Polemic Justice: False subjectivity


Over the course of my various exploits, I some times come across people who disagree with me and try to point out flaws in my reasoning. Some times their concerns are valid, but very often the alternative viewpoints are simply ignorant, irrelevant, or irrational. I do not often get a chance to refute them, though, for various reasons; often the person in question is too locked in a particular mindset and refuses to listen to any arguments that have even a remote chance of shattering their view of the world. Some times doing so would digress too far from the original discussion. So, the Internet being a free medium and all, I decided to do write up some of those criticisms and my answers to them, here where I have ample space to do so, both to offer relief in those cases where it was outside the scope of the original debate, and to try to persuade those who are unsure of what to believe.

You are yourself close-minded, because you refuse to accept viewpoints alternate to your own; you must always argue against them and never accept those who have other ideas.

This exhibit I have seen in many, many incarnations and in several different contexts. The argument (or rather, non-argument) is always the same: People accuse me of being close-minded, because I do not accept "alternate viewpoints" ? that is, viewpoints I don't agree with. The absurdity of this argument, which makes a nice appeal to emotion but lacks any coherency (as I will soon show), is baffling, and I cannot rightly comprehend the ideas behind it, although I have a theory why people might think that it is a valid argument.

First of all, one particular dichotomy should be established: The difference between purely subjective and non-subjective, or objective, situations. Subjective situations are what you might expect: situations where no particular option can simply be stated to be the one single truth, but where several different ideas might all serve as valid. All these ideas are governed by one single thing: personal preference. They are not necessarily based on any logical premise, and they do not need to be. Examples of this includes questions like "What kind of cheese do you prefer?" or "What is your favorite color?". These are normally not an issue, because these things are not normally challenged, and it is futile to even try to do so ? their inherent subjectivity makes any discussion pointless.

The other kind is more complex, though, but occupied the largest slice of situations out there; the objective cases, or perhaps more accurately, the non-subjective cases. These are the cases where a truth independent of personal taste can be established; where one's personal values are not enough to alone justify a decision ? in other words, personal taste might dictate the arguments you use, but they are not a substitute for rational arguments where such are necessary. Note the difference from subjective cases, where personal taste is all that you need, by definition.

Now, here comes the problem: The quote above is indicative of a subjective case. It is as if I had said to someone, "No, your favorite color cannot be black, because black is a dark and oppressive color." Such an argument is obviously absurd, because someone's favorite color is exactly what they make it out to be; it's a purely subjective statement that can't be argued about in any way or form. To the best of my knowledge, I have never been so stupid to make a non-argument like this, nor would I ever even dream of doing so.

What I do, however, is challenge opinions of the latter kind ? the objective cases ? where I believe there is a logical problem or a decision based on loose grounds. I do this a lot, in fact, and since people don't like it when they are disagreed with (see Dissonance and Straw Men), people can get a bit angry at me. Not surprising, but irrational nonetheless. But I digress. Looking back on the quote, we notice that it's two-fold: First they challenge me for not accepting viewpoints of others, and later again for always challenging people of different viewpoints. I'll only tackle the first here, as the second is of a most irrelevant nature; the fact that I am vehement about my opinions and debate on a regular basis has no bearing on any arguments I present, nor does it indicate any kind of contradiction. It's just preference (subjective!).

The first is the most important. In an objective case (which, as we established, is the only one worth arguing in the first place), there will be one result which is correct, and a multitude of incorrect ones. There is no getting around this: In any logical reasoning, you can only, invariably, arrive to one conclusion. Now, many would object here: What about the cases where several solutions work, but all can be reached through logic deduction? The answer to this is simple: The logical answer you arrive it is not the end solution, but rather the incomplete solution stated just before the last decisions branch off, at which point the argumentation becomes opinion. Think about this for a second; it helps to think of the deduction process as a branch of sorts, staying mostly coherent up until a point where it spreads into a multitude of equally working conclusions; what you want to reach here is the point where they split, and leave the rest to personal taste.

Since there is only one valid complete or incomplete solution to every objective problem, it is obvious that this is the only acceptable solution; any other would be false. It's also understandable that anyone who believes they know which solution is correct would want to argue it and bring forth their point. At this point another appeal to emotion tends to be brought up: "How do you know your opinion is the right one? You could be wrong!"

Perhaps I am wrong. Then again, perhaps it is you who is wrong. One can't really tell before all arguments have been presented. Indeed, there could be some mistake in my reasoning and maybe I am wrong. If I am, then bring up rational arguments to show why I am wrong (of course allowing me to rebut such reasoning if I consider them faulty as well!), and let your arguments speak for themselves; they have inherent worth, if they are correct. But in the meantime, I have every reason to believe that I am right, and that those who disagree are wrong. Because each objective logical case can only have one solution, one of us must be wrong if our conclusions differ, and of course I will assume that I am right (and therefore, that you are wrong). The alternative would be going around with the assumption that what I believe is false, and that I try to convince others of things I know are falsehoods; a truly bizarre standpoint indeed.

