2020, Philosophy, Politics, Society

The Problem of Subjectivity

Throughout most of human history, we haven’t done a good job of understanding objective reality. Learning about objective reality has been a slow, difficult process, with many setbacks, but which has rapidly accelerated in the last few centuries, especially the last one. If you compare the growth of scientific knowledge about the universe versus the length of human existence, it’s a dismal picture until the Scientific Revolution.

Prior to the Scientific Revolution, human beings had knowledge of certain basic objective facts – birth, death, having to eat to live – but basically zero understanding of the reasons for those facts. Moreover, the things we did know we usually bathed in mythology and superstition inherited from our ancestors.

Each human society had their collective subjective knowledge of the universe buttressed by some basic objective facts (if I don’t eat I will die, if I am hurt enough I will die). Oftentimes this subjective knowledge overlapped with the collective subjective knowledge of other societies – most of whom they had never had contact with – which has lead to the false idea that they must have received this knowledge from somewhere external to human beings. (Take, for instance, C.S. Lewis’ idea that shared or similar morals in disparate cultures are proof of some kind of higher power – he claimed they can’t have evolved but must have come from something external. An idea that is false for all sorts of reasons.)

This localized subjective knowledge was challenged whenever societies interacted with each other, which happened increasingly after the invention of agriculture, and intensifying with the so-called “Age of Discovery.”

At around the same time, the Scientific Revolution occurred, and the new standard of detailed observation and, especially, of replicating those observations, created a new shared objective reality for all of humanity. However, that reality was still peppered with all sorts of subjective beliefs and it still is today, though our collective knowledge of the objective reality of the universe has never been greater. Moreover, the tools, techniques and advances of the Scientific Revolution were not accessible to everyone.

Since the Scientific Revolution, most fields of human knowledge have become more scientific, i.e. more grounded in objective reality. This includes many fields that don’t quite fit within the traditional scope of the hard sciences, fields in which it is hard or almost impossible to observe distinct causality or replicate studies (or falsify theories of causality). For example, when I was in school, I would sometimes encounter papers that included mathematical formulas, though I was studying “political science” (a name I hate). In a discipline with few universally shared assumptions, the utility of these math formulas was hard to figure out.

With the discovery of proper objective reality and the growing emphasis on the importance of grounding our ideas in objective facts, many humans began to feel as though something had been lost. These people felt that something about the discovery of objective facts took away from the wonder of existence. (This is a huge generalization, of course.)

For example, Romantic artists (authors, composers, painters, etc.) wanted to get back to a more primitive, pre-scientific time, because they believed that human expression was more authentic. So composers embraced folk music, for example. Later this rejection of the value of rigour would manifest itself in the embrace of total artistic primitivism, such as in naive rock.

This fear – that the study of objective reality through rigorous observation and replication actually obscured truth rather than revealed it – eventually found its way (back) into philosophy and the “social sciences”, creating a group of ideas broadly known as “critical theory”. (Or “the counter-enlightenment”).

To greatly oversimplify, critical theory argues that all human knowledge is subjective and that there are tacit, unstated, subjective, untested and unchallenged assumptions underlying all science and, especially, philosophy and the humanities and social sciences.

This insight turned out to be true; even the hard sciences were full of unscientific assumptions, most if not all of which were shaped by human history and power relationships.

Unfortunately, for many, this fact seemed to give legitimacy to all claims of bias in science. Ever since the Scientific Revolution ,there had been a minority that feared and objected to the hard sciences (as beneath human dignity, for example). Now the discovery of bias gave ammunition to those who sought to discredit the quest for objective knowledge of the universe in general and about human beings in particular.

At the extreme, some critical theorists embraced the complete social construction of reality, the belief that everything is the creation of human interactions. They found a supposed scientific basis in the Observer Effect and the Uncertainty Principle, among other ideas. (This belief has been parodied by the famous statement that a human being is still killed by a socially constructed bullet.)

That extremely brief and oversimplified history brings to us to our current moment, in which we are having the same argument humans have been having ever since some humans began studying reality. (I.e. whenever science was invented.) On the one hand, some claim that objective reality is all there is, on the other, there are those who claim that subjective reality is all there is. The rest of us are stuck in the middle, forced to listen to two completely unreasonable points of view.

Subjectivity Isn’t Partisan

One of the defining features of the current debate seems to be a claim by some that “The Left” is subjective and “The Right” is objective. I’ve seen this claim all over the internet and I find it more than a little laughable. But I think I understand why it’s happening.

(Obligatory note that “The Left” and “The Right” are not monoliths and many people on both sides don’t share opinions about most things with each other.)

Some people on the left have gone quite far into affirming the subjective experiences of people, particularly minorities, and this has caused some former allies to abandon the Left, seemingly for the centre. However, a select group of these people has seen there is money to be made by speaking directly to the Right, and so they have been pulled right to appease their audience. Given that a number of these people have training in science, an impression is given that the Right is now the domain of science and the Left is the domain of subjectivity. (Which was somewhat true when critical theory first appeared, but the point is that this claim is always somewhat true of either side.)

(On a personal note, I find the scientific pretenses of some people on the centre-right or right one of the things that are driving me further and further left. Anyway…)

The thing is, this arbitrary divide is completely absurd if one glances at the positions of the mainstream right-wing (in the US, in Canada), many of which are barely tenable and some of which are complete fabrications. (The Right, after all, is the home of “alternative facts”, where larger numbers are smaller than smaller numbers. And Jesus Christ descending from the sky to save us all, sometime in the near future.)

Something else is happening here.

What I think is happening is something that has happened throughout human history, only it feels different because of the internet – the extremes are louder, regardless of politics and so we think the divide is bigger or worse or more real than it is. There are people on the Left who believe in the primacy of subjective experience and they make lots of noise. There are people on the Right who have hijacked the language of critical theory to defend the status quo (and demand a return to the past) through the emphasis of their subjective experience and they make lots of noise. (There is a partisan divide and it may be getting bigger compared to a our recent baseline, but I still think the extremes seem more extreme due to internet.)

The people in the middle, who mostly agree on the existence of objective reality, are mostly less noisy so we think they are a minority. (Except those who realize they can make money by preaching to choirs, and then they get noisy. And then they usually abandon their grounding in objective reality. I’m looking at you, Jordan Peterson.) Now, why those who agree on the existence of objective reality can’t agree on the political solutions to our actual problems, is another story.

The Problem of Subjectivity

So, as I see it, the problem of subjectivity for human civilization is this:

The hard sciences ignore subjective human experience; the ruling class also ignores subjective human experience (except their own). There is value in a society recognizing and listening to the subjective experiences of everyone, particularly those who have been oppressed or ignored in the past and currently, because it’s how we, as a society, grow and get better.

But objective reality still exists, and embracing subjective human experience cannot go beyond listening and acknowledging subjective experiences of the less fortunate and attempting to atone for any subjective (i.e. perceived) harm when possible. That’s because taking subjectivity to the extreme leads to the denial of objective reality which can be physically dangerous (as with “alternative medicine”).

There is no solution to this divide. Rather, it’s a balancing act. And it’s a balancing act which has nothing to do with political persuasion unless we make it seem that way.

Those of us who want society to remain grounded in objective reality have a duty to reject both extremes, those who deny human subjectivity and those who deny objective facts, regardless of politics. Those of us who want to preserve science and facts need to be on the same side against those who don’t believe in nuance and don’t think the truth matters (or is real).

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