Truth and morality

What is 'absolute truth'? How do we define morality?

How do people establish moral codes of conduct?
People frequently quibble over whether an action is moral, justifiable, honourable, and exemplary, or the opposite. For any given argument, if we give the issue enough thought, we often reach the conclusion that the answer depends greatly on the context- a course of action appears more or less acceptable depending on the perspective one adopts.

In order to pass judgement, we might sample the opinions of all those involved, assign weights to each of their views (depending on how important, accurate, and valid their views are), and sum them up.

For example, if the following criteria are met, then the likelihood is stronger that people will condone a given action:
  • Many people think it commendable.

  • Supporters consider it highly commendable, rather than mildly commendable.

  • Proponents include experts whose opinions are valued, accurate, relevant, and influential.
The opposite (in which many people, with highly-valued opinions, consider the action highly reprehensible), would lead to overall condemnation of the action.

This ‘majority rules’ method is employed frequently for all kinds of decision-making in the secular domain. We see it during election time and at judicial hearings when votes are counted. It takes place informally in work environments and households. It occurs within our brain, where coalitions of neurons that are responsible for representing different points of view compete in support of their proposition until a winner emerges, yielding a decision in our mind. (Click here for more on the development of moral codes of conduct.)

When it comes to decisions that are made in religious settings, or by a religious groups, the same process occurs. The key difference is that God features prominently on the judging committee, and in the minds of many believers, God holds veto power. If God is the ultimate arbitrator, then the cumulative weight of all the opinions of human individuals can be superseded if God happens to rule in favour of the contrary view.

Regardless of how convincing the case may be for a particular ruling, if God’s almighty wisdom dictates the opposite, then nothing can overturn His decision. The fact that God is of infinitely superior intelligence and always knows best should be enough to convince us that we can place our full trust in God, and that as long as we humbly and obediently follow God’s commands, we cannot go wrong.

We should not even need to hear the exact details of how God arrived at a conclusion, or be offered compelling evidence in support of God’s opinion.

Many believers go through life thinking that every action taken in the name of God, every step made in consultation with their deity, is a step in the right direction. Over the course of a lifetime, all these little steps will add up and contribute in some positive way to God’s overall plan.

Even if the positive effects are very small, the net good must outweigh the bad, because for any believer who acts under God’s guidance and instruction, the only desirable outcome is the one that glorifies God.

(If one seeks out God’s will devotedly and earnestly, and yet somehow ends up having thoroughly displeased God at the end of one’s life, then something must have gone seriously wrong. Most believers should have little reason to fear that they belong to this unfortunate minority. If they're so disfavoured, there's probably little they can do about it anyway.)

For day-to-day decision-making, religious individuals, like anyone else, have to make choices constantly and exercise judgment based on their own, human perspectives, in consultation with the people around them.

Much as you might strive to live primarily by God’s moral code, and make choices of which God would approve, you've to rely on a mixture of personal opinion, input from others, and the belief that God is overseeing the decision-making process. It'd be hard to believe anyone who claims to rely solely on God’s guidance and not at all on his or her own faculties.
Why is it so hard to adhere to moral codes of conduct?
Many of the faithful believe that humans, by default, can never satisfactorily abide by the standards that God sets, because people are sinful and imperfect.

Many people feel that God has given us a set of tailor-made rules to live by- perhaps a more accommodating version than that to which He abides, so that its proscriptions are at least partially attainable by human beings, for short segments of time. In everyday life, we find it impossible to abide by all the rules, all the time, as sticking to one rule often leads to violation of another.

These conflicts between rules are rather troubling- we ask ourselves why God did not formulate a set of rules such that we could always find solutions that met all the specified criteria.

However, we tend to accept that these conflicts are an inevitable result of our having received a ‘watered-down’ version of rules to abide by- that is, it's an unfortunate consequence of our sinful nature. Humans are imperfect beings. We've to come to terms with our inability to attain perfection, and simply try our best not to make too many compromises.

Much as we may resign ourselves to the idea that it's just about impossible to purge ourselves completely of sin, and achieve a state where everyone behaves perfectly all the time, many of us maintain the belief that it's not impossible to come close to achieving perfection, for brief periods of time if not all the time.

