Truth and Objectivity

To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true.

Aristotle

Just a recap from the last post on truth. In common discourse we like to think of truth as correspondence with reality. Yet it’s commonplace to hear such things as “that’s a matter of opinion”, “it’s true to them”, etc. etc. The implication here is that either there are a number of competing truths, of which only one’s own, or none of which, has any special privileges, or that objective truth as correspondence with reality is an illusion. In fact (should I even be saying that?) it seems that this is how most people view truth – as something that corresponds not with reality as much as their own pre-existing beliefs or ideology. It’s much easier to see this (or as an argument-stopper) to imply or infer it in others while denying it for oneself. You don’t much see people basing their arguments on such grounds as “believing that is useful to me” or “that corresponds with my other beliefs”, although I do recall a poster on the FFF denying the validity of theistic evolution on the grounds that sin could not then have entered the world through Adam and therefore it was untrue on the basis that it contradicted his previous belief. More commonly one hears such things “I’m a Catholic and therefore I believe that…”.  True beliefs will not contradict other true beliefs, of course, provided that the truth of at least one of them can be rationally established.

Moving on, for an example of how other peoples’ view of truth is pejoratively compared to one’s own, see the Jim Denison’s comment below, from here via the FFF:

You state that there is no such thing as absolute truth, which is itself an absolute truth statement.  You remind me of the ancient Skeptics three centuries before Christ whose philosophy could be summarized:  “There’s no such thing as truth and we’re sure of it.”

I could assure Denison that not all of us subscribe to that position, and I strongly suspect that what it is that he calls true in this matter is but a mere convenience. However, although he is probably equivocating, he is correct in his analysis of scepticism as long as he means universal scepticism – some other forms of scepticism are completely honourable and a reasonable approach to truth-seeking. Like simple relativism, universal scepticism is untenable in that to claim it’s truth would be to claim that it isn’t true, and therefore there aren’t really any universal sceptics, even if they so label themselves. Even Denison recognises this.

Denison has brought up an issue, that if it does nothing else, shows us the elusive qualities of the thing we call truth. Even if some attributes, such as colours, are indefinable apart from themselves, we understand this well enough. We couldn’t call an Everton shirt red (which itself is a truth claim), for instance, and expect to get away with it. But truth itself is different. Although we can dismiss many of the more outrageous claims as patently untrue, (and according to some theologians we can’t even do that) any inability to portray something as false can lead to claims on behalf of its truth.

So even if Denison is wrong to ascribe certain beliefs to atheists which are unconnected with atheism, he clearly does take the view that it is true that there is such a thing as absolute truth – and when he means it is true we can assume that he means, for the consumption of others, that absolute truth corresponds with absolute reality. But what Denison has not made clear is the nature of that absolute truth. To be fair to him, that wasn’t the point he was trying to make, although it’s disingenuous of him to make a criticism of any alternative view – even if there is no such view – without stating the terms under which he is operating.

It’s possible, under a Christian worldview, for absolute truth to exist under subjective conditions. Indeed, as virtually all Christians view their god as one who creates and sustains existence, then their view of absolutism is indeed also a subjective view. For objectivity to be present, reality does not conform to our desires or wishes. The philosophical view known as objectivism calls this the primacy of existence. I should make it clear that I’m not much of a fan of objectivist sociology or ethics, but in terms of metaphysics I think that objectivism is hugely difficult to deny. The primacy of existence states that reality is outside the control of our consciousness, and any experiment one might care to make would confirm this – I could wish that this computer could change into a steak au poivre, for example, but it just wouldn’t happen, at least outside my imagination. Should the primacy of existence not be true, the only alternative according to objectivism is the state of the primacy of consciousness. Existence must exist in order for consciousness to exist, since consciousness is part of existence, and consciousness must exist, as otherwise we couldn’t be conscious of existence. And in order to exist, consciousness has to be conscious of something, and that something is existence itself. Objectivist metaphysics is concerned with the proper relationship between existence and consciousness, or, put another way, the relationship between object and subject.

