We’ve all read those bumper-stickers which tell us to “Question Reality” yet at the same time want us to take seriously what the bumper sticker says. Some even urge the various religions of the world to “Coexist;” religions which contain completely contradictory truth claims. I’ve even read one which urged me to “Question Authority.” I assume that I am to question all authority except the “bumper sticker gods.” I’ve often wondered if that person was ever stopped by a police officer, if they followed their own advice. But someone might say, “Loosen up man! It’s only a bumper sticker! It’s meant to be funny!” My response is “Yes! It certainly is a joke! But the joke’s on them!”
Unfortunately, sloppy thinking dominates our culture today and it is no laughing matter. Ideas have enormous consequences! What we think and how we think matter. This is counter to what many people believe today. Perhaps you have overheard one or more of the following statements or slogans:
- “That’s true for you, but not for me.”
- “All truth is relative. No one has the truth.”
- “Truth is relative to one’s culture.”
- “Who are you to judge?”
- “Who are you to say that your religion is right and all others are wrong?”
- “Why are you being intolerant of someone else’s beliefs?”
In this article I’ll attempt to give a concise response to relativism in it’s various forms – the belief that there is no such thing as absolute truth.
We’ll ask four vitally important questions:
1.Is relativism self-contradictory?
2.Do the laws of logic apply to all of reality?
3.Should all philosophy begin with doubt?
4.Do words convey truth about real things?
1. Is relativism self-contradictory?
If someone makes a statement which is self-contradictory, it simply means that it can’t logically be true. A cannot be both A and non-A at the same time and in the same sense. There is no middle ground. This comes from a law in logic called the “law of non-contradiction.” A self-contradictory statement would be “I can’t write a word in English.” Obviously, that statement is false because I just wrote a sentence in English. Other statements such as “I don’t exist” or “Relativism is true for everyone” can’t be true because if they are true then they are false. They are self-contradictory statements. Most relativists believe that relativism is true for everyone except them. But, once again, if it is true then it is false.
In summary, the claims of relativism are self-contradictory and false and therefore should be rejected on logical grounds. Truth is whatever corresponds to the real (to reality).
A good way to test claims or statements is to turn the statement back on itself.
All truth is relative. – Is THAT true?
You shouldn’t judge people! You are being intolerant! – Was THAT a judgment you just made? Were you being tolerant of my view?
Question reality. – Should I question that statement then?
2. Do the laws of logic apply to all of reality or just part of it?
Another aspect of the law of non-contradiction is something called the law of identity. Or to put it another way, whatever is real is real or, whatever is not real is not real. This seems like common sense, and it is! The laws of logic were not invented, they were discovered! They are universal (they apply to all reality); they are timeless (they are true no matter what century it is), they are unchangeable and they are certain (like the laws of math – 2 + 2 always = 4!).
The basic assumption here is that whatever is real is logical, so the answer is yes, the laws of logic apply to ALL of reality (whatever is real!).
If it is real, then the laws of logic apply to it and help us to discover it.
3. Should all philosophy begin with doubt?
Some of the greatest philosophers who ever lived (Socrates and Descartes) began with doubt, so doesn’t this mean that skepticism and doubt is the best place to discover knowledge of the truth?
While it is true that Socrates used his famous method of “questioning,” he never practiced universal methodic doubt as did Descartes. If we practiced universal doubt about everything (as did Descartes in his “Discourse on the Method.”) then why don’t we doubt our doubts? In order to doubt there must be something there in order for us to doubt it.
It was Aristotle who said that philosophy begins with “wonder” – and that all men desire to “know” and not “doubt.”
Universal doubt leaves us only with skepticism and is actually self-contradictory (see #1. above).
4. Do words convey truth about real things?
The final question we’ll briefly answer here is whether or not words adequately convey truth and what this means in our search for truth.
One of the most prevalent Postmodern theories floating around today is Deconstructionism which basically says the following: that words cannot adequately describe reality; that words don’t intend reality (real things); that language is bound to one’s culture, race, etc…; or that language (words) are used only to gain power over some other person or group (via the Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche).
But, this is the skepticism in its most extreme form. Basic skepticism says “I don’t know the truth” whereas Deconstructionism says “I don’t have the ability to know the truth.”
We can answer this radical skepticism with a few observations and criticisms. First, any philosopher or otherwise who writes books telling us that language is inadequate is breaking the rules of their own philosophy! Why would we read them if we can’t trust what they write since their words don’t intend reality; they are bound to the author’s culture, and are only meant to gain power over me? It seems like the only exception to the philosophy of deconstructionism are the deconstructionist philosophers themselves. If we simply apply their own methods on their own philosophy (& books) then we will discover it to be self-contradictory and hence false.
All rational discourse and debate assume the laws of logic (the law of non-contradiction and the law of identity) and that words can convey the truth about reality (meaning). If we abandon these principles, or if we deny them, then we have nothing to speak about; we have nothing to debate about. We just remain silent.
We live in a culture today which is highly skeptical of any claims to absolute truth whether religious, philosophical or otherwise. Yet, this same culture is hypocritical when it comes to others criticizing its own cherished views of tolerance, relativism and pluralism.
Philosophical and religious statements (in language whether written or spoken), which claim to be true are subject to the laws of logic – and hence criticism. If someone doesn’t want or like their view criticized or challenged then they shouldn’t make statements which can be evaluated by reason.
The Truth is out there – it is the truth about reality (about what is real). We can know it and we can communicate it.