Home / Absolutism vs. relativism - is truth subjective?  
Image of Absolutism vs. relativism - is truth subjective?

Nowadays, relativism is a philosophy acclaimed by many; they defend it as a natural human truth and develop a way of living based on it. Whenever I hear or read a relativist, I feel the profound wish to explain the contradictory basis and the harmful consequences of this philosophy so that more people may understand what its defense implies. This is the unique purpose of my article. I will begin with this thoughtful dialogue between Protagoras and Socrates:

Protagoras: Truth is relative. It is only a matter of opinion.

Socrates: You mean that truth is mere subjective opinion?

Protagoras: Exactly. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me, is true for me. Truth is subjective.

Socrates: Do you really mean that? That my opinion is true by virtue of its being my opinion?

Protagoras: Indeed I do.

Socrates: My opinion is: Truth is absolute, not opinion, and that you, Mr. Protagoras, are absolutely in error. Since this is my opinion, then you must grant that it is true according to your philosophy.

Protagoras: You are quite correct, Socrates.

This leads to the big question...

What Is Truth?

For a philosophy to be valid, it must be non-contradictory; that is, it must be consistent with its own proposal

Based on the path we take toward truth - absolutism or relativism - we will obtain completely different answers. By definition, relativism is "the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute." It's a theory, "especially in ethics or aesthetics, that conceptions of truth and moral values are not absolute but are relative to the persons or groups holding them."

Conversely, absolutism is "the doctrine that reality is unitary and unchanging." It includes "any theory which holds that truth or moral or aesthetic value is absolute and universal and not relative to individual or social differences."

So, to determine where truth lies and why, we should consider the premises of each.

The Consistency and Contradictions of Absolutism and Relativism

For a philosophy to be valid, it must be non-contradictory; that is, it must be consistent with its own proposal.

That is not the case with relativism as it commits an error that I call "the defining contradiction." I've picked this interesting passage by John Kekes to illustrate this error:

Suppose for the moment that relativism is right: all beliefs are cultural artifacts and they do not conform to objective facts; they merely reflect how a culture views the world, not how the world is. Two consequences follow, each devastating for relativists. First, if what relativists claim holds for all beliefs, then it holds for relativism as well. It too is a cultural artifact and it does not conform to objective facts. Relativism, then, tells us nothing about the truth; it tells us merely what relativists have been culturally conditioned to believe about the truth. People who believe that relativism is false because some beliefs do conform to objective facts are also culturally conditioned. In that case, however, there is no more reason to be a relativist than to be an anti-relativist, since neither is a matter of reason at all. Both depend on the cultural conditioning to which people have been subject. It would, then, be just as wrong for relativists to try to impose their views on defenders of "Western civ," the canon, the classics, the objectivity of science, and the authority of teachers over students as relativists say it is wrong for anti-relativists to impose their views. If relativists attempt to defend their position by claiming that it is not culturally conditioned but actually true, then they cannot consistently maintain their central claim that the truth does not exist. It must exist if they have found it."

In other words, relativists defend their theory as an absolute. But if we accept it as correct, they are claiming a relative assumption. Relativists claim that truth lies in the individual's perception; however, they are claiming it as an absolute; yet, at the same time, they are claiming that absolutes don't exist. Therefore, it is a contradiction.

Contrast this with absolutism. It doesn't have any contradiction in this respect. Absolutists claim that truth lies in reality, and reality is objective (i.e., not based on personal bias). They defend this assumption as an absolute, acknowledging that they can prove it through objective facts/observable phenomena.

Another important point to consider is the self-sufficiency of reality in order to determine which theory is accurate. Reality, in-and-of-itself, is self-sufficient. What does that mean? It means that reality exists as a whole, regardless our own capacity to understand and determine it. For example: a person in a coma can't consciously perceive reality and, therefore, can't establish any definition of it.

But does reality stop existing when someone is in a coma? Certainly not. If it stopped existing, there wouldn't be hospitals to take care of this person, nor doctors, nor any factor of reality. This proves that truth comes from objective facts. The human capability to acknowledge truth lies in the recognition of reality, and this process is part of the objective aspect of existence.

Therefore, an absolutist philosophy will be internally consistent because it is based on this stable and self-sufficient reality.

