Hermeneutics,  Objectivity,  Religious Neutrality

Is Objectivity Possible?

Is it possible for a human being to be objective? Is there any such thing as objective truth? For Christians, the denial of such a possibility would leave a hermeneutic hole. If there is no possibility of objective truth then reading scripture would not yield what we have hoped for. We would also leave behind many other possibilities such as truths obtained in science and logic. Many deny objectivity outright. And those still holding to such an idea are often called modernists (now a slur in present academic circles)

Part of the trouble is that “objective” and “objectivity” have multiple meanings and are thought about in multiple contexts. John Feinberg, in his book, Can you Believe it’s True?, provides five options. “Objective” and “objectivity” can mean i) fair and unbiased ii) disconnected or dispassionate iii) true outside our minds iv) as it is apart from any knowing subject v) things not persons. In this post I will argue that one does not have to hold to all kinds of objectivity nor deny them all. Furthermore, objectivity is possible, in a limited sense, because Christianity is true, the Bible is true.

Let’s think about scripture for a minute. Leaving aside v) it seems that interpretation of scripture does not necessarily require i) or ii). In fact, it appears that right interpretation would need a bias towards the truth of the text and a passionate involvement in it. Believers examine the text as those under the authority of the text (it is the standard of truth), in a loving relationship with the divine author and loving the text itself (think of how David says he loves the law).

From a Christian perspective it is also not possible for a non-believer to examine the text without bias or in a disconnected way. This is because what scripture says amounts to a totalizing description of reality that includes the reader. The reader is told that he is created by God, sinful and deserving of eternal damnation. He is confronted with the demand to repent, turn from sin and to trust his life to the savior who is Jesus, the Messiah of the Jews, who died and rose again, now seated at the right hand of God, the Father, and who will personally return to judge the reader for his faith or lack of it. I hope you can see that it is not possible to examine this set of beliefs in a non-biased, dispassionate way!

If objectivity is defined in terms of i) or ii) then I think that kind of objectivity is not possible when it comes to scripture. And because I don’t think it is possible when it comes to scripture I don’t think it is possible when it comes to anything else, natural science included. Scripture tells us that everything is related to God by virtue of his having created it and his governing of it. Consequently every fact is “God’s fact” and what is true is determined by God. If that is true, then every fact is a religious fact. Consequently all human beings relate what they know to an ultimate or religious commitment, either to the Creator or to the created thing they put in his place (Rom 1). This rules out i) and ii) in any knowledge claim.

There is an important difference between objectivity and religious neutrality. By religious neutrality I mean the belief that one can evaluate evidence from a neutral point of view with respect to religion. Since human knowledge is God-dependant, human knowledge is God-related. In other words, one must make a religious assumption in every instance of knowledge. To make a religious assumption is to assume an ultimate, independent, self-sustaining, self-attesting point of reference in all instances of knowledge. Of course, this is not always done consciously, but is always assumed.

To see this one only has to survey knowledge claims found in philosophy. Those whose job it is to find and evaluate assumptions expose them most readily. And it turns out that not that many options exist. Some tend to take material as ultimate. Material things are eternal, self-sustaining, self-attesting and independent. They are the ultimate reference point when it comes to knowledge. Others presume that the mind is ultimate. This usually expresses itself in reference to reason, logic and alike. Still others contend that there is no ultimate reference point for knowledge. They, instead, turn to the subject (the god of our age). The self constructs reality.

That there is no such thing as religious neutrality does not rule out objectivity in the sense of iii), “true outside our minds.” Our interpretation of scripture requires iii) since scripture assumes to be making true statements (in the correspondence sense) that do not depend on our minds for their truth. The reason this kind of objectivity is not ruled out is theological. Objective (iii) truth is possible because God exists and determines all that is true. God believes certain propositions and because he believes them they are true. God reveals to human beings certain truths. They are truths that human beings are designed to know and given to human beings in a way that human beings can understand. That humans know anything is a result of God’s activity. In this present time God gives the Holy Spirit to believers who are made able to affirm those truths found in scripture (more than merely assent, but trust one’s life to those truths) and be convinced of them. But he also makes possible all other kinds of knowledge as well. Laws of logic and nature are God-dependent, their possibility rely on the necessary existence of God.

