Objectivity vs Subjectivity in debate

Posted by on April 19, 2010 in Thoughts | 18 comments

Rembrandt's "Two Philosophers"

Rembrandt's "Two Philosophers"

There seems to be a lot of confusion for people on what is a compelling argument, and what is just muddying the waters of debate. So often, when in discussions around the existence of gods, the yeasayer will turn to personal experiences of things that have happened to them, or to others around, or a story they’ve heard about a friend of a friend, and all this does is add a barrier to understanding on their part. The problem is, people tend to hold on so tightly to what they “believe” rather than asking the often uncomfortable questions which could weaken their beliefs. They tend to have a blinkered approach to the answers, and accept things at face value of what “seems” reasonable, and deny the answers which actually are based in reason. Here are the 2 standpoints that are so often taken.

Objective can be defined like this:

a. Uninfluenced by emotions or personal prejudices: an objective critic.
b. Based on observable phenomena; presented factually: an objective appraisal.

Subjective can be defined thus:

a. Proceeding from or taking place in a person’s mind rather than the external world: a subjective decision.
b. Particular to a given person; personal.

In the comments on my blog, deists and theists tend to rely on personal and highly subjective “evidence” for their claims on the existence of God. I on the other hand, try to structure my arguments around an objective standpoint, one which will, if tested, ring true for everyone and everything. I do not always succeed, and I have never claimed to have all the answers, however, at least you can test my words against empirical evidence and come to a conclusion. I have and I will change my mind if I think I may be wrong.

The biggest problem with subjectivity is that a person is acting from their emotional reaction to a situation, not thinking in a clear and rational manner when coming to a conclusion.

The most common one I encounter is the answer “But how can you know if you didn’t see it with your own eyes?”

Well the answer to that is “the eyes can be deceived.” Apply that to other situations where something seems to good to be true, most likely it is too good to be true. The principle of Occam’s Razor, which is “entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity”, often quoted as “the simplest answer is usually the correct one”, is a great place to start in critical thinking.

I know to most of you reading, this is nothing new, but to those new to this idea, why not just ask more questions of situations? Why not delve further into the mysteries of the universe and question what exactly you’ve been told or read, weigh it up against what you know, and try to make an informed decision based on what you’ve learned.

The answer “God did it” holds no sway in any argument.

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18 Comments

  1. Well explained. One of the best lessons my Dad taught me as a child and it has helped me separate, what I want to be true and what can be proved to be true. It’s difficult to separate our emotions, but a really important skill to learn – isn’t it.

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    • Thanks for that comment. Yes i know it’s not anything new, and it’s something I learned in highschool, that subjectivity just leads to falsehoods if held unwaveringly. I just needed to say something because I so often get (especillay in comments from my previous blog piece) people claiming “How do you know? What if you’re wrong?” etc, when what they are saying would be certifiably insane if it weren’t linked to religion.

      Critical thinking is something I am getting better at as I get older, but I don’t think I’d be so good at it if I had not already been so cynical of authority/imformation/media in my teens and twenties.

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  2. Well put sir!
    If I had a dollar for every argument I’ve been in that finished with me stuttering ‘But…but…you’re a sample group of ONE!’, then I probably wouldn’t have read this because I’d have been too busy getting a massage on the pool deck of my floating pleasure palace.

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    • Thank you Mr Flemming! Glad you’re enjoying my writings, and glad you;re NOT a millionaire so you have the chance to read them :D

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  3. It’s no surprise that many religious apologists (the ones I’ve seen in comment threads, particularly) rely on subjective arguments – after all, that really is all there is to religious experience. What does surprise me (and probably shouldn’t) is that they don’t/won’t/can’t comprehend just how much they rely on subjectivity in their arguments, as well as how weak a strategy that is. Surely someone interested in intelligent debate would recognise how valueless subjective experience is in the course of logical argument. Then again, rational, objective religious people often don’t involve themselves in intelligent debates because such rare creatures are objective enough to understand just how logically indefensible their positions are (yet they still hold them!). Andrew Sullivan springs to mind (even though he involved himself in just such a debate with Sam Harris a couple of years ago and got thoroughly schooled – maybe it’s telling that Sullivan’s the best example of a rational Christian I could come up with!).

