Concepts as Absolute Truth



I was sitting in a Bible study last week and couldn’t help but notice how Christianity is built on a Mount Everest of human-constructed concepts. Within an hour, I heard such phrases as “God is love,” “God is just,” “It’s all about a personal relationship with Jesus,” and “God protects us.” What stands out with these concepts is that they are not beliefs that can be concretely known. Rather, they are statements of faith based on hope. I found myself smugly thinking, “none of these Christian concepts are even demonstrably real!” The implicit conclusion in my thinking is that Christian concepts are illusory, but I – on the other hand – possess concretely “real” beliefs. But this is not true at all.

A concept is an abstract notion, or general idea. Concepts are not regarded as facts, rather they are an amalgamation of ideas that form a basis or conclusion. Unlike an idea which is more akin to a mental inkling, a concept has gone through some fine-tuning with a start and end point. Everyone is guided by concepts in order to make sense of the world. Even the secular person abstracts concepts from this world and acts as if it’s concrete reality. Several secular examples include: (1) there is an inherent worth and dignity in every person, (2) we ought to pursue justice, equity and compassion in human relations, (3) a democratic process through collaboration and cooperation is more valuable than an authoritarian style, and (4) love is real. All four of these examples represent concepts that are abstracted out of “reality” and embraced as possessing some intrinsic real-ness. There are some heavy concepts laced into these four examples that secular people define and defend quite effortlessly. Words like ‘worth’, ‘dignity’, ‘justice’, ‘equity’, ‘cooperation’, and ‘love’ seem real and objective to the secular person, just as it seems for the Christian who utters with supreme confidence “God is love.”

Let’s stick with “love” for just a minute. For the secular person, even something as simple and common as love between two people may seem like an obvious concrete reality, but really, it has no sustenance. All love is, is a feeling abstracted out of a relationship that takes form and shape based upon how one defines “love.” One person may define love as being unconditional and/or a much deeper feeling than affection. Another person may define “love” as a feeling one experiences when they (finally) feel secure and not alone. There are innumerable ways to articulate love, however, we are at an impasse as to any type of precision that makes ‘love’ a concrete reality – it is simply a floating and fleeting concept.


My point is whether it is love, justice, or human worth, these are concepts that we abstract from reality and give it a complexion that appears real and concrete. Just as Christians fight and kill for their abstract concepts (e.g. salvation), so do secular people for the sake of what they think is “right.” Ask ten secular people how to define “justice” and you’ll get eleven different responses. And ask ten Christians to define “image of God” and you will never get two answers that are the same.

Why is this important? It’s important because when we turn concepts into concrete objective reality, we fall victim to tunnel vision that only reveals our “truth,” which results in a type of tribalism that reinforces all-or-nothing and black/white thinking. The Christian falls prey to this when it comes to concepts such as heaven or hell, as well as the secular person when it comes to the concept of justice. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have concepts, because embracing concepts are inevitable. I’m simply encouraging us to not absolutize concepts, because in doing so we invariably retard our capacity to look to other viable possibilities.

Let’s face it, both Christian and secular people abstract from their world concepts that serve to help us make sense and articulate what appear true to us. Concepts, which are abstractions that we presume to mirror reality, are nevertheless our personal mental short-cuts that reflect our values and worldview. Thus, before we do an eye-roll at Christianity’s “delusions,” perhaps the secular person should reflect on their own concepts that are incubated in the same quicksand.


Farewell to Truth

Written over 2 days, with my new Beats headphones blasting Brittany Spears. Finished at Orchard Valley Coffee house in Campbell, CA.

Uselessness of Truth

aaTruth is an unnecessary abstract concept. Truth is simply a semantic notion used as a linguistic placeholder for expressing ‘what is’. All that we know about truth is how to justify beliefs and that the adjective ‘true’ is the word we apply to beliefs we’ve justified. Furthermore, we know a belief can be true without being justified and that’s about all we know about truth. Nietzsche takes us a little deeper by calling truth “a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms – in short, a sum of human relations that have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, translated, and embellished, and that after long use strike people as fixed, canonical, and binding: truths are illusions, metaphors that have become worn-out and deprived of their sensuous force, coins that have lost their imprint and are now no longer seen as coins but as metal.”