The Consequences of Relativism

As with any other choice, relativism has certain consequences in our lives. To me, the primary impacts are to individualism, morality, and knowledge, which are the key aspects for a society to thrive.

Consequences of relativism on individuals

Who would you rather build the airplane you fly in? A scientist who knows the absolutes of math or someone who believes whatever he wants to believe?

At an individual level, relativism contradicts human nature and causes personal stagnation because, while we have the intrinsic capability to perceive and rationally recognize reality, we turn-off this distinctive feature in order to opt for an irrational way of thinking. When we don't recognize reality as an absolute, we can't achieve any real goal in our lives as everything would be relative and its nature would be dispersed and doubtful. For instance, let's say that there's a student who wants to become a scientist and whose philosophy is relativism. One day, his teacher tells him that 2 + 2 = 4, and that this is an absolute truth in the mathematical process. However, as he thinks that truth is relative to one's opinion, why should he accept this formula as correct? And if he ignores the absolute truth of this mathematical axiom, what can he really learn about the more complex scientific ideas? Is he likely to reach his goal of becoming a good scientist? Certainly not.

On the other hand, if he accepts the facts of reality such as this fundamental, he will be able to build upon it and reach a higher level of mathematical and scientific knowledge. Also consider it from this perspective - who would you rather build the airplane you fly in, for example? A scientist who knows the absolutes of math or someone who believes whatever he wants to believe?

Consequences of relativism on morality

First, let's define morality. Morality is considered a set of principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. We must establish what is good and what is evil in order to conduct our lives. That is, if we consider morality relative (i.e., that there isn't any objective good or evil), by definition, the concept of morality wouldn't make any sense because it would be reduced to whimsical, individual preferences.

Why do we need to construct a moral code? I don't think we could survive or thrive in society without one. Without a moral code, the actions of others would be harming and destructively interfering with our lives. For example, a murderer might believe that killing an innocent person is a moral behavior because, as a relativist, that's what he prefers and enjoys. What argument could another relativist use that the murderer isn't correct in his behavior - that his behavior isn't "good?" Of course, from an objective perspective, the consequences of his actions are that an innocent victim's life has been destroyed by his whim. Further, there can't be any such thing as justice under relativism because his conduct would be considered as right. Obviously, humanity can't thrive under such conditions.

Consider the alternative - that human life matters... that human life is the objective standard of right or wrong... that the consequences of taking another's life means that your own life is also not safe. Looking at whether someone is harmed from your action, as an absolute, can be measured factually. This would be the role of justice - based on an objective standard and facts, to determine if an action was bad and to measure the amount of "badness." The relativist can't measure the badness or, if he does, measures it like a feather floating in the wind. The absolutist measures the badness like a rock.

Consequences of relativism on cognition

Our ability to absorb and develop knowledge has greatly fostered our evolution as a species. By definition, cognition, which is the mental process of knowing, requires absolutism to exist. Knowledge results from our abilities to perceive, learn, and reason. To acquire knowledge, we must think logically, which means that we must accept and understand the objective facts of reality.

Knowledge without objective facts or reason doesn't really qualify as knowledge but, instead, as mere beliefs or inventions. For example, I may believe that, when I throw a stone into the water, the stone will float. There isn't any objective fact to prove my claim. Therefore, it can't be considered knowledge.

So, for those who defend relativism, I want them to be aware that all the improvements (e.g., scientific, technological) that they love and that make their lives better are based on absolute facts. Without the absolutes that knowledge provides, we would still be living in caves. For example, take the computer with which you are reading this article. For it to exist, it was first necessary to discover the facts of reality in order to use them to build such a complex system. Try to build a computer based solely upon beliefs. It's impossible.

In other words, absolutists seek to acquire knowledge to improve their own lives and the lives of others. Conversely, relativists seek only mere beliefs. Who do you think will live better lives? Who do you think will foster a more valuable world?


Now that we know that relativism is not a consistent philosophy, why do so many people support it? Why is it so popular?

I think the defense of relativism lies basically in a voluntary refusal to see or acknowledge reality (aka intellectual dependence). When people are allowed to get away with belief systems without suffering the consequences of those beliefs, relativism flourishes. Take socialism as an example. Socialists believe that they can ignore the laws of economics. So long as socialists can live on the backs of others who produce, they won't have to suffer the consequences of their belief systems. That is, until everyone dies. (Just look at the current European economic crisis.)

