Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Posts Tagged ‘opinion

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, …

Written by michaeleriksson

March 1, 2011 at 2:14 pm