The Absolute on Absolutes

One of the biggest paradoxes in Western culture is the prevailing perception of truth. It seems as though the notion of absolute truth has fallen by the wayside — except when it must be adhered to at all costs.

Let me explain. We have two very popular epistemological assumptions, one broad and one narrow, which must be believed in order to be a good citizen of the twenty-first century. The problem is their direct opposition to each other — a fact which is entirely ignored. On the one side is scientism/empiricism. To be true, something must be capable of being verified under direct observation à la the guidelines of scientific inquiry. Of course, the core tenet of scientism fails its own test (the statement “all things must be empirically verifiable to be true” is not itself empirically verifiable and therefore can’t be true in its own system), but that hasn’t stopped anyone from promoting it as a foundational paradigm. On the other side, and in direct conflict, is moral relativism. What is right for you may not be good in the eyes of someone else, and so you can’t enforce your own moral code anywhere but on your own personal behaviors. I say this conflicts with scientism because without core moral absolutes, morals degrade entirely; they cannot be verified in any way and therefore cannot exist. (Consider, for example, if we cannot agree on what precisely constitutes murder, theft, or rape; if we can’t match the activity to an absolute definition, then it could be argued the activity doesn’t exist according to empiricism. All that exists are uncategorized behaviors devoid of moral content.) Yet we’re bound by social convention to believe they do exist, just not in the same way for everyone. At best we’re left with some ephemeral type of something called “morality”; at worst, we hold a rather large contradiction in our heads because of social mandate.

I realize that probably comes across as splitting hairs or a weird reductionistic stance to some people, so let me broaden the second element from moral relativism to a relativism of all truth. Again, truth must be verifiable to be true; science says things are in fact verifiable; therefore, truth, absolute truth, must exist in the scientistic schema.

But we don’t want to believe that, schema or no. People say that what is true for you may or may not be true for me or anyone else. Absolute truth doesn’t exist — but when people tell me that, I typically laugh and say they’ve just made an absolute truth claim, so they clearly believe absolute truth does exist. (Seriously: if stating your position requires you to contradict it, you might want to get a new position.) We don’t want to believe that, though. Absolute truth creates moral absolutes, or least opens the door for them.

And that’s uncomfortable.

Consider the far-ranging results and implications of the absence of absolute truth. Science, and therefore scientism, fails. Everything based on the acquisition and manipulation of data fails: science, mathematics, history, anthropology, all of it. Even the arts break down once we remove necessary definitions for things such as “blue,” “Middle C,” and “square.” If those no longer exist, what about language? Architecture? Love? Yes, that’s a bit on the reductio ad absurdum side, but other things aren’t.

Scientific fact: humans come with twenty-three pairs of chromosomes in each cell, each chromosome comprised of genes linked together as either an X chromosome or a Y chromosome. (Exceptions are made for gametes and those suffering from rare genetic disorders.) They can only combine in one of two ways, resulting in an individual being limited to one of two biological sexes, an XX chromosome pairing for females and an XY pairing for males (again, extremely rare cases of things like hermaphroditism exist, but I’m talking about the other 99% of the time). These are absolute truths. There is no room in this truth for things such as transgenderism, non-binary genders/sexes, otherkin, etc. There are a number of people putting themselves in wheelchairs, casts, braces, etc. who are medically fine; they simply identify as “transabled,” a disabled person in a healthy body. Adults declare themselves to be children and wear diapers, or, worse, turn themselves into animals simply for sexual identity and gratification. These sorts of things are only permissible if we abandon absolute truths (here offered by biology) in favor of relativism. If we are free to reject what is real for what we want to be real, if we accept a sort of functional subjective metaphysical antirealism, we lose our very selves in the process. In short, self-destruction is the final end of relativism gone rampant.