In my opinion, absolutism is the better way to think. If more people thought in absolute terms, I think we would see a huge reduction of the world's problems.

Written by permalink    plaintext

A participant in our Socrates Café discussion group recently sent me an email that included the following observation:

"There are in fact, layers to truth. People tend to see things in black and white, but a three dimensional image comes into view when the layers overlap in shades of grey. Truth is a like a hologram. Images layered upon images, that seem to shift, or morph when viewed from different dimensions."  

Hopefully, my response will be of interest:

First, there are many physicists and information theorists who contend that "information sits at the core of physics" and some go further to contend that "information is fundamental" to everything. Because this "it form bit" hypothesis is closely associated with the holographic view of reality, your comments resonated with me in the context of a paper on consciousness that I have been working on. 

See: https://www.academia.edu/s/7a42b01e12  or https://www.facebook.com/download/570376169767017/CONSCIOUSNESS - The Physics of Intentionality and Prayer.pdf

Although my paper was intended to present a scientifically plausible model for consciousness, I also used the imagery of transmissive volume holograms as an illustrative analogy for the paper's physics.  And, although the following describes a increasingly differentiated and particularized hierarchy as emanations of an undifferentiated Primal "Thought", the same processes would apply if I had used "light", "truth" or "reality" in the description. 


We will call the starting point for this meditation the "First" or "Primal" Thought. From the frame of reference of religious believers, it would be the Divine Thought which, having been thought, would be eternal. Also, as the Divine Thought, it could not be exclusive of any other Divine Thought. Therefore, from this Primal Thought, one might imagine additional thoughts subsumed within the first Thought as its necessary predicates. If so, I contend that I have described "the Primal Thought" as a state which is in superposition of all harmonious thoughts that may be subsumed within the initial Thought. If so, and if the principles of quantum mechanics were to also apply, would not all of the subsumed Thoughts necessarily emerge from the Primal Thought. Those Thoughts which are eternal and unchanging might then be referred to as the names and attributes of God and cumulatively be called the "Word of God". And, should one thought, if actualized, conflict with the actualization of any other thought, all such conflicting thoughts might be understood to eternally exist in contingency to each other. If so, all such Thoughts might additionally be understood to comprise a continuum of thought as greater and greater particularity emerges.

I propose that this continuum of thought may be seen as roughly analogous to a series of transmissive holograms which takes the light from all prior holograms and at each stage draws out and makes apprehendable some of the not yet expressed "thoughts" that were still subsumed within the thought being transmitted. No possible thought consistent with or subsumed within the Primal Thought could remain unthought.  However, some thoughts might find potential manifestation in extension given one set of Natural Laws (physics) and other "thoughts" might only be potentially manifest as extension if the Natural Laws were different. (Here I would contend that all possible universes which might be derived from the First Thought would of necessity arise in extension.) Now, within the set of all possible Thoughts which might potentially become actualized within the extension of our universe would be thoughts that might become manifest in extension only if other thoughts did not become manifest. (If so, it would be reasonable to assume that there must be a multiplicity of universes with Natural Laws like our own.) I would also contend that although all such thoughts must be eternal, that as these Thoughts embody greater and greater particularity, they engage in increasing degrees of interplay with "what is" in the determination of what next will be.

I should emphasize that the transmissive holograms I have described here were only an illustrative analogy to describe a process which begins with an initial quantum state and facilitates the emergence of increasing differentiation and particularization in a hierarchy where corporeality is at the bottom.  Since any information, including thoughts, can be encoded in the light, I felt the hologram could serve as a reasonable analogy.  Also, theology, philosophy, and now physics (the Holographic Universe) have used light related imagery in their descriptions of creation; to include the physicist, David Bohm, who called matter "frozen light"

