Anthropology And Absolute Truth

  • Category: Philosophy
  • Words: 608
  • Grade: 70
Anthropology and Absolute Truth
Jason Macauley
Does anthropology constitute an argument against "absolute truth?" The term is ambiguous in its common usage, so we must begin by clarifying what we mean by "absolute truth."
"Absolute" implies that the truth it refers to satisfies one or both of the following conditions: (1) the truth is constant or unchanging; and/or (2) the truth is universal and true for all. Truth (and falsity) is a property of statements, and according to the correspondence theory of truth, a statement is true if and only if that statement accurately reflects the state of the world to which it refers. For example, the statement "I am writing this on a computer" is only true if I in fact am writing this on a computer. That is, the statement is true if it reflects a state of affairs that obtains independently of the statement. So, the truth value of a statement is dependent on the state of reality, whereas reality is not dependent on what we think or say about it. From this we can conclude that any (indicative) statement is either true or false, and its truth or falsity is dependent on the world irrespective of us. So, its truth or falsity could be described as universal or absolute. Furthermore, if the goal of any science (including anthropology) is to explain the world, then the truth or falsity of those claims must depend on the state of the world. For to say otherwise is to claim that it is possible to explain the world using claims that fail to reflect the nature of that world.
Perhaps this is not what the anthropologist means by "absolute truth." Maybe it is "absolute moral truth" that they hope to deflate. Anthropologists have found that different cultures have different moral systems and beliefs. The argument against "absolute moral truth" could be formulated as follows:
(1) Different cultures have adopted different moral systems and beliefs.
(2) Therefore, morality must be relative to the culture that adopts that morality.
The hidden premise, of course, is that the beliefs of a culture are true beliefs. If we add this hidden premise we complete the argument, but do we have any reason to think that this premise itself is true? As I argued above, truth depends on the relations between a statement and reality, such that a statement cannot be both true and false at once. For if a statement is true it reflects some objective fact; if it is false, it fails to reflect an objective fact. This is true even of moral statements. So, to claim that ethics are relative to a particular culture is to claim that an ethical statement can be both true and false at once. (Since culture X believes that infanticide is wrong, and since culture Y believes that infanticide is not wrong, then it is both true that infanticide is moral and false that infanticide is moral -- an obvious contradiction.) Furthermore, the claim that ethics are relative to a culture often leads to the further claim that we should not make moral judgments about other cultures -- another moral claim that is insupportable if the truth of ethical statements are indeed relative to culture.
I offer this one final thought: is the statement "there is no absolute truth" an attempt to state an absolute truth? Consequently, if this statement is true, then must it not also be false?
Jason Macauley is a student at North Adams State College
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