Absolute Truth?

I had a fairly substantial conversation over at Brett Moller's blog on the topic of "authority of source" in his comments section that began as his take from a post on David Warlick's blog. I've been meaning to blog about this for quite a while now (if you see Brett's original post, it's dated back to October) but as it is fairly significant subject matter, I wanted to treat the topic and my thoughts with a bit of care. But I could take forever to be prepared and there have been some similar themed posts coming through the aggregator lately so I thought I'd start typing and see where it goes.

Brett started with his ideas on "authority of source" by referencing his views around his personal faith, which he was upfront about straightaway. You have to read the entire post so that any snippets here are not out of context but this paragraph was what got me typing in the comments section.

My theory that I am going to throw out here is that without an understanding of absolute truth we can not expect anyone to honestly have the ability to accurately evaluate the truth or untruth of information. In fact we are heading into an age of complete access to all information and students today have an amazing amount of information available to them. Yes we need to teach the basic skills to work through the information, but what happens when we get to the heart questions of life and quickly get stuck on what we can and can’t believe?

Absolute truth as a concept came out and hit me, because it immediately gave me the impression that many people base their absolute truth on their religious worldview, which "gives" them that truth. Brett also posited that "it is impossible to separate church or worldview and state." And I have to admit, I got hot under the collar because as a person who is essentially non-religious ( a lot of what Chris Betcher posted recently rings true for me), I thought that there was an inference that religion has been solely responsible for the values and rules that become the lense through which to view truth. My parting sentences reflected that sentiment.

Your absolute truth may or may not be mine - so as soon as that happens, it can’t be absolute for everyone else. My parents sought to impose their values based on their church worldview onto me, and through their choices tried to ensure that no other alternatives were discussed or acknowledged. So I worry when I see words like “they have no set of values ” because my thought is that it comes off sounding like that those of us who have declined religion have no values or cannot recognise truth.

Brett and I then exchanged views over another two posts on his blog - the two part Authority of source cont…. and then Bringing it back….. I would encourage you if this topic interests you that you read all of the posts and the comments I left for Brett there. I wrote an awful lot over there that I don't want to repost here.

I decided that I'd see what the terms "absolute truth" brought up in Google as a matter of interest. The first hit I got was AbsoluteTruth.Net which revealed itself to be of a Christian worldview, the second was from the same site (probably the domain name at work here) then came a definition from whatis.com. The fourth link comes from the Washington Post article on a US politician whose aim is reshape US society so it conforms with his Absolute Truth and the fifth is a site also called absolute-truth.com which presents itself at first glance as a philisophical site but a peek in the About Us section reveals it is another US based Christian oriented site. An ironically interesting combination! So anyone using the world's most popular search tool could easily come to the conclusion that absolute truth is the domain of organised religion.

But there are other bloggers exploring what truth is in terms of education and how students work on verifying and establishing facts and truths. Bruce Schauble has been writing some excellent posts and I couldn't help thinking about my conversation with Brett when reading Dangerous Certainties. He followed on with Core Beliefs: 3, another reflective piece in which he concludes his review on the writings of David Foster Wallace by saying:

My goal as an educator is to help students learn to be well-adjusted in the sense that David Foster Wallace uses that term in this essay: aware of the choices they have, attentive to the implications of those choices, considerate of and compassionate towards those around them. It's a full time job, for my students, and for me.

I think the real danger we have in trying to teach our students about values and beliefs is that we end up imposing our own worldview, shaped in its own ways from our own life events and experiences, on them without necessarily skilling them to establish these thoughts on their own. Absolute truth might exist but there are plenty of grey areas up for debate that one group (religious or otherwise) would like to claim ownership of and proclaim as essential for our students to know. One of the most amazing things about being human is that we all experience life in a totally unique way and in a way that will never be experienced again by anyone else. We owe to our students to try and keep our own worldview agendas out of the way, no matter how right we think we are. Sometimes I wish I had dabbled in philosophy more when in tertiary education and then I'd be better skilled to participate in this sort of discussion. I'll complete this post with this quote from Bruce which really sums my thoughts up pretty well.

If you were to ask me what is the most dangerous idea out there, I'd be inclined to answer that it's the certainty that what we believe to be true is, in fact, true.

