Christmas Essay: Why Objectivity Is Still A Thing


‘Maarten, what do you want to do for Christmas?’, I asked myself a while ago.

My answer: I would like to try write an essay about something that has been bothering me for a long time now. (Yeah, I know I’m weird.)

I promise it will change the way you look at our society. It will also allow you to kick total philosophical ass at the next party you go to.

A small spoiler: the story features René Descartes, alternative facts, Friedrich Nietzsche, Truth, and Sir Bernard Williams.

Please enjoy.

Objective Truth

is a total red herring today.

The Cambridge dictionary does a good job of making clear why. It explains that objectivity is

“Being based on facts and not influenced by personal beliefs or feelings.”

Let’s unpack this.

A view is more objective if it relies less on the specifics of the individual’s makeup and position in the world. To gain a more objective understanding of some aspect of life or the world, we step back from our initial view of it and form a new conception which has that view and its relation to the world as its object:

“This approach allows us to transcend our particular viewpoint and develop an expanded consciousness that takes in the world more fully.” — Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere (1986)

And from this ‘view from nowhere’, we can see reality ‘as it really is’ and understand how the world works independently of us.

That, at least, is the idea.

Unfortunately, ascending to this maximally objective viewpoint has turned out to be a tough climb that might be impossible to complete.

Beyond appearances

Here’s why.

We believe that the world is a certain way because the world appears to us in a certain way. Our beliefs are based on appearances but are supposed to be about something — reality — that goes beyond appearances.

For instance, many people have come across the idea that “the observer affects the observed”. If that’s so, then, in trying to figure out what is true about the world by observing it, we cannot get completely ‘outside’ ourselves.

When observing things, what we observe will, in part, appear to us at it does because the observer is human. The world appears to us in a certain way and that these appearances result from our interaction with the world.

Whenever we try to step outside of ourselves, something stays behind the lens. Something in us will always influence the resulting picture. As such, the way things seem to us might be a fallible guide to the underlying thing that’s ‘there’, generating the appearances.

There is, then, a challenge to explain whether, and if so how, subjective impressions can lead to knowledge of objective reality.

Descartes’ doubts

When we look at the world, it might be inevitable that something will stay behind in the lens and that’s a genuine obstacle for Objective Truth.

More specifically, it is an obstacle for distinguishing opinions from knowledge.

In building up our map of reality, our only option is to rely on appearances.Our access to that underlying thing can only proceed through these appearances. Hence, we cannot check our beliefs about what the world is like directly against reality itself. Rather, and more modestly, in deciding whether something is true, we check it only against other beliefs about reality that we already accept as true.

In attempting to solve this problem, René Descartes famously searched for an indubitable starting point to use as the fundament for his house of knowledge. Descartes’ wrote about his requirement that “knowledge is to be based in complete, or perfect, certainty amounts to requiring a complete absence of doubt — an indubitability.” In applying the methodology of doubt, Descartes aimed to arrive at certainty by rejecting all opinions whose truth may be open to question. Such an indubitable starting point would provide maximal certainty, softening the blow of our lack of direct access to a mind-independent reality. Whatever survives the test is what I can justifiably claim to know. When I have discerned that, I can build my map of the world back up from more solid foundations.

Applying this test, Descartes found that he could doubt everything, except for the fact that, when he was doubting, he was doubting. He inferred from this that there must be ‘a doubter’ and famously concluded that:

“I think, therefore I am”. — René Descartes, Discourse on the Method (1637)

Or, formulated more intuitively: “I am thinking, therefore I exist”. We cannot doubt our existence while we doubt. I doubt, therefore I think, therefore I am.

However, according to Descartes’ own Evil Demon argument, it’s possible that an evil demon deceives me about the existence of an external world. Every thought we might have about the world outside us can only doubtfully be true of the outside world. Reminiscent of present-day Simulation Theory, the challenge Descartes raises is: how can we know that the Evil Demon hypothesis is false, if such a scenario is indistinguishable from what we take to be our actual scenario?

Long story short, it turned out that this problem was rather difficult to solve. When “I think, therefore I am” is the indubitable starting point, your knowledge of the outside world rests on shaky foundations unless there is a Helpful God guaranteeing that your senses are not fundamentally ‘off-track’ in the, in Descartes’ words, “clear and distinct” impressions they deliver to the ‘undoubtable doubter’ about what reality is like. Without such a Benevolent Being to secure this harmony, Descartes could not exclude the possibility that appearances don’t report the outside world because we are being deceived by an Evil Demon. And anything that it’s possible to be deceived about, is not a reliable source of knowledge.

Cartesian doubt is methodic doubt used to arrive at certainty in separating what one believes is true and what is actually true. It turns out that the search for a rock-solid foundation leads to Cartesian Skepticism instead: the problem of explaining how knowledge of (or justified belief about) the external world is possible only looms larger when we require indubitability for making this separation.

