The belief that everything is relative is obviously self-refuting, because it holds to an absolute.

However, in my experience, people who believe this (or some form of it) such as some Buddhists and atheistic materialists, or people who have an even more radical belief that permits no knowledge at all, such as nihilists, still actively resist those who suggest that there are at least some absolutes. In their discussing what reality is like and whether one idea corresponds to reality better than another idea, aren't they admitting that reality itself is an absolute and that at least one thing is absolutely knowable (a way in which reality is or is not, to which certain ideas correspond more or less closely)?

To put it another way, this very desire to show others that "some-absolute-truths-exist" is wrong seems to destroy their own "all is relative" or "nothing is knowable" positions. By taking a stance against any truth claim at all, they are making an ontological claim about what reality is not like and that this should apply globally—thus making a truth claim, admitting to at least one absolute. That seems ridiculously inconsistent, like someone going around and yelling at random passersby, "I'm not yelling at you!" and "You can't hear me yelling!"

I think that someone who believes in absolutely comprehensive global relativism (to me an impossible bit of nonsense, like square circles) has no business arguing with anyone at all. Any discussion they engage in cannot be intended to find truth together with their discussion partners, because they're either insane, lying, or the discussion was undertaken solely for their own pleasure—why else would someone who doesn't believe anything is true argue with you about whether something you think is true actually is? And pleasuring oneself in public at the expense of other people's comfort and in violation of basic human propriety (I don't know how to put this more delicately, it honestly seems like a very apt analogy) seems like a pretty reprehensible thing to do.

What kind of basis do relativists and their more extreme nihilist friends have for arguing against anything at all? And why do they seem to never, ever admit that when they do argue with others about the truth of any claim, that this is mistreatment solely in pursuit of their own offensive pleasure and amusement (since it can't be an attempt to discover truth, and their argument with the other person can't be an attempt to discredit an incorrect idea, since neither correct nor incorrect ideas exist)?

  • 4
    This can br simplified to :why do people argue" and answered with "because they're people". Which philosophies they do or don't accept, and whether those are "self-refuting"(which obviously they wouldn't accept as a premise, just as you wouldn't), is completely irrelevant; it only changes who they argue with.
    – keshlam
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 4:02
  • 5
    This question doesn't seem very constructive to me. Aside from the extravagant claims about which philosophies are and aren't self-refuting, the answer is pretty simple. People contradict themselves because they have irrational motivations (fear, pride, etc.). Am I missing something here?
    – Orby
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 5:41
  • 2
    @ErikE What points, exactly, are you raising? If I were you, I would ask myself this: what is the purpose of my question?
    – Orby
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 5:50
  • 3
    @virmaior I'm trying to understand. I'm frustrated by seemingly irrational behavior. I'm not willing to just call it irrational and write people off without some inquiry. I am describing my thoughts at some length to expose enough surface area so I can receive proper criticism. Cut that short, and I'm just left frustrated again. I don't appreciate when people who don't believe in truth tell me I'm wrong or make truth claims—what gives? Help me not dismiss them out of hand and help me see what makes their own position reasonable to them.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 5:51
  • 3
    @ErikE It seems to me that you are more interested in validating your beliefs than in posing a good question.
    – Orby
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 5:56

10 Answers 10


Your position would be reasonable against the kind of absolute relativists and radical skeptics that you describe. Unfortunately, those are only convenient straw men that are easy to refute, which is good sport for didactic purposes. Philosophers who actually hold positions so caricatured are savvy enough to nuance them so as to make them immune to self-refutation criticism. As is usually clear from the context claims like "everything is relative" and "nothing is true" are intended as "to those who believe in absolutes, everything is relative" and "to those who believe in truth, nothing is true". In other words, they are not intended as positive absolutes and truths, but rather as promises to take apart any positive proposal to the contrary, usually motivated by pessimistic induction on historical precedent, or something like that, and accompanied with general lines of attack against most typical positive proposals. In particular a radical skeptic would affirm "nothing is true" as strictly speaking false, while also rejecting any specific positive claim as false.

