Absolutism and Truth

Maybe we should put a little more effort into spotting the difference.

Tom at “Rucksack Radio” recently published an article titled “Toxic Absolutism.”  In it, he presents some observations of our current state of debate and thinking.

Ryan at “Living With Liberty Podcast” recently published a show titled “Let’s Be Truthful.”  In this episode, Ryan spends a good deal of time on men competing in women’s sports and the fact that the “Woman of the Year” is a man.

The notion of absolutes sparked some questions in a private chat group I belong to.  At first, I thought there might be some tension between the idea of universal truth and the argument against absolutism.  After some reflection, I do not believe that is the case.

This is my interpretation, but nowhere in Tom’s article do I find him arguing that there are no universal truths.  Rather, he’s criticizing how many people approach thinking (and debating) about issues in which universal truths (and verifiable information) do not obtain.  He mentions the scientific method and criticizes those that form a hypothesis from observation and adopt that hypothesis as absolute without further experimentation or verification.

When I hear the term “absolutism” I tend to think of the definition offered by Britanica.com:

“absolutism, the political doctrine and practice of unlimited centralized authority and absolute sovereignty, as vested especially in a monarch or dictator. The essence of an absolutist system is that the ruling power is not subject to regularized challenge or check by any other agency, be it judicial, legislative, religious, economic, or electoral.”

What Tom describes is this, to a degree, but his article also describes what I interpret as dogma.

“Dogma” from Webster:

“1a: something held as an established opinion especially: a definite authoritative tenet b: a code of such tenets pedagogical dogma c: a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds 2: a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church”

Put simply, asserting a position as authoritative without adequate supporting data, refusing to allow that position to be questioned, and rejecting out of hand all arguments to the contrary.

Ryan argues (again, my interpretation) that in any species that reproduces sexually, there are two genders.  By all we humans know of biology, this is a true statement.  I would argue that making a true statement, one that is verifiable objectively is not a case of absolutism.

In the industry I work in, men are disproportionately represented.  This is a verifiable truth.  But taking this observation and concluding this is the result of sexism is not.  Sexism could be a factor but it is more likely that there are not very many women that are interested in working in a machine shop, not many women enter the trade.  Adopting either assumption and accepting it as fact without proof is flawed logic, it is assuming a cause based on nothing more than an observation.

The trouble is, the more complex the issue at hand, the less verifiable truth we have.  Complex issues involve multiple assumptions.  To be able to state a position as “true” requires every one of those assumptions to be verified objectively.  This is rarely possible, which is the very reason such complex issues tend to become contentious.

In the two publications noted here, neither author spent much time on the topic but this is at the heart of the disagreement over CRT.  Critical Theory does hold that there are no universal truths.  Critical Theory contends that truth is in the eye of the beholder and that it is informed by the race or gender of the beholder.  Truth changes, according to Critical Theory, depending on the “oppressor/oppressed” status of the individual.  Proponents of CRT accept this as true without so much as a mention of the obvious paradox that they insist there are no universal truths.  CRT is in essence relativism.

Relativism from Webster:

“1a: a theory that knowledge is relative to the limited nature of the mind and the conditions of knowing b: a view that ethical truths depend on the individuals and groups holding them.”

Admittedly, the truth can be a tricky thing to define in concrete terms.  It is generally thought of as those things that belong to the realm of reality, real things, events, and facts.  What is thought of as the truth can also be “a judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true (Webster).” Emphasis mine.

If I walk out in my front yard, hold a hammer out at arm’s length and let go of it, it will fall to the ground.  This is a true statement that doesn’t require much effort to support.  Why?  Because it is an experiment that can be replicated anywhere, by anyone, at any time, with the same result.  Is it ok to question this “truth”?  Sure, question it all you like, perform the experiment as often as you like, and be sure to record the results each time.

However, some things we accept as the truth are not so easily proven.

When the Founders wrote “We hold these truths to be self-evident” they were stating an opinion.  They were saying that our new country would be founded on these views, on these “self-evident” truths.  The fact is, at the time, those “truths” were not universally accepted across the globe, and they are not universally accepted now.

The idea that all citizens should be treated equally before the law is arguably a universally accepted truth here in the United States.  But this was not always the case.  A few centuries ago, women and people of color were not equal before the law.  What we accept as truth can change over time as we learn and grow, but only if we question (and are allowed to question) what we currently accept as the truth.

What I briefly thought might be tension, I now believe is two approaches to the same issue.  It boils down to critical thinking.  Our ability to distinguish between verifiable information and a belief system.  This requires more than drawing conclusions from observations and more than accepting an article of faith without question.


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