This subject has a tendency to get lost in the weeds. I want to keep it simple.

Before I get started, answer these two questions with a hard “yes” or “no.” Go with your gut answer:

  1. Is the shape below objectively a square?

  1. Is the shape below objectively blue?



Working at Barnes and Noble last night, I heard a young man in an indistinct but heated conversation that seemed to be about religion and objectivity. Something about “empirically,” “Heisenberg principle,” “Christianity,” “objectively.” You know, that kind of conversation.

At one point, I heard something like the following:

“How do we determine whether Christianity, Buddhism … how do we decide which one is objectively better?”

To answer that, we would have to know what he means by “objective.” And I don’t know that we do.

A dictionary definition

Merriam-Webster lists several definitions for the word “objective,” but this one seems like the most fitting in this context:

of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind

I see three key components:

  • sensible experience, i.e. an experience grounded in our senses (sight, hearing, etc.)
  • independent of individual thought
  • perceptible by all observers

A conversational definition

I propose the following conversational definition to determine whether something is “objectively” true:

true according to mutually accepted metrics or definitions

By conversational, I mean that this is what we seem to mean when we use the word “objective” (or, similarly, “empirical”) in casual conversation. It might be helpful for unpacking disagreements like those I heard last night.



Let’s revisit the two questions from the beginning of this post with both definitions.

Question 1

Is the shape below objectively a square?

You probably answered yes. Let’s unpack that answer.

Dictionary definition

Is the shape:

  • A sensible experience? Yes; you saw it.
  • Perceptible by all observers? Yes, barring blindness or vision problems.
  • Independent of individual thought? Tricky, but I think we can agree that a trivial amount of personal judgment was needed to answer the original question.

By the dictionary definition, I would say that this shape is objectively a square.

Conversational definition

Is the shape a square according to mutually accepted metrics or definitions?

  • We agree that, among other things, a square has four sides.
    • We agree that a side (of a polygon) is a line segment connected to other line segments on both ends.
      • We agree that a line segment is a straight path between two points.
        • We agree that straight means…
        • We agree that a point is…

You get the gist. We can keep following this agreement of metrics and definitions as far as we like and get the same result. So by the conversational definition, I would say that this shape is objectively a square.

Question 2

Is the shape below objectively blue?

Your answers probably differed. Let’s figure out why.

Dictionary definition

Is the supposed blue-ness of the shape:

  • A sensible experience? Yes
  • Perceptible by all observers? Yes, barring vision problems again.
  • Independent of individual thought? Probably not. We disagree on what exactly blue is. Some might say this is blue, others might say it’s green, others might say it’s teal.

By the dictionary definition, I would say that the shape is not objectively blue.

Conversational definition

Is the shape blue according to mutually accepted metrics or definitions? Probably not, for the above reason.

However, we could use the RGB value as such a metric. The RGB value for the shape is (0, 150, 165), so it’s technically more blue than anything else. With that information we might, by the conversational definition, say that the shape is objectively blue. What matters here is that we can come to a verdict, not the verdict itself.

Closing thoughts

Having explored both Christianity and various forms of atheism, I’m tired of so much hot air and spilt ink about knowing things “objectively” or “empirically” when, paradoxically, we don’t seem to agree on those concepts. Words are only as strong as their definitions.

I intentionally kept this idea very primitive. I don’t plan to expound it further, but I hope you’ll consider it and leave your thoughts below.