Philosophy Questions: Is Truth Absolute?
Is truth absolute? If truth is absolute, this means that, if something is true, then the moment it becomes true, it’s true for all times, people, and places (regardless of what people believe). If, on the other hand, truth is relative, this means that truth varies from person to person. If truth is relative, then you have your truth, and I have mine. Historically, the Sophists relativized truth to gain power, while Socrates labored to point people to eternal truths.
The history of the universe, we are told, began with a bang. Well, the history of philosophy began with an eclipse. The day was May 28, 585 B.C. What made this particular eclipse noteworthy was that a man named Thales predicted it would happen.
Now, ask yourself what sorts of things you would have to know in order to predict an eclipse. For one thing, you would need to know when previous eclipses had occurred. Even more importantly, you would need to make an assumption that nature followed some kind of pattern. Instead of giving the typical supernatural explanation, Thales was dabbling in scientific explanations.
We know something about Thales that he never knew: he was the first of the Pre-Socratics.
Pre-Socratics, the First Philosophers
Thales was the first of several thinkers before Socrates to speculate about the universe in a philosophical way. Pre-Socratics lived between 600-400 BC. They lived in areas we know of as Greece, Italy, Turkey, and islands in between. The main question that preoccupied them was how the universe came to be (called “cosmogony”).
They asked themselves what could be the ultimate element, or arche, that explains the universe and holds it together. Thales suggested that the One out of which everything else comes is the element of water. It may seem nonsensical at first, but then you recall that, after all, water is unique in being able to transition from solid to liquid to gas. Other answers offered by subsequent Pre-Socratics included air, numbers, and fire.
“They asked themselves what could be the ultimate element, or arche, that explains the universe and holds it together.”
The vastly different answers proposed by these first philosophers began to suggest that such speculation might be fruitless. It was not as though philosophic speculation itself was the problem; perhaps they were just trying to figure out the wrong object.
Is truth absolute? Absolutely not, said the Sophists.
Interest swung from Object to Subject, from studying the “What” to studying the “Who” that does the studying. In other words, thinkers began studying humans and their culture.
Teachers known as Sophists began to hire themselves out as experts on how a citizen ought to conduct himself. With the rise of Greek democracy in Athens, there was need for free citizens to undergo training. This meant learning not only grammar and poetry, but especially the art of rhetoric, for the Sophists hoped to be training future statesmen. For many Sophists, how to know truth took backseat to how to win arguments. After all, much money was to be made by rhetoricians skilled in winning lawsuits.
“For many Sophists, how to know truth took backseat to how to win arguments.”
Over time, these itinerant teachers grew a reputation for not actually caring about the truth. Prominent Sophists reinforced this perception with relativistic doctrines.
Protagoras taught that “Man is the measure of all things, of things that are that they are and of things that are not that they are not.”
Gorgias engaged with society by teaching that “nothing exists, that if anything did exist it could not be known, and that if anything could be known it could not be communicated.”
Thrasymachus took “Man is the measure” to its logical conclusion that, therefore, some men are destined to be the measure. His dictum is said to be, “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.”
“Thrasymachus took ‘Man is the measure’ to its logical conclusion that, therefore, some men are destined to be the measure.
Something needed to be done if virtue was to survive such abuse. Greek philosophy needed a voice willing to confront the encroaching relativism. Culture no doubt topples with underlying moral intuitions removed. We are told that the famed Delphic Oracle had declared one such person the wisest person alive. With this stamp of approval, this former soldier set out to fulfill his apparent mission: to seek truth and teach it to whoever would listen. His name was Socrates.
Is truth absolute? Well, it’s definitely worth trying to find out.
It cannot be said that Socrates was less irritating to society than the Sophists. Of those who claimed to know, he asked questions. Lots of questions. In fact, his method of asking questions to expose error and draw out truth was so distinctive that we call it the “Socratic Method.” He would seek to discover the definition of such concepts as piety, temperance, and justice. These universal concepts were worth pursuing because they provided unchanging standards for the good life.
“These universal concepts were worth pursuing because they provided unchanging standards for the good life.”
A student of Socrates later told a story. Slaves were bound from childhood facing the back of a cave. Behind them a fire blazed. So all they saw day after day were the shadows on the back of the wall. One slave managed to break free. He climbed out of the cave, stepped into the sunlight, and saw a beautiful world. The former slave knew what he had to do. He returned to where the slaves were still tied up and attempted to explain the joy to be found outside the cave. And what was their response? They killed him.
Is truth absolute? Not only that, but it’s worth dying for.
It was no mere parable. Socrates was indeed executed. The official charges were his impiety toward the gods and his “corrupting” the youth, though political motives likely drove the proceedings. Though he could have been permitted exile and though his friends arranged an escape, Socrates decided to stay and accept his unjust fate.
