The death of objectivity – How one concept’s fall threatens the entire scientific project (Part 1/2)

Objectivity is one of the most prominent and esteemed concepts in scientific thought. It’s pursuit was believed by many to provide numourous benefits:

  • It is a pivotal concept in science, which has provided us with knowledge and technology that has immensely improved the lives of countless people
  • It facilitates the truthfulness, neutrality and trustworthiness of vital institutions that investigate complex human affairs, including social science, the legal profession, the public service, and journalism
  • It is a bridge between different groups with different values, providing a common terrain for discussion tends to be favourable towards fair resolution of problems. This helps to prevent rhetorical escalation that leads to conflict between groups, including serious large-scale conflict

Without objectivity, we are incentivized to be forever at war trying to inject our own values into public language, culture and discourse. There is no defensible truce upon which to build a society of diverse values – a civilization. However, objectivity is a concept that has also been heavily criticised, in particular by a relatively recent wave of postmodernist voices. Some of these criticisms are enough to trouble even non-postmodernist thinkers. For example:

  • Objectivity’s definition, though superficially obvious, holds up poorly to close examination. It is very open to interpretation, is reliant on obscure and controversial philosophical assumptions, and is very difficult to apply in practice. It is particularly reliant on the object/subject distinction and Cartesian Dualism which sometimes appears to clash with modern scientific knowledge of the world.
  • Objectivity, having positive and authoritative connotations but a hazy definition, can be easily deployed as rhetorical tool to give dubious ideas and claims and aura of legitimacy.
  • All knowledge is necessarily produced by people, and these people always produce knowledge in pursuit of their own reasons and values. Thus that knowledge is poorly viewed as being a product of the object itself, and better understood as being the product of a person/people and a set of values. In other words, knowledge is produced by subjects (people), and is therefore, strictly speaking, always ‘subjective’.

These problems are esoteric enough that non-philosophers and organisations may be able to ignore them, try to be intuitively objective, and not bring immediate disaster upon themselves or others.

However, objectivity suffers another problem, here called the ‘infinite manifold problem‘ that renders it practically meaningless in everyday practice. It was probably first highlighted by the philosopher Immanuel Kant[1], but you do not have to be a Kantian to see the immense problem it poses to objectivity:

The ‘infinite manifold problem’ as it pertains to objectivity:

  • Reality has infinite content. Even finite portions of reality have infinite detail.
  • Descriptions, on the other hand, are finite, and must not only simplify, but choose what content is worth inclusion and what can be omitted. This is true of both questions (scope of investigation) and answers (recorded and reported facts)
  • This choice can drastically alter the picture communicated to a reader or listener
  • This choice cannot arise from the content alone, but must necessarily come from the goals or values of the observer (or ‘subject’ rather than ‘object’)
  • Current use of the notions of ‘objectivity’ usually involve unsystematic, unstated or even unconscious selections of content that are completely dependent on bias and subjective motives

This is a real problem for any person, group or institution relying on objectivity, even intuitively so, because:

  • No hard objection can be raised to selections of content that are inappropriate, because arbitrary selections are not just normal, but necessary. Essentially, in a topic of even moderate complexity, anyone can select a set of facts that suits their agenda, and there is very little anyone else can do about it.
  • Resultingly, it is very difficult to prevent increasingly inappropriate agendas seeping into institutions that are meant to be objective, because there is no defensible demarkation between scientific and non-scientific agendas other than fuzzy scientific intuition.

Objectivity is probably not salvageable. Partial fixes like ‘intersubjective verification’ are not strong enough to defend the scientific project, especially from the destructive taint created by the infinite manifold problem. Yet it is probable that the scientific project, as well as an independent public service, free journalism and a truthful academia, will not survive its loss. And if they do not, it seems doubtful civilized society will survive either.

The infinite manifold problem must be solved.

The only solution would be a concept that is similar to objectivity, but is built from the ground up to avoid philosophical failure, vagueness, and above all, the infinite manifold problem.


FUTURE ARTICLE – Pulling apart the infinite manifold problem (Part 2 of 2)

[1] My use of this term comes not from Kant but rather sociologist Max Weber, who extensively considered the problem of objectivity as it pertains to social science, for example in Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy.