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Resolving the Relative-Absolute Dilemma

by Gabe Czobel Abstract: There is a perennial conflict about views regarding what is relative and what is absolute, with some holding great contempt for the view that claims that no absolutes exist and all is relative. Such contempt is based on a fear of the consequences of unbounded relativism and is propped up by the argument that unbounded relativism logically defeats its own claim. Here we examine both issues and argue that they are really baseless and there is no real cause for pointless worry.

"Give me a firm place to stand and I will move the Earth." - Archimedes of Syracuse Of course Archimedes was expressing his confidence that with a long enough lever and a firm enough fulcrum and place to stand, even a man may move something as massive as the Earth. We can imagine, however, that if the fulcrum and the place to stand were not fixed very firmly indeed, this feat would not work no matter how long the lever. For instance, standing in deep, soft mud, Archimedes and his fulcrum would simply sink or slip upon applying force to the lever. The required firm ground would work best if it was inexorably fixed and needed nothing further to support it, that is, independent of any other support. Otherwise such ground itself would need further support that was independently firm and fixed. Eventually, at the bottom of it all, there would need to be some ultimate base of support which was itself independently firm and fixed. This would make that final supporting ground absolute in its firmness, possessing the quality of being utterly fixed in space, but fixed by and depending on nothing else. This is the notion of absolute. Where do our common everyday notions of absolute come from so that such a concept found its way into language? Typically, something appears to be absolute if it has the characteristics of perfect firmness, pervasiveness and immutability. There is some sense of endless, final grandness to absolutes. They depend or rest on nothing else, entirely objective and self contained. In this sense, time appears to be absolute in that it appears to be pervasive, the same for all, and pass at the same rate, regardless of physical location or point in time. It appears to have no start nor end and hence appears dependent on nothing since we can't cognise anything before or beyond it. Space appears absolute in that it appears to have no bounds and, again, we are not aware of anything beyond it upon which it may depend. Objects moving about in space do not appear to change in shape or extension; space remains the same throughout its seemingly endless extent, immutable. There is no apparent support for the nature of space, no dependence on anything else. It just is - a brute fact. The Earth appears to be the fixed, immovable center of this space since all bodies seem, to the casual observer at least, to move about it. In this sense of appearing to be fixed, the Earth is a spatial absolute, a point of reference needing no reference to anything else. When we speak of immaterial concepts like truth, love, virtue, evil, beauty, justice and so on, there is an appearance that all people agree on the commonly held sense of these notions, that they are immutable and pervasive, something fixed against which specific worldly instances of these things are compared. The same goes for fundamental mathematical entities like circle, line, angle, and number.

Such abstractions are taken as perfect standards, that is absolutes, appearing to rely on nothing against which they are compared but standing as the basis of all worldly instances which are compared against them. There is the appearance that some notions may be taken to ultimate limits of quality, quantity, or perfection. One can conceive of ultimate truth, perfect virtue, unlimited strength, perfect straightness, pure evil, and so on. Language can accommodate such notions without problem because it costs nothing to juxtapose words whose combined meaning is, in fact, materially and phenomenally unattainable, such as, for instance, immovable object, irresistible force, infinite power, ultimate reality, center of the universe. These are typically some commonplace material or phenomenal concepts, but taken in the mind to their imagined limit or perfection. Such notions may be taken to be absolutes since it appears that nothing of their kind can exceed them and consequently they are unique, incomparable, immutable. But not everything that language may refer to necessarily exists. In reality, no ultimate absolutes are ever experienced in phenomena, because they cannot be. No infinite values are ever experienced directly since infinity is not something that is attained but merely approached. No perfection of any quality is ever observed because our senses and instruments cannot attain an accuracy of zero error needed in order to detect such perfection. These concepts of perfection and finality are entirely verbal abstractions. This is how absolute is defined: adjective • free from imperfection; complete; perfect • ultimate • not mixed or adulterated • complete; outright • unqualified, • not dependent on, conditioned by, or relative to anything else; independent: noun • something that is not dependent upon external conditions for existence or for its specific nature, size, etc. ( opposed to relative). • the absolute, a. something that is free from any restriction or condition. b. something that is independent of some or all relations. c. something that is perfect or complete. It is clear from the definition that the term absolute has two distinct senses. One relates to perfection and the other to a lack of dependence on anything else. For instance, a gold object that is absolutely pure simply means that no other elements are in its makeup, not even a single atom. There is no sense of independence here in the sense of having no reliance on anything else in space or time or terms of abstraction. The concept of purity still relies on other concepts like mixture of various things and the concepts of parts and wholes. On the other hand, an absolute in the sense of independence, say ultimate fixed reality, has no sense of perfection which would imply the existence of some intermediate forms of imperfect reality in comparison. In order to be independent, the absolute must not rely on anything else to which it must be compared or by which it must be qualified. Whatever qualities the absolute possesses, these qualities are reliant on nothing else. From here on, we must take care not to conflate these two senses of absolute.

