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When making decisions where one option imposes an importance on itself, it becomes paradoxical to try and decide between them.

To summarize my thought process with an analogy:

You are at a crossroads, both paths have a sign. One sign states "This is the correct path. There is no other correct path." The other sign states "There's no one right way to go. It's important to consider all paths and make a choice that works best for you." As you stand there, trying to decide which way to go, you realize that the very act of trying to decide is in line with the second sign's perspective. By considering all options and making a choice that works best for you, you are inherently going against the first sign's belief that there's only one right way.

With an example like religion, it says it is the absolute truth and no other perspective is true, however as a person who is trying to come to my own conclusion, I must treat each perspective equally. By placing the religious perspective and the non-religious perspective equally, I am inherently going against the religious perspective. Even saying, "I will do what works best for me" ends up being in line with the non-religious perspective that places itself and the religious perspective on an equal playing field.

What are some solutions to this tension?

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    Note that when it comes to religion, it's not a dichotomy. If we use your allegory, there are 10 ways with a sign "I am the ONLY way". Considering at least 9 of those are mistaken, the 11th does not look so bad after all.
    – armand
    Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 2:25
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    That you spend time trying to decide whether the first sign is true does not imply that it is not true. That doing so is consistent with accepting the second sign as true does not imply that you do accept the second sign to be true. Commented Feb 8, 2023 at 21:01
  • The latter is better called "opinionism".
    – Marxos
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 18:30

10 Answers 10

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If you relate Absolutism to the idea there is one set of objective absolute truths about the universe, and Relativism to the idea truths only make sense in relation to a particular subjectivity, then intersubjectivity resolves this tension. Discussed in this answer: Is scientific knowledge personal or general?

Consider also consilience, or convergence of evidence. We know we can't access noumena, the thing-in-itself, unmediated. But that doesn't mean we are seeing whatever we want to see, or that one persons account or description is intrinsically as good as any other persons. We might check for optical illusions by asking if an event engaged other senses. We might ask if more than one person saw it, or if the event can be repeated. We might check personal and cultural cognitive biases, for instance with double-blind controlled trials. We might check expertise, reputation, status in a relevant community. In science, the truths arrived at are tentative, they are subject to revision - that doesn't mean everything we know could get binned any time, but it could get a new basis or picture of fundamentals, we could see a new integration or larger perspective, and very often exceptions are found for what was thought to be always the case. Discussed here: Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent?

What is your experience with people who say they have the one and only truth, and you cannot question or examine it?. Mine is that they tend to be religious zealots, often fascists, intent on controlling everyone and everything - a project which can only fail.

"In all their promises of paradise, you will not hear a laugh" -Bob Dylan, from his song The Gates of Eden

I prefer a more mystic kind of guide, advocating for using our whole being as guide, intuition included.

"love is the sea of not-being and there intellect drowns

this is not the Oxus River or some little creek this is the shoreless sea; here swimming ends always in drowning

a journey to the sea is horses and fodder and contrivance but at land’s end the footsteps vanish

you lift up your robe so as not to wet the hem; come! drown in this sea a thousand times"

-Rumi, from Subtle Degrees

I make the case that we need to recover our interest in cultivating wisdom, that this should be understood as the skill for solving dilemmas, and we do that by integrating the different parts ourselves, our different desires and impulses, our short and long-term needs etc, such that we are able to act from the integrated centre of our concerns. I would claim this is the meaning of the Delphic Maxim placed in the position of highest honour above the entrance to Apollo's temple at Delphi, and which phrase was beloved by Socrates. Discussed here: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises?

So, what do you know, about roads, about guides? And who are you, what do you seek to go towards, in order to be true to yourself?

I think you will find the truly religious are not paranoid about controlling others, because they are not at war within themselves, having done the work to cultivate wisdom. Seek to help people, and live in accordance with your whole self, your deep self that comes from not shutting out parts of you but balancing them, and I think the correct path will open up before you, and you will know you are on it just like you know yourself.

