Does “Absolute Truth” Exist?

Hi visitors and Feeling Good website members,

I got several questions from an individual that I answered in the comments section of the website, but then i thought I might edit it a little and elevate it to the status of a blog. So I apologize if you might have already read this, but if you haven’t you might find it interesting, especially if you like philosophy.

Here is the email I received from Zly:

Hi Dr. Burns,

I have bought several of your books: Feeling Good, Feeling Good Together, and When Panics Attacks. However, I am not very clear about some of your points, so I want to ask you some questions if you don’t mind:

  1. Does absolute truth exist?
  2. Is there a forth valid use of SHOULD STATEMENTS?
  3. Which laws should I obey? And why is the “legal should” valid?

Let me explain my questions. First, in Feeling Good Together, you said that protecting our TRUTH makes relationship worse. Are you saying that there is no absolute truth in the world?

Second, you have described three valid types of “should statements:” the “legal should,” the “moral should,” and the “laws of the universe should.” I am wondering if there might be a forth, undistorted SHOULD STATEMENT when you are making a choice. For example. recently, I have been bothered about making a choice between two job offers. I don’t know which offer is better, so I frequently ask myself: which job should I choose?

To explain my third question, I have read some books that seem to contradict each other, and I don’t know which book I should believe. For example, the multi-party-political system is legal in America but illegal in China. So, the sentence, “You should not support a multi-party-political system,” would be a valid “should” in China but not in America.


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Hi Zly,

Thank you for the thoughtful questions. I edited your email to make it a bit clearer to my readers, and hope that is okay!

I will share my own take on these issues, realizing right away that some individuals may not agree with my ideas. As I came from a very religious upbringing, I am aware of the rigidity of some of those who have conservative religious orientations who believe with all their hearts that there is only one “right” way to think, feel, believe, and behave, and that they are in touch with “absolute truth.” But all too often, this way of thinking can become a justification for aggression toward those who think and believe differently. So I am not much of an advocate for absolute truth, and don’t really even know what that term means!

To my way of thinking, many of our beliefs and values are stipulations, or values that we assert, and not something that can be proven one way or the other. For example, you can choose to value all humans, or you can decide that certain humans are superior, or inferior, to others, based on skin color, race, age, intelligence, achievements, gender, or a myriad of other arbitrary criteria. You cannot prove that black people, or white people, or Jewish people, or Christian people, or immigrants from any country, are inherently superior or inferior. But many people do believe such ideas, because they were brought up to believe, think, or feel this way or some other way. To my way of thinking, many of these beliefs can do a great deal of damage, in terms of depression and anxiety on the one hand, or hatred and violent aggression on the other.

Generally, our laws and moral values are stipulations that we have, for the most part, agreed upon as humans, or as a particular group of humans. Many of our basic moral / religious beliefs can be found in the ten commandments, for example, as well as other basic religious writings. They cannot be proven one way or the other, they are simply rules we agree on.

Many religious or politically zealous people want to elevate their personal beliefs and values to the level of “absolute truth.” Sadly, this type of thinking sometimes leads to prejudice, violence and war, thinking one has the “truth.”

Also, in relationship conflicts, typically the two partners are saying, over and over again in a variety of ways, “I am right and you are wrong,” rather than trying to empathize and find the truth in what the other person is saying, thinking and feeling. As a result, the conflict typically escalates, and sometimes ends in violence. That’s what I mean when I say that “truth” is the cause of most of the suffering in the world today.

This type of absolutist thinking can be viewed, actually, as one of the ten cognitive distortions I first published in my book, Feeling Good. The distortion is called all-or-nothing thinking–that’s where you view and judge things, people, or ideas in absolute, black-or-white categories. This type of thinking can fuel feelings of superiority and hostility, when you think of yourself as being on the “all” side of the equation, as well as severe depression and even suicidal urges, when you think of yourself as being on the “nothing” side of the equation.

For example, when you are depressed, you may tell yourself, and believe with all your heart and mind, that you are “a failure” or “a loser” or “no good.” And when you are angry, you may tell yourself that someone else is “a loser” or “a jerk” or “no good.” Although all-or-nothing thinking is intensely distorted, it can be intensely addictive.

So that’s my take, or my rant, for better or worse, on “absolute truth!”

