From guest blogger, William C.
It would seem that after many inconclusive debates in Phi 501 the Absolutist position is unshaken; we cannot refute via logical arguments a position which intrinsically abhors logic. The absolutist may conveniently reply to any perceived discrepancy that all is still well and good and that God will somehow sort out these problems which our puny human minds cannot comprehend.
Now, if one really accepts this idea then the floor is all of a sudden opening beneath us. What can we really know at all? Can I use logic sometimes and not others? Are all contradictions simultaneously true? Why does it “seem” like there are any consistent rules at all? Is there any hope for a sound epistemology? Shall we just give up any hope of having coherent thoughts at all…
Not so fast!
A little thought will show that the debates were not so inconclusive after all. If a statement is contradictory or illogical it is simply “wrong” by any normal meaning of the word. Thus, we can safely conclude that Absolutism is “wrong” with any reasonable interpretation of what this word means in the English language. Done deal, there is no more debate to be had on this point.
The question is, why is there a debate on this issue at all?
First, it seems that people tend to believe that discussing philosophy gives one the liberty to stretch the meaning of any word to any extent, often only for the brief joy of seeming profound. While this exercise can sometimes be thought provoking, it really becomes meaningless and frustrating when some of the most essential concepts such as “right” and “wrong” or “exist” and “not exist” tend to lose their usual meaning. Thus, when an absolutist says, for instance, that, “This banana simultaneously exist and does not exist”, all I can say is that following the usual interpretation of these words this statement is patently false. If an absolutist insist that it is true I can only conclude that:
1. The absolutist means something different by ‘exist’
2. The absolutist means something different by ‘true’
3. The absolutist is mentally insane.
Being generous, I would assume that it is one of the first two options. However, while the notions of ‘existence’ and ‘truth’ have many debatable features, the absolutist usage seems to stray far outside of what any normal English speaker would consider to be appropriate. Thus, the question I pose to the absolutist is: What is meant by “truth” to begin with? The common man on the street has an intuitive answer to this question which the absolutist seems to be at odds with. Moreover, scientist have a very sophisticated answer to this question which the absolutist are diametrically opposed to. Even if the absolutist were able to answer this question in a way which still allowed for some common sense statements to be true, some ‘obviously wrong’ statements to be false, and God’s omnipotence to somehow fall in the category of ‘true’, it seems very unlikely that such a definition would mesh very well with either the dominant scientific or popular meanings of the word. Thus, I can only conclude that the absolutist do not speak English properly.
Secondly, another driving force of this debate is the notion that somehow the burden of proof is on the non-absolutist. Indeed, many people seem to jump to the defense of Absolutism by saying, “Oh yeah, but an absolutist would just say that (insert something non-sensical).” This is not an argument for anything; the fact that a madman can “say” he is being pursued by aliens is not a good reason to believe that this is true. Moreover, we repeatedly see the claim that we “have” to play the absolutist game, or we “have” to concede some key point to the Absolutist for the sake of discussion. We really don’t have to do anything of the sort.
Again, we’ve established that this philosophy is patently wrong. (Excuse me for not tacking on “within the normal sense of the English language”.) However, it seems that the tendency is to strain very hard to give this viewpoint some credence while we have been given no good reason to do so. By way of comparison, the dominant scientific worldview has been subjected to centuries of grueling, painstaking tests. This worldview and the notion of ‘truth’ that comes with it has consistently passed test after test with no reliable documentation of any discrepancies. (Here I’m referring to the worldview which says that the universe is described precisely by mathematics and is essentially ‘knowable’. Specific theories will, of course, change with time.) However, despite the enormous success of the scientific notion of ‘truth’, it somehow seems that people take this to be on equal footing with not-so-well established notions. Thus, in all fairness, it seems that in order to even merit consideration for a serious debate, the absolutist should first precisely define what they mean by ‘true’ at the same level of rigor as has been done by modern science, and then offer some convincing evidence as to why their notion would be more useful than the definition that essentially everyone else uses. Only then does the burden begin to switch over to the rationalist.
I conclude with an analogy. If I were I psychiatrist working in a mental hospital, I would naturally want to treat my patients and free them from their delusions. I would try my best with different means to convince the patient that the aliens were not actually pursuing him. However, the mentally ill are often skilled at concocting ever more elaborate conspiracy theories to support their delusions and, in the end, there might simply be no way to cure the patient. Now, having completely and utterly failed, should I now myself conclude that their must be aliens pursuing this poor man? Am I myself now bound to go insane as well? It seems that the discussion of absolutism can easily head in this direction.