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Philosophy of Absolutes
This section uses dialog directly from the teaching version of Scout to the Pole, chapters 14, 23, 24 and 25. " ** " before a heading means that heading is also shown in the novel. Nanook is talking with Father Vincent. Nanook is italic type.
Scout to the Pole presents the concept that there are many principles that can be called absolutes. It also says that absolutes are needed as a foundation for morals. That relationship is discussed under “morals”.
Absolutes and relatives
"So, Father, if there isn’t just ONE best way, then is every way just as good as any other? I’ve heard people say that nothing is ABSOLUTE; that everything is relative. Do you think that’s so?”
“Very good question. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that. That claim is not at all true. There are, in fact, many different kinds of absolutes. But this is not a simple question. Let me get my dictionary and let’s look at how the words absolute and relative are defined.”
- "Absolute: Latin absolutus, from absolvere - to set loose, free from limitations: unlimited, uncombined, changeless, unconditional, not comparative or relative to something else; any belief, doctrine, concept or idea that is regarded as complete unto itself and therefore subject to no exterior circumstance or condition; UNIQUE."
I noticed that he had strips of colored paper inserted in many places in the dictionary with notes on them.
“But, here is another interesting definition that I found:”
- "Absolute . . . something that is not dependent upon external conditions for existence or for its specific nature, size, etc. . . . in some schools of philosophy, the one ultimate reality that does not depend on anything, and is not relative to anything else . . something that does not depend on anything else and is BEYOND HUMAN CONTROL."
He flipped the pages toward the back of the book.
“Now lets compare that to relative.”
- "Relative: anything subject to external conditions or circumstances; temporal, not absolute, not complete, not independent, compared with, or with respect to, some other measured quantity."
"Well??? I hear the words but that doesn’t help me grasp it intuitively.”
“Fair enough. Let’s look at some examples. Let’s start with a concept that can be BOTH absolute and relative at the same time: LANGUAGE.
In English, we have a word for an object that grows out of the ground, is very tall, is very hard and has leaves. That object is called a ‘tree’. In Spanish, the same object is called ‘arbol’. So the sound that a person makes when they point to a tree is RELATIVE to the language they speak. By RELATIVE here, we mean that the word we use is ‘subject to an external condition’. Right?”
"Sure. The external condition is the language.”
“Correct. Now, consider the tree by itself, as a pure object, totally without regard to the word we call it. The tree, as a material object, as a life form, exists all by itself. It exists no matter who points to it, or what people call it. So, in short, we can call this an example of an absolute. Do you agree with that?”
"Sure. Language is just a symbolic way that humans communicate about things. But the world does not depend on human words to exist. For example, people say that Newton discovered gravity. That’s not true. Gravity was already there. He just put a name on it and established mathematical methods to measure it and explained principles to describe how it affected objects.”
“Very good. But even though the sounds we use to describe things are relative, like the word “tree”, once we have established the relationship between the sound and what it defines, we can’t just arbitrarily use that sound anywhere we want anymore. Once we establish that the sound “tree” means the tall thing growing out of the ground, we can’t just make up a sentence and use the word “tree” in it, when what we are talking about is a rock sticking out of the ground or a piece of grass sticking out of the ground. Do you agree with that?”
Need for agreed definitions
"Ah! Right. I see. If we all had different images in our heads for the same word, communication would just be gibberish. People might disagree about what a word means, but, in order to have a logical conversation, they have to have a common frame of reference. That is, they need to agree on a basic set of definitions. And once they agree to the definitions, then the definitions become an absolute.”
“Precisely! And this leads us directly to the definition for LOGIC itself. Let me quote Ayn Rand for this. She defines LOGIC as: THE ART OF NON-CONTRADICTORY IDENTIFICATION. Does that make sense to you?”
"Sure. If a number of intelligent people use logic to figure something out, then they should arrive at a single solution. That is, when they ‘identify’ an answer, there is only ONE answer. There are no contradictions.”
“Very good. We’ll talk about this more later. But for now, that’s a perfect answer because it fits so well with the things we are saying about absolutes.