Where do similar notions of relative come from? This comes completely and easily from experience since everything in our phenomenal world can be seen to be related to something else in countless ways. That is, things are connected by relationships to other things. For instance, a roof is connected to walls in the relationship of "rests on." A planet is connected to its star in the relationship of "orbits." Two brothers are connected by the "sibling of" relationship. Each brother also has the relationship of "son of" to their parents. Even more important in the current context are such relationships as "depends on," "qualified by," "conditional upon," and the like. For instance, the beauty of a painting depends, at the least, on the skill of the artist. The speed of a rocket is conditional upon the type of fuel and the resistance of the surrounding medium. Success in some endeavour is qualified by the effort applied to attain it. Whatever qualities the relative possesses, these qualities are reliant on other things related in a variety of ways. This is how relative is defined: adjective • considered in relation to something else; comparative • existing or having its specific nature, meaning, or significance only by relation to something else; • not absolute or independent • comparative or respective • having relation, pertinence or connection noun • something having, or standing in, some relation to something else. • something dependent upon external conditions for its specific nature, size, etc. ( opposed to absolute). Relative and absolute may be adjectives that describe the nature of various things or may be nouns which refer to things inherently possessing relative or absolute characteristics. For example, the noun "son" inherently possesses the relation of "son of" to his father without the need for an adjective. The noun "foot" inherently possesses the relation of "part of" to the body which it supports (another inherent relation of foot). A parcel of land may have the relation of “adjacent” to another parcel of land and the relation of “owned by” to the person who holds the deed to it. Relations and dependencies abound in the world and countless examples are easy to find with little effort, as we have just seen. As easy as it is to come up with concrete examples of the relative, the exact opposite appears to be the case in coming up with tangible examples of absolutes that fully meet the criteria. For instance, a circle (taken as a concept and not as an actual material instance of something circular) appears at first glance to be inherently absolute, in the sense of perfect, by its definition as the locus of all points in a plane exactly equidistant from a specific point. In this sense, the phrase "perfect circle" would be redundant, as any abstraction described as an imperfect circle would not really be a circle by this definition. But "circle" is an abstraction and only imperfect approximations are found in the material world. It also depends on other abstractions like plane, distance and locus, and thus fails the test of absolute in the sense of independence. For instance, the size of the circle depends on its radius, a distance. Further examples of what, at first glance, seem absolute will also be seen later to fail the criteria on various counts. The problems in finding absolutes will be shown to be pervasive and intrinsic to the nature of the world we inhabit.

Relative and absolute are considered exclusive opposites when taken in the sense of dependence or conditioned. What is absolute is unconditioned, self-contained, independent and what is relative stands in need of some dependency relation to something else. Relative things of course always stand in some relation to something but absolute things may also, as long as its not a dependency relation. For instance a standard will stand in the relation of "basis for" to something which is judged by that standard. Thus, a particular meter stick may be "the same length as" the standard meter just as the standard meter can also be "the same length as" this meter stick, symmetric relational connectives in both directions. Note that the standard meter, described as the length of the path traveled by light in vacuum in 1/299,792,458 of a second, is taken here, for the purposes of this example, as an absolute to which numerous instances of ordinary meter sticks are compared, but it clearly is not really unconditioned, even as an abstraction. It really depends on such things as light, vacua, seconds, and space itself. It may be taken as an absolute in the sense of being an unchanging standard on which a vast range of other things may depend in a relationship of comparison. But it demonstrates the patent difficulty of finding genuine concrete absolutes in the fullest sense of independence. To be more precise, even this standard could not be considered unchanging since there were earlier alternate standards for the meter, such as that based on the distance from the Equator to the North Pole or on a platinum-iridium bar kept in Paris. Since the standard underwent change, even if microscopic in size, its value is a function of time, hence dependent on time. This further fails the independence test for absolute. This standard then is also contextually dependent, the context being time. The quest to truly meet the criterion of utter unmitigated independence really seems impossible in our world as it is, as we will further see below. Why Bother? So far this narrative appears rather uninteresting and trivial. Why is there even a need to unravel what is relative and what is absolute? The way these terms are defined, it would seem that some things are relative and some other things give the appearance of being absolute, at least in some lax sense of the word. Those things that appear absolute, in the sense of independent and unconditioned, would act as anchors, ground, or boundaries to the rest of reality which would be relative to these absolute things, in the sense of dependent. Even if absolutes are not readily apparent, there is the belief that with enough careful thought and analysis, we will eventually discover some of these absolutes. The world looks too ordered, structured, and enduring in its regularity to think that there is no firm ground upon which it rests. The search for absolutes is to be desired, one would think, so that we may have fixed points of reference by which to understand the world around us and help order and ground our lives in some hoped for certainty. This is why the need for the existence of absolutes takes on such importance! But cracks soon appear in this edifice upon detailed examination as hinted at earlier. We will soon see that things known with strict certainty to be utterly independent and unconditioned just cannot be found for very specific reasons based on the nature of the world as we know it. Even in the sense of the absolute taken as perfect and ultimate, the only candidates are really just abstractions, which are simply mental concepts, and as such, dependent on the nature of the human mind which forms the concepts. They have no palpable phenomenal existence other than as imperfect and approximate instantiations that may be found in the world and from which the perfect mental concepts are likely derived to begin with. Well enough. Then why not simply make the claim that everything is relative, there are no absolutes. But this is not so easy either. There is quite an abundance of philosophical rumination, angst and

