UNBOXED: Absolute & Relative Truth

Hegel, one of the more influential modern European Philosophers, saw the history of human thought as a battle between dogmatism and skepticism, between absolute “black and white” and relative “shades of grey” understandings of truth.  Those who argue for absolute truth say that some beliefs are true regardless of place, time, or perspective, while those who argue for relative truth say human truth is never absolute, but varies by perspective and degree.

Hegel saw Aristotle and Heraclitus of ancient Greece as the first philosophers to embody these two sides in the history of human thought.  Unfortunately, Hegel was rather Eurocentric, and gave Egyptian and Indian thought little consideration, and Chinese thought none at all, though he could have found this dynamic in these places and others.  Examining these two sides of human thought tells us much about the human mind, as well as the positions we each take in our everyday thinking.

Aristotle argued that genuine knowledge, unlike mere opinion, must be eternal and universal, true in all times and places.  For Aristotle, if something is genuinely true, it is exclusively true and cannot be false at all, just as if something is genuinely good, it is exclusively good and cannot be bad at all.  Aristotle argues that it is the job of the philosopher to distinguish the true from the false and the good from the bad using reason, and that without absolute truth, nothing can be said with certainty.

Heraclitus, a far more skeptical thinker than Aristotle, argued that human understandings are always relative and limited, and wisdom shows us that we can always improve our perspective.  Heraclitus argues that experts who acquire knowledge often become proud and ignorant, believing their perspective to be absolute, forgetting that they only see part of the picture.  While we want certainty, this can limit our perspective such that we do not open up to perspectives outside and opposed to our own.  What is true in one perspective may be false in another, just as what is good for someone may be bad for someone else.  Heraclitus argues that it is the goal of the wise to encompass all perspectives as much as possible, rather than be certain that one is on the single and simple side of truth.

One of the questions I am often asked by students is, “Can’t we take both sides?”.  The truth is that we find ourselves on both sides everyday.  Sometimes we want to defend beliefs, traditions and authorities, explaining away counterexamples, and other times we want to doubt and question them, drawing attention to counterexamples.  Learning and questioning the positions of thinkers on both sides strengthens the mind we use to take these positions ourselves.

Aristotle believed that the ancient Egyptians were masters of acquiring knowledge, and he defended what they and he did as genuine.  However, we also find Ptahhotep, vizier to the Pharaoh of Egypt, sounding much like Heraclitus, two thousand years earlier, saying:

“Do not be proud of what you know, nor boast that you are wise.  Talk to the foolish as well as the wise, for there is no limit to where wisdom can be found.  Good speech is rare like a precious jewel, yet wisdom is found amongst the maidens at the grindstone”.

Aztec poets questioned the existence of the gods, the afterlife, and the possibility of knowledge.  In the Discourses of the Elders, a text Aztec students would study, it says:

“Do we possess any truth?  If not, our song is no longer true.  Is anything stable and lasting?”.

If the dynamic between the Aztec poets and priests was anything like that between theologians and bishops in the Catholic Church, the Aztec priests told the poets to quiet down, revere the gods and perform the rituals.

In ancient India, Gotama and his Nyaya school took the position of Aristotle, constructing forms of deductive proof and defending traditional Hindu dogmas, while the Jains and Buddhists took the position of Heraclitus, arguing that all human understandings are partial and mortal.  Some modern scholars argued that the Buddha was in fact Heraclitus, and others that Heraclitus was in fact the Buddha, because the two had remarkably similar lives and philosophies.  Both were believed to be in line for kingship, but renounced the throne to be sages, and both said that everything changes continuously like a river.  It is likelier that they were two individuals in two different places, taking similar positions against absolute knowledge in the name of wisdom.

In ancient China, Confucius, like Aristotle, argued that studying the trusted sources of knowledge and learning to distinguish the true from the false is the way of the scholar, while the Daoists, like Heraclitus, argued that we often mistake our perspective for the whole, and what appear to be exclusive opposites are in fact one and the same thing.  Zhuangzi, the second patriarch of Daoism, sounds remarkably like Heraclitus, using differences between animals and humans to illustrate the importance of perspective.

Today, the same positions found in Aristotle, Heraclitus and throughout the ancient world define the central debate in Philosophy of Science.  Positivists argue that scientific fact is exclusively objective and confirmed, while Pragmatists argue that scientific theories and models are useful descriptions and tools, but not complete explanations that are final or unimprovable.

We have acquired so much knowledge and technology throughout human history, and yet it still remains valuable to take one side or the other of this endless debate depending on whether we want things to be questioned or unquestioned, whether we want things to change or remain the same.  When we want certainty, relativity makes us insecure, but when we want change, certainty makes us claustrophobic.  Exercising both sides of our minds gives us the ability to consciously take better positions, make better arguments, and be better human beings.

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