This essay seeks to briefly examine the concept of truth. It also examines relativism, some arguments proposed by relativists, as well as outline a few challenges a relativistic philosophy faces.
The view I would defend is that which says truth is conformity or correspondence between our thoughts, views, and opinions, and the world. This is known as the Correspondence Theory of Truth (CT). According to the CT, the truth or falsity of a proposition/belief is determined by its relationship to the part of the world described by the proposition/belief. If the proposition/belief does not correspond with a part of the world it describes then it is false, or if it does then it is true. For example, I look at a table on which there is a mug. I form the belief that there is a mug on the table. However, only if there really is a mug on the table can my belief be true. Why? Because my belief corresponds to the way things really are. Philosopher J.P. Moreland puts it this way,
“Reality makes thoughts true or false. A thought is not made true by someone believing it or by someone being able to determine whether or not it is true. Put differently, evidence allows one to tell whether or not a thought is true, but the relevant fact is what makes it true.”
Moreover, there is an important linguistic component to a concept of truth given that human beings express their thoughts about the world through language. In fact, it is not unheard of for some to argue that language and words cannot properly describe or capture reality. An extreme view such as this, however, seems to undo its own self given that for it to be known in the first place it must be described through language. In other words, language can, and does, describe reality. One could exercise skepticism in terms of to what degree language has the ability to do this, but it is not possible to deny that language has at least some way of conveying real truths about the world. Moreover, a proponent of this view essentially employs language in her argument which is ironic given that it attempts to render doubt on language by convincing readers and audiences of such a conclusion through the medium of language.
Does Truth Exist?
Yes, and I would argue that truth is axiomatic. How so? In philosophy, when one refers to something as an axiom it is denotes a thing that cannot be rationally doubted. In fact, it is so well-established that it is accepted without question, and it cannot be refuted given that any attempt to refute it requires the usage of the axiom in a premise or premises. Simply put, to formulate an argument that attempts to deny that truth exists will assume that truth exists. In fact, it is not logically possible to argue for a point without attempting to establish the truth of the premises as well as the truth of the argument’s conclusion. In fact, one could go further. An argument that has premises that are false results in a conclusion that does not follow and an argument that is unsound. Either way it is impossible to propose an argument without intending the argument to be true, therefore denying the existence of truth undercuts itself.
Moreover, practically every theory of epistemology (the philosophical discipline that specializes in the study of knowledge and justified belief) discussed and debated amongst contemporary philosophers affirms that truth not only exists but that it can also be known. These theories differ on accounts of how one might be able to justify a proposition or belief, but not on whether or not something can be believed to be true. Arguably the only major exception to this would be the extreme view of epistemological skepticism which questions the possibility of justified knowledge, and holds that attaining knowledge of anything is difficult if not impossible. But none of us, including the relativists, are making that argument. Nonetheless, the point is that most philosophers believe that truth does exist. This is not an argument in itself but rather supplements what I’ve stated above. It is also helpful to know that most academicians who study and make a living from questions such as these disagree with those who deny the existence of truth.
Relativism & The Problem for Relativism
Relativism is challenging to pin down because it is quite expansive. For example, there is moral relativism, namely that moral “facts” are invented by individuals and societies. The result is that no two individuals/societies will necessarily agree on what is behaviour moral as opposed to what behaviour isn’t. Aesthetics and beauty can also also be deemed relative. What one individual finds beautiful in a painting might not be viewed similarly by another. Examples could be extrapolated, but the point is that relativism comes in different types and can therefore be quite broad, thus all the more important it is to define our terms. The type of relativism that we have in mind is that which hinges on the nature of truth. This view is a philosophical one in which all points of view are equally valid and that all truth is relative to the individual.
In this sense, the relativist will argue that there is no such thing as “absolute truth,” which, it is important to note, is not always to argue that “There is no such thing as truth.” The latter claim is obviously self-contradictory for it makes a truth statement while denying that truth exists. Nonetheless, the relativist who says there is no “absolute truth” does not necessarily say that truth does not exist, rather she says that it is relative to culture, society, and individuals. The observation that the relativist makes that truth is often relative to culture shouldn’t be controversial for it simply constitutes a true report on how things that are perceived to be true are often relative to culture and society. It is a fact that collective groups of people within different societies believe that they have a monopolized “truth” on certain matters. Therefore, this relativist does not deny that truth exists but rather highlights an important sociological facts about societies.
