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What is Objectivity?

The December 5, 2011, issue of Scientific American ran an article titled "New Theory Explains How Objective Reality Emerges from the Strange Underlying Quantum World". In it the author describes how the classical world arises from the quantum world, how he and his research colleagues at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore conducted experiments to measure the fabric of reality by applying quantum correlations and found that "Whatever quantumness is present can never be strong enough to contradict local realism [objective, mind-independent reality in the macroscopic world]. It is, after all, reassuring to know that the moon is there when you don’t look at it." [Berkeley notwithstanding] 



Physics is not philosophy, to be sure; although physics offers philosophers a window into the mysteries of the universe. But how are we to interpret the empirical data of science? How do we know what we know? Indeed, what is knowledge? And can we know anything at all about the real world in which we live? These are the central questions of epistemology. 



Is there an objective reality behind what we see and experience? Was Einstein right when he wrote in a letter to Langevin on December 16, 1924, that Louie de Broglie had "lifted a corner of the great veil" in his PhD thesis on the discovery of matter waves? Or when he said during an intellectually riveting discussion he had with the Indian philosopher Rabindranath Tagore in July 1930, in his home on the outskirts of Berlin: "I cannot prove scientifically that Truth must be conceived as a Truth that is valid independent of humanity; but I believe it firmly. I believe, for instance, that the Pythagorean theorem in geometry states something that is approximately true, independent of the existence of man"? 



Is there such a thing as "objective truth", i.e. the belief that truth is objective, independent of us, of our beliefs, and of the operations of our minds? The notion that regardless of what we believe, some things will always be true and others will always be false? If not, then Nietzsche must have been right when he said there are no facts, only interpretations. 



But if there is, can the human mind ever grasp it? Or is there an impenetrable Kantian barrier between what reason can comprehend in the phenomenal world of appearances and the world in itself, the world of objective reality not immediately accessible to our senses? 



In practical terms, is there an objective reality behind our interpretations of experience? Do we experience the objective world in which we live? When we claim to be "objective", what exactly do we mean? 



In short, what is objectivity? 

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  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    Let's play with this a bit (theories & "hidden" secrets" of nature), shall we?

    At least from the time of Abelard of Bath in his 12th Century treatise on "Natural Questions" where the principle of nature as a closed system was first laid down, it has been argued that the task of natural philosophy (science) is to explain the phenomena of nature in terms of their natural causes. By the time we come to Francis Bacon in the 17th Century, the "secrets of nature" have become the object of the new science.

    As stated by William Eamon in his book, "Science and the Secrets of Nature", "In spite of its skepticism, the experimental philosophy could establish 'matters of fact'. The new philosophers did not consider such experimental 'matters of fact' as ends in themselves, but, provided the proper method were followed, as the traces of nature that would lead to hidden causes".

    I have no issue acknowledging the true object of theories as postulates of these "hidden causes" or "secrets of nature".

    April 16, 2014

    • Robert

      2nd that emotion. Would be good to get Nagel in there at some point. Maybe separate linked topic or maybe together... I tried hosting a meetup around his latest book in MTL over a year ago. Well attended, but few actually read it... not easy reading.

      April 19, 2014

    • James H.

      Have read Nagel's latest and very much intrigued by his ideas, but did find the book a bit if a slog and repetitive.

      April 19, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    One of my old students is heading the Quantum Computing Institute at the University of Calgary. There are some fundamental issues with Quantum Computing such as believing in action at a distance , etc. which is at variance with all that we know. But It is the lure of faster and faster computing that is feeding the frenzy. Even if ( ??) one can harness photons to carry the signal they DO not travel at infinite speed!!! I am an old bandicoot who does not believe in ANYTHING!!! I am not always politically correct either. I have seen grand predictions fall by the way side. e.g. although we know all the Physics for Fusion Reactors, Some one - in fact a famous old country man of mine - predicted that Fusion power would be a reality by 1980 in Geneva at the Atoms for Peace Conference. He is dead now but I am still alive and know that Fusion power is still a long way off.
    We do not know yet how to cure Plasma Instabilities !!
    We knew less about that then.

