Objectivity or Subjectivity?
Social Science talks about the need to be objective in our observations and measurements. Objectivity gives us the sense that there is a world out there and that there is some way the world REALLY is and that we should not misperceive things and see them for what they actually are.
Social Science tells us that we shouldn’t let our prejudices and biases distort our observations. In this sense, being objective helps us to ensure the validity of scientific research.
But what exactly is objectivity?
I’ll start off with how I view objectivity and then contrast it with how the dictionary (and most people) view it.
In my experience, objectivity is based on agreement. It is an idea that arises as people consistently perceive and label something the same way. For example: If I see a cat today and identify and label it as a cat and you do too, and tomorrow we again see the cat and identify it and label it as a cat, we conclude that it’s a cat and will always be a cat.
However, if we examine on what our conclusion was based, we find that the observations we had concerning the cat all took place in our subjective experience. The objectivity arose from multiple subjective experiences agreeing that the cat was a cat.
When you look up the definitions for objective and subjective, examine a bit thoroughly, it becomes obvious that the current understanding of perception and observation is a bit confusing.
Let’s look at the definitions: (TheFreeDictionary.com)
belonging to, proceeding from, or relating to the mind of the thinking subject and not the nature of the object being considered.
Something that actually exists, independently of perception or an individual’s conceptions.
First of all, where does ALL knowledge exist? Where are all the concepts situated? Is it not in the mind of the thinking subject? Would there be knowledge without the mind of a human being? Do animals, plants and rocks have linguistic abstract concepts about ‘what the world is’ stored inside their brains?
All knowledge proceeds from the mind of a thinking subject, so how can one possibly speak of ‘objective’ knowledge?
Look at the definition: “Something that exists independently of perception”.
How can you know for certain that something exists if there is no perception of it taking place? If I don’t perceive something, it sure as hell does not exist for me. Same thing goes for people who have delusions or phobia of things that are not ‘actually real’. Sure these delusional things have no basis in reality, but they do become influential because the mind of the person makes these things real. In that sense, it’s because when they perceive these fictions; that it starts to exist for them. If you examine diligently, you start to notice that these definitions are quite messy and not as helpful as they could be.
Perhaps it is more useful to say that all knowledge is subjective, but some of this knowledge is based on false definitions and assumptions. In the same way that a phobic is deluding himself that an elevator is scaring him, some people delude themselves that there is an objective world ‘out there’, independent of their perceptions of it.
I want to recognize the positive intention that the notion of being ‘objective’ has, because it suggests we should observe without having our prejudices and emotional biases distort what we are perceiving. It focuses us on perceiving things exactly as they are, without distorting the perception.
However, the fact that all perception is subjective cannot be denied. Neither should the other negative connotations (which I will describe next) of being ‘objective’ be ignored.
In my view, one of these negative connotations of being ‘objective’ is that it creates a sort of subconscious assumption of external concreteness about things. It creates an underlying assumption that people in the social scientific community (and people in society as well) have that there is a world ‘out there’. This assumption furthermore includes an experience that this world out there has characteristics and causal relationships that are SET IN STONE. It urges people to resist new ideas, for the sake of being ‘rational’, ‘reasonable’ and ‘objective’.
It lets people believe that if we could somehow rid ourselves of all our emotional biases and perceive logically what was going on that we could know what the world is like and how the world works, write it down and have a valid linguistic representation of the world that would fit until the end of time.
If one simply looks at the evolution of human beings, of society and of technology over the centuries up to now, such an assumption looks quite absurd, as Life is continually evolving in new directions, creating breakthroughs that didn’t exist before.
So what’s the alternative? It’s something that has been coined by a couple people already (using different terms). I will refer to it as Raw Perception, as contrasted with Processed Perception and I will elaborate on it in later parts of this book.
In short, Raw Perception means perceiving/observing reality exactly how I experience it, without my mind processing what I perceive. The experience of reality should be as raw as possible, without my mind interpreting, labeling or judging what I am perceiving.
Causality or Concomitancy?
Looking back at the aim of social science (to produce valid knowledge) as well as it’s method (to be objective in observations), I notice that the kind of knowledge that social science research produces must be descriptive of the part of reality that was studied. In other words, the knowledge that social science produces is an accurate description of the object(s) of study. In some cases, results of social science research will be interpreted in terms of causality. In this case scientists are talking about one factor as causing another factor. This leap from being descriptive to implying causation happens on the basis of theoretical ideas about the design of the research. Upon examining how social sciences research is conducted I have not found one legit justification for jumping to conclusions about causality. Actually, there are quite a few ideas on why one would infer causality from data. The thing is, I could go ahead and debunk those ideas, but to be honest, I think it would be a waste of space in the book. I think these ideas are a bunch of rationalizations and philosophical gymnastics that serve to mask a need we all have. That’s why I’m not going to debunk these ideas and instead, focus on an idea I want to share, namely this need to infer causality.
The activity of social science research observes (and measures) what happens in social reality. Even in the case of experiments (where conditions are consciously manipulated by the scientist), researchers still only observe two or more different conditions. The scientist is just setting up different conditions and observing both. Research reveals how different variables tend to show up together and under what circumstances. In this sense, all social sciences research is correlational (or concomitant: ‘existing or occurring together/concurrently with another’) and deriving causal relationships from the data is not justified, as there is no reasonable basis for doing so.
“Than why do people do it (infer causal relations)?”
The reason why I think people infer causality is because they want to have a reason why something happens. They want the facts to be explained, they want something they can point to and say: “Yes, this happened because of that.”
For most people, it simply is not enough to just witness the facts. If one were to conduct social sciences research, one would yield valid scientific knowledge about the researched subject. If the research was conducted properly, it would be a pretty accurate and representable description about reality.
