An excerpt from LOOK AROUND! Ten Observations That Lead to One Conclusion.
Are you an observer? Do you sometimes find yourself in public places just watching people? Do you sit and wonder what their lives are like, trying to imagine each individual’s unique experiences?
If you answered, “Yes,” I’m with you.
Sometimes, when I’m in a crowd, I’m overwhelmed by the realization of all the billions of “Me”s there are out there. I may subconsciously view myself as the centre of my universe and the most important person on earth, but I’m sometimes shaken out of that view by the startling reminder that all the vast array of people surrounding me are all equally the most important persons on earth, all running their own personal, little universes and leading lives that are just as central to them as mine is to me. I try to imagine what those lives are like, but even more mysterious, I wonder what goes on inside all those heads bobbing by. What are they thinking about?
Ideas interest me. I’m always fascinated to listen and learn how other people think. It doesn’t take a whole lot of listening and learning to come to a realization that is just as mind-blowing as the one where I have to acknowledge that I might not objectively be the most important person on earth. When I finally get that tiny glimpse inside other people’s minds, I learn the tragic and shattering truth that not everyone thinks like I do. We all think very differently. We all have different perspectives, different perceptions.
Recognizing this reality has led many to the conclusion, “There is no absolute truth.”
Now, on the face of it, it’s a nonsense statement. “There is no absolute truth,” is an absolute statement. It must be either true or false. If it’s true, that would make it a statement of absolute truth, stating that there is no absolute truth. As it’s stated, it self-contradicts, so logically, it must be a false statement.
But when people make statements like, “There is no absolute truth,” they may really mean something like, “We can’t absolutely know the truth,” or “No one knows the truth about everything.” And that’s certainly true! If we all see things differently, how could we know who’s right and who’s wrong? We’re all just human, after all. Some may score higher on IQ tests than others, but that doesn’t automatically make the higher IQ individuals right about everything and the lower IQ individuals wrong about everything. No single human is qualified to impose his or her way of seeing things on the rest of us because no single human knows the truth about everything. In fact, because we all have different perspectives on any and every subject, perhaps we could say that no one knows the truth about anything! I mean that no one can know for a certainty that his or her way of looking at a thing is the one right way. I see a certain thing a certain way; someone else has a different way of looking at it, and I can never be absolutely sure that my way is the right way and someone else is seeing it the wrong-way-round.
This is likely what a great many people mean by, “There is no absolute truth.” They mean, “For us, there is no absolute truth. We have no access to absolute truth because we can’t know it. We can’t know when we’ve accessed truth. So, for us as humans, there is no absolute truth. Not if we can’t know about it. It’s not part of our reality. Whether or not absolute truth exists is irrelevant because our own personal realities only consist of the things we know about. Because we can’t know absolutely what’s true and what isn’t, knowing the truth isn’t important. If it’s impossible, it can’t be very important. So, it doesn’t matter what a person thinks. You can believe your way, and I’ll believe mine.”
Let’s examine this chain of ideas and see if there are flaws in this line of reasoning that would disqualify it from being a sound line of reasoning, coming out at a true conclusion.
I’d like to start with my first observation of life and hold it up against this idea of “No absolute truth” and the thinking behind it. I’ll call this observation “The Search.”
All of us are on a search. We spend every waking minute on a hunt for truth in one form or another.
None of us may know anything absolutely, but we all believe something. Let’s define the word “believe” as, “To think to be true.” What I believe, quite simply, I think is true! That’s a quick, little definition, but I think it’s accurate. By picking and choosing what we’ll believe and what we’ll disbelieve, we’ve demonstrated that we’re all on a search for truth. And believing, whether you’ve ever noticed it or not, is a mental process that is going on in your brain every minute of every day.
It may be (and I agree; it is!) impossible for us to know anything beyond any and all possible doubt or disagreement. But it’s equally impossible for us to stop believing and disbelieving and deciding what we believe and what we disbelieve. And if we believe a thing, we think it to be true.
I don’t need to convince you that there is such a thing as truth. You already believe it! You prove it by your beliefs: by thinking some things true and other things false. I only need to convince you that you already believe there is such a thing as truth.
What is truth? Again, it’s not complicated. Truth is what is. Truth is whatever has existence or occurrence, even if an abstract or inner existence or occurrence. I’ve heard the definition that truth is anything which conforms to reality. Falsehood is anything which doesn’t conform to reality. “Truth” is really just a word we use to mean “that which has being.” So if you believe that anything exists, you believe in truth.
