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Old 01-29-2010, 07:46 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Myth of Objectivism

i wrote this up the other day for a different forum and got some interesting results. thought i'd try it here.

What is the myth of objectivism?

The myth of objectivism is a way of thinking about the world that has only been around for a few thousand years, but it is so ingrained in the conceptual systems of most people that it is taken for granted that it is true. Here are its basic tenants:

1. The world is made up of objects. They have properties independent of any people or other beings who experience them.
2. We get our knowledge of the world by experiencing the objects in it and getting to know what properties they have and how they are related to one another.
3. We understand the objects in our world in terms of categories and concepts. These categories and concepts correspond to properties and relations the objects have in themselves (inherently).
4. What we say is unconditionally true or false about objective reality. Science allows us to rise above our subjective limitations and give a correct, definitive and general account of reality.
5. Words have fixed meanings, and to describe reality correctly, we need words whose meanings are clear and precise. Words that fit reality.
6. People can only speak objectively if they use a language that is clearly and precisely defined.
7. Metaphor can always be avoided when speaking objectively, and it should be avoided, since its meaning is not clear and precise and it doesn’t fit reality in any obvious way.
8. Being objective is generally a good thing. Only objective knowledge is really knowledge.
9. To be objective is to be rational; to be subjective is to be irrational and to give in to the emotions.
10. Subjectivity can be dangerous, since it can lead to losing touch with reality.

These statements are wrong. In order to understand why, we have to critically examine how we understand and talk about the world around us. This will be done in two stages. We will start simply, looking at how we conceive of and talk about the world on a perceptual level. Before we had microscopes and telescopes we just had our senses, and it was with our senses that we came to know the world. After that, we will move deeper and look into the claims of science.

In the end, it will become clear that “objective” claims about the world around us are by and large metaphorical, and that these claims are made from an anthropocentric perspective; in other words, what we call the “objective” world really only exists in human terms, and is not absolute at all.

Level 1: Perception

We know the world by experiencing it. We learn about an object by picking it up, feeling it, hefting it, squeezing it. Perhaps even smelling or tasting it. From the moment we are born we start gathering information about the world around us. As the years go by, we gain the ability to predict the qualities of objects we see based on our past experiences. We develop an internal database of information about things in the world, and this creates a perceptual backdrop that informs everything we do to a great extent.

Consider a table upon which sit the following objects: a crystal cup, a wax candle, a silver spoon, a fold of velvet, and an ice cube. From these words alone, you can imagine what each of these things looks like and feels like. Are they hard or soft? Warm to the touch, or cold? Which is heavy and which is light? Which will ring out if you strike it? Rough, smooth, flexible, malleable…

Based on this little thought experiment, it would seem only natural to believe that all of these qualities are inherent properties of the objects on the table, and that the objects have these properties whether we can perceive them or not. This is the first idea we need to dissolve.

The ice cube is cold. But only because we are warmer than the ice cube. All the objects are cold relative to a flame.

The candle is malleable. But only because we have the strength to deform it. The spoon is also malleable, and the ice, and all the rest – just to a greater or lesser degree.

The objects are all small. But only because we are larger than they are.

The velvet is red. But only because our eyes and brains interpret the light reflecting off of it as such.

That’s enough banter about what’s on the table. Suffice it to say that these observed properties are all defined only in terms of the physicality of the human body. If we were ants or elephants, they would seem very different.

Now let’s go outside. You’re in a meadow, and above you the sky is blue but for two small clouds. In the distance is a mountain, and at the foot of the mountain stands a tall tree. In front of the tree, three squirrels play.

Well that seems straight forward enough. If I was there with you, and you asked me to judge the truth of this description, could I do it? Let’s see.

How can you be in a meadow? What is the sky, and is it really above you? Is the sky really blue? Two small clouds – they’re probably much larger than you are. And are you sure they are two? If you get close, their edges seem a bit indeterminate. On to the mountain – does it really have a foot? And the tree standing there – is it really standing? The tree is tall – perhaps compared to me, but not compared to the mountain. And the squirrels in front of the tree (do trees have fronts?) – are they actually playing?

It seemed like a simple narrative, but if we look closely, it becomes clear that much of the description was metaphorical, and metaphors are never objectively true.

So to wrap things up, most of what we believe to be objectively true about the world as it is perceived by us is in fact not true, but is instead bound up so tightly with the human condition that the two cannot be separated.

Level 2: Science

Ok, I know what you’re thinking. The world as we perceive it is not the world as it really is. We can talk about the REAL world with science. There aren’t any metaphors there!

Don’t hold your breath.

We’ll start with biology, which started life as anatomy, which was one of the first sciences. It came about when people cut up dead things to see how they work. What did they find?

The heart is a pump. The liver is a filter. The brain sends singles through nerves and controls the body. Blood carries oxygen to the brain. Metaphors!

Today, things aren’t much better. Consider this: “mRNA is transcribed from a DNA template, and carries coding information to the sites of protein synthesis”. The words transcribed, template, carries, coding, information, sites, and synthesis are all used metaphorically. The sentence is definitely not objectively true. And here’s the kicker – it would be impossible to describe that process without using metaphor.

