Is truth relative?

It has become somewhat popular to think that truth is relative. After all, one person likes vanilla ice cream and the other person prefers chocolate. Surely it is not "true" that vanilla is superior to chocolate. Similarly, one person enjoys classical music while the other prefers contemporary pop. And then there is the fact that things change so radically over time. It was once true that physical letters were the only way to correspond over long distances, but now we can communicate instantly over thousands of miles. The very essence of the world seems to be change, and the notion of "truth" carries with it an absolute steadfastness that seems irreconcilable to our experience. Even further, the myriad disputations on matters of utmost importance, such as religion, abortion, the death penalty, taxes, and global warming all seem to rule out the fact that any one person (or view) can be "right." Truth, it seems, is indeed relative.

Yet, to claim "truth is relative" is itself a relatively true statement. The one hearing such a claim is under logical compulsion to reject it. The notion of "relative truth" is self-defeating because it cannot bear its own weight; the claim cannot survive when subject to itself. To say truth is relative is to make a truth claim that there is no truth.

But so far, this all sounds like a lot of dithering over words. It is the stuff ivory tower college professors in tweed jackets talk about while sipping expensive coffee. Is there any way to substantively address the subject of truth in a meaningful (and understandable) manner? The short answer is "yes." What follows is a brief sketch of why this is the case.

Simply put, truth is reality. To paraphrase Aristotle, speaking truly means to say what really is and what is not. Truth is the mind conforming to reality as it exists. It is the intellect and world operating on the same plane, connecting seamlessly with each other. Truth is more than just an idea or collection of ideas that are non-contradictory (e.g. coherence). Instead, truth obtains when there is an identity between a knowing subject and a known object. A person apprehends truth the same way they apprehend the existence of things, which is actually prior to how they apprehend even their own existence.

The only way to leave the futility of relative truth is to understand that knowing must begin with things and not ideas about things. This might seem a counter-intuitive, since many people have unfortunately been conditioned to accept the prison of their own mind. That is, they have been conditioned in one way or another by modern philosophy to think that there is a "gap" between their perceptions and ideas (e.g. mental states) and the things existing outside their mind. An example might be helpful to illustrate.

Consider that in an otherwise empty room are a person and yellow tennis ball. We might ask the person about the ball. "What color is it?" They respond "yellow." We then ask, "how do you know that?" And the person looks at us curiously. To which we press on "do you know that because you had the idea of a yellow tennis ball in your mind and then reasoned that the cause of the idea must be that there is a high-probability of a yellow ball? Or did you just grasp that there was a yellow ball?" Most people would opt for the latter of these options. Yet, the predominant view in philosophy (and related disciplines), which has subsequently permeated culture, is that the ball itself is not in fact apprehended.

However, buying into this artificially imposed starting point leaves no choice but to question the ultimate validity of sense perception and the external world. Skepticism (implicit or explicit) about truly knowing what is "out there" is born. In turn, this begets the notion that all one can affirm is bound up in subjective mental states, which then leads to "true for you but not true for me."

Some clarification is necessary at this point. There is a difference between saying "it is true that vanilla ice cream is better than chocolate" versus "it is true for me that there is no such thing as vanilla ice cream." One of these propositions expresses something about the world, whereas the other is merely exhibiting a preference about something in the world. It might be true that person A thinks that vanilla is better than chocolate, but it is manifestly absurd to think this is the same thing as denying the existence or temperature of the ice cream itself.

In one of the most famous verses in the Bible, Jesus says "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). This is a theologically dense statement, packed with meaning from start to finish. Pertinent to this discussion is Jesus' claim to "be" truth. We can learn a great deal about truth from this very statement of our Lord.

The words we speak (verbally or thought) may be true, but they are not truth itself. Reality is the measuring stick of our words. The Word of God (Christ) as true God (John 1:1–3) is not measured by anything, but it is that by which all things are measured because it is by His will that anything at all exists. Thus, anything is true insofar as it is similar to the Word. In His divine nature, Jesus is truth because He is the sole source of all reality. He creates and sustains all things (Hebrews 1:3; Colossians 1:17). To claim truth is relative is to directly contradict the Word of God. God is reality in the fullest sense. He created the universe and everything in it (Genesis 1:1). And He created us to know Him (1 John 1:2–4).



Related Truth:

What is truth?

What is absolute truth? Does absolute truth really exist?

Can the existence of God be proven?

Christian worldview - What is it?

Is the Bible really the Word of God?


Return to:
Truth about Worldview and Apologetics






Compelling Truth HOME