    Anyway, nice post and much shorter & succinct than mine :)

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  4. I agree with what you’re saying. The problem is, what happens when you are not looking for any type of subjective experience, yet God intervenes in your life with a personal experience that cannot be rationally explained.
    What is one to do in this situation, simply ignore it or delve further into it? Simply saying God did this in my life is not a sufficient answer except when you have phenomenon that defies explanation. I created a video explaining my testimony. If you are interested you may view it at
    http://vimeo.com/9395893

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    • I wonder if it cannot be rationally explained because your whole story seems a little irrational. You have obviously gone through some tough times while dealing with your apparent “sexual immorality”, so I wonder if you are the best person to make a judgement call on rational decisions in this state. If your situation defies explanation, which, frankly from your video just seemed like coincidence, is it possible that you stopped seeking further a little too early?

      No offense intended, you’ve obviously been torn up inside over this to make a 15 minute video on your predicament, but really all I see is a subjective viewpoint already predisposed to the answer you seemed to have already given yourself.

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    • That’s my point. I never saw myself as having “sexual immorality” prior to becoming a Christian. I could understand your reasoning if I was guilt ridden and was seeking help, but I wasn’t. I never would have bothered making this video prior to becoming a Christian. Christ changed me from the inside out. I wasn’t brought up with any religion, so once I believed I was a blank slate.
      you said
      “but really all I see is a subjective viewpoint already predisposed to the answer you seemed to have already given yourself.”
      and I could say the exact same thing about your views, so where exactly is the line of demarcation. It’s like your video “Powers of Ten”
      I see the beauty and complexity of Gods design. What do you see?

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      • OK but your video said you became a Christian, and your problems went away? Why did you become a christian if you didn’t think you had a problem? you were obviously seeking some sort of redemption or a saviour prior to deciding that you had a “sexual immorality”.

        I wonder if you might want to read further on your idea of the “blank slate” as you put it. It is a moot point, as I, as an unbeliever, do not see myself as a blank slate, but rather a product of a many things, including my genetics and my upbringing, my culture and language. You are not an island, you are part of all around you, but it’s not because of God. Read the definitions of “Objective” and “Subjective” again, then measure your comments against that. I think you’ll find I’m reacting much less from a very personal place, and more in line with what people would term as “rational” without doubt.

        As to your last point “I see the beauty and complexity of Gods design. What do you see?”. Well I see “The beauty and complexity of the universe. No more, no less.”

        Because you see, my universe exists without need for god, gods, devils, demons, ghosts, pixies, unicorns of monsters under the bed.

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        • No. I wasn’t seeking a Savior prior to that. As I said in my video my brother in law continued to invite me to a retreat and I finally accepted. I went up there with no guilt or notions of being “saved”. It was the Holy Spirit that called me to repentance.
          I meant blank slate in terms of Christianity. Obviously I have been influenced by my family, genetics and culture.
          I agree you are reacting in a rational, objective perspective.
          So why bother with taking on religion? It seems kind of pointless if all we have is this life. No more, no less. For instance I am writing comments on an Atheists website in hopes that somewhere down the road, you come to accept Christ. As a Christian that is our “Great Commission”
          I’m sure this sounds utterly ludicrous to you, but why?
          Do Atheists see religion as superstitious nonsense, holding mankind in darkness? But again if this is our only finite life, why would you care at all?

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          • Believing in a god that gives live meaning is little different than bringing meaning to your life directly. The difference is the invented middleman.

            Belief, being an act of faith, is necessarily subjective. Thus the meaning you assign to life, whether using the intermediary of a deity or not, is equally subjective.

            As for why an atheist cares about religion, as one of the primary covers for irrationality today anyone who cares about rational;y and intellectually addressing the very real problems we face in the world today should care about it I should think.

            Every time someone conjures up their subject and unsupported beliefs instead of honestly addressing an issue the possibility of constructive discourse is reduced.

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          • I can concede the fact that ultimately anyones belief in God is subjective, but so is everything in our lives. You speak of rational and objective thinking in terms of a creator, but do you apply this concept to your everyday life? I fully admit, it’s easy to look at nature and by deductive, rational reasoning see no evidence of God. Science can explain all matter down to it’s basic atomic structure, yet human beings are far from rational in nature. Love is irrational, Anger is irrational, Happiness and Sadness are irrational emotions. If you extrapolate Atheism out, then our very nature doesn’t make sense. If the universe is orderly and can be calculated by math and science, by objective thinking man should not “feel” love, anger, happiness, etc. If there is no God and the only truth is the creation itself, mankind should not even exsist.

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          • In reply to Brett Hughes:

            Why do we care? Well I have written on this topic in the past, see “Why do we care?”

