Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Question of the Subjective Component in Objective Reasoning

The question at hand is subjective versus objective "reasoning" in general but moral reasoning in particular.  I am very interested in this because this topic would be explained within the umbrella of a developmental epistemology.   In the Youtube video, Why are you so afraid of subjective moral reasoning, (as it is described) "During the open forum at the University of Pennsylvania Ravi Zacharias and Nabeel Qureshi were asked ... why are you so afraid of moral reasoning?  To further this line of inquiry the questioner continues: "do you think were all going to start raping and pillaging just because we don't have book to tell us what to do?" and then China is used as secular example of a functioning society led by such moral rules. The presupposition here is a belief that any given individual easily has the capacity to subjectively create morals that would be acceptable by all other individuals.

Mr. Zacharias counters this claim (the assumption of the inherently benevolent nature of human beings) with multiple historical examples of the failure of a purely subjective based morality.  In the 20th century there has been the murder of millions of persons by many secular (even atheistic) societies, including China, Russia, Cuba, Germany, and Cambodia.  The problem, says Mr. Zacharias, is that a subjectively created morality, by individuals or even collective groups of individuals, leaves no position to criticize any other subjectively created morality different from one's own.  The challenge is that if one is engaging in such criticism (that we "ought' not barbecue the neighbors children for lunch when everyone else is saying get the plates ready) then one has already assumed the existence of a higher order objective standard.  Mr. Zacharias points to this assumption as he concludes the video by saying that human societies, including our own, already impose objective moral rules as safeguards for survival: "the reason you lock your doors, and the reason we have police, and the reason we have our military, and the reason we have our law courts is because when subjective morality becomes totally subjectivized this" essentially societal destruction of individual safety, rights, and freedom "is what happens to society."

Now I agree with the ontological part of this question.  I agree that God is the source of objective moral standards.   At the same time to say that God is the source of moral standards says nothing about the possibilities and limitations of "subjective moral reasoning."  Knowledge of Gods morals, knowledge of application of those morals (in this situation or that) is a subjective action that is required for all human beings in their attempt at understanding objective morals.  This argument is conflating the attempts at knowledge by individual human beings and the source of knowledge.   No matter how perfect the source the individual subjects are limited by human imperfection.  We must keep in mind that the act of "reasoning" is (as all acts of "reasoning" are) of epistemological concern.  This is because not only is the capacity for knowledge is not simply distributed fully formed any specific attempt at knowledge is predicated on preparation: education, training, willingness, self-discipline, etc .  One would not presume to be a brain surgeon without considerable preparation.  

What has to be clearly differentiated is the act of reasoning from the object that is reasoned.  This differentiation is required when considering the act of human thinking on any topic.  For example, the automobile accelerating toward us is an objective fact, knowing when to get out of the way of that object, by running, or  jumping left or right, are acts of subjective reasoning.  Not only are we required to reason about any object often we have to reason about what are objects (reaches the status of objective facts) in the first place.

Human "reasoners" are perennially engaged in a struggle, through the totality of these lives, with the acquiring knowledge and experience: this is what makes possible understanding objective moral guidelines.  This subjective activity is a component of all knowledge and is unavoidable.  Even that which is objective is only known subjectively through the limits of human intellectual capability (to whatever degree that is required to discern what objectively true).  The act of comparing and verifying is a subjective performance.  Furthermore, even if we were to know (accept) something to be objectively true we would still face the vast task of knowing applicability in any given situation.  That is, to understand what is objectivity true in this or that lived situation requires fallible human beings to overcome their subjective weakness in the task at hand (whatever that task may be).

The problem of revealing this additional part of the question is that the audience member immediately shifted into an ontological discussion into the "source" of morality and not human individuals "reasoning" capability.  That question conflates the limitations of objective knowledge by finite beings with the source of creation of morality.  If the totality of morality is that which is created by individual human beings how is there any force that binds individuals to moral rules beyond their own subjective creation?  I believe that Mr. Zacharias rightly declares that without a commitment to objective moral rules over and above that of the individual person binding is impossible.