Types of absolutes
Now, going back to what I said before, there are, in fact, many different kinds of absolutes. The ‘tree’ example is an example of a whole category of absolutes called ABSOLUTES OF EXISTENCE. Matter exists; energy exists; the interactions of matter and energy exist. Concepts exist; ideas exist. They exist freely, of themselves, independent of what we call them or how we experience them. They could exist even if there were no humans.
Absolutes of definition.
Another category of absolutes are the ABSOLUTES OF DEFINITION. In the case of language, once a definition is created, it becomes an absolute that stands on its own. Think of how often people get into trouble when they don’t remember that.
Absolutes of Mathematics
Here’s another one: ABSOLUTES OF MATHEMATICS. Two plus two is four when people use integer arithmetic no matter what word is used to describe two and four. Are you still with me?”
"Hmmm. Yeah, I see that. The formula for the hypotenuse of a right triangle doesn’t depend on the weather, the time of day, or the language that describes the parts, as long as the basic concepts of the parts are correctly defined.”
Absolute of abstraction – higher level of comprehension
”Correct. Now, think about what you just said. You’ve added a very profound element to this discussion.”
“Not on purpose, I’m sure. So no extra merit badge!”
He broke into a huge smile.
“Think about what you just said.”
Father V just patiently sat there and smiled. I thought and thought. I couldn’t believe how patient he was being.
“OK, I’ll give you a hint. You said the formula doesn’t depend on the weather etcetera, as long as the basic concepts of the PARTS are correctly defined. Doesn’t that make the formula relative? I mean, the formula refers to other parts.”
"Hmmm. I guess that’s right. I guess it is relative. So, I guess I’m confused.”
“OK. This is not a simple concept. But, no, it’s not relative. Once each of the parts of a triangle are correctly defined, then the formula for the hypotenuse becomes just another definition. So, let me be specific about the profound thing you uncovered. That is, even though a definition refers to other things, the definition, by itself, as a definition, can still be an absolute.”
"Let’s see if I understand that. The length of a hypotenuse can change because it depends on the lengths of the sides. But once we are given that we have a right triangle, and the lengths of the two sides are given, then the length of the hypotenuse can only be one value. It is unique. Which, I guess, means it is absolute. That is, the overall concept of calculating the length is the same, no matter what length the sides are.”
“Precisely! Now let me extend this idea a little using a line segment as an example. First we find a way to describe a line in a general way. Say, it is an infinitely extending one-dimensional figure that has no curvature. Then, let’s define a line segment as a contiguous MEASURABLE section of a line. Now the whole relationship changes. In mathematics, this takes the form of providing an adequate description of what a line segment is, and creating a symbol, called a variable, like the letter ‘L’. The line segment can then be referred to as ‘L’, no matter how long it is. You then don’t need an infinitely big table of numbers to describe every possible length of line. Instead, you need only one symbol. The symbol becomes UNIQUE.
In philosophy, the process of turning an infinite number of lengths into one symbol, like L, is called an ABSTRACTION. If the abstraction is clever enough, the whole infinity of possible lengths for the line segment can be reduced to ONE thing. And if there is only one, then it must be absolute. It is unique and doesn’t depend on anything else.”
"OK. I sort of get that. So, why is that so profound?”
“Because, it gives us an approach for turning relative things into absolute things. In short, language gains a whole new level when bunches of things are collected into more simple representations and can be dealt with in abstract terms. This means discussions using the new abstract terms can cover a lot more ground with a very small quantity of human sounds.”
"And that’s a good thing, huh?”
“Yes indeed! A very good thing, to be sure. When ever communication can speed up and cover more information in a precise way, a lot of advantages go along with it. And secondly, it allows a MUCH HIGHER LEVEL OF COMPREHENSION of life.
