The subjectivity of objective

Absolute objectivity is a mirage. Objectivity, in itself, is always a value judgement and always subjective. There is no observation, no experience, no proposition, no fact, no truth, no logic which has not been filtered through human cognition and all its shortcomings. Nothing is completely objective. Nothing I write can be objective. That is a truth which comes before the beginning.

Let us start there.

Objective is not a useful word in framing an insult. “You objective scoundrel” somehow elevates a “scoundrel” and detracts from the insult. I cannot think of an example where being objective is considered bad. An objective evil or an objective crime are word combinations without meaning. At worst, objective is perceived as neutral. In regard to human thoughts and actions we assume that they are either based on logic and reason or on feelings and emotion. They are not necessarily opposed but it is implicit in our language that they are different. We perceive reasoning to be more objective than emotional reactions.

We allow the ability to distinguish objective from subjective to reside only in animate things having brains. We do not even allow artificial brains that ability. We know that brains are where both logic and reason on the one hand, and feelings and emotions on the other, reside. But we connect being objective with a brain’s exercise of logic and reason and untainted by emotions. Language does not permit an emotional rationality. Being subjective is also of a brain but is a characteristic of the individuality of that brain and its attendant emotions. Subjectivity is undefined without a brain which generates both reason and emotion. The practice of science and the law thus set a high value on the thing we call objectivity, whereas we appreciate, and expect, an individualistic subjectivity from an author or a musician or a painter or a teacher or a tennis champion.

But in seeking objectivity we are chasing a mirage.

To be objective is an ideal in all disciplines of learning and particularly so in the process of scientific inquiry. The concept is that whereas observations are necessarily and unavoidably dependent upon the perspective of the observer, there are core features of that being observed which are independent of, and uninfluenced by, the observer. Objectivity, as a philosophical concept, is a goal sought after in ethics, in questions of fairness or justice, in journalism, in the sciences, in most of the humanities and even in the social “sciences”. Even fake-science, pseudo-sciences and junk-science set great store by a purported objectivity. To be subjective is seen to contaminate the purity of the objective – or so it is presumed. Subjective science or subjective justice are not given any value. The problem is that there can be no core feature independent of the observer unless it is not discernible by any observer. Every observation is always a perception and may not even exist outside the brain having the perception. Even logical deductions are ultimately dependent upon the perceived observations they are based upon. The concept of reality comes into play. To any brain, a perceived observation imparts an aura of reality. Even a deluded or imagined perception, existing only in a particular brain, imbues a perceived reality for that brain. A multitude of observers, who have similar brains, may well (and do) have common perceptions, which may all be equally deluded. Absolute objectivity is unattainable, but to be considered objective is associated with being fair, impartial, unbiased, uncontaminated by base emotions. There is an implication of an objective mind transcending its own prejudices and biases. Yet all knowledge must unavoidably lead to bias. A paradox lies in that an empty brain, capable of thought, would make a more objective judgement than an informed brain with its attendant bias. A learned judge is, of necessity, a biased judge. Two objective accounts of the same observations are expected to be identical. True objectivity allows no room for individuality. The contradiction here is that two unconnected, living, brains must necessarily generate two subjective observations – not one. Even a subsequent judgement that the two observations are identical can only be subjective in another brain. Of course, two identical, mechanical brains would generate the same output given the same input, but such brains could hardly be considered to be unique or free thinking. (I note that nature seems incapable of producing two identical brains). A judgement is an assessment by an individual brain and, per force, subjective to that brain. A judgement can be as objective as possible but there can be no such thing as an objective judgement. Values cannot be objective and neither can morality or ethics. My conclusion is that objectivity is itself just a value. But why the human mind does feel the need to give a value of good to the concept of an impossible objectivity is a cannot know.

Subjectivity, on the other hand, is not necessarily considered bad. It is not explicitly given value in science, but it has its own implicit place. It is lauded and is generally to be preferred in the creative arts and in all matters where the individual or individuality is considered important. Subjectivity is what gives us our uniqueness and our identity. To lose subjectivity is to lose individuality. We can juxtapose the words, but to the rational human mind there can be no such thing as objective creativity. Objectivity is not a quality we allow to be associated with beauty. Emotions are always associated with subjectivity. Our reason tells us that objective anger or objective love are just nonsense. Passion and rage are subjective. Any piece of music is valued higher as a subjective creation of the composer or the subjective interpretation of the performer than if it was produced mechanically by an algorithm. Any painting is deemed of greater value when it is subjective and not just like a photograph. A photograph, however, is considered much more objective than a painting, though it is also accepted that a camera, too, can lie. For photography to be considered an art form it must introduce a subjectivity – both in the artist and the observer – which overrides its apparent objectivity. Our subjective perception of the world is, however, also influenced by the common worldview of others around us. Individuals and individuality make up humanity. Once in a while we get individuals, a Plato or an Aryabhatha or a Leonardo, whose subjective, creative genius changes how the world is perceived. References to Newton’s science or Einstein’s are in praise of subjectivity. The common perception changes but it remains subjective. And it remains a perception.