    April 17, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Theories are meant to explore the hidden causes or the secrets of Nature. They are a means to the End.

    April 17, 2014

  • Robert

    Just happened to read this article today & noticed it's relevance to last night's fun (part 2 of discussion?). http://www.npr.org/blogs/13.7/2014/04/09/300521382/the-truth-its-out-there-in-the-fog ... Interesting bits are about halfway thru, concerning how theories only survive testing (sometimes), but are never really confirmed. (Popper). But I wanted to add something to it. Another less noticed aspect of science, and science culture, is that testing and investigation only occurs in connection with those theories which happen to be active at the moment, or have 'buzz'. Unpopular ones are not examined closely. (i.e. Sheldrake, as came up in the after-meetup discussion.) This is also an element of objectivity: considering what is not popular. Great meeting, thanks to all.

    April 15, 2014

    • Erik

      yes, raw data, methodology used, etc. are all available, at least in real science, in the corporate world, yes, stuff gets hidden... but well, we already know the corporate world is far from being objective ...

      April 16, 2014

    • Erik

      and of course in Harper Canada, There to they are forced to keep stuff hidden..

      April 16, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    I did not discern any consensus emerging Monday night, but there were aspects of the theme that were unexplored or thoroughly debated and discussed. I sensed that not every one was looking at it as clearly as one might have expected. Such is Life.

    April 16, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    The purpose of theories is to understand, comprehend what one sees or observes but does not fully grasp it and its significance or value. They are based on ( mathematical) models which afford predictions which may be tested by experiment or further observation to see if the theory explains ALL that is seen or observed. Theories are supposed to unravel what is seen or observed and place into a clear unambiguous frame ALL that is seen and not yet seen.

    April 16, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Good discussion despite some strange observations. Very well moderated. Interesting but not a very easy topic!

    April 15, 2014

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    Congratulations to David and the other organizers on a very successful, provocative and informative inaugural session.

    April 15, 2014

  • Lorraine

    Excellent discussion of a weighty and pressing subject. Thanks to David and Robaire for their thoughtful and well-coordinated contributions to the discussion. We can no doubt look forward to soon accessing the Ideas...

    April 15, 2014

  • Erik

    Stimulating discussion, well moderated

    April 15, 2014

  • Jen

    So would Popper...and maybe even Kant.

    April 15, 2014

  • Kim K.

    Wonderful inaugural discussion...Plato would be proud!

    April 14, 2014

  • James H.

    Really wonderful session.

    April 14, 2014

  • David B.

    Very good start to the new group. Thanks for the informed and thoughtful contributions.

    April 14, 2014

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    I am using the term "laws of nature" to describe the principles that govern the natural phenomena of the world. The term is used differently depending on the context in which it is used: http://www.iep.utm.edu/lawofnat/

    April 11, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Confusion should lead to clarification and on to illumination!

    April 11, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    I have just answered the question in my reply to Lorraine. They are the embodied thought after they were DERIVED and established through years of observation, experiment and THINKING by many many people from around the world.

    April 11, 2014

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    I like James' question: Would mathematics exist if there was no humanity? Phrased a little differently, would the internal harmony of the universe exist (of which mathematical equations are only reflections - whether discovered, constructed or derived) if there was no humanity to observe them? The laws of nature (from classical mechanics and Newton's laws of motion, gravity, conservation, electromagnetism, thermodynamics to relativity, quantum weirdness, etc.) would surely continue to operate... Or would they? And how do we know that? We don't. As far back as 5th Century B.C. the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes understood that what we experience are largely constructs of our own creation. By learning more and more about nature and adjusting our assumptions or ideas in light of what we lean, we will get nearer and nearer to the truth, but it will always remain elusive. And even if we were to catch a glimpse of it for a moment, we wouldn't know it (cf. Popper, Kuhn).

    April 10, 2014

    • Erik

      to me the "laws of nature" by the mere choice of these words, is a human artifact implying human concepts of structure, causality, logical consequences, etc.... but the "particles" (as the concept of a particle is also a human one). These human concepts are the tools by which we describe, explore and investigate reality... reality doesn't use these concepts or tools however if you ask me...

