Absolutely Relatively True

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My new blog post for The Jerusalem Post:

“Absolute truth.”

People like that phrase. It sounds serious. It shows they are committed. No weasel words. No equivocation. They said something, they mean it, and it’s absolutely true.

Menachem Kellner, a professor of Jewish Thought at the University of Haifa, uses the phrase in his excellent book Must a Jew Believe Anything?:

”Can I reject what I will show below to be Maimonides’s ‘theologification’ of Judaism without rejecting the allied claims that Judaism teaches truth and that there is one absolute truth? I certainly do not want to give those up!”1

I agree with Kellner both that Judaism teaches truth and that there is one absolute truth. But they might not be the same. And claims of absolute truth cause problems when you think about what “absolute truth” means.

For a belief to be absolutely true, it cannot be only relatively true. That is, its truth cannot depend on a particular set of circumstances or a way of describing the world. If it depends on things like that, then both its truth and its meaning are relative to those things. Under different circumstances or a different description of reality, the belief might be false or it might even be meaningless.

For example, consider a man sitting on a bench south of a railway track. A train passes him, going west at 50 kilometers per hour. The man looks through a train car window and sees a coffee cup on a table. He believes that the cup is moving west at 50 kilometers per hour. A man sitting at the table is also looking at the coffee cup. He believes that the cup is not moving.

Here are two beliefs: That the cup is moving west, and that the cup is not moving. They seem to conflict, but our common sense tells us that they don’t. Why? Because each man views the cup from a different frame of reference. Relative to the ground, the cup is moving; relative to the train car, it isn’t.

If I asked you whether or not the cup was “really” moving, you couldn’t answer without knowing the frame of reference. In fact, without a frame of reference, the question has no answer.

The same thing applies to other kinds of beliefs. If I say that “the book is on the table,” it means that if you looked at the table, then you would see the book. If you reached for what you saw, your hand would feel the book. Therefore, the belief is true relative to particular methods of verifying its truth, as well as specifications of which book, on which table, in which room. If any of those were different or removed, then the belief would be either false or meaningless.

To be absolutely true, a belief would have to be consistent with an infinite amount of information that covers every possible thing and event in the universe for all eternity. There’s only one Being who can comprehend that much information, and it’s not us. Absolute truth exists, to be sure, but finite beings like us never have access to it. Every truth we are intellectually able to grasp is relative to a finite, usually small number of finite, usually small frames of reference:

”There will never be a proposition of which we can say, ‘This that I am asserting, with precisely the meaning I now attach to it, is absolutely true … The road of history is so thick with discarded certainties as to suggest that any theory which distributes absolute guarantees is touched with charlatanism.”2

Consider the story of the Exodus. If it’s absolutely true, then it’s true relative to every possible frame of reference. But historical and archaeological evidence is thin to non-existent that it ever happened, at least as described in the Bible.

The scientific method of verification by history and archaeology says it’s not true. If we claim absoluteness for our belief, then we have to give it up. And like Kellner, we’re not going to do that. The belief is part of our lives, our culture, and it does too much good.

If the belief is true, which it is, then it’s true relative to some frame of reference other than the scientific one. Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the founders of Modern Orthodox Judaism, had a suggestion:

”[Maimonides] sought to reconcile Judaism with the difficulties which confronted it from without, instead of developing it creatively from within.”3

Hirsch says the trouble with Maimonides was that he started with secular science and philosophy. He then tried to reconcile Jewish belief with them. Instead, according to Hirsch, we should start with Judaism. What does that mean for our current problem?

It means that instead of looking to empirical science to verify Jewish beliefs, we should look to the Torah and the Jewish tradition. Relative to that frame of reference, the Exodus story is true. And that’s not a problem. Judaism addresses a different part of life than history or archaeology and it has a different purpose.

Empirical science is good for navigating the world and for making things work. Judaism is good for telling us what it all means. Beliefs in one domain can’t be disproven by beliefs in the other because they’re true or false relative to different frames of reference.

Works Cited

Blanshard, B. (1939), The Nature of Thought. George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London.

Kellner, M. (2006), Must a Jew Believe Anything?, second edition. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, Portland, OR.

Footnotes


  1. Kellner, M. (2006), p. 5. 
  2. Blanshard, B. (1939), Volume II, p. 270. 
  3. Quoted in Kellner, M. (2006), p. 8. 

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
This entry was posted in Epistemology, Jewish Philosophy, Judaism, Philosophy, The Jerusalem Post and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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