An Objectivist View of the Universe

 

 

An Objectivist View of the Universe

 

I will describe a metaphysical view aptly labeled objectivist. My aim is expository rather than argumentative, though I am inclined to accept the view. Objectivism says that the universe (reality, being) is fundamentally objective not subjective, with the emphasis on “fundamentally”. It isn’t that the universe has no subjective features; it is just that these features always have an objective basis. By “objective” I mean “not mind-involving”—having nothing intrinsically to do with consciousness (or unconsciousness). The view contains two sub-theses: all properties have an objective basis or correlate, and all concepts have an objective counterpart concept. For example, the property of being red, though subjective, has a basis in objective properties of objects and nervous systems; and the concept of being red has a counterpart concept in concepts of such properties. The color is mind involving, but the correlated objective properties of objects and nervous systems are not mind involving; and the concept of the color is graspable only by someone who experiences the color, but concepts of external objects and nervous systems are not so graspable.  That is, subjective facts always have objective facts behind them—but not vice versa. I won’t harp on the property-concept distinction in what follows, since the same point applies to both: I shall simply say that the subjective is always backed by the objective. What “backed” means will vary with the topic: it could mean straightforward identity, or it could mean something like supervenience or grounding or realization. For example, pain always has an objective correlate of some sort, though views may vary about how strong this correlation relation is. Strong objectivism might insist on reductionism via identity; weak objectivism might claim only a supervenience relation. The general idea is that the subjective is always embedded in the objective, while the objective need not be embedded in the subjective (and typically is not). Thus reality is fundamentally objective. We could put this by saying that the subjective is always emergent on the objective, but the objective is never emergent on the subjective. Mind-independence is the basic form of reality.

            Notice that I have not used the word “physical”: the objectivist view is not that everything has a physicalbasis. There are three reasons for this. First, the concept of the physical is not well defined (for reasons I won’t go into here). Second, we want to leave open the possibility that fundamental reality is not what the physical sciences (currently) describe. Third, it may be that physics harbors subjective elements: our concepts of geometry, causality, and motion are arguably anthropocentrically constituted (at least in part). It could be that a genuinely objective physics has to move beyond these human concepts in order to achieve the kind of absoluteness demanded by the “absolute conception”.    [1] So the objective world I am talking about might not coincide with the world as described by physics; at any rate, we are dealing with different doctrines. Objectivism is committed to the idea that everything has non-subjective nature (or correlate)—something that is captured in a “view from nowhere”—not that everything has a physical nature (whatever that may mean). The thought behind it is that minds are just part of reality; they don’t condition the whole nature of reality. And where they do exist they always rely on non-subjective features. Thus objectivism stands opposed to subjectivism—the doctrine that reality is inherently subjective. Idealism is the obvious form of such subjectivism, but other versions of subjectivism are conceivable. The point of objectivism is to insist that reality is not subject to the mind—and even the mind depends on non-mental factors. Even if we cannot achieve a perfectly objective conception of things, reality itself demands such a conception. Maybe a completely objective conception is impossible for any conscious thinking being—in which case reality is necessarily inconceivable as it is in itself—but still its nature is such as to be quite independent of any subjective intrusion. Objectivism regards reality as perspective-neutral, perspective- transcendent. This view goes beyond what is commonly called realism: it isn’t just the doctrine that reality is independent of our thoughts; it expels anything subjective from reality (except for the manifestly subjective). It takes reality in general to be radically removed from anything mental. Even when objects have subjective properties, such as color, they have underlying properties that have nothing to do with the mind. And even if some properties are irreducibly subjective (e.g. color experiences), they must exist against a background of objective being. There is no such thing as the kind of free-floating subjectivity that idealism contemplates. Metaphysical objectivism affirms that reality exists on a bedrock of entirely mind-free facts, whatever exactly those facts may be. The basic reason for this is that reality pre-dates minds and would exist even if minds did not. Objectivism is the abstract position that reality is constituted quite separately from mind: it is not committed to any particular view of what the underlying reality is. In that sense it is ontologically neutral.

            It should not be taken for granted that subjective facts necessarily have objective counterparts or correlates—after all, many philosophers have denied this. It tells us something about the nature of the mental: it needs the non-mental. It can’t exist without it. No matter how irreducibly subjective a mental state may be, it must bring with it something quite different from itself—something objective. The objective, on the other hand, obeys no such requirement: it can happily exist without the company of the subjective. The subjective, however, is dependent on the objective in order to have any being at all, despite the opacity of the connection. Thus some sort of objectivist reduction would appear indicated—yet no such thing seems on the cards. This is really quite puzzling. The subjective is irresistibly drawn towards the objective, entirely parasitic on it, yet quite different from it. It is true that the subjective is enmeshed in the objective, notably via causality, but still the nature of the necessary connection is far from clear (thus allowing dualism to gain a foothold). So the objectivist position is not free of perplexity: it is true without being intelligibly true. The objectivist therefore carries a heavy explanatory burden, which he fails to discharge (I don’t regard this as an objection). The position is certainly interesting and distinct from other more familiar positions. It should be debated on its own terms.

    [1] Objectivity can come in degrees (as can subjectivity): one conception can be more objective than another. Thus physics may be very objective compared to common sense. But there also must be a form of objectivity that is absolute—where the objectivity is complete. For reality itself does not share gradations of objective understanding: facts have absolute objectivity when they have it at all. The world itself is absolutely objective (not counting the mental world). 

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7 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    A side note on the name you chose; could be important if you plan to develop this line of thinking further: “objectivism” would most definitely be confused with Rand or something like that (or worse, associated with it against your text and your will)… A new label would be better. Adding this point “my aim is expository rather than argumentative” worked on this reader 😉

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  2. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    I re-read the exposition a couple of times. FWIW coming from me the approach appears indeed genuinely different from well known “isms”. But what would be the ontological status of numbers (and abstractions/abstract objects in general) in your view, especially of the “weird” kind like imaginary numbers?

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    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That would depend on your view of numbers: a platonist would claim objectivity while an intuitionist would concede a degree of subjectivity. The question is how much of a human construction mathematics is. Rather similar to the status of physics.

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      • Free Logic
        Free Logic says:

        I tried to imagine an intuitionist or a constructivist defending their approaches under objectivist constraints and could not see how it is possible — for reasons similar, if not identical, to your own discussion of idealism in the article. The platonist’s approach does comply with the requirement of subjective always embedded in objective. A mysterian, whose views on abstract objects are yet to be seen, can validly claim that, roughly speaking, mysteries about abstract objects and many other philosophical puzzles exist because our subjective understanding covers/discovers less than there is to cover/discover in objective reality. But what a pure constructivist would say if her party line is that numbers (especially weird ones) are “all in the mind”?

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        • Colin McGinn
          Colin McGinn says:

          The subjectivist about numbers can claim that mathematical statements are true or false, but numbers themselves are mental entities. After all, statements about the mind can be true or false even though the mind is subjective. On mystery and abstract objects, see my Problems in Philosophy.

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