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Another important definition we need to establish, since we’ll be discussing these concepts later in this lesson, is theory. Hopefully this will be clear enough as we go along, but for right now, we will call a theory an explanation of why things happen. For instance, see this excellent explanation of the scientific method from a hypothesis-testing standpoint, and definition of theory, from Oakton (Illinois) Community College  for more. Note also why we seriously misuse the word “prove”—meaning establishing an idea as concrete fact, which takes a LONG time. We don’t do nearly as much “proving” as we do mere evaluation of evidence. This is good food for thought for us all. So please don’t insist you’ve “proven” anything when you’ve only gathered a few handy facts that support your argument. The better we understand scientific methodology, the better we understand that we “prove” exactly NOTHING in the short term. We only assess evidence. (More on that in the FAQs!) 😊 A method, however, is how we collect data to help answer the questions we have; methodology is a more formal word for the actual strategy. For more on methods, please see  this explanation from Virginia Tech University . So a word of advice on Assignment 2: If you are in any way confused about the difference between theory and method, before writing Assignment 2, please be sure you understand that difference.

Also, to move on to even more profound matters, let’s address at length another common misperception in our modern world. We have discovered that many, many phenomena in life are dependent on our perception and/or social context, but many among us have erroneously concluded that this means everything is dependent on culture and/or personal perspective. As some seem to believe, our old ideas about Absolute and Unchanging Truth—so mid-20th century! If not 1700s!—have therefore been “proven” completely wrong, and Objective Truth no longer exists. Ummmm… just three words for you—OK, maybe four—No, no, and no. At various times in our philosophical discourse, we’ve been somewhat confused about the nature of Absolutes and Absolute Truth and what constituted It/Them, but please make no mistake at all: There are Absolutes. (Consider the converse statement, “There is no such thing as an Absolute,” and ponder the absurd self-contradiction. It’s absurd for a pretty darn good reason!) (

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The fact is: Objective Truth in some form must necessarily exist. Without it, not only would all nature and our everyday experience be sheer chaos, but existence itself would be impossible. Remember, the elephant always existed exactly as it was for those six blind men. Their failure to correctly perceive its totality and their sharp disagreements about its true nature did NOT mean it didn’t exist! So again, please make no mistake whatsoever: There IS Objective Truth. We don’t have time or space to go over the entire logical argument right now, and it’s not our focus anyway, though DesCartes (“I think, therefore I am”) had this part of it mostly right (though he was mistaken in some other areas); Gandhi knew this as well, as in the words at the top of the lesson. There’s a fairly intense philosophical treatise on this point in terms of Objectivity as a scientific ideal at this link from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy .

image4.jpgBut as a short “for instance,” let’s examine one subjective-relative thesis; George Berkeley’s argument that perception determines existence, so that objects that we don’t perceive don’t truly exist for us, will do nicely. This idea of existence depending on subjective perception is an interesting theoretical concept, and allows us to debate whether trees falling in forests without anyone nearby actually make sounds, among other fun and games. ( (Berkeley most definitely said No, BTW—not only for the sound, but for the tree! In his view and conceptualization, neither truly exists, since nobody knows about either of them!) Berkeley’s arguments came long ago—see this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article for more about him—and his thinking influenced subsequent arguments over the centuries. So our modern day public philosophy is largely based on subjectivism and relative collectivism of this sort.

So as we consider epistemology, please keep in mind that there’s a distinct relationship between Objective (Big-T) truth and subjective (little-t) truth. We know well about subjective little-t truth—of course, we know what we know, subject to our own perceptions, assumptions, and previous learning. Hey, we all call it like we see it and/or tell it like it is—or at least as we think it is ( —so let’s not explore subjectivity at great length. We already know what it’s all about—or at least we hope so. ( But Objective Big-T Truth is a different matter, and we’re frequently confused about what these Truths are, especially when we plunge into metaphysics and spirituality. Remember… the elephant… 😊

Here’s what Objectivity is all about: The Big-T Truths, as it were, are the Truths we know in an Ultimate Objective sense, which hold true no matter what: We exist. The sky is blue. Pure water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit at sea level. Sodium and chloride atoms react with each other to form table salt. Science helps us discover some of these Absolutes; other Objective Truths in the religious world we may consider self-evident, as (for instance) The Word of God. Moreover, establishing Objective Truth—that is, “proving it”—takes a LOT of time and effort. It doesn’t happen in a single study, or even several that agree. “Proof” is ultimately a process that takes decades, and that’s on the fast track.

