If you have had interaction with almost anyone who is “hip” to pop culture, then you have undoubtedly heard someone make the claim that “there is no absolute truth” or “it’s wrong to make exclusive claims.” The fundamental problem with these relativistic claims is that they do not stand up to their own criteria. They are self-refuting claims. A claim is self-refuting when what is asserted by the claim is the very thing that falsifies the claim itself or renders it otherwise untenable. Self-refuting statements result in the hard-to-get-one’s-mind-around scenario such that if the statement is true, it is thereby false. What could such a thing possibly mean?! They are so bad that one cannot even assent to a self-refuting claim in a logically coherent way. We may, at this point, just as well meditate on the sound of one hand clapping!
Let’s consider some self-refuting statements. We’ll start with a claim that is silly but nicely illustrates the problem:
“Sentences with six words are false.”
The problem is that this itself is a sentence with six words. If sentences with six words are false, then this sentence would be false. So here’s the incoherence: if this claim is true, then the claim is thereby falsified.
Here’s the less ridiculous self-refuting claim mentioned above:
“There is no absolute truth.”
It at least looks like one is claiming that there is something absolutely true (i.e., true for all people), and what is absolutely true is that there is no absolute truth. Wait, what? A good response is to simply ask whether the person making this claim believes that the claim is true for everyone. Again, if this statement is true, then it falsifies itself. As soon as we see the logical implications of the claim, it becomes painfully obvious that the view cannot be held coherently.
I recently had a student who had a hard time believing that relativism is this easy to criticize. Surely, he seemed to think, the relativist is not this dense. My response was something to the effect of “Yep, sometimes it’s that easy.” I do not think that the relativist is necessarily dense, but I have had many students (typically in secular contexts, though, unfortunately not only secular contexts) who simply default to this view having never been challenged to think out the logical implications. Others have seemingly thought these things through but for one reason or another do not see the problem.
How could this be? It seems to be a matter of sociological fact that when there are enough people finding the same view plausible, a radically false belief can be held vigorously by intelligent people. Indeed, many brilliant minds have held to self-refuting views. One example of this is one who says that nothing is known or even meaningful unless it can be verified in experience. The school of philosophy known as Logical Positivism, which held dominance throughout a good part of the 20th century, held to something very much like this criterion. There are almost no Logical Positivists today since the truth of the Positivist’s criterion cannot be verified in the prescribed way. So, by their own criterion, Logical Positivism cannot be known or even held meaningfully.
Another self-refuting view is a view called scientism. On this view, a claim cannot be taken as true unless it is scientifically provable. Many who align themselves with the New Atheist movement operate on the truth of scientism. So, here the atheist of this sort is saying that they will not believe in God unless God can be proven scientifically. The problem is that the truth of the view itself is not scientifically provable. There are no scientific experiments one could run to test the truth of scientism. Thus, if scientism has it right, then it should not be taken as true.
I once had a Muslim Imam in Los Angeles tell me that the only thing wrong with my defense of Christianity was when I was making exclusive claims. It is not always clear what an exclusive claim is, but the most natural way to understand the term is as a claim whose application will include some and exclude others. To claim that salvation is in no one else other than Jesus excludes all of those who are not followers of Jesus and is thus exclusive. Of course, more traditional Muslims are apt to make exclusive claims too, and presumably all of these are morally inappropriate according to the Imam too. He seemed to think that some form of pluralism was the only view we should have (seeing the problem yet?) since all exclusive claims are wrong. The problem of course is that this itself is an exclusive claim, and by its own criteria, were it true, should be wrong for my Muslim friend to assert.
There are almost no circumstances that call for matching the hubristic and vitriolic tone that so often characterize apologetic encounters.
These problems can be subtle and fly under one’s radar, so to speak. In fact, this conversation with the Muslim Imam was early on in my journey, and I failed to realize the self-refuting nature of the Imam’s claims at the time of the conversation. If there is a “winner” in an overall friendly apologetic conversation, it was him. It was only upon further reflection that I realized how poorly conceived his claim really was. So it’s easy to see the problem when someone lays it bare, but it can be difficult to see the problem on the fly or even when we attempt to consider it carefully, especially when it is crucial to the view on which one has based one’s life and career. Just ask the Logical Positivist.
We should mention one important word of caution. It is our task, as Christian apologists, to take down or even demolish any speculation that is raised up against the knowledge of God (2 Cor. 10:5), and, as it turns out, if we are ready for it, some views fall easily. However, we should do this work thoughtfully. There are almost no circumstances that call for matching the hubristic and vitriolic tone that so often characterize apologetic encounters. The apostle Peter qualifies his famous call to apologetics by saying that our defense should be both gentle and respectful (1 Peter 3:15). So, by all means, we should demolish views and never ever compromise on our message, but this shouldn’t mean that we seek to demolish the person in the process.