With this disclaimer, we can continue our holographic analogy to state that everything which might "Be" from a beginning that has no beginning to an end that has no end would necessarily "Be", either fixed and eternal or contingent, within the resulting matrix of "informed light" -- otherwise how could it ever be said that God was "All Knowing?"  In this context, every human soul may be likened to a tiny sliver of information which is encoded within the hologram.  This information set (the soul) would be different for each individual to define the enormous range of possibilities that the individual, contingent upon their initial conception, might actualize in the course of their lives.  In other words, your potential (or contingent) existence and everything that your life might accomplish may be seen as encoded within the hologram.  Although this information which contingently became you may be understood to have existed from before the Big Bang, it would only be at the moment of conception that you, and the potentials of your life could, as a function of circumstance and choice, become actualizeable.  Although this means that some of the possibilities for your life (God's actualizable thoughts about your life) would involve more light than others, it is largely through you, through the choices you make, that determines the how and when, if ever, these potentials might become manifest.  It is at this point that I need to digress to describe a vivid dream I experienced more than twenty-five years ago:

 In this visualization, I was aware of myself as in death looking back on my life; which appeared as a time-lapse, stop-motion continuum captured on a life-long strip of holographic film.  All of the choices I had made, and had not made, and the consequence of my actions, and my inactions, seemed both visually and experientially present.  I was aware of individuals with whom I had consciously and unconsciously interacted and the impact of these interactions on our respective lives.  The resulting joy and pain, both mine and theirs, seemed palpable.  I understood in that moment that God need not judge me at death.  I would judge myself.  I further knew that if my life had then ended, I could have spent eternity regretting, as in the biblical parable of Lazarus and the rich man, the unbridgeable gulf between the choices I had made and all which could have been.

Then, I turned.  Before me were the lives I might yet lead; all of my choices simultaneously existing as contingent potentials.  Each choice was marked by new paths which branched and branched again into great chains of alternate realities.  And at each juncture, one of my options appeared different from the others - it shimmered.  With a certainty that surpassed any I had ever known I knew these shimmering paths represented God’s guidance, they were the choices God would have me make - the paths God would have me take.  I also knew that if, in submission to God’s will, I consistently choose these shimmering paths from the multitude God had contingently ordained, I would, as a prodigal son, attain my inheritance, or at least that portion I had not yet squandered.  Then I awoke.

It took some time for me to realize that this visualization was more than a mere dream.  My paper on consciousness reflects some of the research this visualization, among several others, catalyzed. Because the "it from bit" hypothesis claims that "information is fundamental, more fundamental than anything else", I believe there was a reasonable basis to claim that a matrix of information preexisted our Big Bang.  Because "probabilities have a fundamental, irremovable status in quantum theory", I believe there was also a reasonable basis to claim that this information matrix, through most of its hierarchical levels, is also probabilistic (to include the probability that each of your potentials, and mine, might be actualized by our changing circumstance and choices).  Because most of the physicists who advocate for the holographic universe believe "the things that we usually think of as real—particles, fields and even spacetime—have no existence independent of the questions that we ask about them", it should also be reasonable to speculate that the "stuff" of our material existence can be influenced by our thoughts and intentions.  There contentions and my supporting citations are more fully discussed in my consciousness paper.

It is in this context that I believe the frequencies associated all human potentials (those of the "Perfect Man") are subsumed within the light that is first transmitted through the volume hologram we have posited.  Through perhaps an infinity of transmission levels, the intensity and frequencies of the transmitted light would be reduced ending with the "frozen light" of corporeality -- to include the individualized information sets which we have called the human "soul" and those potentials which, when actualized, are the eternal record of the lives we ultimately lead.  Therefore, through what we call our souls, I see the probability density of our contingent futures being defined at conception.  Our potentialities, as defined within the hologram of each soul, can then be actualized through the agency we call "mind" (which I will be describing as analogous to a laser) with light (which theologians would call "spirit"). 

Returning to our analogies, the volume hologram remains as our information matrix but I now propose that the human mind be seen as analogous to a tunable laser -- a laser which, as a function of its intensity and frequencies, extracts information from and manipulates the probability density of information in the information matrix.  As a laser draws images from the hologram, your thoughts, and especially your conscious choices, may be understood to cause the probabilities of what happens next in your life to be altered and the potentials resident in your (holographic) soul to become fixed in the "frozen light" of matter. 