For example, there are primitive people who do not have a word for a large group of trees: our equivalent to the word FOREST. They know a lot about individual trees. They may even have individual names for many of the trees that they interact with. But they don’t have a concept to deal with a large group of trees which may include many different types of trees. As human societies became more complex, a much larger vocabulary was needed to deal with all the new elements that created the complexity. So, we had to invent names for these new things. We needed words for different kinds of vehicles, for example, like motor vehicles and horse drawn vehicles. We then needed more words for individual vehicle models. We needed words like cars, trucks and buses, or fleets, or convertibles. To control the complexity, we developed words to refer to the many elements of life COLLECTIVELY.”
"OK. I can see this.”
“BUT! This came at a price. It also meant that NEW MENTAL CAPACITIES were needed to handle the new communications. This requires a new level of thinking ability.”
"Hmmm. . . . OK. I see that. As society gets more complex, we need new tools to deal with it. But I still don’t know if I agree this requires a new level of thinking capability. I mean, I’ve read that humans have not really changed in mental capacity since the cave man days. Maybe those primitive people that live deep in the jungle have never seen trees from a mountain viewpoint. So they never needed a word for a forest. Maybe if you took the same people out of the forest, they could understand the word ‘forest’.”
“I understand your point. And there are always some people in those societies for which that applies. But it’s actually not that simple. There seems to be something else going on with people who are able to comprehend abstraction. Experiments with many of these primitive groups show they only have limited ability to handle abstraction. And, actually, there is a similar observation that applies to people in all societies. Some people just don’t appear to have the ability to deal with abstraction as well as others. It wasn’t a problem for humans when society was more primitive. But as society get’s more complex, the HUMAN ability to handle complexity, which was always present in humans, is becoming more critical.”
"But, you’re just saying that some people are more capable than others, right?”
“No. It’s much more profound than that. But many social taboos have been raised to prevent society from exploring this. In fact, the taboos launched against eugenics research have pushed our ability to understand this phenomenon back into the dark ages.”
"What do you mean by eugenics? And what’s this taboo stuff?”
“Have you talked to George yet?”
"What’s this big deal about George? We met him in the mess hall. But the staff told us to stay away from him. Do you know him? Duh? Of course you know him or you wouldn’t ask me if I’ve talked to him.”
“Yes. Of course I know him. Why not?”
"Well, you must know, right?”
“Ugh. . . . . . . George is a… fairy!”
“OK. OK. Let’s not go there right now. All I want to say is that George knows a lot about human nature. A lot more than most people in this world. You don’t need to be afraid of George. And any time you spend with him will open vast new worlds to you. George can tell you about the eugenics crisis and the plague it has spread across the world. He can also enlighten you to how the human brain works. But let me just say, our culture is in BIG denial about the differences in human abilities. And the socialists are doing everything they can to keep it this way.”
"Hang on a second. Now you sound like you’ve been talking to Ben.”
“Of course. Ben is a genius.”
"OK. OK. I know. During the winter, you guys have a lot of time on your hands.”
“So, let’s get back to the topic. The ability to effectively incorporate higher abstractions into language is an important factor in moving society forward. This especially includes logic, which is essentially a higher level of definition, which is essentially a new level of absolutes. If humans are not able to understand absolutes, and if things in life can not be related to absolutes, there will be VERY SEVERE repercussions throughout all world cultures.”
“Precisely! For example, let’s consider the question you asked that got us going down this path to begin with: is everything relative?
Answer this question. Right from square one, if nothing is absolute, then how can there be a God?”
"Hmmm.. . . . Well, that I see. If God is supposed to know all things, then these things he is supposed to know somehow have to exist. And if they exist in a way that he can know them for all time, they can’t be relative.”
I guess that answer threw Father V for a loop.
“I never thought about it that way. But let’s agree that your observation is correct for now. We should talk more about it later though. But this whole concept is directly tied into the concepts of freewill and predestination. I’m sure you know that both concepts are still a challenge for the best philosophers and theologians in the world. Those concepts have also torn the Christian religion into shreds.”
"Hmmm . .. Well actually, I didn’t know that.”
