Is truth absolute or relative?
Examples of many kinds of
truth -- moral and otherwise
The word "truth" has different meanings in different situations. Consider the
||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.
||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:
||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.
||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
The arrangements of continents, oceans,
seas, and lakes would be much as they appear today.
||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.
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.
|Theology 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
||Muslims and Jews will answer that
there is but one God and he is indivisible; a unity.
||Most Christians will answer that a single personal God
is composed of three persons in the form of a Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
||Many strong Atheists will answer none.
||Agnostics would probably refuse to
guess, saying that there is no way to know.
||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
||Most Hindus will answer that millions of Gods and Goddesses
exist. However, they represent different aspects of the single deity.
||Zoroastrians will answer: two: one
wholly good and one utterly
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.
More examples of "truth":
|Morality 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:|
||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:
||The Bible is inerrant.
||Most Bible passages should be interpreted literally.
||All Bible passages are useful for personal instruction.
||The Ten Commandments, and other
biblical passages, tell us not to murder.
||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
||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:|
||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.
||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).
||Various Biblical passages should be interpreted literally, symbolically, as
religious propaganda, as imported from surrounding Pagan cultures, or in other ways.
||Natural and human sciences have generated much knowledge that we can use in developing
moral responses to current societal problems.
||The Bible is an unreliable source of scientific knowledge.
||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.
- H.W. House, Ed., "Divorce
and remarriage: Four Christian views," InterVarsity Press,
reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online bookstore.
- 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.
Copyright © 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on
Latest update: 2015-NOV-29
Written by: B.A. Robinson