How do you separate the objective from the subjective?


So, I’m a skeptic, and I’ve had my share of debates on comment threads with people about purported phenomena without scientific evidence.  One of the claims often asserted is that so many people have experienced it, there must be something there.  It’s not unusual for these debates to get mired in epistemological fights about how we know things.  Often, the debate comes down to objective versus subjective evidence.

I’ve thought about this from time to time, but haven’t come to a satisfying conclusion yet.  My readers are a supremely intelligent bunch, who I’m hoping will be able to provide some insights on this.

How do you distinguish the objective from the subjective?  The easy answer is that the objective is that which is true independent of our minds.  But how do we know which things are really independent of our minds?  After all, our mind only knows what it perceives.  If its perceptions can be faulty, and they certainly can be, then what makes perception A objective while perception B is subjective?

Suppose I’m walking along a path and notice a unicorn prancing about in the distance.  Is the unicorn an objective fact?  I think it’s easy to say that if I’m the only one who has seen it, it’s very much in the realm of the subjective.  If I have a good reputation for being a stable level headed individual, it will probably lead to my report of seeing a unicorn at least being taken seriously, but society isn’t going to decide that unicorns exist solely on my testimony.

Suppose I take another person with me on the path, and again I see a unicorn, and they see it also.  Now the probability that there is something out there has risen dramatically, particularly if the other person is also reputed to be a level head individual not prone to flighty fantasies.  But have we achieved the unicorn as an objective fact yet?  I don’t think so.

What if we add more people?  It seems like the more people we add into this, the higher the probability that we’ve objectively established that something is there.  But if none of us are biologists or some other kind of expert that could evaluate what they were seeing, then the proposition that we’re seeing a unicorn remains a subjective judgment.

Right, so we get some experts to go out and take a look at whatever we’re seeing.  So, now we have an objective determination?  Well, how do we determine who is an expert?  What makes someone an expert?  Lots of learning on the subject?  But how do we know that learning was productive?  Perhaps the evaluation of other experts?  Maybe the field has a certification process with stringent requirements such that when someone meets them, we can say that they are objectively an expert.

Ok, but how do we know that a field is objectively authoritative about what it claims to be authoritative on?  There are entire fields such as parapsychology or cryptozoology that are arguably not authoritative on their subject matter of interest.  Maybe experts in other fields are able to recognize that field’s accomplishments and can attest to their authoritativeness.  But that just moves the problem further back, because now we have to ask the same thing of the attesting fields.

Ultimately, non-experts have to judge experts by the extent to which they produce reliable, useful information.  Once people in a certain field do that, then they achieve credibility and their judgment about phenomena, or their attestation on the usefulness of other fields of experts, start to have some gravitas.

So, if experts in one of these credible fields examines what I and my friends were seeing and can attest that it is a unicorn, then maybe we finally have an objective fact.  At least according to those of us who do trust the credibility of those experts.  Naturally, it’s very possible that it is an objective fact that my friends and I are seeing something unicorn like, but upon examination of the experts, turns out to be something else, most likely something much more mundane.

But here’s what bothers me.  This means that an objective fact is essentially a vote, albeit a multilevel one.  In this vote, experts carry more weight than non-experts, assuming non-experts have previously voted them into expert status.  Ultimately then, the objective is the subjective that enough of us have perceived, perhaps repeatedly, or trust to have been perceived, that we then agree is an objective fact.

I’m not a postmodernist in the sense of believing that there is no objective reality, but this line of reasoning lets me see where they’re coming from.  And while I think there is an objective reality, it seems like we have to be cautious in assuming that we know it.  Notably, it’s conceivable that an entire society could have a common bias and wrongly categorize something as objective.  The 19th century anthropologists who let racial ideology cloud their perceptions of other cultures come to mind.

What biases do our whole society share?  What about our entire species?  Arguably science is piercing through these over time.  For example, we’ve been disabused of our belief that we are at the center of the universe, that we are prominent players in it, or that we not animals.  At least, that’s the vote of the experts that we’ve voted are experts.

