Does objective truth exist?
I’ve had the pleasure of being enrolled in “Philosophy of C.S. Lewis” this semester, and this was one of the questions that arose as we began pouring into his work The Abolition of Man just this past Tuesday. Lewis has a lot to say in regards to what is factual and what is mere opinion in the world, voicing the necessity of objective value and natural law while warning against what could happen if we continue to try and consistently debunk such things. Lewis finds relativism a big problem, and so our professor at last turned to us and posed the question with which I started: “Does objective truth exist?”
Strangely enough, most everybody in the class seemed to agree that there is some sort of objective truth – and even more importantly, objective moral truth – within the world, with certain things we encounter from day-to-day being undeniably true whether we agree with them or not. Jupiter most definitely has a greater mass than Mercury. 2 + 4 most definitely equals 6. The number of electrons in the universe must have either a positive or negative value, even if we are incapable of defining what said value is. There is without-a-doubt some level of objectivity in the world, and this is something that most everybody would agree on.
However, the gray area arises when you start discussing objective moral truth. While you can 100% affirm that 2+4=6, can you in the same way matter-of-factly affirm that murder is a bad thing? What of stealing, or cheating, or lying? Yes, the majority of the world’s population would agree that these things are bad, but what gives them to right to make such claims? If we go by the standards of Common Core – the educational initiative defining what should be taught to children in grade school – fact is merely defined as “information that can be proven true or false” while opinion is “what one believes about a subject,” so right then and there we can take the statement that “All men are created equal” and we have a value claim that is opinion rather than fact, and therefore not objective truth in any manner. It is this viewpoint that gives rise to regimes like those of Adolf Hitler, because if “all men are created equal” is merely opinion and not fact because it can neither be proven nor tested, then why shouldn’t be declare ourselves the higher race ready to enslave the remaining population?
See the flaw in this belief?
If you haven’t picked up on it yet, I 100% believe in objective moral truth. “All men are created equal” could perhaps be labeled a normative claim or value judgment but it is an accurate one, one that transcends opinion and establishes itself as fact even if some people choose to believe otherwise. This goes the same with other similar “value judgments”: Is genocide bad? Yes. Is rape wrong? Absolutely. Are racism and sexism both inherently bad, while kindness and compassion are good? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. I cannot fathom any sort of scientific experiment I could undertake in order to prove such things as factual, but I believe them to be factual and I also know that they would continue to be objectively true even if I myself rebuked that truth which they preached. I know it’s easy to get lost in the awfully-confusing logic of it all, but hang with me for a moment.
In fact, I think that the entire argument of objectivity could be avoided if we just accepted the idea of an all-powerful and sovereign God. This is the main point I want to make today, because after sitting through two and a half hours of hearing people dispute back and forth on “What is truth?” and “What is the difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought’?”, I decided that it was time to sit down and throw out my personal opinion on why the argument is fruitless from the start:
You see, the question of “objective moral truth” can be answered if you simply accept that there is a God. I am not necessarily speaking of my own Christian beliefs here, but simply making a case for theism in general. The reason I make this argument is because, when arguing on the existence of fact and fiction in regards to morality, one eventually reaches the question, “If there is an objective moral truth, how is it defined?” and if we accept that God exists, we have our answer and everything fits smoothly into place.
Allow me to explain a bit further: If normative claims can be accepted as objective fact, then those claims had to have a source somewhere. Why is genocide bad? Why is rape bad? Why is kindness good? These go hand-in-hand with our labeling something as “beautiful” – what is it that we call beautiful, and why do we find those qualities appealing? Something called beautiful is called as such in comparison to another thing deemed beautiful, and if you follow this rabbit trail for long enough, you will reach the very source of that trait, the defining entity which we would call Beauty. And this, I believe, is God. When we call something beautiful, we are saying that it contains qualities that appeal to us in a certain manner, and if we trace these appealing qualities back far enough, we will see that God Himself is the source of all beauty, establishing in our hearts that which we long for and find attractive.
In the same way, God is Goodness, for if He is omniscient and He is all-present and He is sovereign, then what choice does He have but to be omnibenevolent, since He who created the world would have no choice but to define what is right and what is wrong? (Saying He has no choice but to epitomize goodness does not place a limit on His omnipotence, but simply rejects that which is nonsensical, since even as Lewis states in The Problem of Pain, “nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.”) This is where I get my argument for moral objectivity, because it makes logical sense that if God does exist and if God is good, then the things He approves of would be those objective moral truths, while any bastardization of these ideals, even in the smallest sense, would be ἁμαρτάνω – hamartia, a sin, a missing of the mark, that which we would call Evil. The objective moral truths of our world would be that which God approves of, while the objective evils would be that of which He disapproves, and thus the problem of what is “good” and what is “bad” is settled by simply growing in a relationship with He who defines them. (This is my subtle argument for the case of Christianity, since I would argue that the Christian faith is the only one that allows you to form an actual relationship with the deity in question; if you cannot have a relationship with the Creator, than in what way could you possibly attain the knowledge of what is objectively true and what is objectively bad, other than the knowledge found within a sacred text, which is limited to defining only that which fits between its pages? But I digress.)