disdain around this point of view, generally called relativism. The two major concerns expressed about the relativistic position are always this: C1. The consequence of fully accepting relativism is a dreaded total anarchy, since without some sort of fixed, independent ground, anything goes; there are no anchors or Archimedian fulcra to stabilise and affirm, as certain and fixed, any particular world view. All views, even the most feared and despised, have equal status. C2. Logically, the relativistic position is self-refuting when applied to the claim of relativism itself. Usually C2 is touted as the magic bullet by which the fearsome dragon of C1 is slain, with a great flourish of vindication and relief to all. But then little or no thought is given to the inescapable logical alternative, the opposite of full relativism, that some absolutes must exist in some fashion! This simply takes us back full circle to the original problem of just how such absolutes may be congnised with certainty. If absolutes cannot be cognised with certainty, we really can't call them absolutes and they cannot serve as the fixed ground we hoped will underpin some favoured world view. I will argue that we can get along just fine pragmatically without the worst fears expressed in C1, and that C2 is based on an unstated assumption about the scope of the relativistic claim, that gives it the appearance of being absolute and relative at the same time and thus self-refuting. Where are the Absolutes, Really? Based on the definition of absolute, can we even cognise, experience with any certainty, or realise anything to which the attribute "absolute" may be applied, other than as an abstraction? As remarked earlier and explained in greater detail later, abstractions don't really solve this problem on account of their dependence on the mind, whether the mind is taken as a manifestation of the material or some immaterial substance. Let's examine some major constituent domains of our world to see if absolutes may be found. Time Time was once thought to be an absolute in the sense that it was held to be all pervasive and appeared to be the same and pass at the same rate for all, dependent on nothing. Time was viewed as just an utter fundamental of our world, a brute fact. This view simply turned out to be the consequence of restricted experience. The theory of special relativity explained that this view of time is approximately true for different inertial frames of reference moving relative to each other at speeds that are very slow compared to the speed of light. But at speeds that are a significant fraction of the speed of light, the case of which we just have no everyday experience, the rate of passage of time and notions of what events occur simultaneously in time are entirely dependent on the relative motions of the observers' frames of reference. There is no fixed, all pervasive, absolute time frame of reference for all observers! What was once thought of as one of the most fundamental of absolutes is now known to be relative, dependent. But wait! Doesn't the theory of relativity postulate another absolute? That is, the speed of light in a vacuum is constant for observers in all inertial frames of reference. Put another way, all observers in various inertial frames will agree on the speed of propagation of a particular beam of light which they may measure. Now it makes sense that anything that is absolute, in the sense of being independent,

should be constant forever, that is in the infinite past and infinite future. For if the speed of light changes over time, let's say over great spans of time, then its value at any instant is dependent on time, even if the value is the same for all observers of any particular beam of light. Hence it would no longer be absolute in the sense of being independent. The predictions of the theory of relativity have been empirically validated, that is, not falsified. Thus, we can have some confidence that, within the range of our observations and within the bounds of their accuracy, the postulate that the speed of light is constant for all inertial observers holds. But of course this applies to the observable universe in terms of the present and the past, since we cannot predict the future or what will be observed under more accurate measurements. It is impossible to know with perfect certainty that the value of the speed of light will not change or fluctuate in the future. There may yet be some future theory that subsumes the theory of relativity and yet allows for some time dependent variation in the speed of light. With the certainty that is needed to call the speed of light an absolute removed by the uncertainty of what the future holds, it cannot really be an absolute. This is a vexing problem for anything that is put forth as a possible absolute! We cannot tell what will happen in the future with any certainty even if we have thus far observed that the nature of things pretty much goes on as it has in the past. We have seen this to be the case where time was once thought of as an absolute, a brute independent fact, but is now considered otherwise. And if the nature of things may change in the future, either abruptly or with imperceptible slowness, nothing may be known with certainty to be eternally constant and hence absolute, independent of time! The same idea applies to possible time dependence of changes that may be revealed under increasingly accurate measurements, such as the case of the standard meter. Even if we dismiss the uncertainty introduced by the future, the constancy of the speed of light still fails the test of absoluteness. In various forms of equations due to James Clerk Maxwell, the speed of light, or any electromagnetic wave, forms a dependency relationship with other physical constants, that is, the magnetic permeability and the electric permittivity of free space. These physical constants form a dependency relationship with one another and hence none are absolute on this account, since none is considered primary. Existence gets even more dubious for purported absolutes when we consider multiverse hypotheses which are given serious consideration in the field of cosmology. In this view, the multiverse would form all that exists. A true absolute would then need to be absolute in all the universes constituting the multiverse, otherwise it would be contextually dependent. But anything that is touted as an absolute in our universe, in terms of a constant value, may have a different value in some other universe, which is part of the multiverse, or may not even exist in that universe. It does no good to point out that multiverse theories may not even be empirically testable. They are still consistent with our mathematics to the extent that they cannot be outright discounted. This provides enough uncertainty regarding the full universality of any absolute that may be proposed in our observable universe, a mere possible corner of the encompassing multiverse. Again, it is uncertainty that derails confidence in any proposed absolute. Why is such uncertainty so destructive of anything so proposed? Because we seek absolutes just in order to provide a firm, fixed ground upon which to rest a world view in whose firmness and certainty we may have great confidence. Our observations of phenomena, even in the past, is not limitless in accuracy and scope, hence it is dependent as well on this account. Any purported absolutes are still riding on this dependency, hence not absolutes in the strictest and proper meaning of the word. To make this more clear, take the claim, "the speed of light is constant,” which would appear to be an absolute assertion. Yet, when we restate this more precisely as, "the speed of light has been constant up til now within measurement

