Considering Objectivity

The belief in objective reality is one of the fundamental assumptions of the scientific method. Like basic assumptions in any belief structure, it is never examined. Objective reality is "out there", impersonal, repeatable and verifiable, quantifiable. It is usually contrasted with subjective reality, which is internal, personal, not verifiable or quantifiable. Subjective reality is anathema to science and any taint of subjectivity is grounds for dismissal of all conclusions as unreliable or irrelevant.

This division began as a necessary response to the intellectual stranglehold that the church had on intellectual investigation of reality. For centuries, description of physical forms reflected the revealed spiritual truth of the church, which was fixed in dogma. Yet inquiring minds could not be limited forever, and three centuries ago, the impact of technical developments allowed for an unprecedented investigation of the physical world. Observations made with these new instruments showed a world at odds with the teaching of the church. Measurements in the physical world were less subject to dispute than spiritual issues, and it was here the natural philosophers made their bid for independence. Galileo stated that the only reality was quantity of weight and measure, all else were figments of subjective experience. The quantification of the world was a powerful tool against religious dogma, for people could agree on the count without the divine interpretation of a priest.

Newton's three laws of motion seemed to completely describe the universe, from the smallest grain of sand to the heavenly bodies. The world was a machine, measurable and predictable, having a truth independent of any particular observer. And this viewpoint seemed to work. Machines were built that changed the entire course of humanity. The objective, mechanistic world view expanded human knowledge as never before. The intellectual stagnation fostered by the church, was swept away as western science pushed back the frontiers of understanding the nature of physical reality.

As the power of such a belief system spread, consideration of the nature of consciousness and the observer, declined. All investigation was cast in a mechanistic world view. Any experience which didn't fit, was discounted and discarded. Spiritual considerations were left to the declining power of the churches and philosophers. The mainstream power structure operated from the belief that even man was a machine, albeit a complex one.

Any experience or evidence which didn't fit into this intellectual framework was discredited and discarded. Machines work, and the world was being changed. What more proof was necessary?

In the early 1900's, a revolution started in the heart of western science, within physics itself. As Newton's formulation laid the foundation for the ascendence of the mechanistic world view, the founders of quantum mechanics were laying the foundation for the emergence of the next world view. As they pierced deeper into the heart of the nature of matter, it emerged that the observer was a critical element in the formulation of reality. To observe was to affect reality.

Decades later, we are still experiencing the expanding shock wave which resulted from this awareness. It has been overwhelmingly shown that the quantum mechanical formulation is more inclusive that the mechanistic one. The tremendous increase in power at our disposal, the development of advanced communications, all these are byproducts of the changed understanding within the core of scientific formalism. It works, the ultimate bottom line. But we are using these new technologies within social forms which are still rooted in the old world view, where the observer doesn't count. Where man and physical reality are just complex machines. We still hold to the myth of objective reality.

No one can say anything, directly, about the objective world "out there". Any knowing has three elements, the object, the experiencer, and the experience. One way to understand the differentiation between the last two is as follows. Imagine a man who has lost the upper range of his hearing. He is the experiencer, but when he hears a particular piece of music, the experience, it is filtered to the extent that the range of the notes lies outside his hearing. The experience is unique to the situation, while his hearing impairment is always the same.

In the same way, we all carry a set of filters through which we process the input from the world, so that we "know" only a partial picture. If we experience an event which lies outside our filters, we have no knowledge of it. It's as if it never happened. Therefore all knowledge is subjective.

So a fundamental error is made in believing that the experiencer and the experience have no bearing on knowledge of the outer world. What we call objectivity is actually the summation of a set of subjective awarenesses. When enough people seem to agree on the description of an experience, then it is assumed that the qualities of the experience are actually the qualities of the object, independent of the observer. This is a dangerous and erroneous conclusion, for it ignores all the assumptions and approximations inherent in any experience.

Even the process by which two people communicate their experience, which is essential to the concept of repeatability, involves the intensely subjective process of language. Words have no intrinsic meaning, their entire validity comes from human convention. But each person carries their own definition of each word. The meaning can only be transmitted by using other words, which also have subjective meaning. Even those nouns which can be described by direct pointing at an object have subjective aspects.

If someone points to a cat, and says "cat", is the word applying to the entire animal? Does is matter what color the cat is? Does "cat" refer only to this specific animal? Does size matter? Does location or orientation matter? None of these questions can be answered within the word "cat", but require extensive conversation to clarify, using many other words. Even then, only those ambiguities that can be identified can be clarified. Assumptions that are taken for granted, and not discussed, will be possible points of confusion.

Even the process of quantifying the world contains subjectivity. The world is a continuous whole, all numbering systems are artifacts created by humans. The process of counting involve definition of the units to be counted, an approximation with subjective elements. Counting itself is a digital process, with discrete and regular intervals, yet it is often applied to analog processes which are continuous, with no intervals. The process of quantifying such systems involves approximations and rounding off, both with subjective elements. So the assumption that quantified results are somehow devoid of subjectivity is erroneous.

This is not to say that there is no outer reality, that all life is an illusion projected on the inside of the mind. Rather, it is to say that all experience is relative, that there is always a subjective element. There can be no knowledge without a knower.

As the mechanistic world view becomes more obviously inadequate, it will lead to more serious investigation of the nature of consciousness, in particular the relationship between consciousness and matter. Consciousness itself is the most powerful investigative tool for consciousness, but it's intensely subjective nature has precluded serious consideration of the results. This must change if we are to proceed.

The tension between a powerful technology based in quantum mechanics, which acknowledges the validity of the observer, and our social order based in a mechanistic view, which denies the validity of the observer, has created numerous global dysfunctions, any one of which could destroy civilization as we know it. The only adequate solution is a change in the social systems, which requires a change in consciousness. It is for this reason that the investigation of the nature of conscious reality is so important. It represents the next frontier. The myth of objective reality hinders our progress in this crucial investigation.