Who cares?

Well, the point is this: metaphors are used to put abstract things into concrete terms. Abstract things are whatever we cannot experience directly. Metaphors build upon that database of perceptual experiences I spoke of earlier, and they use that common human knowledge to draw comparisons with things that cannot be directly experienced. Science is absolutely overflowing with metaphors.

The problem we now face is this: that database of perceptual experiences we are using to build these metaphors is itself not objectively true either. It is only relationally true – true relative to the human experience. The language of science essentially builds metaphors out of lies.

Moving on to physics, things will become clearer. Newtonian physics is today considered to be incomplete. Why? Because it only applies to a very limited set of circumstances – those of the human condition. Particles are not like billiard balls. Mass is not absolute. etc.

As deeper sciences like particle physics and quantum mechanics began to emerge, it became clear that Newtonian physics was incomplete.

These new forms of physics, however, present problems. If we say “light is a wave”, we can sort of relate to that, because we have seen waves before. But if we start talking about gravitational time dilation or entanglement or particles being in two places at once – well, our metaphors start to break down. There are no experiential correlates for these things. This is precisely why these deeper physics are non-intuitive – because our metaphors don’t work anymore.

So in the end we have either Newtonian physics, which is only good for certain situations, or we have physics that deals with things that are really big or really small, really slow or really fast. And these sorts of physics make it very clear that there is nothing objective about the world. At the upper extremes, mass and size are relative. At the lower extremes, speed and position are relative. What, then, is absolute?

The world is not objective. The only way we can make sense of it is through metaphor, which is itself based upon our explorations of our local environment through our bodies. If we were ants, if we were elephants – everything would be different.

A challenge

If you read this whole thing, then bravo. Now how will you reply? It's easy - prove me wrong.

Tell me something objectively true about a thing in the world. Something that is true no matter what. Something that:
1. Is not relative to the human condition (that is, it's true whether we exist or not),
2. and is not expressed metaphorically

go!
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Old 01-29-2010, 10:21 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Many of my friends are deconstructivists, and thus I've seen many of the arguments you employ here already. I agree in principle that there is no objective reality, although one should be careful, as deconstruction can be used to render all things meaningless, after which the dangers of nihilism are looming.
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Old 01-29-2010, 10:32 AM   #3 (permalink)
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woah now. don't misinterpret what i'm saying. there are no ontological arguments here. objective reality certainly exists - i'm only arguing that many of the properties of that reality we call "objective" are not in fact absolute.
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Old 01-29-2010, 01:03 PM   #4 (permalink)
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I disagree that the problematic of contemporary physics is that our metaphors break down. Rather, I think our metaphors appear as such, a particle is a wave, a thing is neither here nor there, it is everywhere and nowhere. The goal of physics is to reduce the complex singularity of an event to a network of simple, basic events arranged and multiplying in such a way as to generate complexity. With quantum mechanics, we both achieve this goal and realize its impossibility--the complexity and ambiguity of any situation (which is usually constituted around some sort of tension or contradiction) can not be reduced, it is still present on the most basic level. How does one particle turn into another, or how does one particle communicate with another and thereby change it? We have to assume some neutral substratum (energy) which, although it isn't actually present, is staying the same.

This also means, however, that the tension which keeps one situation from being another is the same tension which keeps a situation from resolving itself, and hence all situations, in keeping with metaphor, have been shown to be the same, by virtue of their difference. To put it in different terms, the question "How does particle a turn into particle b" is the same question as "How does situation a turn into situation b"? Causality approaches the problem from the outside: "it does, therefore it had to." The difficult thing is to approach the problem from the inside: "how did my past self turn into my present self? How will my present self turn into my future self?" Is this really happening, or is it a narrative we impose on a neutral substratum that doesn't actually change?

The fact that we can not go beyond metaphors such as "carrying" a signal should not suggest that we are ultimately incapable of understanding physical reality except to the extent in which it relates to us, but that we can ultimately not go beyond the experience of "carrying," because there is nowhere beyond our experiences to go to. It is not that we can only perceive reality as it relates to us, because in turn our perception of "self" is just a mode of relating to this very reality. So ultimately, we do not experience the universe as related to ourselves, since this implies that our experience of self is more objective than our experience of the universe, what we actually experience is our relation to the universe, which is objectively true, because we are experiencing it, but also subjective, because it is prone to change. And it should change, which is the ultimate goal of philosophy, because as we change our conception of physical reality we also change our conception of self, and ultimately the boundary between the one and the other become uncertain, which is really the most interesting area philosophy can lead us into.

Also, I am currently going through the experience of being "entangled" with another person, our moods always seem to be the inverse of one another, my perception of our situation is the inverse of his, and we both seem to be seduced by the possibility while at the same time resisting annihilating one another. So, if quantum mechanics can't provide a satisfying explanation of the world, it is only because we are resisting experiencing the metaphors it offers. And they are plentiful: the fact that a quark exists in a superposition of states before we measure it corresponds to the ambiguity of our own internal states until we try to investigate ourselves or interact with others. The particle/wave duality corresponds not only to other scientific dualities, like space/time or even on a meta level quantum mechanics/general relativity, but also the duality we experience within ourselves, in our relations to others, etc. etc. The skeptical response to objectivism is to say that science offers a certain kind of truth, but not objective truth. I would rather force objectivism further within itself--yes science gives us "objective" truths, but they are objective precisely because they are metaphorical (relative).

