The Question: Is it possible to analyze what someone is saying perfectly objectively? That is, to judge what they are saying only using reason and not being swayed by anything at the same time (emotions, situations, etc.)? This question has been a subject of debate recently in my family.
It is so important because it changes everything. It is possible to believe one thing on a Sunday morning because it “just sounds so right”, and then hear a sermon the next week that contradicts what was said last week and believing it for the same reason. This is because the charisma of the preacher may be so persuasive that it doesn’t really matter what is being said.
First, let’s consider an example of what not judging something objectively (that is, judging it subjectively) looks like (this is only an example and not intended to be offensive to anyone).
Imagine that you own a business, and you are in the process of merging with another small company. The merge promises to be a successful business venture based on the facts. It will result in a lot of profit. When you meet the other owner, however, you find out he is Japanese. Due to losing a relative in the Pearl Harbor bombing, you still hold a grudge and decide to cancel the deal. This is an example of being swayed by personal emotions and making a decision that is not objective. The objective decision would be to make the deal (assuming that it really is the best course of action possible for you and the other company).
How to be Objective
You probably already understood these concepts. The question you are now asking is, how can you make objective decisions? Or better yet, how can you judge someone’s argument and determine (objectively) whether it is true or not?
There are two answers to this question. In the example above, we can see that sin affects our ability to make right and true decisions. The first answer in the example above would be to repent and pray for God to remove sin from your heart. Perhaps this is the main reason why brilliant atheists cannot conclude that God exists. They put all the pieces together, but their pride and sin disables them so that they cannot make the objective conclusion that God exists. They must deny the obvious, choosing the subjective way (their decision is swayed by their pride so they are not objective).
Assuming, though, that you are not harboring sin in your heart in a particular situation, how can you make decisions objectively? The key is to break it down. Just like when buying a house the key is location, location, location, when judging an argument the key is premises, premises, premises. What do I mean? Take an example.
Let’s say I make the following statement (whether true or not, we will see):
“I’m not hungry, therefore I must have just eaten a full meal.”
Is this statement true? Let’s break it down. The argument is structured as follows:
Premise A: If someone has just eaten a full meal, they are not hungry.
Premise B: I have just eaten a full meal.
Conclusion: I am not hungry.
The logic here is perfect. However, it is not enough to only lay out the structure. You have to make sure there are no missing premises. Ask yourself, “Is there any other situation where someone is not hungry?” You will find that there are many (including the already known situation):
2. Emotional distress
3. Prolonged fasting (there is a point where someone who is fasting actually loses the desire to eat)
4. Just ate a meal
Those three situations where just off the top of my head, but they are enough to make the statement, “I’m not hungry, therefore I must have just eaten a full meal” not necessarily true. I may not be hungry for one of at least four reasons. Therefore the statement is not foolproof and not always true. The argument is flawed because of missing premises. Here is what it should look like:
Premise A: If someone is ill, they may not be hungry.
Premise B: If someone is emotionally distressed, they are often not hungry.
Premise C: If someone has been fasting for a long time, they are sometimes not hungry.
Premise D: If someone has just eaten a full meal, they are very likely not hungry.
Premise E: Any other reason why someone might not be hungry…
Premise F: I am not hungry.
Conclusion (the only conclusion you can make from the given information): I am not hungry for one of the reasons in premises A-E.
This probably seems silly, but it is the very fabric of how you analyze an argument. Most of the time, the easy part is breaking it down and listing the premises, and the hard part is thinking of the hidden premises. In highly complex arguments, this can involve extensive research (especially in scientific arguments).
Back to the Bible
Now that we understand the basics, let’s consider a statement about something in the Bible. Imagine you are listening to a sermon, and the preacher says:
“God is a God of love, he has always been a God of love, and therefore he would never send babies who have died at birth to hell because they never had a choice.”
It sounds right, doesn’t it? But is it true?
Step 1: Remove any subjectivity and judge the argument objectively. We all want to say “amen” to this statement because no one wants babies to go to hell. However, we must not let this sway our judgement. We must pretend like it doesn’t matter either way, at least while we are considering whether the statement is true.
Step 2: Let’s break it down:
Premise A: God is Love.
Premise B: Being a God of love necessitates that He cannot commit an act which will result in the suffering of a particular individual if that individual never had a chance to repent.
Premise C: Babies sometimes die at birth before they can make choice (note the assumption here, that babies cannot make choices in the womb).
Conclusion: Those babies go to heaven, or at least don’t go to hell.
Step 3: The logic is sound. Therefore, we must analyze the premises.
Premise A is true, based on 1 John 4:8: “Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (ESV)
Premise C may be true. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume babies really can’t make any choices, though that would affect the argument if they can, and it is possible still.
Premise B is the critical premise. Does being a God of love mean God has to give everyone a chance? Nowhere in scripture do we find a statement like that. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, but it is a deep question, one that would require a thorough search of scripture, and even then it is a question that we simply do not have enough information to make a judgement on. Therefore premise B is uncertain.
Step 4: Because at least one of the premises (and in this case, the crucial one) is uncertain, that makes the conclusion uncertain. We therefore cannot state the conclusion as true at this point, and therefore, it should not be preached.
This is the perfect example because it shows how sometimes (and quite often) we do not have enough information to make sound conclusions. We must restrain ourselves from making a choice when we can’t. And above all, we must not let emotion lean us in either direction, though it can be very difficult at times (imagine a mother who lost a child at birth).
It is definitely possible to be objective. Either you are or you are not. That doesn’t mean you won’t have feelings, it just means you must ignore them or, if you feel they are legitimate feelings, explore the reasons why you have them and find out if they are logical. However, never let the charisma of a preacher be the determining factor in your decision-making. Rather, ask yourself why he might appear emotional on a particular point in his sermon, and whether his emotions are warranted or whether they are only being used to sway you.
There is much more that can be said about being objective. For the time being, next Sunday try using the above method and see how it affects what you get out of the sermon. You may find yourself agreeing or disagreeing on points you never thought you would.