Coloring within the lines, repairing a ship

About three hundred years after Descartes, the Austrian philosopher Otto Neurath brilliantly captured the predicament that the impossibility of direct access to reality leaves us in. In the metaphor of Neurath’s Boat, he compared our body of knowledge to a boat that must be repaired at sea:

“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction”. — Oliver Neurath, Anti-Spengler (1921)

Any part can be replaced, provided there is enough of the rest on which to stand.Otherwise, the boat will sink.

In other words: to some extent, what we accept as true about the world cannot but depend on whom you ask — on “the rest of which to stand”.

Contemporary humans, for example, have intuitions of truth and falsity, logical consistency, and causality that are foundational to our thinking about anything. Our knowledge of the world seems to require that it behaves in certain ways (e.g. if A is bigger than B, and B is bigger than C, then A will be bigger than C).

Such epistemic concepts determine what we find reasonable — or even intelligible — at every stage of any inquiry.

Attaining knowledge is like coloring within the lines set by these fundamental concepts — it’s not like working with a blank slate.

No neutral ranking

So far, we’ve seen that, in deciding what is true about the world, we can never “start afresh from the bottom”. Instead, we can only assess certain beliefs — ‘my shirt is red’ — in virtue of other beliefs we already accept as true— ‘generally, when I perceive an object as red in normal conditions, it is red’. If we ‘start from the bottom’, our boat sinks.

Here’s Friedrich Nietzsche’s diagnosing the failure of the Cartesian project:

“Henceforth, my dear philosophers, let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” [contra Descartes]; let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason” [contra Kant] “absolute spirituality,” [contra Hegel] “knowledge in itself”” — Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality (1887)

If we strive for ‘knowledge in itself’ — if knowledge requires “indubitability” or “a view from nowhere” — we cannot be sure that we know anything.

Now, let’s exit the philosophical armchair and look at real-world consequences of this.

Here’s the most important one.

Because Objective Truth is unattainable, we can’t neutrally rank webs of beliefs based on their correspondence to reality, using the Truth-Benchmark. Instead, we are condemned to evaluate whether claims are true ‘from somewhere’, using another system of beliefs, which itself is not neutral but depends on “the rest on which to stand”.

In map language: there is no neutral, map-transcending yardstick for assessing maps, so we can only rank them from a certain perspective: the benchmark can only be given by another map.

Let’s call this ‘no neutral ranking’.

Some draw rather radical conclusions from this, and infer from no neutral ranking of beliefs to equal validity of beliefs. According to them, because we can’t get to Objective Truth, we should give up on trying to differentiate opinions from knowledge.

No Objective Truth — real life

My favorite Dutch TV show is Zomergasten, which translates as Summer Guestsin English (sounds lame, I know). Airing during the summer break, it’s a weekly Sunday-night live interview of over 3 hours (!) with a noticeable guest about what he or she thinks is important in life and about how the world is doing. It’s deep. I particularly recall this year’s episode where the interviewee was our current Minister of Economic Affairs and Climate Policy, Eric Wiebes.

About two hours into the conversation, Wiebes was talking about Donald Trump and Boris Johnston and expressed his frustration with today’s prevalence of “The Image”. Contra so-called ‘alternative facts’, he made a case for “good, old-fashioned facts”.

When the interviewer pressed him about these ‘facts’, he had to admit that the effects of governmental decisions can never be quantified with complete reliability. Rather than concluding that this is where good decision making comes in, the hostess, like a true Cartesian skeptic, replied that this lack of certainty meant that making one choice and not the other was equal to “reading the tea leaves”.

Truth requires absolute certainty. No belief is certainly true. So all beliefs are equally justified — just as random as reading the tea leaves. ‘No neutral ranking’ implies ‘equal validity’.

Visibly frustrated, Wiebes points out that this jump is way too quick. When some belief about reality isn’t quantifiable with total accuracy, it doesn’t thereby follow that assessing its truth is like “reading the tea leaves”:

“Not all of reality fits into a calculator, but it doesn’t follow that everything is mere speculation. True, not everything is mathematically provable. Yet, that doesn’t license the making up of bullshit. Alternative facts are not equally factiveas facts.”

In the words of Ricky Gervais: “You can have your own opinions. You can’t have your own facts”.

Yet, the hostess’ contention that the unattainability of Objective Truth means that there’s no principled difference between opinions and knowledge and it’s all “reading the tea leaves” is not an uncommon attitude:

“If we read an article in the newspaper presenting two opposing viewpoints, we assume both have validity, and we think it would be wrong to shut one side down.” — Naomi Oreskes, Merchants of Doubt

In the final part of the essay, I want to make two points. First, ‘equal validity’ does not make any sense at all. Second, we need to, and can, distinguish facts from alternative facts, even though we can’t get to Objective Truth.

