“Objective” Has to Go

I hear the word “objective” used fairly often. I’ve heard it at home, at the university, at work, and even at church on occasion. One thing I think we fail to appreciate is that this word can have several different meanings and that some of these meanings may convey more philosophical baggage than we might know.

Although there may be more ways to use the word, I’ve decided to deal specifically with two ways I hear the word “objective” used daily.

First, people use the word “objective” as a noun to indicate a focus or goal.

“Our primary objective was to bake cookies for those who were unable to attend church this week.”

I have no problems with this use of “objective”.

A second way that “objective” is used is to distinguish objective “facts” from subjective opinions. The idea is that there are some things that are transparent, known, uninterpreted facts.

“From the scriptures we can learn objective truths like the fact that God knows the future.”

I do have a problem with this usage. I don’t think that we fully understand all of the philosophical baggage associated with using the term in this way. The subjective/objective distinction can be traced back to the philosophies of Kant and Plato. Kant described the world in terms of phenomena, (“things-as-they-appear-to-be”) and noumena, (“things-as-they-are-in-themselves”). Of course, being unable to escape our own particular perspectives, we are only able to see things as they appear to us. Philosophers have suggested different ways for us to get past this problem. The current popular belief is that modern science is able to bridge this gap and consequently allow us to distinguish between facts and opinions. Usually accompanying this idea is the belief that such objective knowledge is superior to mere subjective opinion in nearly every conceivable way (not that this argument is actually articulated–it is merely assumed).

However, not everyone believes that science works in this way. Notable scientists and philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn and Richard Rorty have argued against the belief that science uncovers objective truth. The problem comes when we draw an arbitrary line for what counts as fact and what counts as opinion. We know the line is arbitrary because it was an opinion as to where the line should be drawn–not a fact…but I digress. We ought to do our best to see this word replaced with a more accurate term. The word “rigorous” comes to mind. To revise our example sentence (above), I suggest simply removing all of the objective-style language. I think you’ll agree that the meaning is not only left intact, but expressed more clearly. “From the scriptures we can learn about God.”

There are several reasons Latter-day-saints in particular might want to abandon the second use of “objective.” One, it is often used to overstate the verity of a particular point of view over which there is not necessarily doctrinal consensus. For example, I have heard use of the word “objective” in describing both the “fact” that God definitely knows right now whether I will end up in heaven or not and the “fact” that He absolutely does not know where any of us will end up. If we are being honest with ourselves, the use of the word “objective” doesn’t actually add anything to the conversation, it is simply serving as a pseudo-superlative to truth. It is almost like we are saying, “this truth is the truthiest truth of all truths—its objective!”

A second (and more important) reason Latter-day Saints might want to change this vocabulary is to avoid connecting the church to the worldview of modern science. Members of the church often identify with the great inventions of current and past years. This identification is, perhaps, warranted by our understanding of Jesus Christ as the source of truth and light. Great people of the past did the best they could with the light that they had and we honor them. Sometimes modern scientists look at the world with similar glasses. To them, previous philosophers and scientists all worked toward the building of what has become the perfect method—the modern scientific method. To such scientists, all of the tools have been developed for man to discover all of the objective truths out there. Nothing else is necessary. While church members might identify with this perspective because of the similar way in which we view the importance of continuing revelation, science is not necessarily revelation. I would like to remind us all that science is an institution of man. It is an “arm of flesh” so to speak. It is undoubtedly flawed just as each of us mortal beings are undoubtedly flawed. Problems have been found and will continue to be found with modern science and the scientific method. Why should God’s church buy into their terminology and ideas? Why should we mingle their philosophies with ours? We have nothing to gain from the adoption of scientific philosophy and plenty to lose. If we aren’t interested in such an adoption, why adopt the terminology (and, consequently, the dualistic philosophy)?

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5 Responses

  1. Another reason we may want to abandon its usage is because what we deem as objective is unverifiable, and thus subjective. It’s an opinion.

    We may claim that our statements have been supported by spiritual manifestations, but even these cannot be verified or quantified.

    That being said, I do not recall anyone in the church using “objective’ in the second way you described.

  2. Kim,

    Thanks for your comments.

    Actually, I think spiritual manifestations CAN verify at least as well as anything man might use for the same purpose. Whether spiritual manifestations support statements is another matter. They certainly support individuals. My point was not to say that there are no facts, only opinions. My point was to say that we shouldn’t buy too much into the modern scientific paradigm. Perhaps I focused too much on one specific word when there are undoubtedly many others that might have served. For example, “subjective” would have worked just as well.

    Quantification isn’t really directly related to verification–at least not indubitably.

    I’m VERY glad to hear that you haven’t heard the word used in church. I haven’t heard it used terribly often, but I have heard it used sometimes–usually in comments from class members, but also occasionally by the teacher or in the bearing of a testimony . My experience may be partly due to my only having lived in college towns. I certainly hope this isn’t a widespread phenomenon.

  3. “objective” and “mission statement” are usually used in prideful context.

  4. I think the word objective refers to seeing something as an object, as opposed to part of you.

    If we can separate ourselves from an issue and view it without emotion- simply with logic and reason- that is being objective.

    An objective discussion- we’re both looking at something apart from ourselves and discussing it as an issue not charged with emotion or blame or personal attachment. We focus on the object.

    A subjective discussion- we’re taking something personally and making the discussion more about who is right rather than what is true. We may seem to be talking about an issue but if you listen carefully to our language you can see that we are talking about ourselves. We focus on the subjects.

    There is nothing wrong with being emotional or passionate or personal about things. But in order to approach truth- it is often necessary to learn how to separate ourselves from something and see it as an “object.” This is part of being humble.

  5. If ject means throw (thank you ACT prep cards) and ob means against and sub means under or in place of then maybe….


    I don’t know. How does that relate?

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