On Subjective and Objective

On Subjective and Objective
One of the recurrent themes of the discussion on Fastest Route and Best Restaurant has been that
of subjectivity. Unlike the case in arriving at conclusions on the shortest route and the fastest
route, one of the important variables involved in conclusions on the ‘best’ restaurant is that of the
taste of food, well-acknowledged as being ‘subjective’. Pointing this contrast was actually the
intension behind the design of this question.
What is subjectivity? What is the difference between the ‘subjective’ and the ‘objective’?
The difference between person A saying “I love coconut oil in curries, and I hate mustard oil’,
and person B saying “I love mustard oil in curries, and I hate coconut oil” is a classic example of
subjectivity. The question is, what makes it subjective? What makes a statement such as “Virgin
coconut oil lowers lipid levels in serum and tissues and LDL oxidation by physiological
A popular meaning of the word ‘subjective’ is “a personal judgment that varies across
individuals”. Thus, when one person says “I like X more than Y” and another says “I like Y more
than X, we take both as legitimate even though they have opposite likings, hence we take these as
subjective statements. In contrast, the height of someone is supposed to be an objective matter, so
if one person says “X is taller than Y” and “Y is taller than X”, we assume that at least one of
them is wrong.
But variability across the judgments of individuals couldn’t be the crucial factor that distinguishes
subjectivity from objectivity. If ten individuals measure the time that a simple pendulum takes to
complete a full oscillation, chances are that they will come up with different numbers, with a
range of variability within one or two seconds. That does not make the measurement of time with
a clock subjective.
Another meaning that we often attach to subjectivity as something that is not real. That cannot be
the case either, because the pain that we feel when we stub our toe is subjective, but that does not
make it unreal.
I would like to suggest that we characterize the meanings of ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ as
An objective statement is a statement about the external world that exists independently of
the consciousness of the speaker;
in contrast, a subjective statement is a statement about what exists in the internal world of
the consciousness of the speaker.
By the above definitions, statement “I feel cold in this room” is a subjective statement, because it
is about a feeling that exists in the internal world of consciousness of the speaker. In contrast,
“This room is cold.” is an objective statement, even if some may disagree and say “No, no, this
room is quite warm.” Perhaps both speakers should formulate their statements as “I feel cold in
this room” and “I feel warm in this room”, in which case the apparent contradiction disappears.
To go back to our earlier examples, person A saying “I love coconut oil in curries, and I hate
mustard oil’, and person B saying “I love mustard oil in curries, and I hate coconut oil” are both
examples of subjective statements. They are both making autobiographical statements about
themselves, which is quite legitimate. But if they say “Coconut oil in curries is tasty, but mustard
oil is disgusting”, and “Mustard oil in curries is tasty, but coconut oil is disgusting” they are
making objective statements about what ought to be expressed as subjective statements. That we
should judge as illegitimate.
“I see a black cat in front of me” is a subjective statement about the sense perception of the
speaker. Its objective counterpart is “There is a black cat in front of me”. Is that projection from
the subjective to the objective valid? If the person is looking at a mirror (the cat is behind him), or
is looking at a movie image, then the projection is mistaken; but if there is no evidence to
conclude that the subjective-to-objective projection is mistaken, then the projection is valid.
“I hear the certain sounds that I interpret as voices of people speaking from the room near me” is
a subjective statement; its objective counterpart is “There are people speaking in that room”. If it
happens to be the cases that what the person hears is an audio-recorded conversation, the
projection is mistaken.
Ancient Greeks knew that our sense perceptions cannot always be trusted. Here is an experiment
that they cited to demonstrate it. Keep our left hand immersed in a bucket of hot water for some
time, and the right hand in a bucket of very cold water. If we now immerse both hands in a bucket
of room temperature water, our left hand will perceive the water as cold while our right hand
would perceive the same water as warm. Which hand do we trust? Neither.
When we lift an orange in one hand and a water melon in the other, we experience more strain in
the muscles of the watermelon hand than of the orange hand. This subjective experience we
project as an objective trait of the ‘weight’ of the orange and the water melon. We then build
weighing machines whose readings correspond to our subjective judgments of weight-as-strainon-muscles. When trying to find out the relative weights of mustard seeds and cumin seeds, or
two cows, we use weighing machines whose credibility has already been established.
What we call ‘observations’ in science are either reports of sense perception (subjective) of
projections of subjective states of affairs into the external world (objective.) They may also be
readings of instruments that interpret their inputs in terms of the theory built into the instruments.
The numbers we get from weighing machines and thermometers are examples of such theoretical
interpretations. That means we have to rely on observations, but we also have to doubt and
question our observations.
