Beyond Objective and Subjective

Concepts are more than just words – they are thinking tools. Like all tools they may be sharp or blunt, right for the job in hand or not, safe or dangerous to use. Concepts can also be thought boxes – limiting broader or fresh thinking or deeper understanding.

I argue now that the notions Objective and Subjective are bad tools. They have come to carry implications of superior/inferior; of unbiased v prejudiced.

Objective, as widely used today, carries the ancient myth that there is a single ‘objective’ reality out there somewhere and that the task (for truth seekers) is to see through the ‘subjective’ veils of our lived realities in order to approach it. This myth has been examined elsewhere1.

Image: The ‘Mechanical Reality’ behind our ‘World of Appearances’

Science History Images / Alamy

Now the model accepted in the early days of enlightenment science: a Universe of objects interacting like billiard balls according to fixed laws … has given way, with the broad acceptance of quantum and complexity theories, to models involving probabilities and entanglements in space-time. We have to say models (plural) now because there are so many interpretations that the notion of a single reality is hard to sustain. More on this below.

For those of us able to step back from the coal face of scientific enquiry, so to speak, it is clear that our Universe consists of a cascade of creative interfaces: each giving rise to new levels of complexity, existence and meaning. Insofar as the notion of reality can be sustained it rests on these interfaces themselves rather than the more basic components that have come together to give rise to them.

To give a very simple example, the atoms well known to physics of Hydrogen and Oxygen (themselves creative cascades of still less complex existences) come together as the water (or steam or ice) familiar to us. Water may be ‘only’ H2O if you look at it analytically but chemistry is more than physics and life is more than chemistry.

Once you have grasped the idea of the creative interface – that the active interface between two entities creates a new entity beyond them, our own interfaces with aspects of the ‘out there’ are bound to give rise to new levels of existence and meaning; new realities. These higher level realities are neither ‘out there’ nor ‘in here’ but span both realms.

Some practicing scientists realised this several decades ago. In particular Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela introduced the useful notion of ‘brought forth worlds’2 to describe the creative interface between particular cultures and the worlds that they existed in. They, and others, have been criticised for this because it directly challenged the central myth of a single objective reality and was therefore not ‘good science’.

Now in the sphere of faith based world views, especially the great world religions, many of us today would accept these as valid in their own terms and for their own believers. The two exceptions to such tolerant acceptance are the extreme, often fanatical, interpretations of those beliefs (“only we guard the real truth”) and the militant secularists, determined (from the outside) to use hard logic to de-construct those brought forth worlds.

Most of us, who stand outside the world view of the majority scientific consensus, may find it hard to grasp the level of paranoia in regard to relativism. Surely, if all views are relative then anything goes, believe what you like? In the words of a famous poem: “the centre cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the land”.

Those with concerns about relative understandings of reality would appear to have a point. There would seem to be a need for some sort of anchor. Yet in the wake of relativity and quantum theories, of multiple co-existing interpretations of ‘out there’ and ‘in here’, of the dawning recognition that total knowledge of everything is not possible3 … the solution cannot be the holy grail of ‘a single objective reality’.

 Indeed the world of scientific orthodoxy (of Enlightenment Science as, for context reasons, i and others choose to name it) can be viewed as yet another brought forth world, a true world for its true believers.

So where is the anchor, the universal standard and point of reference across all worlds? Right in front of us. The greatest sages have recognised it. Early science built its reputation on it. The best practitioners honour it today. Most of us know it in our personal engagements, if only as a nagging conscience. Its name is integrity.

Another aspect of faith in objectivity is faith in reason as the road towards it. It is stated that reasoned judgements can be used to compare assumed facts, to weigh the truth claims of different understandings. Now an important insight and argument of the philosopher John Gray is that many things in life are just not comparable; they are incommensurate4. Nowhere is this more obvious than for the various brought forth worlds that give human beings and communities their sense of meaning and purpose. Who but a fundamentalist would want to claim that Christianity (say) is a ‘truer’ belief system than Islam? (This is not to dispute that all beliefs have consequences when acted upon. These can be compared.)

Coming back to our starting point, if objective and subjective are unhelpful concept tools what alternative is available? The notion that is implied by the above exploration is intrinsic: those standpoints that are valid within each and every brought forth world, every creative interface.

Woody Wood      March 2019

1 The Limitations of Enlightenment Science   Devolve!  2019    ISBN 978 0993112638

2 Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realisation of The Living   Springer 1991 paperback ISBN 978 9027710161

3 David Wolpert: Theories of Knowledge and Theories of Everything  a chapter (pp 165-184) in The Map and The Territory   Springer 2018   ISBN 978 3319724782

4 page 67, Essay on Agonistic Liberalism, in Enlightenment’s Wake   Routledge 1995 hardback (with iconic wrapper) ISBN 978 0415124751

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