“Ow utch ill heh ahst?” I asked, biting the baseball-sized shard of plastic wedged between my jaws.
“Pardon?” responded the dental hygienist, pulling down the X-ray machine. I pried my face off the baseball.
“How much will it cost?”
“Fourteen million dollars for the seven root canals,” a hollow voice answered behind me. I craned my neck back in the dental chair, eyes wide, to glimpse a deadpan dentist.
“Fourteen—root canal—wait, you haven’t even seen the X-rays,” I objected.
“Don’t need to,” he yawned. “It’s my office, I set the rules, and my rules say every other patient should rightly be charged two million dollars per procedure. You need seven root canals.”
“But I can see the X-rays. There’s no nerve damage, which would explain why I have no pain.”
“That might be true for you,” the dentist replied, “but my innermost convictions and subjective interpretations of reality assure me that your maxillary molars exhibit severe endodontic decay. Marsha, hand me the drill.”
“The truth is that I’m out of here,” I responded, breaking away from the chair.
Fortunately, that particular dentistry experience never happened to me. And hopefully it never will, because on some deeply “rooted” level, humans (including dentists) realize that some form of objective truth must exist for society to function. The dentist illustration may seem extreme, but it’s an extrapolation of what life might look like if everyone consistently lived by the statement, “Truth is up to you.”
This statement, which is Lie #3 of four common messages in false teachings, ultimately stems from Lie #2, “You can be like God.” If there is no God, or if everyone is God or part of God, then truth is not grounded in the character of one triune Creator but in the minds of many individuals. Instead of God and his Word being the absolute big picture of truth, providing a foundation from which we can objectively deduce other absolutes about the logical universe God created, every human must subjectively construct their own versions of truth. That makes truth relative; that is, what I think is true for me might not be what you think is true for you.
It’s no secret that this kind of post-modern relativism has become mainstream in today’s classrooms and secular cultures. To quote atheist and education reformer John Dewey, who signed the first Humanist Manifesto, “There is no God and no soul. Hence, there are no needs for props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or permanent absolutes.”1
You’ve probably noticed that the declaration “there is no God, no soul, and no absolutes” is itself an absolute statement. So, it’s easy to see that relativism refutes itself. We can’t accept that the statement “there is no absolute truth” is absolutely true, because if it’s absolutely true that there is no absolute truth, then nothing is absolutely true, including that statement. Besides, if relativism is correct that all truth claims are equally true, then so is the claim that relativism is false. As Canadian social commentator Dr. William Gairdner explains in his secular critique of relativism, rejecting absolutes makes reality absurd, because everything would be both true and false at once.2
Relativism is attractive because it “helps us to dismiss all sorts of rules and absolutes for ourselves, without altogether denying the need to apply them to others.”
Why do so many people believe such a self-refuting philosophy? Dr. Gairdner suggests relativism is attractive because it “helps us to dismiss all sorts of rules and absolutes for ourselves, without altogether denying the need to apply them to others. We resort to relativism when it suits our purposes but keep whatever we know of absolutes and standards at hand to win an argument, discipline our children, or protest an abuse.”3
Origins of Objectivity
From a biblical worldview, I’d add that relativism also appeals to sinful humans, because if there are no absolutes and no Creator God as the source of absolutes, then there are no real laws to break, no such thing as sin and, therefore, no such thing as judgment either. So, people who don’t want to believe in God but recognize that logic, justice, and reality demand the existence of absolutes must try to explain absolutes apart from God.
For instance, I’ve read skeptics’ arguments that suggest we can understand objective absolutes without God simply by comparing notes on our subjective human experiences. The idea is that by inductively piecing together many individual perspectives and measurements, we can become confident of the true nature of things.4
Unlike a biblical worldview, this answer doesn’t explain where absolutes come from, or why they exist. Being able to know and reason about absolutes requires knowledge and logic, which, as other articles explain,5 have no real foundation in a materialistic framework.6 Moreover, the idea that humans can put their fallible heads together and arrive at absolute truth basically suggests that enough subjective statements can eventually equal an objective statement. But how can we absolutely know whether those subjective statements—our personal observations, perspectives, or measurements—are right? Masses of people are often wrong together, as both history and social psychology show. If everyone were wrong, would those many wrong perspectives still equal truth? No. Without God, establishing a consistent basis for knowing truth is logistically impossible.7
Turning to the Truth
The statement that “truth is up to you” is clearly not—well—true. And like all such untruths, we can respond with Scripture. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”8 That is the ultimate absolute truth claim. The nature of the One who voiced it, the fact that he created a logical universe, and the reality that he designed us in his image with faculties for knowledge together provide the foundation that makes absolute reasoning possible for humans—including dentists.