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A Critical Distinction in Philosophical Realism

 

Objective Experiences and
Subjective Experiences

by Jonathan Dolhenty, Ph.D.

 

We could all save ourselves a great deal of time and trouble, not to mention headache and heartache, if only we would learn the distinction between objective and subjective propositions, between public context and private context, between objective knowledge and subjective introspection or belief, and between what assertions can be genuinely argued and those which cannot be argued. Furthermore, a knowledge of the distinction between matters of truth and matters of taste is essential.

We may spend a good portion of our time arguing over things which cannot be the subject of argumentation. Many people confuse their "feelings" with their "thoughts." Many people confuse "truth" with "opinion." Many others confuse "belief" with "objective assertions."

 

Objective Propositions

Objective propositions are assertions derived from sources of knowledge which can be publicly experienced and that are capable of public verification. This means that, in so far as evidence, proof, or demonstration is concerned, whatever is contained within the category of objective propositions must be accessible to the public at large in some way or other and at some time or other. Assertions of this type are assertions in a "public context." What is to be included?

Certainly it seems obvious that propositions stating facts acquired through direct observation should be included. If someone says it's raining outside, all we have to do to verify his claim is to go outside ourselves and observe the immediate environment. If an argument ensued inside the house about whether or not it was raining outside, the argument could easily be settled by all parties to the argument going outside to experience the rain. The proposition "It is raining outside," if true, certainly would be objective knowledge.

It also seems obvious that self-evident propositions acquired through thinking should be included as objective propositions. The truth of the fundamental propositions of thought, such as the principle of identity and the principle of non-contradiction, is accessible to anyone who thinks about it. The same thing holds true for the propositions "I exist" and "My intellect is capable of knowing the outside world around me."

Arguing about whether or not you exist, either with yourself or someone else, is a total waste of time, worthy only of freshman philosophy students who have nothing better to do. Such an argument is useless since you must accept the truth of self-existence before it can even be argued about.

These two forms of propositions, that is, assertions based on sense-perception through direct observation and assertions based on intellectual awareness through reasoning, can be publicly experienced and verified by any rational person. They are, then, said to be rational methods of acquiring knowledge. Such propositions, under normal conditions, also have the quality of absolute certainty or certitude. If you can't accept these types of propositions as true, there is nothing to really discuss or argue about at all. We would have to remain silent and thoughtless forever!

Another method of deriving objective propositions, which is related to, but not identical with, the above methods, is through what is generally called scientific research or the scientific method. This method begins with sense-perception (which is why we refer to its findings as "empirical" knowledge and the sciences associated with it as empirical sciences) and then goes beyond sense-perception to the process of reasoning about what is found empirically, which then expands our knowledge of the world even beyond what we can immediately experience with our ordinary senses.

The empirical sciences, such as biology, chemistry, and physics, use various procedures and processes to seek out truth and these are referred to generally as the scientific method. These scientific procedures and processes result in scientific laws, scientific hypotheses, and scientific theories.

True scientific findings can be verified in some way or other by the public (which, for the most part in this case, means the community of scientists), so we include them in the category of objectively-derived propositions. Since the scientific method uses reasoning (both inductively and deductively) and the reasoning procedures can be checked and verified by any rational person, the scientific method is said to be a "rational" method of acquiring knowledge.

Our immediate empirical observations ("It is raining outside") and self-evident intellectual propositions ("A is A"), assuming they are properly arrived at and verified, can be said to have absolute certitude. Can the same be said for the laws and theories of empirical science? Can a finding of empirical science be considered absolutely true? The answer is generally "no." These findings have certitude only to some degree or other and are, therefore, called "probable." The probability may be extremely high, even approaching 100% of certitude, but they are not absolutely certain in and of themselves.

Objective propositions, then, are capable of being publicly verified in some way and at some time by any rational person. The methods used to arrive at objective propositions include sense-knowledge, inductive and deductive reasoning, and the scientific methodologies. These methods are considered rational, insofar as any rational person may verify the findings included in the category of objective knowledge.

