The Problem of Absolute Truth: When Epistemology and Reality Collide

I have been contemplating the issue of absolute truth over the last couple weeks. I have come to realize that this idea is possibly one of the most dangerous mankind has ever had given what it enables people to do: namely, to Know, with a capital K. This is an issue that deserves the attention of the skeptical and non-religious community because I think that we often fail to properly explain the worldly impact and importance of a skeptical worldview. Given that opposing worldviews have had and will continue to produce real-world consequences we must all deal with, I think it is something worth addressing explicitly. With this article, I will flesh out, in what I hope is a clear and concise way, a simple understanding of the concepts involved and the impact these concepts have on the world at large. After examining the difference between knowing and Knowing, we will dive in to some of the problematic consequences of the latter in contrast to the former. What I mean by Knowing (Knowledge), in contrast with knowing (knowledge) as generally defined in the traditional sense, is as follows:

  • def. (1): to Know:  Possessing the truth with absolute certainty. This form of knowledge is unassailable in principle, based on the perceived authority of that knowledge’s source. This sort of Knowledge is not contingent and can never, in principle, be altered or changed.
  • def. (2): to know: Having justified reason to hold a true belief. While there are many competing epistemological models that attempt to demarcate when a held belief moves to the status of being known, they generally require something along the lines of justified, true belief. (I should note that this is not held as sufficient as stated within the philosophical discipline of epistemology – the philosophical branch dealing with knowledge and belief - owing to the nature of what it means to be justified in believing a given proposition, but this definition will suffice for our current needs). This sort of knowledge is contingent and can, in principle, be altered or changed.

I do not want to get swept into epistemological debates regarding the particular instances when we can be justified in claiming to know something. I am aiming to capture our common sense intuitions and practices regarding what it normally means to be able to assert that we know something, without being challenged unduly. There is plenty of room here to maneuver philosophically, but it is irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

Practical Differences

Notice that many of the things that we would normally hold to Know could, in fact, be undermined if presented with sufficient evidence to the contrary. For an example, I know that the sun will rise tomorrow (or, perhaps more accurately, the Earth’s rotation will bring the Sun back into view over my portion of the planet – here’s looking at you, Steven). I have absolutely no reason not to believe that this is not true. I imagine most of us could produce a list of examples of similar certainty that would seem completely unassailable under normal conditions.

The key caveat is “normal conditions”. In the sunrise example, I could be presented - sometime after sunset – with alarming evidence from the other side of the planet that the sun has spontaneously turned into a black hole. Given that the sun’s mass remains the same (even if it is a bit more exciting from the perspective of astronomical physics), we night-time revelers would notice no change in the Earth’s orbit or rotation, but I could be shown a myriad of data that would justify the belief that the sun will never again rise over the planet Earth.

Despite the fact that my experiences and education during my lifetime have given me ample reason to believe the sun will rise tomorrow, there is no reason in principle that something or someone could not undermine that knowledge, demoting it to mere falsely-held belief. If I am shown astronomical data that supports the theory that the sun is now a black hole, along with video evidence of the sun rapidly disappearing into the darkest of darks, then I would be amiss not to modify my worldview accordingly. (Not that it would matter for very long, given our dependence on the sun for the little things, like staying alive).

Contrast this contingent knowledge with absolute Knowledge. Given the nature of Knowledge, it cannot generally be dependent on the facts of the world, as facts about the world have a nasty habit of changing. We can find examples of Knowledge within certain systems, such as those of logic or mathematics. Given a set of axioms, or grounding principles, we can establish with 100% certainty any number of truths, such as that of the Pythagorean Theorem.

There is simply no way for a triangle to deviate from this truth under the axioms of Euclidean geometry. If you arrive at a different conclusion, a mathematician can be certain that you have made a mistake somewhere along the way. This sort of Knowledge is useful because it allows us to esatblish future developments on rock-solid ground. At no point will Euclidean geometry cease to yield the results it has for the last few thousand years (within the realm of pure mathematics), so we never have to worry that the truths we arrive at will somehow degrade over time.

I bring up this benign (indeed, beneficial) example because I do not mean to argue that Knowing is inherently problematic. I hope the worldly benefits mathematical systems have brought us have proven otherwise. However, while granting that Knowledge can be useful, I fear unwarranted beliefs have been granted this status. I’m speaking, of course, of religious belief: particularly the type of belief found within the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. While these are only three of the world’s major religions, they do claim over 3 billion adherents and are the dominant religions on the world stage.

