Tag Archive: objectivity

Reluctant attention to reality

No sober judge of human affairs will feel bound to be indignant because those who force on our notice truths which we should otherwise have overlooked, overlook some of those which we see. Rather, he will think that so long as popular truth is one-sided, it is more desirable than otherwise that unpopular truth should have one-sided asserters too; such being usually the most energetic, and the most likely to compel reluctant attention to the fragment of wisdom which they proclaim as if it were the whole. [ch. II, 59-60]

Reality kicks back

James Boswell relates in his Life of Johnson how he and Dr Johnson were discussing Bishop Berkeley’s solipsistic theory of the non-existence of the material world. Boswell remarked that although no one believed the theory, no one could refute it either. Dr Johnson kicked a large rock and said, as his foot rebounded, ‘I refute it thus.’ Dr Johnson’s point was that Berkeley’s denial of the rock’s existence is incompatible with finding an explanation of the rebound that he himself felt. Solipsism cannot accommodate any explanation of why that experiment – or any other experiment – should have one outcome rather than another. To explain the effect that the rock had on him, Dr Johnson was forced to take a position on the nature of rocks. Were they part of an autonomous external relaity, or were they figments of his imagination? In the latter case he would have to conclude that ‘his imagination’ was itself a vast, complex, autonomous universe. […]

But Dr Johnson’s idea is more than a refutation of solipsism. It also illustrates the criterion for reality that is used in science, namely, if something can kick back, it exists. ‘Kicking back’ here does not necessraily mean that the alleged object is responding to being kicked – to being pysically affected as Dr Johnson’s rock was. It is enough that when we ‘kick’ something, the object affects us in ways that require independent explanation. For example, Galileo had no means of affecting planets, but he could affect the light that came from them. His equivalent of kicking the rock was refracting that light through the lenses of his telescopes and eyes. That light responded by ‘kicking’ his retina back. The way it kicked back allowed him to conclude not only that the light was real, but that the heliocentric planetary motions required to explain the patterns in which the light arrived were also real.

By the way, Dr Johnson did not directly kick the rock either. A person is a mind, not a body. The Dr Johnson who per­formed the experiment was a mind, and that mind directly ‘kicked’ only some nerves, which transmitted signals to muscles, which propelled his foot towards the rock. Shortly afterwards, Dr Johnson perceived being ‘kicked back’ by the rock, but again only indirectly, after the impact had set up a pressure pattern in his shoe, and then in his skin, and had then led to electrical impulses in his nerves, and so forth. Dr Johnson’s mind, like Galileo’s and everone else’s, ‘kicked’ nerves and was ‘kicked back’ by nerves, and inferred the existence and properties of reality from those interactions alone. What Dr Johnson was entitled to infer about reality depends on how he could best explain what had happened. For example, if the sensation had seemed to depend only on the extension of his leg, and not on external factors, then he would probably have concluded that it was a property of his leg, or of his mind alone. He might have been suffering from a disease which gave him a rebounding sensation whenver he extended his leg in a certain way. But in fact the rebounding depended on what the rock did, such as being in a certain place, which was in turn related to other effects that the rock had, such as being seen, or affecting other people who kicked it. Dr Johnson perceived these effects to be autonomous (independent of himself) and quite complicated. [86-7]

Science: deductive testing

Whatever may be our eventual answer to the question of the empirical basis, one thing must be clear: if we adhere to our demand that scientific statements must be objective, then those statements which belong to the empirical basis of science must also be objective, i.e. inter-subjectively testable. Yet inter-subjective testability always implies that, from the statements which are to be tested, other testable statements can be deduced. Thus if the basic statements in their turn are to be inter-subjectively testable, there can be no ultimate statements in science: there can be no statements in science which cannot be tested, and therefore none which cannot in principle be refuted, by falsifying some of the conclusions which can be deduced from them.

We thus arrive at the following view. Systems of theories are tested by deducing from them statements of a lesser level of universality. These statements in their turn, since they are to be inter-subjectively testable, must be testable in like manner — and so ad infinitum.

