Objectivity

There are two sense of the word ‘objectivity’ in widespread use. One is absolute objectivity, or ‘The God’s eye view’, memorably described by Thomas Nagel as ‘The View from Nowhere’ and beyond all individual perspectives. The other is incremental objectivity, which can be the quality of a particular person’s judgement – more or less objective. The meaning of objectivity in Middle Way Philosophy is incremental, not absolute. Given that we are flesh and blood creatures who always have a point of view and limitations of perception, absolute objectivity is simply irrelevant to us. Any claims to have absolute objectivity are metaphysics, beyond human experience.

Aerial_View_of_Scout_Moor_Wind_FarmThe fear of ‘objectivist’ scientists and moralists alike (who believe in absolute objectivity) is that the only alternative to claims of absolute objectivity is relativism, in which no one belief is any better than any other belief. It is this kind of fear that condemns us to dualistic thinking in which we slide between absolute and relative positions, with each counter-dependent on the other. However, given that absolute objectivity was only ever a fantasy that we have projected onto the products of revelation or reason, relativism is just as much of a fantasy.

Our experience provides ample evidence of incremental objectivity, provided we do not expect the ultimate answers that metaphysics pretends to be able to provide. If you doubt this, ask yourself ‘Am I more objective now than I was when I was three years old?’ It is difficult to see how anyone capable of reading this webpage could answer this question in anything other than the affirmative. You understand and address conditions much better now than when you were three – whether this is understood in factual, moral or aesthetic terms.

The alternative account of objectivity offered by Middle Way Philosophy can be understood in a variety of different ways in theoretical terms that interlock:

  • objectivity is a property of a person or persons at the point where they make a judgement
  • objectivity is the ability to address conditions
  • objectivity is incremental freedom from delusion
  • objectivity is adequacy of experience, unimpeded by dogma
  • objectivity is the degree to which the Middle Way is practised
  • objectivity is justification for reaching beliefs
  • objectivity is integration

All of these points are accounts of the same process, just understood from different perspectives using slightly different (but overlapping) models. They all begin with the recognition that it is people who have objectivity, not propositions or theories, and that to see the objectivity of a theory as lying in the way that it reflects the universe is a misunderstanding of the meaning of the language involved in the theory. Rather, when people reach beliefs that are better or more justified than other beliefs, they do so in a way that avoids impeding metaphysical views that would stop them from making effective use of their experience. A more objective judgement makes better use of the experiences available, whether that judgement is made by one person alone in a position of relative ignorance or by a group of scientists checking each others’ application of a rigorous method and building on previous discoveries.

The justification of a belief does not just depend on its coherence and use of evidence, but also on the awareness of fallibility of those making the judgement. This is not just a matter of the methods used or evidence considered, but of the psychological states of those making the judgement. Yes – psychological states can be more or less objective! For some reason this is a position that seems unthinkable for philosophers of science. Yet the idea that psychological states are merely ‘subjective’ is part of the absolute/relative dualism that the Middle Way is trying to avoid. This entrenched prejudice also depends on the idea that we are single selves with ‘subjective’ desires that are in conflict with reason: yet another set of assumptions that must be challenged.

Some psychological states bring the available energies together more effectively in the judgement than others, offering greater awareness of conditions than others. Awareness of conditions does not just involve consideration of the evidence available, but also of our relative ignorance, and of the importance of not over-interpreting that evidence. These more aware psychological states which bring more energies together are also understood as more integrated states: see the page on integration.

The key point on objectivity, though, is that it is we who are objective, but our objectivity is tested each time we make a judgement. The objectivity of our judgements depends on the extent to which we are practising the Middle Way.

 

Picture: Aerial view of Scout Moor Wind Farm (Wikimedia Commons)

20 thoughts on “Objectivity

  1. Hi, I am wondering about the statement that objectivity is freedom from delusion. In what sense is delusion being used here? Clearly, it is not being equated simply with error. If it were, the sentence would be negatively suggesting objectivity is associated with complete accuracy or even truth. A psychiatric definition I read, unhelpfully refers to delusion as a “fixed false belief…” which again introduces notions of truth and falsity, and someone (presumably the psychiatrist) deciding on that matter. However, the psychiatric definition did contain a potentially compatible element in that delusional beliefs are held in the face of contrary evidence.

