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!) (
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 .
But 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!