Christians are like anybody else in that in their everyday lives they operate under the principle of the primacy of existence – they don’t even stop to consider that there is theoretically an alternative view. Yet they deny the validity of that very principle when invoking their god. According to Christian doctrine God is the creator and sustainer of existence and therefore God’s consciousness holds metaphysical primacy over existence. If such conditions are true then there is no objective reality, as God can change or amend reality simply by his will. The beliefs in the existence of miracles and the workings of petitionary prayers are good examples of the Christian acceptance of the primacy of consciousness. The usual response is that objective reality is a reflection of God’s unchanging character but even then they have up on the idea that God can do anything according to his will. (How can an omniscient being even have a will? But that’s another question.)

So we’re no clearer in knowing what Denison means when he speaks of “absolute truth”, and I suspect Denison isn’t any clearer about it himself. Is “absolute truth” an objective or subjective truth? One definition of absolute is “unchanging” – something most atheists would agree to even if they were self-confessed subjectivists. but in the theistic worldview nothing is (potentially) unchanging – miracles and petitionary prayer are testament to that. After all, in the main when we speak of absolutism we are talking about dictators or autocrats, whose rules could be arbitrary but no less absolute for that. I would doubt, however, that Denison himself thinks that. For Denison, I would think that absolute truth would be a state of affairs whereby things are true despite anyone’s desires, wishes or hopes for them not to be – this is the essence of objectivity. And many – probably most – atheists would be in full agreement with this.

So is truth objective? Are philosophical theories of truth, including the correspondence theory, mere linguistic conventions? Even if we accept that we can’t always identify truth that corresponds with objective facts, could this mean that truth itself is unattainable? In such circumstances, is subjectivity acceptable as a substitute?

As described in the earlier post, relativism, at its simplest, is the view that all things described as true are equally valid, such that no view, even at the individual level, has any privileges over any other view. Subjectivism, on the other hand, is the view that truth cannot be divorced from our experience. William Lane Craig, when he speaks of “the witness of the Holy Spirit” as evidence for the existence of God, is arguing in favour of subjective judgement as a valid epistemological method – either that or dispensing with epistemology altogether.

There are a variety of views which are broadly subjective in nature. In particular, there is held to be a difference in nature between facts and values, in that values (such as the sanctity of human life or prohibitions against some activities) that cannot correspond to facts. Therefore, even if a subjectivist holds that facts exist outside or alongside his perception of them, values do not. Values are not truth-apt, according to this form of subjectivism.

There is no doubt that we do hold subjective perceptions and subsequent conceptions of the world – how could it be otherwise when we only have our own consciousness to identify and integrate it?  However, there is a widespread misconception that “the subjective” and “the objective” are mutually exclusive. Support for this comes from Locke’s experiment in which he placed one of his hands in hot water, the other in cold, then removed them and placed them both in lukewarm water. One hand felt warm, the other cold, thus demonstrating that one person could perceive conflicting views of the same thing. If one person could experience this, then two or more people could certainly perceive the same thing differently, none of them being able to accurately perceive objective reality. But this surely doesn’t mean that there can be no objective reality?

Clarification comes from a characteristically well-written piece by Sandy LaFave, Philosophy Instructor Emerita (whatever that is) at West Valley University. LaFave reinforces that often misunderstood point that subjective and objective views are neither necessarily mutually opposed nor are they by their nature always in conflict. I am subjectively experiencing this computer right now, but this isn’t an example of subjectivism, as the computer exists whether or not I experience it. Its existence is not dependent of my experience of it, nor does it conform to my wishes. Similarly, in LaFave’s example, a person subjectively experiences a headache. The difference between the computer and the headache is that the person can be imagining his headache, and also imagining that the paracetamol tablet he took has ameliorated the symptoms. But the headache could also be an objective event, it’s just more difficult, without complex instruments, (and even then we might not be sure) to tell.

LaFave uses the methodology of another philosopher, John Searle.

