Monday, February 07, 2011

Can People be Objective?

Tibor R. Machan

Even to ask whether people can be objective suggests that they can be because such a question assumes that an answer can be given and what use would an answer be if it were not objective? But forever the idea that people can be objective, as they attempt to grasp what’s what, has been challenged. Never mind that such challenges would themselves be moot if objectivity is impossible--who would care to get an answer if it were just someone’s subjective opinion, one that’s no better or worse than the answer given by some drunk or mentally deranged individual?

But it is understandable, nevertheless, why the possibility of objectivity is widely doubted. For one, what counts as objective knowledge has often been confused with what is supposed to be absolute, timeless, unchangeable knowledge (the God’s eye point of view). This last is very doubtful, that’s true, since none of us who seeks to know anything stays around forever to make sure an answer will never change.

As the saying goes, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Perfect knowledge, as imagined by Plato, for example, is an impossible dream, kind of like the perfect mate or job. But there can be good ones, of course. Objective is what the good kind of knowledge must be, the knowledge untainted by prejudice, by preconception, by bias and the like. Objective knowledge need not be final or perfect, only the best and most dependable for the time being.

But some object to this by claiming that since we are all using our human faculties to figure things out, how could we expect objectivity?

That reply, however, embodies an unwarranted assumption. It is that using our minds and our senses, indeed all our tools of knowledge, turns out to be an impediment rather than a proper means by which knowledge is to be gained. It is like claiming that because to move sand, one must use some kind of tool, like a shovel, moving it is impossible. Moving sand, truly, would involve using no tools. Or claiming that if one wants to see things accurately, one must not use one’s eyes since the eyes will pose as an obstacle to true seeing!

Now this idea that objectivity is impossible because whenever one attempts to know anything, one needs to make use of various tools or instruments, such as one’s eyes, mind, a microscope or a telescope, is based on the belief that a tool must always impede the process for which it is used. But that’s very odd. Not only does it undercut the claim itself--after all, that claim, too, came from using one’s faculties of understanding--but it assumes that everything used to learn actually impedes learning. So true learning is a kind of mindless, senseless learning. Go figure!

Now, true enough, if one is careless, too hasty or insufficiently cautious, one can fail to notice impediments to how one best uses one’s faculties--that’s one reason to be especially careful when driving in fog. But such impediments aren’t necessarily a part of our approach to understanding the world. Moreover, even to learn that one’s faculties may have been impeded, it is necessary that they are not always impeded, at least not when one discovers such impediments.

Of course, with this issue, like so many others one needs to grapple with, is complicated and has been studied forever. But to resolve it for oneself it isn’t required that one reach a consensus about it. That would dismiss the work of many excellent scientist, researchers, thinkers who have been prescient. Yes, peer review is useful but it could express widespread bias, too. For example, in the debate about climate change--does it happen, how much of it, did people’s conduct make it happen, etc.--both sides tend to insist that their opponents are not objective enough! So back to the drawing board, one might conclude.

In general, the issue of objectivity is important because if one becomes convinced that one cannot be objective, how can one trust one’s own judgments, even carefully made ones, and how can one confidently reject bogus notions and pretenders to authority? After all, then everything could be bogus, which leaves matters to con artists.

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