Which is more important, facts or feelings?
Have you noticed this is an underlying conflict below a lot of struggle and division in our society these days? I hear from managers every week that their employees need their feelings validated more than ever. Is that a good or bad thing?
How do we relate to all of this? To answer this question, we need to explore some philisophy. It’s a bit heady, but I hope you’ll hang with it, because this isn’t academic, it’s for applying to your life right now.
In part one of this series, we deconstructed the three dead-end strategies (altruism, transcendence, and control) for achieving happiness and how most mainstream values come from dilute and distorted forms of what began as esoteric spirituality.
After reading part two, you will understand exactly where our current culture wars come from and what you can do about it. To do this, we need to look at the history of consciousness from the last 500 years, because (believe it or not) we can blame Descartes for this mess. First, the most important distinction in philosophy:
Objectivism: An orientation toward reality that holds that certain truths exist independently of human knowledge or perception of them.
Subjectivism: An orientation toward reality that holds that certain truths exist only as a function of whether or not, or how humans perceive them.
All spiritualities, religions, and philosophies can be reduced to being objectivistic or subjectivistic to varying degrees, or in rare cases “metajectavistic” when they combine both elements. More on this later.
Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism (the “big five” world religions) are objective because they assert that their God, gods, and/or other elements of reality exist whether you subscribe to them or not. This is how militant forms of religion can exist: objectivism, when immaturely wielded, leads to absolutism and imposition of worldviews onto others; that is, “you must believe this because this is the way it is.”
Whereas these oldest and foundational paradigms were created in an age of objectivism, since the 16th century, potentiated by the invention of the printing press, subjectivism has gained increasing popularity. In 1637, Rene Descartes asserted “I think therefore I am,” meaning the only unquestionable fact of human existence is our own thought, and there is no external or objective truth. His philosophy rose on a wave of more subjectivistic thinking that confronted the oppression of Catholicism.
Objectivism (as Catholicism) dead-ended in Europe, when corruption in the clergy led to severe division of wealth and lack of upward mobility in lower classes. The result was the Protestant Reformation (1517): a more subjective version of Christianity that sought to empower people and sought to reduce abusive hierarchy.
As the Church increasingly lost power during the Renaissance, more thought-leaders emerged with a predictable focus on the rights and power of the individual. These are ideas that would have been met with ex-communication and even death under a Church-ruled Europe. This is just a small, chronological sampling that followed Descartes to give you a taste of the trend.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) defined the “social contract” as self-interested cooperation which became the foundation of modern capitalism. He believed that humans were selfish (subjectively-oriented) at an essential level and needed absolute monarchies to control their self-destructive tendencies.
John Locke (1632-1704) asserted that all people were equal and independent, and everyone had a natural right to defend their “life, health, liberty or possessions.” This was a direct source for the U.S. Constitution. He also gave us modern conceptions of identity, and the first theory of mental conditioning, which is critical to argue the subjectivistic view; i.e. “each of us has our own take on reality because of our individual experience and conditioning, so who can say what’s true?”
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) taught that an objective reality existed, but the mind’s (subjective) distortion of experience renders it unknowable. Therefore, reason (rather than scripture and clerical interpretation of it) is the source of morality, sharply departing from religion. He advocated for democracy and international cooperation, which obviously would include multiple, subjective viewpoints.
Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was dubbed the “father of existentialism,” an approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual as a free agent who determines their own development via free will (very anti-Church objectivism). He argued, “subjectivity is truth” and “truth is subjectivity.” He accepts objective facts, but argues that it’s more valuable to investigate one’s relationship to facts, because this is the genesis of behavior.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) gave us the idea of a “super-man” who has the power to create meaning because, he thought, there was no objective order or structure in our world. For Nietzsche, the subjective perspective was the source of our greatest power.
Do you see the pattern so far? The rising tide of individualism, as a rebellion against persecution under the objectivism of Catholicism, changes the very way we as humans see what it means to have a life. The advent of psychology would take it even further.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and others during this time created psychology which delved deeper into the individual, subjective experience than anyone before. He created an art and science out of examining exactly how people create their own unique realities through projections that serve to protect emotional wounding.
Predictably, organized religion continues to wane in popularity for a number of reasons. Its objective foundations are eroded by increasingly subjectivistic sensibilities. To adapt, religions concede rigidity, but the statistics show atheism and agnosticism on the rise as religions lose members. Gallup published in 2022 that religious membership fell to 46% for U.S. adults and has been consistently falling since they began the survey in 1937 when 73% were affiliated. Belief in God has fallen from 96% in 1944 to 81% in 2022.
When you see the history of consciousness, It’s not difficult to appreciate that where we are now is an over-reaction to the oppressive objectivism of Catholic-ruled Europe. Since Descartes, the pendulum has swung from adherence to extreme objectivism, where the individual perspective was oppressively devalued in a hierarchical way, to extreme subjectivism, where the individual’s opinion has become oppressively over-valued peer-to-peer.