It might be thought that this view leads to an infinite regress, and that it is therefore untenable. In section 1, when criticizing induction, I raised the objection that it may lead to an infinite regress; and it might well appear to the reader now that the very same objection can be urged against that procedure of deductive testing which I myself advocate. However, this is not so. The deductive method of testing cannot establish or justify the statements which are being tested; nor is it intended to do so. Thus there is no danger of an infinite regress. But it must be admitted that the situation to which I have drawn attention — testability ad infinitum and the absence of ultimate statements which are not in need of tests — does create a problem. For, clearly, tests cannot in fact be carried on ad infinitum: sooner or later we have to stop. Without discussing this problem here in detail, I only wish to point out that the fact that the tests cannot go on for ever does not clash with my demand that every scientific statement must be testable. For I do not demand that every scientific statement must have in fact been tested before it is accepted. I only demand that every such statement must be capable of being tested; or in other words, I refuse to accept the view that there are statements in science which we have, resignedly, to accept as true merely because it does not seem possible, for logical reasons, to test them. [25-6]

Falsificationism, 1850s style

Why is it, then, that there is on the whole a preponderance among mankind of rational opinions and rational conduct? If there really is this preponderance—which there must be, unless human affairs are, and have always been, in an almost desperate state—it is owing to a quality of the human mind, the source of everything respectable in man either as an intellectual or as a moral being, namely, that his errors are corrigible. He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Wrong opinions and practices gradually yield to fact and argument: but facts and arguments, to produce any effect on the mind, must be brought before it. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning. The whole strength and value, then, of human judgment, depending on the one property, that it can be set right when it is wrong, reliance can be placed on it only when the means of setting it right are kept constantly at hand. In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers—knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter—he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process. [ch. II, 27]

Making democracy more reflective

Here I shall be attempting to identify deliberative democratic methods for evoking more reflective preferences as inputs into the political process. Properly crafted deliberative processes can produce preferences which are more reflective, in the sense of being:

  • more empathetic with the plight of others;
  • more considered, and hence both better informed and more stable; and
  • more far-reaching in both time and space, taking fuller account of distant periods, distant peoples and different interests.

The key innovation I shall be offering is, in the first instance, a theoretical one. What is required is a new way of con­ceptualizing democratic deliberation—as something which occurs internally, within each individual’s head, and not exclusively or even in an interpersonal setting. [7]

The social character of scientific method

The sociology of knowledge is not only self-destructive, not only a rather gratifying object of socio-analysis, it also shows an astounding failure to understand precisely its main subject, the social aspects of knowledge, or rather, of scientific method. It looks upon science or knowledge as a process in the mind or ‘consciousness’ of the individual scientist, or perhaps as the product of such a process If considered in this way, what we call scientific objectivity must indeed become completely ununderstandable, or even impossible; and not only in the social or political sciences, where class interests and similar hidden motives may play a part, but just as much in the natural sciences. Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring. If scientific objectivity were founded, as the sociologistic theory of knowledge naively assumes, upon the individual scientist’s impartiality or objectivity, then we should have to say good-bye to it. Indeed, we must be in a way more radically sceptical than the sociology of knowledge; for there is no doubt that we are all suffering under our own system of prejudices (or ‘total ideologies’, if this term is preferred); that we all take many things as self-evident, that we accept them uncritically and even with the naive and cocksure belief that criticism is quite unnecessary; and scientists are no exception to this rule, even though they may have superficially purged themselves from some of their prejudices in their particular field. But they have not purged themselves by socio-analysis or any similar method; they have not attempted to climb to a higher plane from which they can understand, socio-analyse, and expurgate their ideological follies. For by making their minds more ‘objective’ they could not possibly attain to what we call ‘scientific objectivity’. No, what we usually mean by this term rests on different grounds. It is a matter of scientific method. And, ironically enough, objectivity is closely bound up with the social aspect of scientific method, with the fact that science and scientific objectivity do not (and cannot) result from the attempts of an individual scientist to be ‘objective’, but from the friendly-hostile co-operation of many scientists. Scientific objectivity can be described as the inter-subjectivity of scientific method. But this social aspect of science is almost entirely neglected by those who call themselves sociologists of knowledge.

Two aspects of the method of the natural sciences are of importance in this connection. Together they constitute what I may term the ‘public character of scientific method’. First, there is something approaching free criticism. A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and com­petitors; rather it challenges them: they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities. Secondly, scientists try to avoid talking at cross-purposes. (I may remind the reader that I am speaking of the natural sciences, but a part of modern economics may be included.) They try very seriously to speak one and the same language, even if they use different mother tongues. In the natural sciences this is achieved by recognizing experience as the impartial arbiter of their controversies. When speaking of ‘experience’ I have in mind experience of a ‘public’ character, like observations, and experiments, as opposed to experience in the sense of more ‘private’ aesthetic or religious experience; and an experience is‘public’ if everybody who takes the trouble can repeat it. In order to avoid speaking at cross-purposes, scientists try to express their theories in such a form that they can be tested, i.e. refuted (or else corroborated) by such experience.

