Why is relativism such a problem? Why do I get worked up over it?
Let me be clear, relativism is the most dangerous movement I have found in our generation. It’s a cancer. It’s a cancer that roots out all that is true, virtuous, right, moral, and good in this world and undermines all productive dialogue. The 21st century culture we live in is basically the ultimate breeding ground for all things relative. Our technology makes it insanely easy, and even more enticing, to communicate our thoughts with quick ‘shares’ and cute ‘one liners’ through utilizing text limiting (aka thought-limiting) social media platforms that help make relativism not only the norm, but the expected line of thinking. I’ll be the first to tell you – I fell into this camp. I fell into it hard. I felt I had to compromise almost everything in order to be a good person. I felt that a ‘good person’ doesn’t draw a hard line – that a ‘good person’ is understanding, accepting, and loving of others’ viewpoints. Consequently, I felt this led to the conclusion that no one is really wrong. We all grow up with different perspectives and backgrounds and therefore, based on each individuals personal experiences, they are right. The problem with this? We have fallen into the trap that those ideas are somehow mutually exclusive. It honestly seems that the only hard line we are willing to draw is the one between believing in absolute universal truth and what it means to be a loving and understanding person. So here is my mind blowing attempt to break that mold and state it plainly:
There is such a thing as universal absolute truth, as proven by the ordered, understandable world that we live in. Those truths, THEY MATTER. They have huge implications one way or another. There are people that are right and there are people that are wrong. The idea that we are each correct in our own ‘personal’ truths is a gross misunderstanding of everything we know concretely in this universe. Belief in those truths do not equate to the inability to understand another’s perspective in a truly loving manner and inversely, someone’s perspective, experience, or understanding does not, cannot, and will never change absolute truth.
Universal Absolute Truth
When I talk about universal, absolute truths – what am I talking about exactly? Some may confuse ‘facts’ with ‘truths’. However, the issue with facts, figures, and statistics is that they are up to a large amount of interpretation. Ask any statistician, they will tell you that they can make the ‘numbers’ say what they want. When we talk about truth – we are talking about principles based on the naturally ordered world that we live in. We are talking about principles that exist, have always existed, and always will exist. These truths are unchangeable because they are fundamentally rooted in our logical universe. There are certain principles that cannot be reconciled ‘relatively’ because our natural world demands one logical truth. Before we go forward, it is imperative that we recognize and establish that understanding.
Let’s use the most unanimously accepted and understood universal truth – mathematical proofs. 2+2= 4 right? Pretty much every adult human with basic reasoning skills across the globe, despite cultures, races, nationalities, etc. can understand and articulate that. It’s a truth. We understand the meaning and value that is implied when the number 2 is used. We understand that there is a universal difference in the value between 2 pieces of fruit and 3. We can even think of the numbers abstractly. Think of the value of ‘2’ – not 2 of any particular thing. Just 2. It’s an abstract concept yet we can demonstrate it concretely. That ordered logic we are capable of makes sense on this plane of existence because it is congruent with the ordered, natural world we live in. There is never an instance in our ordered world that 2+2 = something other than 4. That’s beyond our understanding and not in our universe.
Now, outside of mathematics, let’s move to the other widely accepted and understood universal truth – science. Why is it that science is considered another universal cornerstone for truth? Well, what is science to begin with? It is the study of the understanding of the natural order – aka understanding universal truths. How does science operate? What does it depend on? Mathematical proofs. So let’s bring this full circle, you need that universal truth of mathematical principles to further understand the ordered world. And our ability to use and comprehend that fundamental truth (mathematics) inversely allows us understand how ordered the world really is (science). See how these universal truths co-exist and depend on each other harmoniously?