We should distinguish two kinds of objectivity:

  1. metaphysical objectivity, and
  2. epistemological objectivity.

We also should distinguish two kinds of subjectivity:

  1. metaphysical subjectivity, and
  2. epistemological subjectivity.

LaFave also makes the point, often missed or misunderstood, that a truth claim can be false while still being objective in nature. This is because the nature of epistemologically objective knowledge depends on the metaphysical objectivity of the premises of the claim. Therefore, from LaFave’s example, “The Eiffel Tower exists” is an objective claim. The existence of Eldorado or Atlantis is arguably also an objective matter as evidence, if it existed, would be metaphysically objective. Heaven and Hell, being metaphysically subjective (as there is no conceivable method to discern any evidence of their existence) are therefore epistemologically subjective too.

So Denison, with his talk of “absolute truth”, not only fails to define exactly what he means, leading to the potential interpretation that  absolute truth depends on the primacy of consciousness and is therefore subjective in one sense, but fails to notice that at least one central Christian doctrine – the existence of Heaven and Hell – is purely subjective in nature, or, at best, arbitrary. Therefore, if by absolute truth he is talking of objective truth, he fails to recognise that this so-called truth cannot be divorced from his consciousness of it and is therefore subjective, and only subjective. It is, of course, objectively true that Denison believes his subjective thoughts to be objectively true.

Christians will tell you that they have an unimpeachable source. However, despite any “natural law” arguments they might have, this source is also metaphysically subjective. This doesn’t stop them, of course. Christianity has afflicted our language such that concepts such as goodness and truth have seemingly become proprietary items, and Denison unthinkingly thinks that he can get away with it. From the other side, the language of relativism and subjectivism has also pervaded our thoughts, such that many atheists falsely think that instead of opposing the philosophical basis of theistic “truth”, the best way to argue against theism is to deny that their specific claims of objectivity or absoluteness are valid.

So, to reiterate, if subjectivity in truth is an admission that truth cannot be divorced from consciousness or experience, then objectivity is the opposite: that truth exists despite whatever our consciousness or experience might dictate. In this respect, therefore, truth is a property of fact, or, put another way, the rational and logical identification of fact in an objective sense. If truth is independent of our consciousness then so are facts – in essence truth is a property of fact. The philosopher George Smith (author of The Case Against God, available for free here (pdf) and unarguably a huge influence on my own thought) defines a rational epistemology as one based on evidence and both internally and externally non-contradictory. We can see here the connection between truth and reason because truth has similar properties – a claim or proposition is true when it conforms to facts (evidence) and does not contradict any other true proposition. Obviously things can appear to conform to facts and be non-contradictory and still fail to be true – in this sense knowledge is provisional and rightly so. What we can say, though, is that where no facts are present we have no right to make any claims for objective truth. Such is the case with Heaven and Hell. It is noteworthy that nowhere in the Bible nor the Qur’an, nor of any other holy book or doctrine to my knowledge, can any concept of truth even be found. Certainly, these books contain page upon page of “truths”, but somehow fail to make any case for them. Indeed reading the Bible, or apologetics, or “sophisticated” theology, the subjective nature of truth  from a Christian perspective is reinforced.

Denison criticises atheists for denying that truth is absolute, while failing himself to recognise that god-belief does not naturally lend itself to support for an absolute view of truth in the objective sense, although in the autocratic or dictatorial senses absoluteness and theism go together perfectly. He is also being very sloppy in his association between such a denial and the denial that a god exists, for the two are in no sense related. Unfortunately, as I already said, many atheists, given the infiltration of religious language into our culture, accept the (false) association between theism and absolute, or objective, truth, and end up denying truth’s objectivity as a result.