When God is separated from the equation, the problem of objectivity becomes increasingly complex. Yet when God is planted into the midst of the problem as a source for what is good, then the situation is at first diluted and then subsequently solved, ceasing to be a problem at all.
Now comes the next logical question: “David, that argument is good and well for those who believe in objective morality, but what of me if I reject such claims?” Well, my philosophizing friend, I have a response for you as well:
First off, I can’t make this argument while professing to understand your viewpoint, because I find myself incapable, under a clear and rational mind, of thinking of a case in which rape is not a bad thing and in which genocide could be labeled acceptable in some form or fashion. Nevertheless, I feel that I needn’t understand your viewpoint to make a point of my own, for though I do believe in objective truth, I don’t believe that belief in objective truth is a necessity when it comes to the indefinite proof of the existence of God. In fact, I would perhaps agree with you on one point, for it seems slightly moot to have so many frivolous arguments discussing what is and isn’t objective truth when that merely points towards the fact that, in doing so, we are trying to define something that only God Himself defines. But once again, I find myself straying from the true topic.
To those of you who do not believe in objective morality, then my question to you would be this: What do you say of conscience? Think of those people who do bad things consistently yet still feel that guilt gnawing at their heart, reminding them deep down that what they are doing is wrong. I speak not of psychopaths but of your regular, everyday citizen, those who transgress from day to day and feel the guilt of knowing that they have in some way wronged themselves, nature, or those around them. This is an argument that could be made in which some underlying truth defines our very natures – and thus that objective morality exists – but this is not the point I care to make. Instead, I say this: where does this gnawing feeling come from? Where does that voice in your head, that angel/devil combo on your shoulders, that little green cricket speaking to your marionette self…where does that feeling come from? Something to think about.
More than this though – and I am almost done, trust me – I ask this question as well: Even if there were not objective moral truths, where do we get our idea of “truth” from in the first place? You might not believe that something is objectively true in regards to morality, but you do believe that, otherwise, truth does exist, correct? If you can look at me and say that you truly believe that 2+4=9, then I am not making this argument towards you for you have other issues you should probably deal with. Instead I am speaking to those who do in fact believe that 2+4=6…where does your idea of truth come from? What makes something true and false other than someone who had to establish the laws of nature, the laws of consistency? As I mentioned earlier, everything must have an ultimate source, correct? These truths –whether objective or subjective, in fact – must be either an implementation or bastardization of the initial truth provided at the beginning of what we would call time (i.e., just as 2+4=6 to you and me, this was also true for your parents and their parents before that…so who established this as truth at the beginning of time?). This once again points towards the existence of God, whether you believe in objective truth or not.
To reference Lewis once more, this is largely a matter of looking along rather than merely looking at (I spoke of this previously, if you remember). If you look at something you will see it as it is, but if you look along it you will see what it is meant to point you towards. (You can stare at a beam of light, but if you look along it you will see the sun, that which is its source.) If you look at the truth, you will most likely come up with a few things you see as objective, but it will ultimately confuse you as you struggle to find that which is objectively true, because you are trying to define that which only God can define. But if you take truth and look along it, you will see that it points to the source of truth – that which is Truth itself – the very same thing that epitomizes both Goodness and Beauty alike.
In this way, by looking for the objective truth you stumble upon its source, and by stumbling upon that Source and developing a relationship with Him – He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life – you will finally have a way to see what is objectively true in this life that you are living. Make sense? And even if you don’t believe in objective truth at all, the very fact that you are capable of believing in something should point you to the fact that there is something you are meant to believe in.
In summary: If someone goes and says that everything is subjective, they are in fact making an objective claim, because the belief in such a claim denies any uncertainty. If you follow this logic, then it isn't far until you realize that God is the One who in fact establishes the objective guidelines of this universe, because someone had to formulate the objective ability you maintain in believing anything at all.
NOW LET’S BE HONEST…this logic is hard to follow. And while I fully agree with you there, I still think it is logic and it does make sense – perhaps we just need someone more capable than myself to put it into words. I am of the belief that every single thing both on this planet and beyond can, in the end, point us back to God if only we search for Him, so this is but one more example in my line of reasoning. But I'll stop rambling for now, so thanks for reading!