The ultimate truth is that there is no Ultimate Truth

Is that statement ultimately and absolutely true?

You are not the first to notice my sig. The original source is Mark Siderits, “Thinking on Empty: Madhyamika Anti-Realism and Canons of Rationality” in S Biderman and B.A. Schaufstein, eds, Rationality In Question (1989). Dordrecht: Brill.

I have not read Siderits but saw the quote in a piece on Nagarjuna. The “Madhyamika” in Siderits’ title refers to the religious and philosophical school of Buddhism that Nagarjuna founded. I have seen the same quote again in other places in reference to the Madhyamika and Nagarjuna - it seems quite popular. The quote is intentionally paradoxical; paradox is necessary to remind us that words are insufficient when trying to describe the fundamental nature of reality.

For a philosophical discussion of Nagarjuna and reality see the web article Nagarjuna and the Limits of Thought. The Siderits quote is at the end of section four of the article:

There is, then, no escape. Nagarjuna’s view is contradictory. The contradiction is, clearly a paradox of expressibility. Nagarjuna succeeds in saying the unsayable, just as much as the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus. We can think (and characterize) reality only subject to language, which is conventional, so the ontology of that reality is all conventional. It follows that the conventional objects of reality do not ultimately (non-conventionally) exist. It also follows that nothing we say of them is ultimately true. That is, all things are empty of ultimate existence; and this is their ultimate nature, and is an ultimate truth about them. They hence cannot be thought to have that nature; nor can we say that they do. But we have just done so. As Mark Siderits (1989) has put it, “the ultimate truth is that there is no ultimate truth.”

rossum

I think it is the Meaning rather than the Truth. Truth doesn’t have any value in absence of the Meaning.

That’s absurd. To say that because reality cannot be fully expressed in human language it thus follows that real objects simply don’t exist is unreasonable. What’s the proof of such a statement? This can easily be refuted with one thought experiment: As long as I am around to be thinking about Nagarjuna’s hypothesis, then at the very least I can establish that I exist and am real.

This guy is literally saying that because language is “conventional” (whatever that means) there can thus be no such thing as ultimate reality.

Not only is the quote paradoxical, it’s completely self-refuting. To say there is no truth must be true in order for it to be, well, true. But if it is true then the statement is false.

Nonsense.

When a word like “Meaning” or “Truth” is capitalised it often means that the writer is reifying some concept. That appears to be what you are doing here. Both meaning and truth are internal mental concepts. They do not have real external existence. To think that they do is an error.

Do the three letters “elf” have a “Meaning”? They have a (lowercase) meaning in English: a mythological humanoid. They also have a (lowercase) meaning in German: the number between 10 and 12. Which, if either, of those two is the “Meaning” (uppercase) of elf?

rossum

These are themselves absolute statements. You are stating them as objective fact. If they are objective fact, then they are true regardless of how an individual understands or interprets them. However, if they are objective facts, as you have stated them, then that means that they have an existence outside of your internal mental concepts, otherwise you could not claim them as being true for anyone other than yourself.

Saying that there are no absolutes is itself an absolute. It’s a self-defeating premise.

In order for your statement to have any validity, it must be true for all people. However, if it is true for all people, then that means that it is not simply an internal mental concept, which means that the statement is false. Either the statement is true, in which case it is false, or it is false, in which case it is false. Either way, the assertion is provably false through a simple expression of basic logic.

Our senses are imperfect, so we do not have a correct picture of the world around us. We cannot see polarized light like a bee. We cannot smell as well as a Bloodhound. Since our picture of the world is imperfect, then our internal models of the world are imperfect. We see water in a mirage when there is no real water present.

Human language does not describe the external world. It describes the imperfect internal mental models we use.

Not only was it difficult for him to comprehend that the generic symbol dog embraces so many unlike individuals of diverse size and form; it bothered him that the dog at three fourteen (seen from the side) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front).

– Borges, “Funes the Memorious”

We tend to use generic models, like “dog” which blur a great many distinctions between different real-world objects.

What’s the proof of such a statement? This can easily be refuted with one thought experiment: As long as I am around to be thinking about Nagarjuna’s hypothesis, then at the very least I can establish that I exist and am real.

You are indeed real. Your mental image of yourself is however in error, as are all our internal mental images. For example, as a Christian your internal mental image of yourself probably includes a soul. That is an error because souls do not exist in the way Christians think they do. They are another example of a faulty internal image, like the water in a mirage.

This guy is literally saying that because language is “conventional” (whatever that means) there can thus be no such thing as ultimate reality.

Of course language is conventional. In English we refer to the number 5 as “five”. The French call it “cinq”. The Russians call it четыре (“chye-tir-ye”). You will also note that by convention the Russians use a different alphabet.

Because language is conventional it cannot be absolute. What is the absolute word for the number 5? Hence any attempt to describe the absolute in a human language is destined to fail.

Not only is the quote paradoxical, it’s completely self-refuting. To say there is no truth must be true in order for it to be, well, true. But if it is true then the statement is false.