This is what constitutes scientific objectivity. Everyone who has learned the technique of understanding and testing scientific theories can repeat the experiment and judge for himself. In spite of this, there will always be some who come to judgements which are partial, or even cranky. This cannot be helped, and it does not seriously disturb the working of the various social institutions which have been designed to further scientific objectivity and criticism; for instance the laboratories, the scientific periodicals, the congresses. This aspect of scientific method shows what can be achieved by institutions designed to make public control possible, and by the open expression of public opinion, even if this is limited to a circle of specialists. Only political power, when it is used to suppress free criticism, or when it fails to protect it, can impair the functioning of these institutions, on which all progress, scientific, technological, and political, ultimately depends.

In order to elucidate further still this sadly neglected aspect of scientific method, we may consider the idea that it is advisable to characterize science by its methods rather than by its results.

Let us first assume that a clairvoyant produces a book by dreaming it, or perhaps by automatic writing. Let us assume, further, that years later as a result of recent and revolutionary scientific discoveries, a great scientist (who has never seen that book) produces one precisely the same. Or to put it differently, we assume that the clairvoyant ‘saw’ a scien­tific book which could not then have been produced by a scientist owing to the fact that many relevant discoveries were still unknown at that date. We now ask: is it advisable to say that the clairvoyant produced a scientific book? We may assume that, if submitted at the time to the judgement of competent scientists, it would have been described as partly ununderstandable, and partly fantastic; thus we shall have to say that the clairvoyant’s book was not when written a scientific work, since it was not the result of scientific method. I shall call such a result, which, though in agreement with some scientific results, is not the product of scientific method, a piece of ‘revealed sicence’.

In order to apply these considerations to the problem of the publicity of scientific method, let us assume that Robinson Crusoe succeeded in building on his island physical and chemical laboratories, astronomical observatories, etc., and in writing a great number of papers, based throughout on observation and experiment. Let us even assume that he had unlimited time at his disposal, and that he succeeded in constructing and in describing scientific systems which actually coincide with the results accepted at present by our own scientists. Considering the character of this Crusonian science, some people will be inclined, at first sight, to assert that it is real science and not ‘revealed science’. And, no doubt, it is very much more like science than the scientific book which was revealed to the clairvoyant, for Robinson Crusoe applied a good deal of scientific method. And yet, I assert that this Crusonian science is still of the ‘revealed’ kind; that there is an element of scientific method missing, and consequently, that the fact that Crusoe arrived at our results is nearly as accidental and miraculous as it was in the case of the clairvoyant. For there is nobody but himself to check his results; nobody but himself to correct those prejudices which are the unavoidable consequence of his pecu­liar mental history; nobody to help him to get rid of that strange blindness concerning the inherent possibilities of our own results which is a consequence of the fact that most of them are reached through comparatively irrelevant approaches. And concerning his scientific papers it is only in attempts to explain one’s work to somebody who has not done it that we can acquire those standards of clear and reasoned communication which too are part of scientific method. In one point—a comparatively unimportant one—is the ‘revealed’ character of the Crusonian science particu­larly obvious; I mean Crusoe’s discovery of his ‘personal equation’ (for we must assume that he made this discovery), of the characteristic personal reaction-time affecting his astronomical observations. Of course it is conceivable that he discovered, say, changes in his reaction-time, and that he was led, in this way, to make allowances for it. But if we com­pare this way of finding out about reaction-times, and the way in which it was discovered in ‘public’ science—through the contradiction between the results of various observers—then the ‘revealed’ character of Robinson Crusoe’s science becomes manifest.

To sum up these considerations, it may be said that what we call ‘scientific objectivity’ is not a product of the individual scientist’s impartiality, but a product of the social or public character of scientific method; and the individual scientist’s impartiality is, so far as it exists, not the source but rather the result of this socially or institutionally organized objectivity of science. [ch. 23, 488-92]

