What to Do if Absolute Truth Doesn’t Exist?

As I’ve written about many times on this blog, we cannot step outside of our own perspective to look at “the naked world as it really is”. That is, we are fundamentally subjective in any judgments we make, moral other otherwise. We simply have no possibility for holding on to anything “absolute” in the world, in which absolute should be interpreted as “something” the existence of which cannot be doubted, is unalterable or permanent. And although we can agree upon something being a “permanent” fact – and thereby making it a permanent fact, if we keep on holding on to it for long enough – a fact remains a subjective construct, having no absolute connection, or at least not one detectable by us, with the world outside of us (given that such a world would exist). While this might sound radical, it might be true from a philosophical point of view – or at least: from my philosophical point of view.

From a scientific point of view, the notion of “absolute” truth can be discarded in an other way: by saying that there can merely be evidence for or against the existence of a phenomenon – but no definite (read: absolute) conclusions. And it is therefore – one could say – that we cannot claim to be certain regarding the (absolute) truth of any of our scientific theories.

Philosophy, however, can go one step further by claiming that the notion of “truth” is in itself no empirical issue at all. Because, one could say, empirical data are about the outside world and the phenomena this world imprints upon the subject, while having no clue whether the connection between this world and the subject is absolutely (read: 100%) as we believe it to be. We assume it is, we assume there to be such a connection, but we don’t know. And we’ll likely never know. That’s a fundamental consequence of being human.

Does this imply that we cannot know anything for certain about the world around us? Does this mean that solipsism (the philosophical position that the only claims we can be sure about are claims about our minds and what exists in it) is the only “truly true” position? Yes, maybe it does. But it’s important to see the difference between the notion of certainty and the notion of truth. While certainty refers to us having a “certain” degree of faith in having an accurate set of beliefs about the world around us, truth – as being the “absolute” value striven for in all of our knowledge – implies 100% certainty regarding the accuracy of our beliefs/claims. And while the former can be reasonably applied to the external world – and our claims about it – the latter should be reserved only for those claims we cannot deny without stumbling into philosophical paradoxes. And although it might be counter-intuitive to deny the existence of the outside world, it isn’t impossible. On the other hand, as Descartes showed, denying the existence of the mind is much harder – even impossible.

I shortly touched upon the notion of “certainty” as representing the degree of certainty in the accuracy of a claim (60%, 45%, etc.). But, given that we’ve seen that there is no “absolute” link (at least no one we can be sure of) between the external world and our inner world (mind, gut feelings etc.), how then can we come to judge the certainty of a claim. How’s that possible if certainty is interpreted as being the degree of belief in the truth of a claim? We don’t know the (absolute) truth of a claim, so how can we come to certainty regarding the truth of our claims?

I believe we can only do so by dropping the notion of certainty as something that stands in some sort of relation to the “truth”, as being an absolute entity only attainable through Cartesian Skepticism. When we drop the notion of truth, while engaged in our scientific efforts and daily lives, we can come to a construct of “certainty” that is based upon intersubjectivity, the degree in which claims are accepted by members of society. And intersubjectivity is founded on many subjectivities, which are ultimately founded on – if not the external world – intuitions about the way the world works. And it is in these intuitions that we find the “absolute truths” that we believe we come closer to by means of science. When a new scientific theory is accepted that changes the way we think about the world around us, it’s not because the new theory corresponds better to reality – the world outside of us, the world which “true colors” never shine through – but because the new theory corresponds better to our intuition. And since all human beings share the same sense of “primal” intuition (evolutionary developed or otherwise), we can come to intersubjectively “certain” (read: useful, “natural”) beliefs.

But what do you think?

Written by Rob Graumans

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