Such positions are not self-refuting because they decline to make any positive commitments whatsoever. But as Russell wrote in Human Knowledge, “skepticism, while logically impeccable, is psychologically impossible, and there is an element of frivolous insincerity in any philosophy which pretends to accept it”. Epistemological naturalism of Quine and falsificationism of Popper, very popular positions in philosophy of science, hold somewhat more moderately that any positive scientific claim may be false, and is subject to revision in the light of future discovery. This is substantively not that far from the "pragmatic" version of radical skepticism, albeit without its nihilistic predisposition.

While I agree that systematic nihilism is barren, if not exactly self-refuting, relativist and skeptical stances can play a fruitful role in discourse by fleshing out weaknesses and inconsistencies in positive proposals. So much so that many philosophers invoke a radical skeptic as a hypothetical interlocutor in their works to elaborate and sharpen their reasoning.

  • 1
    Would it be accurate, then, that they're not making ontological claims but rather are making an epistemological promise along the lines of "anything truth claim you make I will do all in my power to dismantle"? That seems less globally or off-handedly and self-focusedly offensive but more other-focused bullying; and while not directly self-refuting like when yelling "I'm not yelling at you", is more vicious like accosting passersby with "Fighting is wrong and I'll punch your lights out if try to fight me."
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 0:02
  • Now that you've said this, should I ask a new question to follow up on the ramifications of these ideas, or is it okay to add to my question to respond to what you've said?
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 0:03
  • 2
    I very much like taking the role of an advocatus diaboli and will forcefully defend this stance even if it is not mine. Just because it is often easier to let your opponent to realize the problems of his own position first, because he otherwise would never accept your position, just because it is not his own.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 2:33
  • nice little commentary, cheers
    – user6917
    Commented May 18, 2016 at 2:40

For Buddhists, one of the meanings of the word Dharma or Dhamma is 'universal law' (analogous to for example the Law of Gravity).

Dhamma might be equated with "things the Buddha said".

aren't they admitting that reality itself is an absolute and that at least one thing is absolutely knowable

I think "they" argue that descriptions of reality are problematic. People see reality as "name" and "form" (e.g. "that looks like an apple, I'm going to call it an apple; I like apples") ... but the ideal apple isn't the same as the real apple, a real apple might be better viewed as an impermanent heap of components (sugars etc.), and so on.

To put it another way, this very desire to show others that "some-absolute-truths-exist" is wrong seems to destroy their own "all is relative" or "nothing is knowable" positions.

Is that necessarily so? If I say "everything smells like shit" does that necessarily imply there's something which doesn't?

Also, as I mentioned, Buddhists do tend to take Buddhist dhamma as "true" (partly from personal experience and partly as a matter of faith). Some examples of dhamma are, "all conditioned things are impermanent and dissatisfactory", and "desire leads to clinging".

why else would someone who doesn't believe anything is true argue with you about whether something you think is true actually is

I can't, in this answer, speak for all people who argue.

Also you seem to be referring to specific personal experiences of yours (i.e. arguments you've had with people), which you found unpleasant. But I don't know what personal experiences you're talking about (I only know you description of those experiences...).

But to answer your question, in theory a benevolent reason why someone might argue discuss with you could be, that having a fixed view can be a cause of suffering. If I obsessed about how I really want an apple, then that desire and clinging could cause my suffering.

If I obsess about me being right and other people being wrong, then having such fixed views may make me suffer too (ditto other fixed views like obsessing about wanting alcohol, about wanting to win an argument, or about wanting to steal your property, etc.).

But as you said even clinging to Dhamma may cause suffering. What you're saying reminds me of something else. I think you're saying, "If you argue that absolute truths aren't absolutely true, isn't that contradicting yourself by making an absolute statement?"

It reminds me of this sutta: "If suffering is caused by desire, and you desire to end suffering by ending desire, isn't that contradicting yourself by desiring the end of desire?"

The belief that everything is relative is obviously self-refuting, because it holds to an absolute.

I'm not sure what you mean by "relative", by the way. If you were discussing Dhamma, a Buddhist might more conventionally say that everything (except, possibly, dhammas i.e. the aforementioned universal laws) is "conditioned" -- i.e. has a cause, arises when the causal conditions exist, and is impermanent, subject to cessation.