People would like this to mean that I am close-minded. Indeed, were it the case that I dismissed opposing arguments without giving them proper consideration, I would be. But, that is not the case; do not mistake swiftness in refuting arguments to be ignorance towards the idea they present. As any debater, I do consider arguments people throw at me. Often, I find mistakes in them quite quickly, and respond to them with haste, pointing out these flaws. It seems though that people believe their own opinions to be sacrosanct and impervious to attack; as if they were subjective, when they really are based on objective (and flawed) notions. This is what I call the false subjective.

Counter-arguing and shattering irrational arguments is a normal part of any debate, and is just how these things work; argument, then counter-argument. Some people seem insistent on believing, though, that a quick refusion of an argument must indicate ignorance on the opposing part, but that is seldom the case. If you believe something is in error, then prove it as part of the debate and move on. Let your arguments speak for you; if you believe the other part is in error, then the rationality of your argument will make that clear for anyone involved. Appealing to emotion by accusing the opposing side of being close-minded is nothing short of a cheap trick without any real bearing. Risking repeating myself, I'll state the obvious: If you are right, then your arguments will speak for you.

For some odd reason, whenever I read something or see something or learn about something, I always try to find flaws in it. Flaws I can exploit to show that that particular something is not correct. I grew up on the Internet among... hackers and script kiddies, so that must have had some influence on me.

Anyway, the same thing obviously happens when I read essays such as this on the Internet. I always try to think of situations where any given argument is invalid. And I'd like to offer a counter-argument to your position.

All reasoning is subjective.

All our reasoning is based on data that's gathered from our surroundings through our senses. Even that which we consider to be immutable truth such as 1+1=2 might turn out to be false one day in a similar manner that non-Euclidean geometry is possible.

So I say that it is wrong to state that there are subjective and objective truths -- there are only subjective ones. It is the degree of subjectivity that needs to be tackled here.

Reasoning can be consciously subjective. In that a person is willing to accept a false statement just because it is profitable to him or because he wants to. Example: Accepting that there are WMDs in Iraq might have been a consciosly subjective 'conclusion' made because there was also a lot of oil there and oil means profit.

Reasoning can be viewpoint-subjective. A person's reasoning is based on his viewpoint and his current situation. For example, a man dying of a stab wound might consider it a much worse fate than freezing to death, but he can't know for sure. In such an extreme situation, he might also make decisions that put others to risk. For example, he might have AIDS and let someone else bandage him because that would save his life, thought it might also kill the other person.

There is dogmatic reasoning. Reasoning based on a set of "truths", usually forming the basis of a religion. For instance, the bible tells you by example to kill those who worship other gods. Some religious fundamentalist might actually start doing it pointing to the "truths" of the good book. (On a side note: do you consider protestants to be christian fundamentalists?)

Next we come to informational reasoning. Decisions based on information that you have. Science is a whole lot of informational reasoning and models based on conclusions of that reasoning. This also illustrates your point that there can be several correct results based on the sama data and same reasoning with a touch of subjectivity thrown in the mix: Consider, for example, the differences of current "theories of everything" of which the string theory is probably the most widely known simply because they make a lot of noise, not because they actually have a coherent model or make any predictions that can be verified. (And that was a self-referential example of reasoning -- I started off by stating a "truth" and then digressed by throwing in a bit of lower-level subjectivity.) Also, the decision to attack Iraq might have also been informational reasoning -- there might really have been intelligence data supporting the WMD claims.

Naturalist reasoning. Reasoning based on axioms or what are perceived as axioms. An excellent example of this are parallel lines in Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometry. It would be logical to conclude that if you took two lines, then there would only be one way for these lines to be extended into infinity in a two-dimensional space without them intersecting and when that happens, those lines are "parallel" to one another. (The original "axiom" that says the same thing is much more confusing, but this is a good estimate.) But non-Euclidean geometry discards that "axiom" and instead shows that this two-dimensional space can also exist on a sphere and thus we end up with elliptic geometry, where no lines are "parallel" or hyperbolic geometry, which is even funkier.

Subjective subjective reasoning: reasoning that is usually self-refential, "loopy" reasoning. "I like it because I like it."

Reasoning can also be a combination of any one of these and t

...And you should add some bloody warning for those that go over the limit...

Anyway, I meant to say that those are not the only "shades of subjectivity". And I also mentioned that a russian cosmonaut in Stargate episode 803 on the ISS was wearing clothing that had "MIR" written on it.

My point is simple: all reasoning is subjective. We should not lump reasoning into two piles: objective and subjective. We should not do that because on some level, even what we call "objective reasoning" might turn out to be false. Especially if we don't know all about the subject.

What we should do is seek to understand, not to judge.

In my opinion, arguing over something is only meaningful, if there are outside observers who have not yet made up their minds and who, during the course of the argument, assume a position in the debate based on the arguments. There is no "universal objectivity" -- your position should be considered valid if the majority sides with you based only on the quality of your arguments.

