Here’s something I wrote around 20 (at least 18) years ago and the question it was in response to. I tweaked it somewhat for posting here.
How often it is stated: THERE IS NO OBJECTIVE TRUTH.
The American Bar Association, in their journal of Litigation offers this advice to attorneys and philosophers alike:
Perhaps the speaker has confused the easy rhetoric of radical relativism with their own commitment to egalitarian tolerance, young college students these days are apt to utter such comments, when not otherwise fiercely defending their rights-even if only the “right” to listen to Eminem. Capable teachers can lead the students from these lesser truths to certain higher principles, such as the self-evident truths embodied in our [American] Constitution. The relativist rhetoric, meanwhile, is exposed for what it is: a convenient dodge around the need to defend opinion in the face of intellectual challenge: a kind of intellectual laziness rather than a way of life.
Is denial of the self-evident truths no more than rhetorical, intellectual dishonesty? Is the idea of truth being self-evident antithetical to propositional logic which, in selfless syllogistic form, begins with an assumption rather than an impression? Objective truths even though science might not fully describe reality?
The reasons lawyers might appear persuaded by these odd forms of relativism is clear: they are the advocates for individuals and entities other than themselves, excepting monetary gain and recognition – none contingent on the truth or falsity of advocacy.
The reasons, on the other hand, for philosophers and thinkers alike taking such an extreme position, given that the ones stating the propositions have a direct interest in the truth or validity of proposition over and above a potential economic gain, whatever that reason may be, are unclear, seemingly unexamined, and disoriented.
Could there really be any sincerity to the claims of these arbiters of fashion? Reading Popper, Kierkegaard, or Rorty are not a prerequisites. Just intellectual honesty. Come forward. Please.
I don’t think relativism is a result of intellectual dishonesty.
First, we’ll start with the provenience of the question.
I think the cause of truly philosophical relativism stems from the fact of a fuzzy line between those things which are obviously “objectively” true and those things which are arguable. I.e., since there is no clear line, perhaps everything is ultimately arguable. I guess that raises a question of the relationship between arguability and objective truth. Clearly, things that may be clearly resolved at some future time could be arguable at present. Do they have a present objective truth? We seem to discover truth, so the apparent answer would be yes. So what draws the line between an endlessly arguable truth and a discoverable truth? Maybe empiricism. (This razor preserves moral relativism, which is “self-evident” anyway because morality is based on values, which are personal.) An empirical truth is hard to argue with.
So, what can we do to preserve relativism? I guess we could extrapolate arguability into empirical matters and just say that empirical matters are less arguable, but still ultimately arguable. But then, it is still discovered, so it seems to fall to the “realistic” idea that there is an objective reality and we simply have limited capacity to find it and we can never be 100% certain. So, maybe I can attack the idea of discovery. First of all, the impossibility of certainty makes it questionable, to me, how valid it is to say that we are discovering truth. If you don’t really know for certain, then you aren’t really discovering anything; rather you are endlessly conjecturing. This kind of realism seems to comprise a wild goose chase where no matter how close we get to objective truth, we are always automatically a certain distance away from it, yet one would make the leap of faith to believe that this objective truth exists. (I know, this argument is flimsy. :P)
Alright, that’s it for the provenience of the matter.
Apparently, we know nothing of reality except through sense perceptions. These sense perceptions do not come to us in truth structures, they come to us in the form of images, sounds, etc. (even including for the possibility of hallucinations). You can make “true” statements based on your interpretation of the data, but the data itself is neither true nor false, or at least, it is all necessarily true, or at least it Just Is.
After these sense perceptions, we apply our semiotic system to synthesize notions about this external world that can have truth values. Note that you cannot think of anything that is either true or false that is not a proposition. (You could reason that a thing itself is true in the sense that it exists, but in a context in which everything is necessarily true, true has no meaning. Also, note that i had to construct a proposition, “a thing itself is true in the sense that it exists,” about that which (presumably) doesn’t exist propositionally, and say that that is what is true.)
Also, this semiotical system itself does not exist prior to sense perceptions. A baby knows nothing of truth or logic, and eventually develops these faculties, presumably with no cosmic, Platonic input. Or even if you say evolution designed these capabilities into our brain, we can still say it’s ultimately utilitarian: what else could it be, being a product of natural selection of efficacy in manipulating one’s environment over random mutations of brains and bodies? And thus, truth is ultimately utilitarian.