      April 11, 2014

    • Dr S. Ranga S.

      The Laws of Nature are established and understood through years of observation and experiment. We believe them to be valid every where and for all time. They are as far as we know established by humans. The laws explain the forces of Nature if you will. Strictly speaking they are called conservation laws because they tell us about what stays the same when the forces of Nature appear to change things.

      April 11, 2014

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    I am differentiating between the laws of nature and mathematics. The laws of nature are permanent and unchangeable. They are the only objective reality to which we have access through the application of unaided human reason, i.e. as a result of experimentation and the scientific method, verification and falsification. Mathematics, to paraphrase Galileo, is a language, constructed or derived deductively from observation, testing and flashes of inexplicable genius, which grants us insight and understanding, however tentative and imperfect, of and into this underlying objective reality. Mathematics themselves are not that reality; yet, without the language of mathematics, to quote Henri Poincare (19th Century mathematician and theoretical physicist), “…we should forever have been ignorant of the internal harmony of the world, which is...the only true objective reality."

    April 11, 2014

    • Rafi

      Just a suggestion about this. It might be helpful to reference stuff that's already been written about this. Like maybe specific authors in the philosophy of mathematics or whatever?

      April 11, 2014

    • Robert ("Robaire") N.

      @ Rafi. This is the full excerpt from the Henri Poincare quote I posted earlier from his book "The Value of Science" (The Science Press: New York, 1907), p. 13-14 : ""Is mathematical analysis...only a vain play of the mind? It can give to the physicist only a convenient language; is this not a mediocre service, which, strictly speaking, could be done without; and even is it not to be feared that this artificial language may be a veil interposed between reality and the eye of the physicist? Far from it; without this language most of the intimate analogies of things would have remained forever unknown to us; and we should forever have been ignorant of the internal harmony of the world, which is...the only true objective reality." For Poincare, objective reality, whatever it is, is found within the harmony expressed by mathematical laws.

      April 11, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Robert -- Here, we might be entering jargon. I do not understand what you re saying though. I am sorry.

    April 11, 2014

    • Robert

      yes ok, we can revisit some thng in person if you wish.

      April 11, 2014

  • James H.

    What is intriguing about mathematics is it opens the question can non physical reality be objective ? If we argue mathematics is objective, and I place myself in this camp, then it is saying there is non physical reality that is objective. This view maybe unsettling to those who are strictly beholden to the scientific method. Here I agree with the US Robert, that our ability to apprehend mathematical truth has nothing to do with empirical verification but with our aptitude for mathematical reasoning. If we accept that mathematics can be nonphysical objective truth, then what other types of nonphysical objective truths are there ? I am intrigued by Robaire's summary of Zeno's thought, but my Sophist detector is beeping a little..

    April 11, 2014

    • Robert

      @James - Exactly. 'It opens the question can non-physical reality be objective'? I would say that it is the only thing which can be objective. But I would rather not say it, and instead steer discussion towards trying to objectively work towards this truth. It is deeply connected with materialism or physicalism or naturalism. Because these -isms attempt to legislate away from consideration the deeply offensive notion :) that underlying objective reality could be immaterial. This is also closely connected with the mind/brain problem. For centuries we have asked how it comes to be that matter thinks about itself. (A new push is afoot right now with this within neuroscience.) When we reverse the assumption behind Rationalism and ask: could mind precede matter (or consciousness precede substance) then we break logjams and open new vistas for explaoration.

      1 · April 11, 2014

  • James H.

    I would argue a case can be made that morality is objective, but we only have a limited ability to apprehend this morality. I would argue further that our current best moral theories and best ethical practices are at best gross approximations of this underlying reality. Some argue that since each society has its own moral code then there cannot be an objective morality. A counter argument to show the weakness in this logic is to look at the case where we give 10 students the same difficult math problem, and the 10 students come back with 10 different incorrect answers. Do we then say Mathmatics is relative ? Positing morality as objective means we can apply both rational and empirical approaches in the process to determine good moral decisions. We see some convergence in common morality around the doctrine of human rights.

