How to Overcome the Paradox of Being Objective in a Subjective World
Finding the middle way
Once upon a time, two donkeys were tied together.
They both wanted to eat off the bushes that were at the side of a road, but the rope wasn’t long enough.
Both donkeys pulled hardly hoping to drag the other to their side. They pulled and pulled, but none move an inch. The animals became very frustrated — each had a bush right in front, but they couldn’t reach it. While they were seating trying to figure out how to eat, something clicked.
“What if we work together?” — both donkeys said simultaneously.
The animals decided to take turns. They both moved together to one side and ate from one bush. Once they finished, they moved to the other side of the road and started eating from another bush.
Dogmas are like two donkeys tied together — they create unhealthy tensions.
When we live in terms of absolutes, the only ‘bush’ that matters is the one that we can see. Beliefs blind us. We can’t acknowledge the other side— even if the other party is trying to accomplish the same goal.
That’s the paradox of being objective: when you believe you possess the truth, you become the prey of your subjective beliefs.
The paradox of objectivity
“Contemplation is the silent perception of reality.” — Josef Pieper
Can we really be objective? Or is objectivity a social construct?
In his book Contemplative Science, B. Alan Wallace suggests there is room to connect contemplation and science. Actually, the Latin term ‘contemplatio,’ from which ‘contemplation’ is derived, corresponds to the Greek word ‘theoria.’ Both refer to total devotion to pursuing the truth, and nothing less.
Science is about objectivity — to understand the nature of reality.
Trying to remove all subjectivity, modern science divorced itself from both religion and philosophy. That need to become ‘objective’ was one of the “man’s greatest inhumanity to man” as Wallace explains.
Our society became more knowledgeable, but not more wiser or compassionate.
The word ‘metaphysics’ is notoriously hard to define. It’s the study of things beyond the physical world. Metaphysical beliefs are the poster child of objectivity — they are placed beyond challenge. That’s why they support dogmatic beliefs.
Dogma is something that is defined by the authority of God, a leader, a group practice or an extraordinary experience.
Absolute Objectivity is like having God’s eye view —“The view from nowhere,” as Thomas Nagel described it.
Those who claim to be absolutely objective pretend to have a God’s eye view.
Untie the donkeys
“I think perfect objectivity is an unrealistic goal; fairness, however, is not.” — Michael Pollan
Who owns objectivity? That’s a very subjective thing.
Each positive absolute has an opposite negative absolute. And the other way around.
For every absolute, there’s an opposite absolute.
Moral Absolutism establishes that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged and that certain actions are right or wrong. It is the opposite of Moral Relativism, the idea that there is no universal or absolute set of moral principles — they are culturally defined as the saying goes: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
“Objectivist scientists” and moralists have a hard time integrating opposite perspectives. For them, you either support Absolute Objectivity or you are a relativist — you believe that no belief is better than any other.
Dogmatism disables objectivity of judgement because it suppresses alternatives.
One person’s extreme is someone else’s moderation.
Opposites need to integrate instead of beating one another. Just like the donkeys, they have to work together instead of trying to drag each other to their own side.
To solve for the tension between absolute dogmas, you have to untie the donkeys.
Find the Middle Way
“After all, the ultimate goal of all research is not objectivity, but the truth.” — Helene Deutsch
Objectivity is incremental, not absolute.
We always have a point of view. Absolute objectivity is beyond human experience. Realizing you don’t possess God’s eye view, helps you embrace a more humble approach to being objective.
You might not let your emotions cloud your judgment as much as other people do. However, you are still human. Rather than force yourself (and others) to choose sides, find the middle way.
The Middle Way is not a happy medium — it’s not the average of two truths.
Buddha referred to the middle way of moderation, a space between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. It’s about seeking balance — to reconcile and transcend the duality that characterizes most thinking.
Aristotle talked about the ‘golden mean,’ whereby “every virtue is a mean between two extremes, each of which is a vice.”
The Middle Way is a path that embraces both spiritualism and materialism — just like the back and front sides of a paper.
When the donkeys stop trying to pull each other, they could reframe the situation. They were able to consider other alternatives and started working together.
