Not too long ago, my parents asked me to explain how I think and how I view life. I told them that I value truth, and I live my life in search of truth. To my surprise, they found this to be a rather novel concept, and asked how such a thing was possible. After all, what is truth?
There are two kinds of truth: Subjective Truth and Objective Truth. Put loosely, subjective truth is what is true for me, given my existence and vantage point relative to the outside world. Objective truth is what is true, independent of my–or any other human’s–existence or perception.
When talking to my parents, there was a vacant chair in the living room: a black, leather recliner. The sheen of the leather made for an adequate demonstration at the time–and in hindsight, a really great demonstration–of the differences between perception (a form of subjective truth) and objective truth. Due to the natural sheen of leather, if viewed at different angles or with different lighting, will show a different color. Even now, as I look at the dark brown, faux-leather chair in my living room, the light in the room is reflected back to my eyes and perceive whites, beige, and even some red colors. This is subjectively true; that is, it is 100% true that I see patches of white and reds on this chair. However, my perception does not change the objective truth that my chair is dark brown. The chair is truly solid dark brown and it is truly brown with black and white patches on it, but these are qualitatively different types of truth, though colloquial English tends to lack the nuance to capture the differences. The difference is that if I were to close my eyes the chair would still be solid dark brown (objective truth), but the reddish tint I perceive would cease to be. While my eyes are closed, that reddish tint–which is a creation of my brain based on light reflecting off the chair, rather than a property of the chair–would cease to be perceived, and therefore cease to be a “reddish tint” and revert to the objective truth of its ontological state: a reflected beam of low frequency light.
Let me be perfectly clear: I’m not saying that truth is relative. However, what is subjectively true cannot be observed by others, and therefore it cannot be evaluated for objective truth value beyond the ostensible level. Subjective truth is phenomenological, which is fascinating to read and think about, but says nothing about what is objectively true, by definition and intent.
What I care about is discerning and understanding objective truth. To me, subjective truth is merely a tool to glean relevant knowledge about what is objectively true. That said, it is a very “noisy” tool.
Take (once again) healthcare economics as an example.
Does the prospective payment system (PPS) cause healthcare costs to rise at a sustainable level?
Objectively, this is either yes or no. That’s not say it’s black and white as the answer can be (and indubitably is) nuanced and has a long list of caveats, but the answer, aggregated across all relevant dimensions, is yes or no. That said, we perceive a lot of “noise,” and the signal isn’t always obvious, much less agreed upon. For some individuals (e.g. Medicaid recipients), PPS has done wonders for their personal healthcare expenditure; for others (e.g. middle class individuals with no coverage and have a stroke), it has created a situation that allowed them to go bankrupt. These are objectively true facts that are also subjectively true for the individuals (if and only if they recognize what PPS is an how it has affected them). However, there is still an objective truth out there, if one can determine the relevant dimensions over which to aggregate and which dimensions to split out (ultimately a subjectively true value judgment), and find the relevant data (an objective reporting of subjective information). Neither of these are simple goals: there will always be ambiguity and subjectivity, but that does not discount the objectivity of the conclusions if the assumptions are made explicit.
Subjective truth frames and colors our perception of the world, but it is still our only tool by which we can learn about the world. After perception, logic must arbitrate if we desire to learn what is objectively true about the world around us. Whether asking about the color of furniture or the economic mechanics of an industry, there is an objective truth out there, even though it cannot be seen directly or exclusively through subjective perception.