First posted on 8-7-2013:
"Absolutely" sets a new standard for "most abused word".
|My granddaughter Leah searching for absolutes|
Turn on any interview show. Within seconds you'll hear the word, "Absolutely!" Even worse, it will probably be the response to some relatively complex issue that doesn't even approach any absolute condition.
Why is "Absolutely!" such a common answer? Is there really that much certainly in our world? Nope. It's the result of lazy thinking.
"Absolutely" is being applied to things that are not only NOT absolute, often they are not even probable. Consider the source. Who is the spokesman? Politician? Anyone else with a bias? See what I mean? Ironically, the very opposite of their "absolute" assertion is often the case. Strangely enough, the more emphatic the claim, the less likely it is to be true.
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman" and "there is absolutely no sex of any kind" - President Bill Clinton, 1998 from public statement and deposition
This onslaught of "absolutely!" is an excellent opportunity for some critical thinking. Consider possible exceptions to the assertions as they are being stated. Under what condition might the statement NOT be true? See what I mean?
Years ago I had a close friend who, when I'd make some brash statement would say, "As opposed to?", then follow it with possible exceptions. She was very good at this, and it became a game we played. So I stole her trick. It's great mind candy, and quickly begs an even more important question - is ANYthing absolute?
Seriously, isn't "absolutely" simply an idea? A creation of the human mind? Is it not our aspiration to see things all one way, or all the other? Isn't "absolutely" merely a bad case of polar thinking?
"Absolutely" doesn't really exist. Seeking the truth is best approached asymptotically, leaving the end-point for the weaker mind. It's like "unsinkable", "unstoppable" or "immovable", each an admirable goal, but not achievable in the real world. "Unsinkable" didn't even complete its first voyage.
So is NOTHING absolutely true? Nope. Well, not likely.
THIS statement MAY be the ONLY absolute.
I can imagine everyone now bringing to mind their favorite absolutes - God, love, mathematics, gravity. I could go on and on, and so can you. So let's start with the most popular:
Many of you think me an atheist, but you'd be wrong. I'm at best (or worst) an agnostic. And I have doubts about that. But I DO hold that each of us should be given the tolerance to explore as we wish. And that's the key - we need to keep an opened mind.
God is not only an over-loaded word (many meanings), it's also one of the most over-loaded concepts we have in all the various aspects of human culture. Unfortunately, the truth of God does not have a very good track record, under any religion.
Compare the "truths" of God, Jesus Christ, Buddha and Mohammad as documented. They can't ALL be right. To be candid, I think Mohammad, Buddha and Jesus Christ may have been a pretty impressive guys, but you wouldn't know it from all the contradictions and contemporary interpretations. To be fair, let's take each one separately. They still get interpreted in many different ways by different "believers". Again, even for any one religion, they can't ALL be right. And if any of these doctrines were absolutely true, why would there ever be need for change? And yet they DO change from time to time.
Let me get specific about the absolute aspect of God, not religion. Is our existence (or its illusion for some), proof of God? Hardly. Our "existence" is demonstratively discoverable, and aspects of it are changing day by day. Make a statement about existence, and a thousand others will provide counterpoints. And that's WITHOUT questioning perception and relativity. I could go on and on, but everyone else already has. Keep an opened mind. Even about God.
So, what about love? It's so pure and simple, it MUST be absolute. Unfortunately, love too is a highly over-loaded word, concept and feeling. Love goes mystic as an experience, but all you have to do is ingest some MDMA to produce it's subjective conviction. This clearly demonstrates our experience of love is at the very least, part of a chemical feedback loop in human behavior. And the conviction you feel on your wedding day? Give it seven years. Again, love's track record is no better than God's. Actually, it's quite a bit worse.
Ahh... mathematics - it's perfection itself. Hardly. Math is only a game we play in our struggle to understand the world. Mathematics is a creation of the human mind, and simply a tool for science. If you look closely, the "truth" of mathematics flows from its usefulness in the observations we've made, or else is some form of identity - wholly disconnected from reality, which again makes it simply an abstraction of thought, which is more of an illusion than an absolute.
“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” – Albert Einstein
But gravity you say! That's never fails us!
Don't be silly. Of course it has. Along with all the other "laws" of science. All you have to do it go into orbit. OK, that's not fair. The subjective experience of gravity just takes on a different form in orbit. But seriously. Ever heard of the 30 years that shook physics?
In the late nineteenth century it was thought that all science had been discovered, there were just a few refinements to be made. There was even talk of shutting down the patent office. And then along came Einstein. That's when all hell broke loose (not related to God).
Suffice it to say, we have more organized doubt in science now, than in any time in history. And that's healthy. And that's the point. Any student entering the field of science today who does not have an opened mind is a fool. If he "believes" in math, if he "believes" in science, he is likely to be worse than useless in his endeavor. He may actually distract us from approaching the truth with his questionable conviction.
Like mathematics, scientific absolutes are an illusion of the human mind. Instead of discovering absolutes, science is how we claw our way forward in thinking. Just don't hold too tightly to your conclusions, while you reach for the next hand-hold. You'll find it easier to grasp.
So the next time you hear someone exclaim, "Absolutely!", let your mind wander to all the exceptions. Then realize the person making the statement needs a lesson in critical thinking. Help them out. Explain that their conclusion may only be a useful generalization.
If you have any other "absolutes", please comment below. I'll do what I can to help you test them.
Who knows, maybe you'll find one.
But I doubt it.
Perhaps the best statement on the topic:
"I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief." - Gerry Spence
Another similar conclusion:
"I'm not absolutely sure of anything" - Richard Feynman in 1981 from this interview:
Richard Feynman on Religion, Science, the Search for Truth; Our Willingness to Live with Doubt
Half the "Facts" You Know Are Probably Wrong
There are NO Absolutes. There is NO Absolute Truth!
03-07-06 Everything Is Crumbling
John Oliver: Scientific Studies