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3 Easy Steps to Show that Absolute Truth Exists

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Filed under Belief

AbsoluteTruth

Gorgias the Nihilist, an ancient Greek philosopher, was said to have argued the following four points:

  1. Nothing exists;
  2. Even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and
  3. Even if something can be known about it, knowledge about it can’t be communicated to others.
  4. Even if it can be communicated, it cannot be understood.

Of course, if you can understand his argument, he’s wrong. So too, many modern thinkers hold to positions that, fall apart into self-refutation when critically examined.

Today, I want to look at three such popular claims. In showing their inherent contradictions, I hope to show why we can (and must) affirm that knowable, non-empirically testable, absolute truths exist.

Step 1: Answering Relativism

The claim: “Absolute truth does not exist.”

Why it’s self-refuting: The claim “absolute truth does not exist” is either absolutely true or it’s not. But, of course, it can’t be absolutely true, since that would create a contradiction: we would have proven the existence of an absolute truth, the claim itself. Since it cannot be absolutely true, we must concede that there are some cases in which the proposition “absolute truth does not exist” must be false… in which case, we’re back to affirming the existence of absolute truth.

What we can know: Absolute truth exists. Put another way, the claim “absolute truth exists” is absolutely true.

Step 2: Answering Skepticism

The claim: “We can’t know anything for certain.” Or “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain.”

Why it’s self-refuting: This one is a subtler self-refutation then the first, because it looks humble. After all, if I can say, “I don’t know the number of stars in the universe,” why can’t I take it a few steps further, and say, “I can’t know anything for certain”?

Simple. Because in saying that, you’re claiming to know something about your own knowledge. When we say, “I don’t know x,” we’re saying, “I know that my knowledge on x is inconclusive.”

Take the most mild-seeming statement: “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain.” What you’re really saying is that, “I know that my knowledge on whether anything can be known for certain is inconclusive.” So you’re still affirming something: that you know your knowledge to be inconclusive.

There are two ways of showing this. First, because it could be a lie. The claim “I don’t know who took the last cookie,” could very well be proven false, if we later found the cookie in your purse. So these “I don’t know” claims are still affirming something, even if they’re just affirming ignorance.

Second, apply the “I don’t know” to another person. If I said, “You don’t know anything about cars,” I’m making a definitive statement about what you do and don’t know. To be able to make that statement, I have to have some knowledge about you and about cars. So if I was to say, “you don’t know if we can know anything for certain,” I’d be claiming to know that you were a skeptic – a fact that I can’t know, since I’m not sure who’s reading this right now.

So when you say “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain,” you’re saying that you know for certain that you’re ignorant on the matter. But that establishes that things necessarily can be known for certain.

This is unavoidable: to make a claim, you’re claiming to know something. So any positive formulation of skepticism (“no one can know anything for certain,” “I can’t know anything for certain,” “I don’t know anything for certain,” etc.) ends up being self-refuting. For this reason, the cleverest skeptics often word their skepticism as rhetorical questions (e.g., de Montaigne’s “What do I know?”). If they were to say what they’re hinting at, it would be self-refuting. They avoid it by merely suggesting the self-refuting proposition.

Finally, remember that in Step 1 we determined that the claim “absolute truth exists” is absolutely true. We’ve established this by showing the logical contradiction of holding the contrary position. In other words, we’ve already identified a truth that we can know for certain: “absolute truth exists.”

What we can know: Absolute truth exists, and is knowable.

Step 3: Answering Scientific Materialism

The claim: “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable.”

Why it’s self-refuting: The claim that “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable” is not empirically or scientifically testable. It’s not even conceivable to scientifically test a hypothesis about the truths of non-scientifically testable hypotheses. In fact, “all truth is empirically or scientifically testable” is a broad (self-refuting) metaphysical and epistemological claim.

What about the seemingly moderate claim, “We cannot know if anything is true outside of the natural sciences”? Remember, from Step 2, that “I don’t know x,” means the same as saying, “I know that my knowledge on x is inconclusive.” Here, it means, “I know that my knowledge on the truth of things outside of the natural sciences is inconclusive.” But the natural sciences can never establish your ignorance of truths outside the natural sciences. So to make this claim, you need to affirm as certain a truth that you could not have derived from the natural sciences. So even this more moderate-seeming claim is self-refuting.

Furthermore, all scientific knowledge is built upon a bed of metaphysical propositions (for example, the principle of noncontradiction) that cannot be established scientifically. Get rid of these, and you get rid of the basis for every natural science. There’s no way of rejecting these premises while still affirming the conclusions that the natural sciences produce.

Finally, remember that in Step 2, we established the truth of the claim “absolute truth exists, and is knowable.” This is a truth we know with certainty, but it’s not an empirical or scientific question. It can be established simply by seeing that its negation is a contradiction. So that’s a concrete example of an absolute truth known apart from the empirical and scientific testing of the natural sciences.

Conclusion: There exists absolute and knowable truth, outside of the realm of the natural sciences, and not subject to empirical and scientific testing.

Joe Heschmeyer

Written by

Until May 2012, Joe Heschmeyer was an attorney in Washington, D.C., specializing in litigation. These days, he is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, and can use all the prayers he can get. Follow Joe through his blog, Shameless Popery or contact him at joseph.heschmeyer@gmail.com.

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  • Sqrat

    Proposition: That God does not exist is an absolute and knowable truth, outside the realm of natural sciences, and not subject to empirical and scientific testing.

    Discuss in light of the above article.

    • You can say it, but then you need to show it. Make your thinking "visible".

    • That's equivalent to the assertion, "It is an absolute and knowable truth that God does not exist." Do you really believe this? If so, on what basis?

      • Sqrat

        In keeping with my original assignment:

        According to Step 1 in Joe's article, if God does not exist, then it's absolutely true that he does not exist.

