Mar 16, 2008

Subjectivity and Objectivity

This post came in response to a comment, and the whole response is not here. I hope it is worth your read:


The words subjective and objective carry with them a lot of meaning. We can define the term subjective as “something that someone else experiences that I don’t” or “something that someone else experiences that I can’t” or even “something that is not real”. The last one, on the issue of God is a circular argument, which says “God is not real, so what you experience is not real, therefore there is no God.” At least in theory, God could still exist if people drew untrue conclusions from experiences and then attributed them falsely to Him. We will dismiss that circular definition. There is a considerable difference between the other two definitions. If we say that a subjective experience is something that “I don’t experience”, we could broaden that definition to events, such as going to Morocco. This is a hard-line view of subjectivity. To condemn a person’s belief that Morocco actually exists, despite the fact that one has not been there and only relies on another’s word, would be incorrect. As for the other definition, that subjectivity is due to the fact that “I can’t experience” it, I will hereafter make the case that the method that I am suggesting, the “experiment” in these posts, is in fact objective, and that it is something that everyone can experience. Indeed, I hope it is something that we all experience. Therefore, according to the last definition, it is objective. But let’s first address some of the issues of objectivity.

All believers in God argue that the Deity they revere is powerful enough to make Himself known in an impacting, objective way; there is no God too weak to manifest Himself with remarkable objectivity. So if God does exist, He has the power to make Himself known to the entire world. However, this leaves believers with a difficult question to answer: If God exists, why doesn’t He more regularly use public, objective results? Those who do not believe in God may interpret this as proof that God doesn’t exist-- He does not manifest Himself because He does not exist. But another approach would be to explore why God, if He does exist, might use personal, and thereby often called “subjective”, experiences to reveal Himself; in the terms of this experiment, it is to explore why He might give us an objective method with subjective results.

So, if God could manifest Himself unto all in an objective way, why hasn’t He? For one, having a piece of evidence that one can hold in the hand with a proof that God exists (assuming that one could have such proof) would make believing in God an issue akin to believing that the earth orbits the sun, using machines and calculations to assert our claim. We know the earth orbits the sun, and believing otherwise would be foolish, and with that comes no real growth other than another fact logged away. I don’t presume to know the mind of God; but I think His non-use of objectivity may have to do with the fact that believing and having faith are, for whatever His reasons, things that He wishes we develop. There must be something of worth that comes to the individual cultivating a belief in God that is important to Him.

The power in the experiment of belief is that it is possible for every individual and that it teaches individually—by a tutor, as it were. A tutor, in this case God, will stay at our pace as we learn, giving us what we are able to take, when we are able to take it.

Take the example of God being concerned about us behaving ethically. If we believe God is just and He is concerned that we are ethical (i.e. righteous, loving, selfless, diligent, or how ever defined), He will judge our level of ethics based on what we know, just as children are punished to levels of severity according to their incremental knowledge of right and wrong. The experiment of belief is intended to allow us to know a little bit at a time about God, His existence, and what He would like us to become. If we knew, objectively, in one shebang all of that information, we would be held responsible for behaving perfectly ethically in thought, word, and deed, for we would know without a doubt that God does exist and that such-and-such is what He expects of us.

But instead, if He allows us to know and to learn incrementally, as this experiment of belief provides, He can judge us according to what we have received up to that point. Because He is just, He would also require that we put forth effort to seek more knowledge, for otherwise we would be ignoring opportunities for learning. While God is merciful towards those with incomplete understandings of His will (which surely includes all of us, to some degree or another), at the same time, willful ignorance of what God hopes of us and of His existence will not be as protective from God’s judgment. I say this because I know of people who chose not to try this “experiment”, not because they think it won’t work, but because they don’t want the responsibility of discovering that God expects them to be more ethical or “righteous” in the terms that they see some believers define. Since all are entitled to their belief, we, as humans, are expected to allow all men to live and pay homage whatsoever they choose, may it be God, various gods, science, money, sports, or nothing at all. However, I return to my original point: if God were to manifest himself objectively, there may be many, who perhaps would not have developed the kind of ethical living (however God may define it) to correctly live as He would instruct.

That is why the “experiment” that I am outlining is intrinsically sound: if God exists and wanted to make Himself known to the masses in an objective way, He could. If God exists and does not want to make Himself known in a great objective way because there is something about personal experience that is important to Him, He will confirm such to an individual. The experiment itself is objective: you can try it. However, if we are looking for results of the experiment to be measurable and quantifiable, we may find that the results lead to something that cannot be quantified. Such it is with God: He stands immeasurable, incalculable, and unquantifiable, for our intents and purposes. Only personal experience can measure the immeasurable. And if we make the claim that these personal experiences are, as a group, completely subjective, we don’t change the claim that personal experiences are the means by which the individual can know about God according to Him.