So, am I missing something here?  Something that makes this a simpler more certain proposition?  Or is this like the philosophical problem of induction?  Is it simply an inherent uncertainty that we always have to live with?

68 thoughts on “How do you separate the objective from the subjective?

  1. A thought-provoking post, as always, SAP.

    Perhaps a way to nuance the distinction is to begin by saying that there are subjective features and objective features; this is similar to your distinction of mind dependence and independence, but is adding a step. Subjective features are in the experiencing subject and objective features are in the experienced object, so both types of feature are experienced by the subject, the difference is where that feature comes from. The next step is to say that propositions about subjective features of objects are subjective, and propositions about objective features of objects are objective.

    Making the distinction in this way would allow us to say from the beginning that the existence of the unicorn is an objective matter. Now, if you and your compatriot disagree in regards to whether the unicorn is beautiful, this would be a disagreement over subjective matters, as beauty is a feature not of the object but of the experiencing subject.

    I don’t know if this is a simpler way of making the distinction, but I think it, at first glance anyway, avoids the problem you noted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks and an interesting thought. Certainly some features, such as beauty, will be subjective by definition. And I agree that the existence, or non-existence of the unicorn is an objective matter. Maybe what I’m really getting at here is a theory of truth, for which a dense and bottomless pit of literature exists that I’ve only skimmed so far. What I’ve seen so doesn’t give me a lot of hope for certitude.


  2. Hi SAP,

    What is an objective fact is not a matter of human judgment unless we’re talking about facts about human concepts. If a unicorn is a human concept, we might need human judgement to clarify what we mean by unicorn. Is a rhinoceros a unicorn? How about a horse with a mutation or tumour which gives it a bony protrusion from its head?

    So, laying such considerations aside, I think there is a conflation of two issues going on here, even though you seem to be at least partly aware of it. There is the question of how we know something is an objective fact and the question of what is actually an objective fact.

    The consensus of experts is how we know what is probably an objective fact, but we can’t ever actually know for sure. We can only be confident to varying degrees.

    What is actually an objective fact is that which is true regardless of any such consensus.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi DM,
      Appreciate your thoughts. That matches my conclusion fairly well.

      Just to clarify, when I referred to whether or not the unicorn’s existence was objective or not, I meant whether or not we had determined if it was an objective truth, rightly or wrongly. That determination, it seems to me, is one where we can’t eliminate human judgment.

      BTW, started reading Tegmark’s book this week. Enjoying it so far!


  3. I think it’s possible to have confidence (not just belief, but reasonable cause to affirm) an objective reality even if our subjective lens makes it impossible to access in a meaningful way. I think the best way to actually achieve any kind of objectivity is to fully embrace our subjectivity – knowing that we have limitations, even in our ability to reason, knowing that we have a lens – I think that’s more than half the battle.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said! We must honestly recognize the limits of our knowledge. Aside from abstract logic or mathematical truths, we only know things with degrees of certainty, and must be humble about the inherent limitations of what we can know.


  4. Hi Michael,

    I did say I’d track down what Umberto Eco said about Marco Polo and the unicorn/rhinoceros and so I have (its in ‘Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition’ ). The relevant essay is, on revisiting, something I now find quite incomprehensible. But here, for whatever it might be worth, is its opening:

    ‘Often, when faced with an unknown phenomenon, we react by approximation: we seek that scrap of content already present in our encyclopedia, which for better or worse seems to account for the new fact. A classic example of this process is to be found in Marco Polo, who saw what we now realize were rhinoceroses on Java. Although he had never seen such animals before, by analogy with other known animals he was able to distinguish the body, the four feet, and the horn. Since his culture provided him with the notion of a unicorn—a quadruped with a horn on its forehead, to be precise—he designated those animals as unicorns. Then, as he was an honest and meticulous chronicler, he hastened to tell us that these unicorns were rather strange—not very good examples of the species, we might say—given that they were not white and slender but had “the hair of the buffalo” and feet “like the feet of an elephant.” He went on to give even more detail:

