A Critique of Subjectivism
by Benjamin Studebaker
Today I wish to take on subjectivism, the belief that truth is necessarily agent-relative or determined by one’s perspective or point of view, or that it is socially constructed and does not refer to any metaphysical external reality. In short, I will defend metaphysical (i.e. not Randian) objectivism, the belief that truth exists independently of one’s interpretation, perspective, society, et al, and that this truth can be discovered through science and logic.
The key to this argument is Occam’s Razor, the belief that the simplest explanation requiring the fewest intuitive jumps or assumptions is to be presumed the correct one.
All human beings are composed of cells. All cells are composed of molecules, all molecules of atoms, all atoms of protons, neutrons, electronics, Higgs Bosons, or what have you. Now what we have observed in the natural sciences is that there are consistent relationships among effects and causes that can be explained through laws of nature. If this were not so, science would not have predictive power. We could not use a formula to predict the behaviour of phenomena in the world if phenomena in the world did not consistently behave in accordance with said formula.
Now, if the behaviour of atoms can be explained via natural laws, and it stands to reason that it can, based on previous success of said laws in predicting the behaviour of atoms, it stands to reason that in the future, it will be possible to explain the behaviour of all things composed of atoms. Molecules are composed of atoms, cells are composed of molecules, and people are composed of cells. Therefore, it must be the case that people can be explained through the natural laws that govern their component parts. To theorise otherwise is to violate Occam’s Razor by asserting the existence of an unnecessary additional force or entity that cannot be found in the external world in matter. In other words, unless there is some kind of immaterial soul or will that all of the human instruments of observation are powerless to detect either by positively identifying its presence or seeing its necessity, it is necessarily the case that all human behaviour is reducible to the interactions of atoms and is consequently predictable–it is determined.
When something happens to you, something happens to the atoms that comprise you, and those atoms act in ways that, in sum, add up to your behaviour. The only influences are the nature of the atoms themselves and the various things that might happen to you in your environment–nature and nurture.
Subjectivists are right to point out that this nurture, this series of environmental influences and happenings, it has great influence over our behaviour and thoughts. Social constructions can and do influence us, and it is important to identify these constructions, to de-construct them, and so on. However, subjectivists then make a leap of unearned scepticism by arguing that this social influence makes objective knowledge impossible. This is a mistake.
Lack of certainty about a proposition does not imply the truth of its inverse. While we do not know for sure that a full understanding of the workings of atoms will give us a full understanding of the workings of human beings insofar as we do not as of yet have a full understanding of the workings of atoms, there is substantial evidence that the behaviour of atoms is predictable. In contrast, a subjective world view would necessitate that our behaviour is neither determined nor predictable, which requires the presence of a will or life force that is not governed by the laws of physics, an unnecessary additional assumption. There is absolutely no evidence that a non-materialist world view is true, and since it is not necessary that there be magical unknown spirits or forces to explain the phenomena we see, Occam’s Razor rules this out until such evidence presents itself.
Now, how do I know that my reasoning concerning atoms provides real evidence upon which I can rely to some degree in the first place? How do I know that predictive power is sufficient grounds for an evidence claim? Why, because if predictive power is not evidence, then there is no such thing as evidence. How would one prove the proposition “matter is governed by natural law in way X under Y conditions” true if one could not create Y conditions, predict X behaviours, and, upon seeing said predictions come to fruition, call that evidence? Once the subjectivist becomes sceptical of the tools of reason themselves, the subjective position becomes unfalsifiable and consequently undebateable. It also becomes deeply nihilist, because it makes all human effort to understand anything a waste. If our reasoning is broken, then we are fundamentally broken in such a way that our lives can serve no meaningful purpose, because all purposes are equally invalid because they are the product of our broken thinking.
The subjectivist is also dismissing the benefits we receive from the pursuit of objective knowledge. What we call our knowledge has enabled us to create devices that operate in the ways we have predicted such that we can act upon the world with increased efficacy. This computer works, the internet works. If all of our knowledge is useless, then either the internet shouldn’t work or the fact that it does is somehow not relevant. How can it not be relevant? Here’s the chain of events:
- Human beings investigate effects and causes.
- Using consistent relationships between effects and causes, humans predict that if matter is arranged in a given way, a computer will function in a given way.
- The computer functions as predicted.
- Large numbers of people get computers and gain benefit from them. They predictably function as intended in large numbers.
- Somehow this is not knowledge because we could all just be perceiving wrongly, or the benefit is constructed, or the reasoning itself is constructed, or what have you.
I argue that we have more evidence for the objective view than the subjective, but the subjectivist will simply dispute the evidence for the objective view and claim that evidence itself to be subjective. The subjectivist thinks I’m being circular, in so far as I’m using evidence that can only be called evidence if one agrees with an objective view to support an objective view, but is not the subjectivist guilty of something far worse, of being completely arbitrary and of reasoning in reference to nothing? The subjective reasoning here is abstract to the point of uselessness. It could be true, but the only reason to believe it true is if you presuppose it to be true such that you don’t consider evidence important or useful when deciding what to believe, at which point all of your beliefs are arbitrary. There is no reason to be a subjectivist, it’s simply a first principle asserted by reductio ad infinitum, and the only content of this first principle is that all other principles are wrong because this principle says so, and it’s true because it is and they’re wrong because they are.
This is not reasoning and this is not philosophy. As Hume puts it:
If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.
