Sunday, March 14, 2010

Big T, little t


I’ve mentioned my first blog before, which was called, with stunning originality, “In My Humble Opinion”. I was able to update it twice a week for awhile; but then as my financial situation started demanding more overtime work just to stay reasonably poor, updates came with less frequency, until it died out about the end of 2004. (Unfortunately, since it was part of the now-defunct “AOL Hometown”—and since a virus wiped out my main hard drive—I no longer have any copies of the opinions I wrote back then.)

Between then and the first post of this blog, when my friends and I were discussing my starting again, I admitted that IMHO was too common a name or expression to stand out. (I was already considering “Outside the Asylum”, as an ironic reference to the late comedy-fantasy writer Douglas Adams’ wonderful book So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish … the irony enhanced by the fact that Adams himself was an atheist.) One of my friends, Larry, suggested I call the as-yet-unborn blog “Big T little t”. This was a very obscure reference to a long night of coffee and Deep Thinking many years ago, when to distinguish between certain kinds of reality we chose to separate the objective from the subjective by the clumsy verbal distinctions “big-T Truth” and “little-t truth”.

I did mention it was a long night, right? It’s difficult to be profound at 3:00 in the morning, even after two or three pots of Denny’s coffee. And no, we weren’t drunk, though we might just as well have been.

Larry is a subjectivist—or at least he was at the time. His particular brand of subjectivism, however, had at least the merit of making him accountable to his own beliefs. I pointed out to him that it led to the problem of contradicting positions being simultaneously true, that God (for instance) could be held to simultaneously exist and not exist … which is an absurd position to take. He smiled and said, “That’s true for you.” When I pressed further and declared the answer he gave me to be a circular argument, he smiled wider: “That’s true for you.” At which point I threw up my hands in resignation: Larry had found his bulletproof armor.

The problem I have with subjectivism is that it’s intellectually lazy. Grant that opinions upon a particular issue or subject may vary widely, with finer and rougher distinctions, with shades both finer and more boldly contrasting. Grant that cultural and social influences can skew the individual’s perspective so that the reality is not perceived straight on. Sometimes the best you can do is just create the best argument you can with what you know and work from it until something comes along to prove your argument invalid (though your conclusion may yet be utterly correct). It’s one thing to have a working theory of X, knowing that the picture is incomplete or perhaps skewed a little bit. But it’s another thing to argue that there’s no objective reality, and that all theories of X have the same truth value, even those that contradict each other.

One of the fundamental axioms of reason is that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same manner. If a quark has an “up” spin, it can’t have a simultaneous “down” spin. To affirm as a fact of the universe that God exists is to say that God can’t not exist. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it might not be a duck; but if it is a duck, then it’s not duck soup, nor is it a goose in a duck suit. To say what it is, is to exclude all the things it is not.

If there is no objective reality, then I do not exist. I can’t say that I believe I exist; I can’t say that I believe I don’t exist. I can neither affirm nor deny the truth of either proposition because there is no “I” to believe either proposition; there is no “I” to have even a delusion, let alone an opinion. We don’t know whether God exists or not because there is no “we” to have either a revelation or a fantasy. The quark can’t have both an “up” and “down” spin, not because superposition is a statistical construct, but because there are no “quarks” to have a spin, nor are there scientists to measure spin or supercolliders to spin them. Afrocentric history is just as much a fabrication as is traditional history because there is no human race to have a story about itself, whether true or false.

This kind of radical subjectivism is fatal not only to philosophy and theology but also to science, not simply because the statements they make can’t ever be classified as true or false but because there would be nothing they could be true or false about. We can’t even concede that objective reality is beyond our grasp, and settle for that ignominious compromise “intersubjectivity”, because we deal with objective realities both episodic and continual in our everyday lives, from holding babies to stepping in dog poo to dying of cancer. To agree to “intersubjectivity” is little more than to say that we shall come to a consensus about what lies, half-truths and wild-ass guesses we shall choose to promote. There is an is, and that “is” is knowable; to maintain any faith in the intellectual disciplines, we must hold that axiom to be not only self-evidently true but foundational to all knowledge, and whip from the temple all those who seek to deny it, no matter how “good” their intentions are.

So okay, acceptance of objective reality is necessary to most things. But isn’t some kind of subjectivism necessary to enable us to tolerate people of different religious beliefs? No, I wearily reply, only tolerance is necessary. I don’t need to think your religious beliefs true—even “true for you”—in order to be your friend, to hire you as an employee, or even to say “good morning” to you as I pass you on the sidewalk. Social science may require nonjudgmentalism in order to get the best understanding possible of social forces in a particular society or circumstance. However, nonjudgmentalism doesn’t require subjectivism to be valid or useful.

Subjectivism, then, is neither true nor necessary as either a basis for individual behavior or community policy. It suffers from what some philosophers call “self-referential incoherence”: in order to be true at all, it would have to be objectively true, and you can’t have an objective truth that says there’s no such thing as an objective truth. If you can’t know what’s objectively true, then you can’t say that subjectivism is objectively true. But if subjectivity is itself only subjectively true, then all it says is that people will hold out as eternal verities beliefs which have little or no grounding in The Way Things Really Are, and will maintain them even in the face of contrary experience and refuting evidence. Is such stubbornness grounds for respect or pity?

So much should common sense teach us. But if it’s true, then why do so many academics, especially those in the fields of social studies, push subjectivism on us? Because many of the social and political policies the intellectual elite wish to foist on society are based on theories of human life, interactions and behavior that simply can’t be reached by traditional (i.e., intellectually honest) reasoning or evidence-gathering. By cutting themselves loose from objective reality, they free themselves from any call to conform their theories to what empirical evidence and experience reveal. Just as people embrace moral relativism in order to commit and excuse evil, people embrace subjectivism in order to tell and believe lies. In this sense, subjectivism precedes relativism because it is necessary to accept the lie that there is no such thing as objective good and evil before you can propound the further lie that conflicting moral principles are of equal truth-value.

“Man tends by nature toward the truth,” The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us. “He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it: ‘It is in accordance with their dignity that all men, because they are persons . . . are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the demands of truth.’”[1] Morally, we are only responsible for those truths we know. However, subjectivism is an adoption of vincible ignorance: the person doesn’t know, not because the truth is inaccessible but because to learn it would be to become responsible for it.

“The truth shall make you free” (Jn 8:32). But when you spend a long time imprisoned in lies, the prospect of freedom is frightening.


[1] CCC 2467, cit. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, 109, 3 ad 1.