It is in this context that "truth", "ethics", and "morality" can be both absolute (in terms of the eternal and unchanging frequencies associated with God's Attributes) and also be relative.  For example, certain frequencies associated with God's Attributes may have ascendancy in you while other frequencies may have ascendancy in me.  This would mean that the emanating frequencies from your mind and those from my mind could potentially extract different "truths" from the same information matrix.  Also, because you are physically in one location and I am in another, our spatial displacement would cause our mental "lasers" to differentially intersect the hologram.  Therefore, our "truths" could be different even if the frequency mix of our mental lasers were exactly the same.  This means that every human's individual "path of shimmering light" would be time and circumstance specific, but would not be undirected.  Unfortunately, while our frames of reference remain limited, our individual "truths" could appear to be in irreconcilable conflict and although we might both be "right" within these reference frames, we would both be wrong if we stubbornly argued for our divergent positions.  Nonetheless, some "truths" will be more energetic than others.  Hope for agreement and unity, however, exists as we begin to see each of our "individual truths" as particulars which may potentially be subsumed within a more "truth-filled" universal. 

The process by which these universals may be sought, however, requires the participants are to let go of their egos (and hubris) and allow their ideas, as balloons, to rise or fall in accordance with the truth they may contain and, more importantly, to be open to the light, and new frequencies, others may emanate in our discussions.  There are Bahá'í Writings which provide guidance on how we should collectively seek "truth" through a process called "Consultation" http://bahai-library.com/pdf/compilations/consultation.pdf  In any event, the process of consultation (as translated into the holographic imagery I have been using), makes it more likely that a group of individuals collective emanate new and more energetic frequencies causing new "truths" to be intuitively extracted from the matrix of "informed light" as well as from the "frozen light" accessible by our senses.  (A model for how these intuitive "truths" should be tested can be found at https://www.facebook.com/notes/jon-trevathan/a-parable-of-the-tree/10150725699644263.)  At the minimum, consultation tends to expand the scope of a group's considerations (potentially to include all of humanity and the entirety of our earth) and the truth content of the group's collective ideas tend to be greater than the individual ideas that were initially shared.  Also, because many Socrates members feel they are changed by our discussions, I would like to think that each participant's "shimmering paths" are becoming more spiritual, and more inclusive, and will lead to the discovery of those most precious gems that remain hidden within the hologram of our souls.

Written by permalink    plaintext

"There are in fact, layers to truth. People tend to see things in black and white, but a three dimensional image comes into view when the layers overlap in shades of grey. Truth is a like a hologram. Images layered upon images, that seem to shift, or morph when viewed from different dimensions."

It's one thing to say knowledge is contextual, but this quote suggest facts are contextual. That doesn't seem right.

Knowledge is an integration of different things - including facts - which is why context matters; when you integrate different pieces, things change. Water is defined as a liquid because of its defined, measurable properties. Introduce lower temperatures and water becomes ice. It's not that there's a grey area as to whether water is a liquid or solid. You've just changed the qualitative facts. Certain qualities lead to water being a liquid. Other qualities lead to water becoming a solid. It's all definitional. By definition, a fact has actual quality of existence in reality and, again by definition, truth is a fact or a group of facts.

Additionally, this quote suggests most people see things as black or white. That means most people are absolutists. I would firmly disagree. I don't know about you or /u/Clarisse88, but I don't need more than one hand to count how many absolutists I've known in my life.

Truth doesn't shift or morph and a hologram doesn't seem like the best analogy. Facts have to be measured by absolute, unwavering, objective standards. Physicists who think everything is made up of information seems like another way of saying quanta have defined, factual properties: a particle with x spin has different properties than one with y spin. It's either-or; black-or-white; definitional.

To me, the hologram analogy works better for the integration of truths: knowledge.

Written by ----- permalink    plaintext


Written by permalink    plaintext

(sniff sniff - what's that smell?)

The bulk of your comment is superfluous and overly complicated. Sounds like you're trying to make an intellectual argument for God. If you can't explain it simply, you probably don't understand what you're talking about. This smells like spam.

You need to be logged in to comment.
search only within philosophy

About philosophy


“Too often... we enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought," said John F. Kennedy in 1962.

The term philosophy comes from two Greek words meaning love of wisdom. Well put. Please apply it here.

Rules for intelligent discussions

Latest Activity