Is Everything Subjective?

When I was studying for my undergraduate degree I remember writing a dissertation on the subjectivity of musical meaning. My argument was that the meaning of a piece of music is encapsulated not so much in the sounds we hear, but in the context in which we listen. My argument located musical meaning in the mind of the listener, rather than in the sound of the music.

While I was writing about this I began to consider subjectivity in other areas of life, and started to doubt there was any such thing as objective truth. Surely, I thought, everything is subjective. Even in the domain of science, where objectivity defines a way of thinking, I started to see that it was scientific minds that formulated truth, rather than there being any kind of objective reality.

It’s been a while since I’ve considered these things deeply, and no doubt my worldview has changed since I began to believe in God and study theology. If I reread my dissertation today it’s likely that I would cringe at certain statements I made concerning the absolute subjectivity of all things. Having said that, I do believe I was making an important point, and I read a quote today that is just the kind of thing I would have written back at uni:

You cannot write history without betraying your personal interest, because, from all that happens, you select the things that you are interested in and that you think are important.
(‘Unlocking the Bible’ by David Pawson, p703)

As with music, and perhaps science, history has a strong subjective element, and from a theological perspective we could say that the biblical authors were biased by their cultural background and circumstances.

On the other hand, it could be argued that due to the inspired nature of Scripture (see 2 Peter 1:21), the Bible is a rare example of how objective truth does exist. In this context, there is a relationship between objectivity and authority (we see this in the truth claims of scientists as well) – for if everything in Scripture is open to infinite interpretations this detracts from the force of any argument in favour of the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy.

With this in mind, I’ll close with the following thought (which I expand upon in my books) and this is something for advocates of Sola Scriptura to consider:

Truth is not encapsulated in the markings on a page, but is the result of God working in the minds of human beings as they read.

Wouldn’t you agree?

7 comments

  1. Everything is subjective. Our life experiences are unique for each of us, creating within us a unique mental model. When we encounter life, we compare each experience against this internal model, deciding whether to fine tune it and create an adjusted model.
    When I read your post, I read it subjectively. For example, my model tells me that 2 Peter was written about 100 years after Peter’s death, towards the end of the 2nd century. Consequently, when I read your reference to that document, my pre-existing mental model reacted accordingly.
    Luther’s “sola scripture” is not practiced, but is also influenced by the subjective “gospel within a gospel” model that each holds.
    The ideas that there is a spirit world, that there is a supreme Mind, is also subjective. Recognising this should enable create tolerance for alternate views. The idea that the minority YHWH-alone party of Jews were correct is subjective.
    Doug

  2. A postmodern attitude towards the subject of “boundary” has been replaced by what is awkwardly called “postpostmodernism”, but Descartes and other existentialist thinkers still dominate in the minds of many. Here’s a wikilink explaining what I mean here – it could be helpful. I’m an “absolutist” btw. 😉

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post-postmodernism

    1. Hey Katrellina,

      That’s the first time I’ve heard the term ‘postpostmodernism’ (and hopefully the last! haha) but I am interested to hear that you call yourself an absolutist. This seems to be a term that has several different definitions. Would you be willing to explain a bit more about what you mean by the term?

      Many thanks!

      Steven

  3. Oh, I know what you mean about “postpostmodernism” it’s such a mouthful! Yes, let’s scrap that.

    But … it seemed relevant because it questions boundaries which have been ousted by previous schools of thought with their emphasis on “it’s all in the mind”, “no boundaries”, “freedom to be whatever comes into your mind” etc,

    As defining the term, I’m using “absolutist” as being “above and beyond our individual bias and inner narrative”, and the opposite of “subjective”.

    God’s revelation of Himself is what we must rely on, through the divine working of the Holy Spirit, which is given direct from the Throne and which is untainted by the fall of mankind, and which we must receive by faith.

    Apologies if I’ve been lax by not being clear about what I mean.

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