Reaching For Pure Objectivity – Mission Impossible

 

After the turbulence of the summer holidays and settling down to a new life at university, I’ve finally found myself the time time to begin writing again. Getting into the swing of study, I intend to publish all the relevant interesting formative writing I do here, so I can get some discussion about my ideas outside the seminar rooms. Anyway, enough of all that; back to the topic at hand.

 

The universe can only be observed through a lens of private perception. Anything that has ever been experienced, in the entirety of human history, has been experienced through the filter of individual, private senses. So how does this understanding of the process of cognition accommodate for the existence of any sort of meaningful objectivity?

 

What actually is objectivity?

Dictionary.com defines ‘objective’ as ‘not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased’. What this means, therefore, is that for some conclusion to be objective, it must have been arrived at independently of human interpretation.

Outside human interpretation

This is where I start to wonder whether true objectivity is actually possible. In fact, it seems to me that there is a sliding scale between subjective and objective that can hold any statement, opinion or conclusion. Of course, concluding that the sum of 2+2=4 is further towards the objective side of the scale than to conclude that the coffee in front of me is delicious. But is the former conclusion (that 2+2=4) perfectly objective?

Let’s go back to the definition and find out. I would certainly agree that the conclusion was arrived at without taking into account personal feelings. That’s a start. However, the bigger question is whether or not the conclusion circumvents human interpretation. How can it? I started this post by stating that ‘Anything that has ever been experienced, in the entirety of human history, has been experienced through the filter of individual, private senses’. 2+2=4 is fundamentally tied up in concepts of addition and equivalence, not to mention the fact that there is no such thing as a 2 or a 4. Numbers themselves are just concepts (and all concepts must surely be subjective as there is nothing objective about an idea) and the operations used here are reliant on an understanding of logic and an ability for the person to correctly work with the operation. All of this is subjective and necessitates that the conclusion ‘2+2=4’ is subjective also.

What does this all mean?

I chose the example of 2+2=4 as a conclusion because it seems to be one of the most likely candidates for true objectivity. However, I believe I’ve shown that it is not objective. So what other avenue might we take to find true objectivity?

Computers

Discussing this topic with a friend this morning, he suggested that I might be looking at the problem the wrong way. I shouldn’t try to find some state of affairs in the world that is demonstrably objective.

 It is the human that is the problem.

(N.B. that for the concept of objectivity to be meaningful in the sense that we use it, it only need refer to something existent. The fact that humans are unable to perceive or interact with it is irrelevant.)

My friend suggested that computers might be able to interpret the external world objectivity. I thought about this for a while and now believe he is wrong, for the following two reasons:

  1. Computers are not sentient. The reason that I believe objectivity could only be achieved by the living (and this is dubious) is that for something to be objective it ought to be understood. A computer may have sensors that interact directly with the external world in such a way that their readings are unmediated. They totally bypass any form of subjective intervention. But when you look at what is happening, this all seems irrelevant. The complexity of the computer, along with the user interface being designed to give the computer a sense of understanding, lead to the conclusion that it can be objective. In reality, it is just a block of processors and other things that allow it to relate inputs and outputs. Zero cognition and zero objectivity, just as there is nothing objective about the sea interacting with the sand.
  2. Even if you do not agree with this line of reasoning, you would surely agree that any information we might take from a computer would have undergone subjective interpretation to enter our brains, such that regardless whether a computer is or is not objective, it is irrelevant. To take a verificationist approach here, any sentence we use concerning objectivity is only meaningful if it is tautological in some sense (which it is not in this case) or if it is able to be verified, even in principle. Given that humans cannot escape their slanted view of the world, then it is not verifiable. Therefore, it cannot be verified and A J Ayer would be turning in his grave every time we consider the idea.

Conclusion

To sum everything up, then, I believe that objectivity, as a concept, is meaningless because true objectivity is physically impossible. However, the word may still be linguistically valuable because it indicates that a statement is closer to the objective side of the scale that I previously discussed. When we say that something is objective, what we really mean is that it is subjective, but less so than other things which we refer to as subjective. This is the reason why we must not stop striving to achieve objectivity (even if it’s impossible). The court of law (to name only one thing) relies on an approach which places a fundamental value on objectivity, and this is the right thing for it to do. In putting such importance on the concept, we challenge people to shuffle down the sliding scale, as close to the objective side as we can get (however close that may be). Only in doing so can we continue to make informed decisions about the external world.

