Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Ask Wednesday: How can truth be both objective and subjective at the same time?

An approximate representation
That seems to be the only way it can be

By Morris Dean

A better way of asking the question might be: How can truth not be subjective for everyone, and how is objective truth even possible?
    Anyone’s perception of anything is his or her own perception. Objective truth depends on everyone involved’s agreeing on a procedure by which objective truth can be determined, or approximated as closely as possible – everyone may even agree that their procedure leaves room for doubt and revision. Science is that way, for example, and is stronger for it by forestalling the jumping to conclusions; everyone acknowledges that further information might change the consensus view.

    In Vic Midyett’s Tuesday Voice column yesterday (“Truth: It does not alter”), the little girl and the son had their individual perceptions of the truth about nurses and father, respectively, which was at variance with the objective truth as understood by Mr. Midyett, whose point of view for the narrative amounted to that of an “omniscient narrator” in fiction.
    What about Kyle Garza’s perception of the truth about pornography in last week’s Thor’s Day column (“Why Christians aren’t celebrating Playboy’s PG-13 move”)? Was his view of pornography objective or subjective? Another perceiver will present an alternative view tomorrow – Bob Boldt in his Thor’s Day column, “Eroticism and its discontents: A response to last week’s column on pornography.”

Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean


  1. The central premise of modern philosophy is: there is no objective Truth (capital T). Neuroscience has demonstrated pretty conclusively the degree to which our ideas of truth are wholly based on our subjective perceptions Our realities are bounded by culture and personally modified mental structures. The best we can say for our idea of Truth is it represents the sum of subjective beliefs about reality within members with a healthy, functioning nervous system within a culture or a society. Move away from this consensus in time (past eras) and space (different cultures in other locations) and you can get a far different consensus as to what is truth.

    Julian Jaynes in his groundbreaking book "The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind." documents that, prior to the separation of the two hemispheres of the brain that occurred with the development of advanced, hierarchical societies, man lived in a world framed by a radically different reality than our own. The separation of man from man, man from nature and man from God that we take as being so axiomatic today was antithetical to ancient man. Their truth was far different from our present one. Modern man would be unable to function in Jaynes' pre-civiized world. You and I would probably be regarded with a mixture of pity, awe and fear.

    So whose truth is True?
    What about science then or spiritual revelation? Surely these must be able to provide some touchstone to ultimate reality. No? It is interesting that science, in striving towards a kind of certainty one might find in say, mathematics, has run smack into a confusing and counter-intuitive series of puzzles that not only calls into question the whole idea of reality but even the foundations of the scientific method itself. And what of the idea of spiritual revelation itself? It might be said that it bears a closer resemblance to psychosis than any real window into the nature of the physical universe.

    All our truth then is provisional and conditional, as Wittgenstein would say "true enough" For me the most accurate representation of truth was posited by Immanuel Kant back in the 18th Century. In his "Critique of Pure Reason" Kant declared that things (realities) as they are "in themselves" — the thing in itself or das Ding an sich — are unknowable. For something to become an object of knowledge, it must be experienced, and experience is structured by the mind—both space and time being the forms of intuition.

    This became the premise upon which all modern relativistic philosophy is based. We can never know the Truth. All we can ever know is agreement and a subjective, relativistic agreement at that.

  2. And with regards to the idea of a common, absolute spiritual reality:

    "Is it possible that there are people who say "God" and think it is something they have in common? Just look at two schoolboys: one buys himself a knife, and the same day his neighbor buys one just like it. And after a week they show each other their knives and it turns out that they bear only the remotest resemblance to each other-so differently have they developed in different hands (Well, the mother of one of them says, if you boys always have to wear everything out right away). Ah, so: is it possible to believe that one could have a God without using him?
    Yes, it is possible."

    from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke

  3. Bob, I am grateful for your deep expansion of the topic. Your combined comments deserve their own column as answer to the question or some version of it.
        I wonder, is modern philosophy's sense that there is no objective Truth a sort of new "objective Truth" – insofar as there really is a supposed consensus on that among philosophers?
        And thanks for the quote from Rilke's novel; I could stand to read that again.

  4. I wish we could say for certain there is no objective Truth. But as you point out that would become a new "objective Truth." Never say never--Ha ha. Like a certainty that there is no God, we can't even take comfort in that certainty. The best we can say is there is no evidence for God or objective Truth. The best we can do is be agnostic about God and Reality. Postmodernism teaches that we are insignificant, vulnerable children lost in a dark wood. Get used to it. Keep your "Collected Works of Samuel Beckett" close at hand!

    Speaking of the threat Quantum Physics poses to our concept of independent, immutable Reality:
    "(R)eality doesn’t exist without an observer. Perhaps further research in the field of quantum physics and more thought-provoking evidence like this will completely change our understanding of (the truth of) reality one day."