October 28, 2013

Absolute vs. Relative

"Consecrate them in the truth. Your word is truth." (Jn 17:17)
Last time, we thought about the terms "subjective" and "objective". What was the point of that? It's this: If we're going to discuss truth, we have to know where to look for it. If a statement is objective, the truth is out there in the object (some person, place, or thing). We might be able to easily test it, or we might not, but its out there and it's not opinion.

That takes us to our next topic. Our goal is to comprehend two more terms: "relative" and "absolute", and to distinguish between them. These two terms make up the second brick in our foundation.

In one philosophical sense, "absolute" refers only to God – to the one absolute source of all being. I'm not using "absolute" in that very restricted sense (not yet), rather in the more broad sense of something unrestricted or independent. It comes from the Latin root that means "loosen" -- as in loosed from, separated from, other things.

Something that is absolute, then, is not dependent on other things for its state of being. The expression "98°F" is absolute. While external forces may change the temperature, nothing will change what 98°F means. It has the same meaning whether I'm talking about a person, a cup of coffee, or the weather outside. In that way, it is an absolute expression.

The word "warm", in contrast, is relative. "Warm" is not any one particular thing and may mean different things in different situations. What is warm for my coffee and warm for my son's forehead and warm for the outside temperature are different things. "Warm" is relative to the context -- it takes its meaning from some other thing. It only has meaning when it's connected to some other idea.

Do these sound really, really close to "objective" and "subjective"?  Yes, they probably do. That's okay.
Are they really, really close to "objective" and "subjective"? Enough that they're used interchangeably in casual conversation. That's okay too.  But it's better to have a distinction on-hand should we need it, and, up next, I'll try to make such distinctions.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Hurray! Keep writing. I love it.

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