Sometimes, the claim is made that truth is relative to certain perspectives, whether those are the perspectives of individuals or societies. However, this claim is confused, and the idea of relative truth is ultimately incoherent. This is important to understand, so I will spend some (okay, more than some) time talking about it here.
Truth and reality are absolute, not relative. What I mean by this is that what is true does not change from one perspective to another. This does not mean that the same truths hold about everyone, but it does mean that the same truths hold for everyone. Everyone has their own perspective from which to view reality, but reality itself is independent of any perspective.
One source of confusion here is that, sometimes, people can have a different understanding of what a word or a statement means. This is just another aspect of the ambiguity of language. For example, if one person thinks that “the sun rises above the horizon” has the first meaning that I described in the last post, and believes that it is true, and another thinks that it has the second meaning and believes that it is false, this doesn’t mean that either of the propositions represented by the statement is true for one person and false for the other person.
Objective and Subjective
To clear up another common source of confusion about absolute truth, I want to highlight two different contrasts: the distinction between absolute and relative on one hand, and the distinction between objective and subjective on the other. Absolute and relative refer to whether or not the truth of a statement depends on perspective. Objective and subjective refer to whether the statement in question is about reality directly or about someone’s perspective of reality.
- Absolute: the truth value of the statement is the same in all perspectives.
- Relative: the truth value of the statement is different in different perspectives.
- Objective: the statement is directly about reality.
- Subjective: the statement expresses someone’s perspective of reality.
For example, “Ottawa is the capital of Canada” is an objective statement, while “Ottawa is most interesting city in Canada to visit” is a subjective statement. The confusion comes from the fact that subjective statements often only implicitly refer to their subject, the person whose perspective is expressed by the statement. So, when I say “chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza,” you would probably recognize an implicit in my opinion tagged on to it. But when we fail to recognize this kind of implicit reference to a subject, we can mistake subjective statements for assertions that something is true only relative to one’s perspective.
Note that while there is a conflict between absolute truth and relative truth, there is no conflict between objective claims and subjective claims. Indeed, every subjective statement about some topic can be rephrased as an objective statement about the subject’s perspective on that topic. Instead of saying “chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza,” I can say “I prefer chicken bacon ranch pizza over all other pizzas.” And that is true, and everyone can agree upon it, regardless of anyone else’s pizza preferences.
In fact, when you rephrase subjective statements into objective ones like this, you can see that they actually require an absolute understanding of truth to make sense, as do other objective statements. What would “it is true for me that my favourite pizza is chicken bacon ranch, but it is true for you that my favourite pizza is pepperoni” even mean? (Are you just in denial about the fact that I don’t have the same pizza preference as you do?)
Similarly, if both parties had the same understanding of what it meant for Ottawa to be the capital of Canada, what would “Ottawa is the capital of Canada for me, but that isn’t true for you” mean? If these are just expressing the beliefs of the respective subjects, then they aren’t actually truth claims, and so they do not in any way express that truth or reality is perspective-dependent.
When someone says something like “this is true for me, but maybe it isn’t true for you,” often, if you ask for clarification, what they really mean is: it is my opinion or belief that this is true, based on my experience, but maybe it is not your opinion or belief. This is just a subjective statement about two different perspectives (without claiming that the actual truth of any statement depends on the perspective it is seen from). Very few people, as far as I have seen, mean it as a claim that truth – actual truth, not just what we believe, or as far as we know – is relative: this is true in my reality, but it might not be true in your reality.
Absolute and Relative
And for good reason. The idea that truth is relative, that reality is perspective-dependent, is incoherent. Even if you try to describe it that way, it seems to me that you can’t. If you try to tell me that certain things are true in your reality, or in your perspective of reality, you are actually asserting that something is true independent of anyone’s perspective of reality, namely, that your perspective of reality exists, and that certain things are true in it.
If it isn’t necessarily true for me that those things that are true for you, are true for you – then why should I think that what you claim to be true for you is true for you, for me? (That sentence just goes to show how confusing we sound when we try to talk as if truth were relative.) And if it is necessarily true for me that what is true for you is true for you – then you haven’t really made reality perspective-dependent. Instead, you’ve just fractured reality into seven billion sub-realities, one for each perspective. But the truths about what perspectives exist, and what is seen to be true in them, must still be absolute.
Now, we can have the discussion about whether there is an objective external reality that goes beyond just being a container for seven billion subjective internal realities. But that discussion seems to me to be far better understood as a discussion about what is objective and what is subjective, rather than a discussion about whether truth is relative or absolute.
