Tuesday, August 17, 2010


One of the things writers are trained to do is to avoid word repetition. If you enjoy such an exercise you will probably make a good writer, if you are not scrawling already. So, for instance, having answered 'yes' to a question I will probably say 'that's right' if I need to affirm a positive a second time, followed by 'quite', 'indeed' or maybe 'correct.' It is also one of the reasons, I discover, why 'I love you' doesn't trip off my tongue as a mantra. Repetition, for me, robs things of their meaning unless done for narrative effect, so I prefer to find more interesting ways to affirm my devotion to those I care for. Which can be annoying. 'Absolutely.'

I was wandering around in this minefield of my own self-awareness as I awoke this morning. You still want to be me for a day? Thought not. And I recalled a question asked me by a woman following an evening service a few weeks back, after I had preached an, 'I won't tell you what to think; work out your own view,' sort of sermon.

'Do you believe there are absolutes?' she asked me.

Now a moment's thought will reveal the trap in this question for the budding relativist. 'There are no absolutes' is an absolute statement. There must be a minimum of one even if it is only 'It is not true to say there are no absolutes.'

You can't say everything is relative. As Nick Pollard once said, and probably wrote, 'I refuse to take this oncoming bus into my sphere of credibility,' is a recipe for disaster. It is best to act as if an approaching large vehicle will absolutely flatten you even unto death.

But you may survive the impact. It may brake. 'This bus will kill you' is not an absolute. 'This bus may kill you' is. But the introduction of the word 'may' to an absolute statement seems to leave us with some sort of a truism, not an absolute. An absolute must be true in all circumstances, must it not?

And are there paradoxical absolutes? For instance:

I absolutely believe in a woman's right to choose what to do with her own body.

I absolutely believe in the unborn child's right to life.

(Thanks to Paul Vallely for setting this one up in an article a few years back.)

So there are absolutes but working out what they are is a very complex, philosophical exercise. Descartes got to 'cogito ergo sum'. 'I believe therefore I am.' He worked out that he may be being deluded about everything else in the world but he could be in no doubt that it was he who was being deluded.

What tests might we use to find an absolute statement?

In his little book on Epistemology, David Wolfe suggests four tests for statements about knowledge which we can usefully apply to absolute knowledge:

Consistency (freedom from internal contradiction)
Coherence (internal relatedness to other assertions)
Comprehensiveness (applies to all experiences it describes)
Congruity (the statement works with the experience it describes)

So my death by oncoming bus is consistent (buses do kill). It is coherent (it fits with other related statements such as 'buses are heavy'; 'buses are fast', 'buses have a record in this area'). It is congruent (project the model and I look pretty flat). But it is not comprehensive. Survivors of bus impact are out there.

'This oncoming bus will kill me' fails as an absolute, but it is absolutely sensible to treat it as if it passes.

Ready for your cornflakes now?



RuthJ said...

I am not absolutely sure, but seem to recall that when I was at school 'cogito' meant 'think', whereas 'believe' was 'credo'. Not that one can dogmatise about language.

Anonymous said...

Can absolutes ever be a matter of opinion? if my absolutes aren't the same as your absolutes , who is wrong?

St said...

Ruth, you are right. It is 'I think therefore I am.'

Anonymous - probably not - but that leaves us with degrees of absolute and not absolute absolutes.

Lesley said...

Are you it trouble for the lack of 'I love you's? Quite right too :) Love the post.. shall nick some of it!