 

 

What are your thoughts on objectivity? Did I say something that you don’t agree with? Let me know in the comments below and I’ll happily discuss things with you.

 

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5 Comments

  1. You are fundamentally mistaken. You have not shown that 2+2=4 is subjective. You claim that numbers are just concepts and that ideas cannot be objective. But numbers don’t just exist because we decided they do. We DISCOVERED numbers. We WORKED THROUGH what math is. We didn’t INVENT any of these things, we merely observed things happen, and we ended up quantifying things. Math is a language, it’s not just a concept. Even if we called the number “two” the number “five”, “five” is I I things and “two” is I I I I I things. You are not refuting that numbers are objective, you are claiming it. You have no proof. “concepts of equivalence and addition” sounds ridiculous. It’s not a concept, it’s an operation. A way to predict. Math is predictive, you give a calculation “what would happen, what is the result of this situation?. Math is objective because if two or more people perform the same operation without making logic mistakes, the answer for all will be the same no matter what. You are effectively saying that because objectivity doesn’t exist, if you say 2+2= 56 and I say 2+8=10 we are both correct. But the REALITY, the TRUTH, the OBJECTIVE assessment is that you are wrong; 2+2 is objectively 4 because 2 isn’t just a number, it’s a value that means something. Just like 4 is another objective value. 10 is a value that can be made up of 4+6, 3+7, 9+1, or even (547-527)÷2 or any other combination of operations. This is basic basic math. If you do not comprehend that despite these numbers not being tangible things that grow on trees, they are still part of the natural world because even without us to observe and interpret anything, the physics of reality and existence are still present, then there is something wrong with you. You are self-centered, vain, and narcissistic if you believe the universe cares about your opinion on objectivity.

    Fact check: it doesn’t. If you didn’t exist there would still be just as many particles in the universe without you to subjectively verify their existence. If you died tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t suddenly stop existing. You’re just not that important, and neither am I. So you could look at it this way: “objectivity is everything that is REAL without me seeing it.” Imagine existence without your ego, imagine existence without your perception of it. It still fundamentally exists. You are effectively saying that the universe exists because we observe it but that is not the case. We exist because it observed us, not the other way around.

    Ever thought about how objectivity could be looked at as “shared” information? If you say “everything in human history has been experienced through the filter of individual private senses”, then necessarily if multiple “private senses” saw or experienced exactly the same thing, then that thing would be objective because regardless of WHO or WHAT is experiencing that thing, it is the same no matter what. If subjectivity were the only thing that was possible, then there would NEVER be the possibility of one person experiencing the same thing as another.

    This brings us to another reason you are wrong. Design; if a computer engineer designs a machine, with all the parts, all the cabling, etc, it is a concept. An idea. The moment that machine is built, does it become objective or not?

    The replication of that machine is possible. Every single time matter is shaped into the required components of the machine, you achieve the same thing. Every time you press the button to turn it on, it works. The logic behind how each component works with each other (essentially electrical laws in the wires and the batteries) will always be the same. If you do something to disrupt this logic, the machine will not function. Does the machine subjectively suddenly decide to stop functioning? Or is there something deeper and more complex at fault; the components fail because despite how they are arranged, a part of it is not working “as intended”.

    If two engineers can design the same machine or bridge or anything by coincidence even though they have never met or collaborated (and both machines work identically), then the information that was used by both individuals is objective, for multiple reasons. 1- if there was only subjectivity, one machine or the other would not function; as the laws of physics that apply to these machines would not be constant but as we know, they are. 2- regardless of who designed the machine, if the specs and schematics were respected, and you put the proper power source, the machine, and any copy of it, would function. 3- any further alterations or improvements to the design can be applied to each machine equally as easily with the same result. This proves certain things ARE objective: math, physics, science.

    If these things were not objective, technology wouldn’t work. The computer you used to write and publish this article would not have functioned simply for the fact that if objectivity didn’t exist, the laws of physics that work to make your computer and your smartphone and your car function wouldn’t make them function. They would be inert chunks of metal and plastic BECAUSE if objectivity didn’t exist then there would be no reason to develop such a specific arrangement of different parts. You could plug anything together and it would give any millions of different results if objectivity wasn’t real.

    The same thing goes for code. If two people write the same code it will behave the same way. If you write any string of binary characters and you copy and paste it into a binary to text decoder to see what the string means, each time it will give you exactly the same answer because the code MEANS something. Just because there have been people who designed the code it does not mean that the code itself is not objective.