You think that was on accident? That our universal comprehensibility of the understanding of 2+2 moves us to be able to understand the universe we were made to live in in the first place through scientific reasoning? (I will let you answer that for yourself, but I digress). So what does this tell us? It tells us that all of those ‘hard sciences’ we rely on, they are only considered to be so definitive because of the ordered principles they depend on to be considered true to begin with! We must have an understanding of a world that is knowable and ordered in order to derive ANY principles from it! Therefore, absolute, universal truths are FUNDAMENTAL to any understanding of our world and they absolutely exist. If you want to throw out universal truths – throw out your multiplication tables, throw out your science books. *I will let you chew on that for a little bit*
Now, if we can agree that universal truths do exist, we need to better understand how they function. All truth in an ordered world does not, cannot, contradict one another or overlap. If two things are true, it is impossible that they contradict. So a 3 can’t be a 5. 2+2 cannot equal 5 and 4 simultaneously. The fact that 2+2=4 must follow the consistent truth that 4-2=2. There is consistency and compatibility. This consistency extends to all truth derived in the world. Does anything change the fact that 2+2= 4? If every person on this planet all of a sudden was unable to comprehend that basic math problem, does that mean that if you have 2 oranges and then you go get 2 more, that you now have some other number of oranges besides 4? (I don’t know why I am using fruit – just go with it). NO. Because it is a UNIVERSAL truth. 2+2=4. It isn’t dependent on anyone’s experience or understanding of that truth. It is what it is. It’s a truth.
The Incompatibility Of Absolute Truth And Relativism
Alright, let’s bring in relativism to this discussion. I saw this meme circulating on social media and it was shared thousands of times. With everyone saying ‘YES!’, ‘EXACTLY’, etc. Clearly, this is screaming relativism. Oh man, let me tell you… this meme is like handing me a silver platter for a PERFECT example to show how relative truths are incorrect. So let’s take a look at it…
Okay, so what’s wrong with this picture? Based on our understanding of universal truths – that number in the middle has an absolute truth contained within it. It is representative of ONE particular value. 6 does not and will never be able to equal 9. They cannot be the same. It’s impossible. Having 6 apples is inherently different in value and quantity of having 9 apples. The value that is inherent in what that represents CANNOT be changed. Therefore, it is proven impossible, based on the principles of the ordered universe we live in, that both people in this meme can be correct. Someone is right and someone is wrong. Now, do we have enough information in this picture to figure out who is correct? No, we don’t, but that doesn’t change the truth of the value that is contained and represented by that number – whatever it is. Regardless if you are looking at it backwards, upside down, from the left, right, or from outer space – it doesn’t change the truth within that number. It can’t be both a 6 and a 9 at the same time (have I made that clear?)– it breaks the universal truth of mathematical proofs. So as nice as it would be for the two besties in the meme to both be right – the truth is… there is a truth and someone is wrong.
The Difference Between Different Perspectives And Relative Truths
Now, let’s say, we figure out through some mathematical proofs, that that number must equal 6 (let’s say it is somehow added to a larger math problem that proves it must be a 6). This would mean that Mr. Six guy is indeed correct and Mr. Nine guy is indeed incorrect. Does that mean Mr. Nine guy is an idiot? No – not at all. It makes perfect logical sense that he thinks it is a 9. However, that still doesn’t make him correct. That doesn’t change the true value of that number. Now, inversely, let’s talk about the Mr. Six guy. Is he inherently ‘smarter’ because of the perspective he was given? NO – not at all. Mr. Six guy was very blessed to have been given the perspective of truth but ultimately, if his reasoning is solely based on his personal perspective, than he is not any different, logically, from Mr. Nine. Therefore, if both of their understandings of truth were exclusively based on their personal perspectives, it would make sense that they would feel they have to say they both are correct. It would be the only way to reconcile their logic. If they attempted to ‘debate’ the value of that number, Mr. Nine and Mr. Six would go round and round and never be able to definitively ‘prove’ the true value of that number.
Let’s continue with this line of thinking. Now, just because Mr. Six doesn’t fully understand and isn’t able to articulate the truth in his answer doesn’t change the fact that he is correct. Again, the circumstance of his perception doesn’t make Mr. Six any smarter or Mr. Nine any dumber. Yet- the absolute truth of that number remains. It has always and will always be six. Now, Mr. Six stumbled upon the truth. His viewpoint is true yes – but his job isn’t finished. In fact, I would say that Mr. Six has a bigger responsibility on his hands. Mr. Six needs to understand the deeper meaning of the truth he has stumbled on. Again, until he does, he is on the same logical playing field as Mr. Nine and it makes no difference. Mr. Six should want to understand ‘WHY’ he is correct. He should be able to understand, defend, and articulate that ABSOLUTE truth. Once he does that, you know what he needs to do? Walk his butt to the other side and stand next to Mr. Nine. Now, Mr. Six has a new perspective. Mr. Six can now, with a much greater understanding and empathy of Mr. Nine, articulate that truth (through solid reasoning) to Mr. Nine which ultimately leads BOTH parties to know and see the true value of that number.