Truth is a human construction infused with a meaning because it works. Like Wittgenstein’s ‘language games’, words are part of a language-game that serve as the building blocks for communication. There are many ‘language games’, different activities that we perform using words.  There is no ‘essence’ of language, no single common feature that explains the whole range of its uses. For example, from the 1300s-1600s, the word “nice” meant silly, foolish, or ignorant. If you had called a woman “nice” in the 1500s, you might have been slapped. Now, however, people readily accept the compliment “nice”. What is my point? Humans are the arbiters of the ‘use’ of words and the ‘descriptions’ they point to.

Words are human constructions devoid of ultimate definition residing ‘out there’ that mirrors reality. After all, when I say “snow is white” I cannot point to some Platonic Form in the heavens that gives me the ultimate picture of ‘white-ness’. All that I have are the descriptors and images of ‘white-ness’ such that I can differentiate white from, say, black and orange. Even the letters that make up the word w-h-i-t-e are constructions that could have easily been any number of letter variations to describe the idea of white. ‘White’ could have been just as easily been ‘Dobblewobble’.

Given the abstract linguistic phenomena of ‘truth’, my contention is that we can do without the useless concept of truth. Recall when Pontius Pilate asked the famous abstract question “What is truth”? I would have asked Pontius Pilate, “What is it that you’re interested in? If Pontius Pilate gives me the assumed answer, “I’m interested whether Jesus is guilty,” well then, he’s got an inquiry to conduct. And we know what you can do to conduct an inquiry (i.e. use reason, senses, conduct a trial, etc.). I’m interested in bringing the useless abstractions of truth and reality to local sphere of inquiry. There is no need of ‘truth’. To say “it’s true that this man is guilty” is the same as “this man is guilty.” Thus, Pontius Pilate’s question should have been, “Is Jesus guilty?”, and that’s a question that doesn’t involve any notion of truth.

The Futility of Objectivity

There is no objective truth. Truth is not ‘out there’ such that we can transcend language to a thing-in-itself. Because of this, we have no responsibility to truth or any of its surrogates (i.e. reality). Lacking responsibility to ‘truth’ doesn’t entail that we are forever deluded and lost; to the contrary, liberal values such as justice, freedom and cooperation still exist to be forever chiseled and molded to the benefit of society. Furthermore, we will continue to research, collect data, and conduct inquiries in order to make progress. ‘Progress’, however, is not an ultimate conception that points to ‘reality’, rather it’s a generalization that captures the picture of the flourishing of society.

We can look back to the Enlightenment and see an applicable analogy. When Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers detached moral obligations from divine commands, they did not think that they were revising our moral concepts but that they were describing them more clearly. They were helping us clarify our conception of morality. Morality was never ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. When thinkers of the Enlightenment dissociated moral deliberation from divine commands, their writings did not provoke any notable increase in the amount of immorality. I do not see why the separation of the notion of ‘truth’ from that of ‘reality in itself’ should produce either increased insincerity or a willingness to be deluded.

To assume that objectivity points to a truth or an absolute truth simply makes one intellectually dishonest. Let’s assume I am asked: Did Shakespeare write Hamlet? You may respond, “Yes, all that I have read and that which was taught to me points to the affirmative.” This question, however, is as meaningless as: Are unicorns hollow inside? The question has no definitive and objective answer that we can know for certain. Perhaps now you challenge me and proclaim: “Well, Shakespeare either wrote Hamlet or he didn’t – either it’s true or false.” Wonderful, then which is it? And how will you transport yourself back in time to Shakespeare’s era to get at the objective answer whereby you utilize your senses to locate your definitive answer? You cannot. But you can take the data and inquiries and humbly say, “Based on my research, I have a high degree of certainty that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet.” Using another example, I have a higher degree of certainty that Grover Cleveland was once President of the U.S. compared with a much lower degree of certainty that Alexander the Great once tutored Aristotle. I am very content in freeing myself from the myth of ‘absolute truth’ so that I can leave room for inquiry and search for clearer perspectives.

