During the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave in Illinois, a military man posed an objection against the existence of absolute truth. It went something like this: If truth were absolute, then there wouldn’t be disagreement among people. Since there is disagreement (the gentleman was speaking from his encounter of diverse beliefs in the military), there’s no such thing as absolute truth. Among philosophers, this has come to be known as, not surprisingly, the “argument from disagreement.”
I’ve given a few responses to this argument in my book Prepare the Way: Overcoming Obstacles to God, the Gospel, and the Church. Here, I’d like to consider a line of thinking that I don’t cover in my book: The argument from disagreement is self-defeating.
There are three ways we can show this.
First, consider how the argument reasons from the fact of disagreement to the conclusion that there is no absolute truth. Such an inference can be made only if the following premise is true: if there were such a thing as absolute truth, then there would be no disagreement. Here’s how the reasoning looks in the form of a syllogism:
Premise One: If there were such a thing as absolute truth, then there would be universal agreement (the hidden premise in the argument stated above).
Premise Two: There is no universal agreement (the fact of experience appealed to).
Conclusion: Therefore, there is no such thing as absolute truth (the relativistic claim).
The problem here is that the relativist must assume the truth of premise one if he wishes the argument to go through. But, of course, assuming that premise one is true falsifies the relativism that is being argued for, since the relativist would be affirming at least one absolute truth—namely, universal agreement is a criterion for absolute truth. Therefore, the argument is self-defeating.
There’s a second way in which the argument is self-defeating. Notice that disagreement is that which the relativist thinks grounds the claim that there’s no absolute truth. Well, if disagreement entails no absolute truth, then our disagreement with the claim of relativism necessarily makes relativism a belief that’s not absolutely true.
Now, perhaps the relativist doesn’t care that his relativism is not absolutely true. Maybe he’s okay with saying that it’s true only for him. But if that’s the case, then his claim becomes trivial. There are three ways to see this.
One: He’d only be expressing a mere preference or taste, something we don’t need to be concerned about.
Two: For the relativist to say that the statement “there is no absolute truth” is relatively true for him means that it happens to be a member of his personal set of beliefs and opinions. By saying his belief that relativism is true is among his personal beliefs and opinions, the relativist is implying such a belief is not among the personal beliefs and opinions of non-relativists. It amounts to saying, “I don’t myself believe in absolute truth, but other people do.” But this doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know. Thus, it’s trivial.
Three: His appeal to disagreement as an argument for relativism would be futile. Why argue for something if you don’t think it describes the way the world really is? Why try to convince the non-relativist that there’s no absolute truth when the idea that there’s no absolute truth is true only for the relativist?
There’s one more thing to say in response to someone who says he doesn’t care that relativism is not absolutely true since it’s true only for him. Recall what we said above: To say relativism is true only for me amounts to saying, “I don’t myself believe in absolute truth, but other people do.” Well, this means relativism is essentially recognition of the fact that people disagree.
But disagreement is what the relativist appeals to in the argument from disagreement. Remember, the argument states, “There’s no absolute truth because people disagree.” If relativism is essentially an affirmation of the fact that people disagree, and the argument from disagreement appeals to disagreement among people to justify relativism, then the argument from disagreement is tantamount to saying, “People have different beliefs because people have different beliefs.” That’s called circular reasoning, which is not kosher logic.
A third way in which the argument from disagreement is self-defeating is that some disagreements necessarily presuppose an absolute truth. Consider, for example, the belief that God exists and the belief that God doesn’t exist. Given that these are two contradictory beliefs (A and not A), we know at least one truth: that one is true and the other is false. God either does or doesn’t exist. We might not know which is true or false. But we know that one is true and the other is false—unless someone wants to say it’s both true and false, at the same time and in the same respect, that God exists.
For most, however, denying the principle of non-contradiction (something can’t be both true and false at the same time and in the same respect) is too high a price to pay. Moreover, the principle can’t be denied in thought (even if people can voice words denying it), since to say it’s false necessarily presupposes that something can’t be true and false at the same time and in the same respect.
So the next time someone tries to convince you that disagreement about absolute truth means there can be no absolute truth, you can offer a simple syllogism of your own:
Premise One: Any argument that’s self-defeating is a bad argument.
Premise Two: The argument from disagreement is a self-defeating argument.
Conclusion: Therefore, the argument from disagreement is a bad argument.
There’s nothing relative about that!