But while I’m here, it’s worth stating that most of the logic behind this post has been rendered obsolete by quantum mechanics. Laplace’s demon no longer has any teeth. Still an interesting post though!
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle details limits on our capacity to measure, it does not mean that we have free will. As I said in the post, difficulty in knowing does not imply that there is no objective truth. The particles have a given momentum and a given position that objectively exist in the world, we just don’t know what both are at once. There is a difference between a truth existing and a knowable truth existing–as long as there is a truth that exists independently from the mind, the subjective position is wrong.
No no no. The uncertainty principle arises because of quantum indeterminacy; it is not quantum indeterminacy itself. An electron’s position and velocity cannot be known *because* electrons do not have a deterministic truth (a simultaneously determined position and velocity). That’s why they are waves as well as particles. So quantum mechanics has much more radical implications than just measurement problems! Hence the implications for a deterministic interpretation of an (objective) universe.
That doesn’t imply that the particles have some choice in the matter. The natural laws state that electrons are simultaneously particles and waves and that therefore their behaviour is a given (albeit simultaneously indeterminate) way, but that does not mean that there are no natural laws, or that electrons have minds of their own. I’m not upholding Laplace’s Demon, I’m merely arguing that what is is matter in motion and that there is no independent will.
Natural laws don’t make sense to me. What do we mean after all? Newton’s ‘laws’ have been proven to be incorrect (or incomplete to put it more nicely) but they still work well in modern engineering (and to anything at a macroscopic level.
Who is to say that the laws of quantum mechanics will not also be proven incorrect one day? More importantly should why it matter if they are ‘right’ or not if they WORK as a tool to explain certain phenomena.
Science is just a glorified measuring stick. ‘Truth’ has no value. What matters is whether something works or not. Newton’s laws work in certain circumstances even If they are not ‘true’ in the sense of being all-encompassing.
This is what I hate in philosophy most of all: this beguiling Platonic idea that we should look for the truth beneath things – the all embracing form of things. In practice meaning comes through application not abstraction. Truth is on the surface.
Also – don’t mean to keep beating the quantum mechanics drum – but the act of observing does have effects on things – see entanglement again.
But the larger point is that there isn’t much use for concepts like ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ if they don’t add anything to the real-world application of scientific tools. The fly gets trapped in the bottle.
The fact that they “work” as you say is evidence that, in whole or in part, they are correct. In any case, it is not possible for them to work by sheer luck–there must be underlying reasons for why phenomena tend to be predictable or explicable using reason, and these reasons, both known and unknown, I term the “natural laws”.
It’s important that we call this evidence of usefulness “truth” because if we do not do so, subjectivists and nihilists will demean the value not merely of our truth, but of the usefulness of our endeavours.
Suppose that you had never added numbers greater than 100 before and are asked to give the answer to 117 + 123. You might add as you normally would and come to the answer 140, which is consistent with your previous use of the + sign.
Suppose then someone comes along and says that there is nothing about your past usage of + that determines 140 as the right answer. Moreover, nothing justifies you giving that answer as opposed to another answer. It is consistent with your previous use of ‘plus’ that you actually meant to use the function ‘flus’ such that:
a flus b = a + b IF (a,b = 100)
That is to say: it is not implied that we are ‘correct’ merely by the thus-far successful application of a rule.
That is an amusing typo given the context (!).
a flus b = a + b IF (a,b = 100) OR 42 IF (a,b >= 100)
*Ugh, blast. Delete previous couple of posts in favour of this one. Too many typos and should have checked it over.*
Suppose that you had never added numbers greater than 100 before and are asked to give the answer to 117 + 123. You might add as you normally would and come to the answer 240, which is consistent with your previous use of the + sign.
Suppose then someone comes along and says that there is nothing about your past usage of + that determines 240 as the right answer. Moreover, nothing justifies you giving that answer as opposed to another answer. It is consistent with your previous use of ‘plus’ that you actually meant to use the function ‘flus’ such that:
a flus b = a + b IF (a,b = 100)
That is to say: it is not implied that we are ‘correct’ merely by the thus-far successful application of a rule
For some reason WordPress doesn’t like logical commands:
a flus b (is equal to) a + b if (a,b = 100)
Still not working! But I managed to get the logical argument printed in one of the replies above.
That’s semantics. If it works, it is correct, regardless of what verbal standard it conforms or does not conform to.
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In particular, “the belief that truth is necessarily agent-relative or determined by one’s perspective or point of view”.
Again, you’re pointing out limits on our ability to take the data. That does not imply that there is no objective truth, only that it is concealed from us.
What may be the most grievous sin of Subjectivism is its uselessness. From it we can gain zero value and thus, its truth value is meaningless anyhow. At least with an objective universe we can use cause and effect; until it ceases function, there is no reason to abandon it.
Indeed, when it comes to usefulness, the objectivity assumption completely outclasses the subjective, though I think it is useful to show that it is true as well.
No no no. The uncertainty prpicinle arises because of quantum indeterminacy; it is not quantum indeterminacy itself. An electron’s position and velocity cannot be known *because* electrons do not have a deterministic truth (a simultaneously determined position and velocity). That’s why they are waves as well as particles. So quantum mechanics has much more radical implications than just measurement problems! Hence the implications for a deterministic interpretation of an (objective) universe.
None of this implies the existence of an independent will that is immaterial that influences position or velocity. We cannot know both at once, but we can know either one, and in neither case does this knowledge depend on an immaterial free will, but on existent laws.