of the material/physical world and forms initial conclusions which in turn are tested and retested.

    One problem with the Inductive (Scientific) Method is that interpretations can be made which are not warranted by the evidence. This is why the statement that “one should only accept as true that which can be shown true by the scientific method” is not always realistic.

  3. Hi Matt, great post! I’d have a question about scientism: “You cannot show by the scientific method that one should only accept as true that which can be shown true by the scientific method”. Ok, but shouldn’t this sentence be shown by the scientific method? And shouldn’t my last sentence, too? I mean, this is a loop, because every sentence which is not shown by the scientific method is pretty useless, isn’t it? What is the solution in this case?
    Thanks:)

    1. Matt did a great post because it makes us think. What do you think about this solution?

      The Scientific Method is used to find truth about real physical/material objects in time and space. For example, the Scientific Method is used to examine a tree. The tree can be seen as consisting of bark and leaves. Eventually there are red balls hanging from branches. At some point, the scientist pulls at those red things and eventually discovers that they are good to eat. The scientist names them apples.
      We can conclude that the Scientific Method has found some truths about a particular tree.

      The fallacy is to assume that the only way we can find truth is by using the Scientific Method. The real truth is that the method of seeing, touching, smelling, tasting is useless when it comes to our spiritual soul and God inviting us to share in His life through knowledge and love in joy eternal. We cannot dismiss the existence of God simply because we cannot put the spiritual under the laboratory microscope.

      The Scientific Method is useful in the medical area of our decomposing anatomies. As for our souls, Divine Revelation trumps!

  4. I like this one Matt. You give us god arguments . I am sure that at some point i will have to refer to the logic you presented here. Veritas est 🙂 thanks. More of this 🙂
    Keep up the god work .
    God Bless You

    Sendt fra min iPhone

    Den 2. juli 2013 kl. 01:02 skrev “matt fradd” :

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  5. There is one thing that bothers me: people say they believe, but do not like the Church.
    I am sometimes just too tired to go to the mass, but I know when I go I would have rest and I would not be tired any more.

  6. Re: Title
    Is Truth Absolutely Relative?

    The difficulty is that very few people can explain the difference between objective and subjective when it comes to an universal truth.

  7. The problem here is one cannot define “Truth” when it comes to ethics , morals , etc , except as an apriori proposition based on a cultural value. Science proves reproducibility …not “truth” in the sense used here. More importantly science demonstrates fallacies and false truths. eg; God Exists. You can’t prove god exists and you can’t prove god does not exist. Either you believe god exists or you don’t believe god exists. After all religion is ultimately based on faith …not “proofs”.
    So why do religionists keep trying to use science to augment support for religion? I would suggest it is because most of educated humanity find Science more useful and powerful than Religion.

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