Is Reality Subjective or Objective? Pick Your Poison!

Case Study #1: Reality is Objective

January 8th, 2016 at 11:20 pm, Edward Archer, a self-professed Muslim, attempted to kill Jesse Hartnett, a police officer with the Philadelphia Police Department, as he sat in his police cruiser.  Archer fired 13 rounds, striking Hartnett three times.  Hartnett, though wounded, quickly called for backup and returned fire.  Archer was wounded, and was quickly captured by the convergence of police, his pistol still in his possession.  During police questioning, he gave a written confession of the attempted killing.

“I follow Allah. I pledge my allegiance to the Islamic State and that’s why I did what I did,”

However, Philedelphia Mayor Jim Kenney was quick to draw a dichotomy between Islam itself, and the actions of one of its so called adherents.

“In no way shape or form does anyone in this room believe that Islam or the teaching of Islam has anything to do with [the shooting]. It is terrible and it does not represent the religion in any way, shape, or form or any of its teachings. This is a criminal with a stolen gun who tried to kill one of our officers. It has nothing to do with being a Muslim or following the Islamic faith.”

According to Kenney, Islam as an objective reality supersedes the subjective reality of Islam as lived by each individual Muslim.  Subjective realities of ‘following Allah’ that do not align themselves with objective Islam have nothing to do with real Islam.

Kenney would have us believe that Archer`s subjective reality of following Allah is not reality itself.  The Islam of the Quran and the Hadith is of a certain nature – the Islam of Archer is of a completely different nature.  Because objective reality is the measure of reality, it cannot be truly said that Archer`s actions were that of someone following Allah, despite Archer’s protests.  His subjective reality of following Allah is subject to the objective reality of Islam itself.

Case Study #2: Reality is Subjective

August 24th, 2015, ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ featured children who were seeking sex changes.  Dylan, a boy seeking to become a girl, was on the show along with his parents.  Albert Mohler details the story of Dylan and his parents:

The next child featured on Oprah was Dylan, a boy who at age four declared that he wanted to become a girl. Now, a couple of years later, Dylan is even more certain that he wants to be a girl. Dylan’s mom shared that this has become something of a stress point in the family. “Dylan’s dad has a real hard time accepting this. He’ll reprimand him.” As Oprah continued the questioning, it turned out that Dylan’s mom has been buying him dolls and painting his fingernails. Dylan’s dad, Derek, is indeed having “a real hard time accepting this.”

After a conversation with a “transgender therapist,” Winfrey then confronted Derek with his refusal to go along with his son’s desire for a sex change. Coming out of a commercial break, Oprah told her audience: “And as I–I was saying to Derek during the commercial break, I was saying that this is your holiest hour. This will be your holiest hour as a parent, being able to allow your son to be himself and to love him as he is. Whatever that turns out to be, you know, that’s where, where you will be challenged emotionally, spiritually and otherwise, I think.”

According to Winfrey, gender as an objective reality is subject to the subjective reality of gender as experienced by each individual person.  Objective realities of biology that do not align themselves with the subjective reality of gender have nothing to do with real gender.

Winfrey would have us believe that the Dylan’s subjective reality of being a girl is reality itself.  Dylan’s objective gender is that of a boy – Dylan’s subjective gender is that of a girl.  Because subjective  reality is the measure of reality, it can be truly said that Dylan is a girl, despite the patriarchal protestations that objective reality is that Dylan is a boy.  His subjective reality of being a girl supersedes the objective reality of being a boy.

Contradiction

Here’s a quick summary of the messages we’re getting:

  1. Dylan has a subjective  reality – that he is a female. We are told we must accept this child’s subjective reality as reality itself – this child is a female. Dylan’s subjective reality supersedes the dictates of objective reality.
  2. Archer has a subjective reality – that he follows Allah. We are told that we must not accept this man’s subjective reality as reality itself – this man is not following Allah.  Archer’s subjective reality is subject to the dictates of objective reality.

Down the Garden Path to Skepticism

Reality is subjective. Reality is objective.  Which to believe?

If Winfrey and Kenney were to meet, they would perhaps argue over which has the priority:  Objectivity or Subjectivity?  Kenney, the objectivist, might argue that the subjectivist, in saying that reality is subjective, does so objectively.  In this way, the subjectivist position is self defeating.  Describing reality as being ultimately subjective is done in an objective sense – the subject’s mind does not need to be aware of this fact for it to be true.  The claim of subjectivism can only be made on the reality of objectivism.  Therefore, not subjectivism.

Winfrey, The subjectivist, might respond that the objectivist is simply failing to admit that his objectivism is a form of subjectivism.  The objectivist posits the law of non-contradiction, for example.  But why affirm this law?  Because he finds it to be personally persuasive.  All claims are investigated and evaluated based on principles deemed worthy by the individual.  Thus, any appeal to an objective principle ultimately depends on the subjective adoption of the principle being appealed to.  Therefore, not objectivism.

Both systems, in themselves, fail when used to describe reality because each system is immediately superseded by its antithesis.  Attempting to isolate a perspective and claim it to be the ultimate ground of knowledge is a self-defeating prospect; Objectivism and subjectivism are too sticky to be broken away from each other.  They imply each other, such that one cannot be ultimate without the other screaming out for recognition.