I say that there is no “ultimate” truth. There are plenty of non-ultimate truths. It is ultimate truth that is the mirage. I do not need ultimate truth; I just need truths that work for me here and now.

rossum

This is nonsense. They’re merely letters strung together to express a thought. Words, as we know, can have different meaning, especially between different languages. You are either straw-manning the argument, or you misunderstand. Just because a word means one thing in one language and another in a different language does not mean that the ideas expressed by such words are devoid of transcendent meaning. That’s ridiculous.

Both meaning and truth are internal mental concepts. They do not have real external existence.

This is not only false, but completely relativistic. If this is absolutely true then by definition it exists in reality apart from each person.

There is nothing inside but mind. The Truth and the Meaning have their roots into the Underlying Reality. We are just experiencing them. We might somehow someday know what the Truth the Meaning is another category. I cannot even make a right question with the Meaning! Could you?

No they are not, they are relative statements. If you showed them to a monoglot Chinese speaker then those same statements would be meaningless because they are in English, not Chinese. They only have meaning relative to the learning of the reader.

Here is a statement in a non-English language. Can you determine the absolute meaning of this statement?

ni mtsan nyid bcas, ,thar dang nges 'byed cha mthun dang,
,slob pa phyir mi ldog pa’i tsogs, ,srid dang zhi ba mnyam nyid dang,
,zhing dag bla na med pa ni, ,rnam kun mngon rdzogs rtogs pa ste,
,'di ni thabs mkhas bcas pa yin, ,de yi rtags dang rnam 'phel dang

If you want to know what that is, then: vg vf n irefr sebz gur Gvorgna genafyngvba bs gur Nouvfnznlnynzxnen… That is a mildly encrypted statement in English, which you should be able to read relatively easily.

“Meaning” can be a slippery concept.

rossum

So a statement loses it’s validity simply because a person cannot understand it?

I can’t understand complex physics formulas or much of the mathematics that takes place beyond the realm of calculus, but that doesn’t make those things any less true.

You’re talking about the ability to understand a statement. We’re talking about what that statement means.

One plus one equals two
1プラス1は2に等しい
Uno più uno fa due
واحد زائد واحد يساوي اثنين
En pluss en er to
Ένα συν ένα ίσον δύο
Unum et unum sunt duo

The linguistic expression of an idea may differ from society to society, and those linguistic differences may be a hindrance to communication; but it does not change the reality those ideas represent. Language is superficial; the realities that language expresses are not.

Also, yes, the way you stated them, they are absolute statements. You are claiming that someone else is wrong based on the assertion that your statements are correct. That claim to correctness is a claim that your statement is in and of itself true. Once again, this is not possible unless it is true beyond the confines of your mental interpretation. Un order for your assertion to be true, it has to be false.

Agreed. Which is why assigning a reified “Meaning” to words is an error.

Just because a word means one thing in one language and another in a different language does not mean that the ideas expressed by such words are devoid of transcendent meaning.

Words can have different meanings in the same language as well, just look at a dictionary. Or consider: “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

That’s ridiculous.

It is ridiculous to assign absolute meaning to words when the meanings of words are relative and often fuzzy.

rossum

Our senses are imperfect, so we do not have a correct picture of the world around us. We cannot see polarized light like a bee. We cannot smell as well as a Bloodhound. Since our picture of the world is imperfect, then our internal models of the world are imperfect. We see water in a mirage when there is no real water present.

Fine. If you say that our senses are imperfect then I’d like to know exactly what your standard of perfection is. How can you know what perfection is in order to compare it to humans and conclude that we are not perfect? There has to be an objective standard outside ourselves against which we can measure all things.

Human language does not describe the external world. It describes the imperfect internal mental models we use.

What’s your point here? Human language can certainly describe absolute realities. In the event that it cannot describe it perfectly in no way means that those realities don’t exist.

We tend to use generic models, like “dog” which blur a great many distinctions between different real-world objects.

True. This however does not diminish the fact that we’re still talking about a four-legged animal that barks and chews bones that actually exists.

You are indeed real.

Thank you. You have just ascribed to an objective reality outside yourself which you can describe with human language.

Your mental image of yourself is however in error, as are all our internal mental images. For example, as a Christian your internal mental image of yourself probably includes a soul. That is an error because souls do not exist in the way Christians think they do. They are another example of a faulty internal image, like the water in a mirage.

This is an opinion of belief which I am certainly happy to discuss with you on a different thread.

Of course language is conventional. In English we refer to the number 5 as “five”. The French call it “cinq”. The Russians call it четыре (“chye-tir-ye”). You will also note that by convention the Russians use a different alphabet.

I don’t care if you call it moon cheese. We’re still talking about an objectively real immaterial reality known as mathematics.

Because language is conventional it cannot be absolute. What is the absolute word for the number 5? Hence any attempt to describe the absolute in a human language is destined to fail.

Again, that you can describe things by different names is completely detached from the question of their existence.

I say that there is no “ultimate” truth. There are plenty of non-ultimate truths. It is ultimate truth that is the mirage. I do not need ultimate truth; I just need truths that work for me here and now.