"Barefooted and naked of breast,

I mingle with the people of the world.

My clothes are ragged and dust-laden, and I am ever blissful.

I use no magic to extend my life;

Now, before me, the dead trees become alive"

-from Kuòān Shīyuǎn's poem Ten Bulls

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    Truth is a more gravitational thing, We are not ever released by, But can only fly when balancing
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 4 at 14:49
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The example you provide is an excellent example of why analysis of all options is the better approach.

The first sign, if obeyed, may lead you astray. The second sign, if obeyed, allows for a much better (partially comparative) evaluation of the first sign's claim prior to committment, and will allow you to follow the first sign with more certainty if evidence supports its claims.

You may still of course come to a less than optimal decision, but the second approach improves your chances over the long run.

The paradoxical nature you identify in such a scenario does not seem to detract from the fact the second choice is wiser. If it is paradoxical, it does not prevent against either choice. Therefore, it doesn't present much of an issue. In short, the 'tension' you identify doesn't need a solution. It merely highlights an inequality in approach; narrow vs broad, dogmatic vs inquisitive, risky vs risk-averse.

As @armand points out, life confronts us with many competing, often mutually exclusive claims. This warns against ever accepting any single claim without subjecting it to analysis and comparison. To do so is reckless.

When it comes to religion, many will claim that even an 'objective' analysis leads inevitably to the truth of a version of Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism etc. Many however disparage skepticism as an unreasonable abandonment of faith in sign 1; a faith which leads all faithful to truth.

The trouble is, faith is a demonstrably unreliable means by which to arrive at accurate conclusions (try crossing a busy highway based upon faith that the cars will avoid you).

What's left? The second sign. The sign which invites you to explore and assess. Evidence, logic and - to an extent - experience (we can be easily led astray by experience, particularly in the absence of skepticism). If the first sign happens to be true, these are the best means by which to come to realise it. There will be instances in which this approach leads to inaccurate conclusions, but over the long run, sign 2 is by far the safer bet.

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Your analogy isn't strictly absolutism vs relativism, given that your absolutist position is also simply asserting itself to be correct, but absolutist positions can also justify themselves.

Considering all paths isn't incompatible with absolutism in general

Consider a sign that says:

It's important to consider all paths. This one is the (only) correct one because [reasons].

This is still an absolutist position: it's asserting that there is only one correct path, but it's still recommending that you consider all paths.

This probably best describes the skeptical atheist position.

Atheism very much make or reject truth claims (or make claims about what's rational to believe or to not believe is true), so it's not relativist. But those claims are justified rather than just asserted.

Skepticism encourages you to explore various claims and question your own beliefs, to determine which claims are most rational to believe.

The focus is on finding a framework for evaluating claims, that can be demonstrated to be likely to lead to true beliefs (to the extent that we can know what's true). This then leads to the conclusion that we should believe some claims and not others (which isn't quite saying that those claims are necessarily true or false, but in some cases they should merely be treated as if they are).

Note the two terms: skepticism + atheism. The former is the framework, the latter is the conclusion. Skepticism is "consider all paths", atheism is "this one is correct".

* the above roughly applies to both "weak atheism" (rejecting existing god claims, but not explicitly asserting that no gods exist) and "strong atheism" (explicitly asserting that no gods exist), but more so the former.

Morality is more subjective, though.

(There may be indifference atheism too, which could be considered more relativist, but this isn't typically advocated for, because those people are indifferent.)

Considering all paths is incompatible with dogma

The absolutist position you presented sounds closer to dogma, i.e. a belief held unquestioningly and with undefended certainty.

To argue against this, I would present a slightly different analogy:

You come across a crossroads with 2 signs. They both say "This is the correct path. There is no other correct path".

If you follow the one path, you'd be going against the other sign, and vice versa.

This demonstrates the flaw in a belief system asserting itself to be correct, rather than demonstrating that.

Any belief system can trivially claim that it is itself correct.

So a claim within a belief system asserting that said belief system is correct carries no epistemic value.

