The Opposite of Objectivism is Not Relativism

March 23rd, 2014 | Posted by Lana Hope in Culture | History | Philosophy


In my last post, I wrote about how the scientific method has limits. Mostly it’s just common sense. Like everything in life, we have a finite view of the world. In other words, we can’t see it all.

I also mentioned that we cannot see the world objectively. This has led some readers to think I am advocating relativism. I assure you, I am not, and I thought I would explain why because I think it’s SO important to realize that we don’t need to choose between pure objectivism and pure relative chaos.

I have studied the work of Martin Heidegger and his student Hans-Georg Gadamer, both of the 20th century, and I draw my critique from these two thinkers, the former an atheist, and the latter a non-theist. Both saw the limits of the scientific method, and neither one saw this as evidence that theism is true.

Heidegger argued that neither modern science nor religion has admitted that we are born with a “preunderstanding” of the world. We were born to this earth randomly, and we don’t choose our history. If our parents had not met and had sex at that precise moment, we would not be here. Heidegger notes that religion tries to ignore this by saying it all happened for a reason, and our lives were destined to be here at this time. Science of modernity might admit that our chance of being here was pretty random, but modern science tries to say that we can now ignore our history and step back from the world and objectively contemplate the world. Heidegger denied that it was possible to see the world completely objectively.

Most people try to say that we can think critically, evaluate the evidence, and change our beliefs, and then we are “free” and know the truth. Heidegger thought this was a ridiculous way of understanding truth. Atheists call themselves “free thinkers.” But for Heidegger, freedom is not ridding ourself of all of our history and personality.

Certainly Heidegger was against following the herd, what he called the das man. Just believing something because everyone else believes it is not a good reason to believe it. But Heidegger argued that we have to learn to embrace the reality that we are a being-in-the-world (that we exist within the world). We don’t choose our place in history anymore than we choose our skin color. We can’t rid ourselves of our “preunderstanding.” For example, before you even evaluate an object, you have some idea of what that object is. You may be wrong, but you have an idea. This is called pre-understanding, but more broadly we have a preunderstanding about the world and our situation in the world that we carry with us wherever we go.

The point is that if you are a being-in-the-world (aka, if you exist) then you are always projecting ideas onto something, and you are always bringing your knowledge with you to the table. This is why an “objective” view of the world is impossible. You will ALWAYS come to the table with a worldview. This is also why free thought is impossible. You are not thinking freely of all ideas. You are bringing ideas with you to the table. (Note: Heidegger would also say that you are not free from “orthodoxy.” Even our notion of individuality is very influenced by our western religious heritage. Re: Augustine.)

So I don’t believe a completely objective outlook on life is possible. People assume this makes me a relativist. But this is not true. No one said that just because we can’t quantify truth and verify it objectively means that we get to believe anything we want. We still confront the object (whether in the science lab or in a book), and it shapes our views. But it’s not so simple that we ever grasp it with an objective lens.

I’ve lived in three countries and traveled on three continents. I’m always amazed when I encounter the east that thinks so differently – even basic concepts like cause and effect are filtered so differently in SE Asia.

I find it fascinating the difference in the philosophy of Germany, who was influenced by Hegel and Heidegger, and North America, who was influenced by Russell. Heidegger was an atheist, but he still drew on Christian references because he believed that Christianity was still part of his history. He did not see religion as “garbage” or believe that it was necessary to rid himself from this heritage in order to think objectively. It’s interesting because Germany does not have separation of church and state in government education, and I understand that people pay a church tax there unless they opt out. In North America we consider both highly offensive, but like a good Russell pupil, we also think it’s possible to be objective, and we pride ourselves that we are not biased. As Gadamer rightly said, we are prejudice against prejudices.

I think Heidegger would tell us to keep thinking, but if we are going to think, we should not just think about what is true or false; we should think about how we think. One student in one of my classes the other week said he was exploring alternative ways of knowing. The professor missed the point and laughed that alternative ways of knowing would lead him to believe in ferries and elves. The professor missed the point because she thinks truth is a matter of capturing it in a science lab instead of recognizing that truth is filtered through our worldviews, and in order to change the truth, we first have to recognize the way that the worldviews are playing on us.

