What is “truth” or “knowledge”? Can we have “alternative facts”, my reality vs your reality, or are ideas a simple black and white true or false? As with many things in life, the answer is both yes and no. It depends on what you mean by “truth” or “knowledge”.
This is actually one of the most important questions to answer before having any discussion: What kind of knowledge are we talking about? It turns out that there are essentially two kinds of knowledge and they must be handled in two distinct ways. Mixing up the two creates very messy interactions involving a ton of confusion and often anger. Before you start criticizing or defending an idea, ask yourself whether the knowledge you are exploring is objective or subjective in its nature.
[DISCLAIMER: I am going to stay away from philosophical terms here as much as possible as they tend to confuse the non-philosopher – this doesn’t need to be complicated.]
Two kinds of knowledge
So let’s look at these two kinds of knowledge:
Objective knowledge: Reality that is not dependent of the perspective of the observer
Subjective knowledge: Reality that is dependent on the perspective of the observer
These are sometimes defined as “facts” vs “opinions”. Although not wrong to define as such, these words can be a little dismissive of subjective knowledge and actually get you into trouble. Some examples will make this easier to understand.
It should not be hard to agree that the reality of a dark skinned bisexual woman who grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi is very different to the reality of a light skinned straight man who grew up wealthy in the Hamptons. These differing realities are their subjective truths. Neither is “right” nor “wrong”.
However, regardless of those realities, we can say, without question, that the earth revolves around the sun. That is objectively true. You cannot say, “That is only true for white men.”
Now some people argue that ALL knowledge is objective or, conversely, that ALL knowledge is subjective – stay away from those people.
How we know what we know
Science, by definition, is concerned only with OBJECTIVE truths. The whole point of science is to remove the perspective of the observer to the point of finding inarguable descriptions of the natural world outside of the observers’ minds.
Over the past several hundred years, the scientific method, while not perfect, has shown itself to be far and away the best process to go about identifying objective truths. There is no, “MY truth”, “MY science”, “MY bias”. If the process was conducted properly, there is no room for those things. The ONLY way for you to arrive at ANY conclusion other than the general statement “the earth revolves around the sun” is to throw out the scientific process.
Exploring subjective knowledge
The process of establishing subjective knowledge is, by definition, subjective. This means that such knowledge can be very broad and very narrow at the same time. Again, some examples:
- I feel uncomfortable when in a room full of the opposite gender
- My parents raised me to say “Please” and “Thank you” and I am offended when others don’t do the same
- Although born with the label of “female”, my gender identity is male
- I am scared of Pop Tarts
- When I hear certain words, I feel oppressed
Now you can probably see that these are statements that really can’t be argued with (Pop Tarts are terrifying). They are true for that person and are based in feelings and emotions. The way we react when confronted with these purely subjective truths has to do with a reasonable level of tolerance.
Let’s use the example of words making someone feel oppressed. If the word that makes you feel oppressed is “the N-word”, I think it is reasonable in this day and age to be upset with someone using it, whether or not you are personally offended. It would also be reasonable to conclude that the white person who just used the word is happy to be considered racist and we can judge them as such unless the context is extreme (comedians like Louis CK and Neal Brennan have expertly explored this context and use the word in their acts).
If the word is “moist”, however, that is on you, no matter how offended you may be. Or am I an insensitive monster for using that word?
I do recommend people be careful when taking offense. Make sure that it is not just you personally taking offense. Sometimes taking offense is its own method of controlling others making it a tool of oppression itself.
Also understand that the language of other people may just make you uncomfortable for other reasons that aren’t necessarily bad. You don’t have to be happy or comfortable all the time – that would be boring…
Handling subjective knowledge
In a previous post, I talked about things like institutional racism – a situation where people who are NOT RACIST unintentionally act in such a way that results in racial oppression. I was very clear to point out that the individuals are NOT RACIST, but collectively the system is. The problem is ignorance of those subjective truths creating a power differential. This also goes on with institutional sexism as well.
