Whenever I hear someone say “Nothing is absolute”, I immediately put on my serious, sober-minded, thinking face as I respond, “Are you absolutely sure?” It is a silly way to respond to a serious question, but it does illustrate a big problem. To state nothing is absolute is to make an absolute statement. “Nothing is absolute” is a self-defeating statement. It says too much. It is sort of like telling someone you don’t know how to speak English. In English.
But I get why it makes sense to a lot of people.
When I was a young lad, I was taught not just the information needed to take tests; I was taught how to take tests regardless of the information. The first rule was that if you see the words always, never, every, none, everything, or nothing you are looking at a false statement. This was, ironically, my first introduction to both logic and postmodernism.
Nostalgia aside, that test taking rule is effective because there is so little in our world of which we can be 100% confident. Therefore, when a college professor (or freshman, as is more likely) says nothing is absolute, I have been preconditioned to respond in agreement. My preconditioning took the form of getting a lot of questions right without ever reading the question itself. I just looked for my buzzwords. And it worked. Nothing true was absolute.
But then I ran into a big problem: my rule contains my buzzword. It fails with reference to itself. Smart guys call this kind of statement self-referentially incoherent. So next time you hear it, lean towards your absolutizer of nothingness and, with as much gravity as you can muster, ask them, “are you absolutely sure?” Then go to dinner and have a good laugh together.
That will probably not suffice. So, to give this statement, “Nothing is absolute“, a fair treatment, which I am not at all sure it deserves, I will explore a few less priggish answers. I will do this via two avenues of discourse: the factual faultiness of the statement and the unlivable nature of the belief.
1. Mathematics are absolute. 2+2 equals 4 all over the world. Now, if you are in India, your cabbie may try to argue this point, but stick to your guns, because math does not change. If you set two Rupee next to two other Rupee, your cabbie has four Rupee. Math is an absolute, brute fact. While pointing out the self-referential incoherence may make someone quiet about their belief, kindergarten mathematics will force a retraction. Nothing is not just a strong statement, it is a false statement.
2. Even if you believe nothing is absolute, you hope your airline pilot does. Or your heart surgeon. Or your wife who promised to be faithful. No one who says nothing is absolute wants to live in that world. What if your mechanic disconnected your brakes because he did not believe in the laws of physics, instead trusting in Zeno’s paradox to keep you from bumping into anything? What if our judicial system reoriented their rulings away from those rigid law thingys and passed judgments according to personal preference? What if the world rose up in protestation against the Nuremberg Trials for attempting to absolutize morality against those law abiding Nazis? Humans were built to desire absolutes. Without them, our world would be unlivable.
So, hopefully in just these few short paragraphs it has become readily apparent why the statement “Nothing is absolute” is self-defeating, factually incorrect, and existentially untenable.