        According to Step 2 in Joe's article, absolute truth is knowable, so if it's absolutely true that God does not exist, then this absolute truth can be known.

        • "According to Step 2 in Joe's article, absolute truth is knowable, so if it's absolutely true that God does not exist, then this absolute truth can be known."

          Here lies your error. Just because "absolute truth" is knowable in general, it doesn't mean ALL particular absolute truths are knowable.

          But you never answered my original question: do you really believe that it is an absolute and knowable truth that God does not exist? If so, on what basis?

          • William Davis

            "If God is the ground of all being" is an extremely big "if". The problem is never in the logic (at least with well established philosophy), it's always in the assumptions of the premises.

          • ""If God is the ground of all being" is an extremely big "if". The problem is never in the logic (at least with well established philosophy), it's always in the assumptions of the premises."

            Sqrat made an assertion using the word "God". We therefore have to define God to make sense of his assertion. Presumably, that responsibility should belong to the people who actually believe in God, who determine which god we're talking about at Strange Notions, and in that case, the Catholics here believe God is, among other things, "the ground of all being." This isn't an "extremely big 'if"; it's a standard definition of what we mean by 'God'.

            My refutation of Sqrat's point doesn't beg the question; it simply defines a key term in his premise which he neglected to define.

          • Sqrat

            Here lies your error. Just because "absolute truth" is knowable in general as a category of truth, it doesn't mean ALL particular absolute truths are knowable.

            Oh, I agree with you completely here, Brandon. What you say is an absolute truth. I would point out, however, that Joe's article conveys the impression that all absolute truths are inherently knowable simply by virtue of their being absolute truths, since he asserts "What we can know: Absolute truth exists, and is knowable." Wouldn't you agree that his statement would have been less misleading if he had said, "Absolute truth exists, and is sometimes knowable?

            There's another problem with your suggestion. If God is, as classical theists believe, the ground of all being, then if God *didn't exist*,
            there would be nothing around to know that fact--no humans, no minds, no being. So if God didn't exist, that truth would be unknowable because there would be no knowers.

            I don't think there's a problem with my suggestion. After all, if the classical theorists are wrong, then God is not the ground of all being. Consider the following two propositions:

            1, God is the ground of all being.
            2. God is not the ground of all being.

            If one of those propositions is absolutely true, then the other is absolutely false. As far as Joe's article is concerned, it doesn't matter which is which. For now it is sufficient to indicate that I assent to his claim in Step 1 that "absolute truth exists" -- a claim that I consider logically equivalent to, "Some statements are completely true."

            But you never answered my original question: do you really believe that it is an absolute and knowable truth that God does not exist? If so, on
            what basis?

            I suspect that you have no problem with the contention that, if God does not exist, then the statement, "God does not exist" is absolutely true. Your problem may lie with the suggestion that this statement, if absolutely true, can be known to be absolutely true. Is it because it falls into a broader category of statements about the non-existence or non-occurence of things? For example, do you see the statement "God does not exist" as being analogous to the statement, "Mohammed did not ascend into heaven from the Dome of the Rock and speak to God"? Do you take the position that neither of these statements can be known to be true, and so, at the very least, God might exist and Mohammed might have ascended into heaven from the Dome of the Rock and spoken to him?

          • I read the article's claim as applying to some rather than all absolute truths.

            "What we can know: Absolute truth exists, and is knowable."

            is a muddle of text that we could restate more precisely as:

            "There exists at least one proposition that is true, absolute, and knowable (by some definitions of true, absolute, and knowable)."

            Of course the fundamental idea of the article was to sufficiently obscure the underlying claim so that (1) the claim could continue to be defended on logical grounds, but (2) its utter irrelevance to theism was kept out of sight and out of mind. A motte and bailey fallacy, in other words.

          • "Joe's article conveys the impression that all absolute truths are inherently knowable simply by virtue of their being absolute truths, since he asserts "What we can know: Absolute truth exists, and is knowable.""

            This isn't true for the reason I explained above. Joe is clearly saying that absolute truth as a category or type of truth is, in general, knowable. But this doesn't mean every individual absolute truth is knowable. That's a subtle but important distinction.

            Perhaps Joe could have been clearer, but I'm sure that's what he meant.

          • Sqrat

            It's kinda like doing biblical exegesis, ain't it?

        • Emanuel Zimmermann

          "In keeping with my original assignment:

          According to Step 1 in Joe's article, if God does not exist, then it's absolutely true that he does not exist."

          What you're saying is true, IF God does not exist. If He didn't exist then I guess you would be right, but since you don't claim to know that, then you cannot claim it as an absolute truth.

          • Sqrat

            Not at all, Emmanuel. If there are 879 jelly beans in a certain jar, then it is an absolute truth that there are 879 jelly beans in the jar, regardless of whether you or I or anyone else claims to know that there are 879 jelly beans in the jar.

          • William Davis

            How can you claim it as an absolute truth if you haven't counted the beans (i.e. empirical evidence)? One can claim there is an objective truth about it, but not what that truth is without evidence. Even after counting, you can't assign a 0 probability to the possibility that you've counted wrong. Counting again and getting the same result would decrease the probability that you are wrong, but you could potentially be counting wrong in exactly the same way twice. A couple of separate individuals counting and getting the same result would probably make the probability of a miscount so small it could be safely ignored, but stranger things have happened (like the same person being struck by lightening multiple times or winning the lottery) ;)

          • Sqrat

            If I say "There are 879 jelly beans in the jar," that statement is either absolutely true, or it is not. If there are, in fact, 879 jelly beans in the jar, then the statement is absolutely true even if the jelly beans have not been counted. In other words, I don't think the jelly beans are quantum jelly beans that do not have a quantity unless and until they are counted.