What people must understand is that things that are subjectively true for you may not be subjectively true for others. Otherwise we end up with “You’re sexist!” followed by “No I’m not!” Both are right. Both are wrong. Nothing is accomplished.
Instead, consider this criticism:
“The majority of this community feel hurt by the use of words like that. Please understand that these words create an unintentional power differential against our community and we are trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate their use to reduce that power differential.”
If the person is thoughtful and not feeling attacked, it should result in:
“I apologize. Those words mean something different to me so please understand that such offense was not my intent and I greatly and humbly appreciate you bringing this to my attention. I did not know that they have such an effect on your community and will now try to adjust my use of such words in the future.”
Notice the phrase “please understand” in both statements. We all fumble through the world stepping on people’s toes from time to time typically from the position of ignorance. That doesn’t mean you keep stepping on other people’s toes or sit back and take getting your toes crushed. You try to find understanding.
Try not to categorically and permanently judge and label people because of your own offense.
Unless they used “the N-word”. Those people are probably racists.
The problem with subjective knowledge/truths
I was just pretty clear that subjective truths are a real, legitimate thing. They are basically beliefs that can’t be explored by the scientific method because they are subjective and poorly defined. One thing with subjective knowledge is that it should always result in an attempt at understanding and reaching a compromise. When it comes to subjective knowledge, we should try to stay out of each other’s way. Individual perspective is at the heart of the point at issue.
The problem is when objective knowledge is treated as subjective knowledge. Some examples:
- Because of my upbringing, I know that the earth is 6000 years old
- My father taught me that whites are smarter than blacks which I feel in my heart is true
- This treatment cures cancer because my mother used it and is now cancer free
- In my culture, we believe that women are inherently not capable of autonomy and treat them as such
This is NOT how we discuss objective knowledge! All of these beliefs are testable and falsifiable. They are not dependent on the observer. People use this “true for me” argument as a way to create a false equivalence. In his book The War on Science (read that book), Shawn Otto gives an example of how this plays out in modern society:
“Journalists look for conflict to find an angle, so there are always two sides to every story. Bob says 2 + 2 = 4. Mary says it is 6. It sounds surprising, but Mary may have legitimate reasons for her perspective. The media outlet gets a good headline and an interesting story, the controversy rages, and newspapers or web clicks are sold. A scientist would say that, based on the knowledge built up from observation, one of these claims can be shown to be objectively false and it’s poor reporting to paint this as a controversy, because it’s not. Using four apples, the scientist can quickly and objectively demonstrate that Bob is right. Not so fast, a politician might answer. How about a compromise? Soon we see a new law affirming that 2 + 2 = 5.”
Although Mary may feel insulted or offended by the disagreement, those feelings are irrelevant to the point at issue. She is not actually being oppressed here. We are talking about objective knowledge. She is demonstrably wrong. Compromise is not at all useful.
The nice thing about objective knowledge is that it exists independently of our feelings and beliefs. That means that there is a way to compare notes, check the process, challenge the ideas, and find agreement instead of misleading compromises. And that is done through the scientific method, a process specifically developed to separate objective knowledge from our subjective perspectives.
Challenge the process, not the claim. We don’t rely on our feelings.
Unless they used “the N-word”.
- Before you start criticizing or defending an idea, ask yourself whether the knowledge you are exploring is objective or subjective
- Objective knowledge: Reality that is not dependent of the perspective of the observer
- Subjective knowledge: Reality that is dependent on the perspective of the observer
- You don’t have to be happy or comfortable all the time – that would be boring
- With subjective knowledge, compromise and understanding is the best approach
- With objective knowledge, there is a definitive reality that we all should seek
- The scientific method is a process specifically developed to separate objective knowledge from our subjective perspectives
The featured image on this post is “TRUTH” by Nathan Rupert via Flicker.
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