Is there such a thing as absolute truth, or is truth relative? How do we choose between all the options?
We mentioned this last time, but it’s worth reviewing so that the terms like modernism and postmodernism become second nature to you.….
During the modern era (1500-1960’s) it was believed that there was an objective, absolute truth that could be known through scientific method. People observed the evidence, used their reason and came up with facts. The scientist (a man in the white lab coat) was very respected. That’s why so many commercials had guys in white lab coats talking about how well a certain detergent cleaned, or extolling the virtues of various products. The underlying message was, this is not just the manufacturer's opinion, it is a scientifically provable fact.
In our postmodern society the predominant view is that truth is relative. What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me. Evidence doesn’t matter any more. We go by our feelings. We are tired of cold, hard facts. If you are frustrated by our political system and news media where it seems that nobody pays any attention to the facts, and they just say whatever they want, welcome to postmodernism. And as we said last week, postmodernists want experience and relationships, so now commercials consist of beautiful and or rugged looking individuals using this or that product and having a good time in exotic locations. Now sponsors pay TV and movie producers to get good shots of the jeep logo the hero is riding in or the Dell laptop that Jack Bauer is using.
It’s not that we don’t believe in scientific facts anymore. It’s that science is bankrupt in its ability to answer the meaningful questions in life. However, since naturalism marginalized religion by dividing the world into a fact/value, science/ethics, public/private dichotomy, and then said that values and ethics are only based on personal opinion, we are left with a society that is searching for meaning in life in this private, relativistic sphere.
So, when someone says, “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me,” they are not usually speaking of scientific/public things. They are speaking of private/ethics/morality issues.
So, how do we know what is true? One way to try to explain how we know what we know is by looking at the sources of our knowledge.
Question: What are our sources of knowledge? How do you know what you know?
Tradition: things that were taught to you by your parents, school, church. As it relates to our topic, this would mean that, if you were raised in a Christian family, you’ll most likely believe that way. If you are raised in a Hindu family, you’ll most likely be a Hindu. If you are Catholic, it’s the official doctrines of the church.
Reason: We are logical creatures. Things make sense or they don’t. When we hear contradictory statements, we recognize them and should reject them, but we don’t always do that. We are all hypocrites in certain areas.
Experience: If someone tells you that there is no such thing as evil, but in the past, you’ve been the victim of some crime, your experience tells you that there is something wrong with his statement. If someone tells you the gift of tongues is no longer in effect, but when you go to your church, folks all around you are speaking in some ecstatic speech. What are you going to believe?
Emotion: How do you feel about Stalin, Hitler, suicide-bombers? Does it cause you to accept their world view or reject it? How do you feel when you hear that there is no point to life? There is no life after death. I heard a Palestinian interviewed a while back who said that he thought Hitler was a great man. Why would he say that? Because he hated Jews so much and thought Hitler did the world a great service.
General Revelation: what we observe in nature. Psalm 19 and Romans 1 claim that the natural world proclaims the glory of God and should prove to men that God exists. Is that how everyone responds to the wonders of nature? Why not?
Special Revelation: specific information that God has revealed in the Bible. 2 Tim 3:16 says that “All scripture is inspired by God…” God has communicated to us what He thinks we need to know and it is accurate.
Now, go back through the list. Which ones are subjective and which ones are objective? The first five are subjective sources. The last one is objective.
Question: What are your sources of knowledge/truth? Are they all subjective?
If you deny special revelation, then all your sources are subjective. And truth becomes relative.
Question: If truth is relative to you, then what causes you to change your opinions?
You change your opinions because there is in fact an absolute truth that you are adapting to. That doesn’t mean that every time you change your mind you are making a move in the right direction. But if truth is relative, then you wouldn’t need to change your mind at all.
The bottom line is this: If you deny special revelation – the Bible – then truth is relative. When you examine the logical and practical consequences of truth being relative, one has to recognize that it’s not possible for truth to be relative. Therefore, there is an absolute truth. And that brings us back to the only objective source of knowledge – the Word of God. I realize that’s sort of circular logic, but if our list of sources of knowledge is exhaustive and we don’t like relative truth, then we are faced with no other option.
