My just published short book: Revisiting the Objectivist/Subjectivist Debate, Addleton Academic Publishers, ISBN 978-1-935494-36-2, LCCN: 2012943287
If there is one philosophical question asked by most people, it is very probably about whether we human beings are capable of objective knowledge. Can we know reality as it actually is instead of some sort of distorted view of it, one imposed by our minds or culture or emotions or ethnic group and which in fact hides true reality from us? Many of us are concerned about how people ought to conduct themselves—how to act properly or rightly—and it nags us whether a true or objective answer is possible.
“Objective” here means grasping the way things truly are. Do the objects and principles of interest to us in ordinary or scientific investigations have what the physicist Max Planck called, somewhat hyperbolically, “absolute, universal validity, independently of all human agency.”[i] Or are we left only with “subjective” answers based on our feelings, mental dispositions such as wishes, hopes, fears or expectations or cultural predilections?
To put it somewhat differently, is it the subject’s contribution to the situation with which we end up and not knowledge of reality? Is our “knowledge” “affected by, or produced by the mind or a particular state of mind; of or resulting from the feelings or temperament of the subject, or person thinking; not objective; personal.”[ii] (“Relativism” is another way of labeling this position since under subjectivism one’s understanding of the world would be related to one’s personal identity and situation.)
Some have posed the challenge: “But how is it possible to believe that, even if there is an ‘objective’ reality, it can be revealed to us in some way that bypasses our senses and our neurochemistry?”
Immediately there is the loaded term “revealed” which the objectivist would be loath to use: nothing is revealed to human being, they must work to grasp it. And there is the other dubious notion, that in order to secure objective knowledge the mind’s reliance on the senses and on the brain’s neurochemistry is something to be bypassed. That is like thinking of the shovel while shoveling as if it were something to bypass in order to get pure shoveling. In fact the mind, via the brain, is like a shovel—it enables us to grasp objective reality, it isn’t some impediment but an instrument! (This fallacious thinking comes from failing to appreciate that in order to see clearly it wouldn’t do to get rid of one’s eyes. It is eyes that enable one to see in the first place! And the mind to know reality as it is.)
[i] Quoted in Manjit Kumar, Quantum, Einstein, Bohr, and the great Debate About the Nature of Reality (NY: W. W. Norton, 2008), p. 10. By this characterization Plank seems to side with Plato on the nature of objective truth and not all objectivists agree. The reason is that such a way of understanding objectivity makes that goal inherently unattainable—none of us can be expected to have checked out any claim to the end of time to make sure no modification was needed to get it right. Even objectivity must be understood contextually—it gives one the most up to date, not the final, version of the world.