Photo by Simon Migaj
Objectivity is generally understood as a way to observe the world that is not influenced by the situation of the observer, such that the ideas produced reflect the nature of the world itself, rather than the processes that created them. It often suggests an ability to remove oneself from the object of study, in order to observe it from a safe distance. The expression Archimedean point, sometimes used to describe this hypothetical standpoint, goes back to Descartes. Descartes explained that, just as Archimedes said that he could lift the entire world if he had the right place to stand, he would start his philosophical investigations by finding an immovable point upon which to build reliable knowledge.
As science and philosophy turned their attention to themselves, however, they quickly cast doubt upon the possibility of a privileged, God’s eye point of view. As science dislodged human beings from their imagined position in the center of the cosmos, step by step, so philosophy, by turning its attention to the nature of knowledge, uncovered its contingent, historical nature. The notions of information, computation and evolution began to shed light on how knowledge fits into the physical world. Sociology and psychology paid close attention to science as a social practice, imbued with the prejudices and viewpoints of its actors. It seems that we are irremediably embedded in the world, entangled with the very objects we are trying to understand. Knowledge is woven into the tapestry it tries to decipher: we can only know the world from within.
Some versions of this philosophical approach have deep political implications. Under the influence of postmodern thinkers, many activists today insist that knowledge is socially constructed, and reflects the values and interests of those who produce it. In particular, systems of power control the production and validation of ideas, and dominant discourses create and maintain oppressive hierarchies. This politicization of epistemology, motivated by an acute awareness of disparities of power and the importance of giving voice to marginalized people, has taken the academic world by storm.
Logicians have also pointed out that, even if a procedure or criterion could give us access to objective truth, it could not conclusively evaluate itself. We can only find an Archimedean point from whence to contemplate creation if we have an explanation of the structure of the universe in which that point adequately fulfils its role. But how can we be certain of such an explanation? Surely it also encapsulates a certain point of view: how can we be sure of its objectivity? Looking for the foundations of truth, it seems, inevitably leads us into tangles of logical loops and infinite regresses.
How can we know, then? At every step, logical conundrums have hindered the search for the foundations of science. Postmodernism describes a nightmarish world where ideas and beliefs are locked in a Nietzschean struggle between wills to power, where any pretense to objectivity or truth is nothing but another sinister strategy of domination. Does this self-reflective epistemology rob us of the possibility of attaining truth? How can we find objectivity if we are embedded in the very world we’re trying to understand? How can we find our way out of the darkness of subjectivity and cynicism?
I think there’s a way out. Although a reflexive approach to knowledge eliminates any hope of finding an Archimedean point, I believe there is a form of objectivity that is attainable and reasonable. However, it requires two things.
First, it requires us to realize that the postmodernist view applies to itself, and, as such, can be no more fundamental that any of the knowledge it calls into question. Ideas about the factors that shape knowledge are just ideas like any other. The vision of a world where ideas strive for domination depicts an objective world, and any insight about the construction of knowledge is, itself, knowledge. To describe the history of ideas and their relationship to power and identity, we already need to make substantive assertions about what reality is like. If the enunciation of a theory or opinion can reveal something about the subjective, historical factors that shaped it, it can also reveal something about the objective world of which these factors are part.
Second, we have to take the idea of truth seriously, as a property of ideas that does not depend on certainty or objectivity. Truth depends only on how the world truly is, and, as such, it is, and forever will be, independent of any means to verify it. The reason for this is that our ideas about how to verify ideas may also be true or false, and the interpretation of evidence always requires prior knowledge, which might be full of errors. Although ideas can never, ever, be certainly true, they can be true, and whether they’re true or not depends on how the world truly is.
The key to objectivity is to reunite these two insights. The world in which our ideas evolve and compete is the very world they are trying to describe. Therefore, our ideas about the construction of knowledge must take their place alongside the rest of our knowledge, and, if they form a logically consistent picture, they might conceivably be true. The enunciation of an idea always encodes information about its formation and history, but, if that information is compatible with what the idea says about the world, it does not rule out the possibility that it is true.
When critics cast doubt on a scientific belief, it’s because they judge that the best history of that belief does not contain the truth of that belief itself. They think that the best explanation is a faulty experiment, an oppressive lie, a dominant discourse, an illusion or any other story in which the idea itself is false. But the story of an idea cannot be any more foundational than the idea itself. It presupposes a model of the world in which, presumably, it is itself true. There is always a reason, a story showing how an idea came to prevail, and sometimes, in that story, the idea itself is true.
This leads to an important lesson about methodology. It is possible to align the methods, factors and institutions of the construction of knowledge with the logical conditions of the search for truth. If we structure our methods in such a way that an idea’s own truth is a necessary condition of its survival, if we devise tests that an idea can’t pass unless the world really is as it says, it will become impossible to explain the trajectory of some ideas without conjecturing that they are true. By setting ideas on a collision course with their own meaning, we can effectively purge ideas that are not compatible with the best explanation of their histories. The task of maintaining that alignment is what scientific scrutiny is all about. After an idea has been subjected to stringent tests and has passed them with flying colors, it becomes very hard to explain what happened, without suggesting that it might actually be true.
Defenders of science, faced with the assaults of postmodernism, sometimes become remarkably fainthearted: their arguments lack vigor when they merely say that science is but the best we can hope for. We need not be so unambitious. Science, at its best, seeks ever tighter compatibility between our understanding of the world and the place of that understanding within it. To set up an experiment is to structure it so that only one explanation follows from its result, after we consider all the factors that went into the experiment, including our subjective position in the world. Methodological errors creep in when our understanding of the experiment was flawed, and we failed to account for all the factors that influenced it.
Objectivity means that our knowledge of the world must account for our entanglement with it. We are being objective when we are mindful of our position in the world and strive for logical consistency between our ideas and their histories. Of course, knowledge is constructed, but how was it constructed? In what kind of world, with what methods and building materials? The way knowledge is constructed can sometimes suggest that it could be true, and we should ensure that this is the case.
Ronald Dworkin, in a passage about “integrated epistemology,” writes that Archimedean epistemology fails because our theory of knowledge has no special status: it must take its place alongside the rest of our knowledge. Postmodern epistemology fails for the same reason: because our ideas about the construction of knowledge have no special status. If we critically account for the history of our ideas, we can learn to harmonize it with what they say about the world in a way that provides for their mutual criticism. We can tentatively consider the possibility that an idea is true if our best explanation of how we came to acquire that idea is logically compatible with the truth of the idea. This is how we can know the world from within, and provides a possible remedy for the fragmentation of epistemology.