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Is truth absolute or relative?

Examples of many kinds of
truth -- moral and otherwise

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Examples of "truth":

The word "truth" has different meanings in different situations. Consider the following examples:

bullet Mathematics: In math, we use symbols to represent the real world. Often a statement is true simply because we define it as true. For example, when people are using the decimal system, the statement "1 + 1 = 2" is true because we define 1 to represent a single item, and 2 to represent a pair of items. Two singles make a double. The statement is true, within the decimal system, because we define it to be true.

However, not everyone uses the decimal system. Some mathematicians, computer programmers etc., may use a different number notation. For example, in the binary system there are only two values, 0 and 1. Almost all computer hardware is ultimately based on this counting method. "1 + 1 = 2" is obviously a false statement, because the digit 2 does not exist in binary notation. A true statement is "1 + 1 = 10." Again, this is true because we define 1 to represent a single item, and 10 to represent a couple of items. Two singles make a double. 10 in binary is equal to 2 in decimal. The statement is true, within the binary system, because we define it to be true.

Thus, in mathematics, one cannot consider "1 + 1 = 2" to be an absolute truth. It is only true within certain numbering schemes. Tertiary (a base of 3), octal (base 8), decimal (base 10), hexadecimal (base 16) notations are four commonly used systems where the relationship is true. Scientists sometimes avoid the use of the word "truth" and talk about things being valid or invalid. A statement is "valid" if it is true within a certain, pre-defined mathematical system.
bullet Geology: The purpose of this science is to understand and describe the physical, chemical, radioactive and other processes that are responsible for the appearance, shape, chemical makeup etc. of the earth. Here, a statement is "true" if it corresponds with reality.

Today, there is a conflict in North America between among geologists. Fewer than 1% of them -- almost all Christian conservatives -- are Creation Scientists,  Almost all of them regard the Bible as inerrant, and inspired by God. They further believe that the Bible should be interpreted literally wherever possible. These beliefs cause many of them to interpret selected observation in terms of "scientific creationism" - a belief that the world was created by God fewer than 10,000 years ago. The remaining 99+%, who represent a wide range of religious groups, (Humanism, Atheism, Christianity, secularism, etc.), support theistic evolution or naturalistic evolution. Supporters of evolution typically believe that the crust of the earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago, that the earliest detectable forms of life were present about 3.5 billion years ago, and the universe itself is on the order of 15 billion years old.

If one asks the question: "Did the earth exist in more or less its present form 20,000 years ago?" we might come up with answers from three sources:
bullet Creation scientists will typically say: "No." Most of them are believers in a "new earth." The world did not exist 20 millennia ago because it was created by God fewer than 10 thousand years ago. Many would argue that the Bible implies this in the book of Genesis, if it is interpreted literally.

bullet The vast majority of geologists will typically say: "Yes." The world developed a crust about 4 billion years ago. Plate tectonics, wind erosion, water erosion and many other physical processes produced the world as we see it today. Also, the earth's rotational speed has been continuously reduced due to tidal forces. But these processes work slowly. With the exception of remarkable events like the explosion of Mount St. Helen, and the near disappearance of ice in the Arctic during summer, the earth looks today much as it did in 8,000 BCE. The arrangements of continents, oceans, seas, and lakes would be much as they appear today.

bullet Personal experience: There might be a third approach, someday. If time travel becomes possible, then a person could enter a time machine, set the dial for 8,004 BCE or earlier, go back to that date and look to see if the world existed. If he/she were able to return to the present time, then we would know which answer is correct -- at least we would know if we could trust the time-traveler.

Underlying the conflicting beliefs held by geologists and creation scientists is a reality. There is a correct answer, and it is either yes or no. Absolute truth can exist in science. Many statements have only two possible answers: true or false. Those statements which agree with reality are true, whereas others conflict with reality and are not true. However, the existence of absolute truth does not guarantee that a consensus can be reached among everyone. Reality -- particularly what has been real in the past -- cannot always be proven to the satisfaction of everyone.

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bulletTheology and philosophy: Some questions are similar to those raised in geology. For example, one might ask "How many deities exist in the universe?" By itself, the question is slightly ambiguous. We have to define exactly what a deity is. One possible definition is:  "a deity is a living entity with a personality who has the ability to create material out of nothing, and to influence natural processes by power of their mind only." Armed with such a definition, you might ask a group of people for the total number of deities. You might get seven answers:

bullet Muslims and Jews will answer that there is but one God and he is indivisible; a unity.

bullet Most Christians will answer that a single personal God exists, who is composed of three persons in the form of a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

bullet Many strong Atheists will answer none.

bullet Agnostics would probably refuse to guess, saying that there is no way to know.

bullet Many Wiccans will say that there is a dual divinity: a Goddess and a God. However, others would say that only one deity exists and that the Goddess and God are female and male aspects of that deity.

bullet Most Hindus will answer that millions of Gods and Goddesses exist. However, they represent different aspects of the single deity.

bullet Zoroastrians will answer: two: one wholly good and one utterly evil.