Last edited by cardboard adolescent; 01-29-2010 at 01:09 PM.
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Old 01-29-2010, 09:00 PM   #5 (permalink)
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Anyone who values Objectivism is as delusional as Ayn Rand and her rabid followers. That bitch was cold as ice but has surely melted into some other form of energy that is hopefully benefitting humankind more than Objectivism ever has.
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Old 01-29-2010, 11:56 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by cardboard adolescent View Post
The fact that we can not go beyond metaphors such as "carrying" a signal should not suggest that we are ultimately incapable of understanding physical reality except to the extent in which it relates to us, but that we can ultimately not go beyond the experience of "carrying," because there is nowhere beyond our experiences to go to.
well said and absolutely true. and yet you suggest we go beyond our experiences and use basic-level metaphors such as our conceptual understanding of internal states in order to provide a foundation for the bizarre happenings of the quantum world. layer cake style. but i'm not sure this is something everyone is capable of doing.

i'm no physicists, so the example i gave here come from my limited understanding of the subject, which is taken from popular books which are themselves filled with metaphors and dumbed-down explanations. but is it not true that physics has reached the point where people can describe things mathematically which they absolutely cannot understand, even on a very abstract metaphorical level?
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Old 01-30-2010, 12:52 AM   #7 (permalink)
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I think the answer is yes and no--I fundamentally disagree with the assumptions science makes to allow it to grow, so I feel that it is inevitable that physics would tend toward meaninglessness as it reapproaches its own assumptions. At the same time, I think that the progress and history of physics is an all-too-familiar narrative leading from exuberance to disappointment to general confusion. But, in confusion a space opens up where we're ready for a miracle, ready for the impossible...
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Old 01-30-2010, 02:48 PM   #8 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by noise
Consider a table upon which sit the following objects: a crystal cup, ...
I never heard of a "crystal" cup, cups are usually made of paper, plastic, Polystyrene foam, High Density Polyethylene, Polyethylene Terephthalate. Cups are usually disaposable or recyclable (preferably the latter - subjectively speaking), or used for everyday use, e.g. tea cups are usually made of ceramic or glass, while coffee cups are to be differentiate from coffee mugs by volume of liquid thus contained in them. Cups were at one time shared by the public, but at the turn of the 20th century disaposable cups were used instead for for public health reasons. A "crystal" cup has a connotation to it of being a disposable cup made of crystal.

Drinkware made of crystal are sometimes refered to as stemware and are more expensive then plastic polymers, which are meant to be disposable/recyclable, an example stemware made of crystal is a Champagne flute, which objectively speaking is neither a wind instrument nor is used to drink Champagne exclusively. Most likely a non-alcoholic sparkling beverages or a sparkling wines is drunken (drank?) from a Champlange flute. If you want to find out what subjectivity really is try to convince a person, who adamantly and consistently refers to sparkingly wine as Champagne, that they are wrong.
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Old 01-30-2010, 03:25 PM   #9 (permalink)
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we may communicate in metaphors and granted, it would be hard to disprove anything you are saying...but the words we use to describe these phenomena are directly linked to thoughts and emotions in our minds. the words (and metaphors, for that matter) are linked to our understanding...which is the important thing. it may be impossible to describe science without using metaphors, but that is not the point. the point is, using those metaphors, it can be safe to assume that someone in the same field would be able to understand exactly what i was describing. you could bring up that this is because it is linked to the human condition...maybe true. but i have no doubt if a superior alien race were to study us and were able to translate our language, they would be able to say quite reasonably what kind of understanding of science we actually have.
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Old 01-30-2010, 05:32 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Originally Posted by Neapolitan View Post
I never heard of a "crystal" cup, cups are usually made of paper, plastic, Polystyrene foam, High Density Polyethylene, Polyethylene Terephthalate. Cups are usually disaposable or recyclable (preferably the latter - subjectively speaking), or used for everyday use, e.g. tea cups are usually made of ceramic or glass, while coffee cups are to be differentiate from coffee mugs by volume of liquid thus contained in them. Cups were at one time shared by the public, but at the turn of the 20th century disaposable cups were used instead for for public health reasons. A "crystal" cup has a connotation to it of being a disposable cup made of crystal.

Drinkware made of crystal are sometimes refered to as stemware and are more expensive then plastic polymers, which are meant to be disposable/recyclable, an example stemware made of crystal is a Champagne flute, which objectively speaking is neither a wind instrument nor is used to drink Champagne exclusively. Most likely a non-alcoholic sparkling beverages or a sparkling wines is drunken (drank?) from a Champlange flute. If you want to find out what subjectivity really is try to convince a person, who adamantly and consistently refers to sparkingly wine as Champagne, that they are wrong.
oh my god, you're right!
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