Can We Be Objective?

By Chris Chittenden

"Show me a man who claims he is objective and I'll show you a man with illusions."

…Henry R. Luce (1898 - 1967) US Editor and Publisher

Ever heard someone say, "In reality..."? When someone does this, they are claiming a right to seeing the real world where others can't. They are saying "I really know how things are, so listen to me!". This is an example of someone claiming "objectivity" and access to the Truth about the world. The question is can people make this claim? Can we be objective?

Objectivity is defined as seeing things in a way that is not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations or prejudice. The idea is that it is unbiased view based on facts.

If we were to do this, we would have to put aside our personal feelings, interpretations and prejudices. So is this possible? In order to answer this question, we will have to have some idea of the human condition and how we relate to the world outside of ourselves.

The ontological approach stems from the idea that we only have our own inner experience as the basis on which we engage in life. This can be seen in our basic premise:

‘Life is internally experienced as an ongoing process in a sequence of indefinable moments; yet our life appears to us as a constant state of being and becoming.’

So what does this mean?

That “life is internally experienced” speaks to the idea that an individual human being cannot know anything outside of his or her experience. When we think about it, this appears to be self-evident. How could I have any other experience but my own? Even if I believe I am having someone else’s experience I still only have my own experience of sharing another’s experience, so I can never know with certainty whether that sharing is valid or not. A simple example can demonstrate this.

If we assume you and I are not colour blind, we can both look at an object and identify its colour. Let’s say, we both say it is blue. We might disagree about what shade of blue it is, but we both claim it is blue. Even though we have this agreement, the question still remains “is the blue you see the same as the blue I see?” Based on our similar physiology, we assume what is blue for you is the same for me and act accordingly, yet we cannot know this for sure. However, we can still agree it is blue and act consistently with that agreement. As human beings, we have to assume that others have experiences similar to ours if we are to live and engage with them.

This definition of the human condition infers that rather than seeing the world as it is, we live in a world of interpretations and this precludes the idea of a purely objective view of the world. After all our inner experience is full of personal feelings, interpretations and prejudices and cannot be any other way.

Rather than speak of objectivity we can speak about a deeply shared subjective view of the world that allows us to coordinate with other human beings. We can certainly use techniques such as the scientific method to develop better grounded shared explanations of how things are, but it is important to recognise that science doesn't reveal the Truth, just potentially better explanations of things.

So the next time you hear someone claiming to know what is real, I invite you to consider what else might be going on. More often than not a claim of the Truth is likely to be a claim to authority and a means of getting you to unquestionably fall in with the speaker's view of the world.

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© 2014 Chris Chittenden