Tuesday, August 21, 2007

absolute truth vs. objective truth: a brief overview...

The following is an excerpt of a paper I recently wrote on "modern" and "postmodern" views of truth... my basic thesis is that we must properly differentiate between "objective" truth and "absolute" truth if we are to understand the postmodern critique of modern claims to truth and, indeed, further develop our understanding of truth as a whole (especially with regard to faith in God, etc.). Hope you enjoy it!

In his book Overcoming Ontotheology Merold Westphal describes the process by which philosophy has placed faith “in the human capacity to achieve… Truth (i.e. absolute truth).” The "unaided intellect" described in Plato's Phaedo eventually morphs into the rationalist and empiricist views of Descartes and Locke, respectively. Like the Christian apologists who oppose postmodernism, these philosophers did not claim to have absolute knowledge of all Truth. But, they did believe some absolute knowledge was possible (through their own particular system, of course), and whenever they discovered such knowledge, they claimed to know the Truth. For those who hold to the view that the “ideals of correspondence” can be achieved, explains Westphal, “Not even God could know it any better.”

There are good reasons why we should be suspicious of such claims to absolute truth. While we can indeed claim to have knowledge of objective truth, we cannot claim to have knowledge of absolute truth. They are not the same. Drawing on Kant, Westphal reminds us that humans are stuck in time and space, which means our access to the absolute is automatically limited. Additionally, it seems obvious that we will never have the mind of God (unless one believes that we will eventually become God). But, the objector responds, moderns do not claim to know everything, as God does, but simply that what they do know, they know both objectively and absolutely. Postmodernism, however, rejects the claim to absolute knowledge, since to know a thing absolutely would require knowing every aspect of that thing.

Human beings do not have the rational capacity to know every aspect of anything. This has long been a central theme within philosophy, from Hume to Kant to Kierkegaard to Heidegger and now in the postmoderns. Whereas Hegel and the idealists posited achieving knowledge of the absolute through the process of rational thought, and the empiricists asserted that whatever truth can be discovered is only found by examining the sensible world, the philosophies that birthed postmodernism examined both projects and found them wanting.

Let's use the apparently simple example of "grass being green." We quickly realize that what seems absolutely true is, in fact, far from absolute. Is grass green? That depends, first, on whether it is living or dead grass. But aside from this somewhat facetious statement, we now understand, from the study of optics, that what we call "green" is really the result of certain wavelengths of light being reflected to our eyes by the material we call "grass." The reflected wavelengths are what we perceive as the color "green." So, is grass really green? If this simple question becomes so complex, how can we expect anything less from the metaphysical?

The further we develop our science, our technology, and our rational formulae, the more we realize how finite and unknowledgeable we really are. The closer we get to what seems like an absolute truth, the farther that truth seems to slip away from us. It is like the end of the rainbow that is always beyond our field of vision, or the magnet with an opposite charge that darts away from our hand just as we approach and try and grab it. The hubris of humanity is that we are forever assuming that we are closer now to the absolute than we were prior to our latest discovery. But how does one "get closer" to the infinite?

But surely the laws of reason are absolute truths; inescapable facts, like the law of gravity. But even the law of gravity has vastly different effects, depending upon where we are positioned in the universe. Can we be sure that the laws of reason do not operate within the same shifting paradigm? But the laws themselves, surely they do not change! We know that 2+2=4, and A cannot be non-A. Granted. But do these abstract concepts really provide knowledge of the absolute truth about anything? Do they not rather give us varying degrees of certainty about the objective truths we discern? It seems that we confuse our concepts when we claim that absolute and objective truth can be rationally equated. As Westphal says, “We can call our beliefs true when we apprehend the world as we should; but they are not True, since that would require us to apprehend the world as we can’t.”

Postmoderns, affirms Westphal, do not “abandon the distinction between truth and falsity… they are only denying the metaclaim that our truths are Truth.” Postmoderns also take the linguistic turn to mean that “every language is a perspective, and… all our insights are relative to some frame of reference which is itself anything but absolute.” This simply means that “Because we cannot transcend the limited perspective of our location in time and in cultural history, knowledge can never be Truth.”

