MWP 1.4: Aspects of Objectivity

Chapter outline level

a.      The incremental nature of objectivity

The term ‘objectivity’ is commonly used in both absolute (God’s eye view) and incremental versions. Yet sceptical argument shows the complete irrelevance of the absolute sense. Incremental objectivity, however, is based on experiential adequacy. It is not dependent in any way on an appeal to absolute objectivity as a final goal. The term ‘subjectivity’ as a counterpart also tends to be treated absolutely, and will not be used in this book.

b.      The dispositional nature of objectivity

Objectivity is dispositional in that it doesn’t consist of ‘true’ propositions, but rather in the disposition of a person at a moment of judgement. Although dispositions are not always evident, neither are other qualities, so this is a matter of uncertainty in judgement that we have to adapt ourselves to. Dispositions are equivalent to virtues, which operate over time and through one’s character, but as they are focused on a specific judgement. Thus we avoid having to say that an individual is always objective to a particular extent because of their character. Character is not fixed, but at the same time objectivity is the result of the embodied operation of character.

c.      Scientific or factual objectivity

Scientific, moral, compassionate and aesthetic are not different types of objectivity, but the same objectivity encountered in different contexts: namely experiential adequacy that is incremental and dispositional. Scientific objectivity is often attributed to the words of theories, when this is only a secondary expression of the experiential adequacy of scientists in the process of research. The process of research requires constant judgements about the relationship of theory to observation, which are made by embodied scientists. The dispositions that help to determine the objectivity of those judgements are not just those of individuals, but also of groups with socially-developed methods. Lakatos and Kuhn have both traced key moments of judgement in deciding the objectivity of scientific paradigms. The same operation of experiential adequacy also determines factual objectivity in the judgements of individuals.

d.      Moral objectivity

The same process of experiential adequacy is used to judge the best possible values in a situation as that used to determine the optimal factual assumptions. There is no more reason why ethics have to be deduced from metaphysical beliefs than there is for scientific beliefs to be so deduced. Moral judgements in context depend on the integration of desire, meaning and belief as discussed in section 6, but in general we make more adequate moral judgements by selecting criteria of value that provide access to more adequate assessment of a practical situation. These will avoid metaphysical assumptions that unnecessarily fix our understanding of a situation. This does not provide absolute resolution of moral dilemmas, but rather narrows the range for consideration by ruling out dogmatic responses.

e.      Compassion

When we lack compassion in response to others, it is because of limitations in our identifications rather than a lack of identification. When we develop compassion, this involves an extension of our desire, with associated meaning and belief, in relation to others. We do this through a more adequate process of judgement, not through empathy: a degree of empathy is just one of the prior conditions of our judgement. The extension of meaning in relation to others may come from a process of the imagination, whilst changing our beliefs about others is a matter of overcoming prejudice. We are only able to reconsider our beliefs about others by recognising their limitations and considering alternatives (provisionality). Some will find it easier to develop further compassion than others, but that does not change the achievement involved in developing a greater degree of it in a particular judgement than we would have accessed otherwise. It is a mistake to identify moral objectivity with empathy and thus separate it from the process of moral judgement, and the efforts we might make to extend the adequacy of that judgement. When we lack compassion in response to others, it is because of limitations in our identifications rather than a lack of identification.

f.       Aesthetic objectivity

Our ability to experience beauty in relation to a given object also depends on our experiential adequacy at the moment of judgement. Aesthetic objectivity depends particularly on our capacity to make that judgement on the basis of attention, unifying energies in that attention that might otherwise be dispersed. Some objects are much more likely to present themselves to us as beautiful, but experiential adequacy still operates in our response to them. Asymmetry in our degree of integration may lead us to apply objectivity more effectively in some contexts than others, but that does not make the objectivity itself different in form.

g.      Objectivity, adaptivity and evolution

Objectivity can be understood as providing adaptivity and thus as compatible with evolutionary models, but not in a reductive sense. The concept of addressing conditions is not reducible to one of merely facilitating survival and reproduction, but can also help explain how we thrive and fulfil different types of potential. Objectivity is adaptive because negative (open) feedback loops allow more options to be considered, including ones that are more likely to be adequate to the context. This includes antifragile adaptation to unforeseen conditions. Metaphysical beliefs may also have had an adaptive value at particular points in the past development of human groups, by reinforcing group identity, but this adaptiveness no longer operates in conditions where more integrated and adequate judgement becomes possible. Metaphysics may also have aided left hemisphere development in the past, in forms that are only helpful now if effectively integrated.