Don’t be fooled

Equal validity is a fine assumption to begin an inquiry with: before you start looking into the matter, you hold the conflicting ideas in mind. And sometimes, at this stage, it seems like there are arguments for both sides.

I have noticed that many people get discouraged when this is the emerging picture. It means that uncovering the most credible opinion will require some hard thinking. Reluctant do to the work, they seem to think that, once matters get somewhat complicated, we cannot assess the quality of arguments, but can only conclude that ‘there is something to say’ for both sides.

‘Ah, there seem to be arguments for both sides of the debate, that’ll probably mean that the truth is somewhere in the middle.’

This inference is mistaken. That we can conceive of possible arguments for two opposing viewpoints, does not mean that the truth is “in the middle”.

It’s a mistake to conclude from the omnipresence of apparent arguments for an opinion, that this opinion is in fact well supported. It simply doesn’t follow from the fact that some people argue that such-and-such considerations support their opinion, that their theory is in fact as well supported as they claim it is.

Curiously, in cases like the Flat Earth theory, we see through the conjuring trick and recognize that the proposed arguments are bad arguments and do not judge the opinion that the earth is flat to be credible.

But in many other cases, bad arguments and ‘alternative facts’ continue to fool us.

In the climate debate, for example, many people attach at least some weight to the Deniers’ claim that 3% of the scientists don’t believe in climate change. The absence of full consensus is taken as support for the claim that we cannot conclude that one side is right. The lack of consensus doesn’t warrant this conclusion at all, though. Truth isn’t a democracy. Disagreement does, by contrast, warrant further investigation into which side has the better arguments.

In general, when we are presented with two opposing views, the thinking deeper starts — it doesn’t end. We should not shy away from giving up the equal validity assumption if holding on to it is no longer warranted due to a difference in the quality of the arguments that both parties bring to bear in support.

The unavailability of Objective Truth should not paralyze us out of making such judgments. It does, however, presents us with a challenge about how we can be justified in making them. We ought to figure out how that is possible without full-blown objectivity, not blankly stating that objectivity isn’t real.

No neutral ranking does not imply equal validity

No absolute certainty doesn’t support the conclusion that there’s nothing to be said one way or another. Likewise, the impossibility of a view from nowhere does not mean that so-called alternative facts are equally true as non-alternative facts.

Think about it. The idea that because we can’t reach The Truth and objective reality can’t fact-check my opinion, it follows that there is no principled difference between facts and alternative facts is completely bonkers.

It goes very far to say that parties in a debate are immune from refutation because there is no Truth and there are ‘alternative facts’. The temptation to do away with the natural thought that certain types of knowledge are more or less accurate than others, and some might even be truer than others, replacing it with the contention that it’s all just reading tea leaves, exaggerates.

For instance, there is not a single serious journalist who takes the failure of the Cartesian project to entail that he is just giving another opinion when he facts-check a news item.

That we can’t give a mathematical proof for or against conflicting opinions, doesn’t mean that objective reality is powerless in telling you that one of the opinions is less credible.

Be that as it may, there is still a puzzle here. When Wiebes says that facts and ‘alternative facts’ are not equally factive, how can we substantiate this difference given the unattainability of Objective Truth?

How can we resist the inference from ‘no neutral ranking’ to ‘equal validity’?

What’s wrong with alternative facts?

To do that, we must make sense of a middle position in the objectivity and truth debate, in a way that the impossibility of a ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t entail that all hopes for objectivity are lost.

Conceptually, truth has an internal connection with opinions and knowledge. When asking a question, one normally wants a true answer.

In “reading tea leaves”, whether the alignment of the leaves corresponds to anything in reality is … up for debate. However, the fact that most other beliefs also can’t be supported with mathematical certainty doesn’t mean they’re similarly sealed off from reality.

Refusal to engage with common faith only makes it harder to find common ground between different worldviews and that’s not in anyone’s interest. More importantly, we should try to create common ground by each doing our part and trying to be mindful and truthful in what we say. We desperately need a reappraisal of what Sir Bernard Williams called ‘truthfulness’:

“Virtues and practices, that express the concern to tell the truth — in the sense of both telling the truth to other people and, in the first place, telling the true from the false.” — Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness

There’s a difference in intention between opinions that flow out of a “concern to tell the truth” and those that result from other aims. Although we might not be able to get at capital-T Truth in the philosophers’ sense of the term, we can still substantiate the claim that some beliefs are more likely to be true if we consider the belief-forming process that is at play here. Furthermore, we can investigate the evidence and the arguments supporting a belief, even if itseems as if there are arguments for both sides of a debate.

Rather than throwing our hands up in the air and pretending un-truthfulness isn’t a thing by sweeping clear differences in factiveness under the rug of equal validity, we should embrace uncertainty and stress a concern to tell the truth. Nietzsche was right: rather than using whatever, we should be extra “on guard” when we’re selecting the beams to repair our boat with.

Otherwise, we might sink.

Or worse: distort into a malicious submarine.

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