This statement is false

Much of the conflict in the world is about who knows the absolute truth. Attachment to a particular truth often leads to disagreement, bloodshed and violence perpetrated in the name of one truth or another. This is not a recent development; the history of human culture is replete with examples from every age and culture.

Now, one can make the case that there is no such thing as absolute, objective truth, which if true means that even this statement is false. Our notion of so-called “objective reality” actually is better described as “inter-subjectivity” – conformity and adherence to a set of commonly held presumptions that nonetheless are impossible to prove as absolutely true.

The inclination to share common belief allows us to communicate using language, establish monetary systems, set forth guidelines for social and legal behavior, and generally live our ordinary lives. When taken to the extreme of unmediated group-think whipped up by manipulative emotional narratives and fear mongering, our group behavior never ends particularly well, and too often, people kill and get killed.

Absolute truth is impossible to prove because we must use our minds to prove it. Whatever we see and whatever we perceive is the product of cognition – observance of events followed by the process of reaching conclusions. Our cognition is not always accurate; the earth appears flat, but we now know that it is round. Our eyes, ears, nose and memory are notoriously easy to fool, which is why Hollywood’s magicians can earn a living. In short, what we view as true is accepted by us either because others have said it is true, or because we have used our own perception and cognition to come to our own conclusions. In both cases, we cannot prove the truth of our beliefs without making use of our often unreliable cognitive process.

Even modern technological science, which likes to position itself as the standard-bearer of objective truth, must by necessity use tools that are utilized through cognition. Consciousness, a combination of our cognitive and perceptive abilities, even when combined with science, inserts a filtering frame of reference through which we can only see within the limits of mind.

This being the case, we rely heavily on inter-subjectivity. Those who do not share the popular inter-subjective truth are branded as either (a) stupid, (b) heretical, (c) insane or (d) deluded. Their view of truth is marginalized, ignored or punished. Thus it is that Galileo’s ideas were banned and he was accused of heresy. Later, the inter-subjective truth came to match his view, and today those who believe that the sun rotates around the earth are considered stupid, etc.

If one accepts the impossibility of the assertion of absolute truth, it naturally leads to questions of how to live properly in the world. Neither nihilism, the view that nothing matters, nor eternalism, the view that what is true is found in an afterlife, seem to have provided an alternative to violence and aggression that arise as people defend their truth. Moral relativism provides no workable framework for a healthy society, either.

It may yet be possible to build a society without defending assertions of absolute truth, relying instead upon a simple lesson of human experience; that treating others kindly and with compassion increases happiness. After all the arguments and mayhem, perhaps this is truth enough.