During these fleeting, highly valued moments, believers think of themselves as being ‘closer to God.’ Many dedicated, zealous believers do manage to live their lives in a highly exemplary fashion- very rarely do they observe themselves breaking the rules of their religion.

However, possessing the ability to abide closely by these rules still does not place one on par with God. Even individuals who are widely venerated as holy people and saints do not possess the mighty powers of God, or deserve anywhere as much adulation and worship.

There seems to be a fundamental difference between human nature and godly nature, and it does not simply come down to the ability to live in a blameless manner.
What do people mean by ‘absolute truth’?
Watered-down human-specific version of morality notwithstanding, many of us strongly believe that there exists an overarching moral code in God’s grand schema of the universe, made up of rules that are perfectly complete, logical, uncompromising, and mutually consistent, which lies beyond the comprehension of mortals.

We call this concept ‘absolute truth’- a state where everything makes sense, everything obeys God’s purpose and meaning, and all functions exactly as God intended.

Furthermore, although human beings may not be capable of understanding or discerning its details, we possess a dim idea of what it might entail. We're able, at least, to generate an idealised mental percept of perfection, based on an extrapolation and magnification of everything we consider harmonious and pleasing. All this despite our never having experienced or being able to experience such a thing in reality.

This state of perfection goes beyond the commandments that have been issued and documented in religious scriptures. After all, God doesn’t need to live by the commandments- God exists in an entirely different sphere, and is incapable of committing a ‘wrong’ deed.

Thus, we have to distinguish between the world that we inhabit, where we strive to live by the edicts issued to us, and these edicts are of a nature that we can understand, and the world that God inhabits- where the rules to which us mortals are bound are possibly no longer even relevant. We run institutions that straddle these two distinct but intermingled domains.

In fact, part of our intuitive definition of ‘absolute truth’ is our innate inability to define it! Little wonder that non-believers find the concept rather hard to stomach- how do you believe firmly in something, when you don't exactly know what your claims are, and have no solid means of finding out?

Many people remain non-believers because they're certain that if one does not understand a concept, then one cannot truly claim to believe it. On the other hand, many people remain religious, in spite of their inability to specify the scope and content of their beliefs in clear, unambiguous detail, because they feel confident in their ability (maybe God-given) to maintain faith in things they can't understand.

Believers tend to candidly admit that they cannot articulate or rationalise the basis of their faith. However, they feel that since their acceptance of religion occurs on a spiritual level, and this domain exists outside everyday, physical reality, this inability to answer questions that are posed by humans doesn't really matter.

Furthermore, a sincere belief that God’s highest standards are conceptually beyond our grasp does not deter us from continually trying to discern them and measure ourselves according to our hypothesised criteria. People pray to God and look for answers in their religious texts and in conversations with fellow believers, in their attempt to divine the doctrines of this ‘higher truth.’

These standards are necessarily informal, based on subjective inferences, and differ greatly from person to person.
What are the benefits of believing in something so undefined as absolute truth?
Surely the belief in an absolute standard that lies beyond human comprehension is accompanied by a good deal of uncertainty and, at times, discouragement? There are, in fact, plenty of pros- here are some:
  • The thought that God holds us to exceedingly high standards and that, furthermore, there exist levels of perfection higher still, provides a perpetual source of motivation to live as nobly as possible.

    Instead of basking in past achievements and becoming over-satisfied, we maintain a state of constant vigilance, to avoid inadvertently slipping back into sinful ways, and aim to surpass previous standards in the hopes of getting a little closer to God.

    When people collectively subscribe to a moral code that advocates altruism and love for fellow human beings, we all stand to benefit.

  • The concept of ‘absolute truth,’ being inherently indefinable by humans, renders it open to interpretation.

    We summon up the concept of absolute truth, mould it to suit our purposes, and use it persuasively and earnestly in our discussions with each other. Even though people may largely agree on its general definition, the particulars can be tailored to one’s personal beliefs, and cannot be conclusively verified or disproved.