If you like to toy with the notions that things are not what they seem—that mind is the only reality and matter is an illusion, that you’re only living in a sort of a dream, the matrix, or some sort of simulated universe—you still believe in existence. You are conscious. If you’re not, then you didn’t just hear me tell you you’re conscious, but you did, so you’re conscious. And consciousness necessitates existence. If there’s no existence outside of consciousness, at least consciousness exists. “I think, therefore, I am.”* You (whoever or whatever you may happen to be) exist, and you know you do because you’re thinking. Even if you’re doing nothing but dreaming, there’s a you to do the dreaming.
If all of us spend all our lives on a truth-search, trying to learn what is, consciously or subconsciously hunting for the nature of reality under every bush and around every corner, this convinces me that truth, at least some truths, must be discoverable. Why would we all spend our lives searching for something that can’t be found? That would be a very strange state of affairs!
But how can we access truth if we can’t know it? That would seem to be the issue for the one who says, “There is no such thing as absolute truth for us. We can’t know truth, so we have no access to truth. For us, then, it’s the same as if no truth exists.”
And this is the part where I see a flaw in the argument: If we can’t know the truth (in that absolute-certainty kind of way), is that really the same thing as having no access to it? Is knowing (absolutely) the only access we could possibly have to truth? I would argue that it’s not.
What about belief? Is it possible we can access truth through belief? Even if we can never know absolutely that we’ve accessed some truth or other, it’s very possible that we have accessed it through the cognitive process of belief.
I would agree that if a thing is impossible, it can’t be very important. So I can agree that knowing anything (absolutely) is unimportant. It’s unnecessary and irrelevant. We don’t need to worry about knowing things in that absolute kind of way. But does it follow, then, that it doesn’t matter how we think and what we believe?
And here’s the problem with, “It’s impossible to know anything, so it doesn’t matter how we think. You can believe your way, and I’ll believe mine.” The statement conflates knowing (in the absolute sense) with thinking and believing (but knowing and believing are two very different ballgames) and jumps to the conclusion that if knowing doesn’t matter, then neither does believing. But remember that, while none of us can truly know-beyond-doubt, there’s another mental process that it’s impossible not to do: None of us can stop ourselves from believing. If it’s impossible to do a thing and, therefore, that thing is not very important, does it follow that if it’s impossible not to do a thing, the thing is probably very important? What we know is not important; what we believe may be vital.
When we begin to realize that what we believe controls every part of our lives that we have any say over, we can begin to understand why believing is such a vital activity. Every step we take through every day, every tiny decision, every tiny action, can be traced back to the way we think. It all comes down to what we believe, to what we’ve decided to think is true.
When I get up in the morning, it’s because I believe I have some reason to do so. If I choose to stay in bed all day, it’s because I believe it won’t really matter if I get up or not. If I choose to brush my teeth after I get up (if I’ve decided to believe it was important that I get up), it’s because I believe brushing my teeth will help me keep them. If I decide not to brush my teeth, it’s because I believe it won’t really matter, anyway. If I make my bed, it’s because I believe making my bed will add something to my life. If I don’t make my bed, it will show that I don’t believe there’s any real purpose to making the bed. When I decide what I’ll eat for breakfast, I’ll make a healthier choice if I believe it will help me be healthier. If I choose the Sugar Crunchies, it will also come down to what I’ve decided to believe about the merits of Sugar Crunchies versus a healthier choice.
Our desires interact with and influence our beliefs, but we make our decisions based on our beliefs. I may have the desire to stay in bed all day (or climb out just long enough to pour myself a bowl or two of Sugar Crunchies), but I often act against my desires. My actions show that my beliefs are controlling them and not strictly my desires.
Now, it’s true that not everything we believe is of equal importance. Truths are all equally true, but they’re not all equally important.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s true that brushing my teeth and eating a healthy diet will make a positive difference in my life. I may choose to deny these truths and believe that my teeth will manage just fine all on their own with no brushing, even after a steady diet of Sugar Crunchies. When I’m in the dentist’s chair with a toothache, I may realize that the first truth I denied was an important truth. Then, I may still think a steady diet of Sugar Crunchies can’t possibly hurt me as long as I brush my teeth. But if my steady diet of Sugar Crunchies leads to diabetes, I will realize that there are worse things than toothaches, and the second truth I denied was a more important truth. If I choose to believe that diabetes isn’t dangerous and continue with my steady diet of Sugar Crunchies and refuse all treatments for my diabetes, I will eventually learn that I’ve denied a terribly important truth, one that may cost me my life through my denial of it. I hope you’re starting to see that what we believe just might matter, and some truths are very important ones to believe.
But let’s talk about even more important beliefs than ones that may save our teeth or our lives. There’s a certain set of beliefs that all of us believe to be very vital. Some don’t realize that they believe this belief (I mean, believe the belief that this certain set of beliefs is a vital one), but I’ve never yet met anyone who doesn’t believe it. Even if a person doesn’t admit it and doesn’t realize it, he or she proves it in everything he or she says and does. All of us consider our beliefs about morality—about right and wrong—to be vital beliefs.
