Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | October 7, 2014

Objective Knowledge Is a Myth

Objective knowledge as we popularly conceive it is a myth. (“Objective truth” even more so.) Not only is there no such thing, the notion distorts the ultimately subjective nature of all knowledge. Those who believe in “objective knowledge” fail to:

  1. Clearly define “objective.”

    The more realistically “objective” is defined, the closer it turns out to a managed or mitigated form of collective subjective knowledge. The further from subjective the definition is, the more it resembles a presupposed belief in an absolute, universal abstraction no less tenuous than God and with no more evidence that there is any such thing. In fact, to listen to people talk about objective knowledge, substituting “God” for “knowledge” would make little logical or substantive difference to their intent or their point.

  2. Recognize that even if truly objective knowledge exists, it remains meaningless and ineffective until subjectively apprehended.

    (“Subjective” meaning “as it seems to me alone.”) It might be true that there is a cure for cancer that we haven’t discovered yet. Math might be coded into the very fabric of reality. But until we discover them (a subjective event) it’s just as if they don’t exist at all — unless we benefit from accidentally stumbling upon them, aka discovering them. It might be true that my dream partner exists but, until I encounter her either directly or indirectly, I have no way of knowing that she exists or knowing anything about her. Until we discover it, we have no way of knowing that anything resembling objective knowledge is “there”. In other words, until we discover it, we could claim without evidence that it must exist — just like believers claim without evidence that God must exist — but this is faith, not knowledge. So, objective knowledge is moot apart from subjective knowledge and depends on it. The reverse is not true. Subjective knowledge is the discovery itself, and so is not similarly dependent on objective knowledge. (I’d be happy to demonstrate this elsewhere.)

  3. Recognize that the real (rather than imagined) phenomenon that “objective knowledge” refers to in fact is knowledge endorsed by consensus.

    Consider that producing consensus is precisely how our most objective knowledge development process, science, works by design. There is no objectively measured, universally recognized standard that determines the tipping point at which scientific theory becomes “accepted science.” The very expression implies the vagaries of consensus, and the designation happens like most cultural designations do: by weight of agreement sustained over time. In other words, after dissent diminishes enough for long enough, we assume that something is “true” by default, since “everyone” accepts it and “no one” mounts significant challenge. And, as soon as a credible challenge is mounted, either by a new theory or on the basis of new data, yesterday’s accepted science becomes today’s scientific controversy or even tomorrow’s discarded theory.

    Science adds some rigor, but it does not remove fallibility or eliminate inaccuracy, which is why scientists don’t speak of “scientific fact” or “scientific proof” but rather probabilities (when they have the means to quantify it) and likelihoods (when reliable quantification isn’t possible). Scientific conclusions are only as good as their basis in data (the proliferation of which now outstrips by orders of magnitude our ability to analyze the exploding data sets — and that’s just the data we’ve collected so far, not to mention all the data we haven’t yet collected) and the quality and thoroughness of our experimentation, which is still quite crude by anyone’s standards. And that’s only if the whole process hasn’t been shanghaied or skewed by selective funding thanks to political or commercial interest groups, as happens far more often than we are aware or want to admit.

  4. Admit that the consensus constituting “objective knowledge” is nothing more than an agreement between multiple subjects.

    In other words, “objective knowledge” is no more than an agreed approximation of a collection of instances of subjective knowledge. There is no such thing as data that was obtained independently of a subjective (i.e., “as it appears to me alone”), fallible detector, whether an non-human instrument or a human sensory system. “Objective knowledge” is actually collectively approximated subjective knowledge, and its value depends on the extent of the collection and the quality of the approximation, the two major tasks of science besides creative theorizing.

  5. Recognize that abstractions like “knowledge” occur only as instances of absolutely subjective, mental belief processes in individual brains (as far as there is evidence, anyway). Unsupported, unevidenced (aka blind) belief in the externalized, independent reification we call “knowledge” is convenient and useful, but this doesn’t make it any more objectively real than reifications like “company” or “religion” or “movement”, which are all mental constructs that we pretend are real and associate with real-world objects, (e.g., brands, buildings, equipment, people, etc.,) inducing us to think and behave as if they existed independently, thus creating the illusion that they do.

When these failures are addressed, “objective” knowledge largely loses its objectivity, becomes a clearly consensual affair, and its distinction from “subjective” knowledge blurs, exposing that much of its presumed superiority is a ruse. Two heads are better than one, and all heads might be better than two, but they never amount to a detached, disinterested, universally “objective” perspective, which is something that only a God could be capable of. This makes belief in “objective knowledge” by people who insist that nothing immaterial exists something of a quandary, and their ignorance or denial of the quandary something of a dissimulation.

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