    When people speak about ‘absolute truth,’ they've to face the fact that it is hypothetical, but its intangibility shouldn't dissuade us from evoking the concept to bolster our arguments.

    Discussions about absolute truth rely on the assumption that such a thing exists, and therefore that there also exists an optimal perspective from which to a situation may be viewed. There must also exist ideal ways of forming opinions or passing judgement on it.

  • Since absolute perfection is unattainable and no human attempts to reach it can expect to succeed, believers are forced, in a way, to discard or devalue their futile human efforts and draw their strength from a spiritual source instead.

    Religion entails complete reliance on God and adoption of God’s criteria, rather than on mortal methods and standards of fellow human beings. Believers are often encouraged not to place too much stock on human ability and efforts, and to give up fruitless struggles.

    Instead, one should hold God in higher regard and ‘surrender’ one’s problems and uncertainties to the Almighty. Only by abandoning worldly goals and objects, and embracing spiritual, godly things, can we truly come closer to God. This doctrine exhorts us to depend on genuine, ‘blind’ faith, rather than logic and reasoning.

    The notion of absolute perfection makes believers acknowledge their weaknesses and, in desperation, place all their trust in God (and believers feel that the greater one’s dependence on God, the better).

  • As explained in the point above, the belief that absolute truth exists and is unattainable gives one good reason to stop trying to rationalise everything and answer questions that seem unanswerable.

    The ideal mental state would be to strive constantly to achieve perfection, but to accept that such levels cannot be achieved through human efforts and will power alone- the hand of God is required.

    For those who tire of grappling with logical fallacies, accepting that God’s schema lies beyond human understanding can be a relief.

  • If we're confident that God is guiding our actions according to an overall, perfect plan, then we believe that our actions are imbued with some of that perfection. Deeds that are performed in the name of God, under God’s close supervision and with God’s hearty approval, must be overwhelmingly justifiable and laudable.

  • A shared belief in the existence of absolute truth can make people more accommodating towards each other, and more willing and motivated to identify common ground. Instead of perceiving all relationships as relative, believers may feel that all actions can be compared to a fixed, external standard, and not just to each other.

    Even if this absolute standard remains, by definition, beyond the grasp of human understanding, the willingness to work towards it can be enough to encourage cooperation. (Read more about Altruism, the benefits of belonging to a Community, and the Power of Thought.)
The important point to note here is that these effects are generated as a result of a belief in absolute truth. Whether or not it really does exist is beside the point. The key element is the course of action taken, regardless of the underlying motives of our behaviour.
What are the disadvantages of believing that absolute truth exists?
If people are strongly motivated to do good because of their belief in the existence of absolute truth, then they've to bear in mind the fact that the benefits associated with their unsubstantiated beliefs are accompanied by certain disadvantages.

Key disadvantages:
  • Belief in absolute truth and perfection spurs us to aim for standards that are inherently beyond the reach of human beings. We can never be fully satisfied with our achievements, no matter how decent. If we're reconciled to this notion, then it may not pose too great a problem.

    If, however, we experience perpetual discouragement and dissatisfaction, then bitterness and resentment may follow. We may direct our anger at ourselves and others, and seethe at the inescapable fact that human beings are imperfect and sinful.

  • Related to the point above- if we have unrealistic expectations and started off aiming to achieve perfection, we eventually get disillusioned. This may cause some of us to give up trying altogether.

    In contrast, if people set reasonable goals initially, instead of aiming for elusive perfection, and gain satisfaction and encouragement as each of these goals are met, then they might be less prone to surrender when faced with difficulties.

  • Assuming that one believes that God’s standards lie beyond the range of human understanding (at least, when it comes to absolute truth), then the criteria that define absolute truth are inherently unknowable. We're unable to describe these standards in detail, and also lack tools with which to measure our actions and ourselves.

    In the absence of a set of guidelines and feedback, we've to grapple with doubt and uncertainty, and are less able to assess and chart our progress.

  • We may impose our high, hypothetical standards on others, and believe that people who fail to meet our expectations are guilty and deserve punishment.

    Instead of feeling empathy towards others and giving them adequate time and resources to improve, while guiding them towards higher standards of behaviour, we may judge them so harshly that our expectations of them are unrealistic.

