"What's true for you isn't true for me!"
Most likely you've heard this statement being made, or you've perhaps said it and believe it yourself. This idea - that there isn't a universally applicable truth - is expressive of what's generally known as 'post-modern thought'. In case you weren't aware, if you're living in Britain as I am, you're living in a post-modern culture. It sounds kinda weird. How can we be already passed what is modern you might ask? That would be a good question, the answer being "I doubt we could", but post-modernity refers not so much to literal time but to the movement from one type of thinking to another. The 'modern' type of thinking, if you'll bear with me, is actually the older way of thinking and post-modernity is the type of thinking that has come after it. The origin of 'post-modern' thought is a story I shan't go into (I'm not confident enough that I can tell it accurately) but it certaintly has some strong roots in the philosophy of the German thinker, Nietzsche. His philosophy wasn't quite the same as that expressed by the popular phrase quoted at the start of this blog entry, but it shares some of its distrust toward universal truths.
In this entry I'm going to take a look at this popular expression of post-modern thought and hopefully show that it just doesn't make much sense! As a result we can let go of this way of thinking, agree that there are universally applicable truths, and start to discover what those may be. So let's crack on.
First question to ask is "what exactly do we mean when we talk about something being true?" It probably sounds like a very silly question. After all we use the concept of 'truth' a great deal and nobody seems to complain about it. Why bother going into detail defining it? Philosophers, as you may be aware, like to question common sense (we apparently like to question the existence of chairs for example), and while it may seem a tad ridiculous at times, it's actually really helpful to make sure we are thinking clearly about the issue and that we haven't just taken something really important for granted. So humour me as I talk about truth for a bit!
When I say "it is raining outside" and it actually is raining outside we would call this a 'true' statement because the content of the statement - the ideas - match up to the reality it is aiming to describe. Similarly, it works the other way round. If I say you are a true friend it means that the reality of your qualities as a friend matches up to the proper idea of a friend. Truth then, is about how ideas and reality match up. So what are we saying when we say that "what's true for you isn't true for me"?
We're either saying that the reality we both have cannot be the same or that the ideas we have cannot be the same (or both).
Do we have completely different realities?
Be careful not to confuse the idea that we may have different realities with the idea that we may see the same reality differently. A common musing along the lines of the latter is whether the colour I label as blue is the same colour you label as blue. This is a different issue relating to whether we can both have the same knowledge of the same thing. I'll address that issue in a later post. For now just recognise that even if we labelled a colour differently that wouldn't mean that the light hitting our eyes would be different. We would probably agree that even if we see or interpret things differently, we have the same reality around us. In fact it would be bizarre to believe that we didn't. Could we really claim that we live in different universes from one another? Does the sun exist for me but not for you? If we believed this was the case why would we bother talking to anyone about anything? I wouldn't be writing this blog to you the reader because you wouldn't have the internet in your universe or the postmodern movement or anything I have in my reality. I hope you can see that holding this sort of view would be rather extreme. After all nobody can talk to another person in the same room and seriously believe that to the other person the room exists completely differently. You might think however that this view still has some merit in relation to more blatantly philosophical or religious topics. In fact it is around these topics that the "what's true for you isn't true for me" idea commonly emerges. Let's imagine the following conversation between a muslim, a christian, and a religious skeptic.
Skeptic: So what do you two believe about God then?
Christian: I believe in one God who is three persons - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Muslim: I believe in one God, Allah, who is completely unified; there is no plurality in him at all.
Christian: I have a few objections to your concept of God.
Muslim: Funny you should say that, I have some objections to your concept of God as well!
Skeptic: Look at you guys arguing! Just remember that what's true for one of you isn't necessarily true for the other.
Is the skeptic's remark here any more plausible than the idea that the sun may exist for me and not for you? Surely not. Does God exist in three persons only for the Christian and as a completely unified being only for the Muslim? For God to exist as both those things would be a contradiction. So no, the skeptic's claim is false, at least one of them has to be wrong about their concept of God. We can see that it is simply unreasonable to believe that we have different realities.
Do we have completely different ideas?
No doubt you will think of things that I won't and you will have ideas that I won't. In this context however, ideas refers more to concepts than to ideas in the sense of an inventor or poet having a new idea. It is our concepts in our statements that match up to reality and produce either truth or falsehood. In the example used earlier it was the concepts of rain and outsideness that matched up to reality. If however your concepts are completely different to mine we could never believe in the same truths. Clearly however, our concepts are not completely different. You have been reading this and have hopefully understood a good portion of it. This would be impossible if our concepts were irreconcilably different. Probably we have some individual meanings attached to certain concepts but our differences aren't untraversable. We share many concepts. So there is no reason to think that "what is true for you isn't true for me" at all. In fact we have seen that to believe that requires you to believe some rather silly things. If however you still think there might be some merit to the position, there is one final thing you should bear in mind.
It is self-defeating!
The major problem with 'truth-relativism' - the belief we've been discussing here - is that it is self-defeating, or to be more technical, it is 'self-referentially incoherent'. A philosophy is self-defeating if it sets up a standard for what can be known or what is true and then fails to meet that standard itself. An example would be me saying that "the only statements which can be true are mathematical statements". That statement is self-defeating because it is itself not a mathematical statement. That truth relativism is similarly self-defeating can easily be shown.
If someone says to you "what's true for one person isn't true for another," ask them this question; "is it true for me that what's true for you isn't true for me?" That person shall be trapped. If they agree that is true for you then they will have conceded that at least something is true for the both of you. If they say it isn't true for you, then truth-relativism isn't true for you and universal truth is. But if truth is universal it is universal for the other person too. This might all sound confusing so let's look at it another way.
Truth relativism can be expressed in this statement; "there are no universal truths." But is that not itself a universal truth? If it is then it breaks its own rule and thus must be false. But if it is not a universal truth then there can still be universal truths. Either way it is false.
The idea then that "what is true for you isn't true for me" is a very bad idea! It is necessarily false and we should not entertain it. Next I shall look at moral relativism which is another popular belief in our culture today.