Some thoughts on Objectivity in Human Thinking


Rohit Dhankar

[I stumbled upon this today while looking for something else. This is part of an intense, often heated debate on deciding curriculum for MA Edu in 2013. Here I am sharing only a particular understanding of objectivity. It was a rejoinder to claim that there can not be any objective criteria for deciding which course should be included in Core Course. That decision will depend on the interest of individual faculty only. This note claims that it is possible to have objective criteria in all human endeavours.]

From a pragmatic point of view the notion of objectivity, perhaps, emerged out of the concern that different people ‘see’ a given situation differently; and these differences come in the way of dialogue, cooperation, and action. What makes us see a situation differently may be called our legitimate subjectivity, or idiosyncrasy and/or prejudice.Thus, one way of looking at objectivity could be to oppose it with subjectivity, idiosyncrasy and prejudice. But this already assumes that there is a ‘situation’ (reality, natural or social) which is common to two on lookers, there is something independent of the minds of the onlookers. It also assumes that this reality can be seen as it is, that is truthfully. Therefore, objectivity may assume the notions of reality and truth; and also, the possibility of attaining the truth about that given reality. Now these assumptions about the existence of reality independent of human minds and the knowability of that reality can be challenged. There may be good (objective? Or idiosyncratic?) grounds to challenge both the reality and its knowability.

The denial of the first—reality—is more difficult than the denial of the second—knowability. A complete denial of the any reality independent of our minds gets us into serious trouble. It leads directly to solipsism and involves denial of all other human beings except the subject, which is impossible to deny even if you hate Descartes. Let’s stay with this idea a little. Suppose that two of us—you and me—are standing in front of Parliament House in Delhi and looking at it. I say, “what an ugly building” and you say “not at all, it’s beautiful”. Our disagreement is about an attribute of the building and not about existence of the building. We both are accepting the existence of the building independent of our own minds; what we are disagreeing is about its aesthetic merit. We can generalise from here: we may not be able to agree on the beauty, shape, material it is made of, its size, even it being a building, and so on; but we do agree that ‘there is something out there, independent of both our minds’. We may not know what it is, what its true nature is; but cannot deny that there is something out there.

If you want to deny that there is something there, then you will have to say something like: “what building? I see nothing” in response to my first utterance. I might respond “ok, what an ugly object” and you might respond “what object? There is nothing there”. Then one of us is deluded. But even here there is a lot we both are admitting, and independent of our own minds to boot. We are admitting that we hear some sounds, that there is a common understanding of language—beauty, object, ugliness. If you want to insist that all this is entirely in your own mind, then you have to deny my existence. So, there is no dialogue; only soliloquy going on in your own head. End of the other, end of humanity, end of the work; I wish you happy living ever-after in your soliloquy, you have erased my existence!

So, for humans denial of the existence of independent reality is not possible. There is something outside our own minds. If we are debating curriculum in APU with our colleagues then there is something called curriculum, APU and our colleagues. And this existence is independent of our individual minds. This is objective. Objectivity here is not the same thing as reality or truth; this is an approach to truth; an approach which accepts existences of reality independent of our minds.

But what is the use of an objective acceptance of some independent reality if we can say nothing definite about it? It is useless for all our human purposes if its true nature is unknowable. It can in no way be used to decide our curricular issues or nay other issues in day-to-day living. But we have listened only to the first half of the story. We have been looking outside ourselves; ignoring our subjectivities. There might be something that provides a foot hold to objectivity right within out subjectivities. Let’s explore that next.

I notice that this discussion is becoming too long; so will directly jump to three fundamental characteristics that we all share and that can be used to construct markers of objectivity; if not the objectivity itself just yet.