parameters,” it clearly becomes a relative assertion depending on the current time and past events and measurements. This is the case, even though the assertion is enormous in scope, with the built-in range that it applies to all the known universe over the span of about 14 billion years since the Big Bang. The upshot is that for anything to be claimed as a certain absolute, it must be known with certainty that it is immutable for all time in all locales. But we simply cannot make such a claim since our experience is limited in time and locale coupled with the fact that we have not observed any bounds to time nor locale. Thus we cannot cognise the nature of what may lie beyond our furthest current observations and inferences. Such a dismissal of absolutes on account of their uncertainty may appear to be nit-picking. So we don't know what will happen in the future or under more precise examination or in other possible universes. But experience tells us that, to the extent that we can determine from phenomena and within the limits of the accuracy and scope of our senses and our instruments, nature does not appear to undergo massive change willy-nilly. Isn't this good enough? It can't be! We need to underscore the necessity of the many italicised stipulations, hence dependencies, in the recent sentence. We just can't seem to escape all these dependencies and provisos in the search for stable ground, no matter what. Then how can we pin our hopes on attaining fixed points of reference with so many inescapable conditions imposed? It seems that any attempt to come up with examples of absolutes, no matter how grand in scope, simply amounts to no more than finding those that turn out to be inherently oxymoronic, dependent absolutes. This is most certainly not good enough to provide a fixed ground for any world view. Such world views will be no more certain than the uncertainty inherent in such a ground. Can't we simply allow that there are things that are so grand in scope - such as all of the observable universe probed with instruments of great precision, in human terms, that we can take them, for practical purposes, to be absolutes, and damn the strict sense of the word. It will be shown later, that this approach actually hints at a grand relativism and not absolutism. But the very linguistic sense of absolute precludes a practical stance in its support. It is a term of finality, ultimate, perfect, unconditioned. There cannot be degrees of perfection without getting into disputes on just where to draw the line. There cannot be unconditioned things that are just a tiny bit conditioned without bumping headlong into the problem of settling on a value for "tiny bit". Such difficulties will not provide us with certain fixed values but simply add to dissension and uncertainty. Absolute is all or nothing, otherwise it is relative. A circle that has the tiniest bump is no longer a circle. But the relative, which is the imperfect, the dependent, the conditioned, can assume a vast range of imperfection and dependence from the minutest, to approaching, but never reaching what is unreachable by its precise definition, the infinite. Hence, we can consider the relative to approach the absolute as close as we please, with the minutest of imperfection or dependence, and still never actually become the absolute. It would still remain relative, only ever grander in scope, certainty, and firmness. The inescapable problem of allowing claims that are grand in scope and firmness to be labeled as absolutes is the issue of where to draw the line. Just how grand in scope need something be to attain absolute status. It is clear that this way lies dissension, uncertainty and confusion, which defeats the very reason why we hope to find absolutes. Space We have seen the daunting, inescapable uncertainty of time dependence impacting the quest to find certain absolutes. The other fundamental aspect of our world, namely space, simply adds more nails to the coffin. Special relativity postulates that there are no preferred inertial frames of reference, so there is no static, fixed point in space to be found to which all spatial matters may be related. This is not unlike looking for a point on a circle on which all other points on the circle depend but which itself

depends on none. Furthermore, like time, the metric of space itself is dependent on the frame of reference of the observer. A meter stick standing still will appear longer than the very same meter stick whizzing by at a significant fraction of the speed of light, provided that it is not perfectly perpendicular to its direction of motion. And it is not just the meter stick that appears to shrink but the very space of the speeding frame of reference of which it is a part and which may be measured by it. The very extension of space itself is thus motion and direction dependent, not absolute. There also appear to be no bounds to space and our spatial intuitions rail against having such bounds. We simply cannot conceive of spatial boundaries without wondering what lies beyond. How can space simply end? Our minds just can't hold that concept. If we could conceive spatial boundaries then it would follow that space is absolute; it would simply extend from boundary to boundary in a fixed manner. But this is conceptually impossible for the aforementioned reason. Hence, any point in space is as good as another. There is no fixed reference point. In space lies no Archimedian fulcrum. Thus any claim to absoluteness partaking of a spatial nature, either of position or extension, cannot meet the definition of absolute. If it appears that absolutes of space and time, essentially the full domain of our external reality, cannot be realised, where else can we search for the elusive absolute? One can always try to circumvent this inconvenience by claiming that absolutes are outside of space and time. But just what can this mean? Has anyone objectively managed to visit this outside realm and return to tell about it in a convincing manner? Has anyone actually observed some phenomena that unequivocally originate there? Just because one can easily juxtapose the words "outside of space and time," does this really confer any credibility to the existence of such a realm, let alone describe its nature? We can effortlessly speak the words, "four sided triangle," or "married bachelor," but such utterances cannot conjure such entities into existence. There may very well be independent dimensions about our world that are neither spatial nor temporal of which we are currently unaware. But at this time, it is greatly premature to speculate if they exist, since there is no confirmed evidence of such, let alone any knowledge whatsoever of just what the nature of such dimensions may be. If we have no knowledge of the nature of such a realm, assuming it exists in some fashion, how can we know that the term "absolute" even applies to anything within it in a meaningful way. This would be utter speculative extrapolation of the nature of our universe and our concepts to something purportedly beyond it. We can only search for absolutes in realms where we have significant confidence that we know about the nature of the realm. Otherwise, unbounded speculative anarchy would derail any meaningful reasoning about the matter. To put this another way, although we can't claim with certainty that there exists nothing outside of our own observed universe, outside of space and time, unless we can be reasonably confident that such a domain is entirely like ours, we can say nothing meaningful about it. Claiming that absolutes may be found there does not give us the confidence and firmness that we are seeking in absolutes in the first place, one that could come from certainty. Abstractions Abstractions were mentioned earlier as possible absolutes, such as a circle. But a circle is an absolute in the sense of perfection only, not in the sense of independence, since the definition of the circle relies on other abstractions like "plane," "locus," "point," and "distance." Can there be absolute abstractions in the sense of being independent of anything else? Abstractions are typically assertions and idealisations of real phenomena of which the mind is aware, either phenomena external to the mind, such as objects and activity in the world, or internal to it such as emotions, thoughts, inklings, claims and assertions. In fact, all abstractions are described in words or are symbols whose meaning may be described in words. To that extent, they are dependent on words, and in fact, on a specific language. Not all