“But, it is true. Let’s continue. The way we Christians understand God, if moral values are not absolute, a whole lot of theology is standing on thin ice. If moral values are not absolute, then how can one culture claim to be superior to any other?”
"But when would any culture feel it is superior to another culture?”
“Come on, Nanook. You can do better than that. You must have a very narrow image of the word culture. By ‘culture’, I mean any social structure. That would include a religion, a government, or even an individual group of people or a single individual.”
"Hmmm. I guess you’re right. To me, the word ‘culture’ always seems like a good thing. But when you break it down into specific elements, I see what you mean right away. Almost every religion thinks they’re better than all the others. And they all think God is on their side. Every country thinks they’re better than the others. And all kinds of groups of people think they’re better than others.”
“Correct. And all of these have traditionally fallen back on some claim to a special ‘absolute’ privilege. For example, all of the kings and emperors in history claimed that they were either chosen directly by god, or, in many cases, were gods themselves. But, it HAD TO BE THAT WAY, right? If they couldn’t claim this special privilege, what basis would they have to be rulers? If there was no ABSOLUTE basis for their authority, how could a ruler, or a government, be justified in setting rules for its people?”
"Well, I guess they could be elected, right?”
“Sure. But that requires some form of democracy. Nations with Kings and Emperors aren’t democracies.”
"OK. I understand that. So where does that leave us? We set rules in the U.S. without claiming we have any absolute privilege from God . . . don’t we?”
“I wish it were so. First off, the U.S. is a relative newcomer to the scene. Except for ancient Greece and Rome, democracy did not exist in the world before the American revolution reopened this option. Even now, only the western world has embraced democracy. But I defy you to show me a U.S. president or congress that still doesn’t claim that we are “one nation, UNDER GOD” and that we are world leaders because of our connection to God. We need to be careful going down that road. But we haven’t been careful enough. The government surely doesn’t rule the people as if our laws are relative. The self righteous attitude in the country presumes that the way our laws are constructed is the only way they can be. Luckily there are a lot of absolutes shoring up the U.S. legal system. Unfortunately, most people are blind to what is absolute and what isn’t. We might as well be living in a soup of relativism.”
"So, Father, there were a lot of big words in that paragraph. Can you give me an example of an absolute that is important in our laws that most people don’t know about.”
“ Sure. The ownership of land.”
"Hmmm…. I guess I don’t understand.”
“Does your family own land?”
“And did you ever hear your folks say things like: this is our land; we own this land; we can do anything we want with it; this land has belonged to our family for generations?”
"Sure. I even remember getting into fights as a little kid telling other kids they couldn’t come on my property.”
“So, think about it. How, in an absolute sense, in a universe full of gas, stars and planets, can one type of life form, namely humans, claim possession of specific pieces of a planet? How can people really believe that a piece of ground can really belong to them, say, like their arm belongs to them?”
“But a primary concept behind capitalism, and the emotions that goes with it, is that people can own things. People can own land, or houses or cars. The whole fabric of western law depends on this notion. And if they ‘own’ something, then they have ‘total freedom’ to do with those possessions, what ever they want.”
"Sure. But so what?”
“Well, do you own the roads? Do you own the sky? Do you own the ocean? And if you do, can you really do ANYTHING you want with them? Can you own another person? Do parents own their children?”
"Hmmmm … “
“You’re really into humming, aren’t you? But this concept of ownership is far from universal. Before the white-man came to America, the American Indians had no concept of land ownership. It made no sense to them that a human, or even a tribe, could own a piece of land. In fact, they believed the earth was a god. The earth was their mother.
The point is, the word OWN is thrown around by society like a football. People don’t understand that they have fundamental beliefs that ‘ownership’ is an absolute thing. And, in reality, the whole concept of OWNERSHIP is a totally made up social convention. The absolute behind ownership is that it is just a social accounting convention.”
"Hmmmm . . . ”
“Hmmm yourself. OK. We’ll come back to this some other time.”
**Infallibility of the Pope (An example of philosophic stability)
“I’m sure you’ve heard that the Pope is Infallible, right?”