Whether with this analogy or your analogy, one needs to evaluate the merits of each claim individually, and see what the justification for that claim is. It doesn't matter if this is a claim stating that "this is correct" or "the correct path is relative".

This simple analogy is a demonstration of the importance of considering all paths, regardless of whether they claim themselves to be correct.


Note: skeptical atheists are typically fine to leave theists be, if those theists feel theism is the right choice for them, as long as those theists don't try to impose their belief system on others. Atheists aren't that inclined to go and "convert" theists who are just happily living their life in peace (because, unlike with many forms of theism, there are no eternal consequences to not doing so).

Atheists will certainly hold that religious claims are unlikely to be true (considering the extent to which they're currently supported by evidence). But if you don't care about believing things most likely to be true, that may not matter that much to you. That might be considered to be one interpretation of "make a choice that works best for you".

Although the problem with leaving those with other beliefs be is that belief systems influence one's morals, and those morals influence the laws you'd support, so it's hard to avoid imposing that on others. This is especially true for religion, which often has rules that have no justification beyond "my god says so", so it's hard to reason about that, compromise, or find some solution that's in everyone's best interest. Those rules often include what people are and are not allowed to do in the privacy of their own home, even when that isn't hurting anyone else, which is especially problematic to impose on others with different beliefs.

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If all paths are admissible (per the second sign), isn't the first sign admissible in some way? This is an example of the trouble with unrestricted relativism: since the term "absolute" just means "in relation to all things" ("in a specific domain of discourse" is the usual qualifier in logic/mathematics), there is a sense in which absolutism is relativism after all, and vice versa.

Now, on the other hand, the above is to take the context of the signs to be the same level of representation. If one of the signs is "better" than the other, then we get this sense that following that sign is rationally imperative for us. We could, however, switch from relativism to pluralism: neither sign is (on the level of the "crossroad") obligatory, but permissive: we are permitted to believe whatever, for whatever reason we come up with.

In this connection, consider the question of moral luck. Suppose for the sake of argument that compatibilism about free will is true, so there is moral responsibility with determinism, and then yet whether you or I were determined to do something very evil is a matter of luck, so to say. Had our lives gone differently, had we come upon a different (but similar) "crossroad," might we have ended up participating in genocide? (Worse, in fact, many of us do contribute, albeit perhaps often indirectly, to atrocities of various kinds, e.g. the slaughter of trillions of animals across the face of the Earth. Is the perspective according to which the tastiness of various animals overrides the significance of these animals' lives on this incredible scale, one of the perspectives that the second sign countenances? If not, why not? And yet so it might make little real moral difference, whether one is an inclusivist or exclusivist on abstract principle.)

So if you are not determined to go down the exclusivist path, determined not to follow the sign of arrogance, this could be your morally lucky day. You are lucky that you were not only permitted to go down the inclusivist road, but determined to do so. Actually, then, the permission is somewhat irrelevant to the facts-on-the-ground: even if the first sign, say, is not permitted, this alone would not give you the power to resist the impulsion of the first sign, but only your good luck relative to the second sign saves you. And since, again, taking the second sign at face value does lead to the permissibility of obeying the first sign anyway, yet that permission does not determine you for or against going down the first road.

EDIT: or it might not be possible to permanently comply with either sign. You might start down the first road, but the sheer pressure of a pluralistic reality will eventually overwhelm you on some level, and you will be an exclusivist more in name than in actual belief. Or, if you go down the inclusivist road, you might end up doubting that beliefs exist (you might become an eliminative materialist), so then you no longer are puzzled or troubled by the question of balancing your beliefs with the beliefs of others. You might say, "Inclusivism is technically correct, but it is not true; there are no true beliefs because there are no beliefs, and there's no sense to accepting literally every sentence there is, so it's not like I can actually keep to the inclusivist path anymore, either." Then you would end up walking in the unpaved region between the two roads, or stop walking altogether, or something else.

