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?
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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.