Thursday, January 7, 2016

Absolute Truth, President Kimball and Alma

Recently someone emailed me asking about how one could reconcile my view of truth with an article by President Kimball about "Absolute Truth".

That article by President Kimball can be found here:
https://www.lds.org/ensign/1978/09/absolute-truth?lang=eng

The Rorty video referenced is wonderful because it absolutely packs so much into a few minutes. Every single word and phrase is packed with meaning.
It can be found here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CzynRPP9XkY

I also here I make some reference to "Alma" - this can be found in the Book of Mormon, Alma 32. I intend to eventually integrate this blog with another discussion I had with this individual about Alma's "theory of truth"

I have italicized the quotes from President Kimball's article.

This was my answer:

"It is easy to get confused on these issues especially when one is just starting out.
One must speak carefully and watch closely exactly what is being said and analyze the logic of each and every sentence.

To say that "truth is relative to a context" does not mean that there is no truth, or that "truth is relative" or "there are no absolute truths"  To say that "truth" is undefinable does not mean that there is no truth or that it is unintelligible.  Watch that Rorty video again- the fact that we cannot define "true" does not mean we do not know how to use it in a sentence.  It does not mean that "truth" is not a useful concept.

Truth is a property of sentences- not "reality".  There are no "true" chairs or tables, only true or false sentences. The sentence A=A is always absolutely true.  It is a statement of identity.  It is a definition that a thing is itself.  The rules of logic will always be regarded as "true" because they are the very rules by which thought proceeds.  We cannot imagine that "A" and "Not A" can both be "true"- our brains cannot comprehend such an idea.  In a sense that could be seen as an "absolute" truth- because it always works.  We cannot think without the principle of identity.  It is true "by definition" what we MEAN by A is A.  Language and all communication requires naming and the idea that names do not change every few seconds, that what we mean by A could become B.  We don't imagine that black becomes white and up suddenly gets defined by the word "down".  Unintelligible.

Also as Pres Kimball says, and the scriptures say, truth is contexual within its "sphere".  He repeatedly says that statements about God are not speaking about science.

So what is one way of looking at a pragmatic way of looking at "truth" (this is not a full definition- but a working model- a hypothesis- a paradigm- a way of looking at the concept for a specific purpose)  One might say the "truth is what works" for a precise purpose.

In science, purposes change all the time.  The Kimball article points that out well.  Newton's "laws" become replaced by Einstein etc.  What worked before is now replaced by something that works better.

The purpose of statements about science is to make things and understand what can be said about the regularities of nature and our observations of it.  You turn the key on the car, and science can detail each reaction started by that spark and what makes the car move.

But science does not tell us anything about right and wrong, about significance or about importance.

 Science cannot tell us that murder is wrong, or how to be fulfilled as a human being.  It cannot tell us whom to marry  or how to repent, why to repent, or how to love our enemy or indeed why we even should.

It does not tell us where we came from and where we are going- and yet we all need that kind of meaning in our lives.
Science gives us bare facts which work for a while and then get changed as we learn better ways of doing things.

But what about what gives our lives meaning?   What kind of statements give our lives meaning, and tell us what is right and wrong and why?  What statements codify what we KNOW in our hearts is "true" like the golden rule?

It is self-evident that it is wrong to kill babies, but how do we know that?  How do people all over the world and in all civilizations know that?  They may differ in their definition of what constitutes a "baby".

Remember now, we are speaking about philosophy- we are not speaking as Mormons.  We are looking for secular ways to define "absolute truth" and ways we can think about a theory of truth which would at once be "pragmatic" and yet account for "absolute truth".   That viewpoint is essential to making it "philosophy" instead of "testimony" and the purpose for that is to be able to allow people with a philosophical bent to say "Hmmm- I guess that's reasonable" and allow them to investigate the gospel further.

So are there statements we can make about giving our lives significance which never change- which would allow people from all civilizations to see a pragmatic reason to understand principles which never change which give our lives significance?

I think there are.  All civilizations need peace.  All civilizations need to be based on families due to simple biology.  Our babies have huge heads and are born helpless and require the care of two or more individuals to raise them until they can be old enough to survive on their own.  So on a mere survival basis, humanity needs families just to survive.

Humanity needs rules for a civilized society.  Without rules, there is chaos.  If we all decided to drive 60 mph down a sidewalk on the left side of the street, people would die.  That is not good for society.  We need peace and calm and therefore rules.  We LDS know that commandments actually GIVE us freedom and are not "restrictions" on our freedom.  We are free of drug addiction, free of getting murdered over an adulterous relationship, etc etc.  No drunk driving etc.

But how do we define that pragmatically?   There are rules like the "golden rule" which ALWAYS WORK in a civilization.  the very existence of civilization itself requires that we regard each other as we would want to be regarded.  There must be equality before the law. etc etc.

So there are principles which always WORK in human ethics in any possible civilized society for it to be called "civilized"

The first century apocryphal work "The Didache" speaks of the "Way of Life" and the "Way of Death" and says that essentially follow the commandments leads to "life" and not following them leads to "death"

I think that is a philosophical principle we can sink our teeth into- it is an early pragmatic ethics.  Fornication leads to unwed mothers, absent fathers, no family and confused children.  No, it is not "death" but it is a less than optimal life style.

What other ideas can we think of which never change which will always "work" -  be pragmatically true- and assist in our happiness?  Remember we are thinking secularly here- what could we tell a humanist which they would relate to?
Forgiving others.  Civilization requires it. If we do something wrong, try make it better and never do it again.  Repentance. Become "more civilized" every day. Become the most "perfect" human we can.  "Be all you can be" is a slogan used in military recruitment but it is awfully close to "Fill the measure of your creation and have joy therein".

