Ask An Atheist: What is your personal relationship to absolutism?

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Q. As an atheist, what is your personal relationship to “absolutism”?

SPO_House-ad_Ask-an-atheist_0425133A. As “absolutism” is not an entity, I have no “personal relationship” to it at all, just as I can have no “personal relationship” with the mathematical absolute that one plus one equals two and not 64 or the musical absolute that the universe-ripping dissonance in the first movement of Mahler’s 10th Symphony is absolutely disconcerting from an aesthetic point of view, not just as a matter of “whatever floats your boat” preferential musical opinion. I suppose one can be said to have a “personal relationship” with an object, such as a shoe, but that does sound more like a fetish than a useful category for what we think about footwear, especially when it comes to understanding what the nature of shoes are compared to brick walls.

The questioner may have heard that I do believe in some absolutes in this way, as things that are true independent of our opinion of them, such as an absolute morality, wherein any rule of ethical truth must in principle hold universally independent of how much they like it or not. Slavery is a clear example for me, where I hold that people should never be property and that this means this value is true for all intelligent beings everywhere in the universe and throughout all the time that has been or ever shall be. A consequence of this absolute is that any philosophy or religion that approves of intelligent beings being property is in principle immoral, and by inference in the latter case, even if the god in question exists, you’d have to ask whether it was worthy of worship given its acceptance of so deeply outrageous a moral falsehood. Sounds pretty absolute to me, no moral relativism or wiggle room for me there, and I willingly plead guilty on this charge.

Just as I believe in an absolute physical reality (i.e, the moon is what it is, and not what it is not, and this truth is empirically determinable through scientific observation), I also believe in an absolute history.  Whatever happened is what happened. Rashoman moments where different people recall or claim differing things about past events are not the same thing as the event itself. Were we able to go back in a time machine and photograph the event, there would only be one thing to observe (and maybe none of the accounts are really that close to what actually happened). People will have done and said and moved as they had done, no more and no less. The inaccessible interior of their thoughts will of course be invisible even by that measure of course. But in spite of that, and of all these limitations, the goal of the historian, nonetheless, is (or ought to be) to try to approach an understanding of that absolute reality, while simultaneously recognizing that in principle vast amounts of history are outside our ability to get a closer look (the theme of a previous post).

None of my convictions here depend in the slightest on whether or not there are god(s). Whatever absolutes of mathematics and musical impact (contingent on our own special nature of evolved bipeds with nervous systems that process acoustic signals in specialized ways) and morality and ethics may indeed be true are so regardless of even them. Or can Vishnu or YHWH make one plus one equal three or contrive as a “true fact” of history that Lincoln turned into a stack of pancakes while reading the Gettysburg Address but had so “hardened” everyone’s brains in 1863 that no one recorded the event or render moral outrages like slavery acceptable after all? This absolutist says no, and nothing in my chain of reasoning depends on Vishnu or YHWH (or any other in the crowded pantheon) being real or not. As an atheist, of course, I no more need to fret about the ethics of worshipping a slavery-friendly deity than I need to wonder whether an absolute-math-denying believer (atheist or not) should be allowed to do your tax returns.

About Jim Downard

Jim Downard is a Spokane native (with a sojourn in Southern California back in the early 1960s) who was raised in a secular family, so says had no personal faith to lose.

He's always been a history and science buff (getting a bachelor's in the former area at what was then Eastern Washington University in the early 1970s).

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  1. Nice answer. (Yes, I am responsible for this question.)

    A clarification on my part to my original question is that I might more precisely have asked “individual interpretation,” rather than “personal relationship,” but this added a bit more fun 🙂

    I believe that “absolutism” is an IDEA similar to how “epistemology” is an IDEA and all other WORDS, for that matter, are IDEAS to which we each have different relationships.

    To WORDS like “cat” and “dog,” I imagine folks’ relationships being quite similar.

    Whereas, to WORDS such as “atheist,” I find our population exhibits vast spectrums of RELATIONSHIPS. (Until recently, I only related to this word through Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate. About six months ago, a disagreement with a friend caused me to investigate the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and I discovered new relationships to the term.)

    Similarly, the WORD “God” is not as so-often-thought strictly cut-and-dried around planet earth. To ME, speaking of “God” as “real” (or not) is like speaking of “air” or “space” as “real” (or not).

    I think paragraph three of your response is closest to the clarification I was seeking. You speak of absolutism in RELATION to morality, physical reality and history. Could you clarify a bit further how YOU DEFINE the generalized term “absolutist” (by which you primarily label yourself)?

    Thanks, Jim!

    P.S. (Heads up.) You are participating in an broad forum that includes equal PEERS having very different “interpretations of” and “relationships to” the WORD “God.” (I offer this to ponder.)

    NEXT question: How is ANYTHING “absolutely disconcerting from an ATHEIST point of view?”

  2. Not sure I can elaborate further without just rephrasing the same points. I will note, though, that the question “Are there absolute truths among the undecidable propositions of life (such as morality and ethics)? is itself likely undecidable itself, so all arguments here are going to circle around the same drain of which assumptions one invokes to govern one’s thinking. Given that, there are many things that disconcert me, such as being affronted by people destroying things (in the name of Gods or ideology, no matter), but I wouldn’t claim that annoyance is intrinsic to either atheism or religion, but comes with the territory of what it means to be a self-aware being who has to ponder what is the Good.

    Now if I discover after my death that I do have an incorporeal spirit afterlife after all, that would surprise me (and even delight too, unless I did end up eternally tortured as some denominations would expect), and that could be lumped under the “disconcerting” category. While we’re about it, though, were I to discover in that afterlife that Hitler wasn’t in the same boat, but somehow slipped onto the Elysian Fields ok, well that would both outrage and disconcert me, again independent of whichever deities might or might not exist and be involved in that situation. Fair’s fair after all (oops, another one of those absolutes slipped in. My bad.)

  3. Am I correct then to conclude you agree (from an absolutist’s point of view) there is no such thing as an absolute absolutist?

    No further comment necessary 🙂

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