The logical question to follow this isn’t “is truth absolute,” but, rather, “who determines what is absolute.” Here again our contemporaries offer up science and empiricism as the mediators of the absolute — but remember my earlier caveats. Some people believe such truths are obvious, available freely to anyone with ears to hear, but that leads to a subjective form of truth. After all, we might disagree on a few things due to differences in our sensory perceptions, and then who gets to break the tie? An individual is insufficient to establish absolutes, and those who try actually represent the guiding force of relativism (namely, my word against yours). A related warning: if we do know absolute truths to be absolute, we cannot let them make us arrogant, contemptuous, cruel, or callous. (This is why so many dislike Christians: we speak the truth, but we fail to do so in love, instead offering condemnation for those who fail to live up to our versions of the absolutes.)

What is the source of absolute truth and moral absolutes? To the theist, it is deity; to the Christian specifically, it’s the Triune God. We see this repeatedly in Scripture:

  • Psalm 33:4, “for the word of the LORD is right and true”
  • Psalm 31:5/Isaiah 65:16, “the God of truth”
  • John 1:14, “full of grace and truth”
  • John 14:16, “I am the way, the truth, and the life”
  • John 16:13, “he will guide you into all truth”
  • John 17:17, “your word is truth”
  • 1 Timothy 3:15, “pillar and foundation of the truth” [referring to the Church]

As Christians, we accept the authority of the Bible, and thus we see God as the sole source of absolute truth. If anything is true, it is of God; if anything is false, it is from Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

With an external, objective source of moral and truth absolutes, we can make legitimate truth claims. Blue is blue because it possesses the qualities of blueness, not because I personally think it a bit different shade from green. Right becomes right, wrong becomes wrong. Biological fact remains as immutable as all fact is, and deviations can be diagnosed so the one suffering can be helped. We call things what they actually are, not what we wish them to be.

For our wishes are subjective, relative. But truth, like the One behind it, is absolute.

F.A.Q.: What about Miracles? (A Reasonable, Rational Faith Part II)

In my last post, I very briefly sketched the logical arguments in favor of the existence of God, hopefully showing Christianity (or at least a belief in God) to be logically coherent. One objection some people have at this point runs something like this: “Alright. I believe your God may exist, and it’s even possible Jesus might have lived. But what about all those miracles? Surely you can’t rationally believe such supernatural . . . whatevers . . . actually happened.”

Well, yes. Yes I can. And do. And believe they still happen today (which is in itself a highly contentious belief even within Christian circles today).

First, I want to define the word “miracle” itself. Most people understand miracles as supernatural occurrences with break or suspend the functioning of natural law. We all know dead people stay dead, for example, so for a deceased person to come back to life is a violation of natural law. You can only slice a pizza so many times before you’re giving out zero pizza, and so using a single slice of pepperoni to feed a few thousand teenagers is a violation of natural law. (I haven’t seen that one happen yet, but youth pastors around the world remain hopeful.)

But what if that’s not really all there is to it? What if, instead of breaking the law of the universe, a miracle is actually the enforcement of the law in the universe to come? Theologians talk about the in-breaking kingdom of God. Aspects of redemption are everywhere, and the Church Universal is God’s chosen vessel for bringing about the kingdom of heaven on earth. We see it in unconditional love, in selfless sacrifice, in the salvation of souls. By this train of thought, then, a miracle is simply God’s kingdom breaking into the world and making all things new. Miracles never affect the perfect, after all; they only make adjustments to the evils of this world. Cancer is an evil; being spontaneously made tumor-free is a great good, a sign of the redeemed world to come.

Whatever your definition of miracle, however, you’re still forced to pick a side. Will you believe in miracle claims, or will you believe such things impossible?

To understand a DISbelief in miracles, we turn back the pages of history to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment brought about great advances in science and philosophical thought, but with it came the underpinnings for today’s insistence upon empirical data, science as a sort of religion (scientism), and a deep skepticism concerning things which didn’t prima facie match up with what science said was true. (I’m not anti-science by any means, folks. I just don’t think it’s capable of answering every question in the history of the universe.) A philosopher named David Hume could easily be titled the Father of All Skeptics. For Hume, only our senses could be trusted; anything which lay outside of empirical data could not rightly be thought to exist. So why should we trust in something our senses haven’t registered?