“OK. So how can that be? Historical records very clearly show that the Pope, in the middle ages, declared that the earth was the center of the universe. We now pretty universally agree that the earth orbits around the sun and the sun around the center of the galaxy. So, how can a Pope who says the earth is the center of the universe, be infallible?”
"Yeah. I always wondered about that. I guess it’s just one more MYSTERY OF FAITH.”
“Ah yes! The old MYSTERY OF FAITH DEFENSE. I think now’s the time to talk about that some. What do you mean by that?”
"It’s always been a real problem for me. Essentially, whenever the Church or any religious teacher can’t provide a logical explanation for something, they tell you ‘it’s a mystery of faith’. That essentially means, we are just supposed to believe what they say based on the requirement of obedience to the Church - no questions asked. We are supposed to believe it based on FAITH.”
"And what’s wrong with that?”
"There’s a lot wrong with it. First off, because there is no logical foundation behind the issue, you are essentially just memorizing one explanation at a time. That turns into a crisis when different things you are told conflict with each other. And, when you are told something is a mystery of faith, it is usually because there is a logical conflict in the explanation.
An example is the Trinity. We are told God is three parts in one. But human language has specific meanings for the word parts, and one thing that is a whole. So, we have to ignore accepted definitions and repeat just what they tell us. The next day, another teacher might have a different explanation. If you put both answers down on a test, you start a fight and get disciplined for embarrassing a religious teacher.”
"I can see you were a handful in school. Yes, that’s one of the problems. You are not allowed to use accepted logical rules to explain a mystery of faith. So, every mystery of faith either ends up on an island of PHILOSOPHICAL STABILITY by itself or just floats around as a single unrelated concept. And even when the issue at hand is a worldly, observable, verifiable, material issue, we can be told we must accept an explanation totally contrary to observation based on a supernatural explanation.”
"Sure. Holy communion, for example.”
"Precisely! The host is no longer bread. It’s the body and blood of Christ. And what’s the larger issue with that?”
"I guess, the larger issue is, if that is an acceptable policy, then we can no longer rely on ANYTHING we see in front of us to be what it appears.”
“Precisely! The whole problem of evolution and the geological fossils for example. It essentially throws us into a world of superstition, mysticism and magic where the only TRUE source of knowledge is the Church hierarchy. Do you see the implications of that?”
"I guess, it means we have to go to them for every question we have in life.”
"Precisely! The implication is POWER. The implication is CONTROL over people.
**Wisdom vs. Knowledge
“Here is a very important distinction that you need to learn. Heraclitus, 2000 years ago, told us:
“learning of many things teacheth not understanding.”
KNOWLEDGE is an understanding of the elements that make up our world in a structured way. The problem is these elements may not even conform to reality. So people may, quote, “learn” and “know” many things, but what they know may also be total nonsense on the grand scale. An example of that was the practice of Alchemy. Do you know what that is?”
"Sure. It was the study of turning common metals like lead into precious metals like gold.”
“Right. And those who were into alchemy collected a huge amount of, quote, ‘knowledge’ about things. Knowledge like magic chants, spells and potions that were supposed to achieve some result. The problem was, they didn’t actually work. WISDOM is very different. WISDOM is understanding TRUTH as a SYSTEM. That is, first, we must know the TRUE elements that make up the world. For alchemy, they would be the chemical elements. For politics, they would be the true drivers of behavior. Second, we must understand the relationship of those elements as a SYSTEM. This is one of the major reasons so many things we are told in the world are LIES. The people who tell these lies don’t want to be liars, but they don’t understand this difference. This is where YOU want to be different. This is one of the GREAT TRUTHS. KNOW IT; TEACH IT.”
"OK. Great truth: WISDOM is understanding TRUTH as a SYSTEM.”
