Essays on Judaism

...and thoughts on Torah life

Boruch Clinton

Subjectivity and Truth

Must the search for truth include God or is religion nothing but convenient emotional therapy?

First a disclaimer: everything I'm going to say here has already been said. In fact, some of it I've said myself on this very web site. One of the best existing treatments of the subject is that of Rabbi Dr. David Gottlieb in the first two chapters of his on-line book, Living Up to the Truth.

So why am I bothering to take another kick at a certifiably dead horse?

Because I believe subjectivism (the belief that a matter's true value and meaning can only be evaluated through the filter of one's personal experiences) stands opposed to any meaningful Jewish belief. Or, in other words, I wanted to ensure that "objectivism" (the belief that the truth exists independently of the human mind) receives a proper hearing within a Jewish context so that our biggest life's decisions should, one way or the other, be as well-informed as possible.

...And perhaps because this bite-sized, on-line essay is, while imperfect, more accessible to a certain demographic of Jewish reader due to its size, location and the dashing good looks of its author.

Now, why should this whole thing interest a teacher of Talmud (as that's how I earn the comfortable living that allows me the luxury of tossing in these two cents)? What does religion – and especially Torah – have to do with verifiable truth? Isn't religion only designed to provide us with the satisfaction and moral guidelines for a happy life? But objective truth? That's the stuff of hard science!

In fact, the famous Harvard professor, Steven Jay Gould, already stated this distinction in "Nonoverlapping Magisteria" (Natural History, March 1997):

"The lack of conflict between science and religion arises from a lack of overlap between their respective domains of professional expertise--science in the empirical constitution of the universe, and religion in the search for proper ethical values and the spiritual meaning of our lives."

So, wrote Prof. Gould, science deals with the empirical (and objective) truths of the observable universe and religion with all the fuzzy stuff in between. "Ethical values" and "spiritual meaning" are surely things to be found only within our own hearts...who can tell us how we should be feeling?

We're not so sure all that's true. Along with many others, we Torah people argue five points:
  • that "right" and "wrong" exist even beyond the materialistic world of the physical sciences.
  • that the subjectivists cut themselves off from ever achieving meaningful religious experience because, knowingly or not, by refusing to grant it objectivity, they substantially devalue religion.
  • that a subjectivist system can, by definition, produce no code of morality that compels a community to act in any particular manner.
  • that "any behavior or belief is all right as long as I don't hurt the guy next door" is an entirely unrealistic system which, if seriously examined, will satisfy no one.
  • And, perhaps, most of all, we argue that each and every thinking person does have a moral obligation to search for the objective truth about life. He can't say "since I can't know for sure, there's no point in trying."

So let's examine these arguments one at a time.

Can religion be either "right" or "wrong"? Should we seek clarity in religion?

The Torah makes all kinds of risky historical claims and predictions.

Claims? Take Ex. 19; 9, for instance: "And God said to Moses, behold, I come to you in the thickness of a cloud so that the nation will hear while I speak with you and also so they should have faith in you forever." The authenticity of this claim is, I would suggest, a matter of some consequence. It either happened or it did not: suggesting that God's revelation was all misinterpreted claps of thunder coincidentally coupled with a pandemic of indigestion (or whatever is this decade's equivalent theory) is precisely the same as saying it didn't happen.

If God did, indeed, publicly speak with Moses as part of a mass revelation, thereby bestowing His trust and something of His authority upon a human being, then all that Moses would subsequently say in God's name must be assumed correct. If, however, God did not speak to Moses (or even appear in some form before the nation) then both Moses and his book are unredeemable frauds. The importance of confirming or disproving such claims should be obvious.

And predictions? Take this one. Deut. 28; 15 states with certainty that our failure to observe the commandments carries measurable and easily verifiable - yet fairly improbable - consequences (like those in subsequent verses 36, 48, 49, 64, 65 and 68). The authority of the Torah itself stands or falls on these predictions. Have they actually occurred? Without a clear understanding of the Torah's historical and existential context, how could we relate to it with any intelligence: is this an historical document or just a somewhat engaging afternoon read?

So, when some honest individual attempts to dispassionately compare the Torah's claims with the historical record (to thereby assess the Torah's believability), how are his personal background and preferences relevant? In the search for religious truth, it's "just the facts please, ma'am."

Or, in other words, objectivity.

Subjectivity drains meaning. (We should, first of all, be clear that this is unrelated to the previous point: until now we've been analyzing the question of reality while "meaning" is about reality's practical implications).

A subjectivist's religion is one in which man is God's auditor; where a religious principle carries weight only if it is demonstrably relevant and comfortable. In other words: the subjectivist at his house of "worship" is simply talking to himself, telling himself how good and holy is his every whim. Subjective religion, then, has no impact or relevance outside of the practitioner's mind.

Even the language of religion ("truth," "justice," "righteous" etc.,) lacks any meaning without objectivity. Is your opinion more "truthful," your action more "just" or your character more "righteous" than mine simply because they reflect your personal beliefs?

A religion may or may not be personally satisfying or attractive to large numbers of people, but what value does it have if its essential legitimacy isn't even an issue?

Subjectivist morality: Subjectivism is unworkable. If my only moral authority is my own sense of conscience, then cohesive and stable communities are unachievable. Why? Because there's no reason to expect that my personal ethical system will exactly match that of my neighbor. While I may hope for him to act according to a certain standard – and he might indeed oblige me most of the time – I might still be in for some rather sharp surprises.

Ok. But do we really need firm community standards? Can't we just naturally get along together without formal rules governing our actions?

Well I hate to state the obvious, but a society isn't likely to work well without a universally binding code of behavior, yet a subjectivist would, by definition, impose binding rules upon no one (besides himself). The logical consequence of pure subjectivism, therefore, is anarchy. Take, for example, that fellow who insists on driving through city streets at unreasonable and unsafe speeds or the one who enjoys the occasional round of genocide.

Hang on, you ask, aren't Westerners mostly subjective types and isn't Western society at least fairly successful? While it's true that many Westerners are subjectivists, nevertheless, the rules of our society are actually a pastiche of many sources. Most Westerners tolerate (or even celebrate) legal and ethical foundations of absolutist origin (whether from the Torah or from European legal constructs). Therefore, it wouldn't be correct to claim the US, for instance, as an example of the subjectivist agenda at work.

So, if there's no such thing as a subjective morality (beyond one that serves only to satisfy my own conscience), how can all those professional – subjectivist – ethicists issue statements of moral authority concerning controversial medical and social issues? That's a good question. An ethicist's only claim to "truth" is that, based on his peculiar background and beliefs, he thinks what he's saying is true. What, then, gives him the right to impose his personal morality on the rest of us? Why should his feelings about doctor-assisted suicide or bio-medicine be more authoritative than mine (or, more accurately, than those of a working medical professional who at least understands the technical issues at stake)?

"Just don't hurt anyone." When rejecting the authority of revealed, absolute religion, many subjectivists will propose this so-called "Golden Rule" as an alternative. Does it make sense? I doubt that there are a lot of folks out there who are interested in actually keeping it and rules won't do us much good if they're ignored.