Can We Truly Understand Our Natural Universe?
Yes, but not through our “physical/biological senses” alone. We would have to be able to see beyond the “visible universe” to reach the hidden truth.
Although science claims to search for or discover the truths/facts by using “objective methods,” it is never clear what is an objective method and thus what can be classified as ‘objective reality” or fact?
Here are some excerpts from first chapter of my book “Soulless Goddess: Is science a New Fairy Tale?”
“Is There Such a Thing as “Objectivity?’
Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him [or her].
Heinz Von Foerster
Before knowing the answer to this question, we first try to identify the concept of “objectivity” as is defined, promoted, projected, and blindly believed by the very advocates as well as followers of science. Following quote published in the science journal “Nature” can give us some insights into the claim regarding the objectivity of scientific research:
“Science and politics benefit from the perception that science is objective and separate.”
Keeping aside the quote and the message that it conveys, we must first try to understand what the term “objective” or “objectivity” denotes as it is a central to understanding the nature of contemporary science(s) and its influence on the society as a whole.
Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the term “objective” in following words:
“expressing or dealing with facts or conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices, or interpretations.”
Here is a definition by “Google:”
“of a person (or their judgement) not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts.”
Wikipedia defines, “objectivity in philosophy” as under:
“ In philosophy, objectivity is the concept of truth independent from individual subjectivity. A proposition is considered to have objective truth when its truth conditions are met without bias caused by a sentient subject. Scientific objectivity refers to the ability to judge without partiality or external influence.”
Other definitions also give the same concept of objectivity with some minor differences.
However, the question that arises in mind is that: Does there really exist anything that we can call “objectivity” or “objective reality?” because it is the cardinal rule on which hinges the whole concept and claims of “modern science” (or should we say “Western/capitalist science?”). Although it is very difficult to reach a final conclusion, we can, however, try to ascertain and then determine the true concept.
The supposed objectivity of science has, as already pointed out, come into question many times. Similarly, scientific method has not always proven adequate; scientific observations have, at times, reflected personal bias.
Researchers from the “Perception and Mind lab” at John Hopkins University have found, after a series of experiments that it is nearly impossible to separate an object’s true identity from the viewer’s perception of it. This finding contradicts the “classical view” that the brain transforms the image that hits the retina and removes our perspective from the representation. In other words, the brain represents the object in its true form, for instance, a circle.
Even if we accept the proposition or claim of science or scientists that it is possible to have an unbiased and nonpartisan view or observation, the pure objectivity or material reality alone can serve no purpose without (meaningful) human interaction with it.
It is also worth mentioning that the ideal of objective reality has been criticized repeatedly in the philosophy of science, questioning both its desirability and attainability. Humans experience world(s) from a perspective. And no one can claim that only their perspective is true or final.
However, to counter the idea of different perspectives, it is argued that objective reality is independent of the observer. This view, that there is a reality independent of any belief or perceptions is also called “realism.”
For example, meteors crashing on the moon or earth’s surface without anybody observing, or, a little stream flowing in a jungle while nobody is watching or enjoying its beauty. These are real happening (objective realities) even when there is no watcher or hearer, according to the proponents of objectivity. There is also a famous conundrum: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there, does it still make a sound?” According to the proponents of objective reality, it does as sound is a sound and doesn’t rely on people (or hearer). Some might even argue that there are also animals in the jungle to hear the sound. But, then animals have instincts and not any intellect that can enable them to understand, judge, and reason about the happening. Another, apparently “common sense” argument could be that all events happen whether observers (humans) are around or not to experience them.
Hence according to the zealous advocates of objectivity, the object or happening would be there, as it is, even if no subject perceives or experiences it.
But does this make any sense? Because if there is no observers/human to experience the reality (or simulation as we will discuss in the last chapter if the physical or outside reality is a mere simulation or something that we call original/authentic) or happening what purpose does it serve? Are (natural) events/phenomena occurring without any meaning or purpose or message? Can there be any objective reality without any subjective experience?
As very lucidly and precisely explained by (late) Christopher Caudwell (a British journalist, Professional writer, and Marxist literary critic/scholar) in his book “Illusion and Reality,” we can’t become aware of (or find) the truth without our struggle with the nature. He further maintains:
“Truth is an organized product of man’s struggle with nature. As that struggle accumulates capital (technique and knowledge) and grows in complexity, so the truth which is the reflection of reality blossoms in man’s head. Only a partial aspect of that truth, at any time, can be in any one man’s head.”
“In each man “truth” takes the form of perception — what he seizes of reality with his senses — and memory — what is active at any moment of former perception, affecting his present perception.”
