Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Myth of Objectivity

I have a colleague here at seminary who shares with me several things, including that we both name our cats after Gods, and that we both have Bachelor’s degrees in History. Yet, we have a fundamental disagreement about the method of the study of history. He was trained to try to be as objective as possible in historical study and writing (training that is classically correct for a historian, I’m the one who is out of step). I believe that this is impossible, and that what the historian is called to do instead is to recognize and be open about their bias, and share the story of history as their individual encounter with the events and interpretations of the past.

In essence, I believe that Objectivity, (all objectivity, not just in history) is a myth. The claim of objectivity is almost always an attempt to gain power for a particular viewpoint. Sometimes the claim is an intentional seeking of the power of universal truth for a particular viewpoint, but most of the time it is pure delusion, for the individual has bought into the myth of objectivity hook, line, and sinker.

I do not believe that the human being is ever capable of objectivity. We are never capable of separating ourselves from our biases, from our assumptions, from our pre-conceived notions. We may change those biases, assumptions, and pre-conceived notions, but that is not shedding them or setting them aside. It is simply adopting a new version of them.

The closest that I believe humans come to objectivity is apathy. There are times that so few of our biases, assumptions, and pre-conceived notions come into play on a specific topic, and we may not care one way or another about that topic. “David, you are not involved in thusandsuch, give us your objective opinion.” I have no objective opinions, and asking someone to give you advice on something they care nothing about seems more than a little silly to me. Besides… am I really as apathetic as I appear? Probably not.

We humans spend our limited time on things we care about, and that very act of caring moves us out of apathy and away from even the barest semblance of objectivity. When we pretend that we can set aside our biases and try to be objective, we are deluding ourselves. You cannot be objective about what you care about, and we only have time for that which we care about.

Nowhere is this seen clearer than when those of Liberal Faith claim objectivity in their encounters with other religious faiths. Trained by the scientific method (which is also not objective… just imagine the different ways you can “observe” one thing) those of us of Liberal Faith sometimes act as if we can give an “objective” account of other faith traditions. I have encountered this trend in relation to Christianity, to Buddhism, to Judaism, and even to many pagan faiths. Yet in each of those experiences it has been painfully obvious to me that there are specific biases that we of Liberal Faith carry and bring with us to any encounter, including with the history of Liberal Faith.

If you think I am saying that there is no such thing as objective truth, you are right. But I want to take it one step further and say that seeking the myth of objective truth has led us to a world where delusion abounds… where we often seek power for our own prejudiced notions by claims to objectivity.

So, is there anywhere we can find this elusive thing called truth? Yes, in the spaces in-between. Let me return to the study of history for a moment. The closest we can get to truth is not through one historian’s encounter with the story of history, but finding the mean within the encounters of many. Truth always rests as a shadow in the spaces between our prejudices, biases, opinions, and notions.

The key is not to pretend to an objectivity that human beings are incapable of. The key is to be aware of your biases, to be aware of your own life story and emotions, and how they affect your encounter with everything in life, including the study of history. Then you must be open and honest, with yourself and with others about those prejudices and biases.

Every history book should begin with a short biography of the historian, and a detailed look at what biases and prejudices that historian brings to the study. That introduction should be written as a collaboration between the historian and another historian who has different opinions about the topic in question… who may see the other’s biases in a different way.

So too should we approach everything in life, not seeking a mythical objectivity, but being clear and open about what brings us to the approach we take, to how we encounter each other, how we encounter faith, and how we encounter the world. We need to develop deep awareness of our own biases and prejudices, and ask others to help us in doing so. We need to let go of the myth of Truth with a capital T, and the myth of objectivity that feeds it… and accept that our reality is one of shifting sands.

Yours in Faith,


5 Thoughts on “The Myth of Objectivity

  1. [i]So too should we approach everything in life, not seeking a mythical objectivity…[/i]

    …then you should reconsider your faith in Prez Obama who will put health care into the hands of statisticians, accountants, and analysts and their “evidenced based” reimbursement systems.

    There is one true reality and the rest are proven false. We’ll only pay for what’s scientifically valid per the scientific method the investigators’s biasis be damned.

  2. Humanity can never perceive reality… we can only perceive our approximations of it. We are limited by senses, by time, by appreciation, by our assumptions. Everything you described that Obama is doing is based upon these limitations, assumptions, and perceptions. None of it is objective.

    Even if what you say about one reality is true (which I’m not sure I accept), it does not invalidate my point, because we humans can never deal with that reality, only our individual perceptions of it.

    The map is not, is never the territory, my friend…. thanks for the pushback!

    Yours in Faith,


  3. A Heart Surgeon once told me –the precursor of Obama\’s future systems analyst with a bag of evidence based protocols– I\’m the fellow with the open chest in front of me.

    It\’s true. The Surgeon performs an art and draws on undefinable things when making split second life and death decisions with the kife.

    But open hear mortalities and morbidities have improved over the years based on a history of practice. There is a reality there. It\’s accessable and quantifiable. It can be taught and learned. Not propositions that are true or false, but predictable events and outcomes. Accumulate them and we progress. Can be said of any human activity. Not just Surgery…

  4. Dudley Jones on Saturday May 2, 2009 at 14:11 +0000 said:


    We can try to be objective.

    It looks like science is a pretty good approximation to the common reality we all share. There was a time when some people believed that what physicists knew was events in their own brains. I certainly do not believe that, and I do not think most scientists believe that.

    Do you believe that if a Presbyterian and a Pure Land Buddhist did the same physics experiment that they would get different results?

    If we do not have some kind of a handle on reality, how did we fly to the moon and come back alive?

    Best wishes from an ignorant monkey.

  5. Ah but Dudley… how they interpret those results is entirely subjective… even for the scientist.

    Yours in faith,


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