The metaphysical concept that all truth is subjective is fun to muse on, with it we can be skeptics and question what we know. With that said, we build bridges and machines all the time. If there was no objective truth, our technologies wouldn’t work. Figuring out what is true isn’t always easy, but that is what it is, truth often exists without our ability to determine it with certainty (but that is a complexity, not a rebuttal to this longstanding debate).
The Idea that All Truth is Subjective; That there is No Objective Truth:
Is Truth Objective or Subjective? Is All Truth Subjective? Is There Objective Truth?
This doesn’t mean we can know every truth, this doesn’t mean that what is true for the observer isn’t unique to the observer. It just means that ultimately, underling that, “that which is the case, is the case, independent of our ability to confirm it” and “statements phrased correctly have an absolute truth value.”
To get this argument you need to understand our terms, so let’s define them:
- Objectivity: That which is confirmable as true. The state or quality of being true even outside of a subject’s individual biases, perspectives, interpretations, feelings, imaginings, and/or opinions. True for everyone (or confirmable as true, despite the subjectivity, opinion, and belief of some); truth based on empirical evidence or formal logic. Ex. “Water is wet” or “1+1=2.” This type of truth is necessarily and certainly true. It has an absolute truth-value independent of subjectivity.
- Subjectivity: That which we perceive. Knowledge-based on individual biases, perspectives, interpretations, feelings, imaginings, and/or opinions. True for a specific individual; truth based on perspective. Ex. “The water feels cold to me.” This is a type of truth that is subjective but has an absolute truth value to the observer that relates back to their perception of absolute truth.
- Truth: Something that is the case, without a doubt. Can be either objectively true for everyone, or subjectively true for us, depending on context. When no context is given, it means that which is “objectively true.”
NOTES: Objectivity is a subject of philosophy and thus there is room to debate its meaning in different contexts. In a general sense, a proposition (a statement) is generally considered objectively true (to have objective truth) when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by feelings, ideas, opinions, etc. While some might claim only empirical truth is objective, generally speaking, we can say any claim, be it purely rational, empirical, or a mix of both ultimately has an absolute truth value. “Water is wet” (empirical), 1+1=2 (rational), and “gravity is affecting the man in the chair” (mix).
TIP: Context matters. If I say “1+1=2” you could pick that apart by being clever (just like you could pick apart any claim), and come up with instances where “1+1 does not equal 2 under specific conditions.” For this reason it helps to speak in descriptive terms to better state the claim we are making. For example, when we say “1+1=2” we mean “in terms of standard mathematics, 1+1=2; meaning if I have one unit and then consider another together I’m considering two units total.” It isn’t necessary to say that every time, but it is a good fall back if needed in debate. That said, phrasing what we mean and dealing with semantics is a slightly different subject than the subject of objective vs. subjective truth. With that said, we could condense this idea to the following phrase all, “statements phrased correctly have an absolute truth value.”
FACT: Not everything that is true can be proven (just ask Gödel). That is just the nature of the universe we live in. Thus, there is a lot of room for subjectivity, opinion, debate, philosophy, hypothesis, theory, etc. There is a lot we don’t know for sure, which is “why philosophy natural and moral.”
Why The Idea That all Truth is Subjective is Absurd
So the question here is, “since all human knowledge is based on perception and rationalization, then isn’t all truth therefore subjective?”
The simple answer to the question is, “no…” Consider, if all truth was subjective, the none of our technology would work (as much of it is dependent on constant truth values.”)
If we both look at a red ball, and you think it is red, and I think it is blue, then subjectively for me it is blue, and subjectively for you it is red, but objectively… it is red. There is no grey area here.
The fact is, all statements phrased correctly have an absolute truth value, or have a degree of truth that can be agreed on objectively (our whole website is based on this premise).
If we say, “aliens exist,” we can’t say whether it is true or not (it has an objective truth value that we don’t know for sure). However, if we say “it is likely given X data that the existence of aliens is highly likely,” that statement is easier to objectively rate true or false. The topic didn’t change, but the structure of our statement did.
Of course, with that said, some fields lend themselves to truth more than others (like mathematics and physics), and some field lend themselves to subjectivity (like metaphysics and speculation on aliens).
With that said, even metaphysics tends to ask questions that do ultimately have a truth value, the only caveat there is that we often can’t know it for sure.
For another example of objectivity, 1+1=2 is an objective truth, and so is is E2=(pc)2+(mc2)2 (a more complete version of E=mc2) that can be used when discussing mass energy conservation. Sure we can skeptically ask, “well can we imagine a case where 1+1 does not equal 2?” This however does not change the fundamentals, one way to respond to that is to clarify the statement. So we could say, “in general in mathematics, 1+1=2.”
The laws of physics, the laws of mathematics, the laws of all many formal rule-sets empirical and rational. These things are object realities, and we can be pretty darn certain of it because they always work, every time, without fail when put to the test.
If you and I both watch the dog eat the steak, if we have the dog on camera eating the steak, if we test the crime science and find his DNA on the steak, if we watch for it in the yard the next day, we look, we see, we confirm, etc, etc we can conclude that it is objectively true that the dog ate the steak.
Did aliens come down to earth and plant this scene here? Well, let’s say they did. In that case, that is what is true and our senses were fooling us. Either the dog ate the steak or didn’t, whichever is true is true. Only one thing happened, there is only one truth, and that one truth is objectively true.
This is to say, truth exists as an absolute, it is only our ability to prove it with certainty that is tricky. Meanwhile, those who deny object truths (while free to do so), are often demonstrably wrong (if not with certainty, then with such a high degree on probability that the “subjectivity” argument becomes rather fringe and absurd).
In other words, catchy phrases like “all truth is subjective” or “there is no objective truth” are just that, catchy phrases with no meaning. They are… objectively false. Knowing something is objectively false is itself, an objective truth.
Above I used an Einstein quote that speaks to relativity to show that there was objective truth. This quote has a dual meaning, it also tells us about relativity and subjectivity. If we change our frame of reference, we can see object truths from a different perspective, this can change our perception, but not the constant truth values behind our perception.
If you and a twin are speeding away from each other in rockets, lots of zany stuff happens (in terms of perception and physics), but what is happening is constant and governed by the laws of physics. There is subjectiveness in the perception, but not in the physics (there is only one objective truth).
Simply, all truth is objective, not subjective. However, how we view truth can be subjective, and our opinions, perceptions of feelings, and beliefs are subjective. A subject truth is what is true for us, an objective truth is what is actually true.
TIP: Many philosophers accept the idea of “a priori” truths, that is, those are truths that are true independently of experience, including mathematical truths and scientific truths. Now, people like to break out the old “all truths are subjective” card when we get to theology and moral philosophy, that is fine… but even there, at the end of the day, there is only one truth (the rest is just belief and opinion).Elon 2015 Spring Convocation: Neil deGrasse Tyson on objective and subjective truth.
FACT: In a related note, the saying “you can’t prove a negative” isn’t accurate either. Proving negatives is a foundational aspect of logic. Learn more about proving negatives.