Take the following examples to illustrate the business of doubting and questioning our
experience. Our experience tells us that there is a blue sky above us which turns red at sunrise and
sunset. Our experience tells us that the earth we stand on is completely stationary, that the sun
moves from the east to the west every day, that the moon is much bigger than the stars, and so on.
Their subjective formulations are quite valid:
“I see a blue sky above me, and I see it turning red at sunrise and sunset.”
“I feel the earth as being completely stationary.”
“I see the moon as being bigger than the stars/”
Our reasoning tells us that every one of these valid subjective statements, if projected as objective
statements about the external world, is false:
“There is a blue sky above me that turns red at sunrise and sunset.”
“The earth is completely stationary.”
“The moon is bigger than the stars.”
Experiential learning is the idea that learning becomes meaningful when it is rooted in
experience. That does not mean that we blindly trust our experience, that “experiential
knowledge” is always knowledge. In many cases, what our experience tells us must be corrected
through the use of reasoning. We depend on experience, but we also doubt and question what it
tells us.
Notice that the three subjective statements cited above (about the sky, earth, moon and stars) are
the same for all humans. In other words, they are inter-subjectively constant, they do not vary
across individuals or cultures. That also indicates that objectivity is not the same as intersubjectivity.
The restaurant question was designed to point to the difficulties of projecting valid subjective
statements about the internal world as objective statements about the external world.
In Greek mythology, Tiresisas was a blind prophet who had t spend a few years as a woman
because of a curse, but was released from the curse and became a man again later. Now, there was
a disagreement between Zeus the king of gods and his wife goddess Hera, about who had greater
sexual pleasure, men, or women. Zeus held that women experienced greater pleasure, and Hera
held that men experienced greater pleasure. Since Tiresias had experienced sexual pleasures both
as a man and as a woman, they asked him to settle their disagreement.
Unless we have a large sample of men who are changed to women and another large sample of
women who are changed to men, the conflict between the Zeus hypothesis and the Hera
hypothesis cannot be settled in terms of scientific inquiry. Even if we had such samples, it is
dubious if we can eliminate all the potential confounds. But this is an easy task when compared to
the best restaurant problem.
And yet, we continue giving awards for “best teachers” and best movies, without ever bothering
to think about what these words mean.
Have a nice short break before we start discussing LT-1.
Popper Three Worlds If we use the words ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ the way I have defined these terms, we cannot use the same words to refer to the distinctions that Popper makes in his Three Worlds. For Popper, World 1 consists of entities which occupy space and have mass, i.e., entities that we can perceive through our senses: what we can see, touch, weigh, etc, through our sense organs or extensions of sense organs, namely, instruments or machines. This is what he says: “There is, first, the world that consists of physical bodies: of stones and of stars; of plants and of animals; but also of radiation, and of other forms of physical energy. I will call this physical world ‘world 1’. If we so wish, we can subdivide the physical world 1 into the world of non-­‐living physical objects and into the world of living things, of biological objects; though the distinction is not sharp.” Popper’s World 2 consists of entities that do not occupy space or have mass: what we cannot see, touch, or weigh. They have an additional trait: they exist in the mental world of humans and non-­‐human animals: There is, secondly, the mental or psychological world, the world of our feelings of pain and of pleasure, of our thoughts, of our decisions, of our perceptions and our observations; in other words, the world of mental or psychological states or processes, 3
or of subjective experiences. I will call it ‘world 2’. World 2 is immensely important, especially from a human point of view or from a moral point of view. Human suffering belongs to world 2; and human suffering, especially avoidable suffering, is the central moral problem for all those who can help. World 2 could be subdivided in various ways. We can distinguish, if we wish, fully conscious experiences from dreams, or from subconscious experiences. Or we can distinguish human consciousness from animal consciousness. Like World 2, Popper’s world 3 consists entities that do not occupy space or have mass: what we cannot see, touch, or weigh. The difference between world 2 and world 3 is that while the entities of world 2 are ‘natural” ( = nature made), the entities of world 3 are products of world 2. “By world 3 I mean the world of the products of the human mind, such as languages; tales and stories and religious myths; scientific conjectures or theories, and mathematical constructions; songs and symphonies; paintings and sculptures. But also aeroplanes and airports and other feats of engineering. “It would be easy to distinguish a number of different worlds within what I call world 3. We could distinguish the world of science from the world of fiction; and the world of music and the world of art from the world of engineering. For simplicity’s sake I shall speak about one world 3; that is, the world of the products of the human mind. This is a useful way of thinking about objects of inquiry, but the classification is not clean, because it uses three parameters/variables each of which has two values: Parameter 1: Entities which occupy space and have mass, vs. entities which do not occupy space and do not have mass Parameter 2: Entities which exist outside of human or animal minds vs . entities which exist internal to human or animal minds. Parameter 3: Entities which are nature made vs. entities which are products of humans or animals. 4