Secularists claim that their views are unbiased and rational, they are scientific and value-free. They claim that they have no religious or philosophical axe to grind and that their views are neutral. Then they turn around and claim that religious views are prejudiced and based on blind faith. These claims have been so widely accepted that a secular/sacred division dominates our culture. We hear the phrase “Separation of Church and State” almost daily on the news. We hear politicians and judges claim that their faith has no bearing on their political decisions.
People usually have the idea that the issue is Faith versus Reason. Either you believe science or you have “blind faith” in some religion. What you must recognize is that even science is not based solely on observation. None of us were there when the universe and life began. So, scientists speculate and come up with theories—like the theory of evolution, or the big bang theory. There are basic assumptions that science rests on. The Naturalist’s basic assumption is that there is no God. There is only matter. That is not a scientific assumption. That is a religious assumption.
So, is the secular person really neutral with no philosophical axe to grind? No. Their philosophical axe is that there is no God, and they try to silence anyone that disagrees. So the real question is not, “Do you believe in faith or reason.” The proper question is, “How reasonable is your faith?”
The Bible mentions in several places the role of reason in trusting in God.
Matt 4:17 says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The word repent means to “change your mind.”
2 Cor 4:4 “…the god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe…” So we see that the mind is involved in believing.
2 Cor 10:4-5 We tear down arguments (5) and every arrogant obstacle that is raised up against the knowledge of God, and we take every thought captive to make it obey Christ.
Act 17:23 – Paul reasoned with the philosophers.
So, since we’ve concluded that reason is involved in the process. How do we evaluate things to see if they are true? There are several tests we can make on the claims of the various world views:4
Is the explanation consistent and coherent? Is it comprehensive in scope? Does it really explain the world around us?
When talking about a world view system, the whole system should hang together logically and not be full of contradictions. The law of non-contradiction is one of the main ways we know things. When we are trying to figure something out, much of the process involves eliminating the options that contradict other things we already know. When we hear a contradiction, our logical minds naturally recognize and reject it.
Let’s take the philosophy of skepticism. The skeptic says that it is impossible to know anything. What is wrong with that statement? What is the contradiction? Somehow, he knows that it is impossible to know anything. His claim that there is no universal truth is based on a universal truth.
The solipsist believes that he is the only one who exists. If that is really true, then why does he bother trying to convince you – someone who doesn’t exist – that you don’t exist? Why is he even imagining that you exist in the first place? Maybe he’s lonely.
I know you think I’m making this up. You don’t think anyone could actually believe that. Here’s a quote from Shirley MacLaine to her guests at a dinner party:
I begin by saying that since I realized I created my own reality in every way, I must therefore admit that, in essence, I was the only person alive in my universe. I could feel the instant shock waves undulate around the table. I went on to express my feeling of total responsibility and power for all events that occur in the world because the world is happening only in my reality. And human beings feeling pain, terror, depression, panic, and so forth, were really only aspects of pain, terror, depression, panic, and so on, in me!. If they were all characters in my reality, my dream, then of course they were only reflections of myself.
I was beginning to understand what the great masters had meant when they said ‘you are the universe.’ If we each create our own reality, then of course we are everything that exists within it.5
Questions: Why would Shirley MacLaine go to the trouble of explaining to her dinner guests that they didn’t exist? Or bother writing a book to explain her enlightenment to a bunch of people that don’t exist? Here’s another thought: She said she realized that the terror, depression, etc. in others was a reflection of her own terror, depression, etc. Why is it that the confusion of all those unenlightened people wasn’t a reflection of her own confusion?
Take our earlier statement, “What’s true for you is true for you , and what’s true for me is true for me.” On a logical level, what is wrong with that statement? The person who says that is trying to push his view on others. He’s making an absolute/universal statement that there are no absolutes.
