Nothing is Absolute. Really?

thinkingWhenever 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, noneeverything, 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.


11 thoughts on “Nothing is Absolute. Really?

  1. It’s also just the nature of how people speak: casually.

    Casually I might say “nothing is absolute”.

    What I might mean is something much more nuanced. “Very few things are absolute, as best as I can tell.”

    • Whitney Clayton says:

      I agree. I think most people do mean something nuanced like that. Actually, I think most people usually mean, “I don’t think morality is absolute,” but with no reason behind the statement. We rely on sweeping statements to hide us from pointed discussion. I know I have done that!
      Thanks for reading and engaging!

      • I would say I don’t think morality is absolute. Of course, that would depend on what one meant when they said it was.

        Morality is situational. Given certain situations, we can determine what actions would be moral and what actions immoral, and which actions would be amoral.

      • Whitney Clayton says:

        I would disagree. I think there is a remarkable consistency across cultures about right versus wrong. By no means is it comprehensive, but the existing consistency makes me wonder if we are just all sniffing around the same absolutes. And I am undeniably influenced by Christian conviction as well.

        Would you say that a lot of situations require more than an absolute sense of morality to make good decisions? Or would you go further and say that looking to make good decisions is too closely adhering to absolutes? Just curious.

      • ” I think there is a remarkable consistency across cultures about right versus wrong.”

        I agree. But that points to similar situations.

        I would say that situations require an understanding of harm and benefit, and believing in certain absolutes can lead to arbitrary or immoral behavior.

      • Whitney Clayton says:

        I agree with you. I think our difference may come in answering the question, “when you transgress your own moral code, how do you make that right?” It seems like situational morality answers that question by redefining what is good or bad by looking at the situation. I keep my moral code consistent and trust that even if I transgress, there is forgiveness.

        For instance, I would say that lying to save an innocent person’s life is still lying, and lying is bad. I just trust that I will be forgiven by God for having to choose between two evils. My moral code is unchanged, because I believe morality to be absolute.

      • “It seems like situational morality answers that question by redefining what is good or bad by looking at the situation”

        No. Things are good or bad based on the situation. No redefining necessary.

        “and lying is bad”

        Here we disagree.

        Lying can be moral, immoral or amoral. It depends on the situation.

      • Whitney Clayton says:

        I think we may be at an impasse on this one. I just don’t think situational morality works when you turn the situation around.

        For instance, a German citizen living through the holocaust may lie to protect a Jew hiding in his cellar may be deemed moral by the Jew, amoral by his standards as he simply does what is necessary to protect his property, and immoral by the German soldier enforcing the law.

        You need some standard or it all falls into might makes right.

      • Certainly. And the standard is an understanding of harm and benefit.

        The problem is not really morality…morality concerns how we treat other people.

        The problem is, who is considered ‘people’.

        To the Nazi, only certain people are people. To me, everyone is a person. So the decision that causes the least harm to the most people is the more moral decision.

      • Whitney Clayton says:

        I just want to say, I am really enjoying this conversation. Even though it is likely we will never completely agree, I am glad we talked.

        I think your standard is a very helpful one. I would have two fears with it though.

        First, I am afraid for those being abused or oppressed in a place where the danger of liberating them outweighs the danger they face on a daily basis.

        Second, my experience tells me that some people will agree with your moral standard. Far more will be “lookin’ out for #1”. Your standard may work and do good for an individual, but the larger the group the more you see the only indisputable doctrine of Christianity: mankind is sinful.

  2. “where the danger of liberating them outweighs the danger they face on a daily basis.”

    It’s never that simple, as ‘liberating them’ can take a number of different forms, some more risky to lives than others.

    “Far more will be “lookin’ out for #1″.”

    This comes back to the issue I mentioned early: who is to be considered ‘people’. To some people, it’s just themselves. (Generally, we consider those people sociopaths.) To others, it’s just their family or in groups. To others, it’s every human.

    I don’t really have a solution for that. Other than the fact that I will be teaching my children to respect all humans as people. But it is not a morality problem, its a problem of the perception of who a person is.

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Living Stone Community Church

All of Christ. For all of life.

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a blog by Greg Gibson

Denny Burk

A commentary on theology, politics, and culture

The Gospel Coalition

Tid-bits and Trifles on Faith, Culture, and Church from Whitney Clayton

The Gospel Coalition

Tid-bits and Trifles on Faith, Culture, and Church from Whitney Clayton

The Gospel Coalition

Tid-bits and Trifles on Faith, Culture, and Church from Whitney Clayton

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