            Your objection is certainly correct, though, insofar as it points out that it would not be possible to ascertain the truth value of the statement, "There are 879 jelly beans in the jar" unless someone counts them. I am simply arguing here that the truth of a statement and knowledge of its truth value are two different things and are essentially independent. It may well be that Joe was trying to argue that a statement is not absolutely true unless it is known to be true, in which case perhaps you and he are in agreement, and I would respectfully have to disagree with you both.

            In many situations, what we need to do to determine the truth value of a non-tautological statement is to acquire evidence. I do not think it is necessary to do that in all situations, however.

        • Kim58

          Step one in the article said "Absolute truth does not exist", not "IF absolute truth does not exist, then X..." You changed the statement in Step one and then substituted the word "God" in for the phrase "absolute truth" and that makes no sense. If I didn't believe in pink unicorns, then I could, like you did above, make a similar type statement "If pink unicorns do not exist, then it's absolutely true that pink unicorns do not exist." But to say "Pink unicorns do not exist" (i.e. God does not exist, which is what I think you were trying to get at) means I would have to have complete and absolute knowledge that no where in the whole wide universe does there exist pink unicorns. I am fairly certain based on my limited knowledge that pink unicorns don't exist, but I can't really say absolutely they don't exist because I don't have complete knowledge of everything that exists in the universe upon which to come to that conclusion. Therefore the best I could say is "Pink unicorns likely don't exist, based on what I know." Likewise, for those who don't believe in God, the best they could really ever logically state is that "God likely doesn't exist, based on what I know." To say that God absolutely doesn't exist really doesn't make sense, because ultimately we don't know what we don't know. Therefore, it's probably best we keep an open mind because someday you might see a pink unicorn (or God)! You absolutely can't say it absolutely won't happen!

          • Sqrat

            Actually, Joe's Step 1 says "Absolute truth exists." I simply built on that when I said that, if God does not exist, then it's absolutely true that he does not exist. That's essentially a tautology.

            To say that God absolutely does not exist makes perfect sense, whether or not he exists, because we understand what it means to say "God does not exist." Moreover, the statement "God does not exist" is absolutely true if God does not exist. Again, that is essentially tautological.

            The question you raise of whether we can know that God does not exist is a separate one. When Joe said, "Absolute truth exists, and is knowable," I read that to mean, "Anything that is absolutely true is knowable." On that reading, if it is absolutely true that God does not exist, then it would have to be possible to know that God does not exist.

          • Kim58

            Your statement and the first statement in the article are not essentially restating the same thing the same thing. You put the word "if" in front of your statement in the first of your two paragraphs in the reply above, but then dropped it from your statement in the 2nd of your two paragraphs above. To say "If God does not exist..." is NOT the same statement as "God does not exist". To go back to the original question you proposed, "That God does not exist is an absolute and knowable truth, outside the realm of natural sciences, and not subject to empirical and scientific testing." is in error because 1) the claim that God does not exist is NOT an absolute and knowable truth (you don't have knowledge of everything in the universe, including things that can't be tested empirically, so you can't make this claim...the best you could possibly say is that God likely doesn't exist), 2) because you don't have total knowledge of everything outside the natural sciences, you have to concede that truths could possibly exist outside the realm of natural sciences and those truths could remain true even if they can't be subject to empirical and scientific testing and therefore you can't state that God's existence can't be proved because He is outside the realm of natural sciences or isn't subject to empirical or scientific testing.

          • Sqrat

            The first statement in Joe's article is "Gorgias the Nihilist, an ancient Greek philosopher, was said to have argued the following four points:" I don't see the relevance of that to the the current discussion.

            I don't think you are quite getting the drift of my argument. What I am saying is this: If God does not exist, then the statement "God does not exist" is absolutely true. In other words, I begin by accepting the first of Joe's points, "Absolute truth exists."

            The second of Joe's points was, "Absolute truth exists, and is knowable." The meaning of that point is unclear. I thought Joe was saying that all absolute truths are knowable. I understand you to be arguing that, even if the statement "God does not exist" is absolutely true, it cannot be known to be absolutely true, and Joe's point needs to be rephrased, for the purposes of clarity, to be something like the following: "Absolute truth exists, and is sometimes knowable."

            I would argue that the proposition "God does not exist" is, in principle, empirically testable because it is, in principle, falsifiable. All one would have to do to prove it false is to produce God -- or, if you wish, all God would have to do to falsify it is to produce himself. I would further argue that the contrary proposition "God exists" is, on the other hand, not empirically testable because it has been rendered, through the addition of certain fact claims about God, practically or literally unfalsifiable. You, for example, have hinted that God might exist, but be hiding in some far corner of the universe. Given that suggestion, in order to falsify the proposition, "God exists," it would be necessary to travel to every corner of the universe, looking for God. That, obviously, we cannot do.

            Moreover, I have been told, in this very forum, that God exists outside of space and time. That would mean that he does not exist anywhere in the universe. He does not exist anywhere in the universe now, he has not existed anywhere in the universe at any time in the past, and he will not exist anywhere in the universe at any time in the future. His existence is outside of space and time. So even if we could go to the ends of the universe, looking for God, he would not be there, no matter when we went.

            If we return to the proposition I put on the table at the outset of the discussion, "That God does not exist is an absolute and knowable truth, outside the realm of natural sciences, and not subject to empirical and scientific testing," my own conclusion is the following:

            1. That God does not exist may very well be an absolute truth.

            2. It is a claim, contrary to the stated proposition, that is subject to empirical testing, if not necessarily of the scientific kind.

            3. As to whether it is something that is knowable, that depends on how much work you expect the verb "to know" to perform. If attempts to falsify the proposition "God does not exist" repeatedly fail, at some point it seems reasonable to conclude that it is a much more robust proposition than its unfalsifiable opposite.

    • How about this one?
      "All statements are false."
      More here:
      http://2catholicmen.blogspot.com/2011/11/all-statements-are-false.html

      • Sqrat

        How about this one:

        "This statement is false."

        • I'd say it's logically sound, but devoid of meaning in and of itself.

