April 25, 2007

The Critical Importance of Absolutes

2007 1512 page24 capith the Ten Commandments in the forefront of the news today, there are those who question the need for or even the existence of absolutes. But think of the chaos and confusion that would result if all absolutes were discarded.
We live in a universe of absolutes, in spite of objections from atheists, agnostics, and relativists. There are absolutes, constants, in the physical universe; and by international agreement, there are absolute standards in the worlds of commerce and science. In the same way, there is a moral absolute to promote harmonious interpersonal and other important relationships.
Universal Absolutes and Constants
The following are some of the most important constants embedded in the nature of the universe:
  • the mathematical constant (π),
  • the velocity of light constant (c),
  • Faraday’s constant (F),
  • Planck’s constant (h),
  • the gravitational constant (G),
  • the Boltzmann constant (k),
  • the general gas constant (R),
  • Avogadro’s number (N),
  • the unit electrical charge (e).
All of these constants and their exact values are required in the study of both the macrocosm (the infinitely large universe of intergalactic space) and the microcosm (the infinitesimally small universe of subatomic particles).
International Absolute Standards and Constants
2007 1512 page24In addition to the universal absolutes and constants listed above, there are international standards and constants that govern our daily activities, the following among them:
1. For the position north
The North Star (Polaris) is still the absolute reference point or the standard for determining the position of true north.
2. The time zones
Greenwich Mean Time is the absolute reference standard for setting or determining the time at any place on earth. By international agreement all time zones around the world are based on the meridian of longitude that passes through Greenwich and is designated zero degree. On this basis every 15° west represents a time zone one hour earlier, and every 15° east, a time zone one hour later.
3. For temperature
The Fahrenheit, Celsius, and Kelvin scales are absolute standards for measuring temperatures. On these scales the freezing point of water is 32°F, 0°C, and 273°K, respectively; and the boiling point of water is 212°F, 100°C, and 373.15°K. In addition, 98.6°F is still an absolute reference standard for normal body temperature. (It might be noted that the lowest temperature theoretically possible is designated absolute zero, which is 0°K on the Kelvin scale, or –273.15°C, or –459.67°F.)
4. The standard for mass
The absolute standard for mass in the metric or SI (Le Systeme International d’Unites) system is the kilogram. The prototype of the mass of one kilogram is a platinum-iridium-cylindrical bar kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, near Paris.
5. For length
The absolute standard for length in the metric or SI system is the meter. The standard that was adopted for the length of one meter is the distance between two marks on a certain platinum-iridium metal bar kept in the International Bureau of Weights and Measures in Sevres, near Paris.
6. For a unit of time
The absolute standard for a unit of time is the second. Scientists use both the cgs (centimeter-gram-second) and the MKs (meter-kilogram-second) systems in all of their calculations involving time.
God’s Law—The Moral Absolute
As in all these other areas, there is an absolute standard for right and wrong. The famous debate between the Jesuit priest Frederick Copleston and the British philosopher Bertrand Russell reveals the need for an absolute standard of right and wrong. The internationally known Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, describes that debate as follows:
2007 1512 page24“At the midpoint of the debate, Copleston asked Russell on what basis he differentiated between right and wrong, and Russell answered that he did so on the same basis that he differentiated between yellow and blue. Copleston challenged the analogy because colors, he said, were differentiated on the basis of seeing. How does one differentiate between good and bad? And Russell replied that he did so on the basis of feelings. Copleston was very gracious, for had he wanted to draw philosophical blood, he could have decimated Russell’s argument. In some cultures they love their neighbors; in others they eat them, both on the basis of feelings. Would Russell have had a preference?”1
It is evident that since our feelings are subjective, they cannot be the objective standard needed to distinguish between right and wrong or good and evil. Immanuel Kant and other philosophers have endeavored to construct an objective standard of morality, but have all failed.
Just as the constants and absolutes in the physical universe were designated by a transcendent Creator-God, likewise only a transcendent, omniscient God has the wisdom to provide a moral absolute to govern humanity. Is it just a coincidence that both the physical universe and the moral law of 10 commandments share a common origin—both coming into existence as a result of the finger of God (see Ps. 8:3; Ex. 31:18; Ex. 34:1), and both being spoken into existence (Ps. 33:6, 9; Ex. 20:1-3)?
A Proven, Credible Standard
The Bible is unequivocal in asserting that the moral law is the absolute standard for righteousness. It says that “all unrighteousness is sin . . .” (1 John 5:17), that “sin is the transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4), and that “by the law is the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). The apostle Paul made this same point clear when he said: “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7).
Those who wish to question the authority and credibility of the Bible should remember that the Bible is the only book known to us that contains so many explicit, accurately fulfilled prophecies.2 Indeed, the prophetic accuracy of the Bible exceeds the predictive precision of such successful instruments as the atomic theory, the kinetic molecular theory, the quantum theory, and the theory of relativity.
The excellent book on Messianic prophecies titled The Prophets Still Speak states the following: “Therefore, in the whole range of history, except the prophecies of Scripture, there is not a single instance of a prediction, expressed in unequivocal language and descending to any minuteness, which bears the slightest claim to fulfillment.”3
A classical example of what can happen when absolutes are ignored or discarded is found in one experience of ancient Israel during the time of the Judges—the experience of the Levite and his concubine, reported in the book of Judges, chapters 19, 20, and 21. The horrible incident led to the almost complete annihilation of the tribe of Benjamin.
And Judges 17:6 and 21:25 give us the backdrop of that whole, sorry chapter of Israel’s history: “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” In essence there were no recognized absolute standards for proper behavior.
We would not think of dispensing with the absolute standards in the physical world listed above. We wouldn’t want the chaos and misunderstanding that would ensue. In the same way, we should recognize that only disaster will follow if we dispense with the absolute standard of the moral law. Let’s remember the admonition of the wise man Solomon: “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set” (Prov. 22:28).
1 Ravi Zacharias, A Shattered Visage: The Real Face of Atheism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 1990), pp. 55, 56.
2 Emerson A. Cooper, To the Unknown God: The God of Science and the Bible (New York: Vantage Press, 1998), pp. 43-80.
3 Fred John Meldau, The Prophets Still Speak (Denver, Colo.: The Christian Victory Publishing Co., 1988), p. 6.
E. A. Cooper is professor emeritus of chemistry at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Alabama.