Some of the dhammas though seem like pretty sure-of-themselves statements to me, though -- including moral precepts like "don't kill".

So I'm not sure it's true that Buddhists argue that "everything is relative".

There is notion though that clinging to views causes suffering -- including clinging to your idea of dhamma. I think that's where the (shocking) phrase If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him! expression comes from.

I think that knowledge or belief-system is also likened to a boat: you need the boat to get safely across a river. Having reached the other side, of the river, if you think, "That was a useful boat, I'm going to carry it around with me in case I need to use it again" then the boat itself may become a burden.

  • 3
    The smelling like shit analogy doesn't work because it doesn't contain the self-reference inherent in "[it is true that] your statement isn't true." Why even bring up ideal apples? Nothing needs to be comprehensive to have meaning—it is enough to be faithful. Just because open concepts exist doesn't mean we can't agree by convention on a few closed ones. Re; "everything is conditioned", you allowed for an exception—and by making such a statement about reality, you're claiming an absolute that itself isn't conditioned, therefore not everything is! You're doing what I complained about. Sigh.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 17:29
  • I'm sorry to be a source of more complaints and sighs. I brought up apples because your paraphrase said, their own "all is relative" or "nothing is knowable" positions, which you attributed to "some Buddhists". Those aren't "positions" which I recognized/understood as Buddhist; so my answer included some "positions" which I thought were Buddhist, in case explaining/understanding that helped to answer/resolve your question. IOW I think that Buddhists maybe don't insist that e.g. "nothing is knowable", and if that's the message you're getting then maybe no wonder you find it unsatisfactory.
    – ChrisW
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 0:56
  • No need to apologize, but thank you for it. Let me review and I'll get back to you.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 1:19

As your quandary is framed, your conclusions cannot be faulted. However, the real issue in the area is whether there exist unique descriptions that “accurately” describe various aspects of the world/reality, or whether the accuracy/truth of any description is “relative to” a host of variables. Though the world may impact your nerve endings in certain ways, it does not describe itself. It simply is.

  • You didn't answer my question, just attempted to engage me in exactly the way I complained people do, plus did it in a condescending way. In any case, on what objective basis do you make any claims at all, if knowing things is so fraught with complexity and rife with error? How do you suppose to know what you've claimed, that knowing things is hard? Self-refutation without awareness of same; public self-pleasuring; quite objectionable. And I didn't downvote you.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 1:26
  • In response to your edit, do you believe that your statement "the world simply is, it does not describe itself" is true? A description of the world doesn't need the kind of accuracy you suggest to be true, it only needs faithfulness (e.g., a photo is never truly accurate because it is not comprehensive, but it can be a faithful representation of something and adequately express truths). Ultimately, you're making the claim that "because epistemology, nothing can be known for certain" without noticing you act as though this knowledge is certain. Way to be the poster boy for my question!
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 2:06
  • 1
    I did not attempt to answer your question. In fact, I granted your conclusions to the question as framed, and reframed the issue in a way that might be helpful to understanding why some of your interlocutors may have certain opinions without their being "insane, lying, or...for their own pleasure." Disregard the question as reframed if you wish. Finally, forgive the positive claim I inadvertently made. The condescension. It was unwarranted. And I have edited the response accordingly.
    – gonzo
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 2:12
  • Thank you for retracting your speaking into my life unwarrantedly. Please help me understand—why would you post an answer that you admit is not an answer? Why should I not flag this as "not an answer" and have a moderator delete it? You could salvage your answer by attempting to explain why this reframing avoids my three options, because I don't see it doing that. Though, I don't think it will work, because no one ever focuses on epistemology as the blockage while having the attitude that they want to peer beyond the veil; instead it's a smug (absolute) rejection of knowing anything at all.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 2:17
  • Also, my objection is not about people having opinions. It is them arguing with me when they don't believe truth can be known. What percentage is there in rejecting truth claims, when doing so inherently makes truth claims? Mental deficit (insanity), deception (just lying; trolling), or being self-absorbed egomaniacs who care nothing if they tickle their own ears at others' expense.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 2:24

I agree entirely with **@Conifold.*

First, you are using "relativism" where you probably mean skepticism. To say something is "relative" is to say that its relational values are in fact related to some fixed "general equivalent," as in the "speed of light." It doesn't mean anything goes or nothing is true. Obviously, in any system or conceptual scheme where things are "related" to one another, as they must be, they are "relative" to something.

