Truth: Objective or Relative?

When it comes to truth, it seems the most popular theory within the public square  is relativism, which says that truth is relative to the individual making the claim and that there is no objective truth which applies to everyone. I have had many conversations at work where the conversation abruptly ends with the comment: “well, that’s true for you.” This is a non-starter for this type of conversation. Ironically, if we apply relative truth claims to the world around us, it becomes clear that it is unlivable. For example, while crossing a street, it is either true or false that a car is coming towards me. What I believe about the car is quite irrelevant. Some relativists would agree with this claim, seeing that being run over by a car will easily defeat my belief that there is no car present.

When thinking about truth claims, it’s helpful to remember that it’s possible for a statement to refute itself. This means that in order for the statement to be true, it must be false. For example, the statement “No sentences have five words” refutes itself. What’s wrong with this statement? It has five words. But since the statement is a universal exclusive, it rules out all sentences, including itself, and consequently has refuted itself. Here is another example of a self-refuting statement: “This statement is false.” If the statement is true, then it is false by its own definition. But if it’s false, then it’s not false, because it claims to be so (it’s the equivalent of a double negative). This is quite nonsensical and unintelligible.

According to the law of non-contradiction, a statement and its negation can’t both be true at the same time and in the same sense. Interestingly, if this law of logic is applied to the statement a relativist makes about truth: “Truth is relative,” it becomes apparent that this is a violation of the law. This is an objective statement about the nature of truth. Therefore, the statement: “Truth is not relative” cannot be true at the same time that the statement “Truth is relative” is true. If there’s no objective truth, then this statement does not apply. If it does not apply, then we don’t need to listen to it. If it does apply to everyone, then it is an objective statement, which it claims does not exist! So, it’s the same thing as the false statement mentioned earlier, and is just as unintelligible.

Another option regarding truth is to say it is objective, or that some truths apply all of the time, and in all circumstances. This claim does not have the same problem as the previous claim: namely, it does not refute itself. It also doesn’t violate the law of non-contradiction. But does it have better arguments in its favor?

Every day, we live with a belief in objective claims. Life would be unlivable without them: a red traffic light means to stop. If everyone suddenly decided that this was just an arbitrary, relative claim, traffic accidents would occur at numerous intersections. While this isn’t a conclusive argument, it’s a decent start.

Another good argument for the objective nature of truth is the discipline of science. Mathematicians discover objective formulas frequently. Imagine a scientist in a lab having to re-work the equations he came up with yesterday, just to be certain they still applied. He could never apply a proven formula to a new situation without re-working the entire formula. In fact, no one could demonstrate the objectivity of any formula or law.

One last argument for objectivity of truth is the self-evident proof. This is the same as a self-refuting truth claim, only in reverse. This statement can’t be denied without assuming it’s true while denying it. For example, if you call into a darkened room, “Anyone home?” and an answer responded “Nope, no one here!” you would have proof someone is there, even though the response said otherwise. The denial is now the confirmation someone is there. For the same logical reason, it becomes apparent that truth isn’t relative. You cannot claim it to be relative, and a denial that it is objective is proof of its objectivity. In the end, an understanding of truth as objective is both livable and logical. Because of this, truth cannot be relative to each individual.

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