  2. Hi Julian,
    One of the radical things about the Middle Way (when you separate it from Buddhist concepts of enlightenment) is that it can be negatively led by recognition of delusion, rather than positively-led by a truth claim. Popper was the key thinker here, who first recognised in a scientific context that it is easier to identify what you got wrong, and make gradual progress that way, than to identify what is true or right. This also equates to a recognition that negative feedback is more useful than positive feedback. Positive feedback can be encouraging, of course, but that encouragement, interpreted in a dogmatic frame, can just entrench our current views. It is negative feedback that enables us to make progress and change positively.

    However, the criticism Popper encountered is that there is no absolute falsification. The observation that you might think proves a given theory wrong could itself be wrongly interpreted. ‘Delusion’ thus cannot be understood in purely philosophical terms. It has to mark an inter-relationship between a philosophical judgement and a psychological state. In other words, metaphysics is deluded because it supports dogmatism. Dogmatism disables objectivity of judgement because it represses alternatives (see glossary entry on ‘dogmatism’). The philosophical problem with metaphysics, and what makes it deluded, is that its assertions take a form (representational, dualistic, absolute, group-dependent etc) that prevent the consideration of alternatives.

    Another way of understanding why metaphysics is deluded is due to its absoluteness and certainty, which are just based on a misunderstanding of the whole way in which we process meaning and belief. It is deluded because it denies our embodied nature. A common criticism of MWP here is to say it is being absolute in its rejection of metaphysics and is thus another sort of metaphysics. But it is not criticism from the Middle Way perspective that makes metaphysics ‘absolutely’ wrong – it’s the way in which metaphysics defines itself. By assuming certainty it condemns itself to a basic delusion.

    So then a final point to bear in mind about delusion is that just because metaphysics is completely deluded, this doesn’t imply that any person is completely deluded. However strongly someone may assert a metaphysical claim, there are always alternative possible views and perspectives within them based on experience, but repressed by the over-assertion and brittleness of that claim, and struggling to get out.

  3. Hi Robert,

    I think I follow the arguments about metaphysics being deluded. However, my concern was more to do with the positive claim that objectivity is free from delusion. To say someone is free from delusion is an absolute claim. If delusion is understood to be a state of being deceived or misled, that is not something we can ever be sure of avoiding. By definition, if we are deluded, we are unaware we are deluded. Doesn’t saying that objectivity is freedom from delusion make it both unknowable and absolute rather than incremental?

    1. Hi Julian,
      Objectivity always has to be understood here as incremental. I wouldn’t claim that ‘objectivity is free from delusion’ tout court (and I hope I haven’t!), but rather that to the extent that a judgement is objective, to that extent it is free from delusion. I work on the assumption that we are probably always deluded to a degree – but taken as a glass half full that also means that we are objective to a degree. The awareness that we may be deluded is also a matter of degree.

      1. Hi Robert,

        My guess it that the wording of the third bullet point really does need to be changed then, because this is how I read it and I’d be surprised if others don’t read it the same way too. If the same sentence structure were used to say ‘Liberation is freedom from suffering’, it wouldn’t allow for the possibility of any suffering at all in the concept of liberation. I’d suggest that in everyday parlance, ‘freedom from’ is pretty much identical to ‘complete absence of’. Likewise the phrase as it stands, ‘Objectivity is freedom from delusion’ doesn’t allow for the possibility of any delusion at all in the concept of objectivity – something we can never be sure of and therefore we could never say we were objective. I think this phrase does need to be let go of.

  4. Thanks, Julian. I have added ‘incremental’ to that bullet to avoid this misinterpretation. it’s often difficult for me to spot these misinterpretations because I take the interactions between the different bits of Middle Way Philosophy for granted.

    1. Hi Robert, I am afraid I still think letting go of this is more helpful than keeping it or even modifying it. I still don’t see what it adds to the idea of objectivity. It strikes me as trying to define objectivity in terms of what it is not rather than what it is. If we are deluded, by definition, we do not know we are deluded, so how can we ever make claims to be free from delusion – even incrementally? You can give reasons why you think you were previously deluded or why you think someone else is currently deluded (by pointing out incoherence in their arguments or how their beliefs are inconsistent with experience etc.). By contrast, freedom-from-delusion is a problematic idea – even incremental freedom. I spent a lot of time thinking about this in relation to the Buddha Dharma, as of course, delusion is one of the three poisons to be eradicated in classical Buddhism. The way I personally squared that circle was to be very clear in my own mind that delusion in that context (as I understand it) refers to taking the permanent to be impermanent, phenomena to be me or mine, and finally taking phenomena to be capable of providing a final and lasting happiness or fulfillment. Delusion in that context is about the three characteristics of experience (tilakkhaṇa) rather than a global idea of delusion which could relate to anything or everything. At least the first two of these characteristics are very amenable to immediate experiential enquiry and hence I found the possibility of freedom from delusion in this constrained sense to be useful to a certain practical degree. That is to say it informs a certain way of paying attention to experience. I am a bit concerned that this interest in freedom-from-delusion in the Middle Way is a hang-over from the Buddha Dharma that isn’t helpful when understood in a wider context. That is to say, freedom-from-delusion generally, rather than freedom from two or three very specific cognitive errors to which we are prone and which can be fairly readily demonstrated.

