All over the world people have argued about whose grandmother makes the best such-and-such sweets. In Greece it’s whose Yia-yia makes the best baklava. In Russia it’s whose Babushka whips up the best pastila. In the American South, it might just be whose Meemaw makes the best banana pudding. The trouble with these friendly arguments, of course, is that there can never really be an objective winner. Every dutiful grandson or granddaughter will, if not for sheer loyalty then at least for mere conditioning, always prefer their own grandmother’s culinary concoction. This preference will be swayed by a number of factors –the memories and sentiments it conjures, the familiarity principle– but the preference will be anything but objective.
However, even if a traitor to their own grandmother did find a foreign banana pudding more delectable, their preference would still not be objective but subjective, being based on taste — an extremely personal, complicated internal symphony of physical stimuli received on the lingual papillae (taste buds), neural interpretation in the gustatory cortex, conscious considerations involving intent and free will, unconscious activity mysteriously mingled in the mix, and possibly even some contribution from the spirit, or the metaphysical seat of the self. Subjectivity is simply the description of the way we as subjects perceive the world. This includes banana pudding.
But not all things in the world are like banana pudding. Banana pudding, though loosely definable as a dessert family with similar ingredients, presentation, and culinary history, doesn’t actually have a universal standard. There is no platonic form of banana pudding out there of which all derivative banana puddings are imperfect examples. If that were the case, some banana puddings really could be better than others in an objective sense. But this dessert, like all folk recipes, is a changeable, evolving cultural artifact that never exists as a singular, self-referential thing. It’s always relative to each Meemaw.
So my taste for banana pudding is a subjective experience of a relativistic phenomenon. What about the way I perceive other things in the world, though — say, the color red? I’m still going to perceive it through physical, psychological, and maybe spiritual apparatuses, so it will still be a subjective experience. I, as a subject, experience “red” as you could never know. Thus, our two subjective experiences of “red” are ultimately incomparable. We can even bring taste and preference into this example, as my favorite color may very well be red, while yours may be blue. But is “red” the same kind of thing as banana pudding? No, because the cultural freedom and creativity that allows banana pudding to be a relativistic phenomenon doesn’t apply to color. Color, though potentially perceived in infinitely different ways in the complex symphonies known as our subjective perceptions, can nevertheless be acutely defined by the more objective means of measuring light wave frequencies. If two people gazing on a rose petal had different subjective experiences of its color, a measurement of the frequency of light waves coming from that petal made from their position would empirically show that a very certain color was reflecting from that petal. Thus, color as a description of light wave frequencies is an objective reality, while banana pudding as a loose description of a recipe tradition is a relativistic thing.
So to recap: we all have subjective experiences of everything we encounter, but those things we experience subjectively can be classified either as objective or relativistic. Put in other terms, the essence of a thing either corresponds to an unchangeable truth or a movable reference point, usually of our own invention. The challenge, of course, is determining which kind of thing a particular thing is. The fact that relativistic things generally reference something of our own design is a good clue. The ancient Greeks sometimes made this precise distinction using the terms physis (nature) and nomos (custom or convention). For example, the flow of traffic on a highway follows laws set up by people — drivers observing a speed limit and staying to the right of a double yellow line. The flow of a river, on the other hand, obeys the laws of nature, its direction and boundaries governed by gravity. While motorists in the U.S.A. drive on the right side of the road, they equally could be driving on the left side if our custom (nomos) had dictated it. But a river’s motion will always be what it is according to the reality of nature (physis).
Highways and rivers are easy to classify, but what about something like our law not to murder people? Is that merely a convention, if even a very practical one for maintaining and preserving civilization? Or is it more than that — a recognition that killing people is inherently wrong, a violation against natural law? For most of history, it has tended to be only the professional philosophers that have been clever enough to delude themselves into thinking murder is anything but inherently wrong, but those clever philosophers do make a point: if some of our human laws reflect natural law (physis), do they all? And if not, which are which? We again find that there’s trouble in deducing which things correspond to an objective reality and which are free to change relative to convention or custom.
One reason we find it so difficult to agree on which laws, social behaviors, or human habits correspond to physis and which correspond to mere nomos is because we experience them all subjectively. When comparing our experiences of these things, we quickly discover that we don’t all experience them the same. A law that seems essentially and irreducibly basic to the truth of humanity for one person could feel superfluous and disposable to another. A matter of etiquette that feels profoundly important for this person may seem arbitrary or silly to the next. And so on. This barrier of subjectivity has made many in our day despair of ever discovering the objective reality to which things correspond — if indeed there is any objective reality at all. The doubt that there is an objective reality to which certain things (or all things) correspond is called relativism, and only in the last couple of centuries has it enjoyed any kind of widespread espousal. The Western crisis of where to find certainty in knowledge has undoubtedly prepared the hearts and minds of modern people to accept this most insidious error: the conclusion that differing subjective experiences of a thing means that the essence of that thing is ultimately relative to those different experiences.
If I think my grandma’s banana pudding is the best in the world because my subjective experience tells me so, but you don’t think it’s better than your grandma’s, then we have an affable disagreement, only rising to the level of conflict in jest. For me, my grandma’s “is the best”, because banana pudding is, by nature, relative. But it would be absurd to suggest that this rose petal’s “red” for me is one wavelength and for you another. Even if our subjective experiences of the color are unique to each of us, if we don’t both at least recognize the objectivity of the redness of the petal, then one of us is colorblind. In the next part, I’ll explore the opposite of relativism — the more common human intuition and understanding that most things in the universe correspond to objective reality, not only in physical laws, but also in ultimate value and aesthetics.