Monday, April 11, 2011

Distinctions, Part II: Absolute vs. Objective Truths

In thinking about objectivism in morals, it is important to distinguish objectivism from something with which it is often confused in polemical debates--something that we might call "absolutism." This distinction is best characterized in relation to what absolutism and objectivism are paired against--their contrasting concepts, if you will--which are context-dependence and subjectivism respectively.

We're typically called absolutists or objectivists with respect to propositions in which we predicate something of an object, event, state of affairs, natural kind, etc.--that is, statements of the form "A is a p" or "A has property p." So, consider the following statement: "Water boils at 100˚C" ("Water has the property of boiling at 100˚C").To be an absolutist about this is to hold that water has this property of boiling at 100˚C regardless of context. It is to say that this is a context-independent truth about water (that, in other words, the boiling point of water is not a function of any other variable). Of course, to say this is to be committed to something that is false. Indeed, we might say that it is objectively false. To be an absolutist about the boiling point of water is to believe things that are objectively false of water, and as such is to fail to believe what is objectively true of it (such as that its boiling point is in part of function of atmospheric pressure).

Of course, I'm getting ahead of myself--but the point is that to be able to say this, "objective" must mean something different from "absolute." And indeed it does. When I say that "Water boils at 100˚C" is true objectively, I am not thereby saying that it is true absolutely. As such, if I say this, it is not an objection to my claim to point out that there are a range of conditions under which water does not boil at 100˚C. Either I will take this as a friendly amendment to my claim (as a more precise characterization of what the objective truth is, but not as a challenge to my main contention, which is that what is at issue is an objective truth), or I will treat it as an annoying failure to realize that I was speaking elliptically (that I was intending to refer implicitly to a set of agreed "standard conditions," and was simply saying, in an abbreviated way, "Water boils at 100˚C under these standard conditions").

So what do I mean when I say that it is objectively true that water boils at 100˚C? I mean that when I attribute the predicate "boils at 100˚C (under standard conditions)" to water, I am saying something of water that is true of water, as opposed to merely saying something about me (that I happen to feel 100˚C-iously towards boiling water, or something to that effect). By contrast, when I say from the swimming pool, "The water is pleasant," I am really just saying something about myself--that I happen to feel comfortable in the water. This latter claim is thus subjective rather than objective. In short, to say that "Water boils at 100˚C" is objectively true is to say that what one is saying is not primarily about oneself, that the truth-maker for the claim is not some wholly subject-relative response to the water. One has, in effect, discovered something about the water, as opposed to merely discovering something about oneself.

But the line here is trickier than it may at first appear. After all, there is a fairly narrow range of water temperatures such that anyone immersed in them would be inclined to call them pleasant. Given the nature of human physiology, anyone who leaped into near-boiling or near-freezing water and declared it pleasant would be lying, kidding, or suffering from a dangerous disability of the nervous system (the sense-of-touch equivalent of blindness). Furthermore, the property of being at 100˚C is the property of corresponding in a certain way to a measuring system created by human beings.

(In fact, it was created using the boiling point of water under standard conditions as the basis for setting the 100˚ mark--just to complicate matters and make me wish I'd chosen a different example. But let us set this aside for now and presume that "Water boils at 100˚C under standard conditions" is not simply an analytic truth, that is, true by definition).

The point is that water's boiling point being 100˚C is arguably a relational fact about how the behavior of water effects certain human artifacts (thermometers) in terms of a human system of measurement (the Celsius system). And one could imagine a much cruder system of measurement being highly effective for certain purposes--one involving immersing body parts in water, and appealing to the pleasantness or unpleasantness (and kind of unpleasantness) that resulted. ("Are you feeling hot or cold? On a scale of 1 to 10, just how badly do you want to get out of the water?") So why isn't "The water is pleasant" treated as stating an objective property of a specific body of water--only much cruder and vaguer, less informative (for those familiar with the relevant measuring system), than "The water is 30˚C"? 

Perhaps the thing to say is this: While a temperature measurement is a relational property between the thing being measured and certain human artifacts (measuring tools and systems of measure), the artifacts are carefully designed to precisely and consistently track certain features of the water, and as such are designed to be unaffected (or largely unaffected) by variable features of the individual doing the measuring. There is a (relatively successful) attempt to refer to and track something that exists independent of the human subject--something that was true of water long before humans ever started sticking thermometers into boiling kettles (indeed, well before there were humans in existence). When someone says "The water is pleasant," while this statement does typically tell us something that is true of the water (insofar as human nervous systems are generally callibrated to generate unpleasant sensations outside of a certain fairly narrow range), what it is primarily aimed at telling us is something about how the subject feels (a certain qualitative state that the subject is in). And should it turn out that the person who makes this claim has an unusual physiology--an unusual resistance to hypothermia paired with a neurological resistance to cold temperatures that would set other people to shivering and seeking a quick escape from the water--it would remain true that, for him--the water was pleasant. Why? Because the statement is really about the qualitative state that the subject happens to be in, and as such remains true even if the "objective features of the world" that ordinarily correspond with that qualitative state are not present in this particular case.

To put the point another way, the truth-maker for a subjective statement is something "in the head" of the person making the statement--what makes the statement true or false is whether the person's consciousness is characterized by this subjective qualitative condition or not. By contrast, the truth-maker for an objective statement is something outside the head of the person making the statement--something "in" the object under discussion.

But this distinction leaves something out--something that may be helpfully pointed out if we change our example to one having to do with color. When it comes to color perception, the standard contemporary view is that our experience of color is linked to encountering wavelengths of light of different frequencies. Our color perception is a fairly (but hardly perfectly) refined tool for tracking different wavelengths of light, and as such might be seen as doing for us something very like what a thermometer and a system of temperature measurement does for us: it gets us in touch with something "out there," tracking changes in the external world with a fair degree of precision.

