Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

My take on objective truth and subjectiveness of opinion

with 6 comments

Recently, I have been involved in several discussions where the topic of a search for a “truth” has surfaced—and where I (through misreadings by the other party or misformulations by me) have been misunderstood.

For easy future reference, I will here outline some of my opinions in a less ambiguous manner:

  1. There are many issues where taste and preferences, different circumstances and needs, or similar, can be so important that it makes no sense to speak of right or wrong in anything even resembling absolute terms.

  2. In many others, we have an arbitrariness on an abstract level, but a typical context which can make one or the other alternative superior within that context (and the context is sometimes sufficiently given that it need not be mentioned). This applies in particular to issues relating to humans. For instance, the colors of a webpage are arbitrary in principle, but when we factor in how the typical human perceives colors, what combinations lead to higher or lower readability, what combinations can cause a headache, whatnot, then clear statements can be made about the superiority (in context) of at least some combinations over some others.

  3. Preferences, while arbitrary in principle, can also be seen as better or worse, which can affect the rating of otherwise arbitrary evaluations. For instance, if someone feels that a webpage with a particular color combination is aesthetically pleasing, but that combination leads to text that is very hard to read, then a combination with higher readability should be chosen: Ensuring readability is a more rational goal than aesthetics when it comes to a medium with the purpose of spreading textual information, because it achieves the intended purpose better, is more user-friendly, is more likely to result in pleased and returning visitors, etc. (I make the contextual assumption that this is what is wanted—if someone merely uses the colors to surround images of art works, e.g., then the situation can be different.)

    Obviously, preferring rational preferences is in it self a preference of some arbitrariness. Going into that discussion, however, opens a far wider field. Other similar preferences may be present, but left unstated, in this post.

  4. In many cases, reasonably objective statements can be made based on reasonably objective criteria, and (while the subjective aspects should be kept in mind) it is usually better to do so than to speak of subjectiveness. Often a very high degree of objectivity and/or certainty can be reached (as is often the case in the “hard” sciences) and the mere fact that there is a theoretical possibility of something else on the very edge of probability is no excuse for claims like “Evolution is just a theory!” or many of the extremely relativistic positions of many post-modernists.

    (Notably, post-modernism is based on a few sound ideas, but these ideas are rarely truly understood and they are often applied in an ridiculous manner—to the point that some in the PC or feminist movement seem to consider truth something that, using post-modernist motivations, should be bent to fit their own ideals without regard for the real world. A lack of understanding of science is almost always present.)

  5. Even in those cases where there is no objective truth to be found, the search for an objective truth can be rewarding in that it forces the exposure to different perspectives, the critical investigation of claims and arguments, the weighing of pros and cons, … In this way, a richer and deeper understanding can still be found. Indeed, it even happens that an, as it eventually turned out, faulty scientific model or theory had benefits through e.g. predictions that were better than an even earlier model or no model at all.

  6. The wish to actually search for the truth of the matter (a better approximation of the truth, new or refined insights, …; as opposed to merely convincing others of a pre-formed opinion) is central to good debating.

  7. Objective truth is an ideal that I feel that we should strive for even when it cannot be reached: The more objective and less subjective we become the better—and rejecting this search because we can “only” reach better approximations is not constructive and will lead to less progress and more arbitrariness. A bowler may know that his chances of scoring a perfect game are next to nil, but he can still dream—and if he is a professional, he should also try to improve his game to increase the chance. In the same manner, the scientist, philosopher, debater, amateur thinker, …, should strive to gain deeper insight—even when he knows that he will never reach perfect insight.

    (Reading up for this post, I note that perfect bowling games, while still rare, are far more common today than a few decades ago, due to changes in materials, shape of pins, and similar. The analogy may be best seen with an eye on the “good old days”.)

  8. There is nothing wrong with claim “X, because Y” (unless a non sequitur). On the contrary, this is indirectly a challenge to others to investigate the argument, point to flaws or special cases, come with counter-arguments, …

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Written by michaeleriksson

March 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm

6 Responses

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  1. Thanks for writing this post. I remain a bit foggy in my understanding of objectivity vs. subjectivity, because the two appear nearly inseparable when an assessment relies, in large part, on an individual’s faculties. Many of the discussions arising on this topic mention the evaluations taking place in “hard” science, which do indeed lend themselves toward objective inquiry; but when the evaluations are sociological or psychological and therefore difficult to test and clearly assess, the scale tips the other way toward subjectivity, though in many cases this is denied and members of the public are encouraged to believe objective scientific inquiry played a major role. This muddies our understanding of where the boundary lies between objectivity and subjectivity, if in fact a distinct boundary even exists.

    I agree that objectivity is a worthy ideal to strive for in many instances, though I’m less convinced that this is possible or even desirable, at least at this time, when it comes to matters where we lack an objective foundation on which to base research. The commonly touted example would be love and the myriad ways in which it is expressed and felt, the social complexities it involves, and the acute subjectivity of the experience. While we can step back and observe the phenomenon across a wide spectrum or an entire culture, or we can utilize sophisticated technology to study brainwaves and neurochemicals, is it likely these techniques and studies will greatly illuminate and expand our understanding of the phenomenon of love? Or is it more likely that by subjecting love to rigorous scientific analysis, we might instead accidentally diminish it by the very act of trying to dissect and (over)simplify it?

