“There are no absolutes,” one says.
“Are you absolutely sure?” The other might respond.
Those who wish to argue that there are no absolutes must hold to at least one absolute principle: that there are no absolutes. However the very nature of that contradiction proves its falsehood. The statement must be an absolute value that nullifies its own premise. Even if a person is willing to argue that such a statement is the only exemption from the absolute value it presents, there is still another issue that must be resolved. If one exception is permitted, then it is quite likely that there are other exceptions that may not be known. These exceptions might be absolute values, but there is no way to call them illegitimate without jeopardizing the entire argument that they cannot exist. If no exceptions are permitted, then the statement that there are no absolutes is not allowed. It is once again proven to be false. Thus it is impossible to make a valid argument that there are no absolutes.
Many Christians like to use this argument to counteract claims that a person can choose to believe whatever he wants. “God has given us absolute truth,” they say, unaware of the pompous implications of such a statement. For if God has revealed truth in its absolute form, it is quite likely that no individual is intelligent enough to fully comprehend it. From another angle, if God is an absolute truth, or if truth exists independently of a god, the argument for its existence is still quite complicated.
Those who wish to argue that there are absolutes must hold to at least one in-absolute principle: that there are absolutes. Unlike the first claim, the in-absolute nature of the existence of absolutes is not contradictory. For only one absolute needs to exist to validate the statement. However, the claim itself cannot be said to be one of the absolute principles. That would make the claim irrelevant owing to the fact that a person who did not create absolutes and cannot completely define them proclaims them to be. If the absolute claim of an individual had any relevance, it would rob the absolute values of their nature. Thus, no individual is qualified to make the absolute argument that absolutes exist.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make an in-absolute argument for absolutes based upon deductive observation. However, since this observation is always incomplete, the one who makes it cannot necessarily elaborate on what the absolute principles might be. Thus, those who argue for their existence must inevitably believe themselves to be wrong on two accounts. First, their claim itself cannot legitimately be one of the absolutes. They must admit the possibility that their observation is incomplete and therefore absolutes may not actually exist. Second, the one who claims that absolutes exist cannot claim more than the barest inkling of knowledge about what they are. Only two individuals can claim exemption from this standard. The first has the audacity to believe that every person determines their own absolutes, but this foolishness is not even worth criticising. The second (and much more rare individual) has the right to identify an absolute because it originates with him.
This, brings the argument full circle. If absolutes do not exist, it is impossible to claim this to be so without creating an absolute. If absolutes do exist, it is impossible for any person to make this claim in an absolute sense without making absolutes subject to the individual and violating their very nature.
If absolute truth exists, it must do so independently of whatever any individual might happen to perceive of it. If absolute truth does not exist, there is no sense in trying to prove that to be so. Yet, both arguments are commonly used by individuals to prove the legitimacy of their belief one way or the other.
This reveals the value of the argument. First, it shows that individuals believe that truth exists in some form and wish to find it. Second, it shows that an assumption of absolute truth is much more helpful and legitimate than challenging its existence. For even though the statement that absolutes exist cannot be made absolutely or defined by any one individual, it still does not contradict itself or prove its own illegitimacy.
Building upon the assumption that absolute truth exists, two more observations can be made from the disagreement. If absolute truth exists, it must do so independently of the individual, as previously described. This leads to a second observation that absolute truth cannot be absolutely known. No matter how profound its effect upon an individual, absolute truth can never be fully known.
Consider Plato’s idea of pure form. That which is observed is only a representative of that which it is modeled after. The form is the absolute. The physical representation of that spiritual form reveals something of its nature, but never the full reality. If such forms exist, their various representations are all corrupted, but by studying them one may learn something about the nature of the pure form. According to this reasoning, it would be ignorant to argue that a certain representation was the form itself. By nature of their quantifiable existence, all representations fall short.
At this point it would be a fascinating diversion to spend some time considering the way in which mankind is a representation of God. According to Genesis, people are made in the image and likeness of God, and according to Romans have fallen short of His glory. Is it possible that Jesus was the perfect representation of the form of God? Perhaps this would be a worthy question to explore further, but for sake of space, let us continue with the assumption that all representations fall short.
Such an observation leaves the seeker of truth in the uncomfortable position of recognizing that everything he believes or sees is something other than the absolute form it represents. If truth is absolute, its versions are nothing more than alterations, aberrations, errors, and misunderstandings. As David Mitchell would say, “truth is singular, its versions are untruths.” So even the assumption of absolute truth cannot support the opinions of one individual at the expense of another. They are all wrong.
I will give two illustrations of this. The first is the mathematical principle of zero. Zero is a number that does not exist for it can be infinitely approached without ever being reached. Though it cannot be understood or seen (“zero is the absence of…”), its impact upon the function of mathematics is profound. Its effects are indisputable. To claim its existence is not necessary. To claim its nonexistence is impossible. Yet, before the Arabs discovered or quantified it, no one seemed to be aware that it existed. Does that mean the Arabs created zero? Or, is it possible that the little oval shape they used to represent the concept describes something far more complex than anything people have imagined so far? I would suggest that zero is an absolute represented by a symbol that is useful for many things, but cannot be fully known.