More significantly, when we say that the ball is blue, we mean to be referring to something out there. That is, we intend to name a property that is possessed by the ball independent of our subjective qualitative states. At the same time, however, there is a qualitative subjective experience that corresponds with the term "blue." We can close our eyes and "picture" what blue is like. According to the dominant contemporary paradigm, this subjective color experience, blue's "quale" (to use a quasi-technical term from philosophy of mind), is "all in our heads" in the sense that it isn't actually a feature of the ball at all. Instead, what is "out there" is a surface that differentially reflects different wavelengths of light, such that more of the "blue" wavelengths are reflected and fewer absorbed. Our eyes have mechanisms for discerning this and communicating it to the visual center of the brain, which in turn somehow (mysteriously) plays a role in creating the subjective color experience with which we are immediately familiar. 

But let us suppose that Mary has suffered a head injury, and that--while possessed of vivid color experiences like the rest of us--has these experiences in a manner that no longer reliably tracks what is "out there." Her color experiences used to track--and so she learned how to use color language, and for a long time wedded her language usage to her qualitative color experiences with great success: She'd see something, experience it as blue, call it blue, others would agree, and everyone was happy. 

But not anymore. (If this way of framing the example seems unnecessarily convoluted to you, it's because you haven't read Wittgenstein--who probably would still be unhappy with my way of putting this example despite my care). Now, when Mary sees the ball, has an immediate color experience, and calls it blue, others say things like, "Um, that's yellow. Do you need to get your eyes checked?" She tries to relearn her language usage--but the next time she sees a "seemingly" blue object and calls it yellow, she'd told that it's red.

We can imagine that she gives up, concluding that her color experiences no longer track onto anything objective in the world. But suppose, instead, that--being rather stubborn--she insists that everyone else has got it wrong. She sees that the ball is blue--and so it is. In that case, when the ball in question happens to be preferentially reflecting light in the yellow spectrum, we'd be inclined (well, I'd certainly be inclined) to say that her subjective color experience doesn't fit with the objective reality, and hence that she is objectively mistaken in attributing "blue" to the ball--even if (as may be the case) the subjective color experience she is having is the same one that, before her accident, tracked "blue objects" very well (and--although I'm not sure how we could know this--is the same one that I have when I see blue objects).

The point of all of this is that much of what goes on in color experience is "subjective"--but color judgments are not subjective ones, because the purpose of color judgments is to track something in the world that is independent of the subject--to say something that is true of objects in the world. When my subjective qualitative color experiences, produced during my visual encounter with the external world, "fit" with their intentional object (in the way that Mary's do not), the judgments that follow from them are objectively true. When these subjective color experiences do not fit (as is the case with Mary), then the judgments that follow (in Mary's case because she is too stubborn to give up making such judgments) are objectively false. And Mary's judgment that the ball is blue is objective false even though it is true of Mary that she is having a subjective "blue" color experience when she looks at the ball. What makes it true that the ball is blue is not that Mary has an experience of this sort, but that the experience "fits" the ball--in something like the way that it would in the case of someone with normally functioning vision, or in something like the way that temperature measurements fit their objects when the measuring equipment and scale are not faulty.

In any event, it should be clear that being objective in this sense is nothing like being absolute--and that it does not preclude subjective experiences of a certain kind being the primary mechanism through which (objective) judgments are reached. 


  1. Eric,

    I think you explain quite well the subjective/objective distinction, but I’d like to raise two, I think, significant points:

    1. What do you think about my argument that the subjective/objective distinction is a fuzzy one, because all propositions identified as subjective cannot fail to have an objective dimension too, and vice versa? There is not really, I say, any boundary between what is inside our heads and outside our heads. Even on naturalism there isn’t. So for example, to say “Mary experiences a yellow ball” when everybody else sees a blue ball entails not only that something is wrong within Mary’s head but also that from outside Mary’s head an signal arrives which is consistent with the event that electromagnetic radiation from the high end of the visible spectrum (i.e. “blue”) was reflected by a ball near Mary’s head. One can’t separate the subject from the object, neither on naturalism, nor on theism, and I think properly so, for reality is a continuum. However reality is, we are part of reality and reality is part of us.

    2. I am more curious about your thoughts on this second observation though, for it pertains to epistemology, and many basic epistemological principles (i.e. how we should think) are universally accepted. One such principle is that one should avoid the use of confusing and misguiding language. Language is so powerful that sometimes it drives thought instead of being driven by it. In this sense then, why should one in philosophical discourse make the subjective/objective distinction in the first place? In everyday discourse if Mary says “The ball is yellow” it is ambiguous, because she may be claiming the incorrigible fact that she experiences a yellow ball, or the fallible claim that the ball is yellow (i.e. reflects light from the mid-region of the visible spectrum). To clarify this ambiguity, we call the former meaning “subjective”, and the latter “objective”. On the other hand in philosophical discourse one should be careful to use non-ambiguous language, and even without using the subjective/objective distinction it is always possible to clearly express what one means.

    So far it seems that using the subjective/objective distinction in philosophy is only superfluous, but my contention is that it is actually misleading, and not only because of the inherent fuzziness of the distinction, but because it hides or confuses the underlying epistemic circumstance. This is especially clear in ethical and esthetical talk, and I probably in all talk about values. So, for example, the actual meaning of “to torture children for fun is wrong” is the objective one. Nobody says “to torture children for fun is wrong” subjectively, i.e. to express one’s affective response to the idea of torturing children for fun. But, as it turns out, it is difficult to describe the ontological meaning of that ethical proposition in a naturalistic reality, and therefore many (but not all) naturalists decide that moral values do not exist. And if they do not exist in reality they absolutely do not exist. Incidentally, it’s quite common to believe that something does not exist. I, for example, do not believe in the existence of ghosts, and therefore think that all talk about ghosts is nonsense. In the philosophical discourse where language should be as clear as possible, those who believe that ethical values do not exist, should not fudge the issue by using the subjective/objective distinction and say “ethical propositions are true or false in the subjective sense” in order to avoid saying “ethical propositions are nonsense”. To say the latter is I think as misguiding (and perhaps hypocritical) as it would be for me to say that propositions about ghosts are true or false in the subjective sense and refer to one’s affective response to ghost stories.