There is no good reason to do this. We understand objectivity to denote the fact that reality doesn’t correspond to our desires or isn’t controlled by our consciousness. Common experience supports this. If reality conformed to our consciousness we wouldn’t be able to form concepts or even speak about truth. Yet we do this all the time. In this environment it is then totally surprising that anyone could even refer to truth as subjective, apart from those who do subscribe to a subjective view – we can call them “religious people” – who perversely talk of truth within their own worldview as objective. In an objective universe facts are absolute in the objective and unchanging senses, even if we don’t recognise the facts for what they are. Therefore if truth is the conceptual recognition of fact it, too, is absolute. In a situation where facts are not absolute (e.g. miracles) then truth is not absolute also. It is Denison that denies the absolute nature of truth, if truth be told.

Moving away from Denison’s incoherent ideas, we see that facts are absolute, that truth is a conceptual recognition of this, that facts and truth exist despite any wishes that Denison or anyone else might have, and because logic and reason are involved, that truth cannot contradict truth. We can’t say, for example, that the Eiffel Tower is in Paris and the Eiffel Tower is in Glasgow without contradiction. But, expanding from that, if  we can show that the Eiffel Tower is unique and in Paris, then it can’t be anywhere else. The upshot is that objective truth, assuming that it exists, is both consistent and comprehensive. In essence, there is only one truth, and it includes all true things.

The only place in which truth is inconsistent and incomprehensible is the religious worldview. We are used to the theological idea that there is some sort of “transcendent truth” upon which the truth that we experience depends – for something to be true there has to something apart from itself that makes it true. We also constantly hear that, say, science and religion provide answers to different “truths”.  For example, the idea that science answers the “how” questions while faith answers the “why” questions. Fundamentalist poster-boy Francis Sheaffer spoke in terms of  “true truth“, as if there was any other kind. We are told that God exists outside space, outside time (however that works). Of course, we can view the truth of a matter in terms of what we want to achieve – for example, there are several alternative ways from Hereford to London from which I could choose depending on whether I want to save time, save fuel, enjoy the view etc. – but the facts are the same in all cases and each alternative conforms to them. No truth exists in isolation. And that is why reality – not the whims or the character or the desires or the plans of a supreme being – is the ultimate standard of truth. And even though there are different ontological categories, the same applies to all of them. I’ve deliberately tried to avoid discussion of morality and moral issues so far because firstly, I intend to look into them in more depth at a later date, and secondly, the principles underlying truth underpin everything, including morality, and it is best to understand these first. For reasons supporting the notion that moral facts are no different in principle than any other facts, read Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape.

When I speak of reality I’m speaking of facts. The facts that comprise reality are the ultimate standard of truth. And they are the reason that truth is objective.

The religious language that has to a great extent infiltrated and dominated our discourse has allowed us get some wrong ideas about the relationship between truth and reality, just as it’s given us wrong ideas about morality. When a religious person utters the word “objective”, one can be fairly certain that he doesn’t mean what he says, for instance. When he talks of “absolute truth”, reality, in terms of the facts – independent of our consciousness –  that comprise the universe, is the last thing on his mind. The Christian worldview is defined by an attachment to the primacy of consciousness, even if it isn’t their consciousness, such that they conceive that it is a consciousness that defines reality.They also subscribe to the idea of a higher and more fundamental truth, distinct from real-world facts, for which there are no supporting facts and more importantly, which contradicts the idea of truth being consistent with itself.

The history of mankind is to some extent a history of getting things wrong. It used to be given that the world was flat, or the Sun revolved around the Earth, for example. We know better now, but there are plenty of things that we don’t know, for the moment, and there are also plenty of things that we think we know, but we don’t. The fact that we know that ignorance and error in belief are so commonplace, both historically and currently, underlines the fact that truth is objective, despite the disagreements that we might have about what is true. What ultimately makes our beliefs true beliefs is their correspondence to reality, not their usefulness, nor their relationships to society, nor, in general, their coherence (although a reality-based view of truth will be coherent, a coherent system won’t necessarily be real).

I have been constantly told on Christian forums that my worldview is not an objective one. I dare say that my view that truth is objective will be similarly criticised for lacking objectivity. This is the problem, insurmountable, that the religious worldview faces.

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