Attribution: Image: 'The truth lies behind the blurry curtain'


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10 thoughts on “Absolute Truth?

  1. Bill Kerr

    hi graham,

    I think you are talking philosophy here, exploring the nature of truth. I would react with alarm too against the expression, “absolute truth”. I
    haven’t visited Brett’s blog (lack of time) so am trusting that you have
    represented the situation accurately, more or less.

    My response to your post is that truth as we know it has always arisen through a struggle between competing ideas and people. It took a few years before Einstein’s relativity was accepted as a better representation of reality. Even then the experiment which confirmed it (obsevation of bending of light during solar eclipse) was later found to be fudged but fortunately other experiments came along which did verify it (more or less). The advance of “truth” comes about through new experts overthrowing or modifying the “truths” of older experts.

    In this context I think what’s important is developing an environment in which people feel they can argue for truth, including dangerous truths (like Darwin’s dangerous idea). I agree that an attitude of certainty is not healthy but it would be healthy to promote passionate discussion where people argue for what they believe in. eg. I think it’s healthier to discuss “intelligent design” than to ban it as unscientific, even though I think it is unscientific and would argue strongly against. Truth is too important to be regulated.

  2. Brett Moller

    wow, some great thought and discussion here. Once I get a chance I will take some time to do some thinking…. Perhaps next time I am at Starbucks with my laptop relaxing with a nice coffee…. Bill has made a great point here with the whole issue of healthy discussion in areas of disagreement. It is not easy coming out and declaring your personal worldviews to a public audience who could very easily disagree – and it is for that reason I thank you Graham for your openess of thought. More soon I am sure!! 🙂

  3. Simon

    Is there no such thing as absolute truth? If there isn’t, is that absolutely true?
    The opposite of absolutism is relativism. Here’s a quote of a famous relativist:

    “Everything I have said and done is these last years is relativism, by intuition. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.” —Benito Mussolini

    An interesting conversation! 🙂

  4. Graham Wegner

    Thanks for your thoughts, Simon. I am not going on the limb that says there is no “absolute truth” but I would say that no one person or group has a mortgage on that truth. A bit of a cop out but that’s me.

  5. Bill

    One thing that has always puzzled me is that the relativist don’t think that the Christian world veiw should ever be foisted on another. But it is totally amazing to me that they try to impose their relativism on everyone else. And that they do it with a vengence.


  6. Graham

    Post author

    Thanks for your thoughts, Bill. Zealotry from all sides of the fence is probably never helpful to any open discussion.

  7. Brett Moller

    If we continue to have this discussion (which I believe is an important one) some conclusions will have to be made…. I would be interested in what conclusions we have made from this discussion? And from those conclusions which ones did we make from the conversation taking place? And which were so hard set before this conversation that no one was going to change them? 🙂 Some more thoughts on my blog soon I think….

  8. Bill Dawson

    If there is absolute truth, it can be absolutely known regardless of any one group claiming ownership of it. So if it is out there, what is the source of absolute truth? How do we know it? It seems to me that the only way there could be absolute truth is if there is one true origin that doesn’t change over time. What I am hearing here, is that people are holding two parallel wordviews: there is absolute truth, but lets not be absolute about it. There either is absolute truth (which can be known) or there is not absolute truth, which is an absolute truth statement. Logically I have to go with the first one. So since there is absolute truth, can it not be known? Would the source of that truth go through great lengths to communicate that truth with us? I believe God has done just that.

  9. TL Watchman

    If there are no absolutes, then there are only gray areas. If there are no absolutes, then there are no standards. When humans define standards, they are relative. Science would become chaotic if all of a sudden gravity decided to become relative and only work when it wanted to work. Likewise, societies become chaotic, with no visible standards, but what government gives them. And often our governments do not stand for truth.

    This is why the Bible becomes the standard for morality. God’s moral laws are central to good law. You take these away and we have no standards or laws. We have no truths. Thus, the only truth that remains are those truths defined by man or government. And thus, they are subject to change.

    Living in gray areas will only get you soiled. Living by the truth, will keep society on track. Take it away and anything and everything goes. This is not liberty. It is chaos.


  10. Peter

    Scientific truth is best derived through observation, experimentation and reason. Moral truth is best derived through observation, reason and conscience. A bible (or any authority) isn’t required to tell us what is morally right and wrong.


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