The idea of an objective reality has been under attack for a while, and I have even been part of the team attacking that objective reality. We know that we have a limited ability to sense and experience the world around us. We know that bats, sharks, and bees experience phenomena that we are blind to. We can’t know that the color red that I experience is exactly like the color red that you experience. Given our lack of sense, the fact that physical stimuli are translated into electrical brain impulses, and that there appears to be plenty of subjectivity in how we experience the same thing, an objective reality doesn’t really seem possible. We seemingly all live within a world created by many subjective measures within our own brains.
But is this idea really accurate? I recently completed Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now in which he argues that reason depends on objectivity and that our efforts toward rationality and reason demonstrate that there is some form of objectivity toward which we are continually working. The very act of attempting to think rationally about our world and how we understand the universe demonstrates that we are striving to understand some sort of objective commonality. A quote from The Book of Why by Judea Pearl seems to support Pinker’s assertion. Pearl writes:
“We experience the same world and share the same mental model of its causal structure. … Our shared mental models bind us together into communities. We can therefore judge closeness not by some metaphysical notion of similarity but by how much we must take apart and perturb our shared model before it satisfies a given hypothetical condition that is contrary to fact.”
Pearl wrote this paragraph while discussing the human ability to imagine alternative possibilities (specifically writing about the sentence Joe’s headache would have gone away if he had taken aspirin). The sentence acknowledges a reality (Joe has a headache) and proposes a different reality that doesn’t actually exist (Joe no longer has a headache because he took aspirin). It is this ability to envision different worlds which forms the basis of our causal interpretations of the world, but it also reveals a shared world in which we live and from which we can imagine different possible worlds. It hints at an objective reality shared among individuals and distinct from unreal and imagined, plausible worlds.
Reason and rationality demonstrate that there seems to be an objective reality in which we are situated and in which we experience the world. There are undoubtedly subjective aspects of that world, but we nevertheless are able to share a world in which we can imagine other possible worlds and consider those alternative worlds as closer or further from the world in which we live. Doing this over and over again, among billions of people, helps us define the actual objective reality which constitutes the world we share and from which we have subjective experiences. It is from this world that we can discuss what is subjective, what causes one phenomenon or another, and from which we can imagine alternative realities based on certain interventions. If there was no objective reality for us to all share, then we would never be able to distinguish alternative worlds and compare them as more or less close to the world we share and exist within.
We often think that biases like prejudice are mean spirited vices that cause people to lie and become hypocritical. The reality, according to Quassim Cassam is that biases like prejudice run much deeper within our minds. Biases can become epistemic vices, inhibiting our ability to acquire and develop knowledge. They are more than just biases that make us behave in ways that we profess to be wrong. Biases can literally shape the reality of the world we live in by altering the way we understand ourselves and other people around us.
“What one sees,” Cassam writes in Vices of the Mind, “is affected by one’s beliefs and background assumptions. It isn’t just a matter of taking in what is in front of one’s eyes, and this creates an opening for vices like prejudice to obstruct the acquisition of knowledge by perception.”
I am currently reading Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now where Pinker argues that humans strive toward rationality and that at the end of the day subjectivity is ultimately over-ruled by reason, rationality, and objectivity. I have long been a strong adherent to the Social Construction Framework and beliefs that our worlds are created and influenced by individual differences in perception to a great degree. Pinker challenges that assumption, but framing his challenge through the lens of Cassam’s quote helps show how Pinker is ultimately correct.
Individual level biases shape our perception. Pinker describes a study where university students watching a sporting event literally see more fouls called against their team than the opponent, revealing the prejudicial vice that Cassam describes. Perception is altered by a prejudice against the team from the other school. Knowledge (in the study it is the accurate number of fouls for each team) is inhibited for the sports fans by their prejudice. The reality they live in is to some extent subjective and shaped by their prejudices and misperceptions.
