Thursday, December 9, 2010

Do Absolutes Exist? Absolutely!

A few days ago we posted our response to a reader who wondered whether he was right in thinking that it is possible to know the nature of things such as truth, love, justice, and the existence of God — in other words, whether such things as absolutes exist and if they can be known through the use of reason. In response we gave (as you might expect) the standard Aristotelian/Thomist/Maimonidean/Ibn Khaldûnian (I'm not sure some of those are real words, but you know what I mean) response that, yes, absolutes exist and they are discernible by the use of human reason, that is, they are "knowable." To get as much mileage as possible out of the response, we posted it in a number of LinkedIn groups that indicated an interest in the subject of absolute moral values, whether it is possible to know right from wrong, and so on.

Not surprisingly, the relativists were not slow in responding. One individual posted the presumably crushing comment that, "there may very well be 'absolutes', but due to our human condition, it is likely impossible for any of us to truly know them."

There are some interesting issues raised here. The comment, "there may very well be 'absolutes', but due to our human condition, it is likely impossible for any of us to truly know them" brings in the question as to whether it is truly possible to know anything — even whether it is possible to know that you don't know, which is also knowledge and thus truth. Taking as a starting point the assumption that we can know something, even if the extent of our knowledge is that we know nothing other than that we know nothing, we can resolve the question by applying a little common sense.

When we examine this statement, we realize that it is precisely because of our "human condition" that we are able through the use of reason to discern absolutes and apply them in various ways to meet human wants and needs — especially the human need to develop more fully as persons by acquiring and developing virtue, that is, by conforming ourselves ever more closely to our own nature. Humanity is made in the image and likeness of God; our human nature is a "reflection" of Divine Nature. Human nature thus incorporates an "analogously complete" capacity to acquire and develop that virtue of which God is the fullness, that is, absolute good, truth, love, beauty, justice, and so on by definition, that is, by our substantial nature or essence; our capacity to acquire and develop virtue is what defines us as human. To deny that is to deny our humanity.

The argument is fairly straightforward. First, we must understand that the first principle of reason — of existence itself — is that nothing can both "be" and "not be" at the same time. Whatever is, is, while whatever is not, is not. Whatever is in the category of "A" is by that fact excluded from the category of "Not-A." This is the "law (or principle) of contradiction," or (less frequently, but perhaps more accurately) the "law (or principle) of non-contradiction."

Second, we have to understand that the claim that there are no absolutes, or that there may be absolutes, but that it is not possible to know what they are, is the same as saying that it is not possible to know whether a thing is true or untrue, good or evil, right or wrong — or (more concisely) that it is impossible to know right from wrong. Lacking an absolute standard, however dimly perceived by the use of human reason, against which to measure something, it becomes impossible to measure that thing.

(We can reject as meaningless the statement that there may be absolutes, but that it may or probably not be possible to know them. "May not be" implies "may be" as an equally valid conclusion. It is thus simply a way of avoiding committing yourself one way or another; a way of asserting the unknowability of absolutes without actually saying so.)

Third, given that it is possible to perceive or discern absolutes, whether or not "through a glass darkly," we necessarily conclude that it is possible to "know" — that is, to distinguish right from wrong, or truth from untruth. Every injustice implies a standard of justice against which the injustice is measured and found wanting. Every wrong implies a right, every untruth implies a truth.

For example, the prohibition in the Decalogue, "Thou shalt not steal" necessarily implies private property as an absolute, that is, as pertaining to the natural moral law. If private property were not based on an absolute right of every human being to be an owner, then theft could not possibly be wrong — yet every society that has ever existed has proclaimed theft to be wrong. Different societies may define theft differently, even incorrectly, and thus apply the natural right of property differently or erroneously, but the basic principle, that private property is part of the natural moral law, remains unchanged and unchangeable.

Thus, "knowing" (participating in some measure in God's Intellect by acquiring and developing virtue) — distinguishing right from wrong, truth from untruth — necessarily implies absolutes, such as truth, love, justice, and so on. The concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, necessarily imply the existence of absolutes from which we derive our idea of right and wrong. As Mortimer Adler explained,

The reason why I say that everyone, as a matter of common sense, understands truth and falsity is that everyone knows how to tell a lie. Every one of us has told lies on one occasion or another, and everyone understands the difference between telling a lie and telling the truth. (Mortimer J. Adler, "Man the Knower," Aristotle for Everybody. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1978, 151-152.)
Fourth and finally, the declaration that it is impossible to discern the existence of absolutes and come to know them is contradictory. That is, you cannot claim that it is impossible to know absolutes . . . and state it absolutely. It defies reason; it implies that something can both "be" and "not be" at the same time; you cannot state absolutely that there are no absolutes or that knowing them is impossible. Nor can you claim that someone is wrong for maintaining that it is possible to know right from wrong . . . for, if you cannot tell the difference between right and wrong, how do you know that someone else is wrong on anything — and how do you know that you are right?

"This way lies madness." Asserting that there are no absolutes or that it is impossible to know them are statements in the same category as, "Everything I say is a lie," or, "If God can do anything, then He can make a weight so heavy He cannot lift it." These are word games and simplistic logic puzzles for children, not reasoning adults. The only rational course of action is to realize that there is a contradiction somewhere in the statement, identify it, and reject the entire statement as inconsistent with reality, that is, with nature. We otherwise run the risk, as Rommen pointed out, of descending into pure moral relativism, positivism, even, ultimately, nihilism. Insanity becomes the only escape.


1 comment:

Max Weismann said...


The words "absolute" and "relative" are generally misused. At this time and in the present state of our culture, to affirm absolutes and assert that not everything is relative goes against the grain of popular prejudice. The popular prejudice is, for the most part, unenlightened. The difference between what is absolute and what is relative needs to be clarified.

A moment's consideration of the word "relative" should help anyone to see that what is relative is called so because it stands “in relation” to certain conditions or circumstances.

The absolute is that which “does not stand in relation” to any conditions or circumstances. It prevails at any time or place and under any circumstances. Thus, for example, the truth that atoms are divisible or fissionable is absolute, but the judgment we may make that that statement is true or false is relative to the time and place at which it is made.

For most of past centuries the greatest physical scientists would have said that if atoms exist, they are indivisible. Relative to the time and place at which that judgment was made, and to the knowledge available at that time, the judgment had relative truth, but it is still absolutely true, at all times and places, that atoms are divisible or fissionable.

The related distinction between the objective and the subjective might be considered here. Objective is that which is the same for you and me and for every other human being. Subjective is that which differs from one person to another. The objective is absolute: the subjective is relative to individual human beings.

Finally, these two distinctions (between the absolute and the relative, and between the objective and the subjective) bring to mind a third distinction -- between matters of truth and matters of taste, That which belongs in the sphere of taste rather than truth includes everything that is relative to the circumstances of different times and places. Matters of taste those which differ from culture to culture and from one ethnic group to another, such as modes of salutation and preferences in cuisine, in dance, and customs. But if anything is absolutely true when it is entertained without any human judgment, such as the divisibility or fissionability of atoms, that truth is transcultural.

At present, mathematics, the physical sciences, and technology are transcultural. Whether we think that history, the social sciences, and philosophy, will become transcultural in the future depends on how we view them either as bodies of knowledge or as matters of unfounded opinion.

* Entry from Mortimer Adler's "Adler's Philosophical Dictionary".