Is truth relative or absolute? A few discussion points
These terms (“absolute” and “relative”) are vague and very unhelpful
What do we mean by “absolute” – that truth never has a reference point that is relative to the individual? And what do we mean by relative – that if we wake up in the morning and do not like the fact that “it is raining outside” we can immediately change the statement to “it is not raining outside” and that the weather will change accordingly?!
These terms set up a false dichotomy
They are meaningful enough to communicate something, but vague enough to confuse the issue. As such they force us to choose a side based upon our rejection of something, i.e. “I don’t want to be a one of those crazy post-modern types, so I think truth is absolute.” These terms often force a debate based on the perceived shortcomings of the other side and the use of stereotypes to categorize the other side. The terms are loaded with baggage. We see this every election year in the political system.
These terms seem to encapsulate the worst of the spirit of two ages: Modern and Postmodern
The Modern era seemed to be obsessed with the search of the absolute, unchanging, and timeless ideas. The Postmodern seems to be obsessed with its own narrative and historical situation. To speak of a dichotomy between “absolute” and “relative” seems to focus upon the extremes of each of these methods of thinking.
An exclusively Absolute truth is unable to see the person-relative and time-relative nature of truth
What good are absolutes if they do not touch time? Yet as soon as the absolutes touch our world they are relative to a given situation such that, if that situation had never occurred, then truth would not exist in that context. Even a traditional correspondence theory would recognize that truth is relative to the reality it expresses. Truth is relative to the person or situation being described, i.e. “the frog is on the log.” Truth, in this instance is relative to both the frog and the log.
An exclusively Absolute truth would seem to have a difficulty dealing with the variety of ways in which “truth” seems to be used in Scripture, particularly in Johannine literature.
What does “absolute” actually mean???
On the other hand…If truth is completely reduced to my own whim then we would be reduced to complete absurdity.
If even the most committed relativist, let us call him Bob, crosses the street at the same time that the bus is roaring by then the statement “Bob was squashed by the bus” is true for everyone – especially Bob!
What we see is that truth seems to have many forms and that in each of its forms there is an element of the “absolute” and an element of “relativity”:
- Absolute in the sense that I cannot determine, at my own whim, my own truth such that I would be able to say either “there is a hair in my food” or “there is not a hair in my food.” The reality of the situation holds regardless of what I may or may not wish to believe.
- Truth does seem to hold a relative element in terms of an action. I get this from the Gospel of John (3:21) where we find the expression “doing the truth.” In this passage truth is an action. Truth has ethical ramifications. We encounter truth in the decisions we make to act.
- And truth also seems relative to the individual. Ex. in John 18:37 of those who are ‘of the truth’ and ‘no truth in him’ of 8:44. Also see Kierkegaard’s notion of truth: “in the mouth of this or that person something that is truth can become untruth.” And “the inwardness of the existing person is truth.”
- Truth is relative to our relation to the Divine, but also absolute in that the Divine is eternal and will never perish.
In theology as well as philosophy one must be ever cautious of the dichotomies that one sets forth because these dichotomies lock one in to certain possibilities.
The dichotomy of “absolute” or “relative” might lock us in to undesirable situations. If we are relativists then we are absurd and are not honest about the fact that we live according to absolutes. If we are absolutists then we are in danger of failing to see that truth touches the temporal world and that truth is always relative to people or situations. If we are absolutists then we may lose the ability to capture the ethical and existential aspects of truth that we see in the Gospel of John, for example.
The “Relative/Absolute” distinction must be abandoned in favor of a more holistic view of truth that is more aware of the subtle nuances of the various forms of truth.
The Absolutist might reply that I have missed the point:
- We (the Absolutists) are not trying to say that truth is not relative in some way to the temporal world, rather, we are trying to prove that truth does not depend upon the whim of each individual. The person cannot determine, willy-nilly, what truth is for himself, and thus spin out into utter relativity and complete irrelevancy.
- But the Absolute/Relative distinction does not help in getting to the concern of the Absolutist. So, the above objection goes to my point: Let us define our concern and not confuse and convolute the issue by using obscure terms like “Absolute” and “Relative.” Let us recognize both the absolute and relative nature of truth and then, from that point, we can express our particular concerns more precisely (i.e. that truth is not to be determined at the whim of the individual’s personal preference).
The distinction between “absolute” and “relative” seems to be vague and unhelpful. They are terms that come loaded with baggage. Unless these terms are more clearly defined it may be better to conduct the truth-discussion on other grounds.
 Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments, Vol. 1, Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), page 202.
 Ibid., p. 205
 See my Truth in the Gospel of John: A summary of key alētheia passages useful for philosophical discussion at www.theosproject.blogspot.com.
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