What about the findings of philosophy? Are philosophical propositions to be included in the category of objective propositions? Here we enter the land of historical and contemporary controversy. There have been and are many philosophers who maintain that philosophical truth is beyond our capabilities. There are also philosophers who claim that they found the absolute, ultimate truth and have expressed it as a comprehensive philosophical system. Then there are philosophers who argue that not only is philosophical truth beyond our capabilities, but there is no such thing as philosophical truth at all!

First, it needs to be said that, if there is no philosophical proposition that can be absolutely true, there are no other propositions that can be either absolutely or probably true. If we don't accept the absolute truth of the primary philosophical truths, then the entire structure of knowledge falls apart and we end up in universal skepticism, where nothing at all can be known.

What are the primary philosophical truths? They are three in number:

  • The First Fact is my own existence, expressed as the proposition "I exist."
  • The First Principle is the principle of contradiction, expressed as the proposition "It is impossible for something to be and not to be at the same time in the same respect."
  • The First Condition is the essential trustworthiness of my reason, expressed as the proposition "My reason is capable of knowing truth."

Each of these truths is absolutely certain. Wipe out any one of these, deny the truth of any one of them, and it is impossible to have knowledge at all. There are, then, no discussions to be had, no arguments to pursue, and no moral or legal principles to guide us.

We know that these three primary philosophical truths are included in the category of objective propositions because any rational person can verify them. Even the hard-nosed philosophical skeptic has to assume their truth in order to deny them!

Second, there are other philosophical truths which can be placed in the category of objective propositions. We will not go into detail about these other truths at this time. What will be said, however, is that any philosophical proposition which is based on the truth of the primary truths, which uses properly the inductive and deductive methods available to us, and is capable of being verified by any rational person, can be said to be a philosophical proposition falling into the category of objective propositions and constitutes, therefore, objective knowledge.

The assertions that constitute objective knowledge, propositions which can be publicly verified by any rational person, are said to be assertions in a "public context." These assertions are either true or false, absolutely or to some degree of probable certitude, and can be the focus of rational argumentation.

 

Subjective Propositions

We now come to the matter of subjective propositions. These are assertions derived from and within a "private context." Subjective propositions include all assertions derived from sources of knowledge which cannot be publicly experienced and whose propositions are not capable of public verification. This means that, in so far as evidence, proof, or demonstration is concerned, whatever is contained within this category is not accessible to the public at large in some way or other and at some time or other. What is to be included?

It seems obvious that certain statements regarding our internal states of body and mind belong in this category. For example, if I feel a pain in my chest and I say to you, "I have a pain in my chest," this statement cannot, strictly speaking, be publicly verified. No one else can feel the pain in my chest. Of course, you may have experienced chest pains yourself in the past and can relate somewhat to what I'm feeling. But in no sense can you actually feel my pain. This is an internal physical experience that I am having and all I can do is relate it to you. You'll have to take my word that I am truly experiencing the chest pain I say I am having.

The same holds true for internal mental-emotional states. I am depressed, or feeling low, or am content, or am anxious, and these experiences are real for me. No one else can feel my emotional state and, as far as we know now, no one else can experience my private thoughts as I am experiencing them. I can tell you what I am feeling or what I am thinking, but I cannot produce direct evidence, or proof, or demonstrate that what I am telling you is true.

It is certainly true, however, that I might exhibit behavior, or external cues, or what we call "body language," which may provide you with enough information to guess or estimate what I'm feeling or thinking. But, in no way, can you directly experience my private internal states as your own. I realize there are some who claim to be able to get inside our heads and read our thoughts, or who claim to be able to experience our internal physical states, but these claims are so far just that - claims. There is no evidence yet that such claims are true. These claims themselves are in the category of subjective propositions.

These internal states we all experience, whether physical, mental, or emotional, are private states and any statement we make about these internal states of body and mind belong in the category of assertions derived from and within a "private context." These statements may be true; they are not, however, publicly true or objectively true. These sorts of statements we shall call subjective propositions of "introspection."