The above are self-defeating contradictory statements. They are also guilty of the self-excepting fallacy.
So, we see that it is helpful to be reasonable – to have good reasoning capabilities because it can help you recognize error. I’d highly recommend The Fallacy Detective by Nathaniel and Hans Bluedorn. It was written by a couple of high school boys for kids. We read a chapter or two after dinner each night with our kids and not only did they understand it, I learned a great deal.
You need to recognize that the law of non-contradiction is only a negative test. If something is inconsistent, then it must be wrong. However, if something is consistent, then that doesn’t prove that it is right. We’ll come back to this later.
Does the explanation match the facts of our experience? Does it match what we know about our world and ourselves? Ronald Nash says, “No world view deserves respect if it ignores or is inconsistent with human experience.”6 He talks about an outer world and inner world.
Not too many people belong to the flat earth society these days. Why? Maybe it’s because most people have been in an airplane and seen the curvature of the earth, or seen pictures of earth from space. But some people do belong to the flat earth society. What does that tell you?
Christian Scientists believe that the physical world doesn’t exist. If someone is sick, it’s all in their mind. So, they don’t go to doctors. Christian Science doesn’t have a very big following. Why? Because it contradicts our experience. But there are people who believe that. How do you explain that?
Some people misinterpret or ignore their senses. That takes us back to the point that experience is a subjective source of truth.
Our world view also needs to explain why it is that we are beings who think, hope, feel, believe, desire, are conscious of right and wrong, feel guilt, etc. Rather than just responding to stimuli, we can will to do something and do it.7
C.S. Lewis points out that naturalism doesn’t have a good explanation for “ought” – as in you ought to be brave. How do you explain noble acts in a survival of the fittest world view? You can’t because ought is evidence of transcendent moral values.
Think about the guy who goes through college, gets married, gets a job, has kids, is very successful in his job and makes a lot of money. Then somewhere in his 40’s or so, he has a mid-life crisis. He wonders, “Is this all there is to life?” In a naturalists view of the world, where survival of the fittest is the guiding principle, one would think that this guy is one of the fittest. He has survived. He has even excelled. So, why is he dissatisfied with life? Does the naturalists world view explain why? Does Pantheism explain why? He’s obviously got good karma and should be well on the way to becoming god. Does the Christian world view explain why? What does the Christian world say is the problem? Answer: Man was created to worship God. When he worships money, power, prestige, family, or anything other than God, it doesn’t satisfy.
We mentioned earlier that the Bible is God’s special revelation to us. What does it primarily deal with? The outer world or the inner world? What is more important to us as humans?
Does it work? Can the person who professes that world view live it? Or does he have to borrow pieces of other world views in certain situations?
Example: If someone’s stereo or ipod or car is stolen…
What would the pluralist do? Since he believes that truth and morality are relative and up to each individual, he can’t complain that what you did is wrong. If he does, then he is borrowing from the theist world view.
What would the pantheist or New Age person like Shirley MacLaine do? If the pantheist were consistent with his world view, he would just let you have it, and imagine that he had another stereo, car, etc. Actually, if nobody else exists, it seems that having something stolen would be problem all by itself?
What would the naturalist do? The naturalist would recognize that you are obviously more “fit” in a survival of the fittest system and deserve the stereo or car. And he would go out and steal one from someone else.
If any of these folks call the police, then they are borrowing from the Theist’s world view that says stealing is wrong because God says stealing is wrong.
Someone said to me the other day that there are so many different philosophical systems because either there is no absolute truth or at least it is unknowable. How would you answer that?
If relativism is so obviously not possible, why do so many people believe it? One reason is because nobody can agree on anything. But just because people don’t agree, that doesn’t mean there is no right answer. Some folks may not have enough knowledge of the issue. Or they may have different world views/assumptions that cause them to come to different conclusions. Or they just may not like the correct answer and refuse to accept it. But none of these reasons means there is no correct answer or that there is no absolute Truth.