This is what allows for claims of election fraud without evidence, the demand (beyond a wish) for others to respect non-traditional genders, increased belief in conspiracy theories, disbelief in climate change in the face of data, cultural cancellation of artists based on individual offense, and much more.
It’s also led to “psychospiritual buffeting,” where rather than attempting to live according to one paradigm, it’s far more common for people to piece together a worldview from a variety of incompatible models. This is what New Age Spirituality is: a greatest hits of indigenous traditions, Hinduism, Buddhism, psychology, and even includes elements of more esoteric Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.
It’s not that people aren’t entitled to their opinion. They are, of course. They’re not entitled, however, to have others agree with their take on reality. We have no laws that guarantee validation of that kind or freedom from being disagreed with, and yet this is a growing expectation in our culture. Why? Because of unmet needs from childhood when we very much did need our reality validated, surfacing at greater rates today because of the healthy embrace of subjectivistic emotion.
Where this currently all comes to a head is in relationships of all kinds, and requires a more sophisticated frame for what human relating actually is.
Relationality: The process of two or more individuals negotiating reality.
What is critical, but not commonly appreciated is that when two people lock horns in a heated disagreement, the root of the issue is that they are in different pictures of reality, which is the hidden context for the content of the debate.
When two people significantly perceive reality in different ways, the best they can do is compromise, which is inherently dissatisfying and limited. This is why we tend to spend time with people who see reality similarly as ourselves, usually unconsciously, as most people aren’t even conscious of the essential principles of their worldviews.
In domains where this isn’t possible, like the workplace, we rely on a hierarchy whereby the authorities at the top of the org chart adjudicate reality, establishing the values, world-view, and acceptable ways of being for the workplace–without threatening employees’ individual beliefs and values. This can be a tricky line to walk.
In relationality, when objectivistic and subjectivistic perspectives clash, the key is to look for a metajectavistic frame. Metajectivism is a frame big enough to hold both perspectives, and especially must honor all emotions involved. All feelings are real and must be respected because they are an aspect of our humanity. Invalidating feelings hurts and gets us nowhere. That’s what the objectivist needs to learn.
The subjectivist, on the other hand, needs to learn that just because they have a strong feeling doesn’t mean they have an accurate take on reality. Extreme subjectivists in our culture often become emotionally indulgent at the expense of seeing things the way they are; indeed, even discarding the idea that there is any objectivity to reality at all.
There are limits to how much you can relate with someone that takes subjectivism that far, but one thing is for certain: if you don’t listen to the strong feelings and opinions, you will not be able to expand their horizons.
In the end, we discover reality together. This is how we need each other. Extreme objectivists tend to be too mental, rigid, and unfeeling. Extreme subjectivists tend to be emotionally indulgent, play victim, and avoid accountability. They each have things to learn from each other on the way to embodying metajectavism.
A metajectavist seeks objective truth but doesn’t claim they have absolute knowledge of it or impose their truth on others. As human emotions are part of reality, they respect and include all data into their assessment of reality. As different takes on reality are part of reality, and the idea that everyone could see reality the same exact way is absurd, a metajectivist embraces diversity of opinion without fear of becoming lost amidst chaos because they know chaos is part of the root of reality.
A metajectavist embodies the fact that everything is true, and some things are truer than others. Even someone deeply distorting reality believes what they believe and has reasons for doing so that must be respected as parts of reality. In other words, resistance to reality is still reality and must be met with a “Yes” before a “No.”
If that respect isn’t delivered, a confused person isn’t met where they are and so cannot be aided. In this way, a metajectavist is automatically a leader to themselves in their pursuit of truth and for others.
They can open-heartedly explore truth with another in the midst of disagreement and can listen deeply to the other without needing to attack, defend, or push their point of view. They know that the more right they think they are, the more room they must make for the other’s point of view.
They trust that the truth precipitates out of connection and even if the other is completely wrong, they are right in that they currently think what they think, have real reasons for doing so, ought to advocate for it, and must be listened to in order to change. To be this for and with another is an act of love, and as love is the basis of reality, engaging with others from love is the ultimate respect of truth. Conversely, using will to go directly against someone’s point of view demonstrably isn’t productive because it doesn’t abide with the true love-based nature of reality.
Leading with love in this way is also the most difficult thing for a human being to consistently do and in this way why relationality is the ultimate challenge for us all to embody our deepest truth: the love-based nature of our very souls. The next time you’re in a disagreement with someone, rather than see them as an adversary, try to realize that in that moment they exist to challenge you to expand your point of view to include theirs all the way before you attempt to change their perspective. In those moments, they are your teacher, they are Reality Itself, trying to show you how to make an “and” between your reality and theirs so that the deeper truth that brings everyone along can be realized. That’s what love does.