Relativism versus Absolute Truth. What do these terms mean?
Absolute Truth: This refers to statements we call facts that are true/valid for all people, in all places, and at all times. They could also be called universal truths. They are independent of observation and belief, meaning that whether or not they are believed, they still remain facts and will always be so. All facts are not absolute. Relative truth does exist and has practical application, but only when connected to some absolute truth. For example, Mt. Everest, at 29,028 Ft., is the tallest peak in the world, while Kanchenjunga is relatively lower in height. This is true, despite people’s personal opinions and even if it is completely disbelieved.
Relativism: The claim here is that there is no such thing as absolute truth in any sphere of life. A statement can be true only for certain people, in limited places, and at specific times. Such a statement is dependent on a variety of factors and conditions, including observation and belief. The mind is what gives form and quality. The mind is where reality is created, and each mind can produce its own “truth” or “fact” from what is observed. For example, the statement that Mt. Everest is the tallest, is only a questionable claim. This report has to be believed and trusted for it to become fact. And even then, it could be wrong. Therefore, all-so-called facts are only relatively true and there are no absolute truths at all.
“There is no objective standard by which truth may be determined so that truth varies with individuals and circumstances.” David Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), p. 348.
“It will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stage of human development. It is the principle: Anything goes” (Paul Feyerabend, quoted in McDowell, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, p. 617).
“The postmodern world view affirms that this relativity extends beyond our perceptions of truth to its essence: there is no absolute truth; rather, truth is relative to the community in which we participate.” Stanley Grenz, Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), p. 8.
“Foundationalism, the idea that knowledge can be erected on some sort of bedrock of indubitable first principles, has had to be abandoned.” (Millard Erickson, quoted in McDowell, New Evidence That Demands a Verdict, P. 617).
There was no question that Relativism was taking a stand completely against Absolute Truth. The gap was unbridgeable and there was no middle ground. It had to be one or the other. I had to check it out.
- The word absolute pictured something rigid, fixed and exclusive, while relative pictured something flexible, easy, and inclusive. But on reflection, it was Relativism that was making the exclusive claim — it alone was correct and valid, while Absolute Truth was actually non-existent. The claim stated that all so-called facts were only relatively true. This exclusive claim seemed to go against its own grain.
- We may ask, “Is relativism valid universally?” The answer has to be in the affirmative. In other words, Relativism was valid for all people, at all times, and in all places. Well, this constitutes an absolute truth, doesn’t it! Asking in another way, “Is Relativism the only truth?” The answer again has to be in the positive, and in that very answer, it has once again established an absolute truth! Relativism has no option but to contradict itself.
- Relativism claims that a statement can only be relatively true. By that same token, it can also be false. If the statement is regarding Relativism, then it (Relativism) is also false, so cannot claim to be universally true, as in the previous point.
- If Relativism is relatively true as well as relatively false, it depends on another factor, maybe my choice, to make it one or the other. If I choose it (Relativism) to be false every time, it could be absolutely false!
- To decide whether it is true or false, there has to be a factor, say X, which makes it one or the other. But factor X itself is only relatively true and therefore, is also relatively false. We will have to consult factor Y to decide whether X has to be taken as true or false. But factor Y is no better than factor X, since it too is only relatively true. We will need factor Z, then the next factor and on and on, ad infinitum! Each step will go farther and farther away from the original question, that now has no hope of ever being answered. This is called “infinitive regression”—we keep backing away from the questions, without answering them. Relativism does not allow answers to be formed or accepted. Therefore, its own answers to questions have no validity. It thus chops the branch on which it is perched. Its credibility falls!
- In this concept, words could have exact opposite meanings. “Love” could be “hate,” in a relative sense; “come” could relatively be “go”, “in” relatively “out”; “pass” relatively “fail”; and so on. Language would be stripped of its ability to communicate and we might as well be living on different planets, or as Ravi Zacharias says, “in a madhouse”!
- The word relative suggests a relationship. To be practical and real, one entity has to be set or fixed. For example, where would our place of rendezvous be if we agreed to meet 100 yards to the left of the train, which itself was traveling from Los Angeles to New York at a hundred miles an hour? Relativism is just that practical.
