Subjectivism – What is it?

Subjectivism is a philosophical position which holds that the nature of reality depends upon the one perceiving or thinking about it. In this view, there is no mind-independent reality. This is a metaphysical view, where nothing real exists except that which is perceived by a mind. Subjectivism also exists in an ethical sense. In this case, what is good, bad, right, and wrong are merely expressions of a person's attitude or social convention. Subjectivism does not necessarily deny that physical things exist, but it does deny that things exist independently of something (e.g. a mind) being conscious or thinking about it.

Subjectivism is the antithesis of objectivism. The latter view holds that things exist independent of minds or consciousness. Objective ethics hold that good, bad, right, and wrong are not reducible to a person's attitude; there are objective moral values and duties that exist regardless of one contemplating them or not. Subjectivism is closely related to relativism, which takes on myriad forms. But the primary themes are that things do not exist in themselves and that knowledge is only from one's own mental framework. In this view, there is no objective or absolute truth because the only things we can rationally affirm are things as they seem or appear to us. Making an objective truth claim is futile because each person encounters the world in a unique way.

In many respects subjectivism/relativism is the predominant view in contemporary Western culture. We often hear things like "that's true for you, but not true for me," and so forth. Depending upon the context, such a statement could be frivolous or outright false. If the conversation is about a person's emotion, feeling, or opinion, then the term 'truth' is just being used in an equivocal (dissimilar) sense. This is not to discount that it could be true that a person is feeling sad or likes chocolate ice cream. But if the context of "true for you, but not true for me" is about something in the world or the way things are, then the statement collapses under the weight of contradiction.

One major problem with subjectivism/relativism is that it assumes an objective basis upon which to make a subjectivist argument. On what grounds can the subjectivist assert that subjectivism is true? This is equivalent to saying it is objectively true that subjectivism is true. The subjectivist is forced to step out of their view to make the argument, which is inconsistent and contradictory. It is only by trading on an equivocation or gross misunderstanding of the term 'truth' that the subjectivist can make their assertions. Another problem with subjectivism is that it makes an ad hoc argument in an effort to respect the way different people encounter the world. It is of course true that what a 5-foot tall person perceives in their relation to a regulation basketball goal differs from that of a 7-foot tall person. But none of this changes the fact that both persons are perceiving the exact same thing in the world.

Subjectivism ends up with so many problems because it gets things entirely backward from the beginning. These problems are particularly evident in the position that things only exist insofar as they are perceived. At first glance, there seems to be some force to this claim. If there was nobody around to perceive the chair in front of me, how could anyone really know there was a chair? But this assumes that it is possible in principle for me to perceive a chair without one existing. That is, it is possible that I could have the idea of a chair in front of me when there is no chair, or I could have the identical perception/idea of the chair while surfing in Hawaii. Yet this starting point is almost always assumed and not argued for. Further, such a starting point takes on a view of human cognition that begins with the mind and subsumes or eviscerates the senses from the mind. And there is no need to accept this position.

Contra the idea underwriting subjectivism, we cannot avoid that there are just things in the world, existing in themselves, that impinge upon our senses. And this is what causes our perception. We have no reason at all to think that the nature of reality depends upon perception. The order of knowing must begin with the existence of things in themselves. This is so that the one perceiving can even affirm their self-existence! We cannot begin with our own existence, thoughts, or ideas without presupposing that things in the world exist in themselves. What we know is reality, not ideas or perceptions about reality. This distinction might seem trivial, but the entirety of one's understanding of the world hangs in the balance.

The Bible speaks directly to each person created in God's image. The Word of God penetrates directly to our heart (Hebrews 4:12–13). There is no presumption or implication of subjectivism. First, the Bible tells us that God exists in Himself (Genesis 1:1; Exodus 3:14). To claim the Bible teaches that God can be affirmed to exist insofar as He is perceived by us is absurd, yet this is an inevitable conclusion of subjectivism. The Bible tells us God created things before man existed to perceive them (Genesis 1:1–25). It will not do to claim that the created order existed insofar as God was perceiving or thinking of it, because this imputes subjectivism to God Himself and does not escape the other problems mentioned above. Writing under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul tells us that God is clearly known to all people by the things He has made (Romans 1:18–20; 2:14–15). But, in subjectivism, such a statement about things made and conclusions drawn from them would be wrong. When Paul addresses the Athenians, he speaks to an objective reality for all (Acts 17:16–34). That Christ was crucified, died, buried, and raised on the third day does not depend upon our perception, nor are these claims relativistic at all (1 Corinthians 15:3–7). Thus, subjectivism and Christianity are highly incompatible.

Related Truth:

What is absolute truth? Does absolute truth really exist?

Is truth relative?

Faith vs. science. Is there a contradiction between faith in God and science?

Rationalism vs. empiricism – What is a Christian view?

What is a Christian view of the intellect?

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