The world carries truth with it – for example, truth is seen in history, in literature, in science, and in religion. Likewise, we carry ideas and preunderstanding with us. As we grow up, we encounter the world through history and art, and then the ideas of the world fuse together with our ideas. This is how knowledge really works.  This is what education is. We encounter the alien, and it merges with our experiences, and then we think in new or more correct ways. Education is not a blank tablet and about imparting new ideas on that blank tablets. It’s a merging of new ideas.

This is why science (apart from how it functions in modernity) is so important, but it’s not the end all. The end all is not what’s in the test tube. It’s about the way that truth is shaping us.

I am against free thought, but I am not against atheism. There is nothing wrong with not believing in a god, but we are never thinking independently of the world.

I don’t want to think free from history; I want to expand my world. Sure we may trim out the wrong ideas. But we are never completely detached from it all. We are still earthlings, and are never completely devoid of heritage.

Back to my post yesterday, unfortunately this means that we are finite and limited. But as finite creatures, I don’t see how we can claim anything else. The only one who could possibly have an objective view of the world is God.

I hope this clears up some of what I am saying although I suspect that I’ve made it worse. I really recommend Hegel, Heidegger, and Gadamer, but they are all tough reads. If you are intellectually inclined, pick of Gadamer’s Truth and Method. It’s the easiest place to start.  If you are going to read Hegel for the first time, read his “Master-Slave Dialectic.” I read it as an undergrad and understood it; for Hegel, that says something because he is complicated.

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  • L

    “This is also why free thought is impossible. You are not thinking freely of all ideas. You are bringing ideas with you to the table.”

    I see what you’re getting at and i agree with that distinction. As an atheist, though, I call myself a free thinker because I am no longer forced to adhere to a creed. To me it just means I’m allowed to think outside the box now, not that I think I can see all the boxes and am outside all of them. I’ll remember your point, though.

    • Lana Hope

      I can totally understand that. and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you using it that way if it helps you. However, I am confident that that phrase was chosen because of our heritage in positivism aka Russell et all. He said that we could just put religion behind, and it was gone. It’s not realistic at all.

  • https://questionablemotives.wordpress.com tildeb

    What bothers me about your thesis is the lack of recognition that beliefs (explanations) that demonstrably work independently of any subjective perspective or world view we bring to these beliefs (explanations) means something important about the quality of these beliefs compared to beliefs (explanations) that don’t fit the same criteria (the claim that we are carriers for disembodied thetans, or the special creation of a divine agency, for two examples of claims that do not work independently of a subjective perspective or world view).

  • http://gravatar.com/insanityranch insanityranch

    As a Buddhist, I agree with your point here. There is no self separate from the rest of the universe. Our model of the universe (though perhaps ultimately inescapable, since that’s how our brain works) is inevitably wrong in ways we cannot determine. But we can nevertheless live as moral agents rather than simply being carried along by events. We begin by cultivating virtue, and we aim always to focus on our moment-to-moment encounter with reality. This tiny point of space, constrained to one moment of time, where we encounter reality is where we can and must act. As we become more skillful at managing this ever-changing opportunity to act, we experience freedom and also stability.

    • Lana Hope

      Yes, this is also something analytical philosophy has lost touch with – this idea that virtues is cultivated through our surroundings! And then we become better people.

  • Dan McDonald

    Thank you Lana. I appreciated all this very much. We are finite creatures, with finite ability to comprehend our universe, with experiences shaping us without our ability to understand those influences, and so our capacities to enter in the shaping of ourselves comes by decisions, although finite, to place ourselves in such ways as will grow our virtue, our understanding, and our community with others. For me there is a sense in knowing that I am not free in an ultimate sense makes all that much more important to take hold of the possibility of freedom in every limited sense so as to shape what we can shape of our destiny for a lack of a better word.

  • brambonius

    Very important stuff that everyone should know, even if they don’t know about philosophers and academic thought. Those people might even need this insight more…

    • Lana Hope

      Agree. The western worldview has been shapped by the development of philosophy and science. This is why it’s important to understand that it’s a worldview and not an end all.


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