      1. Hi Julian,
        I appreciate you following through and exploring this, but I wonder if you are really applying incrementality in the way you’re considering the issue.

        “It strikes me as trying to define objectivity in terms of what it is not rather than what it is.” Yes, but I don’t see what’s wrong with this. We make progress in meditation by working with hindrances, progress in science by looking for counter-evidence etc. I think that’s the central point – that objectivity needs to be understood in terms of overcoming delusions that we can encounter in experience.

        “If we are deluded, by definition, we do not know we are deluded, so how can we ever make claims to be free from delusion – even incrementally?” This would be correct absolutely, but not incrementally. Bear in mind that the incrementality is also necessarily locked in with provisionality. We can make provisional and incremental claims to be free from delusion, and indeed I would maintain that that is the only way to begin to escape delusion rather than falling into further counter-delusions. If we think incrementally about this, and in terms of experience, it is not just a question of either knowing that we are deluded or not knowing. Much more likely, there are several processes going on at different times with different degrees of awareness of the possibility of being deluded. It is only because the self cannot be assumed to be unified that we can hope to encounter that awareness and nurture it to overcome delusion. I’d suggest that our experience is much more complex than either knowing that we are deluded or not knowing that we are deluded: to rely on that dichotomy works against the acceptance of ambiguity that we need to make progress in experience.

        I also wouldn’t make any distinction between freedom from delusion in experience and freedom from specific cognitive errors. When we encounter delusion in experience, it is in the form of specific cognitive errors (which may often, but not always, be associable with aspects of the three poisons). Again, it’s because we have different processes going on in parallel, or reappearing at intervals over time, that in some senses we can both have a specific delusion and have insight that helps us overcome it at the same time.

        If that’s a hang-over from the Buddha Dharma, I’d suggest that it’s a helpful one. But to understand it I think it’s important to think of it in a thorough-going incremental way, without allowing assumptions based in metaphysics to intrude. One useful rule of thumb is that incremental concepts should never be defined in terms of absolute ones, only the other way round, because it is only the incremental concepts that are accessible to experience.

        1. Hi Robert,
          Thanks for persevering with this. I think I follow what you are saying here logically, but I still don’t think I am likely to find the terminology helpful in any practical sense. In fact, it actually jars with me for some reason. It is almost as if the evaluative meaning of this phrase is very different for me than the logical explanation you have given for it. Of course I realise that I may be unusual in this regard and others may react to it very differently. I hope it is useful for me to try and express my difficulties with it though.
          For example, whilst defining things in terms of what they are not is in no way logically problematic, I don’t see the practical advantage of doing so in this context. The hindrances you mention are things I can indeed experience, but I don’t have any sense of what experiencing incremental amounts of delusion would be like. Kathryn Schulz makes this point in her book ‘On Being Wrong’. It feels, experientially, exactly the same as being right. Even incremental degrees of delusion don’t feel any different to me than incremental amounts of non-delusion. Once delusion has been recognised, it is no longer delusion. Even incrementally, the extent to which you realise you are deluded, is precisely the extent to which you are no longer deluded. Always remembering I may be deluded is practically far more helpful to me than thinking in terms of acquiring incremental freedom from it. An analogy is being lost in thought. Once you realise you are lost in thought and unaware of what is going on around you, you are no longer lost in thought. Incremental objectivity in terms of coherence and negative foundationalism is something I feel I can have some felt sense of. I don’t feel the same way about delusion. I think this also relates to my exposure to natural science where falsification (analogous to spotting delusion) is recognised as possible, but proof (analogous to freedom from delusion) is not. I fully understand that this can be overcome by understanding ‘proof’ or ‘freedom from delusion’ in incremental or provisional ways, but for me it really jars in a way that ‘incremental objectivity’ as an expression does not. Perhaps it comes down to something really emotional for me. The glass half empty is logically equivalent to the glass half full. Emotionally, however, one is negative and the other positive. Emotionally, I have a very negative reaction to aspirations to freedom from delusion which do not accompany aspirations to objectivity, even if logically they can be argued to be the same thing. If others are affected by this, it has implications for rhetoric if not philosophy. Of course, they may not be, so it possibly isn’t anything to worry about after all 😉

