Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Here's something that occurred to me recently. It's nearly-trivial, but I found it interesting.

The reason a subjective statement, like "Beethoven's ninth is his best symphony" is subjective is that a) it refers mental state, and b) that mental state can vary from person to person.

But it can be turned into an objective statement by simply saying whose mind it refers to: "Smith thinks that Beethoven's ninth symphony is his best". This is an objective statement, and its truth or falsehood can be ascertained simply by asking Smith. In a few years, maybe we'll even have scanners that can read the answer in Smith's brain.

Or instead of specifying a particular subject to whom the statement applies, we can specify a class of people, e.g., "Most music critics think that Beethoven's ninth is his best", or "Nobody likes being humiliated" (vs. "humiliation is bad").

One consequence of this is that it helps put morality on a reality-based footing: a question like "should the US intervene in the Ivory Coast?" seems hopelessly subjective, but we can at least ask questions like, "how many Americans think the US should intervene?" and "how many Ivorians want the US to intervene?". These questions, and their answers, are called polls, and they're used all the time. (I'm not saying that complex moral questions should be decided by polling. But polls can provide an objective underpinning to moral arguments. For instance, if 98% of Ivorians hated Americans and wanted the US to stay the hell away, that would undercut arguments like "we should move in: we'll be greeted as liberators".)

Secular morality is often attacked for being too subjective. I hope the above helps correct that perception. The whole point of having a system of morality is, presumably, to improve the universe in some way, and hopefully allow us to be happier and get along with each other in the process. What "better" means, above, is subjective, but at the very least we can see what people think, and what most of us can agree on.


Don Wharton said...

This post makes an excellent point. In practice there is no such thing as a purely subjective category of reality. Subjective experience is a subset of the facts in the objective world. It is important to obliterate the confusion that comes from the misunderstood distinction because the illusion of a substantive difference is use to construct the notion of a separate "soul" that survives death. This misunderstanding is central to the support of "faith" in general.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I think that you have rediscovered Behaviorism in your post. We can observe people's or animal responses and some argued we should just stop there - that's objective. The mental/cognitive world is less observable and we shouldn't speculate.

But the whole field of Cognitive Psychology attempts to get at mental models and such that may be the determiners of behavior. It develops models to predict behavior and not just measure responses to questions that may be based on subjective judgments.

Unlike behaviorism, which focuses only on observable behaviors, cognitive psychology is concerned with internal mental states.

And unlike psychoanalysis, which relies HEAVILY on subjective perceptions, cognitive psychology uses scientific research methods to study mental processes. For example it studies that factors that create a subjective experience of memory. It can study false memories and memory inferences. So I would say that a subjective experience like preference for a particular work of art is a topic of objective research. There really are subjective states biases, but they can be understood and studied.

Don Wharton said...

Gary, actually those that call themselves behaviorists do not in all cases reject the modeling of internal (and usually not directly observable) mental states. We had a Ph.D. Behaviorist show up at an MDC meeting and clarified that point for me. My understanding from him is that modern behaviorism is similar to what you assert for Cognitive Psychology.

Psychoanalysis is so heavily linked historically to mythic bunk that I would prefer that it just disappear as a field.

The rapid advances in fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) is blowing away any prior illusion that subjective and objective are discrete classes of reality. Scientists can now scan someone's brain and verify if the person is recognizing a scene that they have experienced in the past or not. Thus police can ask if a burglary subject has seen the interior of a home that had been burgled. This would not be forcing a person to testify against himself since he is not forced to give any testimony. The status of such evidence would be similar to testing someone's hands for gunshot residue.