    [continues bellow]

  2. [continues from above]

    Given the importance of one’s epistemic circumstance, which you discussed in your previous post, it would serve truth if everybody tried to use the language that best expresses one’s epistemic position. “Philosophical argumentation by way of redefining the meaning of common words” is a very bad idea, and it seems to me it is being waged systematically. For example I can’t make heads or tails of the idea of compatibilist freedom, nor, frankly why one should speak of “libertarian freedom”, given that “libertarian freedom” is what “freedom” means. In contrast to the subjective/objective distinction, the libertarian/compatibilist distinction is an entirely spurious one. In normal discourse to say something like “it was impossible for you to have chosen X but you were free to choose X (and you are morally responsible for not having chosen X)” would, rightly, be deemed to be absurd, but such is implied by the notion of compatibilist freedom, which philosophers still seriously discuss. If one’s epistemic circumstance is such that one believes that freedom does not exist or that freedom is an incoherent concept then one should simply say “freedom does not exist” or “freedom is a incoherent concept” but not fudge one’s epistemic position by artificial notions such as “compatibilist freedom”. Another major concept that is redefined with abandon is “consciousness”. We all know what “consciousness” means even if it is kind of challenging to give a concise definition. But definitively “consciousness” does not mean “some physical processes in one’s brain”, nor the “function of the brain” the way “digestion” means the function of the “stomach”. Similarly, “water” does not mean “H2O”. “Water” refers to the transparent liquid that flows in rivers, and which we often drink to quench our thirst, and which modern science has discovered can be modeled as consisting of a large number of H2O molecules. I say, if someone does not like the meaning of a particular word, one is free to coin a different word with the meaning one likes; but to introduce in philosophical discourse the original word under a new and custom-made meaning to further an argument is, in my judgment, a philosophical lapse; a true and blue epistemological no-no.

    In the recent debate between Sam Harris and William Lane Craig on the topic of ethics, Craig accused Harris of redefining in his latest book the concept of “good” to mean “conscious well-being”. Harris did not respond directly, but at some point argued that Craig also played the “definition game” because he defined that God is good. But, it seems to me, there is a fundamental difference: St Anselm’s classical definition (which entails that God is all-good) concisely captures what people in fact do mean by “God”. Harris’ definition of “good” can properly be called a redefinition because people do not mean by “good” “conscious well-being” or “what increases conscious well-being” (even though of course what is good does often increase conscious well-being).

    In conclusion, I think it’s one thing to search for the most charitable interpretation of another person’s thoughts, and another thing to play along the “let’s fudge the meaning of words” game.

  3. Hi Eric,

    We can talk of objective temperature because we have thermometers to measure it. Likewise, we can measure colours by the wavelengths of reflected light. Heat and colour defined this way are only related to our intuitive notions, however; they are not the same – we feel metal to be cooler than wood, for instance (but this also can be measured).

    The question is whether, in the absence of any method of measurement or verification (even in principle), it is even meaningful to say that something is objective. Doesn't the very notion of “objectivity” imply an explicit standard of some kind?

  4. Hi Eric

    I wonder about this aspect or your distinction:

    If we say water boils at 100 degrees celsius, then the implicit assumptions, when made explicit (e.g air pressure) are not just pedantic, but actually allow us to investigate and clarify aspects of the boiling process.

    For me, even understanding what people mean by objective morality, requires just this type of clarification. Understanding how objective morals might vary across evolutionary and cultural space is crucial to my understanding. To use the torturing example, to clarify where in the evolutionary process this became wrong, and why, if morality is relative to biological space, it is not also relative to cultural space, would help me see what people are referring to.


  5. Dianelos

    I do use the subjective meaning of ethical statement. When I say something is wrong, I mean it feels wrong to me, or I believe it will contribute to an end that I find undesirable, or sometimes, that a particular group, culture or indeed species are subject to the same feelings.

    I also mean that were somebody, viewing this from a different point in the intellectual landscape (a neanderthal perhaps) to claim it wasn't wrong, I would have no means of demonstrating their fault, beyond appealling to my own intuition.

    Thus, the subjective/objective distinction can perhaps be recast as the one you use, that of universal versus private truths, those that can be extended through evidence and reason, and those that can't?

    So, in Mary's case, the incidence of light wavelength reaching her eyes can be verified by impartial observers, and in this sense the subjective/objective divide appears helpful in isolating the aspect of Mary's experience that can be worked upon in the public realm.


  6. (repost)


    I will first comment to an issue you raised in the previous thread which is related to the one you raise now.

    In the previous thread you write: “You say sometimes intuitions clash at a level where there is no hope of progressing through examining and sharing one another's reasons. You use the metaphor of two different worlds, and give the example of one person deeply feeling the presence of God, and another deeply feeling a corresponding non-presence. I'm not sure how far you would push this metaphor. Are you suggesting that God is simultaneously real and not real, depending upon the world one inhabits?

    I would say that the concept of reality is about the truth-giver, i.e. about what it is that makes true(or what grounds the truth of) the dynamic kind of propositions which we relatively easily test and relatively easily agree with (by “dynamic” I mean propositions of the form “do X and you’ll experience Y”). In other words the concept of reality is about what is static out there, is about the form of the landscape of the human condition, and which indeed explains why dynamic propositions hold. After all, dynamic propositions describe one’s movement around where one is situated, and thus describe a smaller or larger region of the landscape of the human condition. (As I have been arguing above, all true propositions ultimately refer to the individual, for otherwise they would be deemed meaningless or at least irrelevant/arbitrary by the individual, and thus have a subjective dimension.)

    Thus one can coherently speak of “reality” meaning a smaller or a larger region around one’s own condition, or, ultimately, meaning the whole of the extension of *the* human condition. One calls “reality” what makes true those dynamic propositions one believes are true and/or has experienced as true in her own life. This implies the following:

    [continues bellow]

  7. [2nd part; continues from above]

    First that one can’t really speak of reality independently of the human condition (and indeed of one’s individual human condition). That is clear enough given that one can’t speak of anything whatsoever independently of the human condition, for all knowledge is ultimately grounded on the human condition. Even if some transcendental spirit ware to magically whisper truths into somebody’s ear, that event would still count as part of the landscape of the human condition.