The question then becomes, is this "something" absolutely reliable? What is this "something," to which everything is related? Well, it could be all sort of "absolutes." It could be "energy" in physics or "money" in economics or "god" in religion or "me" in relation to "the world" or "consciousness." Or, as you suggest, the arbitrary, mysterious consensus we call "language" that must be utilized in any positive or negative claim.

So "relativism" is badly miscast in your scenario. As for the skeptic! The role of the skeptic is to continually attack whatever "center" or "absolute" or "general equivalent" has historically assumed the role of absolute "authority" or the "author" of our present world. Those who have held this throne include the Patriarch, the King, God, Money, Science, Language...etc.

When the skeptic attacks this "heir apparent," as Socrates attacked "Common Knowledge" or Hume attacked "God" and "Causality," they tend to do so not out of nihilistic glee but because they see suffering and horrors arising out of this fixation on some absolute. When Hume attacked the "truths" and certainties of his day, he did so at a time when naive students could still be, and were occasionally, hung for opinions "casting doubt" on dogmas of the Presbyterian church.

The relativist attempts to discover the present "center" to which particularities are relative. The skeptic is like a doctor who constantly tests these "centers" to see which are rotten or diseased. Be careful. Philosophy, and especially logic, invite you into an exciting world of "find the right absolute." Wisdom backs away from that excitement, with "early" and "late" Wittgenstein being the most moving example. To philosophize, I would say, is to discover the "absolute" towards which normal, daily things are "relative" and to then use all your powers to test that presumed absolutism.


I'm one of those people who makes arguments like that, so I can at least give you some of the points of view I am sometimes using (when they suit me).

One easy thing to point out is that "the belief everything is relative" is only self-refuting if you believe as such. Consider that someone who could say such a thing must surely suggest that language itself is relative. Maybe the word "everything" doesn't mean the same thing to you as it does to me. Or maybe "is" means something slightly different. It's trivial to make such claims consistent if you do not presume too many things about the language you are speaking in, although you typically pay for such consistency in other ways (such as being unable to prove anything). Is it worth it? It depends. Sometimes its nice to remind the other person of some fundamentals of linguistics which most students of linguistics know, but we often forget in day to day life.

Another reason is that not everybody presumes "truth" is the highest calling. Some value "good" independent of truth, and permit them to mix in ways that they find beneficial, but you may find distasteful. Even if we start from the assumption that your interpretation of "the belief everything is relative" is correct, they still might suggest it because they see an opportunity for good which comes at the cost of saying something which, from their perspective, is ever so slightly not true. It's far more kind than the average white lie that we accept in much of our life -- it's so kind that it even stares you straight in the face and says "you can reject this idea, simply by believing it is paradoxical." Many white lies can take a lifetime to root out. If they believe they can help you by issuing such an utterance in an argument, is it not reasonable that they may try?

I'll save the reasons you'll probably feel most comfortable with last: defenses. We live in a culture where if you admit something is true, you are automatically obligated by everyone around you to hold to that truth. They are even allowed to call you out, saying, "You believe A, but you are doing B which is not consistent with a belief in A." For someone who "believes everything is relative," the last few absolutes in their life are particularly fragile. They've intentionally jettisoned all of the easy ones. Accordingly, if you try to pin them in a corner with challenges like the one you describe in your question, many will defend it (or, sadly, they may have jettisoned one that they wish they'd kept, and they are reliant on your interaction to resolve the loss). I find the "best" do not find the need to defend in such way, because they have found something else that lets them deflect such challenges, but I will not claim to be such a person at this time.