The Problem

We often find these religions claim to have a monopoly on the Truth. While their sister religions - and indeed unrelated religions - may hint at truths the religion in question claims for its own, there is an assumed authority those other religions cannot claim. It is for this reason, for example, that many Christians can acknowledge valuable teachings within Judaism or Islam, but would never grant either of those competing religions a higher epistemological status. If you believe that God’s word is contained within the Bible and that this truth is unalterable, unassailable, and infallible, then in your eyes no other religion will or can hold the status of Knowing that Christianity claims. While Judaism and Islam may strive towards the Truth, but they are doomed from the start.

Finally, we come to the true problem of Knowing: it disallows the possibility of acknowledging that you may be wrong about fundamental truths ostensibly about the world, humanity, and morality. Any belief that is held as Knowledge cannot be challenged, by definition, and these are the sort of ‘truths’ said to be contained within the holy books that nearly half of humanity claims to hold dear. This lays the groundwork for intractable disagreements that will never be resolved so long as both sides claim to Know otherwise and refuse to back down. One need merely look at the tragic history of Jerusalem in order to see what sort of havoc this type of disagreement can wreak.

Knowledge is the sort of belief that drives people to unbelievable acts of self-sacrifice – but also horrendous acts of violence, both mental and physical. I know, as surely as I know the sun will rise tomorrow, that religious conviction has been the impetus to great good and I do not wish to discount those actions. While I may believe these people have acted well towards their fellow man out of a naturally grounded moral instinct, their Knowledge of what needed to be done in God’s eyes is what motivated them in those times and places.

The Outcome

Sadly, this same Knowledge is causally responsible for the death of a large number of people around the world on a daily basis. It is this form of absolute belief that pushes someone to strap on an explosive-laden vest and detonate that vest in the middle of a crowded street, instantly killing themselves and dozens around them. These are people who are overriding one of humanity’s most powerful instincts - self-preservation – in order to mercilessly slaughter their neighbors, and it takes an incredibly powerful belief to get people to act in such a way. The same could be said for abortion clinic bombers, the Westboro Baptist Church, or those against condom use in sub-Saharan Africa (I’m looking at you, pope). Extremists who carry out such actions do so in light of what they Know to be true, and this Knowledge is something that has to be contended with if we ever hope to eradicate extremism and the carnage it brings.

I am a man who holds many things to be true; things I hold with near absolute certainty and by which I live my life. I generally am not in the business of questioning these beliefs without due cause, and so I may look for all practical purposes to Know these things like a religious person Knows that they should fight to the death against the infidel, or should help the sick and the poor. The key difference is that I grant that any belief of mine could be undermined. If such a belief is so undermined, I would then be responsible for addressing this and making any necessary changes based on that change of belief. Again, the sun need not rise tomorrow.

In the end, it comes down to the ability to get through to another person and Knowledge eliminates this possibility. There is a reason that jihadists were able to ignore the pleas of Nick Berg as he was beheaded with a knife in Iraq in 2004, and that reason is the certainty of the religious beliefs that these men held which allowed them to overcome their very humanity. Knowledge of this sort is terrifying because it cannot be reasoned with, pleaded with, or overcome.

So far, this belief has been contained within relatively small outbursts of violence, and thankfully so. This is not to discount the hundreds of thousands that have died because of Knowledge to which their killers claimed to have access. Those victims deserved better than they got. Their lives were taken because of misguided and unfounded ideologies and belief systems that made their deaths necessary in the eyes of their killers. My thankful feeling is merely gratitude that these same people have not gotten hands on the weapons that could take out millions more, or even the entire human race.

A Hope and a Purpose

We are barely children in terms of our cultural advancements. I am not certain we will make it to adulthood, so long as unwarranted Knowledge is held by a majority of the world’s population. We deserve better than false certainty handed down to us by ancient mythologies borne of a time before reason had gained an appreciable foothold in our world. I can only hope that this foothold will allow us to extend the benefits of reason and skepticism around the world, in the face of religious opposition and persecution, as we continue our climb out of the darkness. It is for this hope that I advocate for reason and skepticism. We all need to work to dispel the specter of unwarranted Knowledge from the world and free us from the terrible consequences it causes before we forever lose the chance to do so.

 

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