          • Karl Ahlmann

            Impossible. "all statements are false" includes this one, and if this one is false then all statements aren't false. if it's true that all statements are false, then this statement can't be true.

            Truth exist is the only certain statement one can make. Because saying anything else, through relativism, skepticism, scientfic method or religious books, one needs prior set axioma's to validate that statement as true.

            Truth exists is the most perfect statement anyone can gain insight over. Because saying anything else can be refuted, based on the assumptions people have to make.

            Truth exist is not an assumption when you find out it is not a statement but a conclusion from everything you found out not to be true. The truth is in the not-true, with things being not-true there is truth. A lie can only exist, only be a lie if truth exists. If a lie is seen as true, then truth can't exist, because how can the false be true, or else everything is true and when everything is true nothing is true.

  • Kevin Aldrich

    I wonder why Joe did not call it "objective" truth rather than "absolute" truth?

  • William Davis

    I agree objective reality exists, the problem is in how confident we can be about the things we know. One cannot prove, for example, that they are not a disembodied mind being deceived by a demon. A current example is the simulation argument, it has some interesting result and makes a set of empirical prediction. Here's the conclusion:

    A technologically mature “posthuman” civilization would have enormous computing power. Based on this empirical fact, the simulation argument shows that at least one of the following propositions is true: (1) The fraction of human-level civilizations that reach a posthuman stage is very close to zero; (2) The fraction of posthuman civilizations that are interested in running ancestor-simulations is very close to zero; (3) The fraction of all people with our kind of experiences that are living in a simulation is very close to one.

    If (1) is true, then we will almost certainly go extinct before reaching posthumanity. If (2) is true, then there must be a strong convergence among the courses of advanced civilizations so that virtually none contains any relatively wealthy individuals who desire to run ancestor-simulations and are free to do so. If (3) is true, then we almost certainly live in a simulation. In the dark forest of our current ignorance, it seems sensible to apportion one’s credence roughly evenly between (1), (2), and (3).

    Unless we are now living in a simulation, our descendants will almost certainly never run an ancestor-simulation.

    http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

    I personally doubt I'm living in a simulation, and I hope we don't go extinct, so my bet is on the idea that we find it unethical to run ancestor simulations. Of course, if we are in a simulation, perhaps that's the cause of quantum weirdness, the simulation doesn't want to waste resources on quantum information that isn't being tested. Even if I thought it was probable I was living in a simulation, it still would be a safer bet to assume I'm not, as I have nothing to lose if I'm in a simulation, and everything to lose if I'm wrong. The idea that I'm not in a simulation is a good assumption, but an assumption nonetheless.
    As Descartes famously pointed out, "Cogito ergo Sum", that is the only thing I can be absolutely sure of (and someone might be able to argue with that).

    http://phys.org/news/2015-05-quantum-theory-weirdness.html

  • David Nickol

    I am not sure to what extent the above is "philosophy" and to what extent it is playing around with word games. It seems to me that almost everything above is dependent on the meaning of self-referential statements, and that can be a very tricky business. For example, what if I say, "Everything I say is false" or "Everything I say is a lie"?

    The claim “absolute truth does not exist” is either absolutely true or it’s not.

    What is the difference between "truth" and "absolute truth"? What is the difference between saying something is "true" and saying it is "absolutely true"? Are there, on the one hand, some things that are absolutely true, and on the other, some things that are merely true but not absolutely true? It seems to me we need definitions of truth and absolute truth.

    • Excellent comment, David. In my judgment the starting premises of philosophy must be the two self-evident principles, where a self-evident principle is one, if denied, renders all knowledge and communication impossible. The two self-evident principles are (1) things exist and (2) every thing makes sense. If I can't affirm these, then shut my mouth and shut my mind. The OP proposes an analysis of truth without first defining it.

    • Doug Shaver

      It seems to me we need definitions of truth and absolute truth.

      Agreed. Until we get them, I don't know whether I agree or disagree with the OP.

      • Karl Ahlmann

        "Until we get them"? Are you kidding me? Can't you look it up for yourselves? You're already on the internet for f*** sakes.

        Answer me this, if you don't know what truth or absolute truth is, how could you have ever read this article? How could you have come up with a response that sounds true to you when you are still asking for a definition of truth?

        Absolute truth is a pleonasm. It is used as an opposite to relative truth. We all know relative truth is not absolutely true, because if something is only true for one and not for the other it can't be said to be absolute. Truth is truth, and conditions needed to make something true is untruth.

        But please, think for your self.

        • Doug Shaver

          Are you kidding me? Can't you look it up for yourselves? You're already on the internet for f*** sakes.

          When someone tells me I should believe in absolute truth, I need to know what he means. What anyone else might mean is beside the point.

          Truth is truth, and conditions needed to make something true is untruth.

          I have no idea what you mean by that.

          • Karl Ahlmann

            Nobody said you should believe anything, that's how you made it to be.

            definitions of truth and absolute are available, only you can do the understanding part

            truth is true in all conditions and circumstances, otherwise it couldn't be called truth, could it?

          • Doug Shaver

            Nobody said you should believe anything

            So, nobody is telling me I'll burn in hell if I don't believe some things?

          • Karl Ahlmann

            What does hell got to do with this? Believe in hell, don't believe, I don't care, but why bring this up when talking about truth?

          • Doug Shaver

            What does hell got to do with this?

            Threats of hell for unbelievers has to do with whether it is true, as you alleged, that "Nobody said you should believe anything." It makes no sense to claim that somebody making such threat is not telling me what I should believe.

            Now, there are Christians who make such threats. If you are not one of them, you could just say so.

          • Karl Ahlmann

            So it's my responsibility to clear your assumptions and prejudice of me? Aaand I have to say it to you explicitly, where you seem to ignore that I already told you implicitly what you wanted to hear?