It's also rather kind for offense. Consider for a moment, Godel's Incompleteness Theorems and Tarski's Nondefinability theorem. Within the careful confines of math, they demonstrate limitations that must exist. These are wonderfully powerful tools to win arguments, but they only work in the world of pure math. Unless I can convince you to build an argument in a formal language, Tarski's theorem isn't going to help, and Godel wont come to my rescue until your argument encompasses all of arithmetic. However, if I have a hunch that what you are describing will clarify into one of these mathematical holes, I may choose to use an odd phrasing like "everything is relative" as an act of kindness. Sure, I could sit with you, going back and forth, nailing down the exact beliefs in question into carefully structured wordings. But if I do so, and then crush it with one of those mathematical arguments, you are left with nothing. If I instead go with "everything is relative," and smile, you can take whatever part of the discussion you want, and associate the rest with me being "one of those annoying relativists." You can adapt your beliefs (relative or absolute, as you please), and maybe we will find no debate necessary when we meet again.

Of course, the belief that everything is relative has similar behaviors to other beliefs, such as those of religions and those of hard atheists. These beliefs can be used in ways which help our fellow man or woman, or they may be used in a way which puts others down. The big difference I see between those claiming "everything is relative" and beliefs such as major religions is that the major religions have more to lose, so they are quicker to encourage their members towards powerful ideals such as the golden rule. Extreme skeptics are not in the same position, so they have had less incentive to adopt such policies.

  • 2
    Thanks for contributing. It will take time to digest what you've said. One of my initial reactions is that I don't want "kindness" that is supposed to protect my beliefs. If my beliefs can't hold water, I don't want them, no matter what personal cost there is. In fact I find it disrespectful to get this "help" I neither need nor want in these conversations (if that's what's happening).
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 7:03
  • @ErikE I've been in a position similar to what you describe. I wanted people to throw the book at my beliefs. However, I have found that there are times where beliefs are not quite ready to hold water; too strong of an attack disrupts them completely. To use the "hold water" metaphor literally, we both know a sieve does not hold water. If I dump a deluge into the sieve, you may give up on it completely. However, if I also see you have some plaster of paris, I may kindly give you just enough water to mix the plaster, and then you can realize that you can plaster over the holes yourself
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 7:10
  • In this example, there's the clear alternate solution for me to explain how plaster works and explain how to cover the holes in the sieve. However, in many situations, we can visualize what needs to happen, and what we need to say to get there, but we lack the words to describe the final result to you.
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 7:11
  • Personally, if someone keeps begging for a hard attack on their beliefs, I tend to give it to them, and I like to believe others who believe in "self refuting philosophies" have a similar opinion, but I know I cannot speak for them. And I have seen the ones you describe: the ones that are not only ineffable but also not very helpful! (or at least I have perceived them as being not helpful... perhaps they helped in a way I did not even notice!)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 7:13

Skepticism, relativism and nihilism are easy positions to find yourself in when, in the search for an absolute, you have difficulty finding one. During the search, a right-thinking mind needs must learn to question everything; the immediate consequence of that is to question whether one has a mind, and whether it may or may not be right in its thinking - and what exactly is right, anyway?

Understand that what comes next is not to inflame you, so much as an illustration. I do not objectively know whether or not you actually exist the same way I seem to think I exist (which may be incorrect). I subjectively understand that you are some phenomenon that I can interact with, and in this case I value that interaction and choose to engage in that willingly (as far as I am aware). If we both look at a red object, we will (probably) agree that it is red, but I cannot know that you are seeing it exactly as I see it for the same reason I cannot describe it to a blind person.

In my subjective experience, I can see stars and planets, and I have been told many things about science that seem to hold true when I test them - someone gave me a piece of paper and I was informed that I was an engineer. So be it, but I haven't time to check every theorem - I end up ultimately having to believe things called "consensus" and "reproducibility" on things I have not personally witnessed, but I subjectively value that because it seems to work (most of the time - I'm told that relativity may not have been exactly right).

Reasoning like this is less about finding answers and more about finding questions, with the basic understanding that, no matter what I say, I am going to get something wrong (including now). It doesn't have to be about refuting anything at all - but when everything is being questioned all of the time it can (subjectively) seem like it.