A common reply would be, “That is all too convenient. It’s too convenient just to say, ‘God cannot be objectively measured,’ because then there is no proof or denial.” If one’s purpose for believing in God was merely to rationalize His existence, then yes, this would be an easy claim. But I assure you that believers, whose goal is to know God and search for Him, are saying, “This is all too inconvenient. It would be so much simpler if God would just make Himself manifest to everyone.” Believers are not just looking for a scapegoat for their personal experience with the Divine. The inward searching for God is a process for those who believe, requiring dedication to that experiment of belief. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the more time we spend experimenting, the more likely we are to produce confident results. That commitment is not convenient.

I recognize that the goal for some is to refute the belief systems of those who believe in God. One cannot refute them by merely dismissing their experiences because they are not experienced by another, especially when I am suggesting that there is a way that all can believe. Though not a perfect analogy, can you say to a man who loves his son, “You do not love your son,” merely because you do not yourself experience it? No, and if he did love his son, what would be the units of measurement? Again, this has a level of ineffability, but that doesn’t mean that because he cannot quantify it, it is not so, or because it’s anecdotal, it isn’t reliable. We are left to either believe or dismiss his experiences on our own rationale—or, and this is my whole point, perhaps our own experiences of giving and receiving love would help us to understand, identify with, and believe the man, despite our lack of having the exact same experience.

These thoughts are in no way refuting the importance of objectivity. Much of our advancement as a species has come through measurable, more universally accepted objective results. As far as social policy, fiscal progress, science, engineering, business and many other applications in life, the most reasonable method of finding knowledge is all objective, quantitative and qualitative. Is this to say that God can’t help us on these issues? Of course He can, and I believe He has. But since there are things that are both important and unquantifiable, the “experiment” of belief becomes the logical standpoint. Besides, all objective results, including the whole of science, get to inexplicable or subjective assumptions when you boil it down.

I give you an example: why does a computer work? Because we have engineered transistors from semiconductive material to process logical operations. Why do these semiconductors allow us to operate? Because as you apply voltage to adjacent semiconductors with different conductivities, electrons’ behavior (electric current) will change dramatically. Why will the behavior change dramatically? Because we’ve observed these changes in the past. But why does the behavior change? Well, it’s in part due to the fact that sometimes an electron acts as a particle and sometimes it acts as a wave. Why is that? We don’t know. We base our calculations of electrons on these assumptions, that it has mass and also can act as a wave, but these are our best guess as to what’s going on with an electron. We have mathematical models that help us understand the behavior, but our mathematical models cannot tell us the “essence” of quantum mechanics yet or exactly what it is. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “Something unknown is doing we don’t know what.” Down at the very bottom of all scientific assumptions we reach a point we have to accept subjectivity, because we have nothing objective. We just have to say “We don’t know what an electron really is. We will assume such and such, because our experiences have led us to believe that.” We have no real objective data; we just have to make the best use of things we’ve experienced and keep searching for more understanding. Yet, although we cannot completely quantify, or even explain, what the essence of an electron is, we can use electrons in powerful ways because we have experimented and observed how they act. Similarly, though we may not be able to quantify God or how He reveals Himself to us, we can learn in powerful ways by experimenting, observing, and experiencing how He acts in our lives.

That lengthy exposition said, there is no room in personal experience to not be open-minded and tolerant of other belief-systems. If God does exist and does value those results of personal experience, it should be respected on all levels. Thank you for your thoughtful response, as one who values science and empiricism and recognizes the intrinsic scientific difficulty with subjectivity. I’m sorry that the analogy doesn’t hold on all levels; alas, it is only an analogy.

There will be many posts in the future about these questions, for as a believer, I have had to come to terms with many difficult questions regarding believing in God. As I had to seriously ask myself these things, I hope that my blog will evoke some thoughts as well in the readership, and, if nothing more, the acceptance of people with belief systems in God as being a viable solution for finding meaning in this life.

7 comments:

Diogenes said...

Well put, Mikha'el. Your analogy about the love of a father for his son is particularly clever; it well establishes the fact that, while some things cannot be measured objectively, they are nonetheless important. I would approach the discussion of subjectivity and objectivity a little differently, but I believe we come to similar conclusions in the end.

In your post you define subjectivity as if it is a property of a subject; from this perspective, one might state that "the belief in God is subjective," or, "the belief in God is objective." In my mind, however, subjectivity and objectivity are less a property of a subject and more a method of identifying a subject. For example, I might step outside my apartment this morning and comment that it is cold outside. It is clear that my judgment would be subjective, because while someone might also step outside and agree with me that it is, indeed, cold, someone else might feel that it is comfortably warm. Thus the subjective judgment is an interpretation of the real state of a subject; in this case, the weather.