            Again, why bring hell up, except to question your own assumptions?

          • Doug Shaver

            So it's my responsibility to clear your assumptions and prejudice of me?

            My beliefs about you are my responsibility. However, nobody ever made themselves infallible by accepting responsibility. If my beliefs about you are wrong, you don't have to correct them if you don't want to, but I cannot think of a good reason for you not to want to.

          • Karl Ahlmann

            To make it clear, I never made a "threat of hell for unbelievers". I think I shouldn't have used a censored swear word, I think that's the issue here, it made this conversation unnecessary confusing to me. It wasn't hell I censored :)

            With that out of the way, your question in other words: if one goes or is in hell without knowing truth? I don't know, maybe, depends, if not knowing truth is hell then sure, what is your definition of hell? Is it literal, figurative? Do you derive the meaning from a specific cultural definition, or is it your own composition?

            Truth is much simpler I think.

          • Doug Shaver

            To make it clear, I never made a "threat of hell for unbelievers".

            And I didn't say you did. I was responding to your assertion that "Nobody said you should believe anything," Did you actually mean that nobody ever said so, or was that just your way of saying, "I never said you should believe anything."

          • Karl Ahlmann

            Dude, where are you going with this?

            My response was within the context of this conversation, including the other participants and myself.

            You probably have been told to believe this or that, and my response maybe triggered to put it out of this context. I'm just saying you can figure out yourself what truth is, just follow the lines.

          • Doug Shaver

            Dude, where are you going with this?

            I was hoping for a clarification, defense, or retraction of your claim that "Nobody said you should believe anything." So far, all I've gotten has been an evasion.

            I'm just saying you can figure out yourself what truth is

            Of course I can. Have you no opinion on whether I have succeeded, or whether I can know if I have succeeded, whether there is anything I ought to do about it if I haven't?

  • Kraker Jak

    What truth?...the woo woo?

    • Alexandra

      Love exists.

      • Kraker Jak

        Thank you A. I know you mean well.

        • Alexandra

          Thanks KJ. We respectfully disagree. But if I'm right, it makes for more peace and joy. ;)

          • Luke Meyer

            Hey now buddy, we already have a Pascal's Wager thread :)

          • Kraker Jak

            Disagree?

          • Alexandra

            Oh, are we agreeing?

          • Kraker Jak

            ..

          • Alexandra

            Either we disagree or you are contradicting yourself. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt as to what you mean. Feel free to have the last word.

        • neil_ogi

          so fairness and justice are just not absolute truth? then why atheists are making noises?

          • Kraker Jak

            Noise

          • neil_ogi

            so what are the goals of atheists why they are so active in these evolution-creation debate? if you are just presenting 'half-truths' then nobody will listen to you, atheists. (actually, all their theories are not even half-truth)

          • Karl Ahlmann

            The goal of atheists is the same of that of any other believer; they want to convert others to their beliefs because they need others to strenghten their own beliefs and/or they can't live in a world where others hold different beliefs from their own. So basically ego.

  • David Nickol

    If we can conclude with certainty that a given proposition is true, based on that conclusion, can we say, "Truth exists?"

    • Karl Ahlmann

      Are you asking if you are allowed to say "truth exists"? Who says you can't say that?

      Or are you asking: if truth exists, does truth exist?

      Either way I don't see the point of asking the question.

  • neil_ogi

    if there is no absolute truth, then what kind of truth atheists are trying to defend?

  • Doug Shaver

    Today, I want to look at three such popular claims. . . . “Absolute truth does not exist.” . . . “We can’t know anything for certain.” . . . “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable.”

    Popular, are they? Not in any of the intellectual circles where I move. I can't say I've never heard anyone say any of them, but neither can I say for certain that I have heard any of them. What I can be sure of is that I have often heard religious apologists accuse skeptics of saying them.

    And this suggests one of two things. (1) I'm not reading the same skeptical literature that apologists are reading. Or, (2) This is a strawman argument.

    • Michael Murray

      I'm shocked, shocked to hear that Christian apologists use strawman arguments.

  • Why it’s self-refuting: The claim “absolute truth does not exist” is either absolutely true or it’s not. But, of course, it can’t be absolutely true, since that would create a contradiction: we would have proven the existence of an absolute truth, the claim itself. Since it cannot be absolutely true, we must concede that there are some cases in which the proposition “absolute truth does not exist” must be false… in which case, we’re back to affirming the existence of absolute truth.

    Of course, if you were to find and talk with an actual relativist, you'd learn that relativists have heard this argument before and they think it stupidly misses their point.

    They don't think relativism is absolutely true. They think that relativism is true-relative-to-something where the something is typically a language or a culture. It's not that they've accepted the concept of absolute truth as you think of it and declared it nonexistent in the sense you use those terms; rather, they're rejecting the concept of absolute truth as you think of it because they think that concept is a very poor match to how people use the word "true" in real life.

    For my own part, I see it as partly a semantic game, and partly a real controversy. Since truth is in part about words, we can't say that the language in which a statement is framed or the culture which interprets the statements are irrelevant. So clearly there really is a degree of linguistic and cultural relativism in all humanly expressed truths. On the other hand, there's also a real world out there that doesn't care one whit what language humans use or how we interpret each other's words; it will indifferently kill us or succor us depending on our choices and our random luck. What matters then is not how neatly we can fit our words together in interlocking puzzles, but how well our ideas guide our actions.

    To share these ideas that guide our actions, we put them into words. The words will, of course, never be the perfectly tippity-top best possible guides for all people and all circumstances and all times. When different people in different circumstances and different times attempt to put these guide words into practice, they will find that the words only correspond to the realities to varying degrees. And in that sense, even where the natural world ensures that objective truths are real and critical to survival, these objective truths remain provisional and contextual, not absolute.

    In short, Part I missed the points of both relativism and absolutism.

