True for you but not for me? That’s just your opinion!

Thinking about claims which are not universal or not objective.

Re-Assembling Reality #10, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

In our earlier essays we have seen that science looks less like a systematic, objective, universal search for truth, and more like some parochial, culturally constrained, make-it-up-as-you-go-along enterprise. At each step we have been circling round truth, developing the half-articulated impression that something strange is happening to science’s relationship with truth. The time has finally come to face the issue squarely.

The Enlightenment vision of science held that scientific truth had to be universal and objective. Some versions of the vision held that this was the only type of truth there was, while others contrasted this scientific truth with a shadowy non-scientific realm dealing with non-universal, non-objective truth. But the Enlightenment vision has been exploded. We are left to decide what to do with the pieces? Is there such a thing as non-universal truth? Is there such a thing as non-objective truth? Are such truths, if they exist, necessarily non-scientific?

These are the questions with which we will concern ourselves in this Essay.

Buckingham Palace: home of the Queen and place where all manner of truths may be learned. (Source: SAC Matthew Gerrard RAF/MoD. Crown Copyright.)

A tour of the Palace

Sometimes, someone might dismiss something you said because “That’s just your opinion!”

At other times, someone might dismiss something you said because, “Well, that’s true for you but not for me.”

This can be frustrating because such objections seem to provide an escape route out of any meaningful engagement. There is a worry that, if we accept such phrases, suddenly everything is relative, and anyone can believe whatever they want. The post-truth world of alternative facts seems upon us. Those two phrases, however, are worth giving some consideration. The first appeals to non-objective truth. The second appeals to non-universal truth. While they are generally listed as logical fallacies, this may simply indicate how little imagination logicians have.

The statement “I am the Queen” is true for some people, but not for everyone. (Source: Joel Rouse (MoD) via Wikimedia Commons.)

Imagine you are in Buckingham Palace and the Queen tells you, “I am the Queen.” If you were to respond by saying, “That’s just your opinion,” you would clearly be incorrect. Security may escort you out for saying something so obviously false (not to mention impertinent). It is not just the Queen’s opinion; it is an objective fact: she is the Queen.

On the other hand, if you responded, “That’s true for you, but not for me,” you would be entirely correct. Security may still escort you out, but now it would be for wasting the Queen’s time by saying something so obviously true (not to mention impertinent): of course she is the Queen and you are not.

The truth of the statement “I am the Queen” is relative, yet objective. It is relative because its truth (or falsity) varies relative to the person speaking: it is true if it is said by the Queen, and untrue if it is said by anyone else. It is objective because everyone can agree that when the Queen says it, it is true, and everyone can agree that when anyone else says it, it is false.

As your tour of Buckingham Palace continues, the person next to you leans over and comments, “We will see the State Rooms next.” It may now be appropriate to respond, “That is just your opinion.” Maybe the tour will take you to the State Rooms. Maybe it will take you somewhere else. Maybe the tour guide had planned to take you to the State Rooms, but an urgent situation has come up and the plan has to change. A definitive claim of going to the State Rooms is your tour-mate’s opinion, and their opinion may reasonably differ from yours for any number of reasons. On the other hand, you would most likely be mistaken if you responded, “That’s true for you, but not for me.” If the guide takes your tour-mate to the State Rooms, they will take you as well. If a national emergency changes the plan for your tour-mate, it will change the plan for you as well.

Next, your tour-mate sighs loudly and says, “Sheesh. This tour is boring.” You might reasonably respond, “That’s your opinion.” It is their opinion. They want to get to the gift shop and then head out into the sunshine. If you love hearing the details of British history, you might also reasonably respond “That’s true for you, but not for me.” You are enthralled; they are bored stiff.

Walking past a row of portraits, the guide tells you, “The Queen was crowned in Westminster Abbey in 1953.” In this situation, you should not exclaim, “That’s just your opinion!” The guide may lose patience with your interruptions. It is not just their opinion. It is a documented, objective fact. Equally, you should not exclaim “That’s true for you, but not for me!” The date of the Queen’s coronation is the same for everyone. You may not like the Queen. You may be of a nationality not under her rule. You may not have been alive in 1953. But it is true for the tour guide that the Queen was crowned in 1953, just as it is true for you, just as it is true for future colonists on Mars.

For the benefit of those who like pictures, this situation can be summarized diagrammatically.