As Socrates’ death and the analogy of the cave illustrate, most people would rather stay ignorant of the higher truths. So the mission of one of Socrates’ students, the author of the cave story, became to point people to these higher truths. This student’s name was Plato.
“Most people would rather stay ignorant of the higher truths.”
Is truth absolute? A yes answer in 3 metaphors.
What is it about truth that it was worth Socrates pursuing to the death? In what follows, I would like to describe the concept of truth using three metaphors. These metaphors will help make it clear what’s so valuable about seeking truth—not as something modern-day Sophists can bend to their advantage but as something solidly true that we can feel justified in pursuing even when it costs us.
Truth is like a second grader, an umpire, and an auto salesman.
How is truth like a second grader?
Truth is like a second grader, because truth is straightforward. Truth is to the point—it tells it like it is. A second grader will tell you if your breath is bad. A second grader will tell you stories from home that their parents would never want people to hear. A second grader is straightforward.
In the same way, truth is straightforward. What is truth? Truth is that which tells it like it is. Truth is the straightforward facts about reality. Truth isn’t what you want it to be; truth is what it is. Truth is as straightforward as a second grader.
How is truth like an umpire?
Have you ever tried to argue with an umpire? Does it work? Some people assume that truth changes from culture to culture. That truth changes from person to person. The idea is that you have your truth, I have my truth. Truth changes.
But that’s not how it works. It’s true that opinions change from culture to culture, person to person. Beliefs change from culture to culture, person to person. Customs change from culture to culture, person to person. And even when people from different cultures acknowledge the same truths, the way they live out those truths can look different. For example, the truth that it is moral to be polite to your host will take different applications in various places.
Still, if we’re dealing with actual truth, this isn’t something we can change by being wrong about it. Just because people once believed the earth was flat doesn’t mean it was flat. Opinions and beliefs change, but truth doesn’t. It’s as unbending as an umpire.
“Opinions and beliefs change, but truth doesn’t.”
Now, it’s true that not everyone trusts the “umpires” they have in their lives. Maybe you’ve come to suspect that your leaders aren’t telling you the truth, whether they be political or religious or otherwise. But that does nothing to undermine the concept of truth itself, because truth is the very principle by which you judge that someone else isn’t trustworthy. It’s true that a postmodern culture is a cynical culture, but cynicism toward those who tell you what the truth is can only be grounded in the pursuit of truth.
How is truth like an auto salesman?
Truth is like an auto salesman in its approachability.
In our postmodern culture, it’s common to assume there’s probably no such thing as absolute, capital-T truth (truth that’s actually, objectively true)—and that, even if there were absolute truth, we could never know that truth.
First of all, if somebody says, “There’s no such thing as absolute truth,” she’s making a statement that she believes is true. So the statement refutes itself. Kind of like if I were to say, “I can’t speak a single word of English.” Or, “I will not at any time, speak a group of words that rhyme.” The statement refutes itself.
“If somebody says, ‘There’s no such thing as absolute truth,’ she’s making a statement that she believes is true.”
Second, suppose somebody says, “Well, even if there is such a thing as truth, we could never actually know the truth.” How do they know that? How do they know they can’t know the truth? How did they stumble upon the truth that they can’t know the truth? Again, the statement refutes itself.
Truth isn’t something way out there that we could never know. Truth is as approachable as an auto salesman. If you go to a car lot, you’re going to be able to find an auto salesman. In fact, he’ll find you. If you seek hard after truth, you’ll be able to find it.
Here’s an interesting take on truth in this same vein: If the gospel of King Jesus is true, and I believe it is, then truth is more than a set of correct statements about reality. Truth is a series of invitations that point us to Jesus.
Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)
Jesus promises to show himself to those who genuinely seek him in truth. He even calls himself “the Truth” (John 14:6). That’s as audacious a claim as anyone has ever made—but very good news if true.
“That’s as audacious a claim as anyone has ever made—but very good news if true.”
Is truth absolute? Is truth really true regardless of what we believe about it? By definition, yes, and what’s more is that truth is
- as straightforward as a 2nd grader (it tells it like it is)
- as unbending as an umpire (it doesn’t change, even if you want it to)
- as approachable as an auto salesman (if you seek it, you will find it)
So, let’s seek it whatever the cost. As Jesus said, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32).
 Frederick Copleston, Greece and Rome, in A History of Philosophy, Book One (New York: An Image Book, 1985), 22.
 W.K.C. Guthrie, “Pre-Socratic Philosophy,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol. 6, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1972), 441-442.
 C.C.W. Taylor and Mi-Kyoung Lee, “The Sophists,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), ed. Edward N. Zalta http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2014/entries/sophists/.
 Plato, “Book I,” in The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.2.i.html.
 Plato, “Book VII,” in The Republic, trans. Benjamin Jowett http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.8.vii.html.
 Copleston, 114-115.