    People cannot cope with tasks that lie far beyond their capabilities, no matter how much one might believe that God should be able to step in and provide a miraculous, transformational boost. Infants cannot be expected to direct multinational corporations or perform surgical procedures in hospital.

    Yet, dogmatic beliefs can lead some religious followers to enforce impossibly stringent standards and persecute those whom they perceive as having failed to meet them.

    Instead of tailoring their expectations to the people and circumstances at hand, those who believe in absolutism may apply a rigid set of criteria indiscriminately to every situation, and harbour intolerant and extremist views.

  • As with the previous point, if we're inflexible in our judgments, we may become oblivious to everyday reality and be unable to adjust our beliefs in the face of technological, scientific, and cultural development.

    If we forget that our decisions are based on the set of perceptions that we harboured at a given point in time, and believe that it's impossible to learn new things and refine or improve our perceptions, through experience and hindsight, then once we perceive something as absolutely ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ we may be unable to change our mindset, and be stuck with perceptions that were based on incomplete information and immature ideas.

    Some people think that it's a sign of weakness, to revise one’s previous opinions and alter one’s point of view; this unfortunate notion tends to restrict the mind and impede societal progress.

    On the contrary, the ability to acquire new pieces of information and continually update one’s belief system allows one to gain new insights and improve one’s understanding of the world, and should be seen as a sign of intelligence.
If people manage to discard their false beliefs, and rely instead on concrete, verifiable reasons, then they are able to avoid the harmful side effects of harbouring false beliefs. However, sometimes people are unable to let go of their prior beliefs, and/or find new ones to sustain their constructive activities.

Under these circumstances, removal of their initial, albeit false, beliefs would deprive them of their primary reason for doing good, and could, on the whole, be a detrimental course of action. If the negative repercussions of maintaining false beliefs are not too severe, then it might be better to stick to one’s original point of view.

Just remember that under certain circumstances, the extent of these negative effects can be tremendous and result in violent, prolonged conflict, war, suffering, and death. Therefore the existence of beliefs in concepts that are false, or unverifiable, are not to be taken lightly or casually dismissed, because the suffering that results is largely unnecessary, and could be avoided with a change in mindset.

Thus, the degree to which the maintaining or discarding of false beliefs results in net good or bad depends on how easy it is for one to find alternate sources of inspiration and motivation. If our false beliefs inspire us to work harder and persuade us to act more altruistically, then we do reap the positive side effects of these beliefs, as well as the disadvantages.

However, if we didn't harbour these false beliefs, and had other reasons in their place, that caused us to behave in equally commendable ways, then we would obtain desirable results, without having to suffer the negative consequences of having false beliefs.
If ‘absolute truth’ does not really exist, then where does this concept come from? Can human beings really believe in something that does not occur in reality?
Absolutely. We're quite capable of combining perceptions and ideas in novel ways, and generating concepts that only exist in our imaginations. The idea of absolute truth is a mental abstraction that is extrapolated from our notions of good and evil, purity and immorality.

Doesn’t the fact that many of us share this idea of absolute truth indicate that it must exist in some form or other? Surely it could not be mere coincidence that we each arrived at this concept independently and, furthermore, possess a fairly strong sense of what it conveys, even if we are less able to specify or agree on the details?

The answer is that it's not at all mysterious or surprising that we harbour similar intuitive beliefs about morality and God, even though these beliefs may be mistaken. Our basic brain architecture is extremely similar across individuals, and this causes us to share common thought patterns and follow similar steps in deduction and reasoning.

Although our experiences are unique to each individual, when viewed in the broader context, when one considers the wide range of perceptions experienced by all sensate, living things, the events and encounters that take place in our lives are relatively similar across people.

All the more so, when one considers the scope of reality that lies beyond the perceptions of any living thing. The similarity of our experiences, combined with the similarity of our brain mechanisms, often yields a high degree of uniformity in our perceptions.

Whether our flow of thought is correct or not is another matter. Just because many of us think that something is true, that does not make it true. Strength in numbers does not necessarily stem from rigorousness in logic, or correlate with the validity of beliefs.
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