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Objectivity versus Subjectivity September 14, 2007

Posted by Ian in Science.
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Apologies to all for my long-ish absence. Replies might be slower than they used to be but for the moment I am slightly past the insane work loads I have had lately 🙂

This post is a continuation of the discussion that has ensued on my “On the origins of religion” post some time back. The focal point of this discussion ended up being between subjectivity and objectivity and I believe the subject deserves a post of its own, particularly in light of the other thread losing momentum (mostly thanks to me lol).

I want to try and make my views on objectivity and subjectivity as clear as I possibly can so I can explain where I think religion fits into it. Some of this might be recapping material in the other thread but I don’t think that will hurt 🙂

Firstly what is meant by objectivity and subjectivity? In my mind they are polar opposites on a continuum indicating the nature of a particular fact or piece of information. A purely objective piece of information is one which can be shown to be universally true. In other words it does not depend in any way on who or what considers it, the information is fact. In my view it is impossible to get 100% objective information but it is possible to get close. On the other hand a purely subjective piece of information is one which is entirely dependent on who or what observes it. I suspect 100% subjectivity is not possible either (well it is solipsism so it takes us nowhere).

It is well known that human senses are not infallible, nor is our interpretation of sensory inputs. In fact far far from it. Actually I suspect we misinterpret a great deal we experience, but most if it doesn’t matter and we’d never notice. Because this is the case however we frequently seek validation of our observations to check their accuracy. This is the process of converting largely subjective data into more objective data. This can apply in several ways – for example asking a mate “did it just get cold in here or is it just me?” or “is that Bill I see off in the distance?”. It is taking an initially subjective observation and applying external evidence to it in order to confirm it. In doing so one shifts along the continuum towards a more objective fact. If several other people agree that it has got cold you have slightly improved the chances of that observation being correct. If several people observe the door was just opened, a causative chain is added based on accumulated experience that suggests even further it did actually get colder. One could add even further if a thermometer was in the room that stored temperatures. And so forth. The continual struggle is to confirm personal observations (subjective data) with external data hence making it more objective.

Now there was quite a bit of discussion about the material versus immaterial distinction in the old thread. I stated (perhaps misleadingly) that the material to immaterial continuum may closely match the objective to subjective one. I think I was wrong to say so for one reason – I don’t think that distinction actually means anything. Humans sense things and interpret those senses. It is possible we have senses other than the five we know well but this has never been established objectively – i.e. that fact is closer to the subjective end of the continuum. What is far more significant is that regardless of how or what we sense, it all requires validation. It is all subjective initially and is made more objective with evidence. So if a god does talk to people in their minds (as a simple example), that is just as subjective an observation as the room getting colder. It is just as capable of being made objective as the cold room, and it is just as necessary to do so. It may be significantly more difficult to do so but that is merely a limit of our abilities to do so. If we are not able to make it more objective then we should treat it cautiously. In other words it is a genuine observation, but we cannot objectively analyse it just yet so we won’t treat is as “validated” relative to say the cold room where the door opened. Because just like we could mistakenly think the room got colder, we could mistakenly think god talked to us. We need to seek external validation precisely because we cannot 100% trust our senses or our interpretation equipment.

Now in some cases the more objective information gathers and whole bodies of knowledge grow around it, and the result is ultimately a science. I see absolutely no reason why religious claims should not be subject to exactly the same criteria. The tools for finding external validation will be different to that for say thermodynamics because the questions/issues are different, but the process is the same – validating subjective observations. The problem we find however (and the source of my comment about immaterial = subjective) is that we have limited evidence of religious beliefs, and almost all of it is towards the subjective end of the scale. That does NOT mean it is false, but it also does not give us any free ride either – in fact religion has had much more time on earth than most sciences yet has progressed the least in validating the collection of subjective observations they have. The same applies to any paranormal or supernatural claims incidentally – and often what we see (such as in the case of ESP) is that once a more objective framework is applied the subjective observations are shown to be mistaken.

I hope that makes my position clearer, and I look forward to a lively discussion, I will try and keep up!



1. A. J. Chesswas - September 16, 2007

Sounds good Ian. I would like to think that God is consistent in character, and that his activity in the world would reflect that, and that for this reason there might be some objective correlation between testimonies to God’s activity and the nature of that activity.