    Secondly, it implies that it is easy for misunderstandings to arise when people speak of reality because some will mean their own immediate existential region (i.e. the neighborhood where they are situated in the landscape of the human condition) while others will consider their own neighborhood where the former’s claim does not fit as a matter of fact. A further confusion may arise when people conflate their neighborhood with the whole of reality.

    Let me now come then to your specific question about God. Considering the above I now see that there may be individual human conditions where there is indeed no God, or at least where God is so unsubstantial as to be invisible for all practical purposes. Somebody in that existential state can not only reasonably but also *truthfully* say that God does not exist, for God really does not exist in her neighborhood. For example, if somebody’s existential condition is such that she will only consider physical evidence as data then, indeed, God will not be there for her (unless she comes to ponder some deep order present in physical phenomena, e.g. the nature of quantum phenomena, the mathematical nature of the universe, the computational prowess of elementary particles, etc – which most people in such regions either do not ponder or else hand-wave away as something that will be solved in the future).

    So is God sometimes real and sometimes not real? An interesting fact is that existence always trumps non-existence. What I mean is that if God does not exist (is not real) in some regions of the landscape of the human condition but does exist in other regions, then God simpliciter exists, i.e. exists on the whole of the landscape of the human condition. Those then who do see God can do little more than tell those who don’t: “Move to that existential position and you’ll see God more clearly”.

    [continues bellow]

  8. [3rd part; continues from above]

    The regions of the landscape of the human condition where God does not exist are called “hell” by theists. (Please forget for now all the “lake of fire”, “gnashing of teeth” etc imagery that is often associated with the concept of hell; even though it is true that from the theist’s point of view the existential region where God is mostly absent is not a good region to be in). Given that from the theistic region of the landscape most (but not absolutely all) see that each human will eternally (in some sense of “for ever”) move around that landscape, a disagreement arises about the future, namely: is it possible for some to be caught for ever in hell, or will all ultimately find their way to the God filled regions (aka “heaven” or “the Kingdom”) of the landscape? The former, somehow uncharitably, are called the hellists and the latter the universalists. In my judgment, one must be seeing God particularly dimly to miss the fact that God emanates an universally attractive force which will necessarily pull everyone to the God-filled regions of the landscape, sooner or later.

    Incidentally, above I am not giving an argument for God or for universalism or anything like that. What I am trying to do is to *describe* (i.e. give a model) of the human condition as it in fact is, and how therefore people build their beliefs. My argument is only that that model successfully accounts for much of the human discourse we observe, including all the sincere disagreements that seem to trouble you. Which success I think evidences that this model is an at least approximately precise. I think this model also comports with the traditional philosophical distinctions between the phenomenal and real worlds, that much of what we believe is real comes from how we interpret our life, and the importance of one’s epistemic circumstances Eric has been discussing. What the model adds is to take into account the important and often overlooked fact of how variable and indeed dynamically changing the human condition is. I think that by taking into account this latter fact a much clearer picture of the human condition, and thus of the grounding of all knowledge, emerges.

  9. Hi Dianelos

    Thanks for that. I buy your model, it's pretty much how I see things too. I tend to use a narrative rather than a landscape metaphor, but it's doing similar work.

    And the model, as you describe, explains very well my agnostic position. For example, you could remove the word God from your outline of belief positions, and insert ghosts, and it would work equally well.

    And that makes good sense to me, as I see belief in God and belief in ghosts as reasonably equivalent. They are concepts that make good sense within some narrative contexts and not within others. In both cases, disagreements between vantage points can not, as you rightly point out, be resolved.

    I also agree with you when you say that we must be careful in our use of language. Belief in ghosts is unlike belief in the heat of the sun, insomuch as the latter is perceived, and can be measured and verified, from all vantage points. I like to use the word fact for publlcly established relationships, but acknowledge there are ambiguities with that.

    So, I believe the sun is hot, but remain agnostic about God and ghosts -I behave as if neither exist, neither feel at all real to me, but if others want to believe I don't think of them as being in error. The idea of a personal narrative being in error is, as you also point out, a problematic one.


  10. Hi Bernard,

    You write: “I do use the subjective meaning of ethical statement. When I say something is wrong, I mean it feels wrong to me, or I believe it will contribute to an end that I find undesirable, or sometimes, that a particular group, culture or indeed species are subject to the same feelings.

    Yes, I understand that. You made it quite clear that for you ethical talk is entirely about feelings when you wrote, for example, “Of course we like to be able to say 'the holocaust is objectively wrong', it fulfills an emotional need” or “I like the idea of not assuming there is something deficient about those who do not call the holocaust morally wrong.”. Lest I be misunderstood, let me add that I recognize and admire your intellectual honesty and courage in speaking consequently like this. That trait of following the implications of one’s beliefs and speaking about them without fudging it, is something I also recognize and admire in Sam Harris by the way (it was brave and entirely consequent of him to write in his “The End of Faith” that if it is morally justified to bomb a country knowing that some innocents will die horribly, then the torture even of innocents is sometimes morally justified also. Philosophy is hard enough, and philosophical discourse would be more effective if people were more direct and less “political” en their way they express themselves.

    So my language above to the effect that “nobody” claims ethical propositions meaning his or her affective response was imprecise. What I meant was that there was a time quite recently that practically nobody claimed ethical propositions meaning one’s affective response. I think, by the way, that this is demonstrably true. What I deplore is that at some point people *redefined* the common meaning of ethical concepts to mean something entirely different. And I notice that that redefinition was justified on the subjective/objective distinction against which I therefore argue. Incidentally there are several non objective redefinitions, some are descriptivist, i.e. suggest that moral talk refers to facts about one’s feelings about some action or state of affairs, others expressivist, i.e. suggest that moral talk refers to one’s attitude towards some action or state of affairs (perhaps how probable it is that one will choose some action), and so on. It is clear that some creative work is being done to find how best to redefine ethical talk.