    “It has one horn in the middle of the forehead very thick and large and black. And I tell you that it does no harm to men and beasts with its horn, but only with the tongue and knee, for on its tongue it has very long spines and sharp… It has the top of the head made like a wild boar… It is a very ugly beast to see and unclean. And they are not so as we here say and describe, who say that it lets itself be caught in the lap by a virgin girl: but I tell you that it is quite the contrary of that which we believe that it was.” (Polo, The Description of the World, ed. and trans. A. Moule and P. Pelliot, London: Routledge, 1938)

    Marco Polo seems to have made a decision: rather than re-segment the content by adding a new animal to the universe of the living, he has corrected the contemporary description of unicorns, so that, if they existed, they would be as he saw them and not as the legend described them. He has modified the intension and left the extension unchanged. Or at least that is what it seems he wanted to do, or in fact did, without bothering his head overmuch regarding taxonomy.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James. As we discussed on Twitter, it’s very much in the definitions. It would have been interesting if Marco Polo’s unicorn label had stuck. The idea of unicorns may have ultimately been inspired by rhinos, but by the time communications became reliable enough to compare the two, they were too different to be reconciled, somewhat like Santa Claus and Nicolas of Myra.


  5. After reading ‘Language, Truth and Logic’ by Aj Ayer as a student, it became clear to me that everything we experience is subjective. Nothing can be known. The objective, if it exists at all, will always be out of reach.

    But, knowing that, we have to find ways of creating knowledge that remove the subjective as far as possible. This is what science seeks to do, although the majority of scientists are unaware of how much subjectivity there is at the heart of science.

    Still, we can differentiate between statements like “I like Beethoven” which is purely subjective and “Beethoven was a German composer” which purports to be an objective statement supported by evidence. Such evidence can never be certain, but some types of evidence are more certain than others.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well said. I couldn’t find the link to it, but another thing that originally inspired my post was another blog post in Nov/Dec by someone in the humanities irked by having had a scientist say they dealt with objective facts once too often. She made very similar points to yours.

      That said, I think science long ago pragmatically realized that people couldn’t just turn off their own biases, and many of its procedures are devoted to guarding against them. They don’t always work, but it’s hard to argue that it hasn’t move science closer to objectivity.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I wouldn’t be so sure that the objective is always out of reach. I think it can be known, but we have to understand that knowing does not mean 100% certainty.

      I mean, I believe that Beethoven was a German composer. This means that I believe that it is objectively true. If this is what I believe, and my belief is justified, and I happen to be correct, then in my view I know something that is objectively true.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, a statement may be objectively true, and we may believe in its truth, but we cannot be 100% confident in our belief, even if its is true.

        That again points to mathematics being in a different class to objective truths. We can prove (some) mathematical statements with 100% confidence.

        Even subjective truths are subject to doubt (do I really like Beethoven?)


        1. I would say even mathematical truths are subject to doubt. We can’t actually be sure that our reasoning is correct. Even where our proofs are checked by machine, we can’t be sure the verification algorithms are programmed correctly.

          But that doubt is so small it seems perverse to call it doubt at all. And I think it is the same for some objective truths. We may have negligible doubts about our beliefs that the earth is not actually flat, but only a fool would entertain them seriously. We need to abandon the idea of 100% certainty about anything. But we can get arbitrarily close to 100%, and not only in mathematics.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Incidentally, this reminds me that in addition to subjective statements (about us) and objective statements (about it) there are also statements like 1+1=2 that are mathematical and neither about us nor about the real world. I believe these to be tautological and merely the manipulation of symbols, which is why I struggle to accept mathematical platonism and the MUT theory. However, I must acknowledge that I just consumed a glass or two of red wine with my evening meal (objective statement) and am therefore more likely than earlier to be making a subjective assertion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree except for the “merely the manipulation of symbols” phrase. The symbols are… symbolic of things, and we can discover new tautologies with them, often profound ones. That said, I’m not convinced of multiverses either (although I’m open minded about them). For me, it’s logical extrapolation too far beyond observations.


  7. I’d like add that between objectivity and subjectivity, there is intersubjectivity. Verifying with your companion in the woods that she sees a unicorn too turns your subjective observation into an intersubjective one, which becomes even more intersubjective as you bring in more observers, including experts.

