Have you ever tried to persuade someone that your belief was true, and that person responded, “Well, there is no truth,” or “It might be true for you, but not for me”? What was your response? I’ll bet it was frustrating.
This way of thinking, called relativism, is an impediment to any sort of rational dialogue. How can one argue for the truth of a belief if truth is not real? It’s impossible.
So, in order to engage in any discussion about truth, the obstacle of relativism must be overcome. How do we do this?
First, as philosopher Edward Feser suggests, we need to distinguish two forms of relativism. The first claims, “There is no truth.” The second claims, “There is no absolute truth.”
The first claim—that there is no truth—implies that truth is mere fiction. There are no beliefs or opinions that correspond to reality. The second claim, however, acknowledges truth, but only in the sense that something corresponds to an internal set of beliefs—it’s true in a relative sense, not an absolute sense.
Formulation #1: There is no truth
Let’s take a look at the first claim—there is no truth.
The problem with this formulation is that it’s self-defeating, like a snake devouring its own tail. If the relativist says this statement is true, then that means there is at least one true thing—namely that there is no truth. But this is a contradiction—it’s true that there is no truth. Plain absurdity!
The other option is to say the statement is false. But of course no relativist would want to say that.
Perhaps the relativist responds, “Your objection does not work, because it presupposes what I am denying—namely, truth and falsity.”
The problem with this response is that it undermines the assertion of any statement, including the statement, “I deny that truth or falsity exists.” If a statement about reality cannot be true or false, then it would be nothing more than a bunch of sounds void of meaning or semantic content—like a grunt or a moan. As such, the statement, “There is no truth” would be nonintelligible.
Furthermore, these nonintelligible sounds couldn’t be inconsistent with our belief that there is truth. To say meaningless sounds are logically inconsistent is nonsense. Therefore, the relativist can never meaningfully say, “There is no such thing as truth.”
Formulation #2: There is no absolute truth
Now, suppose the relativist holds to the second claim: “There is no absolute truth—just truth relative to the individual’s set of beliefs.” How should we respond?
First, we can ask, “Is it absolutely true that there is no absolute truth?” If the relativist responds “yes,” then it follows that there is at least one absolute truth—namely, the statement itself. But, like the first formulation, this is a contradiction—it’s absolutely true that there is no absolute truth.
Suppose the relativist answers our question, “No! The statement ‘There is no absolute truth’ is only relatively true.” This is problematic as well.
The relativist’s use of the verb is implies an assertion about the objective order of things. It suggests conformity to reality. The relativist is suggesting that the statement “There is no absolute truth” really is relatively true. But this is the same thing as saying, “It’s absolutely true that there is no absolute truth,” which, as we saw, is a contradiction.
Furthermore, the relativist’s claim that the statement “There is no absolute truth’ is true relative to his system of beliefs pushes the problem back one step. The system of beliefs itself would be subject to the question, “Is it absolutely true?” As already demonstrated, any answer the relativist gives, whether yes or no, makes for a contradiction.
A resort to moderate skepticism
Perhaps the relativist resorts to moderate skepticism and acknowledges the possibility of objective truth but we can’t know it.
This doesn’t solve the relativist’s problems. How does the relativist know that we can’t know objective truth? The relativist is claiming to know at least one objective truth—namely, “We can’t know objective truth.” Once again, the relativist ends up with a self-defeating proposition.
Final try: “I don’t like it!”
The relativist can make one final attempt to get out of making absolute claims. He can say, “I don’t like the idea of absolute truth.”
Despite the fact that this is still a claim about reality—it’s objectively true that the relativist doesn’t like the idea—it’s no different than saying, “I don’t like chocolate ice cream.”
The only response is, “Who cares?” The relativist’s claim says nothing about reality, only his preferences. Therefore, we need not concern ourselves with such trivial matters.
No matter how the relativist slices the pie, one ends up with either contradiction or triviality, making relativism an unreasonable worldview.
It’s comforting to know that the unrestricted drive to know—or as one philosopher puts it, “the search for the ultimate intelligibility of all being,” is not a monstrous absurdity. Life does have meaning and purpose, and that is to know the truth, which, as Jesus said in John 8:32, can set us free.