Mac Musings

Deconstructing Objectivity

Daniel Knight - 2001.07.02

There's nothing objective in proclaiming, "The Mac is the best computer ever!" Although we may state is as fact and believe it is true, it is merely opinion.

What Is Truth?

Truth is a nebulous concept, as the journalist, philosopher, scientist, theologian, social worker, and judge will tell you. Even assuming our perceptions are accurate (one of many things philosophers have debated, and an issue examined in the movie, The Matrix), there are questions of memory and interpretation.

Here's a famous poem about perception and interpretation:

The Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant

John Godfrey Saxe

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
Though all of them were blind,
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant
And, happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me, but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling the tusk,
Cried, "Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis very clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal
And, happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up he spake:
"I see," quoth he, "The Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out an eager hand,
And felt about the knee:
"What most the wondrous beast is like
Is very plain," quoth he;
"Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said, "Even the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can:
This marvel of an elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope
Than, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong.
Though each was partly in the right,
They all were in the wrong!

Perception and Reality

René Descartes, the French philosopher, thought and thought and thought about reality. In a nutshell, this is the foundation of his philosophy: "Have I been deceived? How do I know my perceptions are accurate? How do I know I am real? If I think, there must be an 'I' to do the thinking. Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am. Since I can only know things external to myself through my perceptions, I must trust them. If my perceptions are wrong, I have no way of knowing it or of knowing the outside world." It was a leap of faith, but it was a reasonable leap (assuming The Matrix is fiction). Without that leap, external reality is unknowable.

As Descartes makes clear, knowledge of the "real world" comes via perception. You can count, measure, feel, look at, listen to, and interact with the world in many ways, but everything is filtered through the senses. Ultimately, objective reality is perceived subjectively.

This sometimes leads to a serious philosophical flaw seen often in the past decade: absolute relativity. This is the idea that reality is only what we perceive it to be, not something objective outside of ourselves. However, I believe reality is not subjective; only our perception of reality is subjective.

We all seek to know the truth - scientists, judges, tax collectors, journalists, poets, philosophers. We want to perceive objective reality as accurately as possible. To deny external reality is to make the universe meaningless, at least to others, since you become the measure of all things.

Ways of Knowing

I have a PowerBook G4 on my desk. It takes up space, feels warm, and exists whether I perceive it or not. Like all things in nature, this computer has many different aspects.

That's a very brief overview. Philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd lists fifteen different aspects that permeate reality. Dooyeweerd was an expert at deconstructing philosophies which sold short the richness of creation, starting with the early Greeks and running through much of the 20th century (he died in 1977).

Although it is not widely known, there is much to commend Dooyeweerd's Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea; it has been shaping my thinking for 25 years. Unlike a lot of philosophies, it doesn't disparage everyday thought. It also fully understands the difference between the subjective and objective side of things.

For instance, objectively the surface of this computer has a specific temperature, one which may vary from point to point. Subjectively, it feels cool after it's been shut off for a while and warm when in use. Parts get downright hot, a subjective perception that correlates to a fixed range of objectively measurable temperatures. And the whole philosophy is rooted in the reality of creation, not in abstract philosopical schemes.

Philosophers and Journalists

Being rooted in this philosophy, I find it frustrating when journalists and philosophers try to elevate themselves as trained objectivists merely in search of truth (see A plea for real journalism and thinking on the Web, which touches on the subject and inspired this article). Who is worthy of the title journalist or philosopher?

I've never claimed to be a journalist, but I did take every writing and journalism course available when I was in college. Nor do I claim to be a philosopher, although I have studied many philosophies from the Greek era through much of the 20th century. I'm just a writer with a B.A. in English, philosophy, and history; I don't label myself as a journalist or philosopher.

I think that's true of most writers on the Web, whether reporters on the Mac news sites or the people who post personal weblogs. We're not full-fledged philosophers or journalists, just people sharing our thoughts.

But wait, isn't that exactly what philosophers and journalists do? If all perception is subjective, and interpretation is even more subjective, then isn't all philosophy and journalism likewise a subjective interpretation of subjective perceptions of an objective reality?

What separates journalists, philosophers, judges, theologians, and the rest from the masses isn't objectivity - it's methodology. Training doesn't remove our biases; if it did, we would have little to say that was important. What training does is clarify our biases, help us understand our personal leanings, and work from that knowledge. "True knowledge is self-knowledge."

Education, practice, and experience shape our methodology. We learn to distinguish the subjective from the objective. "How many people were there that night?" or "How many people did you see there that night?" are different questions. One assumes the subject knows the answer, while the other understands that the answer may be subjective.

That is the point of good journalism and good philosophy. It realizes its own vested interest, realizes its own subjectivity, and knows that it cannot be completely objective and unbiased. Instead of pretending there is no bias, it accepts subjective bias as the nature of the process. But it also uses its tools to try to dig deeper into the issues, closer to the reality behind the perceptions, and cut through the biases of others.

What readers and students need to do is look for those biases and question them. "Does your living in a large state bias your perspective on representation in the Senate and Electoral College?" (It did for my 8th grade civics teacher.) "Does your living in the United States shape your thinking about political systems in other countries?" (Count on it.) "Does your using a Mac shape your attitude toward other computers and those who use them?" (Yep.)

The problem with the press, with our schools, and with the Web isn't bias; it's pretended objectivity. That said, I respect those who know their subjectivity and wear it humbly.

As David Schultz notes, for the philosopher and journalist the craft grows out of the craftsman's nature. "Neither is merely an activity, they are instead ways of being." Not only does the craft grow from the craftsman's being, but it is the nature of the philosopher and journalist to always be thinking, always asking questions, always seeking to understand and share truth.

It's the subjective, truth-driven individual who writes on the Web. We bring our worldview, our biases, and our dreams to our writing. We are interwoven with the words we write; we are never truly objective.

I'm a politically incorrect, free speech loving, Mac using, Microsoft fearing, tax disliking, pro-life, tax paying, home working individual who likes the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Star Trek, several types of music, and deflating those who become puffed up. I wear my biases proudly, respect others for their biases, and really have a hard time with those who are intolerant of "biased" speech and writing.

As with journalists, philosophers, judges, and others, I try to find balance, but I don't confuse that with objectivity. I know there is an objective reality out there, that I can only perceive it subjectively, that I make mistakes, and that the perspective of others will help me better understand the world we live in.

I still think the Mac is the best computer ever made, but I know that's just a commonly held opinion by some of the wiser residents of the planet. If it could be objectively proved, Apple would undoubtedly have a much larger market share.

Further Reading