Monday, March 27, 2006

Time, Truth, and Falsehood

Recent posts here are centred on our public and social epistemologies, on how we understand our lives and places in the world. We've looked at multiculturalism, cultural relativism, false consciousness, triumphalism, and religious revivalism, for examples, to see how we express ourselves socially and how we might. If we see the world in one way or another, then we will act in one way or another, even to the point of living or dying as whole peoples. If we follow a bad idea that leads to the grave, so we die. To follow ideas is not to suggest that we understand them or even realise they are ideas. Few people read Franz Fanon, for example, in deciding whether to have children in America; and yet, Fanons's work plays a role in that decision for many couples-- or singles-- today. So, if we must walk into this greyness that is our future, let us at least know where we came from if not where and why we are on this particular path. Let's look at our public opinion of Truth, at least very briefly and superficially. Time is short. It is important that we decide soon our positions.

Subjective versus objective

Metaphysical subjectivism holds that the truth or falsity of all propositions depends, at least partly, on what we believe.

In contrast, objective truths are supposed in some way to be independent of our subjective beliefs and sensations. Such truths would subsist not in the mind but in the external universe. Except for propositions that are actually about our beliefs or sensations, what is true or false is independent of what we think is true or false. Some scientists claim that science provides objective truths by means of measurement and independent confirmation of results. Kant made the same claim for mathematics.

Relative versus absolute

Relative truths are statements or propositions that are true only relative to some standard or convention or point-of-view. Usually the standard cited is the tenets of one's own culture. Everyone agrees that the truth or falsity of some statements is relative: That the fork is to the left of the spoon depends on where one stands. But Relativism is the doctrine that all truths within a particular domain (say, morality or aesthetics) are of this form, and Relativism entails that what is true varies across cultures and eras. For example, Moral relativism is the view that moral truths are socially determined. Some logical issues about Relativism are taken up in the article on the relativist fallacy.

Relative truths can be contrasted with absolute truths. The latter are statements or propositions that are taken to be true for all cultures and all eras. For example, for most Muslims "God is great" expresses an absolute truth; for the microeconomist, that the laws of supply and demand determine the value of any consumable in a market economy is true in all situations; for the Kantian, "act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" forms an absolute moral truth. They are statements that are often claimed to emanate from the very nature of the universe, God, human nature, or some other ultimate essence or transcendental signifier.

Absolutism in a particular domain of thought is the view that all statements in that domain are either absolutely true or absolutely false: none is true for some cultures or eras while false for other cultures or eras. For example, Moral absolutism is the view that moral claims such as "Abortion is wrong" or "Charity is good" are either true for all people in all times or false for all people in all times.


We often play the futile game of finding this man or that to blame for the nature of our fallenness. Some point to Descartes, others to Kant, some many to Nietzsche, and some at the devil himself. My personal favorites, for what it's worth, are Plato and Rousseau. If it's of any interest, my position comes from Socrates and Kant: Universal and absolute moral truth, of which I have no real idea. However, the concepts above and below will give us at least an inkling of what this discussion is about, and it will give us some idea of why we think the things we think we think, often so naively that we are blinded entirely by our ignorance of our very lives.

Moral relativism

moral relativism takes the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths but instead are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and that there is no single standard by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries or the context of individual preferences. An extreme relativist position might suggest that it is meaningless for the moral or ethical judgments or acts of one person or group to be judged by another, though most relativists propound a more limited version of the theory.

Some moral relativists — for example, the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre — hold that a personal and subjective moral core lies or ought to lie at the foundation of individuals' moral acts. In this view public morality is a reflection of social convention, and only personal, subjective morality is truly authentic.

One might well blame Descartes for his near solipsistic cogito, and one might prefer Berkley's God-driven reality. It's useful to have an informed opinion but it's also a bit late. The question now is how do we know what is true. To claim there is no universal truth is to claim that is universally true. We have to confront our own lives and decide for ourselves whether we are living in a life-world that, though we cannot know it directly beyond our senses, is or is not, and is or is not universally morality-capable.

If we lie to ourselves out of supposed convenience or prudence, we are still living in bad faith, inauthentically, and we are incapable of morality. To know the authority of the moral, if there is such, is to know universally and absolutely the possibity of the moral. We must decide our position.

In response to the latter we have recently posted on triumphalism and revivalism in contrast to the posts on cultural relativism and multiculturalism. From this, one of our more organincally incapable commentators has suggested that I am akin to Hitler. Regardless, and giving that all the deep consideration it warrants, we must decide our position clearly and quickly. The above pieces might draw to our attention the possiblities we have to choose from.

We have to choose, and we must then act, even if in our actions we steam-roll some of our own.


"Truth Saving Time From Falsehood,"
Fran├žois Lemoine (b. 1688, Paris, d. 1737, Paris)

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