But this observation doesn’t help the situation, because neither can it be that the coinherence of both subjectivism and objectivism serve as ultimate ground for knowledge.  Though a subjectivist claim of knowledge may match an objectivist claim of knowledge at some points, there is no means by which to resolve conflicts when these claims diverge, as in the cases of Dyan, or Archer, or countless others.  If reality is a coinherence of both subjectivism and objectivism, then it affords us nothing even more fundamental  with which to arbitrate when the two are in contradiction.

So which wrong position do you want to hold: Objectivism or Subjectivism? Pick your poison!  By their nature, they both lead to skepticism.

Without the Triune God to coordinate the world and the self, there is little reason to suppose that [objectivism and subjectivism] will cohere.  Thus, one must simply choose the one that he considers most trustworthy, give it primacy over the other, and muddle through as best he is able.
John Frame, Apologetics, pg 286

The Christian Answer

It should be stated up front that Christians will generally agree with the critiques of subjectivism and objectivism as given above: Neither perspective can act as an ultimate ground of knowledge, and an autonomous coinherence of the two cannot resolve any conflicts that arise.

[A Christian epistemology] appreciates the concerns generated by both subjectivist and objectivist positions.  It recognizes, with the objectivist, that sense experience and subjective impressions are fallible.  It also agrees with the subjectivist that the same fallibility applies to the reasoning process and to all claims of a priori truth.  […] The search for some infallible element within human thought as such is idolatrous.  Similarly idolatrous is the attempt to give either perspective ‘priority’ over the other – that is, to claim that one perspective furnishes ultimate ground for belief.
John Frame, Apologetics, pg 285, 286

However, the Christian worldview has a means by which to escape the skepticism of non-Christian thought.  The Christian submits to a norm that governs over and arbitrates between subjectivism and objectivism – This is the norm of God’s authoritative revelation for humanity, the Bible.  It is in the Bible that one finds warrant for belief that our subjectivism and our objectivism coinhere in a meaningful fashion, and also a means by which to resolve conflicts between the two perspectives.

The reason for [skepticism in non-Christian thought] is that non-Christian philosophers try to operate without God.  For God is the Author of the norms of knowledge, the Creator of the facts of the world, and the Creator of mans mind so that is made to function in the world under the norm of Gods revelation.  Under Him, these three elements are consistent with one another, reinforce one another, and even, in one sense, are one with another.
John Frame, Systematic Theology, pg 726

In creating the world, God has created both subjects and objects. Part of this reality has been created to be dependent on the subject’s mind for its truth.  But reality also consists of objects created outside of the subject’s mind with which the subject can interact.  The subject is not just interacting with perceptions only, but with true objects in the world.  As such, there is validity in both subjectivism and objectivism.  When conflict arises between these two perspectives, the Bible speaks authoritatively as to which perspective is in error.  These mutually dependent perspectives, being subject to God’s norms bring us in contact with God’s truth, in the world which He upholds.

Furthermore, we are not surprised to find that an epistemology that does not lead to skepticism must be coinherent.  This is because the Triune God Himself is coinherent. It is in the Persons of the Trinity that we see true underived coinherence.  The indwelling of one Person involves the indwelling of the others.  Each Person of the Trinity offers us a perspective of the whole, and each Person acts as subject and as object and as the exhaustive personal context of the subject/object relationship:

Both objectivism and subjectivism falsify the nature  of the language that they use, yet they both remain plausible.  They appear to give powerful insights.  Why?  They are plausible precisely because they coinhere.  Each is presupposed by the other, each involves the other, each in a sense encompasses the other. This structure of things is, of course, dependent on the nature of the Trinity.  […] Both subjectivity and objectivity fail as primary perspectives because they worship their own unitarian corruption rather than the Trinitarian God.
Vern Poythress, Logic, pg 686

And if you don’t like that answer, I say: I’d rather reason on the basis of the Bible than not reason at all.

Conclusion

Objectivism and Subjectivism by their nature lead to skepticism. Neither perspective can act as an ultimate ground of knowledge, and an autonomous coinherence of the two cannot resolve contradictions that arise between the two perspectives.

The Christian, however, can escape this skepticism because he does not reason only on the principle of subjectivism, nor objectivism, but rather he accepts that these positions entail one another and are both authoritative for mankind because they co-inhere perfectly in the Absolute Person of the Triune God, who has created man in His image.  God has authoritatively spoken as to the validity of man’s subjective and objective leanings, and He ensures the validity of man’s reasoning, so long as it is exercised in accordance with and subject to with the Divine mind, after which all human minds are patterned.

So what does the Bible say to Dylan about his subjective reality of being a girl?  What does the Bible say to Kenney, in saying that a supposed muslim is misguided in his subjective reality of following Allah?

You tell me.  I`m not going to do all your thinking for you.  Tolle Legge.

 

Notes:

  1. For simplicity, I have used the term ‘objectivism’ to act as the antithesis of ‘subjectivism’.  It is not the system of Objectivism, as developed by Ayn Rand
  2. I have assumed for this discussion that Islam is peacefully disposed towards all people who are peacefully disposed towards it.  Though debatable, this is the position of most my western Muslims friends
  3. I chose Dylan as an example of Subjectivism simply to provide a dichotomy for secular thought.  I affirm both gender and gender roles as part of the goodness of God`s creation.
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