The distinction I am drawing with the Grover Cleveland example is between ‘truth’ and those ‘beliefs that appear justified’. This is analogous to the contrast between future audiences and present-day audiences. Future audiences, unlike present-day audiences, will presumably have at their disposal more data, or alternative explanations, or simply greater intellectual sophistication. Imagine being in the audience in the early 20th century listening to an academic talk on genetics. The apparent ‘truths’ and ‘reality’ proffered at the lecture are ludicrous in contrast to our present-day audience. Thus, we can talk about ‘beliefs that appear justified’ while leaving out ‘truth-talk’. No historical period has a privileged access to objective truth. Alas, future audiences will continue to evolve and morph ideas for practical purposes.

Science and Provisional Truths

Absolute or objective truths provide comfort and stability for people with insecure worldviews. The danger of absolute truths is that they can be easily weaponized so that one has a feeling of correctness, however delusional they may be. Absolute truths, in Christendom, is what convicted the progressive Galileo and justified the slaughter of thousands through the Crusades. Perhaps it’s time we put absolute and objective truths to rest and employ nonchalant language. As I previously mentioned, speaking in terms of “degrees of certainty” is a more appropriate way to address claims. But I should expound on this more. We have methods of discerning the veracity of claims, of which, science appears to be the most reliable method.

A reasonable definition of science is that it is a method for understanding how the universe (matter, our bodies and behavior, the cosmos, and so on) actually works. In addition, Michael Shermer states science is a collection of methods that produce “a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation.” The key word in both of these definitions is “method.” It is precisely this method that overturned the thought that the continents are static, when actually they move at the same rate that our fingernails grow. It is this method that helped Edwin Hubble show that the universe is expanding when it was previously believed to be static as well. It is also this method that helped Watson and Crick discover the structure of DNA, when so many before thought that the genetic material was a protein. The examples are never-ending, from advancements in medicine, technology and architecture; science has been the most reliable method to help us get to the best way of knowing the facts.

Scientific truth is never absolute, but provisional: there is no bell that rings when you’re doing science to let you know that you’ve finally reached the absolute and unchangeable truth and need go no further. As the philosopher Walter Kauffman explained, “What distinguishes knowledge is not certainty but evidence.” Furthermore, Scientific truths are transitory, some (but not all) of what we find is eventually made obsolete, or even falsified, by new findings. That is not a weakness but strength, for our best understanding of phenomena will alter changes in our way of thinking, our tools for looking at nature, and what we find in nature itself. What moves science forward is ignorance. The danger of absolute truth is that is puts an end to further inquiry and questioning. Why? Because the “truth” has been found and there is further need for progress. Science on the other hand, looks at theories as provisional and keeps the quest for understanding alive.

Truthfulness is Not Extinct

Denying truth does not in any way prevent me from speaking to virtues like truthfulness, sincerity, exactness, and trust. We can deny truth and still have, for example, a judicial system that exacts justice with uses of reason, justification, and inquiry. Creating a climate of trust can be cultivated in any group or society where open dialogue is free to flourish. I agree with Greek economist Yanis Varoufakis when he said, “I have a deep belief in the capacity for human minds to work things out for themselves if they don’t have to live in terror.” This type of liberal ideal that Varoufakis captures elevates cooperation and a social dialogue which [can] propel societies toward progress. Justice, for example, doesn’t have a [T]ruth to it or an ultimate conception in the mind of God – nor does it need an ultimate foundation – yet we can still use reason, shared agreement and inquiry to establish a rule of law. Lastly, the denial of truth doesn’t take away meaning from expressions. Ideas like justice, fairness and integrity have meaning if you give it meaning. There is no current debate if honesty, for example, is amoral or not; to the contrary, it is held in high esteem because of a shared agreement.

