[The following is a short article I wrote for Canta magazine's new philosophy column: "Take the Red Pill". The next edition comes out Wednesday.]
You might think that philosophy just involves arguing around in circles, never getting anywhere. You might think that all opinions are of equal merit. You'd be wrong.
Some positions are better justified than others: supported by stronger evidence or better reasons. Sad to say, we often believe things without good reason, having been misled by bad arguments or wishful thinking. Philosophy aims to expose such errors and help us to discover which positions are in fact supported by the best reasons, and so most likely to be true.
You might be suspicious of the notion of 'truth', supposing that it leads to dogmatism. There's no denying that the zealot who believes himself in possession of the "absolute Truth" can be a right pain in the ass. You might think it more humble or tolerant to believe instead that truth is "relative", that what is true for you might not be true for me. But again, you would be mistaken.
The problem with the zealot is not that he believes there is one right answer out there. Rather, the problem is that he mistakenly takes himself to know it. It's absolute certainty, not truth, which we should be wary of. A more rational person would recognize that, although there may be just one true answer, he can't be entirely sure of what it is. It's possible that he could be in error – that the truth of the matter wasn't as he believed it. That's not to say that truth is relative. Not at all. Rather, it is simply to recognize that we are all fallible. The truth is out there, but whether we've grasped it is another question entirely.
Indeed, absolute certainty is almost never justified. Think about it: can you be certain that you're not dreaming, hallucinating, or immersed in a Matrix-like world of deception? Can you prove that the world wasn't created just five minutes ago, complete with false memories and all? It seems not. In most cases, then, our knowledge is fallible. No matter how well-justified our beliefs, it's always possible - if unlikely - that the truth lies elsewhere.
Remarkably, such admissions of fallibility do not seem open to the relativist. If truth is whatever each individual believes, then he cannot be mistaken about what is "true for him". No matter the weight of evidence against him, the relativist can reply, "maybe that's true for you, but it isn't for me!" He can block his ears from the demands of reason and reality, and hold unwaveringly to his own dogma. So long as he continues to believe it, then that makes it "true for him", and to the relativist that's good enough.
Once we note the distinction between truth and certainty, it becomes clear that the latter merits more suspicion. Indeed, far from posing a threat to open-minded tolerance, the notion of objective truth might prove an essential weapon against irrational dogmatists.