Some might respond by suggesting that even if God can obtain objective truth that doesn’t mean that any human being can have objective truth. We, after all, are stuck in cultural, historical situations with no ability to see all the truth. The kind of objectivity one have in mind is Thomas Nagel’s “bird’s eye view” form of objectivity. This is the most common kind in western thought. Objectivity is being able to “transcend” particular situations (culture, personality, presuppositions etc) and see from a neutral viewpoint. This has been modernity’s quest. If this is not possible, some might say, then there is no objectivity for human beings even if there is for God.

Thomas Nagel

In order to retain objectivity I would need to show a connection between God’s knowledge and the human ability to obtain knowledge. I think that is possible. Just because it is not possible for a human being to transcend particular situations does not mean that no one transcends human particular situations. Since God knows all that there is to know he has objective (iii) truth. All of it. And since God has made human beings he is able to design them in a way that, though they cannot know everything, they can come to true beliefs. That human knowledge is finite poses no problem as long as God’s knowledge is infinite (or complete).

This leads to iv), “as it is apart from any knowing subject.” In this regard I would say that truth is not possible without God. In other words, I take an Augustinian approach to truth. Truth is mind dependent in the sense that truth is dependent upon God’s thoughts. So I deny iv).

Skepticism arises when a person thinks that since there is no transcendent point of view, there is no objectivity that is possible at all. If one denies God, then one either rejects i) to iv) or accepts them all. The former, postmodern position, sees no way to preserve any notion of objectivity and holds that all knowledge is “theory-laden” and therefore not objective. The latter position considers fairness and a dispassionate view point a condition required for obtaining objective truth. I am suggesting that it is not necessary, if one is a theist, to pick between these two poles. One can hold to objectivity in one sense (iii), but not another (i, ii, iv).

It might be suggested that, by surrendering objectivity in terms of fairness and bias, one precludes the possibility of reaching agreement between human beings when it comes to conflicting claims. Since fair reading of evidence is required in order to reach agreement no such course is available if fairness is rejected. I am sympathetic to this desire, but am not sure that agreement requires fairness or dispassionate observation. Nor do I think agreement is vital to objective truth.

Consider our two poles. The first pole says agreement is not possible because objectivity, in any sense, is not possible. The second pole says agreement is possible because objectivity is possible in all senses. My position seems to entail something like agreement is not possible but objectivity, in a limited (iii) sense, is. The weakness of my view is that this seems to offer a despairing view of human relationship. If there is no possibility of agreement then everyone is right in their own eyes.

The strength of the position is its ability to make sense of what is the case – we humans disagree all the time about many things. However, objectivity, in my view, does not imply possible agreement on all things between all human beings. It does not rule out agreement only complete agreement.

Let me explain. Remember that I am defending objectivity on the basis that God knows all truth and has made us such to be able to come to know truth and that he reveals some truth to us in ways we can understand. This suggests that God restrains such despair. While complete agreement is not possible between human beings, in their present condition, that does not mean no agreement is possible between human beings. That is because human beings know through revelation. God reveals truth to human beings in a way that they can comprehend. As human beings agree with God they, consequently, agree with one another.

The reason for disagreement is fundamentally the human propensity to regard himself as originator of knowledge. This is Adam and Eve’s problem in the garden. They wanted to verify God’s truth by testing by an autonomous standard. There is hope that one day those God has saved will be able to think God’s thoughts after him without sin. There will be, in the end, final agreement on who Christ is when every knee shall bow, but until then we should not judge our epistemology by whether or not we would be able to agree with each other, but on whether or not we agree with God.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.