The difficulty lies in the nature of testimonies to God’s activity, and the large number of variables interpreted by a person as God’s activity. In order to truly assess the objectivity of a person’s theological truth-claims, we would need to basically be walking in their shoes and living in their skin to be able to make that assessment.

Another problem would occur if the doctrines of concupiscence and predestination were to be true. Concupiscence is the equivalent of Marxism’s “false consciousness”, whereby a person’s judgment in things social and/or spiritual is clouded by their lost hope regarding their social and/or spiritual condition (i.e. slavery).

It would seem that our “five senses” are not so affected as to impair our judgment, as a strong consensus always seems to emerge when phenemena is observed by those senses. But I wonder if we can have the same guarantee for judgments on “extra-sensory” matters.

At the end of the day though, if twenty 90-year-old men and women tried to convince me the sun had turned crimson, when the sun looked clearly orange-yellow to me and two of my peers, then I would stick to my own judgment rather than that of the majority – because I trust my eyesight more than someone who isn’t allowed to drive anymore. In a similar manner, if twenty people tried to say there was no evidence for a God, yet their morality and lifestyle indicated to me their spiritual eyesight might not be trustworthy, then I will again trust the judgment of myself and a couple whose morality and lifestyle would not be troubled by the existence of a God.

2. Ken - September 17, 2007

“if twenty 90-year-old men and women tried to convince me the sun had turned crimson, when the sun looked clearly orange-yellow to me and two of my peers, then I would stick to my own judgment” Don’t knock the elderly – their maturity may give them an advantage!

Anyway, to be serious, this does illustrate an aspect of this discussion. In this case we could check to see if the elderly have seen something not picked up by the senses of younger people. But a more holistic approach would include investigation into the sense organs, and neurological aspects related to perception, of both elderly and younger people. This could well reveal the underlying causes of the different perception.

I think this is the same with religious claims and belief (and also many other non-religious claims and beliefs). Personally I see no real possibilities in looking for scientific substantiation of claimed religious events (although this does depend on the specific hypothesis advanced). But, I believe, investigation of the phenomenae of religion and belief, rather than specific claims would be very fruitful. This is the point Dennett makes in his “Breaking the Spell.” For example, checking out the claims of Islam about paradise, hell and Allah using astronomy and particle physics won’t really tell us much (there’s no clear agreed hypothesis to start with anyway). However, investigation of the evolutionary psychology behind belief, the role of religion in social development and human history, and the situation in modern society with respect to theistic, non-theistic and political beliefs, should tell us a lot. Maybe this knowledge would enable us to reduce social and international conflict and help us to lead a more peaceful and comfortable (mentally as well as physically) life.

This of course does bring up the whole objective/subjective issue – particularly in the social sciences where subjectivity is a real problem.

3. Ian - September 17, 2007

But I wonder if we can have the same guarantee for judgments on “extra-sensory” matters.

If we can’t make the same guarentee we have a problem that I am not sure how to resolve. However the idea of “extra-sensory” matters even existing is still (I think) very subjective so we need to cross that bridge first.

At the end of the day though, if twenty 90-year-old men and women tried to convince me the sun had turned crimson, when the sun looked clearly orange-yellow to me and two of my peers (etc)

I think this example is not quite right. The problem here is that in order to even identify the colour of the sun, we need evidence beyond perception. The length of the light wave indicates its colour without depending on perception. So it is not a matter of “most perceptions wins” but rather “most externally validated perception wins”. If most of the population was colour blind that still doesn’t change the colour of the sun.


4. A. J. Chesswas - September 20, 2007

Ken, I think you are right, it would be great to be able to study humanity to that degree and understand objectively the interface between religion and psychology, although I would say it wouldn’t need to be evolutionary psychology per se.

Ian, you are right, but it means that we are stuck with an issue of how to evaluate the efficacy of peoples’ senses beyond the big five, while feeling compelled to explain this in a way that is understandable within a five-sense paradigm.

5. dale - October 7, 2007

That’s a good point to make A.J.,

Any ‘God hypothesis’, obviously, will never be one that can be formed, tested and demonstrated like, say, a mathematical or physical hypothesis.

It’s tiresome to be expected to present a 5-sense theory for a God whom is not experienced (in theory!) in only 5 senses.

It’s tiresome to be expected to present a physical, material and/or phenomenonological theory for a God who cannot be reduced to these parts of existence/reality.

It’s tiresome to be expected to present a finite and containable theory for a God who is infinite and cannot be contained.

Cheers for now,

Going to bed…


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