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Absolute Truth, Dogmatism Antithetical to Science

Column by Loren King
Guest Columnist

In a recent guest column ["Student-Endorsed Relativism Inconsistent with Morality," Feb. 12], Marc Carlin bemoans the prevalence of what he calls "moral relativism" among the students here at MIT. He argues that a group of students so familiar with the natural sciences should instead embrace a doctrine which he attributes to these disciplines: that absolute, timeless truths exist, and that human reason, properly applied, can discover and apply these lofty principles.

I think Carlin misunderstands the character of science, and of morality. Unlike him, I am pleased to find that MIT students shy away from the notion that Absolute Truths exist and can be discovered. To me, this indicates that science is being taught and done well, and that students here are not indoctrinated with the misconceptions about science and moral judgment which Carlin exhibits.

Carlin claims that Absolute Truth "is essential" to science. It is not. In fact, the best science recognizes the basic uncertainty of human knowledge, and by this recognition frees itself from the dogmatic belief that once a problem appears to be solved, it is solved for good.

The scientific method insists upon questioning not only the objects and events that we find in the world, but also our basic beliefs and assumptions about the way the world is, and the way we come to know things about it. Science works because no fact or belief is ever taken as being final; all knowledge is provisional, and postulates, methods, and conclusions are at all times open to the critical scrutiny not only of the researchers conducting the work, but also of the scientific community at large.

This is why science is so successful, and such an appealing method of rational inquiry: people are always asking questions, and never taking anything for granted. Controversy and discussion of competing ideas are a sure sign of good science in progress; when people start getting complacent, when they claim that all the important problems are solved, or that the final word has been spoken about a particular phenomena, we should be wary.

Scientific knowledge is never absolute. Rather, it represents the consensus of a critical and vigilant community of scholars. It is this idea of consensus which is often confused with Absolute Truth, and this is particularly apparent when we enter the realm of human action, and thus of moral judgment.

Consider an example which Carlin presents as a moral Absolute: "If I asked to see your most difficult problem set a half hour before it was due, then took a lighter to it and burned it up, wouldn't that be just plain wrong?" Few people would disagree, but this sort of consensus does not an Absolute make! Rather, consensus makes consensus, nothing more.

As another example Carlin draws upon the only portion of the Declaration of Independence which most people seem to bother reading: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." But these rights did not seem to apply as consistently (read: at all) when the indigenous people of the Americas had land which Jefferson's liberty-loving compadres wanted. Nor did Absolute Truth seem to include women and slaves in Jefferson's day.

The idea that is embodied in this oft-quoted phrase (which goes on to define as inalienable the rights of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness") is that States should define some basic rules, and offer some basic goods, which satisfy needs that almost everyone has, needs which are prior to more specific, and less-essential, interests and desires.

This is, I think, an agreeable conception of the state's role in modern society, but it is far from being an Absolute Truth. Rather it is a postulate, based upon the (accurate) perception that some needs are shared by many, and are prior to most others. Some of these basic requirements might include the need for food, shelter, and safety of the person from attacks by others. Furthermore, because these basic needs are widely shared, a great many people will probably agree that someone -- the State, usually -- should provide them.

Now, agreements of this sort are fine things, and indeed they are necessary in a complex society made up of diverse and often-competing interests and beliefs. But to call such agreements "Absolutes" is to deny the one fact about the world that is constantly impressed upon us: change. Change is a basic feature of human life. People change, circumstances change, beliefs change; as Heraclitus observed, "everything flows, nothing is stationary."

Science can adapt to change precisely because its methods take nothing for granted; even these methods themselves are open to scrutiny and re-evaluation! There are no timeless, ahistorical truths. If moral judgment were to be a scientific affair, it would not concern itself with Absolute Truth, but rather with understanding the ways in which people form beliefs, and the possible ways of resolving conflicts between these beliefs -- without appeal to dubious universal laws.

The insistence that we can know Absolutes, moral or otherwise, is a denial of the dynamic character of the world around us, and it arises from the same sort of dogmatic appeal to absolute knowledge that in the present day condemns Salman Rushdie to a life of terror, and in earlier times twice put Galileo before the Inquisition. On this latter point we would do well to remember the response of a scholastic thinker when Galileo asked him to look through his telescope and observe the moons of Jupiter: the man replied that he needn't look through the device, as he would certainly not see anything that Aristotle had not written about more than a millennia before.

This is not a scientific outlook, and those who claim insight into moral Absolutes often find themselves in a similar position as the scholastic here described. They cannot account for new information, new insights, new ideas, precisely because they are trapped into asserting what seemed beforehand to be indubitable truth. New ideas, new interpretations are stifled because they are taken to be wrong a priori.

Thus for the knower of Absolute Truth there is no need to look through the telescope, no need to read The Satanic Verses, no need to meet and talk with a few homosexuals and thus understand that they are thinking, feeling, compassionate human beings, just like us hets.

It would be a shame if science actually were simply a quest for Absolute Truth, and it would be -- and often is -- a tragedy when the same association is made for matters of morals. So, despite Carlin's admonitions, here's to MIT students for escaping the lure of dogmatism, and for making science that much more relevant to society, and the moral problems therein.