    In addition, there is something we might call “intrasubjectivity” (a word I didn’t know existed until a few minutes ago — it’s used in psychology but I think differently from how I’m going to use it). What I mean by “intrasubjective” is that in order to answer a question, one thing we do is alter our perspective. We get closer to the object, look at it from a different angle. Look to see if that horn on the “unicorn” is tied on, and so forth. The experts we called in to look at the animal would do that too. They wouldn’t merely stand next to us and observe the animal from a distance. They’d want to get closer, get some tissue samples, etc. And even consider the animal from historical or theoretical perspectives (for example, knowing what we know about the current state of genetic research, is it likely that someone created this animal in the lab? If so, would it be a “real” unicorn?).

    Combine intrasubjectivity and intersubjectivity and eventually you get to something that’s worth calling “objective” (even if it’s short of absolute certainty, whatever that would be).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You gave me new words to use for concepts I’ve historically struggled to convey.

      Intersubjectivity seems like the near death experiences many people have. The fact that many have similar experiences is an objective fact. But their common interpretations of what that experience is seems like an intersubjective belief (one that is culturally influenced).

      It’s what you’re calling the intrasubjective that either carries their belief into objective fact or common misinterpretation. The intrasubjective is the in depth investigation and integration into known facts, which only experts may know how to do properly.


  8. No ‘SAP’, I don’t think you’re missing anything at all – degrees of probability will have to suffice. As neurologist Robert Burton succinctly proposes:

    “Certainty is not biologically possible.”

    ‘On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not’, Burton 2009

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I think you may have hit on the reason why Aristotle concluded that ‘true knowledge is identical with its object’.. All the rest can be doubted.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I can see that. For me, while the line is blurry, I do think there’s a difference between a repeatable and reproducible perception and one that only I had at some point in the past. The first is something like our conception of an objective fact while the latter is undoubtedly subjective. Of course, we can never rule out a species level bias in our “objective” facts.


      1. Maybe authorbengarrido is thinking metaphysically, since a fundamental theory would require that the subject/object distinction be reduced. For assessing the strength of evidence this is not very relevant – except that no evidence is ever fully objective If it were nobody would know about it.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Guymax? Good hearing from you!

          I think you’re right. Ontologically, we’re probably on the same page in holding that there’s no bright line between the subjective and the objective, only varying levels of probability.


          1. Yep that’s it. I changed the name a while back.

            Maybe the word ‘objective’ gets too many uses. ‘Intrasubjective’ is useful, but perhaps not as Larry interprets it. I usually read ‘objective’ it as ‘mind-independent’, which confuses the issues a bit more.

            Liked by 1 person

      2. Actually, I think one of the main problems we are going to face going forward, as a species, is finding out how much of our empirical, repeatable observations are simply us measuring our own perception apparatus.


        1. That may well be. It could be that ultimate reality is different from what our perceptions reveal. But following those perceptions (at least the repeatable or otherwise verifiable ones) has been enormously successful for things like technology and medicine. What I wonder is, if ultimate reality is different than what our perceptions reveal, how would we ever know it?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. The close relationship you mention between scientific validity and pragmatic outcomes reminds me of the way formalized religion seems to have worked during the agricultural revolution.

            Pragmatically speaking, the belief that the Sun God rides a flaming chariot through a tunnel every night allows a great deal more planning and prediction than no theory at all. Ditto the temperament of the Harvest Spirit governing the rains or the idea that we should organize into a government because the king is the son of the king of heaven.

            From the standpoint of the ancient, then, the establishment of formalized religion must have had much the same pragmatic justification that we moderns take from science.

            It makes me wonder (hope) that in the future, we can find a new, even more pragmatically useful explanation of the world. Or, in other words, there’s nothing to suggest to me that pragmatism will always be on the side of empiricism and naturalism.


          2. “That may well be. It could be that ultimate reality is different from what our perceptions reveal. But following those perceptions (at least the repeatable or otherwise verifiable ones) has been enormously successful for things like technology and medicine. What I wonder is, if ultimate reality is different than what our perceptions reveal, how would we ever know it?”

