Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Is jury duty an absolute?

I had jury duty, and got called for a real trial. Assault with a deadly weapon, two counts. One isn’t allowed to “weigh” the evidence of the case until after the trial is over. So during the downtime, we the jury make conversation.

About what, you may ask? Favorite TV shows are an important component, and that can maintain interest for a few minutes. Someone had the idea to go around and say what we did for a living. Real estate agents, bouncers, construction workers, homemakers. After things became more familial, it came out that I was writing a paper on absolute truth. This was because there was a lull in the conversation, and I said,

“So I am writing this paper on absolute truth, and its really interesting to me how the courts depend on the concept…” or something equivalent in psychotic expectations to communally philosophize.

One man bit, “what is absolute truth?”

I responded, quoting another, “Absolute truth is what is true for all persons, places, and times.”

Our bouncer leaned back in his chair and mused, “well, that doesn’t exist at my house.”

Fighting the urge to quibble, I only replied, “but might it exist nonetheless?” And things moved on to the current state of the home-buying market.

Full-on epistemological relativism--the belief that differing determinations of the truth of a proposition cannot be arbitrated between two or more standards, leading to a proposition that can only be "true-for-you"--is too easy a target. I do not want merely to bring up the classic charges of self-refutation (undermines the very notion of rightness) and incoherence (since some beliefs are necessarily false) Both charges have led to convictions since Plato, and are there on record when needed. So let's just clarify its reasonable alternative.

There really is only one *reasonable* alternative, and it’s rather vast. Yet, we so often find ourselves, both as ordinary humans and as ivory-tower drive shafts, between two grossly unreflective and practically brainwashed options, neither of which see the vast middle where all we rightfully belong. In this case, it is between full-on relativism and “vulgar” absolutism, as some of the technicians called it. I define “vulgar” absolutism as an embracing of fact-certainty, dogmatism, incorrigibility, or some other unlikable quality that drives people away to a paint-by-numbers critique of a non-existent worldview. While both are unedible to the soul's palette, when faced with the Nazi/Communist-either/or, even the thinking person might go with the path of least popular resistance--its all relative.

Absolutism, as I see it (in its “graded” or non-vulgar sense), is really a call to inquiry. All it requires is an object of inquiry, that is, something about which to inquire. If there is something there (and not just in there, in your head), then that’s a very good start. We have something to talk about. We can ask questions like “what is it?” and “how did we know that?” We may revise our answers later, for a variety of good reasons. We may even revise our reasons, and the criteria for what counts as reasons.

Regarding the object, we still face several immediate problems, clear to even a lugnut like myself. For example, how is it that the object itself is seen, when it is seen through subjective concepts, perspectives, thoughts, and so on?

But that’s really the point. They are problems. Fun problems. As problems, they are difficult and maybe even interesting for an absolutist. But for someone who has accepted an full-on relativism, an easy and unconvincing answer has already been put forth. We don’t have any real public object. In the words of Plato's well-intentioned student who recieved needed correction, "knowledge is perception." You will just think whatever you happen to think (as coddled by thoughts, concepts, frameworks, and worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds-within-worlds). The relativist disputes the existence of public criteria for evaluating the truth of statements that can be made about the object. The absolutist doesn’t dispute that, because to dispute that is to render the possibility of disputation meaningless.

So, can we talk? Is there really something to talk about? We have reached a verdict, your honor.


Anonymous said...

Please update me on the identity of the architect who, according to your sermon in BeitHesed,Düsseldorf, built a 23-storeyed house without elevator.

Matthew Graham said...


I like your writing! You have spunk and imagination. Two qualities I lack. :)

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