An objective judgment would, on the other hand, be indisputable and not based on personal interpretation. If I step outside with an accurate thermometer and it reads "thirty-two degrees," then it is, according to our method of measurement, thirty-two degrees outside. This judgment is objective because I have made no effort to make a qualitative statement about the temperature; that is, the judgment is not skewed by my personal understanding of what it means to be "hot" or "cold."

But in the case of both the subjective and the objective statements, there is no question that a temperature does, indeed, exist; for, if there were no temperature, there could be no measurement of (or qualitative statement about) the temperature. Thus, in this case, subjectivity and objectivity are not properties of the temperature, but are methods for describing the temperature.

From this perspective, the behavior of an electron is not itself subjective; rather, our conclusions about the nature of the electron are subjective. A scientist makes objective measurements in an experiment, and then derives a subjective theory to explain the measurements.

Belief in God seems to be based on a similar premise. We observe the world about us and draw differing subjective conclusions about God’s existence. One might try the experiment of belief and find that he/she is more happy, feels more fulfilled, or whatever. Objectively, the individual has discovered that a certain pattern of living yields particular results. That the individual then concludes that God exists is entirely subjective. Thus we make a distinction between the results of the experiment and the interpretation of the results.

The question, then, devolves into a simple matter of choice. Do you choose to believe in God, or do you not? I say "believe," because, in the end, it doesn't appear that one can know that God exists any more than one can know that a particular theory of the electron is accurate.

Diogenes said...

As an afterthought, Mikha'el, I do recognize religion as a perfectly viable method for finding meaning in life, and I have enormous respect for religion in general. A sincere seeker of truth might be critical of religion while simultaneously yearning for the meaning religion can provide a life.

Greg said...

But the earth doesn't rotate around the sun. The sun is inside the earth-- everybody knows that! Great post though.

Mikha'el said...

Thank you, Diogenes. This is such a fascinating subject. You have excellent points, with added insights into excellent pragmatic definitions of both subjectivity and objectivity. If we define subjectivity in terms of the measurement, we will assuredly run into problems with our inability to measure the experience of the individual.
Truly, our measurement systems as humans are arbitrary as well, trying to capture finitude in a largely infinite cosmos. For example, what is mass? What is temperature? We have developed standardized constructs to measure these still somewhat enigmatic properties. The best and brightest of the day are still unsure what "mass" even is. So, if we boil down our measurements, we end up in an arbitrary unit from an arbitrary starting point. However, the power of these arbitrary measurements is, as you have observed, that all can correlate and coordinate efforts—it allows people to communicate at the same level.
However, if God exists, He can most certainly make Himself known objectively. What if one person were allowed to observe a manifestation of God that was remarkably measurable, quantifiable and, if others would have experienced it, they would have measured it the same way? Even if this person recorded the data of the event with great accuracy and detail, it would then again be left to the person receiving the secondhand account to either accept or deny the claim. The first individual would know that God exists objectively; the second, many would argue, would only be in a position to claim that he or she believed. How can the second one know? More posts will address this.
Is there any objectivity to the individual who did not have the former's remarkable experience? My answer is yes, that God has an ability to be just as objective to the individual as to the masses. The issue is this: can we measure all the experiences? Certainly not, as you pointed out.
I feel that one of the great difficulties for many people, looking in on religion, is that they feel it is necessary that when God is manifest, He is manifest in some way that they can run analyses, like a force, like gravity, or something with obvious physical manifestations. Considering the fact that we can't even measure and quantify humans (he's 54.3 angry or she's 654.2 happy), to claim that a supremely sentient Being is required to be somehow quantifiable is a stretch for any believer's understanding of God, I would think.
As a student of the hard sciences, I feel that need frequently for cold hard data. But merely saying that God must fit into my own interpretation—a quantifiable or measurable source—would be inaccurate.
I think there have been people, as the former in the example of the experiment, who have had objective experiences. One can be justified in believing on those objective experiences of others, just as I believe the recorded data of other scientists. In addition, one can actually know of the veracity of said experience and that personal experience can validate just as much as a scientist in a laboratory by himself: the main difference being the latter can record his observations in joules per mole-Kelvin.
Though we cannot measure the experiences, God surely has a way of confirming the validity of an experience to us. From my own life, I have observed that there is often a communication error between what God communicates to humans and what we let Him communicate to us; our preconceptions and our demanding that God’s answer be contained in a measurable way will limit our ability to comprehend an immeasurable response. The experience of God would be much more objective and reliable if we would not insist in our minds that it had to be a certain way. But those are only personal observations, and my suggesting that we need to try to release all of our intellectual constraints is an enormous demand, especially for people who think like I do, valuing greatly our individual cognitions. I will share some of these observations in a following post.