And we need an Ideal Being upon which to model ourselves.  What are all the best characteristics of humanity we should emulate?  One might see that as something in the direction of a "pragmatic god"

Rorty himself has said that he could worship a God who was a "Friend" of mankind instead of an abstract spirit filling space.  Rorty the atheist said that he could worship a human superman who was the friend of mankind- a kind of super human being.

Know where we can find anything like that model? 

Now let's go back to the Alma stuff- what does it say is "real"?  That which is full of goodness and light.  Clearly he was not talking about chairs and tables there- he was talking about what ideas make us understand the significance of our lives better.

So now let's get back to the president Kimball talk.  Let's "translate" it into secular pragmatism and see how close we can get to President Kimball.

"This true way of life is not a matter of opinion. There are absolute truths and relative truths. "

He is talking about the truth of a WAY OF LIFE.  What does that mean? He is looking for exactly what we were discussing- statements about a lifestyle which never change.  He calls those "absolute truth".

In this context, no problem so far.  They are true and they are unchanging for all civilizations.

"There are many ideas advanced to the world that have been changed to meet the needs of the truth as it has been discovered. There are relative truths, and there are also absolute truths which are the same yesterday, today, and forever—never changing. These absolute truths are not altered by the opinions of men. "

Yes we agree scientific truth changes.  What is pragmatically true for civilization does not, because people are people and have the same needs universally. 

"We learn about these absolute truths by being taught by the Spirit. These truths are “independent” in their spiritual sphere and are to be discovered spiritually, though they may be confirmed by experience and intellect. (See D&C 93:30.) The great prophet Jacob said that “the Spirit speaketh the truth. … Wherefore, it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13.) We need to be taught in order to understand life and who we really are."


We learn what works for civilized man by looking within to what we all need for peaceful survival. These spiritual truths are in their own independent sphere from scientific beliefs, and can be experienced directly through spiritual experience.
Things as they are as things as we experience them- along with what feelings and impressions we have in our heart. William James grounds the validity of these feelings in a religious context.

Both James and Rorty and many many other philosophers find that statements about the existence of God are justified by personal experience of the kind here mentioned by Pres. Kimball.

"If men are really humble, they will realize that they discover, but do not create, truth.

The Gods organized the earth of materials at hand, over which they had control and power. This truth is absolute. A million educated folk might speculate and determine in their minds that the earth came into being by chance. The truth remains. The earth was made by the Gods as was the watch by the watchmaker. Opinions do not change that."

What is truth?  Statements that work.  Can we discover statements which work as opposed to creating them?  I am not sure.  I think frankly he is speaking here of sectarian philosophy, but I do not expect him to be trained in philosophy.

I think the next paragraph may conflict with the first.  If we are in any way like the Gods, gods create truth from matter unorganized.  We also create organization intellectually.  Perhaps there are semantic problems here, perhaps not.  I do not expect prophets to be infallible on philosophical matters since it is so specialized.  I think the problem here is words, the difference between "discover" and "create".  Columbus "discovered" America, but from a pragmatic standpoint he might as well have "created" it.  What was unknown suddenly became a universe of possibilities which were not there before.  Is that creation of the possibilities or their discovery?  Semantic issue.


Did Donald Trump "create" the Trump Tower?  Did he "discover" it?  No, he caused it to be organized. He gave the order for others to go and organize matter unorganized.  Is the statement "Trump created the Trump Tower" true or false?  Is that an "Absolute Truth"?  When I get to the other side, I would love to sit down with President Kimball and discuss that. But for now I see it as a semantic issue

"Experience in one field does not automatically create expertise in another field. Expertise in religion comes from personal righteousness and from revelation. The Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith: “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it.” (D&C 93:30.) A geologist who has discovered truths about the structure of the earth may be oblivious to the truths God has given us about the eternal nature of the family."

Truth is contextual and changes between fields. So now how can there be "absolute truth"?  Well we know I am just making a point- we have answered that.  Is there a conflict there between those statements?

I am not going to go paragraph by paragraph.  The church takes no position officially on evolution and there are many ways to square evolution and the gospel so I will not go there either- though he does not mention that specifically.  Different sphere with different purposes.

"This church of Jesus Christ (nicknamed Mormon) is the “only true and living church” that is fully recognized with the authority to perform for him, and the only one with a total and comprehensive and true program which will carry men to powers unbelievable and to realms incredible.

This is an absolute truth. It cannot be disproved. It is as true as the near-spherical shape of the earth, and as gravity; as true as the shining of the sun—as positive as the truth that we live. Most of the world disbelieves it; ministers attempt to disprove it; intellectuals think to rationalize it out of existence; but when all the people of the world are dead, and the ministers and priests are ashes, and the highly trained are mouldering in their graves, the truth will go forward—the Church will continue triumphant and the gospel will still be true."

Within the sphere of Mormonism of course this is an absolute truth.  One might say that Mormonism fulfills the requirements of a fully civilized church better than any other possible model.  As an ideology it works best at creating what we call a "Zion society" which is a kind of utopia ruled by an Ideal Perfect Human at its head.

Again remember we are speaking here assuming the persona of secularists, not as faithful members.

"The Lord has defined truth as being a “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24.) God’s existence is a reality. Immortality is a reality. These realities will not go away simply because we have different opinions about them. These realities will not be dissolved just because some have doubts about them."


We covered this in the Alma stuff.  What are "things as they are?"  The way we experience them- not some verbal model of what we experience.  What is "reality" in a spiritual context?  Remember Alma says "goodness and light"  God's existence can be directly experienced, and it is goodness and light.  In other words, it is "knowledge of things as they are" and "real".  It all fits!

I think the rest of the talk kind of falls into place."




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