Hume’s argument against miracles ran along similar lines. The overwhelming majority of people throughout history had never witnessed a miracle, he said, and so it could be rightly concluded miracles never happen. If they did, we would have seen them. But wait, his detractors said, people have seen them. Just look at all these written accounts. Impossible, replies Hume. Those accounts can’t be trusted. After all, miracles never happen because people never see them. How can you trust people who say they do?

Not exactly the soundest of arguments, is it? “Miracles don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because they don’t exist because I’ve never seen one because . . .”

Hume’s thought influenced the way we think about knowing things for centuries (including this one). Not many people still buy into his total skepticism about reality itself, but his empiricism/positivism is certainly the dominant epistemology of our popular culture here in the West. Most skeptics will say they need verifiable proof of a miracle in order to believe — and some of them go a step further, dogmatically following the “religion” of scientism, stating that even if something is verifiably scientifically inexplicable now, just wait until we know more things, and then science will definitely be able to give us an explanation. (Sounds a bit like . . . faith.)

We’ll probably never be able to convince the latter about the existence of miracles; such a paradigm/epistemology is hard to change. But for those who will believe current scientific reports concerning miracles, I invite you to consider the Roman Catholic Church — specifically the process of canonization.

Canonization is the official name for how saints are declared. To become a saint, you must meet three simple criteria: be dead, have two miracles attributed to you postmortem, and be officially named a saint by the current pope.  One miracle results in beatification (the Blessed So-and-So), and two gets sainthood (Saint That-One-Guy). In order for those miracles to be properly attributed to you, however, the Church launches an incredibly rigorous and laborious process of investigation. Medical evidence, preferably verified by multiple physicians (specialists are even better), must clearly document your condition both before and after the said miracle. You must demonstrate your prayers to the person up for sainthood which specifically requested intervention in this matter. You must have physicians swear no current medical treatment would have resulted in the change — and hopefully it will have been scientifically impossible for the change to have occurred at all. Finally, the Vatican’s teams of doctors and theologians review all the evidence and make a decision. Spoiler alert: the vast majority of miracle claims are never officially declared miracles, even if they meet all the necessary criteria. But assuming you do meet the prerequisites and you bought coffee and wine for the entire review panel and you were wearing your “I Love the Pope” t-shirt and gravity still works on penguins and a dove alit on the balcony of the chief medical officer’s hotel window at 11:38am on the previous Tuesday, you just might get yourself declared the bona fide recipient of divine intervention.

Reams and reams of medical documents, diaries, and other paperwork exists to account for thousands of miracle claims, even if they’re never officially recognized by the church. And I’m not talking “Lassie got Timmy out of the well! It’s a miracle!” kind of stuff, either. We’re talking limbs growing several inches right before your eyes. The dead being raised hours, even days after being declared dead. Tumors disappearing in minutes. Goiters fading in the presence of onlookers. People known to be blind and deaf for decades suddenly seeing and hearing. All of it having no medical or otherwise-scientific explanations whatsoever. All of them being completely impossible unless we rewrite some of the most fundamentals laws governing the behavior of the universe.

And so we have the evidence. The question is if we are willing to accept it or not.

If Hume’s legacy is the only reason to disbelieve, then there’s not a reason. If there are other reasons, then perhaps they can be revisited to see which is easier to revise, personal theories or the empirical scientific evidence of the miraculous (which, I might add, either meets or exceeds the requirements of most other accepted empirical data, right down to being repeatable in the cases of known faith healers/evangelists). Of course, not everyone will change his or her worldview to allow miracles, data or not. And not everyone will believe such a thing to even be possible. At the very least, however, it shouldn’t be thought illogical or superstitious or downright silly to believe God still directly intervenes in the lives of human beings. Once we agree to that, then we can talk specifics with each other without condescension and arrogance.

For a much fuller treatment of the question and numerous personal testimonies of miracle claims, I highly, highly recommend Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts by Dr. Craig Keener, available here.