However, the question as to what societies and individuals believe are really objectively true is a different one altogether, and this is where relativism runs into trouble. For example, a “global” (stronger) relativism would seem to deny absolute truth in a number of domains of knowledge such as the moral, scientific, philosophical, and religious domains. As we will see this runs into problems. Moreover, a “local” (weaker) form of relativism would essentially accept that there is absolute truth in some domains of knowledge such as, for example, in the hard sciences. This weaker form might, however, deny absolute truth in, for instance, the moral, religious, and philosophical spheres.
A relativist of this type might argue that beliefs and opinions are not absolutely true but are only relatively true. Thus, on one hand he seeks to relativize truth (i.e. “That’s true for you but not for me” or “All truth is relative”) while at the same time making an objective truth claim about the world. This is self-defeating. For example, to say that “all truth is relative” is to make an objective truth claim about the world while maintaining that truth is relative. To say that “no beliefs and opinions are absolutely true but are only relatively true” is to essentially argue that some beliefs and opinions are in fact absolutely true and that not all of them are relative, thus the statement undercuts itself. The relativist therefore holds to two mutually exclusive views which violate the Law of Non-Contradiction that states that two contradictory statements cannot both be true. To hold to two mutually opposite terms is to violate this law, and therefore the view cannot be rationally and logically accepted.
Arguments for Relativism
In attempt to deny the existence of absolute truth some relativists have proposed a few arguments (the irony is not lost on me that relativists propose arguments purporting to be true when the arguments, should they follow, attempt to undermine truth).
One argument is that what people and societies regard as true is influenced by their cultural settings and milieu. It is influenced by those who are in positions in of power who often have some kind of agenda. The conclusion that allegedly follows is that there is no absolute truth. But this is a bad argument for the fact that it is a non sequitur. Why? Because even if one grants that those in positions of power have manipulated others into believing something it does not follow that what they have been manipulated into believing is not absolutely true. Let’s use an example: Imagine that Jack and Bob are in a pub. Bob is aware that it is raining and snowing outside but Jack doesn’t realize this yet. Suppose Bob gets Jack to believe that it is snowing and raining outside but not in a usual way by simply telling him or getting him to look out of the window. Rather, suppose Bob uses different methods to manipulate Jack into believing that it it is raining and snowing outside (perhaps by brainwashing or hypnotizing him). In fact, Bob has a motive for manipulating Jack: he wants Jack to stay in the pub so that he will buy everyone another round of drinks.
What this little example shows is that Bob has, for selfish motives, manipulated Jack into believing something, and that it does not mean that what Jack’s been manipulated into believing is not absolutely true (after all, it really is snowing and raining outside the pub). If we extrapolate this on to the larger and more significant stage of government and society, the logic still holds. Even if the government had some hidden agenda it would not necessarily mean that what they have manipulated the population into believing is not absolutely true. Rather, the relativist would have to argue for this position and establish it rather than merely assuming it as a carte blanche appeal against absolute truth.
A second argument often forwarded by relativists is an appeal to relativism being tolerant and accepting of people who have different views. Again the irony is not lost of me given that despite this claim to tolerance many relativists have an open distaste for religious particularism which they view as both intolerant and closed-minded. This means that many relativists are not really tolerant and accepting of everyone’s views, especially those who don’t agree with relativism. Nonetheless, as an argument this is also weak. Why?
Firstly, on its own it does nothing to establish that any ideology or worldview that isn’t relativism, independent of how tolerant or intolerant that worldview is perceived by the relativist to be, is false. Again, the relativist would have to establish that this is the case. Moreover, even if one granted that relativism is more tolerant than other worldviews it would still not follow that relativism is logical or correct. This too must be substantiated by the relativist.
Further, one could mount a strong argument showing that relativism isn’t actually as tolerant as its proponents make it out to be. In fact, relativism, by denying that many religions and philosophies are true, is itself a claim and belief that is exclusive. The relativist is essentially proposing that millions if not billions of people are wrong in their theological-philosophical views and convictions, and that he himself is correct. The fact is that the majority of religions and philosophies make exclusive truth claims about the world, the supernatural, the after life, and God/god/gods that cannot be harmonized with each other. Thus, the relativist who argues that each religion is partly true (e.g. they all lead to the same God or bear testimony to the same divine reality) or that none of them are true is to deny the central claims and alleged truths of many of these religions. This makes the relativist a particularist herself. Now, this is not a problem for me. Why? Because I believe that certain propositions (theological and philosophical) are exclusively true and that others are false. In fact, I wouldn’t believe in certain things if I thought they were false. I find no difficulty in admitting this. However, many relativists do have a difficulty with this despite the fact that they are themselves particularists.