    2 · April 5, 2014

    • Robert

      @Rafi, there are three of them now?? I suppose I was figuring to attend this one. About creativity, well, I guess my first reaction is that the question strays too tangentially from where we started, with objectivity. So better to discuss elsewhere. In a quick sketch, I'd say I was limiting myself to moral creativity, meaning opening oneself to novel inspirations in a moral context, a conflicted situation. There is a kind of objectivity involved in this, but it would be difficult to discuss now. We preceive teh moral goodness within the sacrificial decision. We do so immediately, intuitively. The cognitive analyses and tormenting discussion and debate comes after. Truth is beyond opinion.

      April 10, 2014

    • Rafi

      So, about moral creativity, then. How to account for differences and variation in trolley problem responses, for example?

      April 11, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Laws of Physics or Nature are different from Mathematics but are expressed mathematically. True differences between theoretical physicists and mathematicians are minimal although mathematicians are not physicists but theoretical physicists could be mathematicians.

    April 11, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    In Indian philosophy/Vedic religion Nirvana is attained by the soul when it ceases to go through the cycle of birth and death. The Nirvana that I am referring to here is the perfect agreement of model predictions with experimental/observational results so that we can say Eureka !! The struggle ( to understand is OVER! ) Both are a form of Release and relief!!

    April 10, 2014

  • James H.

    Would mathematics exist if there was no humanity ? If we argue no it does not exist then it is not objective. If it is objective in what sense does mathematics exist if there is no humanity ? I think it exists objectively in the sense as a mode of true universal understanding which is available to any sentient being, should they come along, to grasp this mode of understanding. What makes mathematics objective, independent of humanity, is the fact that it is true.

    1 · April 10, 2014

    • Erik

      Our mathematical thought is based on what? Could it be our perception of reality and our ability to parse it into perceived components (aka cardinality, etc.), aka our view of logic is based on our perception of the logic inherent within reality. If our reality had no logic underpinning it, would we create our view of logic as we know it? I suspect not..

      April 10, 2014

    • Erik

      as to Tom Cruise, maybe best to invite him to the following session...

      April 10, 2014

  • mark e.

    I suppose if there is no objective world in this sense then it follows that we could not communicate with these creatures. They would have a language with completely different concepts.

    April 10, 2014

  • mark e.

    Can it ever be known in principle whether an objective reality exists? What would an answer look like?

    If we come across dozens of creatures each with a language capable of expressing an infinite number of thoughts would they share our concepts? For instance would they know about the periodic table and about natural selection. If yes this seems to indicate that our world is not restricted to our biological faculties.

    To me this is what it would mean for a world to be objective. What do you guys think?

    April 10, 2014

  • Robert ("Robaire") N.

    Mathematics is frequently appealed to as an example of an objective reality or truth that lies beyond our ordinary sense experience of the phenomenal world, yet a reality that can be immediately accessed by a simple application of our innate capacity to reason (or, put in a slightly more controversial form, by "unaided human reason"). If, for the sake of argument, we grant that mathematical objects such as numbers and verifiable equations exist as real abstract entities beyond space and time (a proposition with which I agree), my question is "How do we come to have knowledge of them"? Are these objects that mathematicians and scientists merely "discover" because they are timeless, universal, necessary and certain (Plato's definition of "knowledge")? Or are they constructs of the human mind?

    At bottom, it seems to me, the question "What is Objectivity?" has no demonstrable answer. It is one of those epistemological mysteries of the universe.

    April 9, 2014

    • Robert

      There is confusion in this thread because of the way James' initial question is worded:

      April 10, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Mathematics is a Human construct! But it is objective reality because it is the same for every one and for all time and in every place. I do not know if they exist beyond space and time. Requires proof! How can it be proved?

    April 10, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Martha Nussbaum is a well known Philosopher and professor at the University of Chicago!

    1 · April 9, 2014

    • Rafi

      I think a lot of them don't write for the general public. If you write for people in your sub-domain you already share jargon which facilitates the task. It's very difficult to write well for a general audience.

      April 9, 2014

    • Dr S. Ranga S.

      Even some famous people like Kant do not write very clearly! It is not clear even in German! But writing well is a gift !