“That’s your opinion!” challenges the objectivity of a statement. “That’s true for you but not for me!” challenges the universality of a statement. It is possible to have any combination of objective/subjective and universal/particular statements. (Source: Authors.)

What do we mean by “universal”?

Universal truth claims are ones for which the statement’s truth (or falsity) is the same for all people, in all places, at all times. Relative truth claims are ones for which this condition does not hold. (In other Essays we also refer to these as particular statements.) That seems easy enough though, before rushing on, we should pay attention to some boundary cases and consider how the terms are conventionally used in such situations.

Given this definition, the divide between universal and relative statements is pretty clear cut. However, it turns out to be less useful than one might imagine. Following our Essay on whether science is universal or useful (Re-Assembling Reality #8), it should be no surprise that when clear-cut simplicity bumps against usefulness, usefulness wins.

The earth goes round the sun. Except when it doesn’t. (Source: M.V.Jantzen via Flickr.)

There are lots of statements that are not, strictly speaking, universal. Consider the claim, “The earth orbits the sun.” Is this true for all people, in all places, at all times? It is true for Asians today, and for Europeans a thousand years ago, and for Africans a thousand years hence. It will be true for future settlers of Mars who never even lived on Earth. That seems pretty universal. But let us take a step back.

It is clearly not true for all times. Eventually the sun will become a red giant and engulf the earth, only to later scatter the debris across the Milky Way in a super-nova explosion. The earth will not orbit the sun at that time. For the first nine billion years of the universe’s history, the sun didn’t even exist. The earth did not orbit the sun at that time. Clearly, the statement is only true at some times. It is thus true relative to when it is said.

We face a choice:

Option 1: We can hold on to the strict definition of “universal”, and admit that there are vanishingly few statements that we make which are genuinely universal. The universal/relative distinction would then effectively fall out of use because pretty much everything is relative. We must then look for other terms — like “fapp” (For All Practical Purposes) — to apply to things which can often be treated as universal, even though they are not.

Option 2: We can ignore the strict definition as unhelpful, and apply the term “universal” to things which are as good as universal for all practical purposes.

In this Essay (and throughout the rest of the series) we shall adopt the second usage.

Without going in to great depth on this issue, we shall adopt the pragmatic position that when we say “all practical purposes” we obviously don’t mean “all”; we mean “the purposes about which I care right now.” There are other positions one could take, each with their own problems. We should mention some of the potentially surprising consequences of our choice of definition.

Taking the example of “The earth orbits the sun,” we notice that it may count as “universally” true (for all people, places, and times about which I care right now) and yet be untrue for most of history. Certainly, it has been untrue for two thirds of the cosmic history to date.

Because the qualifier of “the purposes about which I care right now” varies, two different people (or even the same person at two different times) may differ over whether they treat a given statement as universally true. A rocket scientist planning the trajectory of a satellite launch will work on the assumption that the earth orbits the sun. The belief in the universality of the claim is likely to be tacit but, even if asked, they are likely to assert that it is true for all people, in all places, at all times (just like you would have done at the start of this Essay). By contrast, a planetary scientist working on the development of the early solar system will be explicitly aware that the earth did not always orbit the sun.

We also hit boundary cases where an idea may flip between seeming universal or relative depending on the setting. Our statement on the earth and the sun may seem absolute at a conference on rocket science. But should that conference have sessions about rockets that carry equipment to investigate comets for the purpose of better understand planetary formation, then in those sessions the statement will be treated as relative.

We admit that, when we draw attention to such oddities, it seems strangely counter-intuitive to adopt a definition of universal that permits such situations. Nonetheless, this is in line with common usage.

What do we mean by “objective”?

Objective truth claims are ones for which the statement’s truth (or falsity) can be established, unperturbed by personal biases, opinions, values, or judgments. Subjective truth claims are ones for which this condition does not hold. Again, this seems easy enough, though (in case any of you are spotting a pattern in the problems we face) it may be worth paying attention to some boundary cases, and consider how the terms are conventionally used in such situations.

From the definition given, the divide between objective and subjective statements is pretty clear-cut. Once again though, its simplicity hamstrings its usefulness. In our Essay on the Enlightenment vision of science (Re-Assembling Reality #5) we set out high hopes for objective knowledge, unsullied by people’s opinions, values, or personal judgments. Against that, in our Essay on science and method (Re-Assembling Reality #6) we showed that no theory could ever be conclusively either demonstrated or falsified: the decision to accept or reject a theory necessarily draws on subjective judgement.

