Joho the Blog » Universal Truth Denied! Jeez, I’m

Universal Truth Denied! Jeez, I’m

Universal Truth Denied!

Jeez, I’m trying to do some time-wasting BS (it being Saturday an’ all) but I keep getting really interesting email. Will it never end? (Lord, let’s hope not!)

For example, this arrived from Jeff Chamberlain in response to my blog about the nature of religions that claim to be universal:

I don’t think that it’s as black and white as you say. I would point you to the statement of principles by the Unitarian Universalist Association. There can be universal truths, e.g. “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” that translates to “love thy neighbor as thyself” in the Judeo-Christian heritage or the overarching theme of compassion in Buddhism.

The problems comes in when we attempt to find ways for humans to achieve these universal truths. At this point, the religions diverge and attempt to say that their way is the only way to these truths. Enter the wonderful power of dogma. I believe that humans forget that the power of the universe is still beyond their comprehension and that their “truth” is really just a finger pointing at the real truth; it is a symbol that represents something greater than ourselves.

Don’t worship the finger. Instead, revel in the varieties this world offers us to explore. The mysteries of the universe can be found in the multitude of religions people have created just as easily as watching the beauty of a sunrise.

The idea that there is a universal truth expressed by all religions strikes me as, in turn, rather black and white. For one thing, it’s self-referential since we will rule out any set of beliefs as not a “real” religion if it doesn’t support the purported universal truth.

Second, a statement as innocuous as “The inherent worth and dignity of every person” is so broad as to be meaningless. If my religion believes that the individual ego is an illusion and is the source of pain and needs to be seen through, the sense in which my religion believes in the worth of every individual is vastly different than that of the Judeo-Christian tradition. (Note: Talking about the JudeoChristian tradition denies the radical differences between these two religions. It always bothers me. You hit my button, Jeff!)

Third, even if that universal truth could be unpacked (Inherent? Worth? Dignity? Person?) successfully across all cultures and times, its implications are hardly universal, as you note.

Fourth, the way in which a religion unpacks such statements is central to the nature of the religion, and differs widely from religion to religion: Buddhists meditate in a bunch of ways, Jews argue with one another for millennia, some whacko Christians handle snakes and wait for The Word to strike them. So what good does it say that there are universal truths? Where does it get us? And, in particular, wrt to the Friedman article I was blogging about, I believe that it puts a false unity on the face of real diversity.

There are certainly universal truths. Math is full of them. There may even be universal truths about values and morals. I wouldn’t want to try to argue anyone out of a belief in human dignity or the right to worship the way we want. I am not saying that nothing is true, and I’m certainly not saying, along with Dostoyevsky, that “God is dead. Everything is permitted.” I am saying, however, that religions that believe they are the only true religion need to knock it off. Finding a universal ground for all religion reduces us to mouthing abstractions so vague as to be meaningless and ignores what is most distinctive and most important about each religion. We’ve got a whole bunch of religions. They’re genuinely different. But we only have one earth. There’s yer universal truth for ya.

(BTW, if you’re a Christian snake handler, I meant no offense. I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine way of worshipping.)

3 Responses to “Universal Truth Denied! Jeez, I’m”

  1. Just a nuance point, but math does not have any universal truths, depending on how you define them. Some contradictions are found in Goedel’s incompleteness theorem and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, as well as other more abstract lines of reasoning. Personally I agree with Karl Popper when he contradicted the idea of universal mathematical truths by comparing (via another source) the endeavour of mathematical laws to a man drawing a map. Mathematical truths proceed in an interdependent fashion; assuming one thing to be true allows other things to be true, in a systematized fashion. But imagine mathematical laws and “truths” like a man attempting to draw a complete map of the room he is sitting in, using the room as a metaphor for the universe as a whole. He draws the map, but in order to complete it he must also locate the map within the drawing of the map. You see where this goes, infinite maps. It’s ironic because the assumption of holistic universal truth thereby comes to depend on infinite plurality. And the argument from geometry is similarly weak; a triangle is not metaphysically real, it is merely a constructed concept we deploy in order to frame reality, as other things, but you can use many philosophers to support that view, even a theist like Kant with his spatio-temporal matrices.

  2. Would you have been happier if I had referred to axiomatic truths? That’s pretty much what I meant.

    But thanks for the careful and thoughtful explanation.

  3. The most powerful universal truth found in religions is the denial of the truth of uncertainty. Uncertainty of life is the basis of Darwinism it is the partial basis of God as a supernatural entitty.

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