            The same way people have always known it, when they have, by looking beyond our perceptions. Take Schopenhauer – he calls the state in which he sees the falsity of the subject/object distinction, (and thus the misleading nature of perception), his ‘better consciousness’. It would not be that ultimate reality is “different from what our perceptions reveal”, since perception cannot reveal it, but that once it is revealed we would see that our usual interpretation of our perceptions is incorrect. So it is said…

            No need to belittle science though. Just the idea that it is not the be all and end all.

            Liked by 1 person

        2. I do think religion played a pragmatic role in ancient societies. Are you familiar with the work of Ara Norenzayan? He has a book, ‘Big Gods’, which I reviewed a while back, that looks at this in some detail. He posits that belief in big powerful gods may have been what once supplied the social cohesion that enabled large scale societies to form.

          On the future, that could well be. I think science uses things like empiricism and mathematics, because they work. If they stopped being the most effective way to learn things, I think science would (eventually) cast them aside. It wouldn’t be done casually since those things have centuries of (apparent) success, but I think eventually they’d be replaced. The question is what they’d be replaced with?

          It’s kind of like teleology, which was once considered an indispensable component of any respectable natural philosophy theory. Around Galileo’s time, it started to be abandoned, because looking for the purpose of phenomena wasn’t productive, although it took generations for many to let go of it completely. (Many, of course, never did let it go, but we generally no longer consider them to be doing science while they’re looking for ultimate purposes.)


          1. Maybe it’s not so much a question of replacing empiricism and mathematics, (which would seem to be madness), but of augmenting them. For a start we could say that empiricism includes direct experience, and then mysticism would be empirical. As for mathematics, one of the best arguments I know for the mystic view of space-time is made by Hermann Weyl in ‘Das Kontinuum’, while in his ‘Laws of Form’ Spencer Brown shows how vital mathematics is to metaphysics and as a means of modelling Reality. I would say that if we cannot solve Russell’s famous mathematical paradox then we cannot solve metaphysics.

            I’d agree about ‘leviathons’ being a means of social/ethical cohesion. I saw a BBC interview with Roy Strong (art critic and historian) earlier this week and he spoke (brilliantly) about the importance of myth and the need for a new mythology to unite our fragmenting society. But in the end a myth is not enough. We need to get at the facts. It seems to me that most professional philosophers and scientists expend a lot of effort trying to avoid them. Pardon my cynicism.


          2. As a skeptic, I’m, well, skeptical of knowledge acquired through mysticism. I know you disagree, the old difference in outlook between us, which is totally cool 🙂

            I do agree that common myths (or the more value neutral term: narratives) are crucial to cultural cohesion, but it seems like those can come from a variety of sources.


          3. I doubt we disagree really. I expect you’d agree with Descartes that ‘cogito’ is secure knowledge even though it is not empirical by our usual definition, and that it may even be secure for that very reason. I’ve never heard Descartes accused of being a mystic for this mysterious insight into his working of his own mind. Even Aristotle thought that certain knowledge would have to be non-empirical.

            Maybe you’re sceptical of the claims of the mystics, but I doubt that you’re sceptical of anything you learn by direct experience.




          4. Could be. I recently did a post about the fact that many philosophical disagreements are really just disagreements about definitions. That might be where we’re at.

            I do feel secure in knowing I exist from my own thoughts. But it seems difficult to go beyond that without resorting to sensory inputs. I would be skeptical of something I thought I learned from direct experience if it was extraordinary and I couldn’t repeat it or get corroboration from others. As a human, my perceptions can be confused and memory of experiences is notoriously unreliable. I can’t even be absolutely sure of my own thoughts since so much cognition happens subconsciously.

            All of which is to say, my skepticism includes skeptically scrutinizing myself. Or at least that’s what I strive for 🙂

            Liked by 2 people

  10. Sorry Mike – I missed your reply until just now. I hope you’ll see this as an attempt to explain something rather than be argumentative.