At the same time it is not impossible to see that human beings may have a kind of inborn subjective moral position that recognizes the need for self-protection.  Human beings may easily recognize that if I do not steal it is more likely (though not perfectly) that I will not be stolen from.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you is a common sense kind of morality that crosses the line between individual moral positions.  It is easier to agree on a morality that is applied to all individuals equally.  That would not end the question of moral sources but since it might be suggest that it invokes an understanding of something greater.  This kind of moral understanding is what children go though in learning not to steal to prevent other from stealing from them, or not to lie to prevent being lied to, or to not hurt others to prevent others from hurting them, and so on.
The problem is that for individual human beings knowledge of the objective is still obtained only through their subjective experience.  A major part of the epistemological task at hand is what is really needed is how to explain ignorance, learning, acceptance, and rejection of the objective.  Epistemology not only has to explain how knowledge is acquired but how knowledge fails to be acquired.  Epistemology, in general, has to take into account all of these problematic issues.  This, in a nutshell, is the problem of understanding the difference between the objective and subjective components of knowledge.   The problem that has to be explained (not denied) is why do we have  debates over the objective and the subjective if knowledge itself is objective?  Doubt has to be explained not simply defeated by contrary evidence: that objective knowledge (how objects are known) is true and subjective knowledge (how objects are known by individual persons) is false.  To engage in such a disagreement demonstrates that objective rules of morality are in themselves not objectively known: that individual persons are not subjectively fallible.   Fallibility proves subjectivity.  The question this person poses proves that knowledge of the object (the inherent presence of any given moral absolute) is not a given but is a subjective act.  The limitations of subjectivity (by way of ignorance or a deliberate act of ignoring) further proves that objective knowledge (knowledge of objective facts) is defined as a successful performance by individual human beings.  Knowledge of objects not only requires investigation the capacity to investigate requires investigation.  The foundation of education is a kind of bootstrapping that is engaged in by infant human beings in ever increasing degrees.

Mr. Zacharias alludes to the basic requirements of investigation in Relativism Removes Morality and Meaning of Life, to know whether we are moving in our car we find something outside the car and we "measure yourself by that."  The fact is this act of measuring or comparing between objects is a subjective act but it suggest that education is the learning of every complex forms of comparison.  All acts of knowledge by human beings has a subjective component that continually "reaches" outward toward the world we inhabit.  This ongoing subjectivity is based on the totality of personal capability that any given individual has at any given moment.  Subjective knowledge is made possible when combined with many other factors, some of which are situational and outside the individuals control.  Even that, with advancing subjective capacity I can learn that cannot control that rain is falling but I can potentially control rain falling on me by moving to a different location.  Since all acts of reasoning are carried out by the thoughts and action of individual human beings the subjective component cannot be explained away by alluding to the objectivity that is located in the object.  The existence of baseball are objectively real and thus potentially discoverable true objects in the world.  That fact does not control the performance by any person, because catching, throwing, hitting, or running are all subjective acts.  This subjectivity is true whether this investigation is drawn out (because the baseball has been dropped into the murky water of a pond) or is open to being visually or tactilely discovered instantaneously.  Knowing to get out of the rain is an acquired skill.  The more complex and difficult the object is the more extensive the "measuring" will be required to know that object.  That is, any given act of measuring may necessitate a larger and larger accumulation of knowledge, including that which may require hands-on performative experience, to make possible any given act of "measurement." 

My focus, again, is an epistemological question not an ontological one.  While the issues of objects and acts intertwined they are not the same.  The question is whether individual subjective acts (epistemological) is the source of morality or do morals have and objective (ontological) component apart from individual acts of knowledge.  That is the debate.  My fear is that dogmatism (in any direction) is too often the outcome of failing to make the distinction between the two parts of these larger issues.  The objective component and the subjective component.  In this sense, all knowledge is subjective because knowledge requires and interaction between these two components if it is performed by individual human beings.  No subjectivity no knowledge.

The problem that I see with the answer that knowledge must be objective (or have an objective component) as well as a subjective component embodied by human beings or individuals cannot functionally control the basic things required to function in the world.  Focusing on one side of the equation fails to answer what is also pertinent questions.  If objective moral reasoning is the positive alternative to wipe out the flaw of subjective moral reasoning this argument presupposes a subjective component to choose one is right and one is wrong.  How does does error or ignorance or disagreement continue to exist if the act of decision making is made by a force that is objective it its knowledge capacity?  Can objective moral reasoning be wrong?  If subjective moral reasoning is simply wrong how can it be wrong in a universe that functions by an objective capacity.  This question itself is a demonstration of that fact that knowledge of what is true or false are the outcome of subjective performances.  That is, the disagreement over the truth in this case is evidence of something that has to be explained, which cannot be done by these presuppositions.  When one is refuting one position over the other by a collection of facts one is engaging in subjective acts.  The attempt to replace the flaws of subjective moral reasoning with objective moral reasoning does not explain the most crucial part of this question.  The existence of doubt (disagreement, error, ignorance) must be explained.