Let’s put it another way… if the truth - the “correct answer” - is that God created the universe, and man is responsible to him in the end – and you don’t like that answer – because you don’t want to be responsible to God, then you have to come up with another explanation. Since your answer isn’t the correct one, although it may contain some truth, it’s going to have some holes. Others are going to spot those inconsistencies (because of their reason or experience) and try to come up with a new answer that fixes the problems with your philosophical system. Their new answer is not THE right answer either, so they will have problems, and so others will come up with new explanations, and on and on we go. And that is why there are “so many” philosophical systems. People suppress the truth, but they can’t live with believing nothing, so they make something up.
I ran across the following quote from Aldus Huxley (the guy who wrote A Brave New World):
I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves… For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.8
What is the attraction to relativism? It removes responsibility. If there is no absolute truth, then you can’t be wrong.
How do we know who is right? Who decides? If right and wrong is decided by the culture, then might makes right. Therefore, slavery is ok and Hitler was right in what he did.
Question: If you believe in evolution and the survival of the fittest, then is it consistent to believe that Hitler was a bad guy? Hitler actually was consistent – he believed that Darwin was right and that Arians were superior, and according to the principle of “survival of the fittest” it was ok to kill Jews, Christians, etc. You can’t say that all truth is relative, and then expect people to live by certain moral guidelines.
Remember when we said, “If a world view is inconsistent, then it cannot be true. However, if a world view is consistent, it may be true or it may not.” Hitler was consistent, but that doesn’t make what he believed true.
Some have tried recently to rewrite history and say that the Holocaust never happened. Why would they do that? Could it be that it is a huge problem for their world view?
Ps 111:10 says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; (NIV)
Prov 1:7; Fearing the Lord is the beginning of moral knowledge,
but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Prov 9:10; The beginning of wisdom is to fear the Lord,
and acknowledging the Holy One is understanding.
Prov 15:33 The fear of the Lord provides wise instruction,
and before honor comes humility.
These verses say that the fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. We’ve seen that all world views are based on some underlying faith/belief. There is no god, everything is god, or there is only one God. Or as these passages say, “the fear of God.” Now that you know all knowledge is based on your assumptions, do these passages make a bit more sense? What does it mean to fear the Lord? It means to recognize that God created everything and as his creatures, we are responsible to Him and will answer to Him after we die.
When your philosophical system does not have God as the starting point, then your philosophical system will fail to explain reality.
Well, we’ve had another lesson that’s heavy on the theoretical. But these principles of where we get our knowledge and how we validate whether something is true or not are foundational to the rest of our discussion. As we look at each of the world view questions and how each world view answers them, hopefully we will be better prepared to determine if it meets the test of logic, experience and practice.
I said this before, but since our lesson was heavy on logic principles, I think it’s worth repeating. I don’t think that we can reason someone into believing in God and the Bible. Even if you answer all of their arguments and show their world view to be flawed, and the Christian world view to be more reasonable, it still comes down to the issue of faith. There is a built-in resistance to submitting to God. Rom 3:11 says that “there is no one who seeks God.” John 3:20 says, “everyone who does evil deeds hates the light…” and in Acts 17:17-34 some scoffed, some wanted to hear more, some believed.
So, while reason is extremely important, it is not enough. There is a supernatural and spiritual element to adopting a world view. But let’s not conclude that it is a waste of time to study all this. We need to know what we believe and why we believe because it will strengthen our own faith and it will help us to defend our beliefs to others.
Since one of our conclusions today was that without special revelation from God, truth is relative. I think we need to spend some time on how we know we have special revelation from God. So, next week we’ll talk about how we know the Bible is inspired.
4 Nash, p. 55. Probe “Mind Games” seminar.
5 Shirley MacLaine, It’s All in the Playing (New York, NY: Bantam, 1987) pp. 173-174. Quoted out of The Deadliest Monster, by Jeff Baldwin. P. 51.
6 Nash, p. 59.
7 Nash p. 59-60.
8 Josh McDowell, Evidence That Demands A Verdict, p. 11.