Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Absolute confusion

By Steve Rensberry

"There are no absolutes."

"Everything is relative."

Both of these statements, uttered with any kind of sincerity, are but lightning rods for criticism. The response generally is along the lines that it is illogical and self-contradictory, requiring the person to assume to be true the very thing they are saying is untrue. No one can logically deny that absolutes exist, they say.

The charge however is disingenuous and for all practical purposes irrelevant. Why? Because the meaning and existential truth of a statement is one thing and its temporal or structural consistency is another. The preponderance of evidence also shows the nature of proof to be nebulous at best.

To say absolutely that absolutes -- or any specific entity or thing for that matter -- do not exist, certainly seems to lend itself to being self-referentially inconsistent. By implication, it is suggested, the person who says that absolutes do not exist is saying there is at least one that does, that being the one that says there are no others.

The problem is that the person who says that absolutes do in fact exist unknowingly makes the very same kind of statement, also by implication. That being that there is no evidence anywhere which can be used to prove that absolutes do not exist. Certainly a person would need to see or be everywhere to know such a thing with certainty, would they not? Logically, mathematically and in terms of being self-referentially inconsistent it fits the very same pattern.

Any statement for that matter which claims that something either exists or does not exist is, at the same time, making a negative existential statement by implying there is no thing or piece of evidence anywhere which proves the contrary.

Let me make three points:

First, all statements of being must of necessity presume to be outside the reality to which the subject matter exists. When we think about thinking for instance, or reflect upon ourselves reflecting, we break the loop only by presumptively stepping outside the realm of our own thoughts in order to assert some kind of objective statement about those thoughts. The nature of consciousness makes it imperative that we do so.

Second, every statement about being hinges on presumptions about existence, the trustworthiness of a person's senses, the nature of matter and time, and so forth -- presumptions that are always beyond proof in the absolute sense -- either from a logical or a materialistic standpoint. I can take an apple and place it in your palm, but you must still presume your senses to be telling you the truth and presume that what looks and tastes like an apple truly is an apple and not some kind of metaphysical, molecular impostor.

Every moment of every day we're busy trusting in what our limited, imperfect human senses are telling us. Trusting that no universe besides this one exists. Trusting that what exists now has this or that characteristic. Trusting that the concepts of logic and time and existence really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Third, the nature of the concept of absolutes puts it on thin ground from the beginning. If, for instance, the something we're talking about is of a brute physical and material nature like, say, a 200-pound chunk of granite rock, or a human being, then it's not too difficult to provide the kind of evidence for its existence that most people would agree on. Tiny, microscopic creatures on the level of an amoeba would take the assistance of a powerful microscope to detect -- but are still in the realm of revealing evidence. However, it's a whole different matter when that subject is something akin to an invisible, telepathic creature from another side of the universe, capable of being communicated with on that same telepathic level.

A person quite obviously could claim that no such 200-pound chunk of granite exists anywhere, but all it would take would be for one person to round up just one such rock to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, if that same person claimed that there was indeed such a thing as an invisible, telepathic creature from the far reaches of the universe who communicated with us earthlings, would they be able to prove it? I don't think so. Disproving them wrong may be equally difficult, though the burden of proof is arguably on the person making the claim.

Critics of relativism like to point to the self-referential inconsistency of the statement "absolutes do not exist" as though it somehow offers proof that they do in fact exist. But the assertion is a fundamental misrepresentation of what relativists believe. All the person is saying when they postulate that absolutes do not exist is that within the limited boundaries of human understanding and knowledge, the evidence in favor of relativism appears stronger than the evidence in favor of absolutes. They are saying that from the position of a hypothetical being outside the constructs of this theoretical thing we call the universe, it is presumptuous to claim absolute certainty. Not absolutely presumptuous, but rationally so given the weight of evidence available to finite human beings.

Carl Sagan on God, Faith and Religion