            But there are more reasons than this. Where do I start?
            Well, I don’t want the influence of ANY religion to muddy the waters of education, because that would be like teaching lies. I have nothing against teaching ALL religions in schools, but as a Christian, I’m sure you would like to see Christianity given extra time or importance in the school curriculum. We are currently having this very debate in “secular” Australia about teaching “Objective and Secular Morality” classes in schools so that the waters need not get muddied in fancy.

            Another reason we care is that I see a real danger in society right now, where people are using their religions as an “US vs THEM” mentality, to cause divisions between people and then to use this as a reason for waging war. This is nothing new, but is far more dangerous now than it has ever been. We risk wiping out our entire species in the name of “God” and I’m not buying into it. The whole idea of ONE religion having the answers is an unlikely proposition, and in my eyes, each of the major or minor religions is as unlikely to be right as any other. Have you ever thought that maybe the Hindu gods are the real gods, and yours is the false god? No, of course you haven’t, but that is what the Hindus think of your god, and with just as much passion and conviction.

            As a Christian it is your “Great Commision” to try and proseletyse people to your religion? Does that not strike you as odd? That God and Jesus want to build a bigger army of believers? Why would an omnipotent God care? If God created the universe, then doesn’t he have enough power to just “make” everyone believe? Why did he give us free will and the ability to dismiss him as fantasy if his ultimate aim is to save us all? Why would God, who apparently created us all, want to create an experiment like humanity, just to see how convincing he is of making us believe in his existence? See “What if you’re wrong?”

            You say “But again if this is our only finite life, why would you care at all?” This one really gets my goat, and I’ll tell you why. You care more about life because you get to go to Heaven afterwards? Balderdash! I care deeply about my life, and more about the lives of others because I KNOW this is the only shot we get at life, so we’d better make it as good as we can, because with the absence of an afterlife, there is NOTHING else. And since we only get one chance at life, doesn’t that make it all the more special that that each of us exist at all?

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    • First, if you actually, genuinely had an objective experience about God, then why hasn’t the rest of the world heard about it? Why hasn’t a great religious convergence begun based on the God that is now known to be objectively extant?

      I’ll answer for you: because your experience was not objective. It was entirely subjective, and, colored by what you needed or wanted to experience at the time you’ve painted it into something you perceive as not rationally explicable.

      The human mind has an hugely powerful ability to delude the senses and befuddle rationality. This is well-documented by biologists, psychologists, anthropologists and more.

      Morals as relative. One only need to read the Bible to see that. The Old Testament (and by extension the new, as Jesus reminds us that all the old laws still stand) is riddled with behaviors and laws we now consider abhorrent.

      You adopted the mores of a culture thousands of kilometers and years away and, completely unsurprisingly, your behavior now seems morally different. You might as well have exchanged eyeglasses with your myopic friend and have claimed that the world has objectively changed as claim your behavior is objectively different in a moral sense that it was before. It’s simply not the case that there is any objective shift here.

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  5. Crrrrrraaaaaaazzzzzzzzyyyyyyy…………

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  6. Brett, your are not arguing objectively!

    The fact is that objective study and rational thinking can bring us to understand emotions, etc. To understand the non-objective and necessary parts of being human.

    So your argument is not valid. Atheists have no problem with accepting and understanding emotions and other non-rational sides of being human.

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  7. Brett, you’re confusing the use of the term rational in two different contexts.

    We say the Universe is rational because we can explain it through knowledge obtained scientifically. Similarly, we see that we have been able to expand, correct and refine our knowledge through the same scientific method to address errors and new phenomena.

    Humans may appear to act irrationally at time, but this is not, strictly speaking the case. We are responding to needs and wants generated (often deep-seated) structures in our brains. That these actions may, in the longer term be detrimental to our goals, livelihood or whatever is only irrational in that particular context, it’s not irrational in the context of explaining human behavior. Yes, we have choices, but the choices we see and our ability to choose them seems to be scientifically explicable. (And admittedly our knowledge in the area of human behavior, neurology, neuropsychology and so on is in its adolescence at best, but amazing advances are taking place, just as with other other areas of knowledge a few decades ago.)

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  8. To Brett Hughes:

    I’ve dedicated an entire blog post to your final comment, which seems to have disappeared.
    http://atheistclimber.wordpress.com/2010/04/23/objectivity-vs-subjectivity-in-debate-part-2/

    But in all seriousness, thank you for your input, it is always good to see people giving the other side of the debate, and respectfully too.

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