October 07, 2013

Subjective vs. Objective

Welcome to the relaunched Ho Kai Paulos! If you want to know what this site is about, please read the welcome post.

"Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock." (Mt 7:24-25)
Today we're going to start building something I call "God from the ground up". It seems that answering one question about God, the Bible, or the Catholic faith just brings up another question. Or another hundred. In this series, we'll try to build up from the most basic building blocks, step by step, all the way to the Catholic creed, morality, and sacramental life.

Where should we start? We have to begin somewhere more fundamental than any discussion of God. The goal today is to comprehend two terms: "subjective" and "objective", and to distinguish between them. This may not be the most exciting (or most theological) information, but it's going to come up time and again as we learn more. These make up the first brick in our foundation:

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, "objective" originally meant "considered in relation to its object". In other words, a thought is objective when it has to do with some object out there - outside of the person having the thought. A statement is objective when it has to do with an object out there, outside of the person making the statement.

Here is an easy test: can you change the speaker without changing the truth of the statement?

If I say "The dog is red.", I am making an objective statement. Whether I say "the dog is red" or you say "the dog is red" doesn't change the truth of it. The dog is red (and someone's in trouble for letting it into the paint!) or it isn't. You and I are both talking about some object (a dog, a sandwich, my hair, Bob*), so the statement is objective.

In contrast, if I say "I like chocolate ice cream" and you say "I like chocolate ice cream", the truth of the statement could be different. You may hate chocolate ice cream! (What's wrong with you?) Because changing the subject ("I", "you", "Johnny", "all of us", etc.) could change whether the sentence is true or false, it is a subjective statement.

It isn't as simple as "subject is bad, objective is good". It is not automatically wrong to make a subjective statement. What we need to do, though, is to recognize subjective statements for what they are. Generally, subjective statements are about opinions--things that can be true for one person and not true for another, such as "I like mushrooms on my pizza." Objective statements are about facts--things that must be the same between changes of subject.

If you say "I don't like mushrooms on my pizza" and I say "I do like mushrooms on my pizza", we may both be telling the truth.  If I say "the pizza is on the table" and you say "the pizza isn't on the table", one of us must be wrong; that is an objective statement.

Where should I go from here?
  • How can we discuss truths about God without understanding the difference between opinion and fact, or (our next topic) absolute and relative. Evangelical philosopher Dr. William Lane Craig discusses this critical need in his talk "In Intellectual Neutral".
  • Catholic philosopher Dr. Peter Kreeft asks "Is Anything Really Right or Wrong?" in a 1998 Veritas Forum talk.
  • The Catechism uses the term "objective" in this way several times, including paragraphs 1751, 2109 and 2372.

* Here I mean an object in the grammatical sense. Most people treat their dogs as people, not things. And you should never treat Bob like an object, however good he looks. He still can be the object of a sentence, though.


kkollwitz said...

Not seeing why the dog example need be true but the ice cream example need not be.

Anonymous said...

Christian, I think you've put your finger on the tricky thing with "subjective" vs. "objective". "The dog is red" doesn't have to be true. What we can say is that both you and I, if we're looking at the same dog and being honest, have to give the same answer.

The truth or falsehood is in the object -- the dog. It's not in you or I.
If the statement is true, it's because the dog is red. If its false, it's false because the dog isn't red. You and I don't come into play.

With the ice cream, the truth of the statement "I like chocolate ice cream" comes from inside me. It's true or false because of something in me (the subject), not something in the ice cream (the object).

Does that help at all?

kkollwitz said...

Yes...I'm surprised that it's possible to be objective yet not true. I suppose I think of God as setting the standard for objectivity...would he lie or make a mistake? I may not be up on some philosophical stuff.

kkollwitz said...

Try this. We look at a dog. I say the dog is red. You say the dog is green. Are both of us being objective?

kkollwitz said...

If I say "the pizza is on the table" and you say "the pizza isn't on the table", one of us must be wrong; that is an objective statement. OK- which one is wrong, and are both objective? If we can't tell who is right or wrong, then is there any objectivity?

Anonymous said...

Christian - thanks for the clarifying questions! I'm sure other people have them, too. This is going to come up in a very similar way next time, when the topic is "absolute" and "relative". But I'm getting ahead of myself...

The point about objective and subjective isn't whether someone is telling the truth. It's about where the truth *is* - in the topic or in the speaker. To put it another way, a subjective statement is nearly impossible to falsify, because I'd have to be in the speaker's head.

In your examples above, I'd say both of us are making objective statements, but one of us is lying (or delusional).

I'm intending to make a much weaker case than I think I've communicated to you. I'm not saying objective = true and subjective = false. Rather, objective statements are not subject to personal opinion. Subjective statements are subject to opinion; they *are* opinion.

Why is this important? For one, it's going to come up in apologetics. "So *you* believe in God. That's just your opinion." No, "there is a God" is an objective statement. We're discussing an object (God) rather than the subject (me or you); the truth is out there in the object (God). It might be true or it might be false, but it can't be written off as subjective opinion that's just in my head.

This is admittedly a very tiny step we're taking right now -- and I'm guessing that's what's not sitting well with you. Talking about true/false is still ahead!

Anonymous said...

One more thing, Christian. You said "If we can't tell who is right or wrong, then is there any objectivity?" We can tell right and wrong only *because* there is objectivity. If everything was subjective, nothing could be true or false, only liked or disliked.

So the question really needs to go the other way around: If nothing is objective, can we tell who is right or wrong? And the answer is no.

All we've done so far is judge *how* to tell if something is true or false -- do we look to the object or the subject in a given case.

kkollwitz said...

Joe, thanks for your careful answers. Something about this isn't what I understand the terms to mean, but I'll be interested in your next post regardless.

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