One, we use language; and strangely understand each other; though not perfectly but enough to carry a conversation, express intentions, cooperate, quarrel, express love, express hate, help each other and to kill each other. We may deny that we perfectly understand each other through language but cannot say that we do not understand at all; if we do that, writing letters to faculty and debating curricular issues would be downright stupid; holding classes and creating the whole educational paraphernalia would be a first class folly; that is, in case the meaning of folly itself survives! Language includes not only commonly understood (imperfectly, I will not repeat it again and again) words, but also grammatical rules to use them in conjunction with each other to construct very complex meaning. And more, it includes criteria to judge whether a word is used appropriately or not; this is in addition to the grammatical rules. It contains the germ of notion of truth. This makes it possible for us to think and communicate that thought to others. Something even stranger: thoughts in all human languages seem to be translatable from one to another; again, not perfectly but good enough to communicate, cooperate, care, love, hate, fight and kill. So, there is something across the humanity that binds us together. Though it might be created by our own minds over the eons, it acts as independent of any particular human mind. It is common heritage of all humanity; and to use the hated word—it is universal in humanity. Too bad for nay sayers to anything universal, but cannot be helped. I understand that the language not only binds together, it also divides humanity. But please realise that it could not have been able to divide if it did not have power to bind together. This is a package deal; lets reap the benefits of it and try to mitigate as far as possible its evil effects.

The second, (I am not listing them in any order of priority), characteristic seems to be the availability of various forms of sensibility. We all have only five senses, normally speaking. And each sense gives us certain kinds of impressions of the common reality we live in. This gives substance to our concepts, our thoughts. And since the senses in their fundamental forms are universal across humanity, they provide a basis (only basis) for inter-subjective comparability and agreement across humanity. We just bumped another another hated universality!

The third characteristic is the capabilities of our minds to organise the sense impressions we receive from our senses and create meaning (with the help of language of course). We do seem to accept some common ways of thinking; our minds, at the most fundamental level, seem to work on similar lines. For example, it is not possible for human mind to accept both p and not-p simultaneously. (Example: p = “the earth exists” not-p = “the earth does not exist”.) Human mind is incapable of annihilating space, human mind if incapable of unthinking the self (unthinking is not the same thinking as ‘not thinking about’). Under the force of several such things human mind recognises undeniable conceptual connections. The third hated universality we are incapable of getting rid of. Let’s call this one logic, in a rough sense, a better word would be reason, if acceptable to those who deride reason day-in and day-out.

So, we have four (at the least) niches in human nature[1] itself which could be used to construct markers of objectivity and then finally construct a workable notion of objectivity. A first and rough formulation of these markers could be as follows:

  1. Universal capability of humans to have a Language. “L” is capital here to indicate it is not a particular language like Hindi, English, Kannada or Chinese. But a natural Human Language.
  2. The greater the inter-subjective agreement (expressed largely through language) greater the objectivity.
  3. The greater the intra-subjective and inter-subjective logical consistency the greater the objectivity.
  4. The greater the intra-subjective and inter-subjective agreement in sense perceptions the greater the objectivity.

In using these criteria we have to remember that number 2 without support form numbers 3 and 4 does not constitute objectivity at all. In a given community—which can be very large—lots of people may agree that the earth is cuboid, or that Krishna projected his virat-swaroop in Kaurava’s Raj Sabha, or that Muhammad met archangel Gabriel in the cave. Without appropriate support from criteria 3 and 4 mare agreement will not constitute objectivity of these claims. Yes, it will give strength to belief of the members of that believing community. But humans are perfectly capable of holding wrong beliefs very strongly or even fanatically. Thus, it seems these criteria act in conjunction with each other; and I think that the criteria 3 and 4 are more important.

This rough (to be improved upon someday) formulation forces us to forgo our hankering for absolute objectivity, but gives us something good enough to work with. We will also notice, if pursue the issue further, that limits of achievable objectivity in different human affairs might differ. In mathematics and science these limits may be very high; in social sciences we may have to live with relatively weaker objectivity; and in ethics and aesthetics the matters might be even more complicated. But in each area of human understanding we seem to be able to create workable notions of objectivity.

The fundamental basis of this kind of construction of objectivity is common reality we live in, high degree of similarity in our sense perceptions and high degree of similarity in our rational faculty.

********

Slightly edited on 29th April 2021


[1] I know some will jump and accuse me of assuming universal human nature, and say that it is impossibility. I believe I have partially answered the possible challenge and rest could be dealt with when it comes. But yes, I do believe that there is such a thing as universal human nature.

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