As far as your second question is concerned, you could just as easily say, “What job would be more desirable for me?” When you say, “What job SHOULD I select,” it sounds like a moral imperative to make the “correct” choice, when often there is no single correct choice. So, the “should” can trap you in a box, thinking that a “right” decision is overwhelmingly important when, it fact, there often is no inherently “correct” decision. All decisions can have unexpected positive and negative consequences, and happiness often has far more to do with how we cope with those consequences than in finding some imaginary “correct” decision.

So, in short, decisions about what job to pursue, or which college to attend, or who to marry, or where to live, are to my way of thinking, not usefully viewed as “shoulds.”

With regard to question three, different cultures sometimes have different values, and different rules which are stipulated and not proven. These are just the rules any society establishes for itself. A legal “should” is just a rule that a culture establishes. For example, when we say, “you should not drive 90 miles per hour on the highway,” we are simply saying that this speed is so dangerous that we have a rule against it, and you will get a ticket if you drive that fast. But it is not thought to be immoral to drive that fast–on a race track it is perfectly okay to drive as fast as you want, for example.

Some states in the United States may have maximum speed limits of 75 miles per hour. Others may have maximum speed limits of 65 miles per hour. It is not the case that one or the other speed limit is based on “absolute truth.” It’s just what the people in that state have agreed on.

Many people with a rigid, inflexible personality style want to insist that their rules, or stipulations, are somehow “absolute truth,” and this is one of the causes of war and hostility, often in the name of God or some higher principal. Rigid thinking is often seen with narcissistic individuals, but we also see rigid thinking in individuals struggling with depression and anxiety. But the rules we establish are just that—rules—and not manifestations of some invisible “absolute truth.”

Before the cause of epilepsy was known, some cultures viewed it as a good thing, and imagined that epileptic seizures were visitations from God, or manifestations of genius, and that those who suffered from seizures were special. Other cultures viewed seizures as visitations from evil spirits, or as defects in the afflicted individuals who were seen as inferior human beings. Later, when the cause of seizures was finally understood in terms of abnormal outbursts of electrical activity in the brain, we began to think about epilepsy as an “illness” instead of a sign of superiority or inferiority in the person with seizures.

Consider old age. In some cultures, elderly individuals are treated with great respect. In other cultures, the elderly are viewed in a negative manner, and old age is feared, while youth is idealized. These are just subjective decisions, not things that can be proven one way or the other. Young people, or old people, are not in any way “inherently” superior or inferior.

Of think about food preferences. I like blueberry pie, but I don’t like pumpkin pie. But it is not “true” that blueberry pie is inherently superior to pumpkin pie. It is simply a preference of mine, and not an expression of “absolute truth.”

It’s the same with racial, ethnic, and religious biases. Some people look down on blacks, Asians, Jews, the Irish, Mexicans, Christians, Muslims, gays, and on and on endlessly. Often these groups are targeted for hatred and mistreatment by rigid individuals who tell themselves and others that they represent “absolute truth.” But you cannot “prove” that any of these groups are, in fact, inherently inferior or superior. It is simply an arbitrary decision to hate. And the bias is often fueled by addictive feelings of moral superiority.

Science works the same way, partly through stipulation and partly through experimentation and testing. You always have to start with a stipulation that cannot be proven as right or wrong. Once you have done this, you can do experimentation based on research. For example, we can decide as a culture that pneumonia is an “illness,” a bad thing, so to speak. Once we have agreed on that, which is simply a stipulation, then we can do scientific work, searching for the causes and cures for pneumonia. That’s where empirical testing becomes vitally important, because you CAN prove that many theories are false, and that many treatments are not effective, whereas other theories and treatments prove more useful.

I don’t really spend any time at all searching for “absolute truth.” As the Buddha so often said, only specific and real problems can be solved. Problems that don’t exist don’t require solutions. All real problems exist at specific times and locations on the surface of the earth. When people come to me for help, or for treatment, we pinpoint specific problems in their lives, and then we solve those problems using a wide variety of strategies and techniques. The recovery is usually pretty exhilarating, but never involves looking for or finding any kind of “absolute truth.”

“Absolute truth,” like the “self,” does not exist. These are simply nonsensical concepts that we use to create misery for ourselves or others.

My take on it, only! Let me know if my rambling makes sense, or if you are still in the trance or enchantment of searching for “absolute truth.”



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