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Socrates Exchange: Are all our beliefs merely opinions, or are there some universal truths?

The Exchange's monthly discussion series is back, and our first question is on truth. Can we be wrong in our beliefs or are all beliefs equally correct, simply because they’re a matter of perspective and the product of different cultures? What evidence do we have either way? Most would say that two plus two equals four or that the Earth revolves around the sun. Fundamentalists in religion and politicians on the fringes take core truths even further by saying that their way is the right and only way. But then there are many who feel that almost anything can be considered as opinion whether its religion, morality, or law. Even scientific ideas like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity or the Ideal Gas Law cannot be 100% proven. If there are core truths, what are they and how can we verify that they are certain?


  • Nick Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, Advisor to the Socratic Society at UNH and Project Advisor to the Socrates Exchange

Background Reading

It is common to hear people these days making suggestions of relativism in areas such as art, morality and truth. Relativistic rhetoric, such as "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," pervades our society.

The relativism debate has been taking place among philosophers since the fifth century B.C. On one side Protagoras famously claimed that when it comes to truth "man is the measure." All things, truth included, find their standard in man. This could be interpreted several ways. One of the most common is a democratic theory of truth - whatever the most human beings consider to be true is the truth. Or it can be applied on the level of individual human beings. Whatever is true for an individual person is the truth. Contrasting this position in the ancient world we find Plato, who believed Protagoras's relativism makes reality unintelligible. In order for humans to gain any knowledge of reality, Plato says, it is necessary that some principles or truths remain absolute independent of historical or cultural setting and the mere opinions of individuals. The most famous example of such a truth is the principle of non-contradiction which states: a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. Thus, a statement is potentially true if it does not contradict itself. For Plato and other absolutist philosophers, truth is gained through logical application of these indubitable truths.

In the contemporary world the debate rages on. Many philosophers, sociologists, and scientists would be inclined to suggest that meaning is never independent of individual human beings or human social groups. For example, Friedrich Nietzsche famously explored how the meaning or truth of moral concepts such as good and evil are relative to the human usage of them. For the ancient Greeks good was a term applied to the noble, strong, and hubristic human beings. With the advent of Christianity in the west the meaning of the term underwent a revolution - the good became the meek, self-sacrificial, and altruistic. Meaning is in this sense socially constructed dependent upon the historical setting and culture in which the truth of something is sought. The catholic church in the contemporary world has set itself up as one of the foremost opponents of this kind of thought. Correct morality never changes as it has its source in the unchanging God.

Even within the field of world religions there is no consensus on this question. In the ancient Hindu texts, the rig Vedas, we find a mediated position which declares the truth is singular but there are many different paths. This position can be seen in the famous Hindu parable of the blind men and the elephant. Five blind men are brought into a room with an elephant and asked to describe the object there. One holds the trunk, another the leg, another the ear, and the descriptions of the object differ, dependent of course on the limited perspective of the individual.

Suggested Readings

For Some Form of Relativism:

Thomas Kuhn - The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Friedrich Nietzsche - On the Genealogy of Morality (PDF)

Richard Rorty - Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (In this text Rorty puts forth that neither side in this debate can even communicate with each other because each is operating from within a perspective in which the other sides argument is nonsensical- a perspectival or moderated relativism is hence at work in his very suggestion)

Against Relativism

Plato - Thaeatetus (Early in the dialogue Socrates argues against Protagoras' famous 'man is the measure' relativistic theory)

Richard Dawkins - The God Delusion (An interesting argument from a philosopher of science against relativism of the kind Thomas Kuhn puts forth. Dawkins suggests that relativism weakens the ability of science to pursue the fundamental truths of reality)

John Paul II - Veritatis Splendor (literally, The Splendor of Truth, J.P. II's argument for the reliance of all truth on the absolute will of God)

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