Posted by: Millard J. Melnyk | April 10, 2017

Objectivity Is a Myth

Objectivity is a myth because it rests on profoundly fallacious beliefs at multiple levels.

First, the belief that human beings can attain objectivity is a myth. No one has demonstrated that objectivity is more than marginally attainable, so its attainability is mostly a matter of faith. We have shown that we can use rather laborious methods to mitigate the effects of the enemies of objectivity: preferences and passions and preconceptions and drives and predilections and biases and obsessions and the like. Science is one of those methods. But the belief that these methods can achieve objectivity rests on a fallacy that confuses mitigating effects with changing the causes of those effects. None of our methods even attempts to change the causes of the foibles that objectivity aims to neutralize. Reducing effects of subjective tendencies is not the same as becoming objective, but a far cry short of it. And in the case of human beings, the very tendencies that objectivity aims to neutralize are integral to what it means to be human. We distinguish humans from other animals in large part precisely because of our capacity for the very things that objectivity mitigates. What do beings without preferences and passions and preconceptions and drives and predilections and biases and obsessions look like? Zombies or robots. Neutralizing human subjectivity would be to neutralize human nature.

Second, the belief that objectivity is desirable is a myth. Especially in light of the coldly logical modes of being that would be left to us as purely objective creatures, who would want to live like that? Well, there’s an answer to that question: Those who want control. Objectivity would afford maximal capacity for control with minimal vulnerability to being manipulated, for whatever that’s worth. To some, quite obviously, it’s worth a great deal. To others who are not fixated on control, but instead prize the very things that control aims to obviate — like love, freedom, inspiration, creativity, and surprise — objectivity is a failure or even a refusal to engage and enjoy the world with our whole being instead of just part of it. And when it becomes a demand, a mandatory obligation, objectivity becomes something pathological, antithetical to every characteristic we idealize as humanity at its best, not just those that typify it at its worst. The desirability of objectivity involves a fallacy that confuses avoidance of vice as tantamount to virtue. Wouldn’t leveraging preferences, passions, preconceptions, drives, predilections, biases, obsessions and the like be more desirable and in fact more effective than trying to neutralize them? Masters at controlling others know well that leveraging them is far more powerful than neutralizing them. There is no reason to think we couldn’t leverage them to benefit instead of detriment — belief to the contrary being yet another unexamined bias involved in the desirability of objectivity.

Desire for control brings us to the third level of the mythological nature of objectivity. How is desire for control “objective” in any genuine sense? How is it not itself a preference, a passion, a drive, a preconception a predilection, a bias or an obsession? If the basic motivation to attain objectivity is as far from being objective as could be, then objectivity itself would not only happen to be a hypocritical ruse but would be so by nature, by design, and could not be otherwise.

Finally, the belief that objectivity is our only hope to escape the supposed perils of subjective preferences, passions, preconceptions, drives, predilections, biases, obsessions and the like is simply not true. Another option is so obvious that, if you still don’t see it, once the penny drops you’ll smack your palm on your forehead. But worse than that, proponents of objectivity not only fail to recognize this option, they adamantly refuse to allow its possibility or validity. Refusing to allow something is not the same as sincerely considering and coming to an informed conclusion about it. In fact, refusal precludes consideration. People refuse an idea without considering it because they want to avoid considering it. People avoid considering an idea because they have already made up their minds against it without the benefit of the information which honest consideration would provide them. So, they argue from a committed position of ignorance. You can’t argue as if you’re informed about something you refused to consider, and you can’t claim to be objective when your prejudicial refusal to consider an alternative to objectivity contradicts the very heart of your own myth. But why refuse? Simple: The alternative does not afford control. This is another colossal bias at the motivational crux of promoting the purportedly bias-free.

These fallacious, faith-based beliefs don’t just make for bias that rivals any other form of bigotry — they constitute a blindness. And it’s not even a legitimate blindness, but a denial — the blindness of those who refuse to look because they’re afraid they’ll see what they can’t accept. Simply seeing the alternative to objectivity is enough to undo the myth of objectivity. And so, objectivity acolytes refuse to look.