Unless this statement is absolutely true apart from everyone and everything, then it is merely a statement of opinion. In which case, why should I care?

No. It loses its absoluteness. We are discussing absolutes (“ultimate truth”) not merely valid statements.

Human languages are not absolute, so any expression in a human language is not an absolute statement.

rossum

Why do I need perfection? I merely need something better (less imperfect) to compare. Can you smell as well as a Bloodhound? Can you see as well as an Eagle? Obviously, given that their senses are better than ours then our senses must be imperfect.

What’s your point here? Human language can certainly describe absolute realities. In the event that it cannot describe it perfectly in no way means that those realities don’t exist.

Human language describes the mental models we all hold inside our brains. Because of our imperfect senses those internal models are also imperfect and can differ from person to person. Human language does not describe the actual world. It describes a set of common shared internal models which are imperfect reflections of the real world.

This however does not diminish the fact that we’re still talking about a four-legged animal that barks and chews bones that actually exists.

Some dogs do not bark and some do not chew bones. Any general model, like “dog” will miss specific nuances of specific individual dogs. “Humans have five fingers” is often true, but it is not an absolute. There are humans with more than five and less than five digits.

We’re still talking about an objectively real immaterial reality known as mathematics.

Mathematics is very far from an objectively real system, it is a logical system based on axioms. As long as the axioms are consistent then they can form the basis of a mathematical system. The classic example is the parallel axiom. There are three different inconsistent versions, each of which leads to a different geometry:

  1. Given any straight line and a point not on it, there exists no straight line which passes through that point and never intersects the first line:

  2. Given any straight line and a point not on it, there exists one and only one straight line which passes through that point and never intersects the first line.

  3. Given any straight line and a point not on it, there exist at least two straight lines which pass through that point and never intersect the first line

1 gives Spherical geometry, 2 gives Euclidian geometry and 3 gives Hyperbolic (or Lobachevskian) geometry.

Mathematics is an axiomatic system, and it changes if you change the axioms.

Again, that you can describe things by different names is completely detached from the question of their existence.

Of course. Is “unicorn” attached to anything existing? It is attached to a mental model inside people’s heads, not to any real-world entity.

rossum

Jesus said two commandments are greatest, so they have to be a greatest or ultimate truth.

So just as a thought, can these commandments have a greatest meaning for God?

God the Father loves God the Son with all his heart, soul, mind and strength.
God the Father loves each and everyone of us as he loves himself.

Can God love us more than he loves himself?

We have a report of what Jesus is alleged to have said copied, copied, copied and translated. Both copyists and translators were human, and so prone to error. The book in which this report is contained is known to have errors in it, like the missing ending of Mark. I think you are a long way from an “ultimate truth” here.

rossum

But if there is one ultimate truth, why can’t there be two ultimate truths, or three, or four, or more?

The statement is absurd. It claims its claim is false.

This logic of the extreme skeptic is always dismissed as internally inconsistent.

It was my understanding that we had ended this conversation…

I’m sorry, but this is ridiculous. Even if you’re using “better” or “worse”, you must have a standard of what the “Best” is in order to possibly have a “better” “worse” “less perfect” “more perfect”

You can’t just say “I can do something better than you can” unless you have an objective “Best” in order to know if you’re closer to or further from that standard (which would be the essence of the terms “better” and “worse”)

So yes, you absolutely do need a standard of perfection.

Human language describes the mental models we all hold inside our brains. Because of our imperfect senses those internal models are also imperfect and can differ from person to person. Human language does not describe the actual world. It describes a set of common shared internal models which are imperfect reflections of the real world.

This will be the last time I am answering the objection.

You can call me John, Jonathan, Jon, or Jack… we’re still talking about the same person who exists and is part of the actual world. Human language certainly describes reality. You do not require an absolute language to describe the world absolutely. Just because there are different ways of conveying the same idea ***does not mean that thing cannot be absolutely known or proven to exist in the real world.


Some dogs do not bark and some do not chew bones. Any general model, like “dog” will miss specific nuances of specific individual dogs. “Humans have five fingers” is often true, but it is not an absolute. There are humans with more than five and less than five digits.

Correct. But this is only a problem for you who deny a standard of perfect. I can say that some things are not as they should be because I can appeal to an absolute standard of “should be” You cannot. Besides, the number of appendages is not a qualification for being a human person. Therefore there is no problem with describing a human person absolutely while knowing that some human persons differ in physical appearance, cognitive ability, etc. You’re the one with the problem here.

Mathematics is very far from an objectively real system, it is a logical system based on axioms. As long as the axioms are consistent then they can form the basis of a mathematical system.

1 + 1 = 2. This will always be regardless of any external influence. It is a transcendent reality apart from you and I.

Of course. Is “unicorn” attached to anything existing? It is attached to a mental model inside people’s heads, not to any real-world entity.

The word “unicorn” describes a mystical flying horse with a single spiraling horn projecting from it’s forehead. It does nothing to answer the question of whether such a beast actually exists. Nice try.

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