languages contain the same abstractions, where, for instance, some primitive societies may not have the same abstractions for quantities as a more sophisticated society. Languages evolve over time, adding new words and altering the sense of existing words. This is always problematic for absolutes which require utter temporal immutability as argued earlier. Furthermore, the lexicon of a language is typically self-referent, also a form of reflexive dependence. That is, a word is defined and understood in terms of other words. There is no external reference frame outside of the lexicon to which words are linked in a wordless manner. Hence, insofar as there is a complete dependence of abstractions on language and its lexicon, there cannot be any absolute abstractions dependent on nothing. Abstractions are also dependent on the human mind. This is difficult to grasp since that is the only perspective available to us and we cannot step outside and compare to other possible types of minds. But even with this limitation, we can get some inkling of this dependence in comparing human minds in terms of the level of sophistication of abstractions that some minds may grasp, such as nonEuclidean geometries, to other human minds that simply cannot grasp these things regardless of the effort made. Hence, the specific nature of human minds, imbedded in a specific type of physical body existing in space and time at a particular scale, simply circumscribe the scope of what we can conceptualise. Our abstractions, that is what we can conceptualise, are very much dependent on the nature of the mind and the nature of the world in which this mind finds itself. We have earlier come across this kind of conceptual limitation when pondering the concept of a sudden end of space in any direction, a concept we just cannot form. A certain species of abstraction, namely values, seems to have a great hold on us when searching for absolutes. That this is the case is no mystery, as values are those abstractions which speak of worth. Values speak of what things are of great worth to us and what we ought to deem worthy. A common mistake is to hold those values, that most find very powerfully compelling, to be the absolute, such as a value judgement regarding horribly revolting acts like genocide. But judging such things as an absolute wrong, for instance, is certainly not absolute in the sense of depending on nothing, since holding such a value clearly rests on our human nature being what it is, so that a great majority of people are innately abhorred by such acts when contemplated under normal circumstances. Clearly, by the very fact that such acts are committed, there are enough people under certain circumstances that do not hold this value. That a great majority of people innately abhor genocide is not unlike the case where a vast majority of people would find an ambient temperature of 60° C to be unbearable for any length of time. This is not an independent, objective truth about this temperature itself inherently bearing the attribute of unbearable, but a truth about the nature of the human mind-body biological system and the range of temperatures under which it may thrive and feel comfortable. Other life forms that are thermophilic, for instance, and live in volcanic hot springs, have a completely different view of the very same temperature. Similarly, value judgements, such as those about genocide, are truths about human nature, which itself is not homogeneous among people but whose components vary typically in some form of statistical distribution over the members of our species. For instance, the degree of abhorrence of genocide will vary from person to person over some range, from utter indifference to unbounded abomination. That a great majority cluster over a certain range of this value speaks of the shape of such a statistical distribution. Other conscious beings, animals say, may be affected by the death of some humans, so that a dog, for instance, would likely exhibit grief at the death of his master. Vultures, on the other hand, would view human carnage in a completely different light. But neither the dog nor the vulture would have any notion of genocide, let alone assign it some moral value. It does not impinge on their nature, as far as

we know. Needless to say, inanimate objects hold no such value. This paints a picture not of some objective, independent, universal absolute but yet of some subjective human judgement, even if it is powerfully compelling and predominant. Regarding such powerfully compelling cases, there is a countervailing view that the vast majority correctly perceives an objective, independent, absolute truth and the dissenting minority simply fail to realise fully or partly the fact of this objective truth, in the same way that sighted people may see the moon but sightless ones can't or those with poor eyesight perceive it but dimly. The moon is there regardless. Of course animals and inanimate objects are not expected to see such objective truths any more than they would see the truth of the Pythagorean theorem. On closer examination, this view, or model, of an objective moral truth fails to hold water. The model essentially posits two layers which interact. The ground layer is a body of objective moral truths which exist in some absolute independent sense, a “cosmic scroll” so to speak. The dependent layer consists of humans who perceive the truths in the ground layer, some clearly, and others not so clearly or not at all. The truths, like the moon, are there regardless. The major difficulty with this model is that there are no determinate details on offer that may be objectively verified as to how and where such immutable truths reside and the mechanism by which people can perceive them, or worse, fail to do so. Then how can we tell that the posited ground layer indeed exists independently and is absolute? The simpler fallback position from the two layer model is the alternate one layer model, as described above, that asserts that there is no mysterious independent ground layer but only the single human layer with moral values dependent entirely on the broadly common human nature manifest in each individual. The values are intrinsic and common to the nature of the human mind-body biological system much like the tolerance of certain ambient temperature ranges. Moral values are no different than a broad preference for sweets, for instance, being common among humans. How can we distinguish between these two models? Typically, the answer to this difficulty by the adherents of the two layer model, when applied to genocide for instance, amounts to something like this: surely everyone knows the truth of the matter that genocide is wrong! What is being claimed by this purported test offered to discriminate between the two models is that if a vast majority of people strongly hold some value judgement, it must be true intrinsically and objectively. But this ploy still sidesteps any attempt to directly demonstrate the existence and mechanism of the ground layer and still relies on the assumed inference that humans get their moral values from the ground layer by a still unknown mechanism. We are left no further ahead at all on these difficulties! It then raises, without answer, the further question of just how a preponderance of strong opinion better demonstrates some underlying independent truth of the two layer model in comparison to the alternate model. For with the alternate one layer model, the answer to the very same question would be identical in vigor and preponderance to the two layer model if the abhorrence of such acts is merely intrinsic to human nature and elicits a widespread, vigorous reaction. This test simply fails to discriminate! The advantage and compelling attractiveness of the one layer model is that it is simpler and relies on natural neurological mechanisms whose functioning is conceptually familiar and testable, even if the precise details are lacking. However, research is shedding increasing light here. And pertinent to our examination of compelling cases in the sphere of values being regarded as absolutes, the one layer model that is dependent solely on human nature defeats the requirement of independence needed for such values to be deemed as truly absolute. The dependency is on human nature and its range of variability over the species.