But this doesn’t mean that knowledge about reality is inaccessible to humans at a larger scale. A neutral third party (or committee of officials) could watch the game and accurately identify the correct number of fouls for each side. The sports fans and other third parties may quibble about the exact final number, but with enough neutral observers we should be able to settle on a more accurate reality than if we left things to the biased sports fans. At the end of the day, rationality will win out through strength of numbers, and even the disgruntled sports fan will have to admit that the number of fouls they perceived was different from the more objective number of fouls agreed upon by the neutral third party members.
I think this is at the heart of the message from Cassam and the argument that I am currently reading from Pinker. My first reaction to Cassam’s quote is to say that our realities are shaped by biases and perceptions, and that we cannot trust our understanding of reality. However, objective reality (or something pretty close to it that enough non-biased people could reasonably describe) does seem to exist. As collective humans, we can reach objective understandings and agreements as people recognize and overcome biases and as the descriptions of the world presented by non-biased individuals prove to be more accurate over the long run. The key is to recognize that epistemic vices shape our perception at a deep level, that they are more than just hypocritical behaviors and that they literally shape the way we interpret reality. The more we try to overcome these vices of the mind, the more accurately we can describe the world, and the more our perception can then align with reality.
I really enjoy science podcasts, science writing, and trying to think rationally and scientifically when I observe and consider the world. Within science, when we approach the world to better understand the connections that take place, we try to isolate the variables acting on our observations or experiments. We try to separate ourselves from the world so that we can make an objective and independent observation of reality, free from our own interference and influence. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that we are part of the world, and that we do have an influence on it. No matter how independent and rational we want to be, we are still part of the world and interact with it, even if we are just thinking and observing.
Daniel Kahneman demonstrates how our thoughts and observations can lead us to have unintended physical manifestations in the world in his book Thinking Fast and Slow. He presents the reader with two words that normally don’t go together (I won’t reveal his experiment for the reader here). What he shows with his word association experiment is that simple thoughts, just hearing or reading a word, can influence how we experience and behave in the physical world. Anyone who has started sweating during a poker game and anyone who has shuttered just from reading the words nails on a chalkboard knows that this is true. We are physical systems, and simple thoughts, memories, and words are enough to trigger physical responses in our bodies. While we like to think of ourselves as being independent and separate from the world, we never really are.
Kahneman explains this by writing, “As cognitive scientists have emphasized in recent years, cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain.” Our brains take in electrical information from stimuli in the world. Chemicals bind to receptors in our noses or on our tongues, and nerves transmit electrical information to the brain to tell it what chemicals are present. Light interacts with receptors in our eyes, and nerves from our eyes again travel directly into our brains. Thinking is a direct result of physical sensory input, and while we can’t physically touch a thought, our body does react to the thinking and experiencing taking place.
No matter how much we want to believe that we can be objective and separated from the physical reality of the world around us, we cannot be 100% isolated. We experience the world physically, and we can try to think of the world independently, but our senses and experiences are directly connected to that physical world. Our responses in turn are also physical, even if we don’t perceive them. We have to accept, no matter how scientific and objective we want to be, that we are part of the system we are evaluating. There is no independent God’s eye view
, our cognition is embodied, and we are within the system we observe.
A funny thing happened with people’s thoughts about the economy following the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Supporters of Hillary Clinton prior to the election had strong feelings about the economy, while Republican supporters of Donald Trump thought the economy was terrible. In the days and weeks following the election, perceptions of the economy switched. Nothing economically speaking had really changed in the immediate days after we discovered that Donald Trump would become the 45th president of the United States, but suddenly those who voted Republican in 2016 had a positive outlook on the economy, while those who had voted for Clinton thought the country’s economy was in trouble.
Our opinion of a circumstance can shape the experience we have of many aspects of our lives. The economic outlook of people following the election in 2016 demonstrates this ability. We can experience a great economy based on whether our favored candidate wins an election, or we can experience an economic downturn if our candidate does not, even if actual economic trends don’t change. We don’t exist in an independent or objective place outside of the world around us. Instead we take in cues about how others are doing, about our identity relative to others, and about the position of groups like us and start to create the reality we experience. Whether we want to or not, we measure our social standing against other people that we see or interact with on a daily basis and the stories we tell ourselves matter to how we feel about our place in the world and our future.