The notion of truth lies at the root of all logic and all comprehension and yet trying to define the nature of truth always leads to circularity. True = in accordance with fact, but Fact = a thing that is known to be true, and therefore True = in accordance with (a thing that is known to be true). Truth and knowing are inseparable. Even when you know something is false, that knowing of falsity has to be true. What is to be considered as known is a function of a brain and what is of a brain is necessarily subjective. Facts and truth, too, are necessarily and unavoidably subjective. What is remarkable is that the entire, seemingly solid edifice that is human logic and thought, rests upon a notion of truth which is both subjective and hazy. All knowledge is subjective. For example, there is human knowledge and there is canine knowledge, but there can be no absolute knowledge which can be independent of a brain or a collection of similar brains.

The phrases this statement is false, or knowing the unknowable, or counting to infinity, or an infinity of infinitesimals, or the beginning of endlessness, are all paradoxes because they are absurd in their meaning, not in their construction. Mathematics often uses reduction to absurdity (reductio ad absurdum) for the valid, logical, rejection of a proposition, but the nature of absurdity is itself based on our assumption of the non-existence of the logically absurd. Why is the logically absurd barred from existence? Human comprehension has no logical difficulty in contemplating matter and anti-matter but balks at the idea of existence co-existing with non-existence, or of propositions being, simultaneously, both false and true.

Objectivity in philosophy is when a proposition is true without any influence of a sentient subject. But true itself is a subjective judgement. In practice it is impossible to reach this condition of  no influence of a sentient subject. (Moreover the statement itself is self-contradictory when a truth, which has to be subjective, is a requirement for objectivity). In the process of science, to be objective means to be able to judge neutrally without external influences. Judgement, of course, can never be anything but subjective. I therefore take objective to simply be a label for the theoretical, but impossible, condition of being without any influence or involvement of a sentient observer (a subject). Objectivity is not absolute. At worst, objectivity is an oxymoron and at best it is a paradox. It is, in fact, just another subjective, human value. A value is essentially a scale against which to measure behavior (good/bad, moral/immoral, fair/unfair ….), or to relate characteristics or properties (tall/short, hot/cold, fat/thin). In the logic of meanings inbuilt into language, the two ends of a value scale can never be equated, but the scale can be embedded into itself anywhere along the scale. Tall is never equal to short, but tall is permitted among the short and short among the tall. There are good among the bad but good is never to be equated with bad. There is objective within the subjective but subjective is never, and can never be, objective. Good and bad are the most fundamental human values and it is not difficult to understand how these values arose, probably long before we were even humans. Whatever helped survival was good and what did not was bad. Some form of a good/bad value set may well be held by many animals and possibly by all sentient, living things. Virtually every value scale relating to human behavior maps also onto the human good-bad axis. I observe that objective is nearly always allied with good. Subjectivity is not necessarily or always considered bad, but to be objective is hardly ever bad.

Being a subjective, human value, means that objectivity cannot cross the species boundary. The subjectivity of objectivity is inescapably tied to species cognition. Two observers may perceive a sunrise differently, and human cognition expects (assumes) that there are some core (objective) features of that sunrise which transcend the subjectivity of the observers’ perceptions. But even that description of objectivity becomes suspect if the observers do not share the same level of cognition. If that sunrise were observed by a human and, say, a spider, one would be hard put to finding common, objective features of the observations of that event. The cognitive capabilities of the human and the spider come into play and are too far apart to allow much common ground. All our understandings about the world  around us (our truths which we call knowledge) are necessarily subjective; they are all perceptions of the world around us as interpreted by our human cognition. It follows that the same event observed by widely different cognitions will generate entirely different knowledge; different understandings of the world; different truths. We can share perceptions with other similar brains but it is extremely difficult, and impossible in most cases, to truly share perceptions across the species boundaries of cognition. Our cat has no appreciation of, and ignores, the most beautiful autumn sunsets but can be mesmerized by an idiotic string blowing aimlessly in the wind. Without doubt our cat has cognition, but what is knowledge to that cognition is not necessarily what is knowledge to mine. Any subjective understanding about the world, even if  shared by all seven billion humans on the planet, never can, or does, become completely objective. It will always only be an understanding constrained by, and subject to, human cognition and that, in turn, is a prisoner of human genes. A false perception, which is due to the quirks or shortcomings of human cognition, may be shared by all seven billion humans but will still be false. A consensus of a vast number of subjective opinions is no closer to being objective than any single subjective opinion. At best it can be said to be objective by human perceptions.

There are a few geniuses and many idiots among humans, but there is an envelope of cognitive capability which encompasses and imprisons all humans, including all the geniuses and all the idiots, and is a characteristic of the species. Within this envelope the range of individual human cognitive capabilities is relatively narrow and decidedly finite. It is a certainty that the larger comprehension of humans does not encompass everything of the smaller comprehensions of the animals or insects. We have not encountered – perhaps fortunately – any entities with a greater cognition than humans. But if we do, it is likely that there will be a mutual incomprehension of each other’s worldview. Their perceptions and their realities will be their own subjective creations. And their knowledge will be their own and their Gods will be made in their own image.

All knowledge is subjective. All truths are subjective. We like to think of the process of scientific inquiry as being objective, but that too is a subjective value judgement.


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