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MWP 1.4.a The Incremental Nature of Objectivity

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There are two main existing concepts of objectivity in common use – an absolute form and an incremental form. The incremental form is commonly used when we say things like “Try to look at this more objectively”. Here we are accepting objectivity as the property or activity of a person, assuming both that they have a degree of objectivity and that this degree can be increased. On the other hand, the absolute use is often assumed when we talk about science having “An objective view of the world” – even if we then go on to deny that it does.

The absolute version of objectivity is a God’s-eye view, a perfect understanding of all conditions in relation to each other. Given all the sceptical arguments in 1.a it is clear that no human being, or indeed any finite being whatsoever, could ever be objective in this sense. It is relevant to the life of finite beings only in terms of archetypal meaning, not in terms of justifiable claims or arguments. Yet for some reason most philosophers continue to use ‘objective’ in this sense, and some immediately misunderstand the title of my thesis ‘A Theory of Moral Objectivity’ to necessarily involve claims about a God’s eye view.

However, the incremental version of objectivity is not unknown to philosophy, and I am not the first to put it forward. Arguably it is implicitly present in Hume, and it has been argued for explicitly by Thomas Nagel in The View from Nowhere, where he calls objectivity “a method of understanding” [1] . Absolute objectivity would be a view from nowhere, and as we always have a view from somewhere, only incremental objectivity is relevant to assessing this view.

Nagel described objectivity in terms of moving beyond the limitations of our individual standpoint, but in practice our understanding of conditions is limited, not by having an individual standpoint (which is just a given condition) but by a lack of experiential adequacy (see 2.a). Our limited capacity to accept new viewpoints, or even find them meaningful, depends not on having an individual standpoint but on limited identifications. An extension of our meaning identifications might help us to imagine positions beyond our individual standpoint more easily, but this is only one aspect of increasing our objectivity. We become more objective by bringing more unified energy to bear on our whole investigation (through the integration of desire), by gaining understanding of other points of view and other motivations (whether those of others or of ourselves at different times), by using provisional theories, and by examining our experience as openly as possible in assessing those theories.

One common argument against the philosophical currency of incremental objectivity is that it is necessarily dependent on absolute objectivity. It is argued that without a concept of absolute objectivity, incremental objectivity cannot be justified. I have already given the basis for a response to this in several places. It assumes that justification must be absolute (and therefore metaphysical) in nature, meaning that we either accept an unconditional faith in such justification on the basis of dogma, or reject it altogether. In 3.f I also argued that we do not need final goals to pursue the Middle Way, though we may need long-term goals within experience. Incremental objectivity does not need a teleological justification from an absolute final goal, given that justification must occur within experience and final goals do not lie within our experience. Far from incremental objectivity needing justification from absolute objectivity, the opposite is the case. To be relevant to our experience, claims about absolute objectivity would need to be justified in incremental terms – which they cannot be.

Another possible approach to understanding the necessity of reframing objectivity in incremental terms is in terms of brain hemispheres. Absolute objectivity is objectivity as seen entirely in the terms of the left hemisphere, but the left hemisphere both tends to assume certainty [2] and to use sequential philosophical reasoning to undermine it [3]. The right hemisphere, on the other hand, works in a world of uncertainty , expecting new experiences to constantly alter our responses [4]. It is clear that the right hemisphere’s version of objectivity is an incremental one, but also that the right hemisphere is the only one that provides a basis for judgement that is not self-referential and implicitly circular in its justification. The left hemisphere’s representation of the world can be more or less objective in the right hemisphere’s incremental sense, but the right hemisphere is simply discounted from all possible objectivity in the absolute left hemisphere sense. So it is the right hemisphere sense of objectivity that provides the basis of union between the hemispheres in a shared understanding of objectivity. The philosophical insistence on absolute objectivity as the only acceptable definition is a sign of unhelpful left hemisphere dominance.

The flip side of objectivity, traditionally, is subjectivity. The use of ‘subjectivity’, if anything, is even more various and confusing that that of objectivity, as it can be used, not only as an opposite to absolute objectivity, but as a term describing individual experience and its privacy. Thus what I call ‘objectivity’ in some usages is necessarily ‘subjective’. This usage unhelpfully conflates individual experience with a lack of objectivity, and easily promotes the assumption that individual experience is opposed to objectivity – rather than, on the contrary, being a condition for it as I would argue. No experience at all can happen unless it is individual experience, and to call all this experience ‘subjective’ regardless of its degree of adequacy is a bit like calling everyone ‘blind’, regardless of our degree of sightedness, because we all lack inbuilt X-ray vision.

It is for this reason that I try to avoid using the term ‘subjectivity’ altogether in Middle Way Philosophy. To try to use it as an opposite to incremental objectivity would be a recipe for confusion. Equivalents like ‘lack of objectivity’ will just have to do for this purpose.

Why have we got stuck into this habit of seeing the glass of objectivity as permanently half-empty? My guess is because it serves the purposes of metaphysical entrenchment to do so: but this is no more than a guess, and I would not want to turn it into a conspiracy theory. What needs to be appreciated here is that my terminological revisionism (as some see it) is neither especially perverse, nor is it deliberately intended to be confusing. Rather it is an unavoidable part of the content of the message of Middle Way Philosophy, and has the practical intention of helping people to reframe the concepts in a way that they will need to do to fully understand and practice it.

[1] Nagel (1986) p.4
[2] McGilchrist (2009) pp.80-83
[3] Ibid. p.141
[4] Ibid. p.80

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