by David Shackleton (Contact David at firstname.lastname@example.org)
A tricky balance to understand, let alone manage, is between the subjective and the objective. The subjective includes all of our interior world — our thoughts and feelings, sensations, intentions and judgments. The objective is the exterior world that we share with others, and includes everything that we can see and touch and hear, including language and the actions of people.
Of course, the two are related — our intentions give rise to our actions, and the actions of others give rise to thoughts and feelings. Yet they are separate, and it is important not to confuse the two.
One way that we often confuse them is to see one as dominant and the other as subordinate. I talked last month about feminism’s lack of balance — one way to see this is to notice that it places men as dominant, as having the power that matters, and women as subordinate. In the case of the objective and subjective worlds, a currently fashionable idea is that of the consensual universe (e.g., A Course In Miracles).
This holds that the objective world is actually a creation of people’s minds. In other words, the objective is subordinate to the subjective. The opposite imbalance would be just as mistaken — for instance, the idea that we lack free will, that we are simply machines, automatons like computers whose interior experiences are fully determined by how we are constructed and what happens to us in the exterior world.
Another way that we confuse them is to put something in the wrong place. For instance, a popular idea that a friend has expressed to me is that “Everyone’s worldview is right”. As attractive as this notion might feel, it basically invalidates the idea of objective reality.
If “right” has any coherent meaning, it refers to conformance with reality. And clearly, lots of people hold worldviews that do not conform with reality in a number of ways. This idea takes a word, “right” from the objective side and employs it incorrectly on the subjective side, for a subjective reason — to avoid the discomfort (and difficulty) of making people’s worldviews wrong.
However, this is not a freedom that we actually have — reality is whatever it is, our only healthy option is to surrender to it and acknowledge that what is right and true is what is right and true, and what is wrong is wrong. (Admittedly, in the more subtle areas of objective reality it can be difficult to know what is right — but this does not alter the principle that objective reality is unique and independent of what we might wish it to be.)
Here’s another example of putting something in the wrong place. Someone says something to which we take offence. Now, it feels to us very much that our reaction is a direct result of what was said, but that isn’t actually the case. Our feelings are definitely in the subjective world. What was actually said is in the objective. But between the two is a place where we decide the meaning of what was said (also subjective), and this is usually unconscious, so it seems invisible to us.
Consider an example. You see a friend coming out of a store, and you say “Hi.” But they just stare at you, and then push past you and rush off. Perhaps you feel slighted or offended that your friend treated you so brusquely. You go into the store, where someone tells you that your friend just had a cell phone call that their daughter was in a car accident. Instantly your feelings of offense dissolve, and are replaced by empathy for your friend’s fear and distress.
What happened was that you changed the meaning you gave to your friend’s actions. Their actions, what they objectively did, didn’t change at all, but your interpretation altered and that changed how you experienced their actions. It “feels” like what you experienced was a direct result of the objective actions, but the example makes it clear that it wasn’t, it was a result of the subjective meaning that you assigned.
Yet our language about such things usually confuses the dichotomy — “They made me so mad,” for instance, declares the subjective to be a direct consequence of the objective, and omits the intermediate subjective stage which is the real cause of the anger.
I recently had a dialogue by email in which the other party said to me, “I don’t share some of your assumptions, or make other ones.” When I remarked that we all make assumptions, that it is impossible to live without them, he said that he knew that. It turned out that when he said he didn’t make (other) [assumptions], he meant something quite different from what he said, and he acknowledged that his statement was “unclear”.
But this was a confusion between subjective and objective, because in fact it wasn’t unclear. An unclear statement would be one that is either ambiguous, or whose meaning is difficult to discern. His actual statement was absolutely clear in its meaning, by which I mean that you can look each of the words up in a dictionary and determine exactly and unambiguously what the statement means — as you often can with objective matters, they are out in the world and available to study.
His statement was clear, but wrong, in that it was an untrue description of his beliefs. His claim of “unclear” was (I think) a description of his feeling around not saying what he intended to say, but he insisted that it was his statement that was unclear. Again, a largely unconscious process (in this case, the translation of intention into words) has confused the distinction between subjective and objective.
I hope you are realizing that this business of balance is tricky to do well — and also important to do well. The distinctions I am pointing to may seem subtle or of little consequence, but they actually have huge consequences.
It is very common for people to confuse their thoughts and feelings about things with the things themselves, and not to realize that they are doing so. But if we can’t think clearly and correctly about what actually happened, about what is objective and unalterable, and what is subjective and our own creation, then we have our facts wrong about our world and our lives, and our life decisions will reflect the low quality of our data.
My own approach is to think carefully about the theory and to get the categories really clear in my mind. I then try to apply a discipline of careful and precise thinking about what is true and what is not. That reflects my bias towards thinking and theory, and it helps me to understand what is going on, and where some of the pitfalls lie. Of course, I often fall into them anyway, but I like to think that I manage to avoid some of them in this way.