A Major Reason for “Failure to Communicate”—Even Among Christians
Unlike many of my contemporaries, whether religious or irreligious, I always assume a very real distinction between what is objectively real and true and what is merely subjectively felt and perceived. I do not claim that the line between them is clearly visible; it often is not. And the “objectively real and true” is often inaccessible to me and to everyone. I admit that there is no “view from nowhere”—a basic axiom of postmodernity. I am a perspectivalist; we all, without exception, observe and interpret reality through a “blik” or “worldview lens.” However, that does not mean there is no objective reality “out there” and that we have no access to it and cannot talk about it.
Therein lies the problem for much communication between me and others who, I find, often function as if everything is subjective. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think they can do that consistently. However, all too often I sense a “failure to communicate” (to quote from the great movie “Cool Hand Luke”) that can only be explained by a gulf between those of us who assume an objective reality exists outside our subjectivities and that we have some access to it, however, fallible, and those who do not assume that.
I am what philosophers call a “critical realist.” And I go around here and everywhere assuming that in everything I say. But I am increasingly aware that many people with whom I interact here and elsewhere are not critical realists. Some of them are out-and-out nominalists (only individual things exist) and even anti-realists (whether they know it or not). An anti-realist is someone who thinks nothing steady, stable, enduring, metaphysically real exists outside minds (and in most cases they mean human minds—individual or collective). This often leads such people into a purely pragmatist mode of thinking about ethics and morality.
“Subjectivism” has many meanings. Here I use it for the assumption, whether consistently applied or not, that all of reality is tied inextricably to feelings and is reducible to perceptions. “Perception is reality”—but taken to a metaphysical extreme. “Beauty is only in the eye of the beholder”—meant quite literally. “Truth is what you make of it”—meant seriously even if (in somewhat sophisticated forms) the “you” implies communities, cultures, and not just individuals. Where this really becomes a problem is in the assumption arising out of what I am calling “subjectivism” that “goodness is socially constructed and determined” (if not constructed and determined by the individual).
As I said, I’m not convinced anyone can really function consistently and comprehensively (in every situation) in this purely subjectivist mode. Especially when they are affected, as an individual or group, by radical evil (terrorism, murder, theft, radical rejection of their own most dearly held beliefs, industrial destruction of a beautiful mountain).
It’s time to offer an illustration. Some years ago (but something similar has happened many times) I was lecturing on the Christian doctrine of sin. During my lecture I touched on “guilt” and claimed that we Christians, like society at large, are losing our sense of guilt which deeply affects how we live, pray, worship, evangelize, and even think about our relationship with God. A very bright young student informed me in no uncertain terms that “Guilt is a bad thing; even as Christians we need to avoid it and liberate people from it.” In the ensuing discussion it became clear that she was thinking of “guilt” as a feeling that destroys self-esteem. I was talking about an objective condition of being guilty. I tried to illustrate what I meant by pointing to the justice system of laws and courts. “Aren’t some violators of laws ‘objectively guilty’?” I asked. She wouldn’t agree. No, the most she would agree to is that some people violate social norms and need correction in order to fit back into society or to be incarcerated to protect society. But “guilt” is not real; it does not exist—except as a subjective feeling and wrong judgment.
Most subjectivists are not as consistent or blatant as that. However, I would argue that a gradual shift toward subjectivism, loss of belief in objective reality “out there” (outside of constructed norms and inner feelings) is a modern and contemporary disease that is infecting most people in modern/contemporary society including Christians. When I listen to most Christians using words like “guilt,” “forgiveness,” “salvation,” “sin,” etc., I sense that they are referring to inner states or, at most, common beliefs, not objective realities that would exist and be real even if nobody believed in them.
I remember lengthy, confusing, irritating discussions in undergraduate philosophy class about the old chestnut “If a tree falls in a forest and nobody was there would it make a sound?” We never discovered the real issue underlying the question. (Which is not the nature of “sound.”) The real issue the question points to is whether objective reality exists. Let me translate the question into its real meaning (I believe): “If a sociopath with no conscience murders someone and feels no guilt about it and his murder is never discovered—is he guilty anyway?” Ah, now there’s a question worth discussing in a philosophy class! We never got to it.
A subjectivist answer has to be “no,” he’s not guilty. He’s only “guilty” if his act is discovered and he is convicted—whether in a court of law or in the eyes of the community. He would also be “guilty” should he ever acquire a conscience. But, to a consistent subjectivist, there can be no “guilt” without those two conditions being met (and they are very different conditions). (I think many people misinterpret the old axiom “innocent until proven guilty” as an expression of subjectivism which is not how I interpret it. I interpret it as meaning the person is not guilty in terms of the judicial system until proven guilty but he or she might be guilty in a metaphysical sense even if he or she is never “found out.”)
These are two very different modes of thinking, of consciousness. And I think my operating out of one of them while most people tend to operate out of the other is a major reason I feel “out of sync,” alienated, from my own culture—including from my own religious community (at times). I have had lengthy discussions with fellow Christian believers about these matters where no “meeting of the minds” could take place. We were like the proverbial whale and elephant—both God’s creatures but incapable of meeting (understanding each other).
Let’s take an example from Christian theology: atonement doctrine. I don’t have a dogma about the atonement, but when I think and talk about atonement I always assume Christ’s death on the cross “fixed a problem” outside of me—alienation from God. And I always assume that alienation is more than a feeling of being alienated. A very real situation existed between God and humanity (me) that Christ’s death “fixed.” That’s called “objective atonement” in classical theology. I find that most modern/contemporary Christians, even evangelicals, tend to think of atonement as affecting my inner states, not an objective situation “in the cosmos,” so to speak, between me and God.
I am increasingly coming to the belief that there are two incommensurable modes of consciousness: subjectivism and objectivism. Both have many varieties and adaptations. One does not have to be a sheer Platonist, for example, to be an objectivist. Nor does one have to be a nihilist or sheer anti-realist to operate mostly out of a subjectivist mode of consciousness.
I often wonder about “failures to communicate” between equally bright and educated people. They often use the same words but mean entirely different things by them (as in the example above of “guilt”). The two modes of consciousness described above might be the two most basic “bliks,” perspectives on reality, separating modern/contemporary people from each other. People who come to my blog ought to know, need to know, that I operate out of an objectivist “blik.” Namely, I always assume that many words point to objective realities that exist outside of any human mind—such as truth, beauty and goodness. To be sure, as a critical realist, I deny that any human mind has direct, unmediated and perfect access to these realities. And I am not a language essentialist. But these realities are not just concepts but are “out there” (not spatially but dimensionally), independent of our minds and inner states (whether individually or collectively). And I think that attempting to “do Christian theology” without objectivism of that kind (including critical realism) makes it something else than Christian theology. Christian theology in any classical sense requires realism, objectivism, even if tempered with a degree of perspectivalism (as in critical realism).