Many have argued for the existence of moral absolutes by asserting that any claim that there are no absolutes is incoherent. I’d like to examine this claim.
Section One: Is it impossible to deny absolutes?
Here is one formulation of the denial of absolutes.
It is an absolute that there are no absolutes.
Now, here’s the claim by those who reject this as logical. No one can claim that there are no absolutes, for by doing so, one must invoke an absolute.
Here is the more rigorous form of this argument.
p1: Making an absolute claim requires at least one absolute.
p2: Claiming that there are no absolutes is an absolute claim.
p3: There cannot be both absolutes and no absolutes.
Therefore, the claim as an absolute that there are no absolutes cannot be true.
Because the assertion of absolutes is often made by theists in an attempt to validate their faith, let’s first look to the Bible to elucidate this issue.
Example 1: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Ecclesiastes 1:9-14
If we are to belief the Biblical account of creation, the Earth had a beginning. It is obvious then that the phrase “there is nothing new under the sun” must have been uttered a first time. Here is how an attack on this claim that there is nothing new under the sun looks when paralleled to the argument above.
p1: Making a claim for the first time means that at least one thing is new.
p2: The initial claim that there is nothing new under the sun is something new.
p3: There cannot be both something new and nothing new.
Therefore, the initial claim that nothing is new under the sun could not have been true.
If the one claiming that no one can say there are no absolutes is a Bible-believer, this passage from Ecclesiastes undermines their position.
But let’s examine other aspects.
Consider the following statement that is more approximate to the human experience.
Example 2: The only thing that has not changed is the fact that everything changes.
The following is an attempted dismissal of this statement syllogistic form.
p1: If a fact does not change, there is at least one thing that does not change.
p2: There exists the unchanging fact that everything changes.
p3: There cannot be both everything changed and one thing unchanged.
Therefore, claiming that, the only thing that has not changed is the fact that everything changes, cannot be true.
When examining the logic of the statement, it appears that it is logically incoherent. However, does the statement contain content, or is it nonsensical? Humans can grasp that, what seems to be an incoherency within the statement, does not necessarily change the truth value of the embedded statement “nothing fails to change”. The recognition of this embedding is a clue to why the full statement is merely an apparent contradiction. We will revisit this notion of linguistic embedding at a later point. Continue reading