Ask the Professor: Can there be objective universal truth?

Dear Ask the Professor,

Can there be objective universal truth that needs no justification without appealing to abstract reality?

Jeremiah Bitiong, Saints Peter & Paul Major Seminary

Answered by Anja Hartleb-Parson, Vice President at Intellectual Takeout. Anja holds a bachelor's of art in philosophy and psychology from Rockford College, a master's in political theory from Northern Illinois University, and a master's in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University. She has taught at Northern Illinois University, worked at the Center for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford College, and has been with Intellectual Takeout since the beginning of 2010.

To answer this question fully might, arguably, require a philosophical treatise. But I will restrain my urge for the benefit of those among the readers who prefer concise answers to their questions—and perhaps mankind in general. Far too many (so-called) philosophers have sought to contribute enlightening and enriching tombs of wisdom, with questionable success.

First, I want to address the "without appealing to abstract reality" part of the question. Since the question came from a Catholic seminary student, I'm going to assume that "appeal to an abstract" reality in this case probably refers to a "supernatural" realm of reality. This higher form of reality is supposed to serve as an eternal, unchanging, and universal anchor for truth. Many religious people argue that if there was no God, there could be no universal truth.

Whether we believe it or not, that higher reality isn't itself abstract; it's concrete. What IS abstract is our knowledge of it. Abstraction is a process our minds engage in, so that we can hold vast amounts of knowledge. When we "abstract," we take all the relevant similarities and differences among concrete things and group them into higher-level concepts.

For instance, I have an apple sitting here on my desk. It's a concrete real thing. But in order to identify it as an apple, I had to learn what makes an apple an apple. Likely, my mother showed me an apple at some point in my childhood, and said: "Here darling, this is an apple." After looking at multiple apples, I learned what kinds of characteristics make them similar—what constitutes appleness, so to speak. I also figured out what makes an apple different, from, say an orange, or a banana.  That's an example of the process of abstraction.

The point here is that, ultimately, I had to ground my "apple abstraction" in the concrete—I had to justify it by referring back to concrete instances of apples.

The same would hold if we needed to provide justification for claiming there are universal truths. That justification would have to be grounded, ultimately, in the concrete.

However, I argue that we don't need this sort of "abstract" justification. Why?

Consider this brief conversation:

Me: There are universal truths.

You: Prove it.

Me: Well, I don't have to—and by asking for proof, you're already assuming that there indeed are universal truths.

You: Why is that?

Me: Because the concept of proof depends on the existence of at least one universal truth—namely, that something can be proven!

A simpler argument for "proving" the existence of universal truths is trying to negate their existence. To claim that there are no universal truths is plainly self-contradictory. You are essentially saying, "It is universally true that there are no universal truths."

The same goes for the possibility of "objective" truth. How would one credibly establish that there are no "objective truths" other than by objective means, such as logic and evidence of some sort? Indeed, I haven't met a skeptic yet who readily submits as proof for his assertions that there is no truth, or no objective truth, or no universal truth, "Because I said so."

So there is my argument for affirming the existence of universal truths without having to appeal to an "abstract" (metaphysical) reality. But, how can we come to know these universal truths? I shall leave that question for another day—or perhaps another, more capable philosopher.

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