Yet, on account of the great emotional tug of such compelling values on most people, there is still a very strong urge to consider them in absolute terms, entirely independent of human nature, and we find expressions of great indignation at any suggestion that this is not the case. How can anyone contemplate the notion that something like genocide is not an absolute wrong, one often hears? But taking a strict stand on the proper meaning of "absolute", even in such an emotionally charged case, is emphatically not the same as claiming that genocide is consequently value neutral. If values speak of what is of worth to humans, it can still be unequivocally affirmed as a statement of empirical and statistical fact that a vast majority of people would find acts such as genocide abhorrent and deeply consequential. The holding of such strong values by a majority of humans can be empirically determined and statistically measured without any need to rely on some mysterious objective standard to validate it. Such measurement would still clearly and forcefully affirm what humans, by and large, find to be of worth, at least in some compelling instances. Stretching language in a loose manner and calling absolute what is still clearly relative, just invites muddy thinking and impedes clear reasoning. Once the attribute “absolute” is attached to some claim, it becomes needlessly sacrosanct and immune to examination. Making such a linguistic attachment in clear contradiction to the meaning of absolute is indeed reckless and does nothing to serve critical thinking. It is by far more valuable to be more specific and accurate and clearly state that such acts are abhorred by humans on a vast scale except perhaps by people of a specific range of psychological dispositions acting under a specific range of circumstances. To do this is, of course, much more complex and burdensome in discourse, but taking the lazy way of subsuming it under one word that is not really correct would only lead to needless confusion and be open to deliberate obfuscation and abuse. Reason Finally, some would hold that reason, or formally, deductive logic is absolute since it is the bedrock upon which productive discourse, analysis, and mathematics rests. It is hard to think of something that is more deserving of the term absolute than what is viewed as a bedrock. But even logic still fails to meet the required standard of independence and reinforces the hopelessness of the quest to find utterly independent absolutes. Logic is broadly the process by which valid conclusions are drawn from premisses by means of rules of inference. If the premisses are true and the rules of inference preserve truth, the conclusions are true. How do we know that the premisses are true? They may in turn be deduced by the same process from earlier premisses, which in turn may be deduced from yet earlier ones, and so on. But where does this stop? And how do we know that the rules of inference are reliable in preserving truth? Can this be deduced by logic from more primitive rules of inference? There is clearly an endless regress here. In reality there is no bedrock! In order to make this system work, one needs to bite the bullet and simply postulate without proof, a set of initial premisses and rules of inference. Typically, these primary assumptions or postulates are so simple and unambiguously compelling that the logic built upon them turns out to work as expected in our world. But they are not absolutes since they are arbitrary starting points conveniently put in place to avoid the quandary of infinite regress. Different starting points may be chosen and different useful logics constructed upon them. Since the logics depend on the postulates, they are not absolute either.

Isn't Relativism Self-refuting? In spite of the hopeless picture just painted of the futility of searching for absolutes in the proper sense of the term, at least in the world that we appear to inhabit, there is a strong sentiment against the only alternative, an all pervasive relativism. This sentiment is propped up by a common argument that concludes that a statement of global relativism is self-refuting. Without getting into messy details, the brunt of the argument goes like this. A simple statement of global relativism is, for instance, S1: "All things are relative." Since S1 is universal on account of the quantifier "all", it must be applicable to itself, making it a relative statement, that is, not universally true. This implies that under certain conditions, situations and contexts, S1 is not true, or that it is not the case that all things are relative. This then contradicts S1. Another way of viewing it is that the universal quantifier "all" and the absence of any stipulations makes this statement absolute, unequivocal, since it brooks no exceptions. Yet this contradicts its meaning which brooks no absolutes, including itself. This apparent self-refutation does not automatically contradict all relativistic statements since it allows local ones of narrow scope. For instance, a person of short stature can claim that most people appear tall without contradicting a tall person who claims that most people appear short. Both claims are true in their relative, local context. The self-refutation of S1, however, is on account of its unequivocal claim of global scope. This proof of self-refutation is then broadly wielded as a weapon against any forms of relativism and their consequences that are deemed undesirable, such as C1 mentioned earlier. But does this proof really have teeth? In logic, the use of the quantifier "all" is meaningless without the clear specification of a universe of discourse. For instance, the truth value of the statement, "All creatures have feathers" is one thing when the universe of discourse consists of mammals and completely another thing when the universe of discourse is birds. When the universal quantifier is used without specifying the universe of discourse, the tacit assumption is that the universe of discourse is our whole universe, whatever that may mean. This is usually fairly safe when we talk of observable mundane matters within known stretches of time, but becomes risky when dealing with truly global, ultimately pervasive abstractions like absolute or relative matters of unspecified scope. We don't really know the full scope of our universe, either in time or in space. There are no clear, known boundaries nor knowledge of what may lie beyond what we can observe or deduce. So how can we have a precise universe of discourse with such fuzzy edges or possibly no edges at all? Now, it is possible to specify a universe of discourse without sharp boundaries, of course, if we know full well that this universe contains only known elements; the set of all integers, for instance. Although this set has no boundaries, as neither the largest positive nor negative integer exists, we have precise knowledge of the properties of all elements of this set. We can extrapolate endlessly. We can't make the same claim about what is beyond the observable or inferable bounds of our universe. We know that we can't see any bounds but can only speculate that what lies beyond is not different than what lies within. Given the surprises that have appeared as human knowledge has expanded, such speculation is beyond reckless. What can we do to clarify the issue posed earlier by an unstated universe of discourse? Let's now say that the universe of discourse is our observable universe for all time past and future and also include the theoretically possible multiverse of infinite universes. For now this is as broad and inclusive as we