"Good. But now understand the Pandora’s Box that you just opened. There is an old saying that goes: ‘KNOWLEDGE is POWER.’ I’m sure you’ve heard that. But, based on what I just told you, you might now think that statement is not correct. You might think the correct statement should be: WISDOM is POWER. Right? But, in fact, both statements are true. The irony is that the first one, ‘knowledge is power’ can also be correct. Why? Because people are so easily misled. If they are provided with a set of facts that logically tie together, they are not able to easily detect that the facts might be faulty in the whole world system.”
"OK. I understand that. Just the statements by themselves, do not provide enough knowledge . . . oops . . . let me correct that, they do not provide enough WISDOM, to allow us to determine if they are truthful or not.”
"What do you mean Bingo? That’s what Ben always says.”
“Ha! You’re right. Ben and I must be spending too much time together. But look how profound what you said is. We’ve only mentioned two religions. But there are thousands of religions. Each of them claims to know truth. But since they are so different, how can they all be right? They can’t. And in fact, if there is such a thing as the ONE TRUTH, then most of them have to be wrong.”
"Hmmmm . . . . “
“As I was saying, this new way of looking at stability gives us a new tool to analyze the world. It helps answer the question: why is there any structure in the universe instead of just randomness, fog, disorder? In relation to religion, it can help us look at how religions define their abstractions. But looking at the abstractions as absolutes, and trying to verify them against REALITY, that’s the more important task.”
"OK???? I’m going to need an example on that one.”
Heaven and Nirvana
“OK. One abstraction we’ve just referred to is heaven. The Buddhists also have a concept that we might say is related. It’s called Nirvana. Have you ever heard of it?”
"Yes. I thought that was just the word religions like Buddhism and Hinduism used for Heaven.”
“Actually, that’s what most people in the west think who have not explored Buddhism or Hinduism in detail. The problem is, they aren’t equivalent. Nirvana and Heaven are not even closely similar. Yes, both Heaven and Nirvana are goals for an afterlife. But they are not at all similar places. So one thing a philosophical analysis might do is to compare Heaven to Nirvana. Let me briefly do that.
In Christian belief, when a person dies, the soul separates from the body and goes to a physical place. In the presence of God, the soul lives without pain and suffering and exists forever. We expect, at some later time, to have our bodies reconstructed and joined with our souls in heaven and to be reunited with our family and friends.
Nirvana is A VERY different story. The Eastern religions believe that, in the beginning, the universe was empty. There was nothing. BUT, most important, THAT STATE of nothingness was still. It was quiet. It was GOOD. Everything in life that we now see, and a spirit world we do not see, was due to a disturbance in the peace of the original universe. The goal of most Eastern religions is for all spirits to go back to that state of nothingness; to that place of stillness and peace. And when our spirits, or souls as we call them, are released from the disturbance we call life, they cease to exist. This state nothingness is what is called Nirvana.”
"Hmmm . . . Wow.”
“The point of this train of thought is to say that, if we compared concepts of an afterlife from all the religions, we would surely learn a lot about how different they are. BUT, that would not get us any closer to knowing whether any one of them was TRUTH.”
"OK. Now I understand. Having five different versions of Heaven doesn’t mean that a real Heaven actually even exists.”
“Precisely! In fact, it actually increases the odds that maybe none of them are correct. People could also do the same for many other main principles in religion like: how many lives do people have, do animals or plants have souls, what is evil, etc. The value of that is they would then, I’m sure, be handed a very sobering observation: we are NOT all here on earth for the SAME purpose.”
"But, I always thought we were all on earth for ESSENTIALLY the same reason.”
“Not by a long shot. Sure, you hear politicians, social leaders and even some religious leaders say that all the time. But it’s a BIG LIE. And any time society’s leaders promote a big lie, and the people believe that lie, then the people are being played for fools.”
"I guess the need for me to understand the truth about religion has become a lot more clear. But I also guess I don’t have a clue where to start. From what you’ve been telling me, we can’t trust our religious leaders because each of them is just going to say their religion is the right one.”
“Precisely! And I have a lot more to say about that. But, sort of summing up so far, philosophic stability, philosophic asymmetry and abstract absolutes can provide us with whole new categories of philosophy to explore religions, as well as many other aspects of society.”