Since a truth-model can be “wrong” and still be effective and useful, and because what works for one person may not work for another, utilitarian truth is no basis for truth being objective.
It would seem that for objective truth to exist, the correspondence theory of truth would have to be true. And it cannot be.
Anything we can know or say about reality is ideas in our minds. Knowledge is semiotic, which is why it’s so easily translated into linguistic propositions, while “external reality,” or reality at large, is, presumably, non-ideational. Anything two things we can compare to each other are ideas, or we wouldn’t be able to comprehend or mentally process/think about them in order to compare them. So, the difference between our thoughts, or our truths, and “objective reality,” if it exists, is of a higher order than any difference we can comprehend; there is no greater dichotomy.
So, obviously, the truth as we know it is a synthesis of our minds to apply to a reality that simply exists. I believe the realist stance is that the truth exists in the correspondence between the proposition/idea and reality. But let’s think about this. First of all, any idea corresponds 100% with reality in that the mindstate that comprises the idea is a part of reality. It is not inherently any more or less “connected” with reality depending on whether it’s “true” or “false.” It is inevitably a reflection of reality, existing within reality. Furthermore, even if it’s obviously/undeniably “false”, it’s still 99.9999% true and the .00001% that’s not true is still ultimately relative. I will first show that it’s still mostly true, and then I will show that the rest is still relative.
An idea itself is very complex and fits into a mental metastructure that’s fully or mostly based in reality, or basically “true.” Just the fact that someone else can understand the idea enough to say it’s false means that they had most of the idea in common. The contrast between the two people’s complex ideas might even boil down to a single bit inversion, as is suggested by the fact that you can make a “false” statement “true” just by adding a “not” to it. (Take the example of two people talking about the same TV set. One says it’s off, and one says it’s on. They both have the same idea of the TV and probably the same ideas of what “off” and “on” are; the only difference is in their linkage between the two concepts vis a vis the conjectured current state of the ”actual TV”. (They may also be looking at the TV, in which case they may both be seeing and understanding the same thing but just have a semantical difference in the understanding of “off” versus “on.” Or maybe they differ in opinion because one thinks it’s on but with a blank screen, perhaps because it’s not dark enough or perhaps because he remembers it was on earlier and doesn’t think anyone turned it off.)).
Now, let’s talk about the actual difference. We have plenty of obvious tests to determine whether a proposition “corresponds” to reality, but one can theoretically always argue over what really happened with the test (and not to mention the interpretation of the results and the underlying premises). For example, if we’re both looking at a figure and you say it’s a circle and I say it’s a square, you can devise a test as follows: Measure the circumference of the figure and divide by its diameter and get pi. I can say that you’d read the number incorrectly or that you traced the shape of a circle when you measured it instead of tracing the actual square.
Why does it matter that I can incessantly argue ridiculous objections in this scenario? Because, hypothetically speaking, if I actually believe what I’m saying, then for there to be an objective difference between the correspondences of our two ideas to reality, there must theoretically be a possible, objective framework for analytically arbitrating over which person’s mutually contradictory correspondence to reality is “more true.” (This may be regarded as strictly a thought experiment to make it independent of the real-world problem of not being able to empirically observe which framework is correct with 100% certainty.) Let’s even say that this framework for arbitrating allows omniscience, so this is not a problem of epistemic uncertainty.
(Even in omniscience we are going on the assumption that objective reality is itself not composed of ideas. Therefore, we can’t say that “the chair is brown” is true if and only if the chair is brown, because that’s sophism on the count that second occurrence of “the chair is brown” is indeed a proposition, just one that we are assuming has an objective truth value (implicitly true) and that we are stating on a different semiotic level by not putting quotes around it. (Therefore, ”’There chair is brown’ is true if and only if the chair is brown” (a) does not represent non-ideational (objective) reality, and (b) begs the question of the existence of objective truth)). Now imagine another, false framework (which obviously, could give a different result).
In order to say that one is true is true and one is false, you need a framework of arbitration by which to compare the two frameworks of arbitration. A contender to this framework, too, could be introduced by anyone believing and stating something contradictory to that framework. Which takes it to the next level, and the next level, and so on (obviously, to infinite regress).
Therefore, “truth” in any sense is ultimately relative.