By being receptive to new possibilities, the donkeys achieved their goals — they moved from conflict to integration.
Integration requires changing your mind
To pursue the Middle Way is to bravely confront life’s challenges — identify root causes and seek means of resolution. It could be expressed as the commitment to upholding respect for the dignity of life.
The opposite to dogmatism is skepticism.
Rather than taking one truth as absolute, you challenge all the truths.
Skepticism is not being negative or rejecting every possible truth.
It’s about having a critical mind and not letting your beliefs get you stuck in one truth. Perception is ambiguous and dynamic — we impose our own stories to what we see.
How can you tell if what you experience is absolutely real or tinted by your own subjectivity?
Even the most rational scientists and philosophers have biases. They might be more aware than ordinary people but are not immune to being human.
Skepticism is not denialism. It’s understanding that knowledge is built every time a theory is debunked by a new one. That’s how science has always evolved. When you believe one theory to be absolute and perfect, you don’t leave room to incremental improvement.
Skepticism is not thinking that beliefs are wrong, but that they may be wrong.
If anything were absolute, there wouldn’t be room for improvement or innovation.
‘Provisionality’ is the capacity to change our beliefs in response to new experiences or new reasonings.
One thing is changing your mind because you want to or to please others. Another thing is to update your ideas as part of your learning journey.
According to the Middle Way association, provisionality is a three-step approach:
- Awareness of limitations: Avoid dogma. Use critical awareness to understand the flaws in your beliefs. It’s accepting that some of your truths may be false.
- My beliefs: Understand and challenge your own beliefs rather than consider them absolute. Be receptive to criticism.
- Consider alternatives: Optionality is having different ways of thinking and behaviors available. Rather than pulling the other donkey to your side, you collaborate with it.
Provisionality is embracing a fluid mind, not a rigid one. It’s a state that realizes that life is full of ‘unknown unknowns.’
How to follow the middle way
Autonomy of judgment:
Don’t let other people’s beliefs overpower you. Keep your own judgment. We are social animals; it’s hard not to be influenced by others. However, that everyone else is agreeing on something doesn’t mean you should too. Group thinking is the enemy of ‘provisionality.’
Adopt a ‘maybe mindset:’
Things are fluid, they rapidly mutate. One event might look positive today and then, an unexpected turn, could make it make negative. Provisionality requires adopting a ‘maybe mindset,’ as I explained here.
Don’t try to turn your personal preferences into something objective. Accept other people’s subjectivity. Your food or music tastes are different to other people’s choices. Yours are not right or wrong; they are just yours.
Find a common goal:
Religion is a perfect example of tensions driven by dogmas. Religion is about the dignity of life, to realize our purpose as human beings. Focus on the commonalities. What’s the purpose behind your religious beliefs? Accept that, even though others have a different creed, they could share the same goal.
Embrace a ‘Yes, And’ mindset:
Black or white. Left or right. Dogmas push us to think of options that are mutually exclusive. A ‘Yes, and’ approach is about building on other people’s ideas and not seeing them as opposites. Creativity benefits from an abundance mentality — a ‘Yes, and’ mindset removes judging and encourages diversity of thinking as I explained here.
Challenge the truth:
Be skeptical. That doesn’t mean thinking that everything is wrong but rather that they may be wrong. Ask “why?” When you get an answer, ask why again. Repeat over and over, as kids do. Don’t take anything for granted.
Putting it all together
The two donkeys represent the negative and positive absolutes respectively. A right-or-wrong approach creates a tension that distracts both animals from their end goal: eating.
That’s the paradox of objectivity: trying to prove other people wrong, we get stuck in our ‘truths.’
Embrace a ‘provisional’ mindset. Realize that the truth — no matter how objective — evolves through time.
Nowadays, no one questions that the Earth revolves around the sun. However, in the 17th Century, Galileo Galilei almost got killed for being the first to state that.
Finding the middle way doesn’t mean compromising, but being smart. Dogmas get you stuck. Integration is about seeing the whole picture, not the one you believe is true.
Challenge your beliefs continually — that’s how you get to find the truth.
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