But underlying these groups' beliefs is a reality. If we had infinite knowledge, we could simply count the number of deities in the universe. And the answer would probably be somewhere between the Atheists' zero and the Hindus' millions. So, for some questions, there exists a true answer that agrees with reality. But many groups of sincere, devout, intelligent followers hold many mutually exclusive beliefs. In the above examples, no matter what reality is, at least five of the seven groups are wrong. One can even imagine a situation in which all eight are wrong. No matter what a person's personal beliefs are, most people in the world would believe it to be wrong.

It is thus quite possible to pose a religious question that has an answer that is absolutely true. However, in this case at least, we have no way of proving which answer is correct.

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More examples of "truth":

bulletMorality and ethics: We live in a religiously diverse society. Within North America, there are many world religions and philosophical systems represented. There are not only differences of opinion between religions; there are conflicts within religions. One specialist has counted over 20,000 different Christian denominations, sects, etc. A liberal Christian, for example, might make a sincere statement of belief that is considered sacrilege by a conservative Christian; and vice versa. These differences inevitably lead to various conflicting beliefs about truth and morality. On just about any current "hot" religious topic, from abortion to women's ordination, one can almost guarantee that Christian conservatives and liberals will hold opposing views. Until recently, the hottest of all religious conflicts in North America was women's access to abortion:

bullet A typical conservative Christian might say that "Abortion is wrong, except perhaps in those rare cases of rape or incest, or where the life of the woman is endangered" This statement is true to that person because it follows naturally from his/her core religious beliefs. Some of these might be:

bullet The Bible is inerrant.

bullet Most Bible passages should be interpreted literally.

bullet All Bible passages are useful for personal instruction.

bullet The Ten Commandments, and other biblical passages, tell us not to murder.

bullet Achieving personhood (i.e. making transition from human life in the form of a sperm and egg which contain human DNA to a human person) occurs at conception.

Given these foundational concepts, one might logically conclude that abortion is generally wrong. Abortion is murder and should be condemned under all or almost all circumstances.

bullet A typical liberal Christian might say that "abortion can be a moral choice; it may be a woman's least worse choice in many cases of unwanted pregnancy." This statement is true to that person because it follows naturally from his/her foundational religious beliefs. These might include the following:

bullet The Bible is a collection of documents written by fallible humans in order to promote the evolving spiritual and theological beliefs of their own faith group.

bullet Many Biblical passages reflect obsolete rules of behavior that society has rejected (e.g. slavery, oppression of women, killing some prostitutes by burning them alive).

bullet Various Biblical passages should be interpreted literally, symbolically, as midrash, as religious propaganda, as imported from surrounding Pagan cultures, or in other ways.

bullet Natural and human sciences have generated much knowledge that we can use in developing moral responses to current societal problems.

bullet The Bible is an unreliable source of scientific knowledge.

bullet Personhood  happens after conception - perhaps when the fetus becomes viable, or when the fetus becomes sentient -- its brain develops to the point when it attains self-consciousness and awareness of its surroundings.

Thus, abortion, particularly if done early in gestation, is acceptable and may be the most moral choice.

Even within a single wing of Christianity, intelligent, sincere, thoughtful, prayerful theologians can reach totally different viewpoints on various questions. For example, InterVarsity Press publishes a book in which four conservative Christian Biblical experts argue mutually exclusive beliefs about the morality of divorce and remarriage. 1 Yet all of the authors believe that their view, alone, is biblically correct. Zondervan publishes a series of books in which many leading Evangelical Christian authors argue what the Bible has to say about important doctrinal matters. Each expert takes an point of view that is different from all the others. Each believes that their view is what the Bible actually means; each might believe that their belief is absolutely true. 2

When a person says that a particular moral statement is true (or false), they seem to be saying that it is congruent (or at variance with) with their own fundamental, foundational beliefs. However. some moral statements seem to be true to some people and false to others.

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  1. book cover H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press, (1990). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online bookstore.
  2. Zondervan has published a series of books on fundamental Christian beliefs. In each book, multiple Evangelical Christians argue opposing viewpoints, each derived from the Bible.

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Copyright 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-NOV-29
Written by: B.A. Robinson

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