Objectivity

2008-02-10

In my post A Politics of Reason a few weeks back, I argued for the importance of "immersing yourself in facts, science, history, reality, and reason". Over at The Only Winning Move, Joshua construed my thoughts as an argument for mere reasonableness.

Hmm, I must have miscommunicated.

As I see it, "being reasonable" is at best a minor intellectual or even social virtue. If someone tells me to be reasonable, I will probably take that as an admonishment to calm down, moderate my speech, be less idealistic and more pragmatic, or conform to mainstream opinion.

No, immersing yourself in facts, science, history, reality, and reason requires something much more difficult than being reasonable: it requires that you achieve objectivity.

What is objectivity? I think that it is not (as some would have it) primarily impartiality or a lack of emotion -- after all, there is deep feeling involved in what Aristotle called "the passionate search for passionless truth". Instead, I think that objectivity is an abiding commitment to truly understanding the world.

Unfortunately, as I have discovered, true understanding is hard. There are so many ways to go wrong in seeking knowledge and understanding, so many possible distractions, so many "idols" of human thinking (as Francis Bacon called them). Over the last few years I have come to recognize more clearly a few of them:

I'm sure there are many more such idols that can bedevil the human mind, such as compartmentalization, over-specialization, seeing facts only in the light of one's chosen theory, being swayed by rhetoric instead of reality, etc. (however, I'd prefer to limit the size of the list, because I can't tend to keep more than 5 items in my head at any one time -- cf. Miller's 1956 paper in Psychological Review).

Of late, I've become particularly suspicious of notions that do not lend themselves to statistical analysis, scientific research, historical validation, or practical experimentation. Such positions are merely forms of ideology. They may be deeply attractive, but they are not connected to reality in any meaningful or actionable manner.

I don't claim to have overcome my own attraction to certain ideologies and isms, but I strive to do so by immersing myself in facts and statistics, in the lessons of historical experience, in the results of scientific inquiry. My goal is not merely to be reasonable, but to truly understand the world and to achieve objectivity. Perhaps in another twenty years or so I'll get there...


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