December 13, 2010
Have you ever been in one of those conversations where somebody defines the word God so loosely that it becomes near-meaningless? If so, how did that make you feel?
Here’s the thing about philosophy: it’s great for sharpening one’s wit. It’s excellent for exploring the history of human questioning. It’s useful in that it can lend itself to both personal enrichment as well as social edification. However, as a means of uncovering truth, philosophy has disadvantages. Severe disadvantages.
If you get down to it, philosophies are a lot like software bundles. Anybody can make anything, and none of the code has to agree, because there is no independent standard, only practiced conventions at best. This means nobody is ever right or wrong! If you don’t believe me, just run a search for “strict model-view-controller logic” and see what I mean.
The more I engage in it, the more I can see why plenty of scientists refuse to take philosophy seriously, despite the fact that science itself is founded on various philosophical concepts. What are those, anyways?
I mean, philosophical concepts. Ontologically, do they reduce to purely abstract ideas? Or, is there a sense in which they can rightfully be described as analogous to scientific laws? That is, do philosophical concepts ever map to real-world objects?
I ask this question because it seems that, when backed into a corner, any “philosopher” can simply start redefining things to save face. I feel this is exactly what happened in the DCT conversation we’ve been having. For example, when confronted with the claim that DCT is objective, Luke Muehlhauser can simply reply, “Oh, that’s not how I define DCT.” And really, who am I to tell Luke he’s wrong? We’re all free to define things however we want, right?
Well then. Debate settled! DCT can never be objective, because DCT is defined as, “morality based on God’s arbitrary attitudes.” Better yet, Luke Muehlhauser’s claim that DCT is subjective can never be falsified, because DCT is defined as “morality based on God’s arbitrary attitudes.” See? DCT is subjective by definition. Are these types of philosophical debates actually helping anybody get closer to the truth about anything?
On the other hand, philosophy is awesome, and I can’t justify abandoning it simply because it’s not as conducive to truth-finding as I might like. So, I’ve asked myself: is there anything I can do to help at least myself or others? I will tell you right up front that I’m probably going to fail miserably, but I can try, and I think a great place to start would be with the words objective and subjective. At the very least, I wish to improve my own command of the words.
I felt the first step should be to identify the various ways these words are used, both in everyday language and in academic context. I suppose I should state that I’m on the West Coast of the United States of America, so, this analysis reflects my exposure to language patterns here. If you can think of ways the words are used that I’ve missed, by all means, help us out.
1) I frequently hear people use the word objective as a synonym for fair or impartial. “You’re not being objective” is an example of a sentence using the word objective as a synonym for fair or impartial. I would consider this a more common usage, with little or no practical import to philosophy. That’s not really what I’m interested in.
2) In my experience, the word subjective is used primarily to denote propositions whose truth varies from person to person, for example any and all preferences: “Chocolate is the best ice cream,” or “Basketball is the hardest sport.” At least part of the reason people use subjective thus is because it conveys an opinion, and opinions enjoy this odd sort of privilege in which they are only true for people who have them. As such, most people recognize an implicit distinction between opinions and facts.
3) However, in spite of their similarity, note that “Jan likes chocolate ice cream” or “Johnny skateboards” would not be subjective propositions, for at least one reason: they retain “true for everybody” status. A person named Jan exists, and likes chocolate ice cream. A person named Johnny exists, and skateboards. Of course, Wendy could simply declare that Jan actually detests chocolate ice cream, or that Johnny actually rides rollerblades, but neither nullifies the fact that Jan actually likes chocolate ice cream, and Johnny actually skateboards.
In other words, to use objective in this sense is to convey a fact, and facts cannot change via adjustments in attitude. So, in this sense, we – meaning people who accept conventional Western language – refer to these types of propositions as objective, and their truth does not vary from person to person. Objective propositions retain “true for everybody” status.
Now, here’s where it can get confusing, and I’m hoping this helps at least one other person to better understand the exercise in miscommunication that is desirism, which I’ll explore again in the next post: It is also an objective fact that Jan has a subjective preference for chocolate ice cream.
In that sense, the word objective still denotes a proposition whose truth cannot vary from person to person. IOW, that Jan likes chocolate ice cream is true for everybody, in the same way it is true for everybody that, ignoring air resistance, an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface increases its velocity by 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s or 22 mph) for each second of its descent. It is impossible to change the truth value of either claim via mere change in attitudes, as should be the case with any objective theory.
By the way, what does it mean to ask the question, “Is a theory objective?”
Well – unfortunately – that’s going to vary from person to person, so here we are back at the problem of definitions again. When I ask that question, I’m questioning at least two things: whether a proposition maps to reality, and whether that proposition elevates beyond the level of opinion. That is to say, does the proposition refer to things that actually exist, and does it retain “true for everybody” status?
Consider the following depiction of the law of gravity:
The strength of the gravitational field is numerically equal to the acceleration of objects under its influence, and its value at the Earth’s surface, denoted g, is approximately expressed below as the standard average.
g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2
This means that, ignoring air resistance, an object falling freely near the Earth’s surface increases its velocity by 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s or 22 mph) for each second of its descent. Thus, an object starting from rest will attain a velocity of 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) after one second, 19.6 m/s (64.4 ft/s) after two seconds, and so on, adding 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) to each resulting velocity. Also, again ignoring air resistance, any and all objects, when dropped from the same height, will hit the ground at the same time.
I would say gravity is an objective theory because it maps to the real-world, and because it has that “true for everybody” status. If a theory of gravity did not meet both of those criteria, I would not consider it an objective theory. If somebody decides to redefine gravity as something besides g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2, quite simply, they are in error.
Now – I don’t wish to explore this objection in full today – but as with all other language conventions, units of measurement are simply conventions. It is true that humans could have arbitrarily invented different units of measurement to write a law of gravity. That is to say, g = 9.81 m/s2 = 32.2 ft/s2 is a contingent description. It could be different, and, given a different universe, the real-world entities it maps to could differ, too. However, what presumably cannot differ is the state of affairs that actually exists irrespective of contingent conventions in any given universe. I hope that makes sense. I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning.
So, what would you say?
Do you have anything to add to the definitions of objective and subjective I’ve provided?
Did you see anything that you would consider problematic in the definitions and/or reasoning I’ve provided?