Why I struggle with the notion of objective reality (or at least our ability to access it)

I kind of surprised myself while writing yesterday’s post when it came to the issue of objective reality and whether or not I believe in it. As I noted, I was tempted to give a pat answer along the lines of “Of course objective reality exists, but none of us can ever experience it objectively, because we are subjective beings.” But then I backtracked from that statement, because to my way of thinking, the term “objective reality” refers to a level of reality that exists independent of an observer. Therefore, even such a reality exists, we can never know that for sure, because the moment we introduce an observer, we also introduce a subjective point of view. And there doesn’t seem to be any way to verify whether or not our subjective observations are being distorted somehow by our unique vantage point, our limited observational capacities, some unforeseen interference or a combination of the above.

Let’s start with a simple example to (hopefully) establish that I’m not crazy: Eager to prove that objective reality most certainly exists, you seek to demonstrate this fact by stepping off a cliff and falling to your death. Or, if you prefer a less lethal example, you step off a diving board and fall into a swimming pool. (We’ll even fill the pool with water for the sake of this illustration). Either way, if I’m standing at the top of the cliff looking at your shattered remains on the rocks below, or if I’m standing on the diving board contemplating a dive, I’m going to be asking myself the same question: Did you just fall to the earth/water, or did the water/earth rush up to meet you? My answer: It all depends on your point of view.

Another example to help clarify: Imagine two astronauts floating past each other in outer space far from any sort of reference point, such as a spaceship or a planet. As they observe their counterpart approach and then drift away into oblivion, both astronauts would be justified in saying that they were stationary and that the other astronaut had moved past them.

Still not convinced? How about this: My (admittedly scant) understanding of physics leads me to understand that our relative motion through time and space can cause two observers to witness exactly the same phenomenon but experience in completely different ways.

If someone is dribbling a basketball on the back of a moving flatbed truck, from his point of view, the ball will simply be moving straight up and down. But to someone observing from a stationary point on the sidewalk, the ball will actually be moving several feet down the street between each bounce. So instead of simply bouncing straight up and down, the ball will be moving in a diagonal motion. Both observers will be completely justified in their observations, even though their observations disagree.

The question is, how do we define objective reality in these examples? And remember, by objective reality I mean a level of reality that exists independent of an observer. The way I see it, we only have three options: declare one observer the winner, declare them both right, or declare them both wrong. Unfortunately, none of these options are appealing.

If we choose option number one, that means we are assuming one observer has a leg up on the other. In the basketball example, you might think the answer is obvious–the person observing from the sidewalk is experiencing objective reality. Even though the person on the flatbed truck thinks the ball is bouncing straight up and down, that is clearly an illusion created by the fact that the person and the ball are moving at the same speed as the truck. But couldn’t you turn that around and say that the person on the sidewalk is experiencing an illusion because she isn’t moving at the same speed as the dribbler, the ball and the flatbed truck?

The second case, declaring both observers to be correct, also doesn’t satisfy the demands of objective reality, because the two observations contradict each other. Either the ball is bouncing straight up and down or it isn’t.

If we take the third option and declare both observers to be wrong, then how do you propose we access the objective reality that supposedly underlies their illusions? We’ve already seen that is isn’t accessible from the truck, and it isn’t accessible from the sidewalk. So from what vantage point are we going to observe this event in order to experience it objectively? I can imagine literally millions of other vantage points from which we might observe this event, but this merely compounds the problem. For example, if the flatbed is moving at 50km/h, someone driving alongside it at 40km/h would observe the ball quite differently from both the person on the flatbed and the person on the sidewalk, but their point of view is still completely subjective. The same would be true of someone observing the ball’s movement from the moon and measuring it relative to the Earth’s movement around the sun. It would be an accurate measurement, but it wouldn’t be an objective measurement. We can multiply these sorts of measurements ad infinitum, which would definitely give us a clearer understanding of the ball’s movement relative to the rest of the universe. But we would still be no closer to an objective statement about the ball’s movement than we started. If everything is relative to an observer’s motion through time and space, how could any observation said to be objective?

At this point theists will introduce a Supreme Being whose vantage point somehow encompasses all of reality, allowing him/her/it to experience it objectively. Think of a human being observing fish in a tank. The entire tank is observable seeing as the person is not bound by the confines of the tank. Of course, when speaking of a Supreme Being, you would have to take this a step further so that he/she/it isn’t just observing the tank from the outside but also permeating everything in the tank, including the fish. And then you might propose that this Supreme Being became incarnate in the tank in order to help us see the tank from his/her/its vantage point. Fair enough. But even if you want to posit a Supreme Being who shares his/her/its point of view, you haven’t rid yourself of subjectivity, you’ve merely reintroduced it in the most extreme form imaginable.