    [continues bellow]

  11. (repost – blogger’s spam filter appears to be irrational)

    [2nd part, continues from above]

    I deplore the objective/subjective distinction, because, as I have been arguing, it fudges/hides one’s real epistemic circumstance (i.e. where one is situated in the landscape of the human condition), thus making philosophical discourse even more difficult then it is. In philosophy (and in our own thinking by the way) we use language one means to get to the truth in the same way that we use our teeth for eating, so we should take care to use good linguistic hygiene as it were. Changing the meaning of concepts in order to prove something or in order to avoid a conceptual problem is never a good idea. Naturalists should have come out and unambiguously state what their worldview implies, namely that moral language (with the meaning it commonly has) is simply nonsense, because actions and states of affairs do *not* have any good or evil properties. That one, as you point out, feels better speaking of actions as if they have such normative properties, is not an excuse. We read philosophy in order to get to the truth, not in order to feel better, and we expect philosophers to talk more straight than politicians.

    Now allow me to turn the table. What about the meaning of “God”? Theists also have changed the meaning of that word, haven’t they? Arguably, some early writers of the Old Tastament thought of the God of Israel as just one god among others, albeit a jealous one who was displeased when his chosen people would make sacrifices to other gods. That meaning morphed to mean the one God creator of the universe, but still existing on the same metaphysical level as apples and trees. It soon (by the first century) morphed again to mean the person who not only creates but whose will continuously sustains the existence and order of all creation. Later it was again redefined to mean the person who moreover is perfect in all respects (all-good, all-powerful, all-knowledgeable, etc). If it is epistemologically alright for theists to change the ontological meaning of God then why can’t naturalists redefine the ontological meaning of ethical talk?

    [continues bellow]

  12. [3rd part, continues from above]

    I think the difference between the two cases is clear enough. The fundamental meaning of God, the idea behind all theistic talk past and present, is that there is something purposeful behind it all (i.e. that what is metaphysically fundamental is of a personal nature), and thus is also the ultimate explanation for everything. All other talk that sounds like definitions consists really of clarifications or new ideas about how that metaphysical fundamental actually is. Theistic understanding about God has evolved, and is still evolving today, amid quite some disagreement. Indeed, the fact that the concept of God appears to evolve in a rational and apparently truth tracking way, is evidence that there is something out there for its truth to be tracked, i.e. is evidence for God (the same way that, I would say, the apparent improvement of the ethical zeitgeist is evidence for the existence of ethical truths out there being tracked however slowly and laboriously). Now contrast this state of affairs with the redefinitions of the meaning of ethical talk. First of all ethical concepts do not “belong” to naturalists the way theistic concepts “belong” to theists. Secondly, the changes put forward by naturalists are really radical and in no way appear to follow the purpose of refining one’s understanding. All meaningful talk refers to something, and to move what ethical talk refers to from being some property of the action, to, say, being the property of one’s feeling about the action – is a huge and discontinuous conceptual jump. Is like moving what a proposition refers to from one conceptual category to another. In contrast, theistic claims about the ontology of ethical talk never moves beyond one’s normal perception of ethical truths. For example, significantly, it does affirm that actions have moral properties. (In my view, the fact that actions are always somebody’s free actions, entails that moral properties are properties of the conjunction of facts about the action and the person whose action it is and the nature of freedom.)

    Finally, this is not the only case where naturalists play fast and lose with the meaning of common words which do not belong to them. They do the same and much more dramatically still in the case of the concepts of freedom and of consciousness. Well, I judge this is seriously wrong epistemically speaking, for it does not serve the truth and therefore does not even serve naturalists who are seeking the truth. For the same reason I think that it is wrong for theists to play along.

    Thus, the subjective/objective distinction can perhaps be recast as the one you use, that of universal versus private truths, those that can be extended through evidence and reason, and those that can't?

    That’s an interesting and on topic issue I’d like to have some more time to deal with.

  13. Hi Dianelos

    I agree that this business of clarifying definitions is crucial to any philosophical debate. I am wary however of any claim that we have available clear definitions of terms like consciousness, free will or morality. I think the first task is to work out what these things might refer to, and I don't think that is in any sense a simple project. Sometimes I wonder if what you see as attempts to redefine terms are actually just attempts to clarify their definitions.

    Sometimes the trouble with folk intuitions about definitions is that they are fuzzy, and it is precisely this fuzziness that allows a dispute to keep running. So, when I say I don't think of morality in anything but the terms of feelings and predispositions, I really mean to say nothing more than I can not yet see what else they could refer to. I don't understand the notion of objective morality at all. It strikes me as a very odd thing indeed. (Unless we simply mean that thing God likes, but to one who has no belief in God this is unhelpful in terms of definition).

    I assume that when people speak of moral values, they are to be applied contextually, as this post seems to be leading towards. The question then becomes what makes up that context? Presumably biological context is important, so what is wrong for me may not have been wrong to somebody walking about a hundred thousand years ago, or to a chimpanzee for that matter? And then, if biological context is important, I would assume we would have to make cultural context important too, as both biology and culture seem to be able to affect our behavioural tendencies. And if cultural context, then personal context, so right and wrong are assessed against the context of our own personal narrative. But by the time I reach this point, I can't see what is left that could in any sense be called objective.

    Are we just sing different words to describe the same thing, then, or do I have this idea of context wrong?


  14. Dianelos,

    Your point about the difficulties with the subjective/objective distinction is well-taken, but sometimes "fuzzy" terms in ordinary language come very close to more nuanced philosophical distinction. In fact, often the more nuanced philosophical distinction emerges out of efforts to clarify a muddy distinction that is already being made in ordinary discourse, but in a not-very-precise or careful way. Philosophers ask, "Is there a real and significant distinction in the near-vicinity of this ordinary-language distinction, which may be what people in ordinary conversations are trying to get at?"

    When a more precise philosophical distinction emerges as the outcome of this sort of inquiry, it is hard to give up on the terminology of ordinary discourse that drove the inquiry. And while there are dangers of misunderstanding that come from invoking ordinary-language terms that in their popular usage connote things the philosopher does not intend, there are advantages so long as one takes care to specify the more precise sense one has in mind--advantages insofar as the terminology is not alien and so naturally places listeners/readers in the "vicinity" of the distinction one wants to make, and insofar as having names for the concepts at issue streamlines discourse.