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"I am The Truth" ~ Jesus Christ, a much grander version of what in our current mundane lives is Papal Infallibility or its residue. The choices before us are then, 1) The path and 2) My path. If only it were the case that 1 = 2. Some peeps follow their own heart and, wunderbar!, that turns out to be in perfect alignment with the universe's heart. That's called luck, sometimes goes by the name (innate) wisdom. Other folks, not lucky, not lucky at all - their paths take them to what can only be described as hell!

As for the tension, one word jumps out at me, "love".

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Suppose we have a different set of signs:

  1. 1+1 = 2
  2. 1+1 = yogurt
  3. 1+1 = 2 because I say so
  4. It's, like, all relative. You decide what value of 1+1 is right for you.

(1) is correct [Whitehead & Russell 1910]. (2) and (4) are wrong. (3) is two statements; the "what" part is correct and the "why" part is wrong.

You can think about the question all you want, but when you make a decision, you aren't deciding what the correct answer is; you're deciding what you believe the correct answer to be. If you think it's yogurt, you're simply wrong. If you thought about it before making a decision, you run afoul of (3) even if you arrive at the correct answer, because you rejected the "because I say so part" just by thinking. But your actions are perfectly compatible with (1) as long as you get the right answer; it doesn't care how you got there. (It doesn't even care that you got there; it made a statement about numbers, not people.)

...given this particular set of axioms and inference rules

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The fact that you are deliberating which course is best presupposes that there is a course which is the best, which you may not know currently, but which you hope to discover. This further presupposes that it is mind-independent, as it is good regardless of whether you currently know that it is good.

If there's no right way to go then there's no wrong way either, choice becomes irrelevant and deliberation, unnecessary. "If you don't know where you're going any road will take you there." In other words, the second sign is inherently contradictory - for there to be something which works best for you at all, there must be a right way to go.

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The solution of this tension is:

Do not read inscriptions on fences, you really haven't to do this to go by the way on the road. Only if you are totally blind and unable to see the road. But i don't think that you are blind if you able to write this question and able to read the notice.

And second edit:

If you have read some - that happens, may to be, - before trying to think what is that mean by a logic, try to image who write this notice and why?

But ofcourse it is a bit harder, then a fun running for the carrot on the stick.

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Problem is you are dealing with words, which can describe something not necessarily existing at all.

Let us make another classic example"

What happens when irresistible force is applied against an unmovable object?

The answer is: "nothing or whatever you want to happen"; because neither actually exist or can exist.

There is no "unmovable object", just objects very difficult to move and there is no "irresistible force", just very large and difficult to resit forces.

This means that, in every choice there's always a blend of all possible strategies available, almost never just one is actually employed.

On the other hand religion (at least the three Monotheistic religions, which you evidently have in mind) have a completely different approach: they require you to shut down completely you reason and accept them fully, to "have Faith".

In this frame of mind you don't actually read the road signs: you know your Faith is to follow the "pink signs" and you go in that direction, no matter what is written there, if you read is just for "literary amusement" and many avoid to do it because it could "undermine their Faith".

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  • Welcome to SE. I think I can see what you're getting at, but most of it seems at best tangential to the question. Good answers make it clear how your points bear on the question as asked.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 18:08
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While this is more Philosophy than philosophy, let's just throw out there the obvious, to deal with the tension of:

  • Relativism - All ways are equally correct (It's not accurate to characterize relativism as claiming no way is correct.)
  • Absolutism - One way is correct

I would suggest you first reflect on two additional perspectives:

  • Nihilism - No way is correct
  • Pragmatism - Whatever works is correct

And then arrive at what seems to be the most sensible or reasonable position:

  • Pluralism - There are many ways each of which is sometimes correct

Thus, when you are dealing with philosophies, you can see the value of each position, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of each position in any context. This advice sounds suspiciously like Taoist thinking where one knows when to walk with the crowd, and when not, and to remember that in antitheses, there is a seed of truth of the other. And to remind ourselves that harmony, not conformity is a higher good. But that's far from the analytic philosophy I normally promote.

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