The Myth of Objectivity

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

This phrase is hilarious in an apparent sense (especially when you hear Gorge Carlin say it.), but it hides a puzzling characteristic of human nature.

It is the George Carlin phrase that got me wondering about our certainty when evaluating reality. We mostly assume that our perceptions only express facts — That we are right, accurate and objective. Anybody would agree that some circumstances influence our beliefs, but the nature of this influence is often poorly assessed properly. It’s commonly believed that the bulk of our decisions stand on rational ground, that desires, anxiety or expectations are only an occasional disruptive force. However, simple observations of reality show that the opposite is true: most of the assumptions we make are the product of subtle emotions that collide and create momentum.

Because of this momentum, the conviction that you see things as they truly are is inevitable, at least as an initial involuntary response. What is more, we not only presume that our own personal perceptions are especially accurate and objective, but we go a step further and assume that anybody who sees thins differently are therefore getting something wrong.

In the wonderful collection of essays, Ideas and Opinions, Albert Einstein has wonderfully examined our spiritual desire to comprehend — to simplify the world around us.

“Time and again the passion for understanding has led to the illusion that man is able to comprehend the objective world rationally, by pure thought.”

He observed how people wish to think that the “logically simple is also the real”. Considering common life examples goes far in showing the biased conviction we have for our own suppositions. When we claim food is too pungent or too spicy we believe that we are noticing something about the food. It is the obvious reflexive impulse and it doesn’t even cross our minds that we might be saying something about ourselves: how our taste buds are used to feel flavouring or how we have been taught by the cuisine of our culture to think food should taste.

Ancestrally, it has been easier to reach conclusions instantly, as our survival depended on it — seeing a bush moving strangely was a sign you had to run, not think about what is producing the effect. Our brains have evolved to judge after the appearances and that’s ok. To come back to the previous illustration, it’s simpler to claim that somebody has made a mistake in preparing the food, rather than figuring out the complex interaction between the flavour output that has been produced, our gustatory receptors and whatever aroma experiences we had so far that e have educated us about how food should taste.

The point is easily proved with a trivial example, but the compelling and seductive sense that one sees the world as it is has stronger influences in more sophisticated issues like religion, politics, society or interpersonal relationships. Recognising that everybody filters any realm of existence as his own subjective take — with his unique lenses — appears to be a foundational element of reason and a means to more wisely handling disagreements.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been particularly interested in this question of what it is that makes us intrinsically believe that there is a one to one relationship between what one experiences and what really is out there. Many great thinkers have come up interpretations. Freud was talking about unconscious dynamics — an unconscious world that emits reasons for our feelings and actions and Immanuel Kant made a clear distinction between “the thing as it is” and “the thing as we know it”. However, modern psychology gives some advantages for understanding the issue, not metaphysically but neurally.

A marvellous source for clearing my initially fuzzy picture when trying to grasp this matter was the work of social psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Lee Ross — The Wisest One is the Room. It was in this book where I first heard the term “naive realism”, which refers exactly to the idea that we only think we see the things around us objectively.

“One of the main jobs of the three pounds of neural circuitry we carry around in our skulls is to make sense of the world around us.” — The Wisest One in the Room

This is, even tough amusingly put, a superb phrase in the opening of a chapter that examines a number of hidden mental processes operating behind our awareness. I would say a powerful case they made was that of colour, another experience like aromas or threatening gestures that creates the feeling that we’re actually experiencing a stimulus as it is and not as we’ve constructed it. Colour seems so obvious to us (by the way — humans are among the few species that can actually perceive colours), but:

“the colors we see are not simply “out there” in the objects we perceive; they are the product of the interaction between what’s out there and the functioning of our sensory systems…
…Our experience of color is the result of the activation of particular photoreceptors that are differentially sensitive to various wavelengths of light striking the retina, as well as further processing of the complex pattern of activation that reverberates higher up in the brain.”

The interesting point this book was making is that when it comes to relatively complex cognitive events, our contribution to the experience is meaningful. Our body processes some kind of sensory stimulus and our brain fills in an apparently non-existent gap between the signal and the occurrence we’re perceiving. But what drives this filling in?

A straightforward answer would be that our prior certain knowledge, information and expectations about an event greatly reduces any intellectual effort of using reason to reexamine the situation. That’s why thinking that “I know” is so compelling, but sometimes utterly deceiving. A maybe more non-obvious justification refers to the influence of post-experience context. Although with a more nuanced effect, some suggestions show that what is presented to you shortly after registering a stimulus can considerably alter your perspective (But you will still think it’s your own opinion.). If you’re interested in the topic, just see the remarkable research documented here, where participants in a study are basically unconsciously constrained to come up with words that fit a context given to them.

You might say that pondering the seemingly illusory interpretation of human experience is not really worth while. Of course there are no real consequences to misinterpreting uncomplicated, everyday facts (like colours, tastes and odours). Confusing our own take on the world with the real objective facts is not of a great significance if everybody else has a similar take.

But there are places where misjudgements rarely have mild outcomes, like social policies, public administration and large group projects. When two or more parties have very different priorities, beliefs and prior experiences, disagreements are likely to appear. Sadly, disputes are even harder to settle when one is ignoring the fragility of his viewpoint and thus throws accusations about the lack of fairness, faith or responsibility.

Not only does trying to persuade others through irrational means conveys the absence of wisdom, but it has an especially unfavourable influence when many souls are involved. That is why I encourage you (and myself, really) to ask better questions — more thoughtful and reflective analysis of what you consider certain, rather than taking that and moving forward as if it was a fact.

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