If you find an absolute truth in your travels, that's marvellous! Be sure to share it with me so I can question it thoroughly.

  • A suggested absolute truth: reality exists.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 29, 2022 at 3:29

I should begin by saying that myself and ErikE started a conversation on a question on the Buddhism Stack Exchange that moved to a chat room (I don't know if others can see it, apologies if not). I referred him to The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way by Nagarjuna which explains Madhyamaka, and it is where I should resume, but I don't think it is necessary for you to look at the previous conversation to understand my answer. He was kind enough to ask me to look at this question too, which no doubt means I'm one of the (or the only) nihilist/Buddhists that have wound him up so.

Because it's pertinent, I will summarise the whole of Buddhist thinking as quickly as possible for those who are impatient! Luckily, The Buddha (allegedly) did it himself in just 2 lines:

Because of this, that.
Because of that, this.

Elegant Failure: A Guide to Zen Koans By Richard Shrobe

Yes, it's all in that and I will now show how this means the kind of "truth" that ErikE is looking for in Buddhism and failing to find is unnecessary, irrelevant, and inimical to the goals of Buddhist practice.

A middle way between reification and nihilism

A couple of definitions from my Mac's dictionary:

reify |ˈriːɪfʌɪ, ˈreɪɪ-|
verb (reifies, reifying, reified) [ with obj. ] formal
make (something abstract) more concrete or real:
these instincts are, in man, reified as verbal constructs.

nihilism |ˈnʌɪ(h)ɪlɪz(ə)m|
noun [ mass noun ]
the rejection of all religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless.
• Philosophy the belief that nothing in the world has a real existence

Both reification (which I'll produce a better explanation of, but in the meantime, you may think of Abrahmic religious thought, or Platonian perfect objects) and nihilism are rejected as extremes in Madhyamaka thought (which I will use as a general representation of Buddhist thought), which proposes a middle way between them. To explain this, the first 2 of the 4 Noble Truths:

  1. There is suffering.
  2. All conditioned phenomena are impermanent.

So, the first point: "There is", this is the opposite of a denial of existence, not nihilistic at all.

Secondly, The Buddha only taught suffering, and non suffering. The whole point is to be happy (i.e. free from suffering). That's the first thing on the list and it's there because "to be happy" is the primary wish of all sentient beings and the goal of Buddhist practice. Therefore, meaningful (unless you wish to argue that striving for happiness and being happy is meaningless, good luck with that:)

All conditioned phenomena are impermanent means that all phenomena are subject to conditions. They arise through conditions, they continue due to conditions, and when those conditions are removed, they end. An example is the classic from school science lessons, the plant. With sunlight, good soil, water, air and a seed, a plant will arise and sustain. When these conditions are removed or not present, the plant will not arise, not sustain, will die.

Since all phenomena are conditioned they are dependent on other things for their existence. They do not exist independently. This idea is known as dependent origination. It precludes souls, causes, powers to cause, creator gods, essential nature. So this is where Buddhists reject something, they reject a description of existence that relies on things like an everlasting soul. Phenomena are empty of inherent existence. This is not the same as saying existence is meaningless (far from it, and western style atheists will recognise this "life is meaningless without God" straw man argument). It also does not reject existence, it just says that unneeded explanations are… not needed. I'm sure everyone on these boards is aware of Occam's Razor, and it's the same in Buddhist thinking - there is already enough to explain how things are working without recourse to essential nature. Special pleading requires a special justification, not the other way round.

In the same way that you are you even though you change from second to second, from year to year, Buddhism accepts this as a convention (known as conventional truth). You have no essential nature that makes you you, no I-ness, no soul, no Platonian perfect you wandering around the cosmos. You are a collection of aggregates that are conceived to be you. Your existence is not denied, just rid of extraneous and incorrect explanation. Same for anything (unless you can show otherwise).