    As such, while I think your caution is sound--and while I think it is worth reflecting on whether other terminology might be as useful in orienting one's audience around the distinction one wants to make without bringing all the baggage that comes with the language of objectivity and subjectivity--I'm not ready to give up that terminology quite yet.

  15. Bernard,

    Your most recent comment actually pertains to some other distinctions I've been thinking of addressing in this series. Among these are some distinctions pertaining to language. Most specifically relevant to your comment is the distinction between the "sense" of a term and its "referent" (the "concept in our head" that we have in mind when using the terms--also called its "connotation", and the "thing out there in the world" that is pointed to when we use the term--also called its "denotation").

    Some terms have a sense but no actual referent (unicorns); some have a referent but no sense (proper names). Frege made this distinction famous in trying to understand how "The morning star is the evening star" could be both informative and true.

    In any event, the question of what sense we have in mind when we use moral language is distinct from the question of what the referent is (indeed, whether there is a referent). What Dianelos is in effect arguing (I believe) is that ethical subjectivists are attaching to moral language a SENSE that is different from what most users of moral language mean when they use moral language--and that what is motivating subjectivists to change the sense is that they can find no REFERENT for moral language given its traditional sense, but they can find something that moral language is correlated with (namely inner preferences, etc.) which could serve as the referent if we changed the sense.

    But to make this move is not simply to provide a more precise understanding of moral terms than is offered in ordinary language. It is, in effect, to say that "What people actually mean (in terms of its sense) when they use moral terms is something for which there is no referent; as such, all ordinary moral claims are false and so moral nihilisim is true. However, there is this other thing, which is not what people actually mean when they use moral language, which might explain what leads people to think that their moral terms in the sense they intend have referents. If we change the meaning of moral language so that moral terms connote this other thing, then moral statements could still have a referent and so still be true."

    It's like the difference between (a) putting glasses on someone who is squinting in a certain direction so that what they see is sharper and more helpful than what was in their visual field before, and (b) telling someone, "There's nothing to see where you're looking, but if you turn a little to the left you'll see something that might explain why you THINK there's something in the direction you are looking."

    In case (a) the likely response is "Thanks!" In case (b), a range of responses are reasonable depending on the details of the situation. One such response might be, "Even though what I'm seeing is really blurry, it's so clear to me that there's something over here--something that goes beyond what can be explained by that stuff over there--that I'm not going to take your word for it but try on different glasses to see if any of them bring things into focus."

  16. For the sake of nit-pickety precision (feel free to ignore this), I should note that some are inclined to say that "unicorn" DOES have a referent, and that the referent is a possible being (as opposed to an actual one). Others think "possible beings" as referents makes no sense. So consider a different example: "round square." This term has a sense (the conjunction of our concept "round" with our concept "square"), because if it didn't we wouldn't be able to recognize that what is named is impossible. But, precisely because the concept referred to by "round square" is an impossible entity, the term has no referent (even if we regard possible beings as referents).

  17. Finally, on the issue of extreme context-dependence, think about the following example: Suppose the boiling point of water were a function of many variables that are in constant flux, so that water boils at a slightly different temperature virtually every time it was heated. It would remain "objectively true" in the indicated sense that it boiled at 98.8 on this occasion, 99.8, on that occasion, 97.3 on that occasion, etc. What makes it objective is not invariability across contexts but the fact that what makes it true is (at least in part) independent of the subjective states that the observer taking the measurements happens to be in. The observer can make mistakes, because what they THINK the temp is might not be what it REALLY is. In fact, in cases of such extreme context dependence, we'd expect people to make mistakes quite a lot.

  18. Hi Eric

    We are perhaps back to the private public distinction again. The chap trying out glasses is sure there's something there, has a very strong sense of it, but is unable to communicate what this thing is. One possibility is that it's a shadow cast by another item that everybody can see clearly and agrees is there. It seems to me that keeping this possibility live, and being prepared to investigate it, is a sensible starting point. If we choose to claim, no it can't simply be a shadow, we might need a reason for this that goes beyond our sense it is more substantial.

    And here your water analogy appears apt. I can see how moral sense might both be condition dependent, and still be objective. One way of looking at this is that the liquid/gas divide for water is not entirely explained by temperature. Any careful data will contain a little noise that in turn can be explained by air pressure. To say we have objective moral values is perhaps to claim the same, that once subjective individual context is taken into account (biology, culture, life history) there is some noise left still to explain. I can't yet see what that noise would be, which might be one of the definition clarifications I'm missing.

    I suppose an alternative is to claim that the individual context is itself the product of a process that embeds objective moral information. That strikes me as a very difficult hypothesis to give public grounding to, although of course one can see its private charm.


  19. Hi,

    I am not sure what people mean when they make moral judgments. From my experience, I'm not ready to say that most are thinking in terms of objective values – not in the sense of a value independent of humans. From what I read, there is a lot of variations and the relativist/objectivist divide correlates well with personality traits and age. Now, I don't want to start a debate on this article - I mention it only to point out that the situation is not as clear as Dianelos estimates.

    What is clear is that morality exists and that people make moral calls all the time. This is an empirical fact. So, what does it mean when someone says “this is wrong”? Difficult to say. At the least, he is communicating his moral sentiment or evaluation of a particular situation. I think this is valid whether one is an objectivist, a relativist or has never thought about these things (probably most).

    What about someone who says “chocolate cake is good”? Surely nobody would claim this is expressing a universal truth about the universe although some would be more absolutist than others (“someone who does not like chocolate cake is in error”). This does not mean that this whole taste thing is an illusion or that being relativist about tastes leads to gastronomical nihilism.

    This said, the question concerning morality is: what is going on? Is this a purely biological phenomenon or is there more to it? I certainly believe the biological account of morality is quite satisfactory but I'd be glad to change my mind given good reasons to. In this respect, as Bernard has pointed out many times, one difficulty is to define in an intelligible way what is meant by a “context-free” moral value. Up to now, nobody has come out with anything more substantial than “it is obvious to me what these things are”. Well, not obvious at all and hardly satisfying.

