A lot of people have this idea that some things are subjective. This has been expressed in many ways. In comments to on of my facebook notes the idea came out as “personal truth,” and many people have grown fond of the word relative (though this use clashes considerably with the use of the term "relative" in physics). In this post I will examine why religious people retreat to the idea of subjectivity. I will also explain why this retreat does not actually succeed in solving the key problem that causes them to retreat in the first place.
Religion is a popular target for subjectivity or personal truth. As I’ve argued before, religious views are virtually impossible to support objectively. Their reliance on faith is either the cause or the effect (I honestly can’t tell which) of this deficit. As such, believers often resort to the idea of subjectivity so that they can feel like they’re right without feeling the need to provide objective support for their views. Unfortunately for them, this is a failing tactic.
The first reason subjectivity fails to adequately support religion is blatantly obvious. Religions almost never make subjective claims. You don’t hear anyone saying “I should follow God’s will but it’s okay if you don’t.” No. You hear people saying “God’s will governs everyone and everything.” You hear people saying that Jesus is the only path to salvation; that anyone who draws a picture of Muhammad must be punished; that all suffering is caused by desire. The vast majority of religious claims are very obviously objective. This means that whenever the believers try to give their religion real significance, the subjective shield has to come down. After all, if religion is very important to life, but only to your life, how can you expect anyone else to care enough to listen to your ideas? So you get a waffling effect where people make claims that are “subjective” whenever they’re under attack, but “objective” whenever they feel safe. In church, their religion is the most correct and significant thing in the world; but on the internet, it’s just their opinion.
The second reason subjectivity fails to adequately support religion is much more difficult to grasp. To help explain this idea, I’m going to define the terms objective, subjective, absolute, and relative. I will warn you; this next section is very subtle and a bit technical. Don’t worry if it doesn’t all sink in the first time through. The fine details are there for rigor, but you shouldn’t have any trouble following the rest of the note without them.
First off: Each of these four terms are properties of statements. Given any statement, that statement is objective or subjective (and never neither) AND that statement is absolute or relative (and never neither). For clarity, I will define these words in terms of the statement “Alice punching Bob in these circumstances was morally wrong” as assessed by Moe. The parameters of this statement are Alice, Bob, these circumstances, and Moe (the assessor). The bolded part following the word is the definition. Everything else is an explanation of that definition.
Absolute: The truth value of the statement exists and cannot depend on any of the parameters. If the statement is true, then anyone punching anyone else in any circumstance is morally wrong to everyone. If the statement is false, then anyone punching anyone else in any circumstance is not morally wrong to anyone.
Relative: The statement is not absolute. If we negate the definition of absolute, we find that the truth of the statement can depend on at least one of the parameters. If the statement is true, then there can exist a statement with at least one parameter changed (for instance, replace Moe with Tim or replace Bob and these circumstances with Joe and those circumstances) which is false. If the statement is false, then there can exist a statement with at least one parameter changed which is true.
Objective: The truth value of the statement exists and cannot depend on the assessor. If the statement is true, then the same statement assessed by Tim (or anyone) is also true. If the statement is false, then the same statement assessed by Tim (or anyone) is also false.
Subjective: The statement is not objective. If we negate the definition of objective, we find that the truth of the statement can depend on the assessor. If the statement is true for Moe, then there can exist at least one person for whom the statement is false. If the statement is false for Moe, then there can exist at least one person for whom the statement is true.
Here’s a few interesting things to note about these definitions.
1. Subjective isn’t just about people disagreeing. If Moe and Tim have a disagreement, the statement isn’t automatically subjective. These definitions are based on the truth value of statements, not on people’s beliefs.
2. We have some logical relationships here: Aside from the obvious implications of using negations, we know that if a statement is absolute then it is also objective. Similarly, if a statement is subjective then it is also relative. Note that the converses of these relationships do not hold. A relative statement is not automatically subjective, and an objective statement is not automatically absolute.
3. It is possible to have statements that are both objective and relative.
4. Because of the use of negations, relative and subjective serve as catch-alls for statements that have no truth value. This is very important later on, so I’ll reiterate it. Any statement that does not have a truth value is both relative and subjective.
5. The definitions use “cannot” instead of “does not” because people come and go. In this way, a subjective statement won’t suddenly become objective just because the only remaining naysayer dies, and an objective statement won’t suddenly become subjective just because a naysayer is born.
Now let’s suppose our believers have decided to call their statement subjective, and let’s ignore for a minute the fact that the statement probably isn’t subjective. Let’s humor the believers and assume that somewhere along the line they have actually managed to make a subjective claim, call it Claim C. Now I must ask, is the statement, “Claim C is subjective” itself subjective or objective? The correct answer to this question is “objective,” and here’s why:
Let’s suppose for a moment that the statement “Claim C is subjective” is itself subjective. This can mean one of two things. It could mean that the statement “Claim C is subjective” has no truth value. This means that the subjectivity of Claim C is indeterminable. But we know that Claim C is subjective (that’s how this whole thing started). So we know this “possibility” is out.
The other “possibility” is that the statement “Claim C is subjective” can be true for someone, say Pat, while false for someone else, say Bob. However, if that statement is false for Bob, then Claim C is objective for Bob. If Claim C is objective for Bob, then its truth value cannot depend on its assessor. This means that Claim C is objective for Pat, which contradicts the inference that claim C is subjective for Pat. Thus this “possibility” is also out.
Any way you slice it, the idea that “Claim C is subjective” is itself a subjective claim leads to a contradiction. Thus “Claim C is subjective” is an objective claim.
So what’s the point of all this craziness? The point is that by claiming that their truths are subjective, the believers have just made an objective claim. Every claim about the subjectivity of a claim C is itself objective. This means that the subjective shield will never work. As soon as the believers say “it’s a personal truth,” they have made an objective claim. And since this claim is objective, it must be supported objectively. In other words, the subjectivity of religious claims is itself an objective matter, and must be demonstrated as such. And as I’ve said before, faith does not work for objective claims. So it can’t just be a matter of faith that the claims religious people make are subjective. Even after using the subjective shield, the believers still need something more than faith to support their position.