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Embracing Subjectivity


September 18, 2011

Because of the nature of our field, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and other people in technical professions place a higher value on consistency than most other people, and in our quest for consistency, we are willing to sacrifice a lot of things. Subjectivity is almost always the first to go, and most of the time, we toss it out without so much as a "good riddance". And our frustrations with it are understandable. Science, mathematics, and engineering are difficult fields, and even the most disciplined minds can get confused and blur the distinction between reality and theory.

Despite the best effort of our more principled logicians, the fields of pseudoscience and mysticism continue to grow unabated. The number of people attempting to prove the existence of God is not any less than it was a hundred years ago. And infinitely worse, the number of people attempting to prove the nonexistence of God may have even increased. New astrologists are being trained every day and homeopathy is becoming an exciting new field of study. Just a few months ago, I was told about these new bracelets coming into the market which are stamped with holographic stickers that react harmoniously with your body's inner energy to create balance. At Amazon.com, 49 reviewers, out of a total of 93, reports seeing beneficial results after just a few uses.

On the humanities side of things, much of philosophy now sounds like unintelligible, undebatable, academic jargon. Modern music and art has degenerated into vacuum cleaners being thrown inside pianos and red paint dashed across a canvas. We are assured, by people who know better, that this is true originality. So in the face of all this madness, much of it seemingly caused by everything being too subjective, we quite sensibly declare "we shalt be objective!" and happily toss subjectivity by the wayside.

So far, I've only given glaring examples of the result of having lost all objectivity. But there are more subtle examples - much more subtle ones. For example, how many of you believe that Einstein's special theory of relativity proves you can't travel faster than the speed of light? How many of you believe that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle proves that the universe is non-deterministic? How many people understand what it really means for the Earth to revolve around the Sun? (I will address these little taunts in another article). So objectivity is certainly not easy to attain. Actually, scientists have given a lot of thought to figuring out ways to test whether they are being properly objective or not. Science must be repeatable and falsifiable. An experiment must be able to be repeated, results must be reproducible, and theories must be capable of being proven wrong through observation. There is no room here for subjectivity.

Many of my fellow engineers, scientists, and all-around rational people generalize the concepts of science to apply them to everything. Perhaps objectivity is all that you need. Why we enjoy certain combinations of colours is debated rationally through evolutionary psychology. Whether killing one man to save a hundred is justified, is debated by first defining an objective function for the wellness of society. Whether or not I brush my hair the next morning is a function of how much energy I have, what people I will likely bump into during the day, and whether I am concerned with impressing them. Sometimes, objectivity really does seem to be all we need, and I believed in this for a while. Everything subjective just seems inevitably accompanied with undebatable assertions, hypocrisy, and self-contradictions. Good riddance indeed!

But recently, I've come across an example that made me realize that objectivity is actually very limited, and that subjectivity is a necessary tool to keep making progress. And despite trying very hard to avoid it, I have come to accept subjectivity as a valid and even effective reasoning tool. In fact, there are many fields - subjective fields - that are far from being worthless, and are both beneficial and important to study. And to my surprise, not even logic nor rationality need necessarily eschew subjectivity.

As my example on the limitations of objectivity, I will present a simple but contrived experiment, the goal of which is to show that sometimes even subjective arguments can hold a notion of truth. The experiment goes like this: visit the following link, and try to figure out what it is. You have one minute, after which you should come back to this page.

WHAT AM I?


Now, I will reveal my "theory" on what it is. Visit the next link and see if you agree with me.

DO YOU AGREE?


If the experiment proceeded properly, you should have not been able to figure out the contents of the figure. But you should have been able to spot what's hidden in the picture after I revealed my "theory" to you. So if all went accordingly, you should find my "theory" very agreeable. The reason I put "theory" in quotation marks is because it's not strictly a theory at all! It does make a hypothesis, but there is no way to prove whether that hypothesis is right or wrong. If you agree with the theory that's great. But if you don't, then you're simply not looking hard enough. There is no shred of objectivity in this experiment! The theory is accepted simply on the grounds of it making a lot of sense. And "making sense" is an entirely subjective concept.

Now let's contemplate the real consequences of the experiment. When I revealed what was in the picture, most of you should have seen it right away. But let's suppose that you don't realize it right away - that it actually takes some effort, say three days, to see it even after being told the answer. After three days of concentrated searching, you finally see it and you're shocked and intensely satisfied for having figured it out. The question is, then, have you actually learned something real, something true, something worthwhile? When your fellow peers take a look at the picture and see nothing, because they didn't invest the requisite three days, and criticize you and call you crazy, how can you respond? Just look harder? How do you prove you've learned something tangible? Is subjective knowledge worth anything?

We can carry the hypothetical example above to the extreme. Let's suppose no one knows what is in the picture. Not even you. But you want to find out. So you dedicate your life to trying to understand the picture. Your peers mock your lack of objectivity. How will you even know when you've understood the picture? What does it even mean to "understand"? Stare at it for long enough and you can convince yourself of anything can't you? Is it worthwhile to study this? Suppose you apply for funding at a university to continue your research on the picture. What will they say? "No. We do real science here". But let us seriously consider this proposition of studying this picture. Suppose you take forty years to figure out what is in the picture. But afterwards, you can just tell someone the answer. And they will then only need to take three days to see it. That's real progress isn't it? That is a real contribution to human knowledge!

For obvious reasons, it's probably a little silly to think someone would devote forty years to figuring out that picture. But there are many other questions that do seem quite important and that have the same subjective flavor. What is the meaning of life? What is the secret to happiness? What is the relationship between quantum mechanics and general relativity? What, indeed, is the answer to the universe - to everything? These questions have traditionally fallen in the domain of mystics and self-help books, but aside from the scale of the question, they don't sound that different from "what's in the picture?".  Just imagine if someone actually knew the answers to those questions. You could simply be told the answer, think about it for three days, and then get struck by the same feeling of clarity and satisfaction as when you first recognized the dalmatian! Isn't that a worthwhile goal?

So the point of this article is not to persuade you to go out and become philosophers. We've only concluded that subjective questions may be worthwhile, not that they are easy. The point of this article is to illustrate that being objective is a compromise. The ideals of science are intentionally rigidly conservative, because it's one of the very few ways we know of to make progress. The point of this article is to empower you with a little freedom, to tell you that sometimes, subjectivity, if handled with discretion, is okay and potentially even beneficial. Let your own sense and intuition guide you, worry less about proving your methodology to others, and find your own clarity.

 -Patrick

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Afterword: Another example of a subjective experiment.