See how that works? Understanding a perspective without compromising on truth? It’s possible. It isn’t easy though. It takes extra effort. Effort to see the other perspective. Effort to understand truth deeper than just blindly accepting what you see. It takes the extra effort to walk to the other side. To see what others see. Just because you may have been blessed with the correct view of truth, that doesn’t change the workload and responsibility that comes with it.
Why it Matters
So how does the concept of relativism hurt us in this scenario? Both Mr. Six and Mr. Nine, if they just base ‘truth’ off of their personal experiences – that is relative truth. Which by definition of what truth is – is an inherent oxymoron. There are huge implications to not knowing and understanding the true value of that number. For example: if that number represents the quantity of pills a doctor tells me I should take, well, I would like to know the true value (remember, this is illustrative of larger concepts). Mr. Six and Mr. Nine, regardless of their prospective, should WANT to find the absolute truth but they won’t even begin to search for it if they don’t believe it exists in the first place. They shouldn’t be satisfied with just how ‘they see it’ – they should be concerned with the truth because it has implications. For Mr. Six, his inability to deeply understand the absolute truth would keep him from being able to explain it to Mr. Nine. For Mr. Nine, if he doesn’t believe in an absolute truth, he would have no reason to look beyond his perspective and therefore would likely never find the true value of the number.
Do you see where I am going with this?
Absolute truth moves beyond math and science. Our world and all naturally within it (i.e. human beings), have absolute universal truths contained in it (do I sound like a broken record yet?). I use the more widely accepted/understood concepts of math and science to illustrate that our ordered world demands absolute truth. Our humanity. Our existence. Our morality. Our sociology. Our psychology. They all contain absolute truths within them. There is right and there is wrong. I am not going to go into detail about what I believe those truths to be (way too much for a blog) but I am going to definitely say that there are absolute truths out there and it matters that they exist. We are natural beings in a logical universe. Our humanity is not relative. The understanding of our spiritual, physiological, philosophical, and psychological states are not relative. Our understanding, or lack of understanding, or even worse -our denial of any, universal truth has huge consequences. It shapes our societies, our political systems, our education, our relationships, our families, etc. Understanding our innate personhood – my gosh – it is what makes civilization! It matters.
How it Relates to Faith
Maybe you have faith, maybe you don’t. Maybe you are a Catholic or maybe you aren’t, but my goodness, if there anything I want you to walk away from this post knowing is that there is such a thing as absolute universal truth and this MATTERS. So let me just say it – I am a Catholic. I believe that the Catholic Church hold’s absolute truth. Yup. I believe its teachings, beliefs, and understandings of humanity and the universe to follow all of the principles needed to be considered absolute truth. I believe they are consistent, congruent, and compatible with all other absolute truths found within this world. I believe it is universal and unchanging. So here is the thing – I am either right or wrong. There is no in between. I personally believe a real search for truth will lead you to this faith (however, that is a different post for a different day) but the fact of the matter is I am either wrong or right.
Let’s also be honest, me being wrong or right – it has some pretty huge implications. There is either a God or isn’t. Scripture is either the word of God or some ancient text. I am either spending a lot of time following a teaching based on nonsense, or I am following a loving Creator. Jesus is either the son of god – or a lunatic. Let’s call it like it is, the guy was going around telling every one that he was the son of GOD. Think about that. I’m not going to make the argument on this post to prove he was who he said was, but I am going to claim that you can’t walk the tight rope. He isn’t just a ‘good guy’ in history. He is either straight from the looney bin or he actually was who he said was. What ever side of the fence you stand on – pick one. We don’t always have to agree but productive dialogue doesn’t even begin until you have a place to argue from. I am either very right or very wrong and that matters.
There are many people I love dearly but I believe they are wrong on certain understandings of truth. That’s okay to say. Why? Because dialogue doesn’t work if we stand on wishy-washy ground. We seem to be so uncomfortable for standing up for an absolute truth – we water it down until it can look as closely to everyone else’s version of the truth as we can. Or inversely, we so blindly accept our relative truth (regardless of it is actually true or not) that we can’t have a reasonable, thoughtful conversation with anyone of a different perspective. What’s worse than just being wrong? Believing that a right doesn’t exist in the first place. That completely degrades all logical thought and undermines our capabilities to pursue all that is true, righteous, and good in the world. Relativism gets us nowhere. We can’t even begin to find truth if we don’t start to search for it in the first place.
Absolute universal truth exists. It matters. Start searching for it.