As with universal claims, we face a choice:

Option 1: We can hold on to the strict definition of “objective”, and admit that we do not and cannot make statements which which are genuinely objective. The objective/subjective distinction would then effectively fall out of use because pretty much everything is subjective. We must then look for other terms — like “inter-subjective”— to apply to things which can often be treated as objective, even though they are not.

Option 2: We can ignore the strict definition as unhelpful, and apply the term “objective” to things which are as good as objective for all practical purposes.

In this Essay (and throughout the rest of the series) we shall adopt the second usage.

Naturally, this opens up a vast arena of discussion for what constitutes “practical purposes”, and we admit that there are significant disagreements in the literature on this issue. However, as with discussions above regarding “universal”, we would not have ducked any of these controversies by selecting Option 1; we would only have pushed the difficulties from the question of how to define “objectivity” onto the question of how to define “inter-subjectivity” (or whatever other word we chose to take its place).

What does it take for an idea to be “objective enough for practical purposes”? How do we create an idea which is, if not perfectly objective in the absolute sense, then at least more objective — more free (or more likely to be free) of my own individual biases — than whatever opinion first enters my head?

First, as an individual, I can scrutinise my own thoughts. Some biases are so obvious that I can even spot them myself. I can then look to external sources, such as documentary evidence. I may like my initial idea, but if every book I read on the topic consistently takes the opposite view, this should give me pause for thought.

I can speak to other people. Certainly, each person would come with their own biases, but I might hope that they do not all have identical biases to me, and to each other, and to the books I have read. If we can work together to agree between us a position which we can all accept as reasonable, then my individual idiosyncrasies, and theirs, have been weeded out.

Naturally, we cannot reach agreement with all possible contributors to the discussion. Obviously, known liars intent on sowing confusion should be excluded from the discussion; books written by madmen should be excluded from discussion; and so on. I myself may suspect a particular person to be mad, and want to have them excluded from the discussion. This may reflect my own biases, though, and so my initial judgement should be tempered by the critique of the wider group. Maybe someone will speak up for the putative madman, and endorse his views. Maybe the group will see the biases of the madman’s defender and reject their intervention.

On and on, by a social process of public, critical scrutiny; testing assumptions; evaluating biases: it should be possible to come to a point of view which is, even if not absolutely objective, not absolutely free of bias or personal opinion, then at least free enough of biases for practical purposes. We might reasonably chose to call such a position “objective.” And as we involve a wider community of voices, as we discourse with people from increasingly different perspectives, engage with texts by writers from different times and cultures, more explicitly lay out each idea for critique… with each step we can say the position becomes increasingly objective.[1]

This process can be seen in numerous endeavors, not least throughout the academy. A historian, for example, does not simply write down the first idea that enters their head. They reflect on it to see if they are simply projecting their own biases onto the historical situation. They consult with historical texts — the more the better — and with contemporary literature. They discuss their work with colleagues at conferences. A narrative that is agreed by a wide community, engaging with relevant evidence, might come to be accepted as an “objective view of history.”

Again, we can say upfront that this choice of definition leads to some counter-intuitive results.

For example, using this understanding of objective knowledge, it is possible to have objective knowledge that becomes more objective over time. This would not be possible in the idealised sense of the Enlightenment vision, in which knowledge is either objective or it is not.

The 1958 Solvay Conference. Objective evidence that significant work is done by rich white men. (Source: G. Coopmans courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.)

It is also possible to have objective knowledge (i.e. knowledge that has undergone this communal critical process) which is actually false. A group of historians, following the process described, might arrive at an agreed narrative which includes the view (whether explicitly stated or not) that rich white men are the only people capable of doing important things, and the only people capable of writing books of any significance. This view is agreed by all relevant people (which is to say, all tenured history professors at prestigious universities) and is endorsed by all relevant books (which is to say, all history books written by rich white men).

We may chose to critique their view, even to the point of declaring it to be false. But that is not the same as saying that, within their knowledge community, the view is not held objectively.

It gets stranger. In seeing this situation, we cannot say that their bias would necessarily be removed (or even lessened) by them being more objective. Increased objectivity is also not a guaranteed path to increasing accuracy. A person may grow up seeing their mother and sister work hard and achieve significant things. They assume that their experience is typical and that women are capable of greatness. That view, being held uncritically and following exposure to only a small community, is quite subjective. Upon leaving home, they go to university where they are exposed to the ideas of numerous history professors and significant books. They are taught that their earlier view of women was the naive attachment of a child for its mother, and they learn to cast away such biases.