- In trying to qualify truth and falsehood, Relativism blurs the boundaries suggesting that they might be at different points on the same spectrum. But they are apart in essence and do not belong to the same spectrum. Falsehood can masquerade as truth and not vice versa. One can deceive only by falsehood, not by truth. Truth lies within boundaries, all else is false—this cannot be reversed. The two are made of different “substances.”Otherwise, it would be like going to buy a gold bracelet and demanding that it be made of cast iron. What would the composition of the final product be?
- Relativism must address the other side of the coin, which is “false-hood”. To be consistent with its stand (which amounts to an oxymoron, because Relativism, by definition, cannot be consistent), it must claim that falsehood is so only relatively, and is therefore also relatively true. Falsehood could be true! Then, an oath in a court of law could run like this: “I swear to state falsehood, the whole of falsehood, and nothing but falsehood. But, Honorable Judge, not to worry—my words will all be relatively true”. What a travesty that would be!
- If we agree that there are opposing concepts, we have confessed to the existence of both. For example, to state that something is heavy is to agree that something is also light. If every load on earth were the same weight, there would not be any reason to call one “heavy” or “light.” So to claim that truth is relative is to confess that there is truth that is absolute. The presence of even one absolute truth will discredit Relativism.
- If everything is relatively true, then everything is relatively false.
- Relativism is not an axiom—it is a deduction. And if so, it has to be based on principles of reason and logic. It can be communicated by language only if the words adhere to standard meanings at all times. Relativism, therefore, relies completely on absolute values, yet denies those very values.
- The quote from Paul Feyerabend claimed: “Anything goes.” This is the same as saying “Everything is acceptable”. If that is what is really being said, then Absolute truth should also be acceptable, because it has to be included in the “everything” or “anything”. The statement has defeated itself.
- What have some others said?
- “So, it looks like any apparent suggestion of relativism is either self-defeating or else is not a real assertion, but something more like an empty slogan.” Michael Jubien, Contemporary Metaphysics (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), p. 89.
- Norman Geisler is said to have stated: “Most relativists believe that relativism is absolutely true and that everyone should be a relativist. Therein lies the destructive nature of relativism. The relativist stands on the pinnacle of an absolute truth and wants to relativize everything else.” And again: “So if truth were relative, then an impossible would be actual.”
- “Subjectivism is not an ‘ism’, not a philosophy. It does not rise to the level of deserving our attention or refutation. Its claim is like ‘I itch’ not ‘I know’” (Peter Kreeft, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, 1994, p. 372).
- “Postmodernism’s rejection of rational objectivity is self-defeating. It either denies the plausibility of its own position or it presumes the reliability of reason and objectivity of truth.” Dennis McCallum, The Death of Truth (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1996), p. 53.
- “To assert that ‘the truth is that there is no truth’ is both self-defeating and arbitrary. For if this statement is true, it is not true, since there is no truth” (William Craig, quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, p. 620).
- “To say ‘It’s true that nothing is true’ is intrinsically meaningless nonsense. The very statement—‘There is no absolute truth’—is an absolute truth.” (Gene Veith, Postmodern Times (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 16.
- “We have no compelling reason to accept the theory. We can simply dismiss it as a creative work of extremely cynical people” (McCallum, The Death of Truth, p. 53).
- “The laws of logic must apply to reality; else we may we well be living in a madhouse” (Ravi Zacharias, Can man Live Without God? 11).
- “A mood can be a dangerous state of mind, because it can crush reason….But that is precisely what I believe postmodernism best represents—a mood” (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, p. viii).
By the way of summary, here’s an anecdote:
“A friend of mine told me that when Christian apologist and author Ravi Zacharias visited Columbus to speak at Ohio State University, his hosts took him to visit the Wexner Center for the Arts. The Wexner Center is a citadel of postmodern architecture. It has stairways leading nowhere, columns that come down but never touch the floor, beams and galleries going everywhere, and a crazy-looking exposed girder system over most of the outside. Like most of postmodernism, it defies every cannon of common sense and every law of rationality.
“Zacharias looked at the building and cocked his head. With a grin he asked, ‘I wonder if they used the same techniques when they laid the foundation?’
“His point is very good. It’s one thing to declare independence from reality when building a monument. It’s another thing when we have to come into contact with the real world” (McCallum, in The Real Issue, quoted in McDowell, New Evidence, p. 620).
Relativism was not a philosophy and not an “ism.” Full of contradictions and phantom-like as to its real nature, it was more like a “slogan” or a “mood.” It would be suicidal to base any of my major decisions on it. So it was out for the count.