Subjective vs. Objective Knowledge

The world is in color, not black and white
  Image: Worakit Sirijinda /
There is a man on twitter asking me questions. He seems to like my answers, but he also keeps trying to fit my answers into an absolute either/or framework. As a result, his attempts to summarize my views keep missing the mark.

The basic question he seems to be asking is whether there is absolute objective truth or whether truth is, instead, subjective. He seems to want me to be firmly for one or the other. The reality is that I acknowledge and am comfortable with the existence of both types of truth. This isn’t an either/or dichotomy for me. It’s more a matter of how you integrate objective and subjective truths.

Why does this nuance matter? Well, it matters because the world is not black and white. The world is made up of full spectrum color. Attempts to categorize the world in an either/or (black/white) sort of way will almost always lead to an incomplete understanding about the world and about other people, just as it is hindering this man’s ability to grasp what my opinion on these matters truly is.

Because I cannot possibly answer his questions in the 140 character format that twitter allows, let me try to clarify my views here.

I believe in the existence of objective reality. As far as I am able, it behooves me to base my opinions, as much as possible, on that objective reality. The problem is that human brains are incredibly imprecise so, however, sure I might be about what constitutes objective reality; I need to be humble enough to recognize that I could very well turn out to be wrong about what the objective reality/truth really is.

It is also clear to me that much of what I believe is subjective, meaning, it is simply what I believe and no, I don’t always have a very good objective reason to believe these things. It’s just a gut feeling I have. I happen to think my subjective truths, like rape is bad, and my love for my husband and son is good are sufficient unto themselves.

The problem for me isn’t a matter of which knowledge is better. The problem is how do I best integrate my subjective truths with objective reality. And am I willing to adjust my subjective knowledge when objective truths contradict them?  My success in life is largely determined by how accurately my subjective beliefs reflect objective reality. I think the best any of us can do is to be humble enough to admit that our beliefs are largely subjective and that they do need to be adjusted from time to time. And no, that isn’t a sign of weakness. It is a sign of flexibility and a willingness to adapt to reality instead of trying to force reality into your preconceived ideas of how things should work.

As I told my new twitter friend. All rules have exceptions, including this one. 


  1. Would you say that your sense is that 1) some types of truth are objective and other types are subjective, 2) objective truth is that which addresses things that exist independent of our experience of them [a tree is a tree, whether or not anyone sees it], 3) subjective truth is that which exists only in the context of human experience [a tree is simultaneously beautiful if I think it is and ugly if you think it is], and 4) objective truth ought to take primacy when the two conflict [our opinions about a nonexistent tree ought to be corrected to account for the objective fact that there is no tree]?

    The tree example is really simplistic, but I think it captures how I approach the subject.

    Sincerely, Not the guy from twitter.

  2. I agree. And what a great way to describe the difference. Love it.

  3. Jen, Nice post. I think this difference between subjective and objective reality is very important. For example, according to the Gospels, some disciples "saw" Jesus after his crucifixion. Some people ask whether this seeing was real. My answer is "it probably was real, I don't think they are lying." On the other hand, I think their seeing was a subjective
    experience. Probably, either one person saw Jesus at a time, or if two persons saw him at the same time, then if the contents of their experiences were carefully compared, they wouldn't match very well. The report of a purely subjective experience can tell much about the person having the experience.

    Gary W

  4. I am not convinced that subjective and objective knowledge can ever be in the same sphere. Could you give an example of an objective fact contradicting subjective knowledge?

    1. It's hard because once you learn what is more objectively true you adjust your subjective knowledge about whatever it is. Example - It feels as if we are stationary. But the earth is actually spinning and so are we - on the surface. We don't experience that "fact" objectively, our experience is that we are stationary - and that is subjective and it turns out it's only kind of sort of right - we are stationary in relationship to the other things moving with us. Still - not objectively true and even when we adjust our subjective understanding to accommodate the objective knowledge it's in a reminder sort of way - because our objective experience is so different from what is objectively happening. Does this help?

  5. I am not convinced that subjective and objective knowledge can ever be in the same sphere. Could you give an example of an objective fact contradicting subjective knowledge?


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