A second illustration comes from the world of writing. Plato feared that the written word would corrupt the mind. For, he said, “those who know what a word means and those who don’t both throw it around as if it means whatever they want it to”.1 The author knows the idea that his words were meant to convey, but the reader can only guess at the truth that inspired the words on the page. In this example, the author is the creator of an absolute: the idea he wanted to communicate. With skill, the writer can communicate this absolute more effectively, and the perceptive reader may come close to understanding the idea intended by the author (the absolute). But once again, the words are only representations of the idea that can never be fully known in the way the author intended.
The same phenomenon occurs with music and painting. The absolute value exists, but reveals certain aspects of itself to different people. There is no denying that it is there, but determining what it is, can be very difficult if not impossible. The unique context of the painter and the observer almost guarantee that both will see a different meaning in the same piece of art. Whose interpretation is correct? Perhaps it is the creator’s, but I would be more inclined to propose that once again they are both wrong. Art in itself is only a representation of some absolute that is more profound and yet unknown to either the creator or observer. It is their privilege, if they choose, to take part in this sacred mystery, yet it would be foolish for either of them to claim that they fully understand the art.
Yet, the search for meaning should not be abandoned. The connoisseur of art can sharpen his senses to be more discerning of beauty. The reader can familiarize herself with nuances of an author – the context, and the language of his works. The mathematician can make use of what cannot be explained: symbols that represent mysteries and impossibilities. The seeker of truth can come closer to an understanding of what it is, or perhaps develop an ability to interact with it.
Imagine, for example, a sphere that is built around a single point at the very center. That point represents an absolute. Each person is somewhere on the edge of the sphere peering in at the infinitely small point that is the absolute center of the sphere. Each one may think he sees the center from his particular vantage point. To claim that the center exists is wise. To claim to know what it looks like is nothing more than assumption and perspective. Those on the left perceive a completely different image than those on the right. It would be worthwhile to take the time to explore the center from multiple angles and to honor the perspective of those individuals who have well-developed senses for depth and perspective. Even those who cannot see the center still know it’s here and in some ways rely on its existence to make sense of their location on the sphere. Through the use of mathematics one can theoretically discover exactly where the center is and describe its characteristics. Certain mathematical functions will work because they represent the absolute center. They are not the absolute center, but are helpful in understanding and working with it. Equations that fail to resolve do not reflect the center as it is currently understood and must be discarded or refined accordingly.
In contrast to the theoretical center, the physical center of the circle can never be reached. For continually cut the distance between the observer and the center in half, and the center will remain infinitely far away. To assume that this means there is no center is to defy logic. Likewise to propose that the center can be wherever one wants it to be is nothing more than semantics. If I call the side the center, that simply makes communication more difficult. The blurring of terms is neither helpful nor constructive. Similarly, to claim that one particular view of the center is most accurate has two negative effects. First, it prevents the one who makes that claim from seeking a fuller understanding of the truth, and second, it discourages others to stop looking themselves.
Those who wish to grow in their knowledge of the absolute center, must first be willing to abandon the appearance of knowledge. Once they have recognized their ignorance and perhaps the impossibility of their quest, they will be able to leave behind their current perspective of the center. While fully aware of its value, they also recognize the limitations of their perspective. Neither will they be deceived by those who claim that one perspective of the center is more correct than another. Instead they will invite many others to share in the development of their perspective. By doing so they risk becoming more confused in their judgement, but once they have worked through the confusion, they will find that the juxtaposition it created has brought them closer to the center – or at least to a better understanding of it.
This understanding does not make itself known by an awareness of knowledge, but rather by a light that reveals the ignorance of those who dare expose themselves to its searching depths. For this reason, it is necessary for each person to begin his search for absolute truth in a spirit of humility. This can be done with an in-absolute assumption of absolute truth: that there may be no such thing as the absolute center, but that if there is, it exists somewhere beyond definition and control. Those who confidently proclaim the validity of their beliefs seem to have acquired some kind of knowledge or control that remains a mystery to the rest of humanity. However, it is their counterparts, who are keenly aware of their own ignorance that most likely have the clearest perspective on the truth. This would explain why the wise store their knowledge in deep places from which few can draw. This is why the glory of God is to conceal a matter, but the heart of kings is to search it out. Truth cannot be taught, only discovered. While its nature may never be fully known, the one who is humble enough to constantly seek its elusive absolute will find the journey to be a reward in itself.
The greatest treasure, rarest find; its value deep in vaults of time.
So, that worth seeking often hides beyond the reach of simple minds.
Where only by the journey can the seeker be the key.
Unlocked in growing character to safely wield its sacred mystery.
Thus, knowledge waits, its power kept; for only those whose use could bless.
– CMH “Hidden Knowledge”
1 Phaedo 91.