Differentiating between the Objective and the Absolute

For something to be an absolute it must by definition be consistently changeless and impervious to new data–it always remains the same, in every situation, under every condition.  Thus, if someone claims to be taking an absolutist position he is essentially proclaiming that said position is immune to refinement and scrutiny, and will never need to be even slightly reexamined or amended, ever.  This is a mindset that I thoroughly reject, and I do so by necessity.  No idea, no proposal, no hypothesis, no theory, no fact, has ever, or will ever, be barred from the scrutiny of newly emergent data.  It is through a process of rigorous examination and reexamination that existing data about reality is reaffirmed, refined, or displaced by a better working model.  The introduction of absolutes does nothing to further our knowledge or our understanding of reality; in fact, it negates both with its inflexibility to change.  This is what I mean when I say that I reject all absolutes, and this is where some people falsely conclude that this must mean that I think all facts and claims about reality are just subjective opinions.

For something to be objectively true it must be verified to exist independent of any subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter.  There are schools in philosophy which deny the possibility of objective facts on the basis that everything we perceive to exist does so solely through our subjective human perception of it, therefore what we call objective facts can never be anything more but our subjective human perception.  I am definitely not an adherent to such a mindset, and I’ll tell you why:  1,000 years ago various strains of viral and bacterial infections made plague and disease a common occurrence in people’s life.  The fact that these people had no knowledge of the viruses and bacteria that were causing their ailments (and no knowledge of germ theory, in general) made no difference to the reality of their existence, because the viruses and bacteria did not care whether or not they were perceived or known by the organisms they were infecting, maiming, and killing–that is to say, they existed independent of the subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter; their existence was an objective fact whether anyone perceived it or not, as was their affect whether anyone understood it or not.  Likewise, prior to Newton people were largely unaware of the fact that the force of gravity was pulling down on them (and everything else) at 9.8 m/s^2, regardless of their subjective feeling or thought on the matter.  And similar things can be said about a number of other things, where subjective perception are irrelevant to objective data: heliocentric solar system, age of the earth, shape of the planet, and so on and so forth.

But I can already hear a faint cry of protestation here, “Wait a minute,” someone might be inclined to say, “doesn’t the fact that gravity is acting on us right now, and has always done so, mean that it is an objective fact, and an absolute, which contradicts your previous rejection of absolutes?”  In short, no.  The theory of gravity is accepted as the most reliable conclusion about the various relationships we see between matter on earth, the solar system, and the universe, and, thus far, has survived all measures of scientific scrutiny–but this by definition means that it is open to scrutiny, hence it is open to being overturned if (and that’s a big if) future observable, testable, verifiable, falsifiable, empirical data was to demand such a verdict.  If, hypothetically, extensive research was to demonstrate that what we think of as gravity is really the affect of three different, yet-unnamed, forces working together to produce what we have mistakenly been calling gravity, there isn’t a competent physicist in the world who would in defiance of all evidence dogmatically cling to the previous gravitational model–this is what keeps scientific theories from being absolutes, while still remaining objective facts; namely, that objective facts don’t need to be impervious to future revisions to remain objective, they just need to be independently verifiable from a subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on the matter.

A point of contention that arises from this is the claim that due to our fallible human perception, what we deem to be objective facts will always be dictated by our subjective observations, thus facts about reality cannot be verified fully independent of a subject’s perception, feeling, or thought on any matter.  Proponents of this philosophical position would agree with me about rejecting absolutes, but would also insist that my attempt to defend objective facts is dubious, because our interpretations of available data is unavoidably limited, and biased,  on account of our flawed human conception.  I accept the fact that our sub-Saharan, anthropocentric, primate brains are very good at concocting a flawed image of reality; hence, the once held belief that the earth is stationary and the center of the universe.  However, doesn’t the fact that, no matter what people might have thought on the subject, the earth was still rotating around the sun, in the corner of one tiny galaxy, indicate that verifiable objective facts still exist despite what our subjection perception tells us?  If we subjectively perceive the sun to be moving across the sky, but objectively know that it is the earth that is actually moving around the sun, does that not serve as a viable demonstration that despite all our flawed human thinking, we can still differentiate between the subjective and the objective?  After all, it is not our flawed human perception that is telling us that we live in a heliocentric solar system (our perception says the opposite), it is the accumulation of observable, testable, falsifiable, empirical data.

For one to continuously try and challenge this by claiming that, “But you can’t fully know if you’re interpreting the data accurately,” dwells into the realm of what I would call absolutist subjectivism–where one’s insistence that all physical facts are subjective starts to very much resemble the opposing view that facts are absolute (and I have already explained why I reject absolutist positions).  Such a dedication to deem all facts as merely the subjective perceptions of the mind ignores the reality that our perceptions are not solely the product of internal factors, but are also largely dependent and shaped by factors and circumstances of the external world.  The sun isn’t bright simply because we internally perceive it to be so, we perceive it to be bright because we are responding to external stimuli telling us it is so (the sun’s objective brightness couldn’t care less what we perceived one way or the other).

The pure solipsist would not be satisfied with any of this, because (according to solipsism) only one’s mind can be sure to exist, all else (including physical observations and personal perceptions) are liable to be illusions (such as hallucinations or dreams) created by said mind.  Generally, I consider solipsism to be too unfalsifiable of a position (which is a point to its detriment, not its favor) to spend time arguing against.  I’m skeptical as to why, if reality is wholly an illusion of my mind, I’m imagining myself to be nearsighted?  I have had bad vision since I was about 11 years old, and to this date never have I had one dream in which my dream self was afflicted with myopia.  The reason for this doesn’t seem all that mysterious to me, my brain doesn’t need my eyes to create images while I’m asleep; it works with the images registered in my conscious memory.  But if solipsism is true, and my mind was the only thing that truly existed, why does my imaginary self need eyes and glasses to perceive a world that is essentially a hallucination?  Why am I imagining myself to be dependent on physically external factors (my glasses, my contacts, my optometrist), in a reality that is essentially a product of my own conscious creation?  Yes, I know that solipsists will probably come up with some long-winded philosophical musing about how solipsism does not suppose that the content produced my the sole existence of the mind, necessitates any sort of control over said content; which does nothing to explain why I need my physical, material eyes and glasses to perceive an immaterial reality.  But it doesn’t matter, because it would be a waste of time to bother refuting the specifics of solipsism.