    Conclusion: When you find yourself flippantly rejecting your idea of someone's arguments, stop. Go consult them and find out what they really think. Then you can reject or accept or withhold judgment on the basis of wisdom, and not mere ideological/religious/political affiliation.

    • Karl Ahlmann

      On your point about relativists: is truth concerned with how people use the word 'true', and is it therefore a good measurement for what truth is? If people mistake truth for their beliefs, does it change the nature of truth absolutely? If there is no distinction between belief and truth, why do we differentiate between the two, and how come you have a clear understanding of the use for these different concepts?

      On your points about cultural relativism: isn't language just a tool to understand and communicate the underlying nature we try to explain in concepts? Of all human expressions, isn't it from one human nature? But what I really don't understand is how you imply the idea of cultural relatvism can guide your actions: how to choose what truth is best for you when you consider all human expressions are equally true? It's very objective to say everybody has their own truth, but how does it hold any subjective value to you so you can work with it to guide your actions?

      On your point that some 'objective' truths are real and provisional/contextual/not absolute at the same time: subjective/objective isn't the same as relative/absolute. What you are describing is varying degrees of non-truth as it is not absolute. You are still talking about relative truths, and it has nothing to do with what is absolutely true.

      On your conclusion: Talk for your self, who says what someone really thinks is different from their initial arguments? And who says that when asking a second time suddenly the answer is rid of all biases? I don't see it happening within you as of so far.

      • On your conclusion: Talk for your self, who says what someone really thinks is different from their initial arguments? And who says that when asking a second time suddenly the answer is rid of all biases?

        That's a weird extrapolation of what I wrote. You need some practice in reading comprehension.

  • When we say, “I don’t know x,” we’re saying, “I know that my knowledge on x is inconclusive.”

    What? No.

    Honestly saying "I don't know X" implies only that "I believe that I don't know X".

    • Karl Ahlmann

      Sure, but does it mean truth exists or not, if humans operate on thinking their beliefs are true? Or does this say absolutely nothing on the question if truth exists?

      And what does the mental model of knowledge as a 100%-or-0% binary have to do with the question if truth exists? Knowledge is subjective, what you know to be of value for you can mean nothing to me, knowledge has nothing do to with truth.

      Also knowledge is irrelevant towards socially accepted evidence, sure it can be influenced or arise from it, but it is not a necessity. For example there is no need for a socially accepted degree of evidence of God for me to believe in God, unless all of my beliefs are dependent upon the approval of others. Knowledge is dependent upon circumstances, or more specifically the circumstance of the point of you.

  • The claim that “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable” is not empirically or scientifically testable. It’s not even conceivable to scientifically test a hypothesis about the truths of non-scientifically testable hypotheses.

    Incidentally, how long did you spend trying to think of how to do the test, or considering possible topics to research, before declaring it "not even conceivable"? The first virtue of rationality is curiosity.

    All true propositions a person has are acquired, evaluated, and used via the activities of the brain. Brains are accessible to scientific inquiry. You may have heard of the fields of psychology and neuroscience.

    So it's far from inconceivable. It's conceptually simple. You might start with a low-cost study using fMRI to observe the gross characteristics of what happens in a person's brain when evaluating new-to-it directly-empirically-testable truths, and then see if the same things happen in a brain when it evaluates new-to-it "non-empirically-testable" (really just indirectly-empirically-testable) truths. You might scale up to an experiment with cortical microelectrodes so that you can get vastly finer and subtler readings. You could supplement these with psychological studies to check if independent lines of investigation would lead to the same conclusions.

    If (directly) empirical truths and "non" (i.e. indirectly) empirical truths are the same sort of thing, then that theory would lead us to predict finding mostly similarities between how the brain treats the two types of truths, and we would conclude that it illuminates reality to label them both as "truths". If they are quite different sorts of things, then that theory would lead us to predict finding mostly dissimilarities, and we would conclude that it obscures reality to label the "non"-empirical things "truths" at all, leaving only the empirical truths.

    • Karl Ahlmann

      Why are you looking for truth inside the brain of a human being?

      Empirical truth doesn't make it true, or more true than non-empirical truth. It just means you have acquired relative knowledge through your senses of the world. Without the human being empirical truth means nothing. And truth is not dependent on the human body, it is absolute.

  • Furthermore, all scientific knowledge is built upon a bed of metaphysical propositions (for example, the principle of noncontradiction) that cannot be established scientifically.

    Scientists are humans using human brains and sensory organs, not formal systems based on axioms. Nothing we do is built on metaphysical propositions. Everything we do appears instead to be built on our biology (e.g. hunger drive, sexual orientation, reflexes) and/or built on our neural patterns of sensory inputs forming connections to internal systems and external motor outputs based on diverse pleasures and pains. Our minds are (mostly) neural nets trained on the world as we experience it and learn about it from others. That's what human activity, including scientific knowledge acquisition, is built on.

    The "principle of noncontradiction" is a pattern we observe in the ways it is normally helpful to use language to communicate. That pattern is an empirical reality, which is only reason it was noticed. We can choose to make it an axiom when we design formal systems. We can use the formal systems as models of the real world, but it's a mistake to forget that they're distinct from the realities they describe. We don't get to choose axioms for reality. We invented and continue using the principle of noncontradiction because it is empirical.

    • Karl Ahlmann

      Again, human or scientific or empirical knowledge isn't truth. The realities they describe are projected from our own point of view, and even though we can accurately predict and create all sorts of things in the world we know, it is all limited by our senses, our perspective, and can not be said certain to be truth. You assume it.

      From your point of view it might not be helpful to be thinking contradictory thoughts at the same time about your stomach, but is it more or less true to be holding the same thoughts as once? You assume it is, because your survival depends on it. But truth doesn't depend on your survival, and it doesn't state that you can or can't hold contradictory thoughts at the same time.