The category of subjective propositions also includes assertions derived from sources such as intuition, mysticism, revelation, and certain sources labeled "paranormal." Intuition is always a personal experience. The mystic's experiences are private. Revelation, whether human or divine, demands "faith" as its criterion of belief. If human or divine revelations were public knowledge, we wouldn't need any "faith" associated with them, for faith is needed only where no acceptable public verification exists or is possible.

A "paranormal" source of knowledge is more difficult to analyze. At the present time, it seems prudent to keep statements whose source is paranormal or extrasensory within the category of subjective propositions. There is some evidence, mainly anecdotal, that there may be something to such paranormal phenomena as mental telepathy and clairvoyance. Furthermore, there may be something to some of the claims made by so-called "psychics." The question has not been finally resolved and there are ongoing investigations into the phenomena, but no definitive answer has been found.

Revelation, intuition, introspection, mystic experiences, and, for now at least, paranormal phenomena, are designated as belonging to the category of subjective propositions, assertions within a "private context." If these subjective propositions are not derived from personal "introspection," from our internal bodily or mental states, we call these subjective propositions, "beliefs." We refer to these as personal beliefs, or religious beliefs, and so forth. These beliefs as beliefs (at least at the present time) are not capable of public verification and are not, therefore, "rational" in the sense we are using the term here. If a belief becomes publicly verifiable, it ceases to be a belief, and it enters the category of objective propositions or assertions of a "public context"; it becomes a fact or state-of-affairs. It is knowledge, not belief or mere opinion.

If a belief was truly rational, then no rational person could deny it and the evidence, proof, or demonstration needed to support the belief would be accessible to any rational person. In fact, we wouldn't be talking about a belief at all, but statements regarding facts or states-of-affairs.

 

Rational, Nonrational, and Irrational

While beliefs based on revelation, intuition, introspection, mysticism, and paranormal sources, are not rational, it does not follow that they are irrational, as some people maintain. As we are using the term "rational" here, the opposite of it is "nonrational," not "irrational." Divine revelation, for instance, is a nonrational source of subjective propositions. Intuition is a nonrational source and so is introspection.

The term "irrational" refers to a proposition, not a source, that is self-contradictory or contradicts an empirical or theoretical proposition whose truth is established beyond reasonable doubt. There are, then, no strictly irrational sources of knowledge. But there can be propositions derived from either rational or nonrational sources which are irrational propositions.

Let's consider an example. The question as to whether or not the earth is spherical or flat can be resolved by an appeal to rational sources of knowledge, including sense-knowledge, reasoning, and the scientific method. The answer to the question can be determined by any rational person willing to do the necessary research. It can be publicly verified one way or the other. The final answer, in so far as any answer is final, can be found and verified over and over again.

If a friend comes up to me and says, "The earth is a sphere," I know he is speaking the truth. If I have any doubt about it, I can check it out myself. He has correctly stated a fact, a state-of-affairs, and his proposition is a rational statement based on rational sources.

If, on the other hand, my friend says to me, "The earth is flat," I know he is making a false statement. If we get into an argument about it, the argument is resolved by checking out the facts using sense-knowledge, reasoning, and the scientific method, which are the rational sources used to decide matters of this kind. Since his statement contradicts what we (or any rational person) know to be the truth, his statement is irrational.

Propositions generated from nonrational sources present us with a problem. Can a proposition based on revelation, for example, be said to be irrational? Revelation is a nonrational source and belongs to the category of subjective propositions, those within a "private context." I can think of only one situation where a proposition based on revelation, or another nonrational source for that matter, can be said to be irrational. This would be where an inconsistency occurs within a deductive argument within the category of subjective propositions. The only type of irrational proposition that could occur within the "private context" category of subjective propositions would be one that was irrational only because it was the conclusion of an argument that was illogical.

Remember that only arguments can be logical or illogical, valid or invalid. Propositions, on the other hand, can be true or false, but not logical or illogical. When we say, mistakenly, that a proposition is "illogical," we really mean that the proposition does not follow consistently from the other propositions supporting it. We always have to keep in mind the distinction between truth and validity.