The map is not the terrain

Buddhism is not a philosophy. It makes observations that you are to investigate for yourself, not to create a map, but to see that the map is just the map and instead experience reality directly for yourself. Truth is found in life, not in a doctrine (even those 4 Noble "Truths" are only accepted as true if you find them true through investigation, same as everything else I've stated. Note that Truths is the word used, they are relative too). This goal to experience reality directly is explored in different Buddhist sects, like in this zen koan:

When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

She was experiencing the reflection of the moon, not the moon. When the water broke, all she had left was the moon. She could look up and experience it directly. Bruce Lee echoed this in Enter the Dragon :)

No doctrine and no ultimate truth

The Buddha also compared his teaching to a raft. When you cross the river you abandon the raft, you do not carry it with you. Buddhism is like medicine for a deluded view of reality. Once you are "cured" you may give it up, there is no need for it. Thus, Buddhism is not a doctrine of "truth", there is no need or desire for it beyond that which is efficacious. The ultimate truth that all things are one, that they cannot be differentiated essentially (a corollary of dependent origination), means that the ultimate truth is there is no ultimate truth. And frankly, unless it's some use in the goal of achieving happiness, who cares anyway?

In summary:

  • Buddhism is not nihilistic (even the Mind Only school, which sounds somewhat nihilistic, is only using this stuff as a explanation, not to create an ontology)
  • It's not self refuting (what does that really mean anyway?)
  • It doesn't lead to a meaningless life or outlook necessarily. Maybe I'll watch some rubbish TV, I doubt it was Buddhism that made me do it ;-)
  • Buddhists don't argue about their views as some kind of public intellectual masturbation process any more than anyone else. I'd say it's more likely we are doing it because we sincerely hold that view.
  • ErikE is holding onto a view that there must be an absolute truth and my failure to accept his assertions is obviously irritating to him. Well, that's life with other people, what am I (or his opponents in this) supposed to say? Someone has a too strongly held view that's been unthoroughly examined, could be me and the other so-called nihilists and Buddhists, could be ErikE. Maybe my fellow (fake) nihilist Satre was right, Hell is other people.
  • @ErikE Surely I get an upvote for making you think? I'm not a conceptual artist, but this is philosophy stackexchange :)
    – ian
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 9:31
  • Up votes coming but I want to accompany them with well-ruminated critique.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 12, 2015 at 15:31
  • I'm not getting how "all conditioned phenomena are impermanent" leads to "all phenomena are conditioned", which is what it seems like that statement is taken to mean. Thoughts?
    – ErikE
    Commented Jun 11, 2021 at 19:42
  • @ErikE That's a good point. You should find some non-conditioned phenomena. They'd have the properties of being permanent and everlasting, and independent, which would make finding them a bit difficult as there would be no interaction with conditioned phenomena. Good luck! (You can always cheat and make one up;)
    – ian
    Commented Jun 12, 2021 at 9:58
  • Why would there be no interaction with non-conditioned phenomena? Logically speaking, there could be one-way influence from a non-conditioned phenomenon to the conditioned phenomena, and observations about such influence could lead us to be able to make observations and hypotheses.
    – ErikE
    Commented Jun 17, 2021 at 1:21

At least some skeptics/relativists have not realized that their view is self-refuting.

If a person that does not possess strong critical thinking skills observes that people believe in different things around him/her, s/he can make a superficial deduction of "I see people believe in different things, so how can there be such a thing as truth?" It takes special effort to realize that if one believes there is no such thing as truth, then s/he believes, contradictorily, that something is true.

Also, some such views are widespread in our society. Take the case of cultural relativism, which in my opinion also suffers from the self-referential problem: if all cultural views are relative and hence none is "true", then a culture that would assert cultural relativism is also not "true". But this attitude is widespread, since it is considered impolite in some circles to criticize other cultures (partially for political reasons).

It seems to me that you have realized very well that those views are self-contradictory, yet, there is no reason to ascribe this realization to all those who hold self-contradictory views—those who have not had this realization can still argue for their truth sincerely, even if fallaciously.


Upon revisiting your question and commentary, I was struck by your reliance on the notion of “faithful[ness]” (…it only needs faithfulness (e.g., a photo is never truly accurate because it is not comprehensive, but it can be a faithful representation of something and adequately express truths;” “Nothing needs to be comprehensive to have meaning—it is enough to be faithful,” and so on). It reminded me of James’s [undefined, possibly primitive] “agrees with” formation.