To be fair, my opponent might retort: But what if I deny truth and choose to live a life based on conniving and deceiving? Well, if you cannot be trusted then I would ask if you are you ready to accept the dire consequences of a conniving life? Consider the sleepless nights, fractured relationships, and the constant looking over your shoulder while always in the back of your head wondering when you’ll get found out. I have no doubts that the hedge fund managers who conned millions of dollars through Ponzi schemes had restless and angst-filled lives deep within them, even though they appeared confident. Society has mechanisms to expose these types of people. Every society that has ever existed has had to channel and subdue certain aspects of human nature – greed, territorial violence, avarice, deceit, laziness, cheating, etc. – through social mechanisms and institutions. Social mechanisms have uncovered that generalizations such as truthfulness, sincerity and exactness carry a high currency that is cached out in society for the purpose of increased flourishing.

 Addressing Relativism

With the conception of truth that I am defending, it is common to assume that I am advocating relativism. My aim, however, is to propose a view that takes an ethnocentric shape which seeks solidarity in a climate of ideas where “unforced agreement” thrives as opposed to “objectivity”. Before moving on, I will quickly unpack three current views commonly referred by the name relativism.

The first view says that every belief is as good as every other. The second view says that “true” is an equivocal term, having as many meanings as there are procedures of justification. The third view, which I subscribe to, is that there is nothing to be said about either truth or rationality apart from descriptions of the familiar procedures of justification which a given society – ours – uses in one or another area of inquiry. The pragmatist holds the ethnocentric third view.

In no way am I saying that what is true, what is good, and what is right is relative to some particular ethnos. It is not clear why “relativist” should be thought of as an appropriate term for the ethnocentric third view. For I am not holding a positive theory which says that something is relative to something else. Instead, I am making the purely negative point that we should drop the traditionally distinction between knowledge and opinion, construed as the distinction between truth as correspondence to reality and truth as a commendatory term for well-justified beliefs.

My primary suggestion is to propose solidarity through unforced agreement. We experience solidarity through acculturation and the exchanging of cultural features. Our acculturation is what makes certain options live, or momentous, while leaving others dead, or trivial, or optional. An example would be moral progress in America through the unforced legislation of laws that promote liberty and well-being. Whether it’s slavery or women’s rights, reason has propelled persuasive options to thrive in the marketplace of ideas. Persuasion across such fundamental differences is achieved, if at all, by concrete comparisons of particular alternatives, by elaborate description and redescription of the kinds of life to which different practices conduce.

To say that unforced agreement is enough raises the specter of relativism. For those who say that a pragmatic view of rationality is unwholesomely relativistic ask: “Unforced agreement among whom? Us? The Nazis? Any arbitrary culture or group? The answer, of course, is “us.” This necessarily ethnocentric answer simply says that we must work by our own lights. What we cannot do is to rise above all human communities, actual and possible. As Richard Rorty states, “We cannot find a skyhook which lifts us out of mere coherence – mere agreement – to something like “correspondence with reality as it is in itself.”

Final Thoughts

We can and should do away with the useless notions of truth. Speaking in provisional truths or degrees of certainty fosters both humility and open dialogue to understanding. We can still build upon trust and exactness without genuflecting before Truth. The processes and methods that science affords us has proven, thus far, to be the most reliable way for weeding out ridiculous ideas. Civilization has traversed from bronzed age thinking to Enlightenment reason through reason, inquiry, methods of science, and open discourse. Humanity has elevated the liberal ideals of liberty and justice through shared agreements and solidarity – and will continue to do so. Given our inability to transcend language, or have language mirror reality, we are left with the ultimate freedom to share ideas, learn from the past, and continue in conversation and dialogue.