 The fact of the existence of this question has led many to attribute the source for "objective" reasoning to God.  If God is supposed to be the source of reasoning this runs into the same problem explaining the existence of doubt.  Can perfect knowledge (the capacity being attributed to individual human beings) be wrong?  This is not an explanation of God's knowledge but knowledge of God by subjective human beings.  Any recognition of human involvement is totally subjective.  There have been thousands of interpretations about hundreds of different kinds of God's.  If knowledge of God is objective then that presupposes that every interpretation of every God is objective and thus there is no way to discern which knowledge of God is false.  The existence of ignorance or disagreement, such as there being different alternatives to objective moral absolutes, necessitates the existence of and the reality of subjective reasoning.  Failing to do this leaves out questions as to why objective moral reasoning fails to stop individual human beings or cultures from not only doing the most immoral things but knowing they are immoral in the first place.  This is not doubting whether there are moral absolutes given by God only doubting whether individuals human beings have the same knowledge capacity as a divine being.  The reason why human beings need to study a divine text (such as the Bible) is because their knowledge of anything is an accumulation of individual acts (reading, writing, thinking, discussing, praying) to know what God has said.

What needs to be kept in mind is that subjectivity is not a static thing.  The functions of subjectivity changes dynamically with experience.  The actions of both an infant human being and an educated adult are correctly described as subjective but the capability of an adult far exceeds the infant.  The subjective capacity of a trained neurosurgeon, pilot of a 747, professional golfer, engineer, constructor, farmer, or theologian is reflective of a potentially thousands of  factors that make possible the high levels of performative subjectivity incomparable to any given person by age or by being uneducated or inexperienced. 

I heard my father describe a problem that is relevant to this discussion, and that is over the question  which Christian denomination was correct.  My father was a Baptist minister (Fundamental Bible Believing Baptist) during the early part of my life, he later taught in a Bible College until he retired.  He fully believed in the importance of self education.  He could read Hebrew and Greek, had earned multiple degrees, including a doctorate, and even after retirement was looking to find another school that might offer instruction into something that caught his interest.  He was still looking over school materials when he passed away at eighty-one.

His observation is pure epistemology (though he would probably not described it in those terms) concerning how anyone might claim to know their Christian denomination was true.  We ought to remember that this debate is taking place among participants who would all classify themselves as Christians and all essentially believe the Bible is true.  If we were to pose the question to a person of any one of the denominations the answer most like would include something along the lines of "it's in the Bible."  Many would describe it "I know its true because I know God is true."  To any of these answers my father would ask how could everyone one of these denominations be false but their own since they all claimed Biblical authority for their beliefs?  Depending on how far apart in beliefs is required to be a denomination results in varying numbers but there are over a hundred denominations in the US and over 40,000 worldwide.  The specifics of this information is not so difficult to find.  This is why the debate offers so much insights overall to the problems of knowledge.  Many when confronted with this dilemma will claim that God had provided for "our" needs by giving human beings the faculty of reason (or something like it) that makes knowledge possible.  This kind of answer faced the same problem as the first answer.  So the question is whether or not there is any way to discern which denomination was true or will we have to give up on making any judgments at all.

This is the same problem that we are dealing with concerning general questions of subjectivity and objectivity is problem with Biblical interpretation.  Does the Bible reveal, "beam," its objective truth (where all sides of this debate essentially believe that the Bible is true) to human beings?  That is, do human beings have identical (inborn) capabilities of objectivity to know the Bible's truth?  The question being because the Bible is true does that mean that our knowledge of the Bible is inherently and infallibly true.  Of course if this is true there is no way to discern between denomination.  There would be no way to decide the truth of the Bible as interpreted by denominations who  believe that individuals can lose their salvation by sin and those who believe that salvation is eternal (theologically, while both side believe that salvation comes from Jesus Christ one side attributes the power that binds salvation to the individual person wherein the alternate interpretation locates the power of the binding of salvation to the power of Jesus Christ as God).  In these cases the Bible as an object neither distributes its objective truth like we receive water when standing under a shower nor do individual human beings have a God-given faculty that "gives" truth.  The objectivity of the Bible (the truth of the Bible) is no guarantor of acquisition of that truth by individual human subjects.  This in no way suggests that the Bible cannot be known but that like all the problems of knowledge for human beings (the subjectivity component) requires education.  Not unlike many other skills knowledge of the Bible requires an extraordinary amount of effort in terms of education, reading, study, prayer, application, which also include things like taking into account Biblical questions of internal and external consistency, and so on.


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