can imagine. Let's label this universe U. This universe of discourse allows modal logic with possible worlds although we could only make assertions of necessity of a subset of U. Then lets label our observable universe up til now by U'. By “observable” I mean that universe which we know about through our senses, instruments, and logical deduction based on accumulated knowledge. For instance, we may know of very distant exoplanets not by their direct visual observation but by the use of sensitive instruments detecting stellar light variations and deducing the planet's existence from known physics. Clearly, U' is a proper subset of U. Because we observe no boundaries to U', nor know the nature of what may lie beyond, we can't be certain that anything we may learn of beyond U' will be no different than that which lies within U'. We cannot make any certain statements regarding anything in U that lies beyond U', although we could make statements of possibility or even probability given certain assumptions. It is for this reason, the uncertainty beyond U', that S1 can no longer be asserted; the “all” quantifier in S1 would make it apply to the entirety of the universe of discourse, that is U, thus encroaching on regions of utter speculation. Now, with this clarified universe of discourse U and its proper subset U', we can re-examine the notion of relativism. We can now alter S1 and still keep it global for pragmatic purposes by changing it to S2: "All things within U' are relative." In fact, we could not really make any rational claims at all beyond U' without getting into realms of unsupported, futile speculation. Hence, S2 is really as global as we can get regarding relativism, or any claim for that matter, and still keep assertions within the bounds of reason! That is, S2 really does apply to all we can know about at any point in time. If U' expands, through the mere passage of time, better instruments, and increased knowledge, the scope of S2 automatically expands with it. Although we cannot know about such things at any particular time, what lies beyond U' may later come into it through this expansion and hence become contexts and conditions for assertions, like S2. The reason that this matters is that any world view may only be rationally underpinned by what we know within U' yet there is no need for S2 to use the fatal “all” quantifier which would make it apply to the full entirety of the universe of discourse, namely U. But now S2 is no longer self-refuting! As before, S2 itself is within U' as a human abstraction, and hence itself is relative by its own claim. S2 still applies to all things in the whole region which is the only region we can sensibly talk about, U'. And U' is what really concerns us at any particular time. But the relativeness of S2 is also patently clear from its very form since the dependency on U' as its framework is clearly and explicitly stated in S2. S2 does not care to make claims about things in the superset U beyond U' and this is not a problem in restricting its applicability, since we can only idly speculate about such matters. They cannot have a known, predictable, testable effect on our world. It is crucial to understand the necessity of this structure in order for true global relativism to make sense. S2 simply cannot claim anything more global than what lies within our domain of time and space, that is U', without lapsing into futile speculation. We must pragmatically restrict our attention to U' and no more! Global relativism, properly expressed, need not be self-refuting as long as the scope of the global claim is clearly articulated , where the scope can still be as broad as possible in human terms, that is U', and explicitly refrains from going beyond it. But What of the Dreaded Consequences? If there are no absolutes and all is globally relative, in our human accessible domain of U' at least, does that mean that anything goes? There would be no fixed standards by which right and wrong may be judged since right and wrong would be relative to some conditions or contexts. Then there may well be contexts in which the most abhorrent acts, normally considered wrong, would be judged right or at least

not wrong. This is what global relativism means. What is true under one set of conditions, say that murder is wrong, may be false under some different set of conditions. To put this fear another way, if global relativism is true, then everything is right and permitted (by the term global relativism I mean only as specified by S2, that is, still restricted to U'). But one may ask, why use the term "right" in the previous sentence. If all values are relative, then something that is right and permitted under some conditions would be wrong and forbidden under other conditions. Then we could symmetrically reason that if relativism is true, then everything is wrong and forbidden. This is the symmetric counterpart of the reasoning that led to the conclusion that everything is right and permitted. Concluding that everything is wrong and forbidden, although not as frightening as its symmetrical counterpart, would have the consequence of stifling all action. But we can't have it both ways at the same time; everything being right and permitted yet everything being wrong and forbidden. There is clearly a conundrum here in drawing such opposite conclusions on account of global relativism. There must be a flaw in the reasoning. Perhaps the problem comes down to the terms "right" and "wrong". These terms are commonly taken to mean that something is being judged to be in accord or disagreement, respectively, with something else, typically some standard. In general use, perhaps out of laziness or to make a point quickly, seldom is any mention made of conditions restricting the scope of right and wrong. "Honesty is right!" for instance, or "Exploitation is wrong!" From this one gets the sense that "right" and "wrong" are being used in an unrestrictedly global sense, unconditioned, absolute, no less global than U. This sense of unrestrictedness all but becomes part of the meaning of these terms. With this in mind, it becomes clear what is wrong with the claim that if global relativism is true, then everything is right or conversely, everything is wrong. These claims are too broad in scope and unconditional, absolute. It is simply untrue to imply that global relativism unrestrictedly and unconditionally puts everything in the right all the time, or everything in the wrong all the time. Such claims actually contradict global relativism, which claims only that something may be right under some conditions and wrong under other alternate conditions, but not capriciously nor indiscriminately. The scope of right and wrong are constrained under global relativism to specific and exclusive conditions only and at the most only as broad as U'. It is misleading to claim that under relativism anything goes at any time. This again is too broad and indiscriminate in scope. All this may be set right by restating the claim this way: if global relativism is true, everything may be right variously under some specific conditions and everything may be wrong variously under some other specific conditions, and nothing is right or wrong under all conditions. This claim is not so frightening as the less qualified ones earlier. In fact, it is just another way of saying that all things are relative. We are simply used, by habit, to the terms "right" and "wrong" in describing values. This comes very naturally to people and is difficult to discard. But, as argued above, they are inappropriate under global relativism without clear qualification and actually lead to unnecessary confusion and concern. If we arrive at the conclusion that relativism is global in scope, as argued earlier, then we may only use "right" and "wrong", "true" and "false", "good" and "bad" and similar value attributes in a local scope, that is, conditionally and with clear qualification. For instance, we may say that 7 + 6 = 13 is right and that 7 + 6 = 15 is wrong. We may also say 7 + 6 = 15 is right and that 7 + 6 = 13 is wrong. The former is true under the condition where the numbers are in base 10 and the latter is true under the condition where the numbers are in base 8. But neither statement is globally true and the conditions are exclusive. The appropriate conditions must be clearly and explicitly articulated under global relativism. What of the concern that without unconditioned right and wrong, there is nothing firm upon which to fix a value system or world view? Wouldn't this lead to anarchy? Granted, life would be vastly simpler