Ideology: What We Believe Matters

A double shot of expresso with 2 pumps of white mocha as I sit thinking about the dangerous ideologies of 2014. So before I start, here is something I just came up with. A litmus test for your ideology (or religion):

  • Does your ideology seek to appreciate the beauty in all other ideologies?
  • Does your ideology resolve conflict through peaceful dialogue only?
  • Does your ideology limit the autonomy of individuals?

2014 saw the militant group Boko Haram claim responsibility for the death of 42 students in northern Nigeria. We also saw the uprising of ISIS and the continued slaughter of Hezballah (Party of God). I am not sure why this type of terror in the name of god should surprise us? After all, this has been going on for over 5000 years. Going back to 1209 C.E. every single occupant of the French city of Beziers was massacred. The city was taken by Catholic crusaders during the Albigensian Crusade, launched by Pope Innocent II in 1208. I am sure you have heard the phrase, “Kill them all. God will sort them out”? Well, this was coined by the Catholic crusaders. Except, their exact words were “Kill them all. God will recognize his own.” From burning alleged witches in Salem to the Spanish inquisitions, organized religion has a bloody past.

My point, however, is not to detail the bloody history of organized religion because we know it all too well. I believe we need religion, despite its bloody past. Why? Because religion is binds groups together in pursuit of a value system that encourages altruism and reciprocity. Believe it or not, even the terrorists who flew 2 planes into the World Trade Centers in 2001 were fighting for a value system based on altruism and reciprocity.

Religion is not the problem. Dangerous ideology is the problem. With or without religion, groups will band together and fight for their ideology. Ideology, after all is based on values. Whether it’s political, moral, or cultural – the need to violently or peacefully propagate and perpetuate ideologies will never end. Why? Because people will live with a set of values (good or bad), and those values matter. Values carry an incalculable and intrinsic worth. These values manifest themselves within families, human rights, and even animal rights.

Ideology rests on the foundation that a particular set of goals, expectations and actions ought to take place. Poisonous ideologies foster suppression, oppression, and incite hostility – but usually the name of a “greater good.” The danger with an ideology is that is carries the expectation that all of humanity ought to adhere to the ideology. Unfortunately, ideology most often resides in a small box of ‘absolutes’ and forgets the vast cultural diversity and pluralism that permeates the 196 countries and 7 billion people on earth. The only problem with this is that most people who are passionate about their ideology will think their way is the right way, contrary to all other ideologies. Poisonous ideologies are always cloaked in righteousness.

What we believe matters.

May we see the beauty in other faith and ideologies,

May be always seek peaceful dialogue without resorting to violence,

May we always respect and uphold the autonomy of every individual.

Where Do Values Come From?

Do Values Come from Humans or God?

In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers: “Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them.” But Socrates responds: “Is that which the gods love good because they love it, or do they love it because it is good.”

If the former is true, then who says the gods are not evil, unfair, or frivolous? The gods could choose to love anything they want, regardless of whether or not human beings consider it just. Is that they type of system we want to live by? Do the gods want us to be blindly, unquestioningly obedient to them, even if they behave like murderous scoundrels? And if the gods love the good simply because it is good, then it could damn well be good on its own. We wouldn’t need god or gods to tell us what morality is – we’d be responsible for figuring it out just as they were.

In either case, Euthyphro drives home the point that mere belief in God can’t make us good, and it can’t point to “timeless values” that we humans aren’t equally capable of arriving at on our own terms. Gods don’t – can’t – create values. Humans can, and so we must do so wisely.

Football players can pray for touchdowns, but not a single amputee, no matter what the unfair circumstances surrounding her injury, has successfully ever prayed to regrow a limb. The fact is, there could be a god who hates amputees. We can neither prove it nor disprove it. Fortunately, we have much better ways of understanding moral and ethical values.

 “Our morality is based on human needs and social contracts, and these things are not perfectly, eternally objective. After all, slavery was once considered morally acceptable by almost all religious people, including Christians. If values were timeless and objective, either the early Christians saints who believed in it were horribly wrong, or values change.” – Greg M. Epstein