A smart person realises he knows nothing and greets everything with an open mind. A stupid person realises he knowns nothing and fills his head with ignorance disguised as an open mind.

>...And you should add some bloody warning for those that go over the limit...

There is one. There is a Javascript warning if you try to submit a comment that's too large.

Anyway, I'd like to take this opportunity to relate an adage from Billy Madison: "Mr Madison, at no point in your incoherent rambling did you even come close to a rational thought. /.../ I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul".

Your argument is a non-argument; you do not prove anywhere that all reasoning is subjective. In fact, the idea that all reasoning even can be subjective is absurd; if that were the truth, then no real truth could ever be perceived, and all logic would be inherently worthless. All forms of debate would be fruitless and entirely worthless regardless of context. Religion and paranoid conspiracy ideas would be just as valid as science.

On the topic of science: bringing in Euclidean versus non-Euclidean geometry is a red herring; physics and mathematics always relate a model and don't claim to try to show what's really there; that's not their task. They just ty to construct a viable model that's useful in a particular context.

The distinction between subjective and non-subjective ideas is a valid one. Consider:

Person A likes oranges.

This statement is subjective. It can't be argued for or against. You can hardly disagree with that. Next:

Person A is of the opinion that the moon is made of cheese.

This is an objective idea; it can be disproven by real-world, logical means. The moon is not made of cheese, it's made of various rocks and minerals. Person A is free to believe in his mind that the moon is made of cheese; but that doesn't actually affect the veracity of his statement. It only shows that A is an idiot.

Not really. Someone believing that the moon is made of cheese is most likely reasoning of the consciously subjective variety. He knows it's not, but he just wants to seem silly for whatever reason -- maybe he's trying to be silly on purpose?

Yes, I'm saying that everything is subjective. But I'm not saying that everything is worthless. To us, anyway.

Think of it in the same terms as the meta-meta-meta-...-meta-thing. You exist on some level, but there are infinitely many levels and you can only fully understand those that are lower than you. To understand all levels would be to be objective.

But that's not really possible either.

You did read my posts on physicsforums about free will, didn't you? Anyway, my point is that consciousness and self-awareness arise from a neural network and the fact we even think that there is "free will" is because we can never be aware of all the inputs. Thus that illusion arises.

And coming back to the subjectivity topic -- all reasoning is inherently subjective because it relies on information that has arrived through our senses during our lives. Brains simply calculate causality based on what they know of the different rules and probabilities of the world. It doesn't make it true. It doesn't make anything true.

Oh and on the topic of science: Euclidean vs non-Euclidean was valid example in the context in which it was made. A belief existed prior to the discovery of non-Euclidean geometry that the Euclidean one was the only true one. Then someone decided to explore what it would be like without the parallel lines axiom and ended up with non-Euclidean geometry. Thus, a new truth was that Euclidean geometry isn't the whole truth, that there are other models which also work.

Oh and the goal of science IS to understand, not to simply mess around with building different models.

And you missed my point: there are various levels of subjectivity without there being any grand truth. I did NOT say that conspiracy theories about Elvis are just as valid as the string theory or the theory of relativity.

If you can disprove a statement using valid argumentation, then you have built upon a subjective view that is of higher level than the one you disproved.

A: "The moon is made of cheese." (Consciously subjective argument.)
B: "No, it's made of minerals and various other goop. Check out this wikipedia entry for more information." (Informational reasoning -- B based his viewpoint on the information he had.)

-- or --

B: "No, that's stupid." (Naturalist reaoning. Not accepting statements that seem very unlikely.)

Subjective != derived from personal observation.

Subjective = Depending only on personal taste.

Subjective = depending on the data that is available to you, whether it is personal taste, personal observation, information gathered from others or things you accept as true.

Not the way it's used in this article. I defined "subjective" in a particular way for the purpose of this article; anything outside that is irrelevant. Don't apply your own idea of what "subjective" means outside of this article. And yes, I can do that; what I'm really doing is giving a name to a qualifier for one kind of situation: "subjective". It is the meaning of this word, AS STATED IN THE ARTICLE, that has any bearing. I could just as well have decided to call it "flurgmumph".

Or, put differently: Subjective notions are those that cannot be said to be valid or invalid; "My opinion is that the taste of apples is pleasant" is such a statement. It cannot be proven, and it contains no inherent validity. Any statement that does, however, and can be derived through, is an objective such.

Alright, the definition of "subjective" you chose for this article is a subset of my definition of "subjective."

So we have reduced this debate to a Semantical Halting Problem :P

What if the person believing the world is made out of cheese was not aware of other possibilities? Would they still be an idiot then?

No, that's what I tend to call "passive ignorance". By default, everyone is passively ignorant; that is, the only reason we don't know fact X is that no one has informed us of fact X. Most people are fine and accept new facts easily; no shame on them, they are not idiots.

There are those though, who are actively ignorant. When given a new fact, they go on to blithely ignore it, citing irrational reasons for why they should not believe it, no matter how much sense it makes, and how rational the evidence for the fact is. Those people are stupid.

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