Is truth absolute or relative?
Examples of many kinds of
|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:
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
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.
|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:|
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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