The results would be an estimation of: ‘this is what is.’
But people want to know:
“But how come? Why is this what is? This is because of what?”
People want to know the reason why. Knowing why something is tends to make people feel more comfortable with what is.
This is a very weird tendency that human beings have:
to have the need to have to know why something is.
Given, in its form of curiosity to explore and want to understand reality, it has been of great help to us, but at the same time it is very weird that people have a need to explain the facts and feel anxious when they are just simply being with what is.
Human beings like to be in control of what happens. If I am good at explaining what happens and predicting what’s going to happen, I can feel like I am in control of what happens. Inferring causality can help me in being good at explaining what happens and predicting what’s going to happen. I think that’s why we do it (infer causality), to help us feel like we’re in control of our reality. The motivation for this tendency is very emotional in nature; it is to make us feel secure.
If I can understand what’s going on and predict what’s going to happen, this will reduce anxiety for me. If I can predict and estimate what behaviors will lead to a safe environment for me, my chances for survival go up and survival is my first and foremost need (as I am an organism that wants to live on).
Werner Erhard (2009) talks about this tendency as a scientific paradigm that focuses on explaining human behavior.
I think there is something that happens when people are explaining behavior that they are often not aware of: If I explain why something is the way it is, it creates a subtle presupposition that what is has to be that way that it is.
It slightly reduces my belief that what is maybe could be different from what it is now AND it sort of relieves me of the responsibility to change it into how I want it to be. In other words, when people explain reality, there is a diffusion of responsibility that takes place for grabbing what is ‘by the horns’ and turning it into what they would like it to be.
After all, what is is so as a result of these causative factors that a lot of times are beyond our control (genetics, upbringing, environmental factors, etc).
Gabor Mate (2009) mentions this tendency as well:
“There is a psychological fact that, I believe, provides a powerful incentive for people to cling to genetic theories. We human beings don’t like feeling responsible: as individuals for our own actions; as parents for our children’s hurts; or as a society for our many failings. Genetics – that neutral, impassive, impersonal handmaiden of Nature – would absolve us of responsibility and of its ominous shadow, guilt. If genetics ruled our fate, we would not need to blame ourselves or anyone else. Genetic explanations get us off the hook. The possibility does not occur to us that we can accept or assign responsibility without taking on useless baggage of guilt or blame.”
In spite of the fact that explaining ‘gets me off the hook’, it also has negative consequences, in the sense that I resign myself to the current state of affairs. I accept the status quo as static, rather than just as one possible way that Life can be. Since I believe in all these causative factors that determine the way things are, I don’t make an effort to change anything. It does not occur to me that things could be different so I conclude that any attempt at changing it would be futile. I discourage others that want to make a change as I don’t want to see them fail, prove me wrong or see them end up disappointed.
This shit drove me crazy when I was studying at UNI. Here I was trying to find ways to change myself and grow into the person I wanted to be and I am presented with all these ideas about explaining reality the way that it is now. I was not looking for reasons and explanations for why things were the way they were, I was looking for tools and practical how-to’s that would help me change into the person I wanted to be.
Sure some explaining can be useful at times*, but it certainly was not the core of what I was looking for.
*: Explaining should not be completely discarded, it can help provide us with insight that drives us to understanding and changing our behavior for the better, we just need to view it for what it is and keep our focus on growing into the person we want to be.
Causality comes from time
Inferring causality comes from creating linear time-sequences. We look at reality and what happens and create a sequence of events that happens. Our minds analyze what happens and (in the words of Alan Watts) mentally chop up reality in different separate events that happen one after another.
The core idea of Advaita (non-dualism) is that reality is one. However, because our minds divide reality into different objects and events this one reality becomes two and then the ‘world of 10.000 things’, as Lao-Tsu puts it in the Tao te Ching.
What we then get is a logical sequence of events. For example, you could separate the three stages of a butterfly’s maturation into three stages (A: Caterpillar, B: Cocoon, C: Butterfly).
Then you get the sequence of events: A leads to B leads to C
(A > B > C). One could argue that the caterpillar’s building of a cocoon is a cause of growing into a butterfly. Or one could simply state that all the three stages are just developmental stages of a singular process of how a butterfly grows.
One could distinguish more stages than just A, B and C. You could create as many stages as you could slice time segments in. In reality, none of this actually exists; it’s all in our minds.
“In reality, there are no separate events.”, Alan Watts states.
To view everything as one is a perspective, a holistic one in which we view reality as a whole and singular thing. In a whole thing you can’t have causality, while in dualism, you can.
In Advaida (non-dualism) you see that ALL phenomena arise CONCOMITANT (existing or occurring together/concurrently with another), some things tend to go together.
Even with a seemingly obvious ‘causal effect’ of (A) smoking leads to (B) lung cancer, it is erroneous to view A as the cause of B. If A has an effect on B, that effect is not caused by A. The effect relies as much on what B is as on what A is. If the quality of B would not be the quality that it is, the effect might be different or not happen at all. The two share a relationship, the effect is a result of what A is and what B is, it is how the two are relating. I would use the word correlational, but it has too many scientific connotations so that’s why I use a somewhat less-used term: Concomitancy.
In our minds, causality comes from mentally tracing the C back to B and B back to A. This mental act gives past events or circumstances a sort of power or influence as being responsible for the way things are right now. In reality, past events don’t exist, only our recollections and memories about them.
If I want to get what I want, I will only use recollections and memories about the past in such a way that they help facilitate me getting what I want and not draw upon them as a reason or explanation for how things are right now and how things cannot change. Using the past as an explanation for how things are right now is just a way in which I can cling to a static reality which is safe and predictable and relieves me of the challenge of turning Life into how I want it to be.
Next post dropping Friday January 6th on the topic of validity, excluding outliers and using science as a reference for what is possible…
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