  5. I wonder if the issue here is to do with delusion being recognised retrospectively, whereas objectivity is something we think of prospectively? The two may feel quite different for that reason. But perhaps if we could understand our delusions prospectively and our advances towards objectivity retrospectively, the two might feel more equivalent. As you point out, the former is impossible: however, the latter is not. It would be possible to reflect on our past delusions as half empty glasses and then (perhaps as an exercise) invert them into past advances in objectivity – as half full glasses. Do you tend to think of your past delusions in this positive way? Just an idea.

    1. Objectivity is the ability to address conditions.
      Hi Robert and Jasper. I enjoyed your exchange of views, not that I have the skills to participate. May I suggest, that in order to include those of us, not philosophers, who are or may become interested in the Middle Way Society, that simple examples can be used to clarify statements? This may be asking for the impossible, although the ‘Food Waste’ article I thought, was a good example of how to acquire incremental objectivity.
      I have found myself in a dilemma, should I in future contribute time and gifts for children abroad, in a world wide scheme, set up in America by the Billy Graham organistion, who I am led to believe, made a public statement that Muslims are ‘evil’ , I would not condone such a statement, on the other hand, I like to feel, that in a small way, I cheer up a handful of needy children. This prompted me to ask for opinions from my elder daughter and her partner, who were staying with me, I always appreciate their input, my daughter’s partner, a Cambridge graduate with a PhD whi is a very clear thinker, gave as an example, the fact that he would not contribute to Christian Aid, but choose another organisation. Perhaps in future, I should find an alternative organistaion. On the other hand, I appreciate the friendship of my Christian neighbour, whom I feel sure does not share that opinion of Muslims. I do not wish to hurt her feelings either, by rejecting her invitations to participate. Of course I know that it is entirely up to me to decide what my actions should be, but I thought it an interesting dilemma to debate. We have to make decisions all the time, similar to this.

      1. Hi Norma,
        Yes, this is a good practical example of the real difficulties of applying objectivity! Your daughter’s partner’s advice sounds good, in that he’s comparing Christian Aid to other possible charities, and I think that can illustrate an important point about objectivity: that in abandoning one belief one needs to consider it in comparison to alternatives. If the switch to another charity involves changing your relationship to your neighbour, that would also have to be taken into account. Perhaps Barry’s suggestion in the Facebook discussion would also be conducive to objectivity here – i.e. raising it with the people concerned and seeing what their response is.

        You’re right to remind us to use examples. It’s very easy to get involved in an online discussion and forget that other people may be reading it than the main other person one is addressing.

  6. Hi Robert, I am very grateful for your reply, problems, dilemmas, differing points of view, become easier to think through when shared I think.
    I hope to have a convivial conversation, as Barry suggested, when I next see my neighbour. One solution which came to me this morning, is that I could also make knitted goods for a Muslim children’s charity, in addition to those I make for the Christian organisation, or for a secular charity, rather than not knit at all, which may prove to be a middle way. I used to knit bonnets for premature babies born at our local hospital, I could return to doing that. My second daughter had premature twins, which added a personal reason for that choice. Such decisions I find, are often in relation to personal experience.
    The plan to have an online discussion group sounds a very good idea, many Coursera discussion groups, for example, turn up some very intelligent and interesting threads, at the end of lectures.
    I will not commit myself to reading books, sorry, as I do not read for long each day, as I have early signs of cataracts, they can be treated when they get bad, I can have a rethink then.

    1. Hi Norma
      The inclusive knitting for babies idea and your intention to have a convivial conversation with your neighbour sounds like a thoughtful and pragmatic response to your situation. A not throwing the babies out with the bath water, so to speak!

      1. Hi Barry, your advice has been very helpful, thank you. I could have struggled with this dilemma in silence, I’m pleased I didn’t.
        I hope that in the proposed discussion groups, we can attempt to come to middle way solutions, on a range of topics, that crop up in our day to day lives – with the aid of meditation. A balance between the academic approach and the person in the street approach, a middle way!