      A lot of our knowledge comes through mathematics, which has multiple equally "true" systems of logic, all have a starting point axiom, all serving human wants or needs. It doesn't differ from a belief, and absolute truth doesn't need an axiom to be absolutely true. It doesn't matter if we choose or invent, it's the same difference in light of truth.

      Noncontradiction is not empirical, it is logical. Also logic isn't true, logic is in the same order as empiric. I can say that a thing is something and is not something in the same way at the same time. You probably won't believe me, but that's besides the point of truth. Noncontradiction only states that human brains have trouble accepting premises that seem illogical, but truth isn't concerned with human logic, nor the ability of the human brain to hold logical contradictory concepts in the same way at the same time. Noncontradiction isn't proof that the brain is not capable, it just holds it as unbelievable and unproductive, from their point of view.

  • Joe, thanks for the article.

    I agree with Steps 1 and 3. I also agree with Step 2 as it's been stated.

    There are some statements that I am certain are true. These statements follow necessarily from self-evident premises or are themselves self-evident. 1+1=2, I exist, an external reality exists, etc. I'm not completely certain outside of these statements.

    I cannot think of any specific ontological claim outside of my own existence about which I'm 100% certain. I'm 100% certain that I exist, 100% certain that stuff besides me exists, less than 100% certain about what that stuff in fact is.

    Does this sort of skepticism run into problems?

    • How can you be certain of an outside reality?

      What we are really dealing with here is the problem of induction. We have no choice but to fudge this if we want to talk about anything empirically.

      Once we just accept (without justification) the axiom that the past has some bearing on the future, we can place probabilities on all kinds of things.

      Unless you do this, you are trapped in near global skepticism.

      • I assign 100% epistemic certainty in the belief that there is an external reality, such that no future evidence could convince me that there is no outside reality. Future evidence could at most convince me that my perceptions of that reality are inaccurate.

        Arguments by Hilary Putnam that we can be certain that we are not brains in a vat might work out, but I don't think I need to believe them to be convinced. I take my belief in the external reality as properly basic. It's something I know, and that I see no reason to justify to anyone else.

        Maybe it's fudging. But it's a sort of fudging that can't be corrected (in my case at least) by introducing future evidence.

        • It is a fudge. You have to fudge all beliefs, except your own existence. There is no solution to hard solipsism or the problem of induction.

          This is the trouble with absolute certainty.

  • Phil Rimmer

    I appear to live in a probabilistic universe. If I claim anything with absolute certainty it is a conversational rounding error.

    • Karl Ahlmann

      As the author didn't interchange between absolute and objective, was consistent in the use of his terminology, and dictionaries show a clear distinction between the two terms, I think it's safe to say that he didn't intend absolute to be a proxy for objective.

      Also if what you claim with absolute certainty is a conversational rounding error I suggest using labialization training, maybe with such words as Ohm or God, and your rounding will be spot on in no time ;)

  • David Hardy

    Given the premises, I could agree with the author's conclusions. However, I believe the premises themselves are open to challenge, and the conclusions are wrong because they are drawn from premises that are wrong.

    On point one, relativism does not reject the idea of absolute truths, at least as I understand it. Rather, it holds the position that some truths are relative, at least in part. For example, the moral imperative not to murder, while present in every culture, does change in some ways depending on the culture in question. Whether and at what point the state has the right to execute, at what point self defense or retributive justice justifies a killing, and whether differences in class or culture mitigates the act all can change based on the culture. From a relativistic perspective, this indicates that, even with the most widespread and commonly accepted moral ideas, there are still aspects of these ideas that are rooted in relative cultural values. The position of relativism does not require a rejection of the idea that some things are not relative.

    On point two, skepticism is the position that the best way to test beliefs is by forming criticisms and challenges to the belief that fairly test apparent weaknesses in the belief. We know from research into human psychology that people are given to developing mistaken beliefs. For example, in the confirmation bias, people try to test a belief by looking for evidence that it is true. Unfortunately, with more abstract and obscure truths, the same evidence can be fit into many different interpretations. Therefore, trying to disprove the belief instead helps to counteract this bias. Skepticism is a method to increase the certainty we can have of beliefs that withstand a critical approach, not a truth claim that no level of certainty is possible. The claim that nothing is certain would be better defined that any belief should be open to fair criticism and challenge.

    On the last point, the scientific methods relies on observable data because data that can be observed can also be verified by multiple people, reducing subjective bias, and re-tested, reducing the risk that any outcomes were based in coincidence. Therefore, one can take the reasonable position that scientific truth is less likely to be wrong due to subjective belief or coincidence, and that other positions, lacking these safeguards, are more likely to be influenced by personal bias and coincidence. Further, the premises of science are empirically observable. We have never observed something that is self-contradictory, for example, as far as I know, and this is why it is an accepted premise in science.

    Stepping outside of these points, I would be curious what truth the author holds that he knows to be absolute, and how, specifically, he verified it as true in a way that did not involve empiricism, beyond any reasonable doubt that the perceived truth was actually due to the confirmation bias, subjective perceptions, or coincidence.

  •  I even have to own some data regarding you and regarding cars. thus if i used to be to mention, “you don’t understand if we will understand something sure enough,” I’d be claiming {to understand|to understand|to grasp} that you simply were a sceptic – a proven fact that I can’t know, since I’mundecided who’s reading this at once..

  • D Rieder

    The article seems to take sound bites...almost caricatures of how real people actually think and tear them down.

    1. The claim: “Absolute truth does not exist.”

    Who says this? Not me. I am absolutely convinced there is a real world out there (truth) that we can experience even conceptualize to some degree of accuracy. I am convinced that survival is the arbiter of reality. If we could not with some degree of accuracy assess the world around us, we and countless other life forms absolutely could never have survived. So what was the point again for tearing down this extreme statement?

