A Brush with the Epistemology of Truth

by | Mar 29, 2018

I have no problem with the concept of objective truth.  In fact, I strongly believe in it.  As I see it, to say, “there’s no such thing as objective truth” is to spiral into philosophical oblivion.

Think about it–if the statement “there’s no such thing as objective truth” is objectively true, then the true-ness of that statement falsifies itself and, because of the strong, binary nature of the claim, necessitates that its opposite is true.

It bids one recall that old mind-bender that pops up every once in a while on social media, shared by people who feel especially clever for having thought of it:

  1. The following statement is true.
  2. The previous statement is false.

(Now, clench your buttocks…)

If the first statement is true, then the second statement must be true; but if the second statement is true, then the first must be false and, owing to the binary nature of the claim, the opposite must necessarily be true; but if the opposite of the first statement is true, then the original second statement is false and, again, necessitates that its opposite is true; but if the opposite of the second statement is true, then the opposite of the first statement is false, and the cycle begins again, continuing ad nauseam until eventually the metaphysical superstructure of reality fails and the entire universe implodes.

(Or, you know, somewhat less dramatically, a priceless bust of Immanuel Kant suddenly sublimates somewhere.)

“Okay,” you say, rubbing your temples, “but one could easily get around such a logical hangup by taking the weak position of disbelieving in objective truth.”

Ah, but could you?  …one?

See, to hold a belief is to accept (at some level) that it’s more accurate than some competing belief, relatively speaking. But unless there’s some objective truth against which to measure the relative accuracy of competing beliefs, there’s no such thing as relative truth. In other words, hedging your philosophical bets by weakly disbelieving in (or, weaker still, merely being uncertain of) the existence of objective truth assumes at least one objective truth, which is that–

“The only objective truth is that there are no objective truths aside from the truth that there are no other truths.”

Yes, my friend, you’re a quick one; though perhaps you could’ve summed it up a bit nicer–might I suggest, “there are no objective truths other than this one”?

Or maybe, “the only truth is truth’s absence.”

Any way you want to word it, the idea is demonstrably untrue.

We know, for example, when it’s objectively true to say that a human being is dead–there aren’t an overabundance of bare skeletons frequenting the local coffee shop, after all.

We can also fairly assert that, objectively speaking, the chemical formula of carbon dioxide is one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms at all times and in all places.

Heck, one could list numerous objective truths, and each addition to that list would further undermine the idea of truth-as-lack-of-truth.

And, frankly, the truth-of-non-truth assertion is a lot to ask. If the only objective truth is that there are no other truths, then relative truth exists only as it relates to the question of the existence of objective truth, rendering unrelated any other question of philosophy; and, because other philosophical questions are disconnected from the question of truth, every philosophy is, of necessity, morally equivalent to every other.

That would put Ted Bundy at moral parity with Mother Theresa. The progressive eradication of global poverty by a trend toward economic liberalism would be morally no better than the intentional murder and unintentional starvation of a hundred million people under twentieth century Communism. Paul Krugman would be equal to Bob Murphy.

Needless to say, it’s not an attractive proposition.

None of this is to say that everything is objectively true, of course. Nor is it to claim that we possess every objective truth. But it can serve as a launching point for discussion and a point of fundamental agreement.

Now, if you’ll forgive me, I think I might have pulled something throughout the writing of this article.


Matt Knight

Matt Knight

Matt Knight is an economics major at Utah State University and blogs at Ignore This.

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