    Excuse me for being inarticulate on this matter — it’s difficult to find the right words to express what I’m aiming at here. It just seems to me that there remain phenomena beyond our current comprehension that wind up being degraded when we attempt to universalize and objectify them in the name of scientific exploration. I wonder sometimes if we wouldn’t be better off, for at least the time being (for an indeterminate amount of time), slowing down and learning to appreciate and observe our social complexities rather than rush to explain and rigidly define them. Because we’re standing so close to that which we’re attempting to study that I’m not convinced any of us are truly capable of forming objective understandings on these matters. At best, we wind up with a blend of objectivity and subjectivity resembling a yin-yang situation, as perhaps it should be when it comes to exploring social dynamics.

    Again, this is in reference to our social realm specifically, whereas the “hard science” realm may be treated separately. I do agree with much of what you stated above and am not refuting, merely elaborating on how objectivity runs into conflict when trying to assess our individual inner (psychological) and intimately interrelated (social) lives and functions. Perhaps there are explanations out there that might help me in gaining better insight into this dilemma, and if you’d care to share any resources, I’d be much obliged.

    wakemenow

    March 1, 2011 at 5:40 pm

  2. Thank you for your long comment.

    You are quite right about the problems with the border between objectivity and subjectivity and the great problems involved with reaching objectivity. The best we can do is to try to be objective and hope that this is enough for the task at hand. (Of course, a key to increasing objectivity is awareness of ones own subjectivity.)

    Love is a tricky issue. I do not believe that researching love will do any harm in the big picture, but will potentially bring benefits, e.g. through a better understanding of how relationships evolve, how they can be improved or rescued, when and how one should let go, etc. A more problematic aspect is that those who become well informed in the area can grow highly cynical and disillusioned, thereby losing out on some of the positive sides of love (but, in return, avoiding the negative sides).

    More generally, a deeper understanding can often actually increase appreciation and enjoyment—the enjoyment becomes different, but greater. Further, the fact that someone is researching an area does not mean that “the average Joe” perceives things differently than he otherwise would. Correspondingly, I have no real fears about research.

    I regret that I have no specific sources that could help you, but I would generally recommend reading a few articles on e.g. scientific method/work, cognitive psychology, various logical and cognitive fallacies, … Wikipedia is a good starting point (and has a number of articles on fallacies). I cannot predict how your understanding has/will develop, but mine has mostly grown based on odd pieces of information and experience here and there, combined with reflection.

    michaeleriksson

    March 2, 2011 at 10:16 am

  3. You have written an interesting piece, but have overlooked some basic distinctions.

    A fact is a proposition which is constituted by socially agreed terms and verified by socially agreed means: e.g. Sweden is seeking Julian Assange’s extradition.

    Opinion is of two kinds.

    First, opinion can pertain to a proposition asserted by someone which cannot be either verified or falsified: e.g. Julian Assange has engaged only in consenting sexual acts. The weight of an opinion which alleges a fact is dependent on the likelihood of the alleged fact being true.

    Second, opinion can consist of an “ought premise” e.g. All those who engage only in consenting sexual acts ought not be punished. Ought premises cannot be deemed true or false; they can only be judged consistent or inconsistent with other ought premises.

    Ought premises, if universal, can be combined with facts or “opinion facts” to produce new ought premises. For example:

    All those who engage only in consenting sexual acts ought not be punished.
    Julian Assange has engaged only in consenting sexual acts
    Therefore, Julian Assange ought not be punished

    Peter

    March 2, 2011 at 11:29 am

    • Thank you for your reply. Your distinctions are valid, but not really within my intended scope for this piece.

      Three remarks:

      1. I would not necessarily agree with fact as dependent on “socially agreed terms” (at least in the context of “objective truth”): That which is socially agreed is inherently subjective and, thus, not an objective truth. Obviously, fact in the sense of objective truth may be an unreachable ideal, while something “socially agreed” can actually often be found.

      2. Specifically in the case of legal issues, the two categories of opinion have strong matches in the concepts of “findings of fact” and “findings of law”: The one says what the judge/jurors believs to have actually happened; the other, what the law says that “ought” to be the case (concerning ownership, punishable actions, whatnot).

      (Incidentally, a similar division is implicitly present in my post in that “ought” can be matched to “preferences” or similar.)

      3. We should take care to say “[…] ought not be punished for these acts.”—after all, there may be other reasons to punish.

      michaeleriksson

      March 3, 2011 at 4:11 am

  4. I agree with all the points in reply except one.

    You write:

    “I would not necessarily agree with fact as dependent on “socially agreed terms” (at least in the context of “objective truth”):”

    I think you might have overlooked something here. A proposition can only be established as fact – i.e. as objective – if the means of establishing it as fact is socially agreed. A person or group may feel his, her or their method for determining fact is objective, but if it is not endorsed by others it is necessarily subjective.

    I would argue that objectivity is always at least in part socially determined, although I do not argue from that point in favour of philosophical relativism.

    Peter

    March 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

  5. I think the semantic disagreement lies in “be established as fact”: The way I see it, a fact in this context is an objective truth, which is not influenced by our views on it. At the same time, we almost certainly have a faulty, incomplete, or subjective view of what the actual fact is. In effect, we have “my” fact, the truth, and “your” fact, the perception of the truth—and the social agreement only comes into play when we discuss the human/scientific/philosphical/whatnot perception of what the truth is.

    Notably, from my POV any human perception has at least some subjectivity to it, which would imply nothing that is socially agreed can be objective in the first place (another possible semantic disagreement), although the harder sciences can come reaonably close under some additional assumptions (e.g. that we do not live in the Matrix).

    michaeleriksson

    March 7, 2011 at 6:01 pm


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