Diogenes said...

As you've pointed out in previous posts, there are meaningful things in the world that aren't quantifiable. The issue with the belief experiment isn't the unquantifiable nature of the results, but the broad range of possible interpretations that can be assigned to the results. There is no question that people find fulfillment, meaning, and peace from their beliefs in God. This kind of fulfillment might be described as coming from God Himself as a validation of a true belief. On the other hand, it might be described as the culmination of millions of years of survival instinct; people are naturally reluctant to consider that their lives will end at death.

But, it is impossible to prove either interpretation of the results. People believe what they want to believe, and may become so convinced that they say that they "know" that God exists, or that they "know" that He doesn't exist. What the statement means, though, is that the individual has simply stopped questioning.

It would be out of character for a scientist to say that he/she knows that some theory is true (i.e. the theory of the electron,) only that he/she believes that it is true because it seems to fit observed facts. Similarly, a careful scientist might say, "I believe that God exists, but I don't presume to know such a thing." The difference between this scientist and the typical religionist may not be the magnitude of the belief. The difference is in the admission that, although we might no longer question our belief, it is still not knowledge; it is belief.

Mikha'el said...

This is such an excellent point. Great observations. I like your point about the “individual has simply stopped questioning.” I think I will make a post about that, because it is so insightful. I think I will expand it to say, “The individual has simply stopped questioning and ultimately stopped learning,” with your permission.
To get to your point about knowing: I like your analogy with science. The scientist may claim to know things and may claim to believe certain things, depending on the amount of exposure that one has to the subject being tested. With an electron they may say believe; with something else they may say that they know.
I will make three assertions. If a scientist can claim that he or she knows something, when in fact the claim is a belief, then the claim to know something about God is also substantial and sufficient and therefore has strength similar to the scientists’ argument. We’ve already discussed the issue of measurability. First assertion: if the word “know” is claimed by some through belief alone, then the word “know” is claimable by all through belief alone. I don’t know if this is exactly what you meant, but it is worth a thought. I think this is where your point of “simply stopped questioning” fits in.
I will make the assumption now that there are things that are definitively knowable, for example, I know that my sister exists. (I recognize that there are philosophers with a very relativistic thought tradition who would argue that all is illusory. If we don’t have some reality on which to base, this conversation would be pointless. Thus, I disregard that thought for the present.) There are things that we can know through our experiences, things that a scientist would agree is knowable. I now make the bold assertion that God is knowable to the individual just as empirically observable things are knowable by the scientist. If one makes the claim that nothing is knowable, then my presentation on the matter may be somewhat meaningless. But if things are knowable to scientists, I intend on outlining at least one way (of presumably many) in which someone can know, as we have discussed before, using immeasurable yet meaningful and important things. This is the assertion in which I base much of my “knowledge”. Second assertion: God is knowable unempirically.
I make the claim that one can experience God in the same undeniable way that one knows a parent exists, i.e. a powerfully empirical experience, observable by the senses. I have to acknowledge that, though I have never experienced anything using physical senses to behold God, it is still possible. I cannot claim another’s experience to be false or impossible when I have not had that experience. Also in perfect fairness, I must allow for the possibility of such an experience to happen to me. Third assertion: God is knowable empirically.
I realize that these claims are bold, especially when I am claiming one that I personally have not experienced. As one who has scrutinized my own claims, this blog, however incrementally slowly, will hopefully give some insight as to how I’ve reached my conclusions.

Diogenes said...

I know that the sun exists; I feel its warmth every day, and I see its light. If one were to deny the existence of the sun, the easy retort would be, "from whence comes the light?" or, "from whence comes the warmth?" There is no good answer to these questions except, "the sun." Why is this answer good? Qualitatively, when the sun sets, the temperature drops and it gets dark. When the sun rises, it becomes warmer and it becomes light. We also know something about the nature of the sun itself; we know that the surface temperature is roughly 5800 Kelvins, that the heat is generated by nuclear fission, and that heat propagates through space. We have also observed that there is nothing in the vicinity of the earth that is capable of generating so much light and so much heat except for the sun. We thus know that the sun exists not only because we see what it produces, but because it is the only thing that could possibly produce what we observe. The weight of evidence and lack of alternative explanations together leave no room for doubt.

In order to establish that there is a knowable God, there must be some similar weight of evidence that can be clearly and unambiguously attributed to God, much like we attribute warmth and light to the presence of the sun. I will consent that this evidence might be given primarily on an individual basis, and may or may not be empirical. I am genuinely interested, Mikha'el, to see what you might present to validate your claims; I await future posts with eagerness.