A proposition whose source is nonrational is incapable of being verified by using techniques associated with the category of subjective propositions. If it could be so verified, it would be a proposition belonging to the category of objective propositions or be within the "public context." A proposition within the "private context" might, however, be inconsistent with other previously accepted propositions within the same private context. If it is a conclusion drawn illogically from the premises used to justify it, then to that extent the proposition would be considered "irrational."

So we can say the following. There are at least two possible categories of sources of knowledge: rational and nonrational. These two categories are distinguished from one another on the basis of whether or not the propositions contained therein are capable of public verification.

Propositions based on sense-knowledge, reasoning, and scientific methods are capable of being openly verified by any rational person, and we call these sources "rational." Propositions based on revelation, intuition, mystical experiences, introspection, or paranormal experiences are not (as yet, anyway) capable of being openly verified by all or most rational people, and we call these sources "nonrational."

A proposition within the category of objective propositions is said to be irrational if it is self-contradictory or contradicts what is known empirically or theoretically to be true. A proposition within the category of subjective propositions is said to be irrational only if it is the result of illogical reasoning within that category.

 

Arguments Within the Categories

An important characteristic of objective propositions is that the propositions contained within this category are capable of being publicly argued. This contrasts with propositions within the category of subjective propositions. In a strict sense, these propositions cannot be publicly argued simply because there is no method of public verification to be applied to them. However, should a proposition within the category of subjective propositions become capable of public verification at some later point in time, then that proposition would move from the category of subjective propositions to that of objective propositions.

This is not to say that some sort of argument cannot take place within the category of subjective propositions. But, it seems to me, this sort of argument would have to be a strictly private one between parties who accepted or denied a certain proposition already contained within the category of subjective propositions.

I can, for example, imagine a situation where two theologians are arguing over the Christian doctrine of Transubstantiation. This is the doctrine regarding the "real" presence of Jesus Christ's body and blood in the bread and wine used during the communion ritual held in many Christian churches. Catholics, and some other Christian denominations assert that the "real" presence is there, while other denominations believe that Christ's body and blood are only symbolically present.

The source for the proposition which asserts or denies such a claim is allegedly the private context of divine revelation. The propositions could be stated this way:

  • Proposition 1: Christ's body and blood are present in a "real" sense in the bread and wine used in communion.
  • Proposition 2: Christ's body and blood are not present in a "real" sense in the bread and wine, but are present only "symbolically."

Which proposition is "true"?

There is, of course, no way of transferring the propositions into the public context and utilizing sense-knowledge, inductive or deductive reasoning, or the scientific method. The entire argument must take place only within the private context of subjective propositions. There is no way of using "outside" sources in the public domain to settle the argument. Actually, the "truth" of either proposition seems to be entirely dependent upon how one interprets relevant passages in the Bible. The Bible itself is a source of knowledge only within the private context. The Bible does contain "secular" passages which can be matters of public context, such as historical places and events, but these verifiable passages are of little, if any, use in deciding questions of theological doctrine.

Back to the original question: Which proposition above is "true"? There is, as far as I know, no way to settle such an "argument." And here is the reason I say so. Consider how the propositions above should really be stated:

  • Proposition 1: I believe that Christ's body and blood are present in a "real" sense in the bread and wine used in communion.
  • Proposition 2: I believe that Christ's body and blood are not present in a "real" sense in the bread and wine, but are present only "symbolically."

Once the statements are in this form, which I think is the proper form, there is no genuine "argument." The only reply I could make to either one is: "No, you don't believe that." This, of course, would be absurd because I have no way of knowing whether or not the theologians involved really believe what they are stating.

A genuine argument can exist only where there is a genuine assertion of affirmation or denial. And, therefore, in a very real sense, genuine arguments cannot occur within the private context. The knowledge involved in the public context category is "objective" in the sense that it is "out there" to be verified by any rational person using the techniques cited above. The knowledge involved in the private context category is "subjective" in the sense that it is "in here," that is, in one's own mind. With the exception of statements about our internal physical, mental, and emotional states, we usually refer to this latter kind of knowledge as "beliefs." And if a belief is actually verified as true, it is no longer a belief. It becomes an objective proposition within the public context and is known to be true, either absolutely or to some degree of probability. It becomes, then, knowledge, and not mere opinion or belief.


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