For the sake of argument, let us accept what the solipsist says, and mine is the only mind that exist (or, at least, the only one that is verifiable to me), and the physical world I perceive is a creation of my mind.  How would one actually go about differentiating a solipsistic reality from a non-solipsistic reality?  Even if solipsism is true [which I highly doubt], am I still not bound and limited by the parameters set up within this reality my conscious self is inhabiting?  Even if the force of gravity is something that my solipsistic mind has created, isn’t my inability to levitate off of the ground (even if just an imaginary perception) a fact within the reality I am inhabiting?  And doesn’t the fact that, despite what my mindful feelings, thoughts, or desires are on the matter, I am incapable of imagining myself defying gravity by levitating off of the ground make gravity an objective fact, at least within the conscious reality I am inhabiting?  Even if I turn out to just be dreaming all of this through some mind-only, brain-in-a-jar kind of state, if the parameters of this reality operate independent of my subjective perception, I am still bound by the physical world that I am apparently hallucinating myself in.  And if I have no means by which to escape from this dream world, I ask again, how is a solipsistic reality different from a non-solipsistic reality?  What exactly does solipsism offer to the discussion, besides a bunch of useless, baseless, non-consequential propositions?  Nothing, nothing at all.  (And if you happen to be a solipsist, and you disagree with what I’ve said, you should keep in mind that by disagreeing with me, you are essentially disagreeing with yourself on account that I–and this blog–are just a creation of your mind.)

Now, a fair point to all of this would be to stop me right here and mention how when people in the modern world are discussing absolute and objective facts what they are usually debating over isn’t the cold, mechanical, facts of scientific inquiry on physical reality, which hold no direct consequence on their personal values in life (though this is a debatable point, depending on the particular scientific inquiry in question).  What people really are asking is whether or not there exists such a thing as absolute moral judgments, or objective moral judgments.  This, to me, is a much more intricate question to ponder.  Personally, I am still inclined to say that absolutes do not exist even when it comes to moral judgments.  For instance, do I think that lying is morally reprehensible?  Yes.  Can I think of instances when lying would not be morally reprehensible?  Yes.  I cannot see how an absolutist moral framework allows for such a disparity on a single moral judgment to occur, since something that is absolutely right or wrong demands for it to be applicable equally to all circumstances, lest one admits to the circumstantial (non-absolute) nature of moral principles.

The Flaw With Personal Experience and Self-authority

It is a mainstay of social decorum to treat an individual’s personal experiences on any given issue as valid contributions to a topic.  Often, it’s quite common to observe two people arguing fiercely about a controversial topic, only to have it end with one of them bringing up the fact that s/he has been in a similar situation to the one being discussed, therefore her/his opinion on the subject has more value than the person who lacks any such personal experience.  And, usually, even if the other person doesn’t outright accept this reasoning, s/he will still yield some level of authority on the subject to the experienced individual.  This is a trend in casual discourse that annoys me to no end.

Now, allow me to clarify my discontent with anecdotal testimony by preemptively refuting my own subjective experiences.  Occasionally, a debate pops up about the issue of whether or not a terminally ill patient has the right to end her/his life, if they so choose.  For the sake of argument, let us suppose that I am passionately in favor of one side of this issue over another that I engage in regular arguments with people about it.  Let’s further suppose that in the middle of the discussion, I make the claim that I must have a great grasp of this issue because eight years ago my father died after several months of suffering due to a terminal illness.  What have I just done?  I have attempted to gain some level of authority on a subject strictly on the bases of an anecdotal experience I have had.  The problem here isn’t that I tied my personal experience into my argument, rather it’s that I am attempting to assert my rightness on the topic over my opponent strictly on account of having had this personal experience.  A line of reasoning that often goes completely unchallenged, even by the person in the discussion who is being silenced by this appeal to self-authority.  However, reasonably speaking, I would argue that having a personal experience makes one less likely to objectively examine a topic, on account that that you have a greater emotional investment in the outcome of the issue; in other words, it’s harder to be objective when you are the subject.

Again, please do not misunderstand me.  I am not objecting to people using their subjective experiences to motivate their engagement of any particular topic.  Nor do I object to referencing one’s personal experiences to add context to an issue being discussed.  The problem is the presupposition many of us accept that because I may have had a personal experience, and you have not, I am inherently more likely to be right on the topic, and have to shut up and listen to my great “anecdotal” wisdom.  This is wrong, in my view.  It’s not just wrong, it’s absurd.  Yes, experience adds perspective.  But it does not bestow infallibility.  If this were true, then only those who have gone to war should be allowed to comment on war; only those who are involved in the political process should be allowed to comment on politics; only those who have committed a crime (or have had a crime committed against them) should be allowed to comment on crimes; etc, etc, etc.

Personally, my experience is that it’s rarely the case that any one person is completely right on any one issue (though, at times, it does happen–depending on the issue).  If you happen to be more informed (thereby, more right) than the arguments you present in favor of your position will be apparent to the casual observers, without needing to pull on their heartstrings.  To attempt to persuade/silence another person by appealing to your own authority is not just wrong, but a potential discredit to the very position you are championing.  But that’s just my subjective objection on the matter.