with the existence of fixed global values that all would accept and live by, and that would act as a fixed frame of reference which could be used to adjudicate all disputes with finality. But it is a mistake to think that without fixed, absolute, unconditioned values, anarchy would be the inevitable consequence. We have to deal with the world as it is in reality, exceedingly complex, dynamic, and uncertain as it may be, where such fixed frames of reference just cannot be found. The reality of the world is that, although there are many contenders for systems of fixed, absolute values, such as those proffered by religions, sects, and philosophical and political systems, none have been deduced independently to be correct or universally recognised and adopted, and relativism is a de facto state. Much of this is a consequence of the same reason that even logic and reasoning are founded on essentially arbitrary postulates mentioned earlier. Yet, in spite of this state of affairs, the world has not collapsed into anarchy where anything goes. The world still presents choices and it may be discovered through experience that some choices lead to better outcomes overall, broadly judged, than others. It has been discovered over the span of human civilisation, for instance, that cleanliness and good hygiene are beneficial in terms of health. Certain diets are beneficial and others less so or are outright detrimental. Extremes of climate, we have learned, make life difficult and unpleasant and it is better to live in more temperate regions, all else being equal. Certain values may be similarly validated by experience to lead to better, more desirable outcomes overall, over greater stretches of time. For instance, stealing may provide short term gains for a few, but the ensuing conflicts, violence, instability and detriment to society as a whole leads to a poor general outcome in the long term. Many other values may be similarly validated through experience. This, in fact, has largely been done over time through the evolution of cultures in the world acting in effect as a large scale testbed for sets of values. Although there may be disputes about many details, certain broad values have gelled over time among most cultures. It is not difficult to tell that some cultures offer, broadly speaking, better, more desirable outcomes for their members than others. Clearly, subjectivity abounds, many details resist consensus and it may just be, in our very complex, dynamic world, that there is no best set of values across the board that may be empirically discovered. Various differing sets of values may offer roughly similar outcomes. But the outcomes may be broadly compared and a broad set of general values may be put on offer for people to chose. Knowing the possible outcomes would be enough of a frame of reference by which people could be guided and avoid anarchy. The systems of law in place in many stable, advanced cultures is really attained by just such a process. No one could claim that such systems represent fixed, independent, absolute values, but there is constant fine-tuning going on as experience exposes shortcomings and possible ways of improving the structure to bring better outcomes, assuming that the system has evolved in such a way that allows this. Anarchy, for the most part, has been the exception, or has been of short duration in terms of the time scale of civilisation, and not necessarily connected at all to a lack of absolute values. Even the purported existence of absolute values proffered by various religions has done little to deter many adherents of these religions from rationalising heinous acts, broadly held, which clearly go counter to the edicts of their faith. And what about such overwhelmingly compelling examples examined earlier like murder and genocide? These are clearly of much greater pertinence and consequence than adding numbers under various bases. How can we deal with the looming spectre that under global relativism, there may well be some conditions and contexts under which such acts would be somehow judged "right"? Although the possibility of this spectre cannot be completely discounted, it is probably a concern that is vastly overstated. When looking at things from a perspective of probability, one can imagine endless

horrendous events that may befall anyone at anytime during the course of their lives. There are many natural and man-made disasters that can overtake anyone without predictability or warning resulting in the possibility of horrendous suffering. But statistically, such events are uncommon on a day-to-day basis to the extent that most people don't let such concerns derail the everyday enjoyment of their lives. Millions of people travel by air regularly, for example, even though there is a tiny chance of a horrendous outcome. Thinking along the same lines, it would be exceedingly difficult to imagine contexts where condoning murder or genocide and the like would lead to broadly advantageous and desirable outcomes in the long run, and would hence be considered a rationally enticing value to the vast majority of people. It would be very easy to imagine the opposite, considering human nature. If such contexts are possible, they would be of the most extreme kind that would arise only in the direst of circumstances and probably quite rare in the large scheme of things. This is not to say that the acts of murder and genocide are quite rare – clearly they are not. This is to say that the possible circumstances under which such acts would be predominantly judged as not wrong are rare. Thus, for practical purposes, we may still state with great conviction that overwhelmingly compelling acts such as murder and genocide are rationally judged by most to be compellingly wrong and condemnable in most imaginable circumstances and are clearly judged not to lead to broadly desirable outcomes, even if technically not absolutely wrong in the canonical sense. This is quite a mouthful, but relativism does require a more precise statement of claims in order not to lapse, out of negligence, into an appearance of absolutism.

© 2011 by Gabe Czobel