    What you say about your thoughts and their unreliability seems correct. ‘Cogito’ is secure knowledge not because it is a thought, however, but because we are aware of it as a thought. This is not quite the same thing. Any thought at all can lead us to ‘cogito’, even the thought that unicorns exist.

    Direct knowledge is not dependent on thought except for its intellectual interpretation. It is not an intellectual phenomenon. It becomes a thought as we interpret it but does not begin as one, in just the same way as ‘cogito’ originates prior to thought and independently of any particular thought. Direct knowledge would be ‘being’ or what Aristotle calls ‘knowledge by identity’.

    Mysticism is exactly and precisely about not trusting our thoughts. I have never heard a Buddhist agree with ‘cogito’. It attempts to prove existence by reifying the self and its thoughts. It proves the dependent or relative existence of the thinker and the thought, but not their intrinsic or independent existence. This cannot be proved in experience or logic, say the mystics, because there is no such thing. When we look closely we realise the thinker and the thought are not really there. No thinking would be required for this knowledge, just some familiarity with a state of pure awareness. Mysticism is not nearly as mysterious as it’s made out to be.

    –“I do feel secure in knowing I exist from my own thoughts. But it seems difficult to go beyond that without resorting to sensory inputs.”

    This seems to vary wildly from person to person. Some people sit down to meditate for the first time and fall straight down the rabbit-hole. Some people fall down it even before this. Some spend thirty years meditating and feel they’ve learnt nothing. I’d speculate that the average person wouldn’t have much trouble realising that more can be learnt from contemplation and self-study than this, (it is, after all, the very opposite rocket-science), but to go all the way to the realisation that the person who has learnt this does not really exist would be another matter.

    Either way, direct knowledge is a recognition of what or who we are, our own identity, so it is never doubtful. What can be doubted is our interpretations. For example, Buddhism explains monotheism as a misinterpretation of meditative experience. The experience would not be false, just the interpretation.

    Reliable or not, what those people who explore experience to its limits return to tell us time and again is that the subject-object distinction is not fundamental. This makes your question here a deep one.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. This is a well-known passage from William James’s “Essays in Radical Empiricism”:

    “Just so, I maintain, does a given undivided portion of experience, taken in one context of associates, play the part of a knower, of a state of mind, of ‘consciousness’; while in a different context the same undivided bit of experience plays the part of a thing known, of an objective ‘content.’ In a word, in one group it figures as a thought, in another group as a thing. And since it can figure in both groups simultaneously we have every right to speak of it as subjective and objective, both at once.”

    So it doesn’t seem to matter who the observer is; what matters is the context of the observation–and the nature of observation itself.

    (I just discovered your website via Aeon and have bookmarked it. There’s a lot to read!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Mark, and welcome! Your thoughts are welcome on any post. (Some of the older posts may not represent my current thinking, although I think this one still does.)

      That’s an interesting quote from James. He seems to be saying that an observation can be both subjective and objective, which I agree with. In James’ language, the question is, what separates the contexts or groups? What makes something not just subjective, but also objective?


      1. James is talking about experience, of which observation (visual experience) is just one form.

        For example, a botanist will classify the redness of a rose into what we call an “objective” context as a characteristic of a species. But a painter will classify it into what we call a “subjective” context of how the red rose fits into the still-life he is painting. But they are using the same “undivided portion of experience” as their point of departure.

        So I guess you could say in James’ view experience is both subjective and objective, depending on how it is used. Roger Tory Peterson, an expert on bird identification, became in his later years (I met him once) a very fine painter of birds. He could use experience in both contexts.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Classifying color, such as the redness of a rose, as objective is interesting. It exposes that objectivity may be more of a layered concept. For example, we might all agree that a rose is red, but a dog, who doesn’t have red sensitive light cones on his retina, only sees shades of yellow. Some people call this “intersubjectivity”, a subjective perception that many of us share, but it might be better to see objectivity as scope dependent.

          For example, to a botanist, a rose being red is an objective fact. But to a physicist, what’s objective is that the rose reflects electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 620 and 740 nanometers.