    So please, do yourself a favor. Next time you want to publish garbage like this, smash your computer first and then try fixing it with your subjectivity, or go to the computer store where they will objectively assess what you damaged and charge you appropriately to fix it. (If objectivity didn’t exist then your computer could not be fixed.)

  2. I think ‘computers are not sentient’ needs to be dissected a bit more here. Computers as they exist today are all very specialized problem solvers, this is true. However whatever system dictates ‘sentience’ in the human mind is a system that we most likely will be able to replicate eventually, once we fully understand it. Thus I don’t think this cannot be ruled out so simply.

    If we go down this path of what is sentience ( AI and all that ) we do however come back to the same problem. Even some artificial system with some extremely generic problem to solve (what am I? What is the universe? what is true?) is still bound by your point; that those understandings come in through some set of sensors, and therefore are also subjective and prone to error or differences between individuals.

    I toy around with these ideas quite a lot actually, and they always lead me back to Socrates, “All I know is that I know nothing,” a statement which to me highlights this paradox of objectivity. The only truths we have are relative (or abstract) ones, relative truths are then of course also based around what we previously know, and abstract truth, although they may be objectively true, we can only understand through our lense of experiences. We live on the world (true). What is the world? The thing we live on. Circular reasoning is not objective truth, it is again relative understanding. Next lets look at 2+2. What is two? what is one? if you go deep enough you need something tangible to tie to the abstract, and then it becomes again relative. Everything starts with experience.

    Now for a tangent of my own 🙂
    To dive a little more into my opinion of what would make computers sentient, it could come back to understanding objectivity (this is my opinion, something I was just thinking about before reading this, so I have to say it although it’s a bit out there). Since we can have no objectivity within our own mind, our best attempt at discerning truth leads us to attempting to understand the subjective understanding of others (The most objective truth would be the average of all subjective truths). And thus the search for truth, if this is something of a basic instinct for us, could lead to things like empathy and sentience. We have our own intelligence, which controls how we act in situations, but then we project intelligence on to other individuals to try and understand other perspectives and merge them with our own (something like a virtual machine). Could this capability, led by an innate search for truth, be a large part of what we like to call sentience? It would logically create what feels like a layer above our own intelligence, and produce the level of thinking, uncertainty, and empathy we find most prominent in humans but especially only in mammals.

    I enjoyed the read, thanks for writing!

    1. Chris,

      Thanks a lot for this! It’s really interesting to hear about your interpretation of what it means when we use words like sentient. The concept you are talking about reminds me about the Turing test. If we cannot tell the difference between a machine and a human based on linguistic interaction, then on what basis do we prescribe sentience to humans but not to machines? This is slightly divergent from the point you made, but I believe adds a different dimension to your argument. You should set out your thoughts formally and publish them somewhere (I’d be happy to share your ideas through The Philosphere) as I’d be interested to have a clearer understanding of what you are trying to put across.

      Thanks again,

      James

  3. Interesting article, very interesting.

    May I ask, why did you select 2+2=4 as an example? I believe if you could demonstrate that a statement such as ‘the earth exists’ is not objective, then this would strengthen your argument. As you mentioned maths occupies a somewhat abstract ‘realm’, and therefore I believe it is easier to show why any statement involving maths may not be entirely objective. However, if we take the concept, or fact, that ‘the earth exists’, and attempt to imagine this without the use of any words (in order to attempt to negate a philosophy of language issue), surely we have arrived at an irrefutable objectivity. It is difficult to deny that the earth does not exist, unless one is a pessimist in the philosophical sense and thus questions the actual reality or existence of anything.

    I suppose by eliminating the philosophy of language element to my statement then I am cheating a little really. From such a spring would arise numerous questions such as what is existence? What is earth?

    Anyway, I’d be interested to hear the reasoning behind your selection of 2+2=4 as an example.

    Good day!

    James

    1. Hi James, thanks for your input!

      The reason I used ‘2+2=4’ is because it is often cited as ‘obviously’ objective – something that is also analytically certain, and something that even God as defined by any major religion could not make untrue. It seemed to me that tearing down this assumption would be a good way to evidence my point. However, your counter-example of ‘the earth exists’ is similarly subjective as far as I’m concerned. For a start, the statement is contingently true or false. That is to say, it is either true of false depending on its alignment with our empirical experience (there are no features in the definitions of the words which makes the statements tautological in any way). Therefore, the validity of the statement is dependant on this subjective interpretation of senses, which, as I discuss above, is fundamentally problematic for claims of objectivity.

      Is this response satisfactory?

      Thanks again,

      James

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