Universal truth in an age of reason

Does it really all depend? Is one set of beliefs as equally valid as any other? A review of William Gairdner's defence of universal truth.
Derek Miedema | Nov 13 2008 | comment  



“That’s nice for you—but it doesn’t work for me.” How many times have you heard it? Universal truth is not a starting point for many conversations today and merely raising the idea may be a quick way to end some good conversation at a party. Better just ask someone to pass you another hors d’oeuvre, smile and nod.

Today, it would seem,absolute truth doesn’t exist and as a result William Gairdner’s latest book, The Book of Absolutes will appear as a bolt out of the blue. In it, the author and public intellectual gives relativism a run for its money through factual, thorough research. And though you may not believe it, he actually demonstrates the reality of universal truth in our world today.

Start here: Logic,states Gairdner, shows us that relativism is false. If everything is relative, then nothing can be absolutely true, not even the fact that everything is relative. If there is no truth, in other words, then not even relativism can be true. The author traces the presence of universals to the very foundations of science, culture and life: From Newton to Einstein in physics, from B.F. Skinner in psychology, through to Foucault, Chomsky and Derrida in culture and linguistics, to Locke, Hume, Kant and John Stuart Mill in philosophy.

If nothing is true, what remains is what each individual believes to be right—for them—which makes living in community difficult, says Gairdner. [1] When all we hold in common are tastes and preferences, when all our basic beliefs are individually unique, conversation (let alone community) is hard to come by.

Far from being dogmatic or confining, Gairdner argues that when held in proper balance, universal truth actually allows us to more fully appreciate the beauty of diversity. He writes, “t is the general term ‘forest’ that enables us to speak of thousands of different types of trees as of one type, not each different tree that enables us to understand the term ‘forest’". [2]

What we hold in common undergirds our uniqueness. Finding what we share is a challenge, however, because non-relativistic sources are hard to find, particularly in today’s culture. Who has the time and intellectual energy to find the universals and make them known? And why, again, does it really matter? Because, as Gairdner explains, “What is unifying for humanity is what is universal, accords with right reason, and is aimed at the common good. In contrast to this, what is often charming, but potentially divisive, is what is only particular or relative.” [3]

Gairdner also considers that cultural relativism, the lack of universal rights and wrongs in culture, is fertile ground for human rights abuses. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were able to radically alter their unique cultures in part because their citizens, for complex reasons, did not employ any universal standards by which to judge their leaders. Genocides can happen when individuals lose sight of their common humanity and see the other as something less than human.

Some of this discussion may seem esoteric. However, many elements of the world around us are very concrete—principles, like gravity and numeric calculations, like the speed of light, which support life on earth and our understanding of reality.

Margaret Somerville, founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law acknowledges a need for commonality: “One of the challenges of multiculturalism, pluralism and, indeed, globalization is to find a language and vocabulary that will cross the boundaries of religion, ethnic and national origin, and culture, and capture the profound shared realities of the human spirit that can give meaning to our lives. Finding this language… might also be critical to our survival as a species and a planet.” [4]

Gairdner is, in The Book of Absolutes, clearly seeking to present his readers with an alternative way of thinking and speaking. It is a timely reminder to reconsider the pitfalls of relativism while looking anew at the benefits of universals. Back to the party chit chat—if you drop that hors d’oeuvre, it’s highly likely it will hit the carpet—following the universal law of gravity. Maybe there’s room to discuss the concept of universal truth in our culture, after all.

Derek Miedema is a researcher at the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada.

[1]Writes Gairdner: “[W]e have all, to a distressing degree, consigned ourselves to intellectual and moral loneliness.” Gairdner, W.D. (2008) The Book of Absolutes: A Critique of Relativism and a Defense of Universals. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press. p. xiv.

[2] Ibid.

[3]Gairdner, p. 196

[4] Somerville, M. (2000). The Ethical Canary: Science, Society and the Human Spirit. Toronto: Penguin Books. p. 286

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