  20. The chap trying out glasses is sure there's something there, has a very strong sense of it, but is unable to communicate what this thing is. One possibility is that it's a shadow cast by another item that everybody can see clearly and agrees is there. It seems to me that keeping this possibility live, and being prepared to investigate it, is a sensible starting point. If we choose to claim, no it can't simply be a shadow, we might need a reason for this that goes beyond our sense it is more substantial.

    It seems like investigating the "shadow theory" is one of those things that one can't adequately do APART from investigating whether there's something there that's not just a shadow. After all, even if something IS casting a shadow, there may be something lurking in the shadows.

    Strained metaphors aside, the point is that offering the best explanation for morality calls for exploring alternative accounts of various sorts--including accounts which root morality in subjective preference, in cultural custom, in the requirements for a stable social contract, in the dictates of practical reason, in the natures of things, in the will of God, etc. When I teach moral philosophy, this is of course what I do. And I'm thinking that pairing this blog with one of my moral philosophy classes--in something like the way I paired it with my philosophy of religion class last fall--may be a useful activity.

    I'm teaching an intensive three-week ethics course in the May intercession, but the concentrated nature of that course--along with the fact that my family is moving into a new house in May--may not make that the ideal time to commit to something like that.

  21. Eric,

    My contention is that the subjective/objective distinction is fuzzy by nature. Our everyday discourse is often so ambiguous that making this distinction can be useful, but there is not a precise distinction there for philosophers to clarify. It’s like a scientist trying to specify the exact position of a photon. Reality is such that these endeavors are pointless. It is a mistake to look for precision where in fact there is none to be found.

    I justify my claim that the subjective/objective distinction is by nature fuzzy by pointing out that there is no sharp boundary of what is inside and outside our heads. The subjective/objective distinction refers to a direction like the direction from south to north, but there is no discontinuity between subject and object in the same way that there is no discontinuity between south and north. There is no subject without some object, and no object without some subject – at least within the world of human discourse which concerns us here. Thus there exists no proposition that only claims truths about objects but not subjects, or vice versa. Indeed I can demonstrate that the subjective/objective proposition is always fuzzy thus: Give me any subjective sounding proposition and I will show how if you believe that it is true you commit yourself to some truths about objects too. Conversely, give me any objective sounding proposition and I will show how, if you believe that it is true, you commit yourself to some truths about subjects too.

    The subjective/objective distinction is useful only when we like to know the general meaning, but when one believes there is a sharp discontinuity between subjects and objects then making that distinction can easily lead to philosophical errors. Here are some examples:

    [continues bellow]

  22. [2nd part; continues from above]

    1. Some naturalists erroneously believe that physical processes in our brain produce our experiences, as if, on naturalism, there existed a causal discontinuity between processes in our brain and processes in the rest of the universe. In fact the physical process that causes my experience of seeing an apple includes photons being reflected by the apple’s skin and thus includes hydrogen nuclei being fused within the sun. And I say it “includes” those physical events which take place far away from my brain because without those no experience would be caused. I am not saying that in order to study the relationship between our experiences and the physical world we should not concentrate on events taking place in our brain; what I am saying is that the proposition “events within our brain cause our experiences” is only approximately true, and thus is in fact false.

    2. Some naturalists erroneously believe that by interpreting moral talk subjectively they solve the problem based on the widespread belief that actions in a naturalistic reality lack any ethical properties. Reinterpreting moral propositions as referring to one’s affective response to actions fails to solve that problem, because it is impossible for a (nominally subjective) proposition about such affective states to be completely independent from the action or state of affairs such affective states are about. For example let’s consider the claim that the ethical proposition P1=“torturing children is wrong” really means P2=“I feel horror at the very idea of torturing children”. P2 is nominally subjective, but refers in part to a property of the action of torturing children, namely that property that causes me to feel horror. So P2’s meaning is not independent of properties of the action of torturing children. Therefore P2 is both subjective and objective. P2 does not only state a truth about the subject (myself or my feelings) but also states a truth about the object (the action of torturing), namely that it has the property of causing in me feelings of horror. And if that property is such that it causes horror in me but not in some Hutu then that property is still a property of the action itself. In conclusion in a naturalistic reality the sense of P2 is still missing part of its referent.

    [continues bellow]

  23. [3rd part, continues from above]

    In my judgment, the theistic ethicist is moved by the subjective/objective distinction to commit the opposite error, namely to believe that P1 is a purely objective proposition and thus refers exclusively to a property of an object (namely the action of torturing children). But this too is wrong, for no action exists by itself. An action is always a person’s action, and thus no property of an action (including of course its ethical value) can be independent of the person who performed that action. Thus ethical values are necessarily objective and subjective at the same time, and it’s an error to think that ethical value is a property of the action alone. I’d like to call this metaethical error “Judas’ fallacy” because a fine example of it is found in a Gospel story where Judas objects to Mary having used the expensive perfume to wash Jesus’ feet, arguing that the good action would have been to sell the perfume and give the money to the poor. Judas’ fallacy is to believe that an action that would be good if he chooses it, must also be good if anybody else chooses it. In other words Judas is wrong in believing that ethical value is a property of the action, independently of who the subject choosing the action is. For Mary’s action was a good one in that Mary chose it, and would be a wrong one had Judas chosen it. I suspect that Judas’ fallacy lies behind of many of the problems that trouble realist metaethics.

    Given that a subject is an integral part of reality, a part that cannot be conceptually disconnected from the rest of reality, I think it’s incontestable that there can’t be any purely subjective propositions. The opposite claim though may sound implausible at first. Actions may always be a subject’s actions, and thus the ethical example above arguably works. But how about propositions about, say, the height of mountains? Surely the proposition P3=“Mount Everest is the highest peak on Earth” is purely objective. After all it states only a truth about objects (the Earth, its mountains, their heights, etc). But, in fact, P3 claims truths about subjects too, namely that some subject knows of mountains, knows of heights, believes that Mount Everest is the highest peak, etc. My general observation then is this: It is impossible to remove the subject from a thought/belief/proposition. By believing that P3 is true one not only commits oneself to truths about objects but also to truths about subjects.

