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?
- What Does Lacan Say About… Deja Vu? (untitledpainting.wordpress.com)
- Perception Is Prediction (darthadorno.wordpress.com)
- Perception = Reality (daibhre.wordpress.com)
- Intentional Objects (liorrosenfeld.wordpress.com)
- Merely Intentional Objects and the ‘Existential Fallacy’ (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)
- On Multiplying Modes of Existence (maverickphilosopher.typepad.com)