An Intellectual Exercise in Exercising the Intellect


“There are no absolutes,” a friend of mine said in counterargument.  The snap response I had was to counter her counter with one of a number of witty responses I had built up over the years for this statement.  I decided, instead, to remain on topic, undeterred by her attempts to muddle the issue at hand, because I believe that for the most part this whole philosophy has been whittled down to a counterargument tactic for most people.

Whenever I hear the “No Absolutes” argument, I think of the initial stages of antimatter production.  In order to get the protons, neutrons, or electrons spinning fast enough, a physicist needs to use a Particle Accelerator to attempt the production of an atomic nuclei, otherwise known as antimatter.  The acceleration of these atoms occurs in a magnetic tube that leads them to a subject, upon which they smashed to produce this final product.  The process is a lot more intricate and complex than that, but for the purpose of this discussion this simplified description can be used as an analogy for the “There are No Absolutes” argument that is often introduced in an echo chamber of like-minded thinkers, until it is smashed upon a specific subject, and the subject matter at hand is then annihilated in a manner that produces intellectual antimatter in the mind of all parties concerned.

Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

The “No Absolutes” argument is based on the post-structuralism idea that because we process, or experience, reality through language –and language can be declared unstable, inconsistent, and relative– then nothing that is said, learned, or known can be said to be 100% true.

This degree of logic could be the reason that a number of philosophers have spent so much time studying what rational adults would consider “Of Course!” truths.  One such example, is the idea of presentism.  Presentism, as presented by the philosopher John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart, could also be termed the philosophy of time. The central core of McTaggart’s thesis has it that the present is the lone timeframe that exists, and that the past, and the future cannot exist at the same time.  The past has happened, he states, and the future will happen, but they do not exist in the sense that the present does.  This philosophy is regarded in some circles (to the present day!) as so insightful that it is included in some compilations of brilliant philosophical ideas.

Anyone that is familiar with McTaggart’s philosophy, or will be by clicking here, can read through the description of the man’s theory a number of times without grasping what questions the man was answering.  His description of time is so elementary that the reader wonders more about the audience that needed that explained to them, than they do the philosophy of Mr. McTaggart.  Was McTaggart arguing against the linguists attempts to muddle the use of language, or was he attempting to argue for the reinforcement of agreed upon truths?  Regardless, the scientific community had problems with McTaggart’s statement, as depicted by the unnamed essayist writing in this article:

If the present is a point (in time) it has no existence, however, if it is thicker than a point then it is spread through time and must have a past and future and consequently can’t be classed as purely the present.  The present is immeasurable and indescribable” because it is, we readers can only assume, too finite to be called a point.”

Those that want to dig deep into the physicist’s definition of time, of which this unnamed essayist seems to be a party, will find that time is a measurement that humans have invented to aid them in their day-to-day lives, and that the essence of time cannot be measured.  Time is not linear, and it cannot be seen, felt or heard.  They will argue that there is nothing even close to an absolute truth regarding time.  Setting aside the physicists’ definition of time, however, humans do have an agreed upon truth of time that McTaggart appeared to want to bolster through elementary, agreed upon truths of time to thwart the confusion that sociolinguists, with a political orientation, introduced to susceptible minds.

There’s nothing wrong with a man of science, or math, challenging our notions, perceptions, and agreed upon truths.  Some of these challenges are fascinating, intoxicating, and provocative, but some have taken these challenges to another level, a “No Absolutes” level to this point of challenging our beliefs system that has resulted in damage to our discourse, our sense of self, free-will, and a philosophy we have built on facts and agreed upon truths in a manner that may lead some to question if everything they believe in is built on a house of cards that can be blown over by even the most subtle winds of variance.

There was a time when I believed that most of the self-referential, circuitous gimmicks of sociolinguistics –that ask you to question everything you and I hold dear– were little more than an intellectual exercise that professors offered their students to get them using their minds in a variety of ways.  After questioning the value of the subject of Geometry, my high school teacher informed me: “It is possible that you may never use any aspect of Geometry ever again, but in the course of your life you’ll be called upon to use your brain in ways you cannot now imagine.  Geometry could be called a training ground for those times when others will shake you out of your comfort zone and require a mode of thinking that you may have never considered before, or use again.” This Geometry professor’s sound logic left me vulnerable to the post-structuralist “No Absolutes” Philosophy professors I would encounter in college.  I had no idea what they were talking about, I saw no value in their lectures, and I thought that the ideas that I was being introduced to, such as those nihilistic ideas of Nietzsche, always seemed to end up in the same monotonous result, but I thought their courses were an exercise in using my brain in ways I otherwise wouldn’t.

Thus, when I first began hearing purveyors of the “No Absolutes” argument use it in everyday life, for the purpose of answering questions of reality, I wanted to inform them that this line of thought was just an intellectual exercise reserved for theoretical venues, like a classroom.  It, like Geometry, had little-to-no place in the real world.  I wanted to inform them that the “No Absolutes” form of logic wasn’t a search for truth, so much as it was a counterargument tactic to nullify truths, or an intellectual exercise devoted to exercising your intellect.  It is an excellent method of expanding your mind in dynamic ways, and for fortifying your thoughts, but if you’re introducing this concept to me as evidence for how you plan on answering real questions in life, I think you’re going to find it an exercise in futility over time.

Even when a debate between two truth seekers ends in the amicable agreement that neither party can sway the other to their truth, the art of pursuing the truth seems to me to be a worthwhile pursuit.  What would be the point of contention for two “No Absolutes” intellectuals engaging in a debate?  Would the crux of their argument focus on pursuing the other’s degree of error, or their own relative definition of truth?  If they pursued the latter, they would have to be careful not to proclaim their truths to be too true, for fear of being knocked back by the “There are No Absolutes,” “Go back to the beginning” square.  Or would their argument be based on percentages: “I know there are no absolutes, but my truth is true 67% of the time, while yours is true a mere 53% percent of the time.”  Or, would they argue that their pursuit of the truth is less true than their opponents, to therefore portray themselves as a true “No Absolutes” nihilist?

Some may argue that one of the most vital components of proving a theoretical truth in science, is the attempt to disprove it, and others might argue that this is the greatest virtue of the “No Absolutes” argument, and while we cannot dismiss this as a premise, purveyors of this line of thought appear to use it as nothing more than a counterargument to further a premise that neither party is correct.  Minds that appear most confused by the facts, find some relief in the idea that this argument allows them to introduce confusion to those minds that aren’t.  Those that are confused by meaning, or intimidated by those that have a unique take on meaning, may also find some comfort in furthering the notion that life has no meaning, and nothing matters.  They may also enjoy informing the informed that a more complete grasp on meaning requires one to have a firmer grasp on the totality of meaninglessness.  The question I’ve always had, when encountering a mind that has embraced the “ No Absolutes” philosophy is, are they pursuing a level of intelligence I’m not capable of attaining, or are they pursuing the appearance of it?

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