    What would it mean to say absolute truth DOES exist but also that some absolute truths can't be demonstrated? What truths really can't be corroborated through repeated observations, careful thought and corroboration? Give me an example of a truth claim that doesn't have observational support. What is the difference "absolute truth" and "knowing enough about reality to survive?" It seems like this is aimed at eventually slipping something in that one can then claim is absolutely true without actually showing why it is true but beyond that...showing why it is important.

    Why entitle the second section as Skepticism then confine it to such a limited aspect...almost the tail of the curve of what skepticism really is.

    2. The claim: “We can’t know anything for certain.” Or “I don’t know if we can know anything for certain.”

    Who is making these specific claims? In what context and what did they say to support them? It seems the article simply grabs some catch phrases...made perhaps at the beginning of a section of discussion where the person goes on to qualify the kinds of things being talked about and contrasting that which can be believed after the demonstration and what needs to be accepted operationally to even begin a demonstration.

    When I look up skepticism in wikipedia, I get a much broader and healthier perception of what it means. I get the sense that everyone who ever hopes to figure things out with any degree of certainty must develop a keen sense of skepticism. Again, characterizing and caricaturizing skepticism in his extreme manner seems a way to slip in something that a skeptic should question because the very concept of skepticism has just been shown to be wrong. Skepticism is healthy and we should always be skeptical of things especially of those things asserted with the accompanying, "don't be skeptical" admonition. It sounds like the villain's sinister "trust me."

    3. The claim: “All truth is empirically or scientifically testable.”

    Again, who says this and in what context? Just as above, perhaps it is a catchy phrases someone used to begin a discussion where they parse it out. Perhaps it is a rule of thumb someone applies before going in to a scientific experiment. Again what truths that can be shown to be truth but at the same time cannot be simultaneously shown to be true?

    How is Joe defining scientific, and how has he shown that truth cannot be demonstrated by a method that involves repeating experiments/observations, applying that which we already know to the results, seeking third party corroboration and continually investigating things...especially things which sometimes don't seem consistent with other things we think we know.

    In general this article seems to take extreme statements...almost caricatures of how the majority of thinking people think and then tear them down. I am left with a big so what? The only folks who would be challenged by these rebuttals are those who make those tail-of-the-curve statements in anything but a casual and contextual manner. And I would assume those who are making these statements sincerely and absolutely and with careful philosophical thought would be able to support them.

  • So what? Sure self-refuting statements are incoherent contradictions that cannot be true.

    The only response to global skepticism, that we can't know anything with absolute certainty, is that even if all sensory and conscious thought is an illusion is fake, something exists to be fooled by it.

    Other than that, we cannot know anything else. We cannot know if anything ever observed by any sense perception or even our imaginations is "real" or an illusion. We cannot confirm any of the findings of science much less theology to this standard of absolute truth.

    These are limitations imposed by the problem of induction, and there is simply no way around them.

    Consider the following non-self-refuting claim "there is no way to confirm, to the standard of absolute truth, the existence of anything other than one's own existence."

  • Guy McClung

    Interestingly, St Augustine wrote "I doubt, therefore I am" centuries before Descartes wrote Cogito, ergo sum. Re so-called "scientific truth" : Couple
    these two facts and you realize that science is not truth,
    and that politicians who use science are not using it because it is
    true, but because it helps them obtain and increase political power,
    often resulting in the limitation or extinction of human liberty: 1. A
    huge percentage of published scientific research is wrong, even as much
    as half; and 2. Over and over again, for centuries, science has been
    admitting its errors and mistakes. Re: No. 1: “The bagatelle about how
    more than half of published research is wrong—a fact well known to
    regular readers—is garnering comment hither and yon. Joanne Nova: “The
    bureaucratic science-machine broke science, and people are starting to
    ask how to fix it.”Science is broken. The genius, the creative art of
    scientific discovery, has been squeezed into a square box, sieved
    through grant applications, citation indexes, and journal rankings, then
    whatever was left gets crushed through the press. We tried to capture
    the spirit of discovery in a bureaucratic formula, but have strangled it
    instead. “ Re: No. 2: There are now-rejected scientific theories in
    most branches of science, including, Biology, Chemistry, Physics,
    Astronomy, Cosomology, Climate study, geography, geology, psychology,
    and medicine.
    Draw a large circle and label it “Truth.” Draw a
    small circle and label it “Science,” with part of the small circle
    overlapping the large circle (which means part of the small circle is
    outside the large circle). In part of the small circle outside the
    large circle put this statement: “The only factual statements are those
    that can be established by sense experience and/or by scientific
    experiment.” This statement cannot be scientifically
    proven. Also,
    in a part of the small circle outside the large circle, put entries for
    all of these scientific theories once accepted as true, but which have
    now been rejected as false: Spontaneous Generation theory; Lamarckist
    Evolution; Phlogiston theory; Caloric Theory; Luminiferous Ether theory;
    the Ptolemaic System; Heliocentricism; Flat Earth theory; Hollow Earth
    theory; Geosyncline Theory; Four Humors Theory ; and Phrenology. This is
    just a few of the scientific untruths asserted by science over the
    centuries. Science today cannot tell us which theories they are now
    touting as true will be proven to be false; and, e.g., many scientists
    today are dogmatists who will refuse to say how, e.g. the “scientific
    theory of evolution” can be disproven [part of the essence of science]
    or how one version of the touted “theory of climate change” could be
    disproven by science.

    The political use and abuse of science is a whole nuther issue. Guy McClung, San Antonio, Texas

  • AliBaba

    You are wrong at Step One:
    You say something must be true or false. WHY ON EARTH has something to be true or false? This is only Logic, but Logic it self is not absolute. It is easy to declare a Logical System where this does not Apply: Take Schrödinger's Cat as an example: "The Cat is dead, and the cat is not dead"

    You are wrong at Step Two:
    Only because You can't know, that your knowledge on whether anything can be known for certain is inconclusive, per definition, does not mean that it is false, it only shows that it can't be proven.