Coming at this from a slightly different angle, picture an orange. It’s sitting in a fruit bowl on your kitchen table around midday, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. What color is the orange? Stupid question, I know. It’s orange! Keep observing the orange throughout the afternoon and into the evening though. Does its color change? The sun is about to set. What color is the orange now? How about after sunset? If you can see the orange at all, it’s probably black. But is it really black? Better turn on a light to be sure. Yep, still orange. But when you turn the light off, the orange turns black again. So what color is the orange, objectively speaking? I think the best we can say is that the color of an orange changes according to the number of photons striking it and their wavelength. However, even this statement is dependent on an observer–and a human observer at that. Is there any way to say something objectively true about the color of an orange that is not dependent on light conditions and how human eyes experience them? I don’t think so.

It’s simple examples like these that made me pause yesterday–and every time I run off half-cocked with a new idea that I’m determined is finally the answer to EVERYTHING. Which happens far more often than I’d like to admit… Wait a second, it’s happening right now!

What do we stand to lose if we let go of the notion of objective reality? An unmerited sense of certainty, control, pride, all sorts of nasty things.

What do we gain? Humility first of all. Patience, perhaps. Curiosity. Freedom. A fresh set of eyes and ears to see and hear how the world looks from other points of view…

That doesn’t sound so scary, does it?

P. S. One critic of this piece has graciously pointed out a couple of potential flaws in my thinking. First of all, that I have unnecessarily restricted my set of examples to those that prove my point. So if you’re holding a potato, for instance, and I say you’re holding a gun, it’s a pretty simple matter to determine who is right and who is wrong. (Unless you’ve cunningly carved a potato into the shape of a gun.) Fair enough. However, it’s the (perhaps) smaller set of circumstances that I illustrate in this piece that concern me, because when we are in the midst of them, we feel 100% justified in the accuracy of our observations–and rightly so. This fact makes it practically impossible to tell when we are in the midst of such circumstances unless someone comes along and points this out. And even if they do, how can we verify that their observation is superior? As the basketball example illustrates, the alternate observation may not be a superior measurement, simply a different measurement. So even though the potato/gun example seems like an obvious trump of my argument, I think it actually proves my point instead. How could we be mistaken about something that seems so obvious? Exactly.

As for the basketball, my critic has noted that the two observers are equivalent and correct but also incomplete and wrong. The ball is moving vertically with respect to the truck and diagonally with respect to the Earth. It has more complex movement with respect to the sun and other celestial bodies. Does the lack of a privileged inertial reference frame imply a lack of objective reality? I’ll leave that for you to decide. However, even if it doesn’t establish the non-existence of objective reality, as I have noted, it does seem to make any sort of objective statement about the motion of the ball infinitely more difficult to make, because I can imagine an infinite number of vantage points on the ball, all of which will provide accurate although incomplete statements in regard to its motion relative to some object or another.

Finally, with the orange, I should have been more rigorous in terms of how I defined the word “color.” Is color a summary of the spectrum of light currently reflecting off of the object’s surface relative to ambient light, or is it a description of how the surface reflects or absorbs light in general? In the second case, even though the appearance of the orange changes under certain lighting conditions, it’s inherent reflective qualities remain fixed across all circumstances.

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  • Makara

    Your critic’s “trump card” is even less persuasive than your examples. He or she lazily assumes that an object has no more substance than the name we give it. Just because we call something “gun” or “potato” doesn’t make them so. In fact, such labels are meaningless, offering no means for confirming the existence of objective reality beyond simple linguistic conventions.

    A more complete description might delve into the apparent objects’ cellular, molecular, atomic, or subatomic properties. But here again you run into the same problems which stymied your other examples. That is, before anything can be seen to have objective properties, one must first assign a reference point from which to observe it. The location of that reference point is always arbitrarily assigned. When an understanding of reality depends on such whimsical positioning, you’re sunk. It may then become clear that all objects are illusory. Objective reality is necessarily relative. Objects have no permanence, no separate or independent existence. It’s folly to think that just because we are able to observe and identify a thing its existence is confirmed. You hint at the futility of your efforts in your opening sentence “… [I] came to the issue of objective reality and whether or not I believe in it.” By definition, if you have to believe in something it isn’t true. Reality does not depend on belief. Reality is truth itself.

    And, as an aside, I do not share your experience that an orange’s “inherent reflective properties remain fixed across all circumstances.” My colorblindness provides an altogether different perception of an orange. I’d be cautious about relying on sense perceptions when seeking objective reality — optical illusions, to give one example, plainly reveal the fallibility of our senses.