      April 9, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Agreed.

    April 9, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Economics deals with a system ( the world is now one interconnected system) that has many variables. Prediction is difficult. Small changes in the system can induce large ( non-linear ) effects. Think of Weather prediction and Meteorolgy. How difficult it is. Economics might be worse. It includes people! and their actions.

    April 6, 2014

    • Erik

      climate and economics share a common aspect, they are Chaotic systems...

      April 8, 2014

    • Dr S. Ranga S.

      Yes. I said that to some one before here.

      April 8, 2014

  • James H.

    Those who wish to talk about academic etx (which frankly we will only be entertaining in 6 months time at the earliest) suggest taking this to a discussion thread. Suggest keeping this forum for the very interesting topic at hand. Thanks.

    April 7, 2014

    • Rafi

      Sorry James, Just read your post now. As far as objectivity is concerned, there's a discussion on Kant and the limits he poses to knowledge vis-à-vis the noumena on one of the other café sites. I might point out the work of T. Metzinger who's tried to revisit the Kantian project (that's one way to look at it) in the light of 'deficits' and current neuroscience research. There's a brief overview of some of the issues of the project here: http://speculativeher...­

      April 7, 2014

    • Rafi

      Metzinger's work is fascinating and his book is worth a read. There's videos of most of his material, but it's in German.

      April 7, 2014

  • Jen

    By having academics participating, we may be interjecting - even subtly - an intellectual standard on these discussions that may not suit them. People may censor what they say, maybe not. To echo comments below, perhaps this could be considered once PP is established. And/or in limited quantities.

    April 6, 2014

    • Erik

      Audie: if that is the case, then why do we have to treat them specially? Just mention to them our group and ask if they are interested to attend, as a regular member would be?

      April 7, 2014

    • Audie

      Erik, response in discussion thread.

      April 7, 2014

  • Lorraine

    I think it could be a good idea in limited quantities, but space and time are limiting factors.

    1 · April 5, 2014

    • Dr S. Ranga S.

      My experience with professional (academic) philosophers is that MOST of them talk in a very involuted manner!!! The ability to state things clearly, concisely and precisely is NOT such a common commodity. Philosopher or not!

      April 6, 2014

    • Erik

      That tendency isn't just restricted to academics of the philosophical persuasion...

      April 7, 2014

  • Jen

    I hesitate to let our discussion group turn into a forum where accredited academics come and "strut their stuff. " Anyway, I have faith in the wisdom and common sense of our organizing committee in this regard.

    April 6, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Erik has a point.

    April 6, 2014

  • Dr S. Ranga S.

    Philosophy Cafes are common in the UK.

    April 6, 2014

  • James H.

    I believe there is an objective world that is independent of my senses, although we can never have direct access. Consistency of subjective views is reasonable basis for this belief. A tricker question are what types of things can be objective. Here is a set of questions I would ask. Are physical laws like conservation of energy objective ? Is mathematics objective ? Is morality objective ?

    2 · April 3, 2014

    • Dr S. Ranga S.

      Mathematics is a cultural product, though not the prerogative of one particular Culture. It was conceived at different times in different Cultures. But Objectivity transcends Culture.

      April 6, 2014

    • Erik

      Hmm, our version of mathematics is indeed a cultural product, I am leaning towards the view that at least the logic part exists outside of our existence...

      April 6, 2014

  • Audie

    How does everyone feel about inviting guests to some of our meetups? We do have two universities in town: that's a decent pool of intellects. Too intimidating, too much work?

    April 5, 2014

    • James H.

      I think it's a great Idea worth exploring. We may need to get the group up and running and established first but love the idea reaching out to the academic community and see what they can teach us .

      April 5, 2014

  • Rafi

    I'm going to try to get in the Westboro one and might drop from here if I do. If that's a problem, please let me know (ie for organizators).

    April 4, 2014

    • James H.

      Rafi, you may to check if Westboro actually has a moderator for this session before making that commitment.

      April 4, 2014

    • Rafi

      You raise an interesting point, James. Objectivity in Plato's pub v. Faith in Westboro?

      April 4, 2014

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