Objective And Subjective

The terms objective and subjective are often used as if we could easily draw the boundaries between the two, yet this is often not the case.

When we speak of 'objective' reality, we imply that we are discussing reality as it is when we are not perceiving it. This is the basis of the correspondence theory of truth, which says that a statement is true if it corresponds with the reality (empirically verifiable). Of course, knowing what counts as a fact, what facts to measure, and how to measure them, requires the use of some other theory than correspondence. The methods of perception, and the assumptions which underlay them, in part define the object being observed. (I generally find the facts I look for, especially if I create instruments designed specifically to look/measure them)

Subjective knowledge, most basically, is that kind of personal experience that you have and that can't be argued about. Consider your experience of a headache versus your experience of the Eiffel Tower. Your experience of the headache is private "subjective" — and nobody else can have your headache for you. So, in one of the usual (oversimplified) senses of "subjective", all headaches are subjective.

This is unproblematic— things get a little more difficult is you want subjective and objective to be exclusive of each other- if you try to say that is either subjective or objective. Just because no one has the same experience of red, or imagines the taste of lemon in the same way, does not make these wholly subjective. If that was the case, you could never share your ideas about lemons with others, or be fairly sure that if you discussed your trip to paris, others would know what city you were discussing.

Here's the funny thing— no one ever can see the 'objective' world. Objective reality is something that requires no one we can communicate with to experience. It's real easy to see how some people get all weird and start thinking that everything around them is merely the product of their imagination (are you sure you're not dreaming right now?)

So what? Well, if my experiences are metaphysically subjective, and assuming something is either subjective or objective, then any statements I make about my experiences must be epistemologically subjective — they are "merely" my beliefs, or my opinions. For any X, if X is subjective, X stays subjective. Therefore, goes the weak argument, there is no Objective Reality or Objective Truth. Reality and truth differ for everyone, and always will. Is that relativism that I smell in the background?

This argument gets a lot of support in this age of ethical relativism If we all have only our limited points of view, nobody has THE truth. That's right, the "Truth Fairy" doesn't exist, and it's time all the European/male/imperialist/capitalist/Christian folks learned a little proper humility. There's nothing special about anyone's point of view; everybody's point of view is equally correct; everyone is entitled to think whatever they want and all are ok. Sound familiar? If you're alive at this point in time, it should.

however, there are some seriously serious flaws with this kind of approach, the first and most obviosu being that no one actually believes that. THe second being that the belief that everyone's belief is correct necessarily requires a belief in tolerance and free speech, which certainly are not globaly shared values.

But let's look at the less obvious stuff.

1. Berkely style idealism seems unbelievable. ALthough it's really hard to disprove his point of view, it does require a belief in a GOD who ALWAYS keeps on perceiving the world for you when you shut your eyes (otherwise it woudl dissapear while you slept, or everytime you blinked). Except i don't actually believe in God.
More importantly, when you go to the post office, talk to colleagues, or pay your takes, you should act in ways that aren't necessarily of your choosing. If it's all in your head, then taxes, cancer, and long lines at the post office mark you as one masochistic person. SO what? well, the point is that that you don't really believe any proposition if it has no effect on your choices. For example, if you really believed that tables and chairs didn't exist, you wouldn't walk around them. You do walk around them. So you're not really skeptical about their existence.

A lot of people might say, "Well, you can't prove metaphysical idealism is false, can you?". (These are the sort of people who think The Matrix has deep philosophical significance.) Arguments like that are pretty lame, though; they commit the fallacy of appeal to ignorance. You appeal to ignorance when your only premise in support of a claim is that you or your opponent can't show the claim is false, i.e., you are ignorant of any evidence that would disprove it. But that kind of ignorance doesn't prove anything. Think about it: I can't prove the universe didn't come into existence five minutes ago, complete with "historical" records and "memories," but the fact that I can't prove it's false doesn't make it true, or even plausible. I can't prove there isn't an invisible elephant (with no odor or any sensible properties) in my backyard. But if I seriously concluded on the basis of my ignorance of reasons for disproof that there were such an elephant, you would not say "Mr Mason, you are such a deep thinker"; you would say "Mr Mason, you are out of your mind".

Anyways. Normal people don't worry about metaphysical idealism or radical skepticism, that's really only for philosophers. But a whole lot of people worry about ethical subjectivism. relativism says that because people have feelings about ethical matters, claims about ethical matters themselves must be subjective and therefore merely matters of opinion, and therefore not liable to adjudication by reason or other objective methods. In other words, nobody has "better" (more objective) views about ethical matters than anyone else. It's all just opinion, and no objective standard can be had (the famous "and who are you to tell me what's good and bad?"

A similarly debate exists in the contemporary art world, because of the same confusion about subjectivity and objectivity. Nowadays, some people say that no work of art is better than any other. The Campbell's Soup logo is art; a pile of rocks or dog poop is art; the Aurora Borealis is art. Why? Because whether or not something is art is a "subjective" matter. Philosophers and art lovers cringe.

So let's get started cleaning things up. Here’s one way, proposed by John Searle, to solve the problem.

We should distinguish two kinds of objectivity:

metaphysical objectivity, and
epistemological objectivity.
We also should distinguish two kinds of subjectivity:

metaphysical subjectivity, and
epistemological subjectivity.
Remember the distinction between metaphysics and epistemology?

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