Truth, therefore, according to Caudwell, is a part of the universe and generated as a result of man’s struggle with the outside reality [even if it is a simulation or replica of some perfect world beyond this space and time as is being claimed by some well-known scientists]. In changing the outside reality, man changes himself and vice versa. Hence to change outside reality, one has to change oneself, and to change oneself, one has to change the outside reality. In this way, both nature and man continue (progressively) to affect each other to make life more understandable and meaningful.
Hence if objective reality doesn’t need an observer or subject and is independent of any observer, then what this reality has to do with the reality or act of changing it and thus changing oneself and making a progress towards discovering deeper layers of reality or truth?
It is also proposed or argued that a perceiving subject can either perceive accurately or seem to perceive features of the object (under observation) that are not present or found in the object. For example, a perceiving subject suffering from jaundice could seem to perceive an object as yellow when the object is not actually yellow. Therefore, the term “subjective” typically indicates the possibility of error.
Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy refers to another idea in support of objective reality that is called “The View From Nowhere.” According to this view, the content of an individual’s experiences varies greatly with his perspective, which is affected by his personal situation, and the details of his perceptual apparatus, language, and culture. While the experiences vary, there seems to be something that remains constant. For instance, the appearance of a tree would change as one approaches it but — according to commonsense and most philosophers — the real tree itself doesn’t. A room may feel hot or cold to different persons, but its temperature is independent of their experiences. The object in front of me does not disappear just because the lights are turned off.
Hence, in contrast to subjective (that is characterized by perceiving mind), the objective is characterized by physical extension in space and time. The above examples seem to make a distinction between qualities that vary with one’s perspective, and qualities that remain constant through changes of perspectives. The latter, according to the proponents of objective reality, are objective qualities.
However, what the proponents of objective reality do not know or choose to ignore is that outside reality itself is also not fixed but always fluid as is explained by the following quote of Heraclitus:
“You cannot step in the same river twice, for other waters are continually flowing on.”
What the quote is trying to convey is that there is nothing constant because nothing is perfect. It is also added, in another reference to the quote, that “even a man crossing the river is not the same man” as he is also constantly changing. Hence the perfect world is just an idea and always will be and, thus, there can’t be a perfect observation of any outside reality. Although tree may seem different if seen from different angles or by different people, tree itself is also constantly changing and cannot remain constant. So while the physical manifestation of any outside reality seems more real than the idea of it in the mind of an observer, we always rely on the idea to describe and judge an object. Hence, idea, in my view, comes first. Similarly, Plato also believed that the “physical world around us is constantly changing and thus you can never say what reality is. This is the world of ideas [of which this world is a shadow] which is a world of unchanging and absolute truth.”
Another point, as stressed again and again by Plato and Aristotle in their writings, is that the objects that humans perceive or apprehend are divided into two categories: Sensible and Intelligible.
The first category of objects belongs to physical reality as these can be apprehended by sense-perception. For instance: Tree, river, rock, table, chair etc. In the second category fall all those objects that are purely intelligible, such as the objects of mathematical thought, or metaphysical objects of purely spiritual/non-material nature. For example souls, angels, God, and also other objects (abstract concepts) of thought as liberty, justice, virtue, knowledge, the infinite, and even the mind (we should also know that “brain” and “mind” are two different things as most philosophers believe that brain is the seat of the mind and ideas are produced by mind and not by brain.) None of these can ever be perceived by senses. (We shall elaborate on this point in the next chapter.)
And because intellect depends for all its primary apprehensions, as emphasized by Mortimer J. Adler in his book “Ten Philosophical Mistakes,” upon sense experiences, the objective reality can’t be purely objective in a material sense, as the main purpose of outside reality is to provide food for thought and ground for reflection [or even as a symbol of some higher/abstract idea] and not to know merely some material characteristic of the object being observed.
The last point is that “truth is a social construct” and not an “individual’s (private) construct.” Even though scientific activity has to begin with some claims about evidential basis, the facts of the matter, establishing these facts is a process that takes place in a social, political, cultural, and intellectual contexts. In the 1970s, social construction became a buzzword for treating a wide range of topics, following the Berger and Luckmann’s “The Social Construction of Reality (1966).” However, Caudwell had already suggested this idea in his book “Illusion and Reality that was first published in1937. And, as pointed out by him, “truth is an organized product of man’s struggle with Nature….. Only a partial aspect of that truth, at any time, can be in any one man’s head. Distorted, partial, and limited, in one head, this perception of reality yet acquires the power of truth of science, in the heads of all living men, because it is organized by the conditions of society which themselves spring from the necessities of economic production.” Thus, he further elaborates, “at any time truth is the special complex formed by the partial reflections of reality in all living men’s heads, not as a mere lumping together, but as these views are organized in a given society, by its level of experimental technique, scientific literature, means of communication and discussion, and laboratory facilities.”