  7. Hi Norma,
    I think that I would also say that keeping a dialogue with your neighbour is important, regardless of your decision. The issue of charitable organisations that are affiliated with religious, philosophical or political ideologies is interesting and one that I have considered many times. If I have the choice and there are suitable alternatives I will usually opt for a charity that does not have any such affiliation, so I would choose Oxfam over Christian aid, for example. Having said that, there are many religious groups and organisations (I think Christian Aid is one) that play important roles for those that are in need, both at the local level and globally and I on the whole I fully support them and have no issue with donating money to them. I do have caveats though. If I believe that the organisation has a ‘missionary’ element then I will think twice, just as if a particular organisation promotes values that I think may be damaging – like an encouragement to reject contraception in favour of abstinence or an assertion that that “Muslims are ‘evil’”.

    On the other hand there is an organisation called Non-Believers Giving Aid, set up by the Dawkins foundation. I often defend Dawkins but I do find this perplexing. By all means set up a ‘secular’ charity, but I see little advantage of having the term ‘non-believers’ in the title, other than to make a point which is better made elsewhere. A Christian or Muslim might (reasonably) be put off giving to this charity, thereby depriving it (and its recipients) of funds.

    I have also been thinking about the fascinating discussion between Robert and Julian about ‘incremental delusion’. I am sorry that this is not very philosophical but I have come to the conclusion that delusion can be incremental and this process can have practical implications. If I live in house and believe that if I leave my Mother will instantly die as a consequence then I am deluded. If I then (admittedly, in a serious case of absent mindedness) forget and step outside of the house I will (almost certainly) find that my Mother has not instantly died, but is alive and well. In this belief I am no longer deluded, although I may still be deluded with other beliefs. I will be (be definition) unaware of which beliefs are delusion and which are not but my experience of stepping outside the house might lead me to question the evidence for other beliefs, which may in turn lead to the the dispelling of further ‘incremental’ delusion. Another consequence is that I may be able to use my experience to assist others who are still deluded about leaving the house. So by becoming incrementally less deluded I might be able to explore and challenge existing beliefs and also assist others that still hold the delusions that I once had. This is a deliberately (for my own benefit) simple example but I think it should be able to be applied across the whole spectrum of delusion.

    Rich

  8. Hi Rich,
    I like your example, especially as ‘stepping outside the house’ might appear to be non-incremental, but put in the wider context of judgements in experience it is incremental.

  9. Hi, there is a contradiction in your text.

    > The other is incremental objectivity, which can be the quality of a particular person’s judgement – more or less objective…. absolute objectivity is simply irrelevant to us.

    Qualities can be “more or less” only relative to some point of reference. In the case of objectivity of judgements this “point” is obviously “absolute objectivity” (even though it is inaccessible for direct experience and knowledge).

    > The objectivity of our judgements depends on the extent to which we are practising the Middle Way.

    Therefore the Middle Way is this absolute objectivity in your philosophy.

    Thre is a more objective basis for morality – freedom. The Middle Way is just another name for freedom. Freedom transcends determinism and so is unknowable. There is a universal moral system based on freedom. It is described in the book “Cult of Freedom & Ethics of Public Sphere” and a part of it is available at http://ethical-liberty.com Thanks

    1. Hi OE,
      I agree that “more or less” requires some point of reference, but that point of reference is supplied by our experience, not by absolute objectivity. Different experiences of degrees of objectivity in experience provide an approximate sense of an objective direction, that we can then keep refining.

      I don’t accept your attempted appropriation of the Middle Way to freedom, although I would agree that freedom as an actual experience may be developed through practice of the Middle Way. Freedom used as a metaphysical end in itself, on the other hand, is incompatible with the Middle Way. I would suggest that the experience of freedom may be incrementally increased through a process of integration, removing both inner and outer conflicts that create frustration of our desires. A wider notion than just freedom needs to be pursued to overcome such conflict, because we don’t just need to get away from what frustrates us – we need to engage with it and integrate it whether it is internal or external.

      Those who pursue freedom as an ultimate end in itself have too often just used it as a dogmatic support for power. This could also be the case for justice, or any other absolutised principle. Each of these principles may address conditions in some respects, but it is the reconciliation of conflict between such principles that is more important to actually bring about the advantages of freedom, as opposed to using freedom as an ideological basis that betrays its own ends.

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