Their new view — formed following critical discussion with a larger, more diverse group of people than his family on the farm at home — is more objective than their earlier view. Nonetheless, it is not necessarily more true.

An extension of this is that it is possible for two different knowledge communities to independently go through a critical social processes and arrive at different, conflicting conclusions which would nonetheless, by this definition, both be considered objective claims. Fr example, our claim in the previous paragraphs — that the idea that only rich white men can write significant books is wrong — was itself arrived at by a critical social process, and we would count it as objective. In contrast to our hypothetical historians, though, our knowledge community accepts the relevance of testimony from a wider set of backgrounds. This wider sample prompts us to see that non-white people can write history too; that there are significant people who are not men; that the “educated” have something to learn from the “uneducated”.

Such clashes are compounded by the potential incommensurability of different knowledge communities’ norms, which may make it difficult to establish one position as (objectively speaking) more objective than the other. Comparing our norms to those of the hypothetical historians, both groups agree that some people should be excluded from discourse. We both agree that taking known liars at their word will only muddy the water. We disagree, however, on whether “learning from the uneducated” is a good idea which can increase objectivity, or a terrible idea which will only sown confusion. We therefore disagree over whether the error comes from one group being too exclusive, or the other group being too inclusive.

All of these conclusions may seem odd for anything that we would call “objective”. Nonetheless, the alternative is to say that no one has objective knowledge of anything. We would then have exactly the same struggle, but using the term “inter-subjective knowledge” instead.

How does any of this work in science?

Now we understand what the terms mean, we can consider how science relates to universal, relative, objective, and subjective truth claims.

Some scientific statements are universal: “E = mc^2” for example. This is true for you and for me. It was true before Einstein ever thought of it, even if no-one knew it was true. It is true in the heart of a supernova, just as it will be true in the dying embers of an old, dark universe.

Some scientific statements are relative: “A typhoon is coming” for example. This is true several times a year for people who live in the Philippines. It is never true for people who live in France. It is true for Filipinos the day before a typhoon hits, and it is false for them the day after a typhoon passes.

Some scientific statements are objective: “Freely falling bodies follow a parabolic path” for example. You can drop a cannon ball from the Tower of Pisa, or take a video of someone throwing a bunch of keys. Anyone can do it. The data is publicly available, the experience is shared, we all agree on what the data means.

Some scientific statements are subjective: “The Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics helps us to understand atoms.”[3] Many physicists believe this to be true, and that belief guides their research. Some physicists believe that the Copenhagen interpretation is a travesty that obscures everything worth understanding. And there is not even an agreed upon path to reconciling those two views.

Summary

We started this Essay with the concern that statements such as “That’s true for you but not for me” and “That’s just your opinion” are deeply problematic, maybe the end of all reasonable discussions.

Now we reach the end of the Essay, we have seen that there are many circumstances under which either or both of these statements are entirely reasonable. We should not shy away from acknowledging and even embracing them in their appropriate places.

This is not to say that we are in a free-for-all where anyone can believe whatever they want. For example, I am not the Queen. The fact that some statements are relative and some are subjective does not negate the fact that some statements are universal and some are objective. The skill comes in handling different statements appropriately.

In considering how to handle the various statements, we found that, in addition to statements which are strictly universal, there are statements that we call universal and treat as universal most of the time because it is convenient to do so, even though they are not strictly universal. We also found that there are statements that we call objective and treat as objective most of the time because it is convenient to do so, even though they are not strictly objective.

There are good pragmatic reasons for this expanded meaning of “universal” and “objective”, though it leads to some counter-intuitive results if we are not aware that the semantic shift has happened. In the next Essay, we will explore the consequences that this semantic shift has for objective truth claims in science.

[1] This position is presented in detail by Helen Longino (2001). The Fate of Knowledge. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[3] The Copenhagen interpretation is the one most commonly taught: The wave-function gives the probability amplitude of obtaining a particular result if a measurement were to be made. The wave-function evolves deterministically provided it is left alone, and collapses when a measurement is made. Other interpretations include De Broglie-Bohm theory, the many worlds interpretation, and quantum Bayesianism. Each interpretation has its own (often vocal) proponents.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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