Critical rationalism in an open society

Das Konzept der offenen (statt einer geschlossenen) Gesellschaft ist freiheitsorientiert und wird im wesentlichen “negativ” (ausgrenzend) definiert, d.h. als Freiheit von Zwang und Unterdrückung durch andere, weniger “positiv” bestimmt, d.h. nicht inhaltlich vorab definiert. Freiheit kann insofern “nicht durch einen Souverän garantiert werden, sondern nur durch eine Pluralität von Institutionen, Konventionen, Regeln und Gesetzen, die immer von neuem auf ihre Funktion der größtmöglichen individuellen Freiheitssicherung überdacht werden müssen.”* Mit der Idee des politisch-weltanschaulichen Pluralismus und der Idee der friedlichen politischen Konkurrenz sind im kritischen Rationalismus zwei weitere wesentliche Ideen des Konzepts der offenen Gesellschaft eng verbunden, und zwar “die Idee der insti­tutionalisierten öffentlichen Kritik und die Idee der politischen Konfliktregelung durch kritisch-rationale Diskussion. Die Idee der Kritik bzw. des kritisch-rationalen Problemlösungsverhaltens (im Gegensatz zum dogmatischen Rechtferti­gungsdenken) bildet nicht nur das Fundament der Erkenntnis- und Wissenschaftslehre des Kritischen Rationalismus, sondern ist auch für dessen Vernunftverständnis konstitutiv. Kritisch-rationales Problemlösungs­verhalten wird dabei immer in einem doppelten Sinne verstanden: als Bemühen um ehrliche Selbstkritik und Bereitschaft zu öffent­licher Kritik. Wie groß die Bedeutung ist, die dabei dem Moment der Öffentlichkeit eingeräumt wird, zeigt der Umstand, daß für Popper wissenschaftliche Objektivität nicht durch noch so bemühte Selbstkritik, sondern immer erst durch vielseitige öffentliche Kritik und Infragestellung von Hypothesen und Erkenntnisansprüchen zustande kommen kann. Nur in öffent­licher Auseinandersetzung mit kritischen Einwänden und Alternativhypothesen vermag sich eine wissen­schaftliche Hypothese zu bewähren und, solange sie nicht widerlegt ist, den Status von wissenschaftlicher Objektivität zu erlangen.”* [3]

* Salamun, Kurt: “Kritischer Rationalismus”. [Karl Ballestrem (ed.): Politische Philosophie des 20. Jahrhunderts. Oldenbourg: 1990.]

Gould on scientific objectivity

Darwin, who had such a keen understanding of fruitful procedure in science, knew in his guts that theory and obser­vation are Siamese twins, inextricably intertwined and continually interacting. One cannot perform first, while the other waits in the wings. In mid-career, in 1861, in a letter to Henry Fawcett, Darwin reflected on the false view of earlier geol­ogists. In so doing, he outlined his own conception of proper scientific procedure in the best one-liner ever penned. The last sentence is indelibly impressed on the portal to my psyche.

About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorize; and I well remember someone saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravelpit and count the pebbles and describe the colors. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!

The point should be obvious. Immanuel Kant, in a famous quip, said that concepts without percepts are empty, whereas percepts without concepts are blind. The world is so complex; why should we strive to comprehend with only half our tools. Let our minds play with ideas; let our senses gather information; and let the rich interaction proceed as it must (for the mind processes what the senses gather, while a disembodied brain, devoid of all external input, would be a sorry instrument indeed).

Yet scientists have a peculiar stake in emphasizing fact over theory, percept over concept—and Darwin wrote to Fawcett to counteract this odd but effective mythology. Scientists often strive for special status by claiming a unique form of “objectivity” inherent in a supposedly universal procedure called the scientific method. We attain this objectivity by clearing the mind of all preconception and then simply seeing, in a pure and unfettered way, what nature presents. This image may be beguiling, but the claim is chimerical, and ultimately haughty and divisive. For the myth of pure per­ception raises scientists to a pinnacle above all other struggling intellectuals, who must remain mired in constraints of culture and psyche.

But followers of the myth are ultimately hurt and limited, for the immense complexity of the world cannot be grasped or ordered without concepts. “All observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service.” Objectivity is not an unobtainable emptying of mind, but a willingness to abandon a set of preferences—for or against some view, as Darwin said—when the world seems to work in a contrary way. [148-9]

Harris on objective moral facts

However, many people seem to think that because moral facts relate to our experience (and are, therefore, ontologic­ally “subjective”), all talk of morality must be “subjective” in the epistemological sense (i.e., biased, merely personal, etc.). This is simply untrue. I hope it is clear that when I speak about “objective” moral truths, or about the “objective” causes of human well-being, I am not denying the necessarily subjective (i.e., experiential) component of the facts under discussion. I am certainly not claiming that moral truths exist independent of the experience of conscious beings—like the Platonic Form of the Good—or that certain actions are intrinsically wrong. I am simply saying that, given that there are facts—real facts—to be known about how conscious creatures can experience the worst possible misery and the greatest possible well-being, it is objectively true to say that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, whether or not we can always answer these questions in practice. [30]

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