Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Subjectivism means you can’t know what is true.
“Roses are Red”, we hear it all the time. It’s the most cliché way to begin a poem, but is it true? Are roses really red? Do roses really exist? Can we know that roses are really red? How should we think about roses? These are the kinds of questions you’ve been missing out on if you opted out of your intro to philosophy class. While these types of questions may seem trivial, they actually prod at some of life’s most fundamental truths. Through our inquiry concerning roses we’ll be looking at the nature of reality, human thought and knowledge, and even ethics. Hang on to your buds.
Are Roses Red?
To most of us common folk, this question is a pretty silly one. “Yes, of course roses are red or at least some roses are. My aunt has a garden full of red rose bushes, they flower in the summer and she puts weird styrofoam covers over them in the winter”. But according to some philosophies, the redness we attribute to the rose out in the garden is merely a projection of our physical brains. According to these folks, we can’t really know reality or “the thing in itself” but only our own mental framework and it’s projections.
A lot of these ideologies find their root in Immanuel Kant’s Copernican revolution in philosophy. Back in the 1700s, Kant’s revolution was more of a retreat from knowledge of objective reality, into mere knowledge of our our mental framework. John Frame sums up Kant’s thought very well when he writes, “our most basic knowledge comes about not by the world’s impressing it on the mind, but by the mind’s impressing it on the world. Experience is the result of the mind’s imposing various concepts on the raw data given to it by the noumenal world.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, pg. 256).
Gordon Clark, describes Kant’s philosophy through an interesting illustration: Jelly Jars. He describes a Jelly Jar that has been used to hold all sorts of different jellies. The Jar discovered that though each jelly tasted different, they always took on the same cylindrical shape. “How could this be? The change in experience could be accounted for by foreign material being poured into it; but the only permanent factor to account for the identity of shape must be the jelly glass itself.” (Thales to Dewey, pg. 313). So reality only looks the way it does to us because of our mental framework, not due to anything outside of ourselves. Our brains or minds project onto reality. On this view, what we conceive of as a red rose might actually be lime green and look nothing like a flower. This is a huge turn towards subjectivism and even epiphenomenalism (“The theory that human consciousness is a product of physical events and has no causal power of its own.” (Ronald Nash, Life’s Ultimate Questions)).
Back in 1941, C.S. Lewis wrote about this phenomenon, or rather, epiphenomenon, “it is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the colour of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left.” (Bulverism, in Compelling Reason, pg. 17).
So are roses real or should we take a kantian approach to roses? John Frame helps us decide, “Kant seeks to interpret an unknowable, unstructured world (the noumena) by applying a knowable structure of categories supplied by autonomous reason (the phenomena). On the one hand, Kant is a skeptic worse than Hume: we cannot know the world as it really is. On the other hand, he claims that autonomous reasoning can determine everything in our experience, including what God may and may not do. In the end, then, Kant’s knowledge (which he thought enabled him to rescue science and mathematics from skepticism) is not a knowledge of the real world, it is a knowledge of it’s own structure, a knowledge of the categories that it imposes on experience. It is therefore in an important sense tautological. It is the knowledge of Aristotle’s Prime mover: thought thinking thought, thinking thought. But it is not thought of anything and therefore not thought at all. So Kant is far more deeply skeptical than Hume, both in regard to the noumenal world and in regard to the phenomenal. There is no knowledge of the noumenal, and knowledge of the phenomenal is an empty thought of thought.” (A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, pg. 268-69).
So, subjectivism, at least in the Kantian sense, reduces to irrationalism.
Can we know that roses are real?
Say we reject subjectivism, relativism, epiphenomenalism and the like. Say, we do believe that there are such things as roses, how do we know? How can we be justified in believing that there is an objective reality? That there are red roses out there and not just in my mind? Ironically we can find our answer to Kant in Kant. Though we reject Kant’s phenomenal/noumenal bifurcation, we can use his transcendental method to justify our belief in roses.
Instead of starting with a theory of what we can know, we can start with what we do know (e.g. red roses) and look at what must be true for that thing to exist and for us to know it.
Given that red roses exist and I’ve experienced them, what must be true? Well, there must be an objective reality that contains red rose bushes, there must be laws of thought and concepts that allow me make sense of the colors and shapes I see in reality, and there must be a knower, or “me”.
While other views fail to make sense of roses, Christianity succeeds. The Christian doctrine of Creation and it’s sub-doctrine of Man explains that God has created the universe (reality) in an orderly, rational fashion and made man to inhabit it. God made us in His image with the capacities to reason, perceive, choose, speak, feel and express emotions along with others. We’ve been made to represent God here on earth and care for His creatures. We’ve been designed to understand the ever-present reason in reality which points ultimately to our Creator God. We can apprehend logical laws and the concepts necessary to reinterpret reality as we seek to think God’s thoughts after Him. Not only can we believe in roses, we are called to use our knowledge of them in order to cultivate them and we should enjoy them to the glory of God.
Which brings us to the last question.
How should we think of roses?
Roses are kind of a paradox. They are a universal symbol of beauty, as well as a continual source of pain. They display beautiful, vibrant reds and yet if you are careless around them they”ll draw similar reds from your very own skin. Roses are a perfect summation of a fallen world. Beautiful yet painful. From a Christian perspective, roses point to God’s beauty and creativity. Their thorns also serve as a reminder of the fall and the curse that God put on creation because of Man’s sin. But to us who live in A.D., roses ought to remind us of the Rose of Sharon who wore a crown of thorns, endured shame and death for our sake, and who rose again with the promise that a time is coming when there will be no more thorns.
Thorns should remind us that they exist because of our sin, but because Jesus Christ wore a crown of thorns, we who trust in him get to live with him forever as kings and queens when the curse is finally undone.