Saturday, December 10, 2005

Subjective vs. Objective

Objectivism: 1. the tendency to lay stress on what is external to or independent of the mind. 2. Philosophy the belief that certain things, esp. moral truths, exist independently of human knowledge or perception of them.

Subjectivism: Philosophy the doctrine that knowledge is merely subjective and that there is no external or objective truth.

Oxford American Dictionaries

The culture war seems to be a battle between various ideologies, social classes, power blocs, and religious or irreligious groups, but it perhaps is better seen as a clash between individuals who hold to opposed world-views or philosophies. There are many sources of conflict; but a major one is the difference between the objective and subjective viewpoints.

The objective view sees that there are truths in the world outside of ourselves, and that we can perhaps know something about them, while the subjective views tend not to see universal truths but rather individual feelings and emotions.

René Descartes (1596-1650) (Latin: Cartesius) is famous because he developed the scientific method, analytic geometry, and subjective philosophy: "I think, therefore I am" is his familiar quote. Descartes' contribution came after centuries of intellectual chaos: the Protestant Reformation rejected philosophy altogether—it was linked with 'Romanism' and instead embraced a strict biblicism—and earlier the great Medieval universities were largely wiped out by plague and war. This was an age of doubt and uncertainty, much like the periods after the World Wars of the 20th Century, and led to philosophies of doubt and cynicism.

Both American liberalism and conservatism are largely based on subjective Cartesian reasoning, that takes 'I' as the starting point for action. It is this 'me' orientation that leads to both the desires of unfettered sexual freedom and unfettered business competition. This stands in contrast to the traditional Catholic view. based on external objective reality, which rejects purely subjective measures of morality, both in the personal and societal spheres.

However, a certain subjectivity is integrated into Catholic thinking: our relationship with reality is recognized as being mediated by our senses, including supernatural reality. We don't have a direct access to reality: we need to perceive it and reason about it before we can come to an assent of faith in the general sense. In the Catholic view, even revelation comes after reason; we can't have an intellectual understanding of revelation until after we have good reasoning. Grace builds upon this intellectual nature. But both liberal and conservative Christianity often claims direct access to the Holy Spirit, bypassing sense and reason. This kind of purely subjective thinking is evident in those who are moved by the 'Spirit of Vatican II' and in Evangelical groups who claim a unique supernatural understanding of Scripture. This traditional type of Catholic subjectivity, however, only takes sense and emotion as a starting point, not as an end, and reason must judge these senses and emotions. The common rule of thumb in Catholic thinking is that truth must not conflict with truth: therefore it rejects the statement "what is true for me is not true for you", and it also rejects faith reasoning that conflicts with itself or with science.

Traditional Catholic moral reasoning has both objective and subjective components. The moral law is objective and sits outside of us, but our subjective intentions and circumstances neccessarily affect the morality of any act. Therefore Catholic moral doctrine is neither absolutist nor relativist. Also, objective moral criteria are seen as being primary, and are not to be subdivided into various categories depending on circumstances or intentions. This stands in contrast to modern theories that take either situations or intentions as primary judges of morality: these theories will, by their nature, lead to social conflict.

Descartes' scientific method is subjective; we use repeated measurements under controlled conditions to determine reality. The scientific method cannot be proven to be a valid method of determining the truth, but it has been successful, so we do use it. The great theories in physics, however, do not use this Cartesian scientific method and instead use the older reasoning from basic principles, mediated by—but not strictly determined by—experiment. This is the main distinction between the 'hard' and 'soft' sciences: physics and chemistry start with universal laws of nature and make predictions from these laws; while social sciences assume a purely subjective viewpoint, and its theories have little predictive power. Only occasionally does our understanding of the universal laws of nature change—we call them paradigm shifts—but these are just developments of doctrine and not an overthrow of our understanding of truth. I suspect that the social sciences would have better results if they would incorporate Catholic Natural Law into its theories instead of the highly subjective results of the psychologists; likewise, mathematics has increased the objectivity of the social sciences.

Subjectivity is a fact—we can never come to any understanding outside of our senses, but we musn't stop there as do the modern philosophies. We have senses, but also reason, and reason can lead to an understanding of reality.

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