The way we understand something will limit how much of it we allow ourselves to see.
If we understand science as the application of an objective scientific method — a method that is applicable across all situations — we will overlook the large and small idiosyncrasies that characterize all the actual theory and experiment.
But if we “zoom in” to pin down these idiosyncrasies, we’ll find that the details which differentiate them from what we might consider to be the more objective aspects of science get quite blurry.
(So blurry in fact, that it may become clear to us right then that the objects of experience are not simply perceived but constructed in the process of perception.)
Similar logic applies to the concept of objectivity in science.
The common sense understanding of objectivity relies on the presumption that behind the apparent objects lie actual objects. When I’m looking at a tree, for example, I’m looking at it in one of thousands of possible ways I could look at it. And though each perspective may be different, we tend to think that it is the same object, the same tree, that’s being looked at.
In other words, we think that “behind” what we see, and indeed behind what anyone can possibly see, lies the object itself — something more or less independent of my experience of it, something that perhaps even causes experience.
But how does this presumption relate to the actual ironclad facts of your experience?
Ask yourself: Have I, or has anyone I know, ever experienced anything other than experience? Is there anything in my actual experience that is made out of something other than my experiencing it?
Clearly, the answer is that I have never in fact experienced an object that exists apart from my experiencing it.
So, in assuming that such an object exists behind the veil of appearance — and thinking that this is what in fact does the appearing — we mistakenly take what is simply “a subjective experiencing” to be “my subjective experience of the object”.
As a result of this confusion, our common sense concept of objectivity — which is derived from and so based on this simple misunderstanding — points to a mere imaginary object, a taken-on-faith doctrine, a kind of pseudo-scientific unicorn that refers to nothing whatsoever in our actual experience.
(The interesting observation here is not so much that we believe that there exists an objective reality and then act as if this was true, but that we find ourselves acting as if it was true and then convince ourselves that what is merely a fairly boring imaginary abstract construct, “the real world”, is in fact a real thing!)
Okay, you may say, so there cannot be any evidence that objective reality exists, that much is clear. But is objectivity not a necessary presumption in principle, if not in fact?
Yes, the concept of objectivity is necessary if we want to understand the structure of thought and experience — or how thought thinks and how experience is experienced. But our common sense take on objectivity is absolutely unnecessary, and is indeed quite volatile and destructive.
So a better question would be this: Are we stuck with the dogmatic and basically fundamentalist-religious image of objectivity described above? Or can we develop a concept of objectivity that is grounded in and responsive to our actual experience?
In fact, there is a simpler and more direct, if somewhat counter-intuitive, way to conceptualize objectivity. One which, in the spirit of Occam’s razor, allows us to cut the number of taken-for-granted presuppositions, and do away with the rather silly common sense notion that some imaginary objective world is the cause of experience.
In this second, let’s call it post-modern, understanding experience is not a reflection of the imaginary objective reality, as it is in our common sense understanding, but the source of it — a source for both the subjective (our sense of “I exist”) and the objective (our scientific descriptions).
According to this second understanding, no particular experience or form — whether material (sensation or perception) or symbolic (language or image) — has a referent on the presumed objective side because no such other side exists as separate from the actual experience.
In the common sense understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world was derived from the unsupported and unsupportable presumption of a reality behind appearances that is independent of our experience, but which nonetheless makes our experience possible.
In the post-modern understanding of objectivity, our experience of the world is a result of the way in which our present understanding of the world — a historically and linguistically conditioned objective idea, now without an ideal ancestor — interacts with the present perception.
Since our present ideas about the world are themselves both the means of scientific objectification and its context — that is, they determine what “counts as” experience and are themselves experience — as they change, so will change the objective reality itself, not just our concept or idea about it.
For example, not only is the idea “tree” constructed differently by each perceptual-conceptual apparatus (i.e. mind) at different times, the very object “tree”, since it cannot be abstracted away from the process of understanding, will change depending on perspective (à la Quantum mechanics).
So indeed, if we are going to do science — if we are going to try to figure out how the thing works — we need to set up a tentative objective idea “tree”, so that we can compare what we observe to what we think is going on (always being careful not to take “what we think is going on” for “what is in fact going on”).
But instead of a correspondence between what is apparent to what is presumed real, what in this new understanding constitutes the criteria of objectivity becomes a matter of coherence — “Is our understanding of the concept “tree” appropriate to the context in which it is being used?” — and sense — “Does this understanding do what we want it to do?”
In other words, the questioning here shifts away from “It this true?” or “How closely does this finding represent reality?” to “How does it work?” and “How can it be used as a tool?” “What new problem or problematic does it make possible?”
This second, much more nuanced, if a little tricky, understanding of objectivity in science — unlike its common sense predecessor — makes more sense to us simply because it is better aligned with our actual experience.
But it could also go a long way in shedding light on the nature of what The Structure of Scientific Revolutions refers to as paradigm shifting science events, and replace the wild sociological and metaphysical speculations with solid philosophy of science.