Some will tell me that, just as there is no absolute truth, there is no absolute standard of morality; that just as we all have different perspectives, so we all have our own personal moral standards, and no one is qualified to tell anyone else that his standard is the only true standard. But such a person will immediately fly into a towering rage when his own personal standard is violated in some way.
If we have nothing more than billions and billions of our own personal moral standards as the basis for morality, then we have no right to impose our own personal moral standards on anyone else although we may still choose to do so if we have the ability to do so. But there is no “should.” There is no “ought to.” Those kinds of words imply a larger, overarching moral standard. An absolute moral standard.
We have to force this idea to its final outcome and look at the most blatant example of a divergent personal moral standard we’ve seen in modern history. If all we have are our own personal moral codes and there is no absolute standard of morality, then what Hitler did wasn’t really wrong and there really was no reason he shouldn’t have done what he did. That is what we’re faced with if there is no absolute standard of morality.
Laws and their penalties could still be enacted to punish those behaviours we deem unacceptable in society, but there would be no moral grounds for them. It would come down to one set of arbitrary standards triumphing over others by virtue of the strength of the numbers supporting it. It would come down to what we’ve agreed works best for us. It would come down to expedience. It would come down to “majority rules.” It would come down to “might makes right.”
The Hitlers of the world may be stopped by those who want to stop them for no real reason other than they happen to want to stop him and they have the power to do so. But if you are convinced of the “No moral absolutes” way of thinking, you are faced with the reality that if Hitler’s side had been stronger in World War II and the world was now dominated by the ideology that spawned the Holocaust (“might makes right”), you would have no basis for saying that wrong prevailed over right. “Might makes right” is the ultimate destination of the “No absolute moral standard” viewpoint. And it is the ideology that laid the groundwork for the historical event of the Holocaust. Yes, it does matter what we believe, and there are some truths we can’t afford to get wrong.
Although I’m sure they exist, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who truly disbelieves in an absolute moral standard. I don’t believe I know anyone who could look me in the eye and tell me that Hitler wasn’t really wrong and there was no real reason he shouldn’t have done what he did. I don’t imagine anyone among my acquaintances fully embraces the ideology that might makes right. If you are one of those who claim to believe in no absolute moral standard, are you prepared to accept all the implications of such a belief? I’ll leave you there, pondering that question.
But this is a dilemma! We’ve seen that we all have different perspectives and perceptions and that no single human is qualified to impose his way of seeing things on the rest of us. We all have our own personal moral codes, and no single human is qualified to impose his own personal moral code on the rest of us. Nor does consensus determine absolute truth or morality because we’ve seen that the world used to agree on “facts” and “sins” that the world no longer agrees are facts or sins. Consensus changes. It can’t determine truth.
It doesn’t matter very much when we’re talking about not making our beds or occasionally skipping brushing our teeth or eating the odd bowl of Sugar Crunchies. But now we’re talking about Holocausts and genocides and mass shootings and terrorist attacks and serial killings and child abuse and every other manner of evil, and suddenly, it matters very much. Truths about right and wrong are very important truths, and if we are all there is, then all we have are our divergent, competing, but equal, personal moral standards. And we have history to show us the mess all those billions of personal moral standards land us in.
Here’s the conclusion to which my observation of life and the search that all of us are on leads me: We are not all there is!
If there is absolute truth and an absolute moral standard that can be truth for us, then there must be some Mind greater than ours to finally know the truth. About everything.
And if we are to be able to access this absolute truth through belief, then this Mind must be a Mind capable of communicating the truth to us for us to believe it.
If there is no one besides ourselves, if human minds or any other fallible and non-omniscient minds are the only minds in existence, then, in essence, there is no absolute truth! There is no absolute standard of morality! We are adrift on a sea of speculation and ignorance. We may as well eat the Sugar Crunchies or commit the genocides or follow any other desires that happen to conspire within us. Nothing really matters.
But this is a conclusion that none of us can stomach. None of us can live consistently with the inherently self-contradictory doctrine that there is no absolute truth. We are all on a search for truth. We feel it to be vital that there is a real right and a real wrong. We all secretly (a secret we even keep from ourselves, sometimes) believe that there is truth and there is a real right and a real wrong. But we’re reluctant to follow the search to its logical conclusion and admit to a Mind greater than our own; an infallible, omniscient Mind; a Mind that knows everything there is to be known; a Mind capable of communicating some important truths to us.
If there is such a Mind (and my observations so far lead me to believe the likelihood is strong), what can we learn about this Being just by looking around at our world and the realities that surround us? Let’s dive in to the truth-search.