Subjective versus Objective

Schools of philosophy and psychology have long debated the value of thoughts and ideas by the nature of approach to their investigation. It would seem that the validity of concepts, ideas and information is often judged by our notion of which of these classifications it is deemed to fit—Subjective or Objective. To attempt any understanding of these attitudes or arguments, it is first necessary to find a suitable definition of these terms. Webster’s New World Collegiate Dictionary provides some interesting insights into the vast diversity of what our language has come to signify by these terms.

Subjective: relating to or determined by the mind as the subject of experience; characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind; phenomenal; arising out of or identified by means of one’s awareness.

Objective: existing independent of mind; belonging to the sensible world and being observable or verifiable especially by scientific methods; expressing or involving the use of facts; derived from sense perception.

If you find it difficult to define exactly where sensory observation ends and individual awareness of that observation begins, you understand the problems of addressing this area of controversy. Even those who chose to selectively define the underlying terms must depend on another’s perception of that definition to have a meaningful discourse. The very nature of the argument is one of definitions.

One of the differentiating factors of objective evaluation seems to be its basis in scientific method. Although relatively recent in its definition, the methods used to investigate and evaluate "scientific" data have been agreed on as a means of determining what is real from what is just thought to be—the objective as contrasted to the subjective. Scientific method relies heavily on observation (sensory input), reproducibility (observing the same output from the same input repeatedly) and consensus (agreement by others on what is a correct observation). Even within the scientific method, there is heavy reliance on interpretation of sensory data, a function of the mind, to prove that a phenomenon (subjective) actually exists (objective) separately from the individual’s perception of it. It would appear that at its most essential level, all objective facts are recognized through repeated subjective experience by enough concurring individuals for them to be accepted as facts. There are many examples throughout history of accepted "facts" that changed dramatically when enough persons experienced a conflicting phenomenon or perceived the old phenomenon in a different context. Copernicus changed what we know of science forever with his introspective insights into celestial observations, which had been interpreted differently and accepted as facts and laws for many years.

Even Popper’s "World 3" suffers this shortcoming of the objectivity test in that the contents of books, scientific theory or critical arguments change from century to century as our experience and perception of the phenomenological world change. Examine his example of proof for the existence and value of World 3 with a slight change. Imagine that all machines and tools are destroyed, and all our subjective learning, including our subjective knowledge of machines and tools and how to use them. Further imagine that all the books written since 1000 AD were also destroyed. Our ability to reestablish our civilization would be severely impacted by the inaccuracy and distortion of how the remaining information defines reality. We would, in effect, adopt the shared reality of that millennium as the basis for our facts, until the subjective experience of enough individuals and their interpretation of those experiences brought about another shift in our "scientific" awareness. We can quickly see that factual information is not, of itself, objective, but is a consensual description of subjective experiences.

British physicist-mathematician-astronomer Sir James Jeans (1877-1946) cogently defined science as "the earnest attempt to set in order the facts of experience" (142). He later observed that "Reality is in some sense constructed by the mind, not simply perceived by it, and many such constructions are possible, none necessarily sovereign" (143). Albert Einstein was abundantly aware of this aspect of scientific method. He observed that "our theories are inventions of our minds that we use for practical purposes, and that allow us to make comprehensible what is sensorily given. Fundamentally, in theory building we invent, and from our inventions infer, and then test for accuracy, economy, logical coherence, and scope" (34). It then follows that "theoretical systems", an important inmate of Popper’s World 3, is actually a product of mind, and is inherently subjective by its very nature.

Those physicists, like Niels Bohr and Nick Herbert, who leapfrogged over Einstein to develop the concepts of quantum mechanics even propose that the distinction between subjective and objective is functionally non-existent. In The Holographic Universe, Michael Talbot explains that "there is compelling evidence that the only time quanta ever manifest as particles is when we are looking at them. For instance, when an electron isn’t being looked at, experimental findings suggest that it is always a wave" (34). Herbert comments that this interpretation has sometimes caused him to imagine that behind his back the world is always "a radically ambiguous and ceaselessly flowing quantum soup" (Talbot, 34). Reality, that ultimate test of objectivity, may only be an individual subjective experience created by our participation and observation. Our collective reality may be constructed and rearranged by our thoughts, intentions and expectations. In the light of this "new science", the relative value of subjectivity versus objectivity, especially for the purpose of scientific investigation, seems to be as meaningless as the pre-Columbian debates over whether there were monsters at the edge of the known world or just a bottomless pit.

Sources Cited

Einstein, Albert. The World as I See It. Reissue Edition. New York: Citadel Press. 1993.

Jeans, Sir James. Physics and Philosophy. New York: Dover Publications. 1942 (1981).

Talbot, Michael. The Holographic Universe. New York: HarperCollins. 1992


© 1998 by Maureen Gamble. All rights reserved. This material may not be reprinted or excerpted without the express permission of the author. For information contact