The common retort here is that such statements amount to a relativization of all knowledge. But in actuality, the result is far more benign. Postmoderns are simply pointing out that objective truth and absolute truth are not synonymous. As Westphal explains, this is the primary confusion in any discussion of truth between those who appropriate and those who oppose postmodernism. The latter believe that “The Truth is that there is Truth, and they assume that to disagree is to say, The Truth is there is no Truth. But… the postmodern claim is different, namely, the truth is that there is no Truth.” In other words, objective truth cannot claim to know absolute truth, no matter how rational it seems or how much evidence there is to support it.

Westphal responds directly to those who would seek to affirm that our knowledge of God (and truth) can be “on a par with God’s own self-knowledge.” Of course, as we have seen, they do not claim to have the same amount of knowledge as God, but access to the same level of knowledge regarding the facts that they can ascertain. They claim to be, according to Westphal, “entirely free from prejudice or perspective, wholly unconditioned by interests and desires, and relative to no human condition.”

What does Westphal say in response? He calls upon “a theologically motivated appropriation of postmodernism [to] challenge this move in all its forms, blatant and subtle.” But why do we need to challenge such a view? Because no matter how rigorous our methodology may be, no matter how disciplined our exegesis, we will never get our theology right, in the sense that our beliefs will “simply correspond to the object they intend…” In other words, even when we discern, believe and rationalize rightly, we still have not understood the mind of God. Again, this does not mean that we are left with "anything-goes" relativism. The postmodern theologian continues to struggle with interpretation, methodology, logic, etc. in order to defend what she believes to be true. But the postmodern theologian does so with the recognition that what we have is always, at best, only objective truth and never absolute.

Westphal uses the metaphor of trying to explain bacteria to a three-year-old child who has scraped her knee, as a way of describing the type of understanding we have about God. Telling the child that "invisible bugs" will make her sick doesn't come close to capturing the Truth of bacteria, but in a way, it is enough truth for the child to properly understand. In the same way, as philosophers, scientists, and - yes - theologians, even when we grasp the truth, we really haven’t discovered the Truth. Like Westphal, I find the postmodern distinction between objective and absolute truth most helpful in describing reality, especially given human finitude and my adherence to the Christian concept of the Fall. But Westphal makes it quite clear that there is still plenty of room for reasonable thinking, even with our limited access to absolute truth. For, as he points out, just because we do not have access to Truth, “does not entail that the Truth has no access to us, or that we should abandon the attempt to determine how best to think about what there is.” His arguments do not support the contention that there is no God, but merely that we are not God!

Clearly, we should not assume that postmodern thinkers are, on the whole, friendly to Christianity. But the effect of many of their arguments has been, as John Caputo has bluntly stated, “to gain a hearing for – God help us – religion and theology, a point that discomforts secularizing postmodernists every bit as much as it discomforts modernist critics…”

This, it seems to me, is one reason why postmodern thought presents Christians with a unique opportunity: It is a philosophical perspective that contains within itself a certain unavoidable angst, regardless of one’s system of belief. As one who deeply appreciates Kierkegaard, I find myself responding in the hope that, like Kierkegaard’s "anxiety," postmodern angst creates the possibility of a genuine step toward faith.

The post-modern critique is meant to be simply that: a critique. Its strength lies in its ability to remind thinkers in all fields of the potential downfall of any claim to certainty; namely, that being certain is not within the realm of human possibility, we only ever achieve an approximation of certainty. Granted, some certainties are more approximate than others, but postmodernism, when kept in check, serves not to disprove objective realities (like gravity and the law of non-contradiction) but merely as a reminder that our understanding of those realities should never become a type of rational certitude which creates within the individual an unbending refusal to examine other options. This attitude should be present in all facets of human life: religion, science, history, politics, psychology, and - yes - even postmodernism itself. That is an important first step, as we begin to traverse our objective, but not absolute, world.


jason6311 said...

You wrote this a few years ago, I realize, but I have just stumbled upon it looking for some perspectives on absolute vs objective truth. A solid entry: simple enough for the neophyte but also compelling enough for the journeyman. Well written! I may peruse some of your other material.

Geoff said...

Thanks, I appreciate it! Take care.