Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

Some Truths Are Absolute

Everything is relative, or so we like to think, because we are wired to compare everything. We begin as infants, putting things in our mouth and noticing that some of the objects taste better than others. We see our mothers and fathers, maybe siblings or pets and notice they’re not all the same. Some are bigger, some smaller, some louder, some quieter.

We find toys, which include our parents’ eyeglasses and car keys. We look at them, shake them, and even put them in our mouths if our parents aren’t quick enough to stop us. This one is louder and more jangly than a banana. That one is hard and tastes strange, not like a cantaloupe.

So we compare everything. It’s part of how we learn about the world. As we grow, we retain what we’ve learned and add to it. This is an apple. It is a fruit. This is candy. It is sweet. Candies are sweeter than apples.

We do the same thing with people. This is my brother Joe. He’s nicer than my brother Pete, who teases me all the time. I sometimes hide from Pete but I never hide from Joe.

We go to school and make even more comparisons. That’s what math and science are all about. One thousand is greater than one hundred. Cobalt (atomic number 27) is denser than oxygen (atomic number 16).

We encounter classmates who are either like us or different from us in ways that allow us to classify them as friend or foe. Teachers also get classified as either nice or mean, and not just because of how much homework they give.

Once we reach the workplace, we classify more people: bosses, coworkers, customers, suppliers, manufacturers. And not just people but the space itself and the objects we toil around, the atmosphere and the value assigned to our work output.

Everything gets classified by our brains. Useful, useless, significant, irrelevant, pretty, ugly, hot, tepid, black, green, delicious, bitter, etc. As a result, we come to see the universe as relativistic. There’s even the theory of relativity to bolster our views of how everything works.

But there are absolutes. There either is a god or there isn’t. Global warming is either happening or it isn’t. Not everything is absolute, but not everything is relative either. And it behooves us to ascertain which truths are absolute and which are relative. And to understand which absolute truths can never be known (e.g., the existence of god).

Journalists, for example, are trained to present both sides of an issue. So they might invite a doctor to discuss the perils of refusing to vaccinate children, but then also bring on an anti-vaxxer to spout pseudo-science about increases in autism or some other such blather to justify an idiotic position.

So we need to do a better job of differentiating objective truth from relative truth. It can be difficult. It requires more than a superficial understanding acquired from a brief search on Google. We need to find the people who, with rigor, study the subject at hand and learn from them why the truth is objective and not relative.

And even if it goes against our gut feelings, we need to accept such truth. Yes, it can be hard to admit we’re wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary.

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