The idea seems to be that a description or representation need only be faithful to what it represents/describes in order for it to be “true”, and for meaning to exist or “arise.” That it is not necessary for the word/world relationship, in order to “adequately express truth,” to also be comprehensive, and express “true accuracy.” Generally speaking, post Quine/Wittgenstein, no reasonable and reasonably informed person would disagree. However, as we know so well, the devil is in the details.

In the kind of debate you have sparked by your post, the salient question is whether that representation, in order to have “faithfulness,” in order to “adequately express truth,” need also be unique and indispensable to our ability to adequately represent/describe the world at all. Ordinarily, that a symbol is faithful to what it represents does not entail it being the only symbol capable doing so (which is not to say that it cannot be thus for a particular pair at a particular time). And this may be all that your relativist frenemies are doing. Pointing out that it is generally the case, or (to use your preferred vocabulary), it is faithful to his/her experience of the world, [to say/believe] that more than one symbol can be said to faithfully represent a particular thing/event perceived to be out there. This statement is not self-refuting. And, following Davidson’s charity principle, it might be helpful to interpret what “relativists” say in this way, rather than considering [all of them] them to be “self-absorbed egomaniacs who care nothing if they tickle their own ears at others' expense” [though some, like some realists/absolutists, may very well be].

  • This is an interesting and thoughtful reply. I don't want to just dismiss all of them as I and you have described. And I'll confess that I could probably stand to use more charity (thanks for the reminder). The rub, it seems to me, is that even though there can be multiple faithful representations, not just any old one will do, because there remains an ontological reality to which the representation must fit to some degree. This admission of ontological reality is a step these frenemies don't seem to be willing to make, so your suggestion still leaves me disappointed. But I'll think on it.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 6, 2015 at 2:16

Let's pretend for a moment that I am a nihilist. I assert that nothing is true. Your argument (correct me if I'm wrong) is that:

  1. If nothing is true, then everything is false.
  2. The statement "nothing is true" is false.
  3. Therefore nihilism is self-refuting.

The problem with your reasoning is that the statement "nothing is true" also applies to the logic which is necessary to go from (1) to (2) to (3). Nihilism is not self-refuting because a nihilist asserts that the logical steps required to reach a contradiction cannot be taken.

Substitute absolute for true and relative for false to get the argument for relativism.

  • 2
    You address the wrong question. I'm not looking to prove to the nihilist that his view is wrong. I'm wondering why someone who believes there is no meaning and no truth would spend the energy to argue with me. He's not trying to find truth; not trying to falsify my statements (disbelieving in falsehood as much as in truth); it is nothing more than a lark, a curiously entertaining activity (which itself has no meaning or significance or point). This person, using the form of logical argument but rejecting the substance thereof, is just toying with me, then. Public self-pleasuring! Trolling.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 7:58
  • 2
    Also, if you are a nihilist, the problem with your whole post is that you're using logic to show me why logic won't work. You say, being a nihilist, "the problem with your reasoning," but I know you don't believe this statement because no statement is true. That IS self-refuting, blatantly and crassly so! Can you not see that a nihilist making this post is doing nothing but bleating loudly like a demented alien sheep, solely for pleasure, tricking others into responding to the logic-like content which he secretly knows to be utter nonsense? That is disdain and disrespect of the highest kind.
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 8:06
  • @ErikE Surely there is no single answer to that question. But, I think I've already answered it as succinctly as I can when I said, "People contradict themselves because they have irrational motivations"
    – Orby
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 8:07
  • 1
    I think you are conflating multiple ideas.
    – Orby
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 8:35
  • 2
    Why would a nihilist say "nothing is true" rather than "oof gruzz narzle blickblork"? These are exactly equal in meaningfulness to the nihilist. It can only be because he enjoys tricking others into arguing. What other pursuit is there for a nihilist than constant entertainment?
    – ErikE
    Commented Dec 5, 2015 at 8:56

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