          1. In discussions of “objectivity” and “subjectivity” and the relations between them, I’m inclined to agree with the conclusions of your post, “The Utter Relativism of Definitions.”
            However, I think James’ view is a good one insofar as it puts pressure on metaphysical dualism. His own position was that experience is both (or neither) subjective nor objective–a view that has been called “neutral monism.”

            Different species of animals have different receptor cells and neural systems, and thus have different experiences. The Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexkull wrote a monograph on the subject (1934) titled, “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men” (amusingly subtitled “A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds). He called the different “worlds” thus created an animal’s “Umwelt.” Intersubjectivity, if it exists at all, would only occur between members of the same species.

            You mention that the “objective facts” of color are different for botanists and physicists. Here is a link to an essay in Physics Today (July 2002) which argues that this difference leads to different research strategies, equally objective, that actually enhance each other. Newton’s experimental approach to light and color was quite different from Goethe’s; but they came together in Edwin Land’s experiments on color vision. It’s a very fine article I think:

            Liked by 1 person

  12. You say: “Ultimately then, the objective is the subjective that enough of us have perceived…” You then analogize this to taking a vote. I just stumbled onto you blog and didn’t read the many responses so someone else may have also said this is patently erroneous. If, for example, I report that I have chronic tinnitus (ringing in the ears), are you suggesting that my physical condition is not an objective fact, not a part of an objective reality?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Matti,
      This is an old post, so I had to reread it before answering. In retrospect, I could have been far more clear that it’s asking an epistemic rather than ontological question, that is, how can we know whether a proposition is an objective fact, regardless of whether it actually is or not?

      In the case of your tinnitus, lots of people have that condition (I have a mild case myself), so it’s entirely plausible that your condition is objective. Maybe a medical examination could even find physical signs of it, which more firmly establishes it as something the rest of us can conclude is an objective fact.

      But consider if I said I had a broken arm, but when you looked at me, I appeared to be healthy and had full use of my arms. Maybe I still sincerely think my arm is broken. At this point, it would be reasonable for you to assume it’s all in my head, that is, subjective.

      But the whole point of the post is that this is more complicated than many people assume.


      1. I completely agree that separating the subjective from the objective is more complicated than some people think, whether epistemically or ontologically. But no, I do not agree that it would be reasonable for me to assume, based on your statement of facts, that your claim to have a “broken arm” is a subjective perception. I would suspect that you suffered from a delusion which is distinctly different from a subjective perception.


        1. Matti,
          Usually the first comment you leave has to be approved. You made multiple replies with the same message, so I only approved the last one. (If you’d like to see the others released, just let me know.) If you use the same identification method going forward, your comments should appear immediately.

          Obviously my example was an extreme one to make clear that it was in the mind, making it subjective, but not external to the mind, making it not objective. All delusions, by definition, are subjective. (You may argue otherwise, but that’s a definitional matter, and I don’t find those particularly productive to debate.)


          1. Sorry about my multiple tries to respond to your rebuttal. I’m not as tech savvy as most. Thanks for the tip on posting. I don’t want to needlessly annoy you about an old entry and I think reasonable people can certainly disagree on this.


  13. Wherever we discuss objective vs subjective it makes sense to define a framework within which we are discussing it. Here are two examples of why it is important.
    1) It is said that whatever is objective is based on facts. Then what are facts? Per the Oxford dictionary fact is “a thing that is known or proved to be true.”. Now we have three questions: What is “known”? What is “proven”? What is “true”? We could go on and on. Our language is a big network of fuzzy words. It is really hard or impossible to get to a certain conclusion at all unless we set some walls where any further fizziness is not considered. That is an example of our common language. The whole field of analytical philosophy is dedicated to that.
    2) The second example is with math. Would you say that 2 by 2 = 4 is true and objective? If you do, you are wrong. It is not true even within our commonly used math [1].

    That means we have to define the framework within words and math used.

    Then it makes sense to include time or historical perspective. Would you say that WWII is a fact and objective? Well, you would be right in our century. What about the 17th century? At that time the answer Yes would be incorrect.

