The Use of the Word “Universal” is not Universal: The Naive Human Belief in Universality

Human beings have a monopoly on speech in the world we live in. Because our occasionally outlandish and, if we were only able to recognize it, at times ridiculously pompous declarations are not contradicted by the members of any other species, many of us believe that these generalizations and boastful statements are true. For instance, we often use the words “universe,” “universal,” and “universality” when what we really mean is “Earth,” “global,” “terrestrial,” or “globality,”[1] since the range of applicability or validity of these statements is strictly limited to the narrow confines of the Earth. Moreover, many of these statements apply only to human beings, or only to a particular group of human beings, which reduces even further the range of their applicability.

Here are some examples of this widespread, but very silly and pompous, human tendency:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen)

It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people. (James Madison)

Many of us have a highly exaggerated and frequently unjustified sense of our species’ importance, intelligence, and abilities. We often use phrases like “the greatest so-and-so in the Universe” to express our approbation of someone or something we admire. This tendency is also shown by the ridiculous titles we bestow on certain individuals, such as Miss Universe or Mr Universe, who are judged to be the nonpareil of beauty or musculature; but these absurdities are rather indications of humanity’s unbounded conceit. For despite her crown, there is no other creature that seeks to mate with our Miss Universes – the bull still prefers the cow, while the stallion prefers to mate with the mare, the ram with the ewe, the stag with the doe, the cock with the hen, the male frog with the female frog, and the hound with his bitch. And even the strongest man in the world, unaided by the artificial weapons and machines that we are adept at making and using in order to make up for our inferior physical attributes, would be no match for the brute strength of an adult bear, elephant, lion, bull, gorilla, or hippopotamus, which animals could easily claw, gore, maul, tear apart, or trample their human adversary to death.

As these considerations show, to use the word “universal” to describe anything human is ridiculous and is evidence of our overweening pride and boastfulness. Since human beings only inhabit the Earth, at the very most, any statement about us can only be globally or terrestrially – and not universally – true. Apart from our small planet and a few very brief trips to the Earth’s moon, we humans have not been anywhere else in the vast Universe, and so we should be more circumspect in using the word “universal.” If we really were the rational creatures that Aristotle claimed we are, then, knowing just how immense the Universe is, and how tiny the part which we inhabit, we would not use the word “universal” as often as we do, and certainly not when what we really mean is “global” or “terrestrial.”

One of the most basic of all philosophical beliefs is that there exist universally, or at least globally, valid statements about the world or Universe, or some particular aspect of it. In the course of human history, this naive belief was imitated by scientists,[2] who proceeded to look for universally valid laws and theories in their particular field of study. But why should this belief be true?

Of course, life requires regularity in order to exist. Without regularity, life, which is an unending succession in small, discrete forms of slightly varying uniformities, would not be possible. In other words, complete randomness, chaos, and instability cannot beget or preserve life. Hence, the mere fact that we are here to ask these sorts of questions indicates that there must be some sort of underlying regularity in the operations of the Universe, or at least in our tiny patch of it, since we have not yet found evidence that Life exists anywhere else in the Universe than on the Earth.

It is possible to formulate a hierarchy of sciences according to the extent to which this belief in the existence of universally or globally true laws, statements, and theories is valid in each particular science. At the top of the list are logic and mathematics, followed by physics, chemistry, astronomy, and then perhaps biology. Below these are all the social sciences, which it were better to call “humanities” in order to emphasize the essentially human nature of their subject matter. The further down the list one goes, the less and less true it is that, in that particular discipline, there exist universally or globally valid statements that are true without exception. The failure of many of those who labour in the complex fields of the humanities, with their disparate and disjointed subject matter, to recognize this important fact has caused much confusion and grief throughout the ages. In general, it appears to be true that the more complex the system one is studying, the less likely it is that one will find laws, statements, or theories that are valid without exception.

As an example, let us consider grammars. Grammars are compilations of the regularities that exist in different languages.[3] As all students know, often to their chagrin, there are exceptions to pretty nearly every grammatical rule that has ever been devised or discovered. For example, in the English language, although it is generally true that the plural of a noun is formed by adding an “s” or “es” to the end of the word, there are many exceptions to this rule. Some examples are oxen, mice, deer, fish, teeth, children, cattle, alumni, criteria, phenomena, millennia, viscera, antennae, species, fungi, milk, and vermin. And yet, these exceptions do not invalidate the rule that most plurals are formed by adding an “s” or “es” to the end of the singular form of the noun, since this rule applies to the great majority of English nouns.

Those who labour in the humanities would do well to remember this example. All those who think, write, reflect, or speculate on human affairs should understand the important fact that, in most cases, the naive philosophical belief in globality or universality is nothing more than wishful thinking on our part about the nature of reality. In no way is the feeling of conviction that we sometimes have for an idea or theory a guarantee of anything, and certainly not of its truth. Even if they are true, it is more than likely that any rules, laws, theories, or generalities that we discover, develop, devise, or invent will not be globally or universally valid, but will probably have exceptions to them, just like grammatical rules. To seek for more than this is to proceed on a fool’s quest that is comparable to the search for the Fountain of Youth, or the alchemists’ search for the philosopher’s stone, the magical substance that was believed to possess the power to transform base metals into gold. As we will see in a later essay, the philosophizing fool named René Descartes actually believed that he had found an infallible method of discovering the truth about the world we live in, but which vaunted method has turned out to be nothing more than the philosophical equivalent of fool’s gold.


[1] The fact that there is no commonly used English noun to denote the characteristic of applying only within, or being limited to, the confines of the Earth means that one is forced to use the word “universality” when one actually means “globality” or “terrestriality.”

[2] The distinction that we make today between scientists and philosophers – between those who rigorously and comprehensively study certain aspects of the world and those who merely speculate about them – did not exist in the early development of science. This is clear from the fact that the first scientists, such as Isaac Newton, called themselves “natural philosophers,” a term that clearly indicates their models, influences, and origin. Even in the last century, Albert Einstein, one of the most eminent scientists of all time, was influenced by reading the works of the philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.

[3] Elsewhere I have considered the question of whether the knowledge of these regularities is necessary for those who want to learn to use the language properly. Although this is a widely-held belief, I believe it is wrong. However, I do not deny that knowing some rules of grammar can help one to learn a foreign language, such as when one is learning to write the language.