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.

About Kevin Miller

Kevin Miller is an award-winning screenwriter, director and producer who has applied his craft to numerous documentaries, feature films and shorts. Recent projects include "The Chicken Manure Incident," "Hellbound?," "Drop Gun," "No Saints for Sinners," "spOILed," "Sex+Money," "With God On Our Side," "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," "After..." and the upcoming biopic "The Divine Comedy of Thomas Merton." In addition to his work in film, Kevin has written, co-written and edited over 45 books. He lives in Kimberley, BC, Canada with his wife and four children.

  • http://leavinglamancha.com Christian Kumpost

    I think right here: “even if its doesn’t establish the non-existence of objective reality, it does seem to make any sort of objective statement about the motion of the ball infinitely more difficult to make,” contains the quasi-ephemeral-timey-wimey-whibley-wobbley “answer” to this sort of “riddle in the dark” of objectivity.
    Perhaps indeed there IS an objective reality–and I would further posit that you are correct in your statements about the inability to observe it, “know” it, or pin it down.
    For then it wouldn’t be objective anymore.
    Yet while I agree this is the case, when I read the above quoted line, the phrase “objective statement” immediately jumped out to me.
    What if there is indeed an objective reality? What if we (all humanity) experience it every moment, in every possible way, without the ability to “pin it down?” Is it conceivably possible that there is an objective reality, but that we cannot at all make “objective statements” about it?
    And, well, what if THAT’S the point?
    I must admit that as I was perusing through this post, my initial thoughts went immediately to those (for lack of any other proper descriptive phrase) “gestalt shift” drawings; you know, the ones that are both a rabbit and a duck, an old woman and a young woman, a baby in the womb and a lakeside. But as I continued on I came to recognize your point that even in this there can be not only a bigger statement, but that these themselves would only serve to prove an “objective statement” that I have come to make about reality, which may or may not be at all valid.
    So I return to (or reached, if following the chronological progression of thought outlined whilst reading) the statement (wordplay intended) that perhaps it’s about not being about to formulate an “objective statement” rather than denying an objective reality. And I think that that runs counter to human nature, human desire. I think (personally) we want objective statements OVER an objective reality any day. Whether religious or not, we want to follow someone who says “Look at things MY WAY,” or “Look at things THIS WAY,” because we want to–as you said, have control, certainty, pride. We want “the answer”–”the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” (Hitchhiker’s Guide reference). But even getting the answer and we’re not satisfied. Because the answer doesn’t make sense to us. And that’s what we want. An “Objective Statement” that makes sense.
    Yet maybe–just like Hitchhiker’s Guide, and (dare I reference it?) “I, Robot” it’s the right QUESTIONS that need to be asked, not the right answers, the “right” objective statements.
    As a Christian, I believe that answer to be Jesus. He IS both the objective reality, and the answer. I could go even further and call Him the main character of the cosmic story, the words of the story itself, the plot of the story, the beginning of it, and the END of it. But just like getting the answer “42,” we may not understand it, or accept it, because He–Jesus Christ and Him Crucified, the representation of God, of Love for ALL things, doesn’t make sense to us.
    Yet I think where we err is not in Christ not making sense, but in deciding exactly that He DOES. In becoming satisfied in our “viewpoint” of reality, of life. Of saying we can MAKE OBJECTIVE STATEMENTS because we “have” (or perhaps, “know”) the OBJECTIVE REALITY. Yet that’s just like saying we have/know the answer to ultimate question of life, the universe, everything is 42.
    My point is this, maybe we CAN know and experience an “objective reality,” perhaps we can “know” the answer, but in the grand scheme of things it neither matters nor satisfies, for what we want is the “objective STATEMENT,” to not merely “know” the answer, but to HAVE the answer, to make ourselves, to continue eating from the tree and gaining knowledge of good and evil.
    We want to know the Doctor’s NAME, not merely KNOW (relationally) The Doctor.
    Yet the answer doesn’t lay IN the answer, but in the question. In the questions. In the seeking, in not settling for life “as it is” but to seek how it “should be.”
    To see a NEW world (“Behold, I AM making ALL THINGS new!”) is to continually see the world afresh, and the only way to do that is to question–to not deny an “objective reality,” but deny “objective statements.”
    –And the world WILL be better for this.

  • Dorfl

    “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.”

    I think that here, you are doing something philosophers are very prone to doing: taking a correct knowledge of physics and trying to draw more widely-ranging conclusions from it than it actually allows you to.

    All your examples are correct, and in general there is no physical difference between saying ‘A is stationary and B is moving’ and ‘A is moving and B is stationary’. Those descriptions are related by a simple coordinate transformation, so the only real difference between them is in the mathematical symbols used by the physicist describing them. To make this more intuitively graspable, we usually describe it in terms of different ‘observers’ who are implicitly assumed to be using a coordinate system which is always centred around themselves.

    But: this does not mean that the same phenomenon will be completely different as described in those different coordinate systems – as seen by two different observers. The distance between you and the water will be changing over time in the same way to each observer*. The way the water splashes (or the way you splash, in the rocks case) will be the same to each observer, even if they disagree on whether the collisions were due to you hitting the obstacle or the obstacle hitting you.

    We usually call those things that are the same to any observer invariant. The things that do differ between different observers are generally related by some form of fairly simple mathematical transformation – a translation**, Lorentz transformation, gauge transformation or what have you.

    In fact, it is by assuming that a change of vantage point should not produce any actual contradictions – even if some things may change in well-defined way – that we can theoretically derive a large part of physics, which then turns out to match experiment. For example, GR pretty much follows once you assume that accelerating an observer shouldn’t change anything physical. Conservation of angular momentum follows if we assume that translating an observer shouldn’t change anything physical. Conservation of electric charge follows if we assume a multiplication with e^(i theta) shouldn’t change anything physical – although this admittedly is hard to describe this using the ‘observer’ metaphor.

    * As long as the Newtonian approximation is valid. I could make basically the same points using General Relativity, but it would require me to use much clunkier language.

    ** That is, movement along a straight line.