  24. Hi Dianelos,

    I agree that moral properties (right, wrong) belong to an interaction between a subject (person) an an object (an action). Then, it becomes meaningless to say that an action (torturing children) is wrong an any absolute sense.

    The same goes, I think, with things like beauty - a painting is not beautiful in itself but only when seen by a receptive subject. Beauty arises in an interaction between the two.

    But, still, in ordinary conversation, it's perfectly acceptable to say “look how beautiful this is!” Or, even for a naturalist, “no, that won't do – this is wrong”. It would be pedantic to ask for such precision as would kill the natural flow of language.

    As for the height of mountains and the boiling point of water, I think this touches the idea that we can only talk (or think) about reality by building models - heights and temperatures being concepts within them. Could we say that, for your P3, the “subject” is a measurement procedure rather than a person?

  25. Hi Dianelos

    I'm not sure about P3 here. I would argue that Everest remains the highest mountain irrespective of any subject's understandings of the terms mountain, height and so forth. This, it seems to me, is what objective refers to, those processes and relationships that hold true regardless of the way they are viewed. That the sun is hot is objectively true, I think, and hence standing exposed to it in the Australian outback for too long will threaten your health no matter whether concepts like heat or sun mean anything to you.

    So, while sun and heat are subjective in the sense that they are human concepts, the relationship modeled by these concepts (however inaccurately) carries this type of objective truth. We can then, through the convention of measurement, modeling and prediction, collectively improve the quality of our models. This extension of our publicly grounded knowledge occurs because we have a mechanism (albeit one compromised by human frailty) by which we can choose one hypothesis over another (falsification).

    Hence, we might speak of things being objectively true when we are talking of the best performing current model of the underlying objective truth. This allows us to contrast with subjective truths, where the way we discriminate between models depends upon our personal narratives (or vantage point in the knowledge landscape metaphor).

    Or so I see it. What do you think?


  26. Bernard,

    You write: “I would argue that Everest remains the highest mountain irrespective of any subject's understandings of the terms mountain, height and so forth. This, it seems to me, is what objective refers to, those processes and relationships that hold true regardless of the way they are viewed.

    Isn’t that a different definition of “objective” than Eric’s? Eric’s definition is that the proposition “A has property p” is objective when its meaning is “A has property p”, and not “I have some property p when I think about A”.

    Your definition appears to be entirely different, namely “A has property p” is objective when its truth is independent of what anybody thinks about this proposition, or even on whether anybody understands what that proposition means. If that’s your definition then I have a problem of epistemic coherence with it, namely that one can’t ever know whether a proposition is objective or not, because the very definition entails that perhaps I don’t understand what it means. But if I perhaps don’t understand what it means then I can’t say anything about it.

    Or perhaps what you mean is this: The proposition “A has property p” is objective if and only if in all metaphysically possible worlds (i.e. in all states our own world might have been in) in which A exists it has the property p. For example, in all worlds where children and torture exists the act of torturing children has the wrongness property, no matter what people in that world may think or feel about this issue, and no matter what society’s norms or laws are, and no matter how the brains of people have evolved. In contrast, the proposition “Mount Everest is the highest peak on Earth” is an objective one according to that definition. I still dislike that proposition, because, for example, according to it the proposition “Dianelos is a theist” is a non-objective one.

    In any case, there is a clear difference between that latter definition and Eric’s. In Eric’s definition A does not really have property p, it’s us thinking about A who have property p. In the latter definition A does have property p, but has it in a metaphysically necessary way.

    The latter definition though may be a non-fuzzy one. On the other hand, it will satisfy naturalists for whom what matters is to find a way to describe a world in which the act of torturing children for fun does not have any moral property, while holding on to the appearances that moral talk has some meaning. Another problem would be that, arguably, according to that that definition “The sun is hot” is not objective either, because perhaps we would have evolved in a way to feel that the sun is not hot.

    The more I think about this the more it seems to me that the subjective/objective distinction is a mess.

    Hence, we might speak of things being objectively true when we are talking of the best performing current model of the underlying objective truth. This allows us to contrast with subjective truths, where the way we discriminate between models depends upon our personal narratives (or vantage point in the knowledge landscape metaphor).

    That’s a different idea, where the landscape metaphor comes handy. Claiming a proposition should entail a scope (like being true for me, or for those existentially close to me, or for those humans close to me on this particular existential dimension, or for all humans, or for all persons, etc). The larger the scope, the less “subjective” the proposition. At the limit one could speak of “objective” propositions.

  27. Thanks Dianelos

    I'm not sure that's quite what I meant. I would agree, for instance, with Eric's definition of objective truth as you put it here. I was just trying to suggest that if a thing is objectively true in this respect, then it will have the quality of maintaining this truth no matter what vantage point it is viewed from. So, if it is objectively true that Everest is the tallest mountain on earth, then the relations implied by this (vertical distance from sea level, air pressure at the top, observed time of sunrise at the peak, whatever) will hold no matter what the beliefs of the person doing the measurement.

    I think it is objectively true that Everest is the tallest mountain, and so I am making this claim about it. Should someone be able to show me a way in which a person's narrative viewpoint altered the measurements, I would withdraw the claim that it was objectively true, and would see it as a subjective truth.

    Were somebody to show me a higher mountain, I would simply alter my claim to say it is objectively true that Everest is not the tallest mountain.

    So, a claim about objective truth might be wrong in both these ways, and should therefore be thought of as a best guess about the nature of a particular relationship, reviewable always in the light of new evidence. My current claim about morality is that it is at heart subjective, that is that the measurement of moral truths is always dependent upon the narrative viewpoint of the observer.


  28. Is your notion of "objective" here your own, or is it a standard everyone-who's-studied-philosophy-knows-it notion of the term, or are you drawing on the understandings of particular philosopher(s)? And if the last of those, can you say who?