Being aware of this, however, can help us tone down negative impulses and thoughts that might be triggered by this type of social comparison. As Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic, “what does your condition matter, if it is bad in your own eyes?” If we constantly look around and see others who have more than us, who look better than us, and who in one way or another demonstrate a higher social status than us, then we will never be content with ourselves and our position. A solution is to step back and consider ourselves without defining ourselves as successful or as a failure relative to others. We can consider ourselves more fully, redefining what we need to be successful in our lives, and basing success on factors that don’t involve our relative social position to others. Through self-awareness and reflection, we can begin to focus more on what matters, on the things that actually make people valuable, and change how volatile our notion of good or bad can be.
“Self deception is useful only when you’re playing against an opponent who can take your mental state into account,” write Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in The Elephant in the Brain. “Sabotaging yourself works only when you’re playing against an opponent with a theory-of-mind.”
When we think about other people and their actions, we don’t just look at the hard facts of what happened. We spend a lot of time trying to read small cues and context to understand why someone did something. We project ourselves into the situation, we imagine other people in their situation, and sometimes we even imagine a person from space with no human social awareness in the situation. We strive to understand what types of mental processes and thoughts may have been taking place in the person’s head at the time of an action or decision. From sports, to politics, to office gossip, we attempt to guess the mental state of others, we hold a theory of what is taking place in their mind.
This is a key part of game theory. We have to be able to deduce that others are thinking something and that they are interpreting, reacting to, and making decisions about a given situation and will change their behavior in response to the way that we think and behave. In this world, social decisions and consequences along with individual actions become very complex very fast. What often matters is not so much a given outcome, but the intent behind the outcome. Was this person just trying to make themselves richer, or did they have more altruistic motives of helping everyone? Did this person really want to develop a new type of road to help improve traffic, or again, were they just out for themselves? Is my crime conspirator going to rat me out, or will he keep his mouth shut? These are the types of questions and things we think about when we assume other people have minds that work like ours.
This brings in self-deception. If we are always looking at others trying to sort out their motives, and if they are doing the same to us, then we better have a really good poker face when we are lying–or when we are just not quite telling the full truth. “we, humans, must self-deceive. Those who refuse to play such mind games will be at a disadvantage relative to others who play along,” the authors white in their book. Many of us have probably been in a situation where we tried to be truthful and honest, but were afraid that someone who was not truthful could interfere with our plans by seeming to be honest but really lying. They may have made great impressions and possibly gotten the reward we hoped for, ultimately preventing us from doing something good while they scammed the situation. This is why we are under pressure to self-deceive, to over promise, to inflate ourselves, and to fudge the details. After all, if we know we can do something the best, we better make sure we have the chance and don’t have it stolen by someone else who might be lying and less capable. Competing with other smart social creatures encourages self-deception so that we can feel good about ourselves and appear more genuine when we are distorting the facts so that we can get ahead.
Paul Krassner is one of the many writers who sent James Harmon a letter for his book Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People who Know a Thing or Two. In his letter Kressner wrote about our perception of other people, and our perception of the world. In his last paragraph he wrote, “Always remember that everybody’s perception is their reality.” This speaks to me because it is so easy for us to judge someone else and their actions from our point of view. When we look at others this way, we are not taking the time to step into their shoes or make an effort to understand their lives. We cannot criticize another person for the decisions they make if we do not understand the pressures and realities in that persons life. Each person’s unique history and experiences may have driven them to make specific decisions
Near the beginning of his letter Krassner writes,”Watch yourself as though you were observing a Martian. Watch others as though they were also Martians under observation.” What Krassner is advocating for is the ability to look at a situation objectively. For him it is important that we are aware of how we live and what we do, but also aware of the way that others live. If we are able to build this awareness without ascribing every action or choice that a person makes as good or bad, then we can start to have greater control of our decisions and actions. In addition, when we view people as if they were Martians, we do not bring our previous biases into the situation to create a background story about the person, (think of how easy it is to see a lawyer in a suit and decide he is a jerk before you watch him do anything) and instead we simply observe their behavior. To me, this is a great way to begin to reflect on the choices we make to live an intentional life.