In addition, please keep in mind a core irony of our religious existence: Many of our reasons for evaluating any given religious principle as Objective Truth are ironically subjective. We who are religious believers really do believe we know The Truth, at least on some level and to some extent—or we wouldn’t really believe it! Yet we all perceive the Objective from a subjective standpoint! In the words of Paul in the New Testament, we see “through a glass darkly.” In more than a few respects, WE are Saxe’s figurative “blind men.” We also often fail to recognize the extent to which our customs, traditions, and fallible perceptions color our individual understandings of what that Truth really is and what it entails. So in addition to our subjective perception of Truth, we also have other people explaining The Truth to us and interpreting it!

This is yet another reason we in the sociology of religion “bracket” the question of the Ultimate Truth of various religious claims. We can only go so far as the best evidence we have takes us, and there eventually comes a point in our journey of discovery where evidence—perceived and interpreted, as it is—is no longer feasible to help us know what is correct and valid. (Søren Kierkegaard’s proverbial “leap of faith” comes to mind, for instance.) Also, if you follow one of Peter Berger’s primary arguments in The Sacred Canopy, much of religion lies in the interaction of the Nomos (social order) and the individual, as truth and reality are socially and individually constructed as these two levels interact. So if our focus is on those dimensions, Objective Truth doesn’t really come into play to begin with!

In any case, these Objective Truths, as Absolutes, involve what we consider always and absolutely True, never changing, always dependable, always constant. Many metaphysical (other-worldly) teachings, for instance, are often considered Objective. Moreover, as mentioned in the previous lesson, many people who hold particularly strong religious convictions or come to experience particular events such as ghostly encounters or near-death-experiences thereafter consider those religious/metaphysical experiences as more Real than the events and circumstances of the everyday world. As in Lesson 1, Berger also explored this phenomenon in The Heretical Imperative, though we won’t recap this at length here. In short, instead of our ordinary view of the unseen world being a fanciful illusion and our tangible world being real, for them, their metaphysical experience becomes real and the mundane world becomes the fanciful illusion.

image5.jpgFor instance, the 2001 film The Other Side of Heaven (sometimes available for free viewing on BYUtv, incidentally), is based on some of the real-life experiences of John Groberg, as recorded in a memoir written a couple of decades before that, The Eye of the Storm. (Not to be confused with the recently released 2019 sequel, also on BYUtv—just don’t expect to see Anne Hathaway reprising the role of Jean—which recounts some later experiences Groberg had on a return assignment to the Tongan islands.) As a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Tonga in the mid-1950s, Groberg nearly starved to death after a hurricane devastated the island where he was living and relief efforts were delayed for several weeks. But he was saved when a local minister of another Christian denomination—in a wonderfully altruistic act of surpassing generosity—offered him the last of his own food shortly before dying of starvation himself. Groberg also wrote that in his state of advanced hunger, he’d had some metaphysical experiences in which he’d actually seen and visited a spiritual world beyond this one. That confirmed his faith in terms of his religious understanding, and that world he’d said he’d visited thereafter became his Reality. Without giving specifics of the spiritual encounters, he observed in his memoir, repeated in the film: “There is a connection between heaven and earth. Finding that connection gives meaning to everything, including death. Missing it makes everything meaningless, including life.”

Subjectively perceived and understood Objective experiences such as Groberg reports are typical of many believers who report beyond-this-world encounters, from experiences recorded in texts considered sacred (the Bible, Baghavad Gita, the various writings of Buddha, and so forth) to Joan of Arc’s visions to the mystical writings of Zen Buddhism and many other metaphysical claims of believers. Verifiable or not—and virtually always not!—they often conclude that the world-beyond-this, at least as they experience it, is the actual though ironically little perceived Objective sphere of existence, while the world we know around us is the sphere of existence that is in Reality impermanent and fleeting. Of course, sociologically, this “Reality” is still very much the subjective experience and property of the perceiver, and nearly impossible to verify empirically; hence the utility of phenomenology for many sociologists, as we shall see.

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