    Then we should define a framework on concepts to use. For example, in the Middle Ages, it would be totally useless to mention the scientific methods. People at that time equate truth with a word of authority (church). If the church said that this woman is a witch, then this is a truth.

    Next, when we are talking about facts and proof, then in many cases we have to define mathematically a confidence interval. If you one person seeing a unicorn is enough and you assign a confidence interval to this personal statement – then his bragging about seeing a unicorn would be an objective fact within this framework.

    I think that nowadays a discussion about objective and subjective could not be resolved within just philosophy.


    Liked by 1 person

  14. I meant this “If you define that one person seeing a unicorn is enough and you assign a 100% confidence interval to this personal statement – then his bragging about seeing a unicorn would be an objective fact within this framework.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Victor. Good points. In the end, I’ve come to think of objective knowledge as that which enables more accurate prediction of future conscious experience. So if we decide that a certain proposition is objectively true, does it lead to better predictions? If so, we’re justified in regarding it as reliable knowledge.

      Of course, a delusional person might hold a certain proposition that predicts their personal experience, but not ours. All of which is to say, this is far more complicated than it initially seems.


  15. Mike, you just raised a whole new topic, which is also a big new can of worms. There are different categories of future predictions. I covered it extensively in my upcoming book. I could do a guest post on your blog about “predictions of future” – if you favor it.


  16. I think that future predictions, like many other areas of human activities, could be better understood if we would define a framework. Then we could follow back to the subject of prediction and discuss if it is an objective one or not.
    Here are several examples.
    One parameter of a framework could be a type of prediction – Is it a direct prediction or a statistical prediction. Suppose you know that within some field of mathematics it is proven that 2 plus 2 is 4. Then you could make a direct prediction that in all future applications or works using this math “2 plus 2 is 4” will still be true. On the other hand, if you are making a prediction, based on a multitude of polls, who will win a presidential election in the US in 2020 – then you are making a statistical prediction.
    The other parameter of a framework could be a statement if an independent verification is required or not, or is it possible or not. Specifically, scientific predictions require independent verifications. Predictions, based on beliefs in the supernatural, does not require any verification. Some god helped you today, the same god will continue to help you tomorrow – no verification is required.
    The other parameter could be the base on which you are going to make the prediction. There is a whole field of science called complex systems theory. It deals with complex systems. As usual, the definition of what is a complex system is not something all scientists agreed upon. However, it could be said this. A complex system is such a system, where you could not predict its behavior if you know only the behavior of all its parts, no matter how perfectly you know that behavior. Aristotle said, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts”. You need to know more than only parts of the complex system. Human beings are complex systems. Humanity as a whole is a complex system too.
    I think, that it would be hard to make a logical conclusion if the original knowledge is justifiable based on future predictions. At least, we should consider a framework and why this specific framework is chosen.


    1. As I understand it, complex systems are not completely unpredictable. It’s that the unavoidable uncertainties in our measurements of the current state lead to a range of uncertainties in the predictions. In the early changes, these variances might be manageable. But as we try to project further into the future, they escalate until the system can no longer reliably be predicted.

      For example, I live in the southern US near the Gulf of Mexico. This time of year, we’re always watching storm tracks as storms and hurricanes enter the gulf. When made a day or two out, the predictions are pretty accurate. But most of us have learned not to get excited about predictions made further out. The uncertainties escalate too much more than a couple of days out.


  17. It is complex. “As I understand it, complex systems are not completely unpredictable” – That is true. “It’s that the unavoidable uncertainties in our measurements of the current state lead to a range of uncertainties in the prediction “. – That may be true for some specific complex system, but not for all of them.
    A complex system has many features. One very known feature is “emergent behavior”. Per [1], an emergent behavior is essentially new and generated by the combination of two or more different things—none of which displayed the behavior individually.



    1. Often the emergent system is predictable in terms of the rules of its behavior. What actually seems to make it emergent is it becomes productive for us to switch predictive models. The models for the lower level constituents become too cumbersome and a higher level one becomes more usable.

      Liked by 1 person

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.