Clarifying the Distinction between Objectivity and Subjectivity

 In The Mind, Words and Meanings

Everything a person believes starts within their own mind as perceptions, emotions, and other experiences that are operated on through the innate capabilities of the brain.  It is easy enough to say that external reality exists and that it is self-evident, but for one to know anything about this reality and to be able to speak about it, they would need to first perceive it and understand it to some extent.    Our mental processes produce our conception of reality, which takes the form of mental models that probably have some accuracy but are never 100% accurate.  Sometimes they are very inaccurate, as in when we imagine things that don’t exist and we completely miss things that do exist.  Some of our perceptions are fleeting and easily forgotten, but some are quite vivid and might give us particular perspectives on the world that would seem to us naively as completely true.

We should not take for granted that these processes are necessary for knowledge, especially anything that is mutually understood.  One probably would not be able to reliably discern fact from fiction entirely on their own.  We can home in on the truth through social processes that involve multiple beings communicating with each other so as to develop mutual understanding and to help each other weed out falsehood and to develop more accurate mental models of reality.  Some things that we experience are entirely in our minds and some things are models of external reality.  These processes allow people to differentiate between the public access knowledge of external reality from that which is only within their own mind and which is therefore private access only.  Objectivity is the gold standard for knowledge, but that is not always possible for all aspects of life.

In order to judge whether it is conceivable that anything subjective could be mutually understood by groups of people while still being beyond the reach of objective study, it is important to understand the distinction between these two modes of understanding.  Some may intuitively think that the word “objective” is synonymous with “reality” or that this word refers to the reality that exists regardless of anyone’s beliefs.  Some people do seem to use these words interchangeably, but that is sloppy and imprecise.  A more refined usage of the word “objective” would refer to a fully unbiased understanding of things as they actually are and treatment of things in a way that is mind-independent.  This sense of the word is useful because that is often what journalists and scientists aim for in their work.

There is, however, an inherent problem with this because objectivity, as so defined, is not fully possible.  Objectivity is not a view from nowhere since that would be impossible.  We can work to minimize our biases, but we can’t eliminate them altogether.  And while there are ways of knowing external reality more directly, it is impossible to know something in a way that is entirely mind-independent because one depends on their own mind for any knowledge.  In light of this, we should try to formulate a definition that isn’t so absolute and hard-edged.  The following is an attempt to provide a more accurate definition of “objective”, based on the real life usage of the word: detailed knowledge of an object that is as unbiased as possible, using the most direct methods of perception that are available, with the aim being that anyone else should be able to have a very similar understanding of the same object using similar methods of observation and bias minimization.

This contrasts with the term “subjective”, which is traditionally defined as experience from one’s own point of view.  Now, some may think that “subjective” refers to beliefs that are imaginary and cannot be grounded in reality or ideas that do not have truth beyond someone’s opinion, but this need not be the case.  This word sometimes refers to one’s personal opinions and biases, but there is another sense of this word that leaves open the possibility that some subjective beliefs could actually refer to universal facts that can be mutually understood by groups of conscious beings.  In this other sense of the word, that which is subjective is simply limited to one’s own personal feelings and experiences that other people can never fully know about because these experiences are internal to the mind.  It is possible, however, that one being’s conscious inner world might have strong similarities to others, and they might possibly come to understand each other’s inner world at a certain level.

The idea of objective thinking suggests that there is a way of looking at the world that is not influenced by a person’s particular, subjective viewpoints, the latter of which are often shaped by each person’s cultural and biological conditioning.  Some people think that which is objective is something that is not altered by opinion, such as that 2 + 2 is always 4, no matter what country one is in or what one’s political beliefs might happen to be.  This popular understanding of objective reality is contrasted with subjective reality, which is supposedly always open to interpretation or opinion, such as what is beautiful or what is art.  Within this line of reasoning, it generally comes down to the difference between fact (objective) and opinion (subjective).

This distinction is problematic for two reasons.  First, it sometimes happens that people can have an objective understanding of something, but this can turn out to be inaccurate.  Objectivity is not the same thing as reality.  We can do our best at investigating something and reporting it objectively, but it can still be incorrect.  We know that there are scientific studies that were conducted with upmost professionalism and the best efforts to minimize bias that were nonetheless wrong in their conclusions.

Second, our opinions are true for us, within our own experience.  If someone feels positively about some music or film, then it is true that they feel that way.  Therefore, an opinion is a kind of fact, albeit one that is local to the person.  Sometimes opinions can be shared across a population and it is conceivable that there might even be opinions that are universal to all conscious beings, perhaps such as the qualitatively distinct feeling that one has when they are in awe of beauty, regardless of what object happens to trigger this feeling.  And so we can realize that it is conceivable that for any conscious being, whatever object that individual finds beautiful, that there is still this sort of feeling.  We might disagree on what causes us to be in awe, but there could be something similar about our experiences.  This is not to presume that this is the case, but this is at lease conceivable.  Thus, we can’t reasonably say that the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity hinges on the distinction between fact and opinion.  Instead, it makes more sense to go with the distinction mentioned above, which essentially hinges on the distinction between having an entirely mind-dependent understanding of something (subjective) versus going through a best-effort process to achieve a mind-independent understanding of something (objective).

These definitions are important, because if any subjective experiences can be mutually understood by people, but there is also something about these experiences that cannot be known objectively (because there is no way of minimizing personal biases among multiple people in a way that would meet the requirements for this designation) then this would entail that radical empiricism is true and that positivism is false.  There are some who claim that they have certain personal experiences that could never be fully understood objectively, such as qualia, free will, and a sense of morality that allows them to make value judgments.  These might all be imaginary, but it is conceivable that there could be truth to some of this.  As philosopher Edith Stein pointed out, one can never get an orientation from which one can directly perceive the other’s pain in full detail, even though this is a real phenomenon that is experienced by the other person.  This contrasts with the example given by G.E. Moore about having an objective understanding of someone’s hand, which other people can directly perceive in full detail.

To clarify, if any single thing can be known subjectively but not objectively, then this alone would be the necessary and sufficient condition for radical empiricism to be the most accurate theory of knowledge formation.  In this scenario, radical empiricism would more inclusively describe the methods of knowledge formation than any version of positivism, including scientism and naturalized epistemology.  If this were the case then there would have to be some experiences that would end up in a certain midpoint between subjectivity and objectivity, but at this point nothing of the sort has yet been established.

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