Another argument against correspondence theory is this. If you have A and B and a relationship between A and B, but you can only know A and not B (except through A’s relationship to B per an arbitrary modality, like sense perception), then neither can you analyze/know the relationship between A and B; you can only know that there is one. Now consider A is our ideas and B is external reality. If truth is the correspondence between A and B then we have no way of ascertaining truth. Thus we seem to talk a hell of a lot about something that we can’t even know.
And what would it mean to say a statement is false? That it does not correspond to reality? (again, everything corresponds to reality, so..) That it corresponds to reality in a bad way? Well, I guess the only meaning of that could be that the idea is not very effective/useful in manipulating reality (or that it doesn’t cohere well with other ideas). Because what else could we know about the correspondence, the external part of the correspondence being unknowable? So, we’re left with pragmatic truth (and the coherence theory of truth). And the effectiveness of an idea could be multidimensional, and not binary, and dependent on how the person applies the idea (which could be a way of saying, depending on what the idea really means to him.. and heck, this could be anything).
One might appeal to mathematical truth. Well, first of all, as Albert Einstein said in ‘Geometry and Experience,’ “… Is human reason, then, without experience, merely by taking thought, able to fathom the properties of real things? In my opinion the answer to this question is, briefly, this: as far as the propositions of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” But what if we’re merely talking about “objective truth”, not “objective truth about reality”. So, is a mathematical statement really objectively “true” or “false,” or is it just consistent or inconsistent with its axioms? I think it’s only the former insofar as that’s considered synonymous with the latter.
Also, if you can create another math with different axioms in which a mathematical statement is true (that was false in normal math), does that mean the mathematical statement isn’t objectively true, or does it mean that they’re necessarily really not the same statement, just reuse of the same symbols? If it isn’t the same statement, does that mean that, in natural language, you can’t really know whether a statement is wrong or just a different statement from what you think it is? If it can be the latter, wouldn’t you have to determine whether it’s right or wrong by knowing what the person actually means by the statement? If you get into whether the actual meaning is right or wrong then you can only determine whether it’s consistent with their own system of thinking, and that is something that’s certainly unique. Incidentally, a belief is always consistent with one’s own system of thinking (well, that’s at least more-or-less true).
Although you could appeal to whether their relative belief will be effective in their manipulation and prediction of reality or not, which of course would go back to truth being utilitarian/pragmatic. (And, not to mention, one could apply the above problem of thinking-frameworks not being provable to whether an idea is even effective/useful or not.) Is utilitarian/pragmatic truth objective in its utilitarianness/pragmaticalness? I don’t think so, since nobody can really have the same idea as someone else.
And that’s a whole argument against objective truth right there: nobody can really have the same idea as anyone else (given already that objective reality is external and external reality is non-ideational and “truth” qualifies propositions, or at the relationship between the propositions and reality, and therefore truth exists only in relationship to the minds of individual people).
So here is a summary of all of the above:
- Nobody really thinks exactly the same as anyone else, although they may use the same symbols for expression, and truth qualifies concepts (assuming the universe is not made up of propositions), therefore truth is relative.
- If truth is correspondence to reality, then you need a way of weighing one correspondence to reality over another, and if truth is objective then you also need a way of weighing one way of weighing a correspondence to reality over another over another way of weighing correspondence to reality over another, and a way of weighing ways of weighing ways of weighing, and so on; and at each step of the way the selection of which way of weighing to use is arbitrary.
- If truth is correspondence to reality, we can’t know whether anything is true or not because without knowing directly the external reality that it corresponds to we cannot know the nature of the correspondence. And if we cannot know anything about truth, then this is not the truth that we talk about when we conjecture that a thing is true or false, which means “objective truth” might as well be in a parallel universe and should be called something else as well. Unless truth is conceded to be merely pragmatic, in which case it’s questionable whether it’s objective.
- Using mathematical truth as an example of objective truth may be dubious.
- No greater discrepancy can be contemplated than that of the ideational vs. the non-ideational.
- Objective truth is clearly possible only if external reality is mental in nature (and even then, it’s not necessarily extant).
Here’s something related I wrote around 1996—a couple of paragraphs, plus a brief IRC conversation I had in IRC http://ratemyidea.net/book/rough%20drafts%20&%20notes/html/truth.html
Here’s something else I wrote on whether we can know anything objectively: https://philosophy.inhahe.com/2017/03/29/is-true-objectivity-possible/