(On a related note: Einstein’s theory of relativity in physics, which is sometimes brought up in relation to the concept of relative truth, doesn’t really have any bearing on this discussion. The fact that certain physical measurements are made relative to different reference frames does not mean that truth is perspective-dependent, any more than the fact that the top of a building is at different elevations relative to the ground and to sea level means that the physical height of the building changes between these perspectives. In physics, all observers agree on how the values measured in one frame relate to the values measured in another frame, so there is no concern of truth changing from one frame to another.)
Incoherence of Relative Truth
I have to keep pressing this point that truth is absolute, because I really don’t see how any truth claim can make sense, or mean anything at all, if that isn’t the case. Just bear with me a little longer; the end of this post is almost in sight.
If you claim that all truth is relative, you are claiming that it is an absolute truth that there is no absolute truth. This is self-refuting. If you mean that truth is only relative for you, but it can be absolute for me, that is also self-refuting. If truth is absolute for me, then it is absolutely true that truth is absolute, so truth is absolute for you as well. As far as I can tell, this is an irrefutable argument – in order to argue against absolute truth, you have to claim that the reasons in support of your argument are absolutely true! Otherwise the proponent of absolute truth can just dismiss them.
Neither is it the case that only some truth is relative – that some aspects of reality are relative, while others remain absolute. If you claim that a certain aspect of reality is relative, that is an absolute truth claim about the supposedly relative aspect of reality, and that is again self-refuting.
The confusion between subjective and relative rears its head here – in modern thought, the subjectivity of value judgements often leads to the belief that values are all relative. But this is mistaken. Some value judgements may be merely subjective – like the judgement about whether chicken bacon ranch is the best kind of pizza – but none of them are relative.
For example, there is a philosophical debate over whether there are objective aesthetic values, that is, truth about whether something is beautiful or not, independent of what anyone thinks about it. If there are, then aesthetic evaluations can be objectively right or wrong, and beauty exists without regard to a perceiver. If there are not, then such evaluations are merely subjective, a matter of personal preference. In this case there is no beauty, only beauty-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder. But the claim that aesthetic values are a relative aspect of reality amounts to saying that there is an objective standard of beauty, but it is different in different perspectives of reality. And this, as I argued above, ends up fracturing reality rather than making it perspective-dependent.
Imagine that two people, Jack and Jill, are looking at a painting. Jack exclaims, “What a beautiful painting!” While Jill says, “No, that painting is ugly!” If there are objective aesthetic values, then one of them is wrong, and one of them is right. If there are not, then all they are really expressing is “I like this painting” or “I don’t like this painting.” But if aesthetic values were relative, it would actually be true for Jack that he was right and Jill was wrong, and at the same time it would actually be true for Jill that she was right and Jack was wrong. And that just seems confused. It would make it meaningless for Jack and Jill to talk about beauty at all – they are referring to entirely different things.
Truth does not become relative just because it about something that pertains to our value judgements. As I said earlier, subjective value judgements need absolute truth to make sense. And this is even more so for objective statements.
For example, “God exists” is an objective statement, a statement about reality, and it is either true or false. And so it is as incoherent to claim “It’s true for me that God exists, but it isn’t true for you” as it is to claim “Ottawa is the capital of Canada for me, but it isn’t for you,” or “The Earth is a sphere for me, but flat for you.” You can have reasons for thinking that God exists, or for thinking that he does not exist. But it is not rational to believe that your reasons for thinking he exists (or not) makes it true for you that he exists (or not), while others’ reasons might make it otherwise for them.
(On another related note: some people have tried to claim that religious or moral statements are merely subjective expressions, or even that they do not express a proposition capable of being true or false at all. They would say that “God exists” just means something like “I have faith that everything will work out for good in the end.” But such statements are simply not what “God exists” means.)
So, there is no separation of truth and reality into absolute and relative spheres. All of reality is inescapably absolute. And that means there is only one reality. If there were more than one, they would either really be sub-realities, with the total reality including all of them, or they would be perspective-dependent, which I have argued does not make sense.
One last point, and then I promise I am done. What I am claiming here is that truth is absolute, and we can know that it is absolute, but I am not claiming anything else about what is within the reach of our knowledge. Just how much of reality we are able to discover is a question for later. That fact that truth is absolute is a different matter from how much of that truth we can know. So we can’t use the claim that truth is absolute to override or ignore the reasons that other people have for believing differently than we do. We have to engage with those differences on their own merits.
As much as I hope that you find everything I am saying here to be completely obvious, the reason I have gone on about it like this is that it is impossible to have any meaningful communication unless we agree on absolute reality. If reality is relative, then what I am saying to the “you” in my reality may not be what the “me” in your reality is saying to you. And so there is no reason for any of us to listen to what the others are saying. So, for the sake of sanity and rationality, I hope you agree with me that truth and reality are absolute, and not relative.