From top to bottom the myth of objectivity is not just rife with self-contradiction, its very foundation is the epitome of anti-objectivity.

So, objectivity is not only a myth, it’s a dishonest one.

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Responses

  1. Is it a myth?
    It all depends on what you understand as Objectivity (so maybe I did not understand you). First, Objectivity can’t be a myth as it is rather a process and not an ideological unmovable group of truths; it is only a method and even such method can enter into questioning. So the word myth is not very precise.
    I agree with you in that it is only marginably attainable. Objectivity is an endevour that we have come to use in order to avoid error, pain and waste. It is only applied to marginal situations. It need not to be attacked really as it is too recent and its value only seen in reduced contexts such as brain surgery, architecture, engineering and applied chemistry. For the rest of human endevours such as politics, love, education, marriage, friendship, and so on nobody has ever made use of it.
    You so well stated that this subjectivity is “integral to what it means to be human” and looking from where we have come from (or rather where we still are) I couldn’t agree more. I do not think as you do, that animals are very different from us in that respect as many of them can show the same repertoir of emotions, and biases when observed. The only thing that they might not exhbit is a love for truth and the quest for knowledge.
    I do not believe objectivity is a permanent state and it rather involves laborious work while subjectivity is a bird that sings or a monkey that eats: effortless, it comes naturally. And it has been with us in every instance since.
    The search for objectvity is an important one and mitigating biases, tendencies and common sense are very important things in many respects from building a bridge or creating medicines that work and do not kill us to deciding who should be in charge or to overcome a hard divorce or separation and using one’s mind to avoid declaring that all women are wicked and you should avoid them effectively rendering yourself a solitary man: I just remember that people used to sacrifice animals and other human beings as they used to confuse the causes of phenomena with agents that had nothing to do with the issue. Say that somebody in the tribe forgot to kneel at sunrise and a volcanic eruption ensued , this would have given a basis to iniciate a ritual to appease the volcano; every year somebody would be given to the volcano. I am sure you can think of many more examples where the confusion of causes and possible consequences have given rise to irrational and cruel habits, laws and acts and societies.
    The article is a defence of preferences, passions and biases that (in my opinion) needed no defense until very recently in our history; why to defend them now when they are very much at work in all levels as they have always been from the cave to the election of Donald Trump and other characters who appeal to biases, penchants, preconceptions and passions to be elected? (From Rafael Correa in Ecuador to Alvaro Uribe Velez in Colombia this to include the so-called Left and the so-called Right around my context) Until very recently POWER and social consensus (ideological) was effectively enough, and the only requirement in order to interpret and declare something true and necessary.

    Depends on objectivity according to what line of thought. This objectivity you are questioning is one in a pool of options of definitions and enactments. Objectivity is only cold in the works of fiction such as novels, comic books, movies and phylosophy where people define objectivity; when in use it is so by the work of humans who have emotions, preferences and biases.
    Objectivity is not so solid as to be attacked as you do: irrationality is.
    We do not have objective zombies and objective computers that can do that yet so you are projecting an image of what YOU think objectivity is my friend.

    These ideas you project here make me feel unease as they seem to surge from a fear. Fear from thinking “in the hands of whom will rest the definition of “Objectivity”? If objectivity serves the inclinations, passions and biases of groups then it effectively becomes the very self thing you are trying to defend (and that is objectivity only in name). Objectivity should serve nor the weak, nor the strong but rather truth and instrumental reason, and the creation of values and ethical practices. There is much to accommodate there now as there are new facts.

    • Thanks for all that, it was interesting.

      Yes, it’s a myth. Think about this…

      //The world is given to me only once, not one existing and one perceived. Subject and object are only one. The barrier between them cannot be said to have broken down as a result of recent experience in the physical sciences, for this barrier does not exist.//

      — Erwin Schrödinger

      “Objective” and “subjective” are perspectives. They are points of departure for processes, not entities or states. Big difference.


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