Some other varieties of objectivity

Surfers riding a wave at Teahupo’o, Paea, Tahiti
Image (CC) Brigitte Bourger

No objective meaning” claimed that objectivity is nebulous, undefinable, and a matter of degree. This may have seemed surprising or implausible.

Scientists and philosophers confronted this problem during the twentieth century. They were unable to find any workable definition for “objectivity.” More important, by the middle of the century, they were forced to conclude that there is no method for objectivity. It’s a vague quality, an aspiration, a virtue. You know it when you see it, but you can’t nail it down.

I find the history of this discovery—drawn-out, unexpected, and unwelcome as it was—fascinating. It’s not the sort of thing that belongs in Meaningness, which is not about philosophy, history, or science, though.

Nevertheless, this page discusses briefly several conceptions of objectivity that might cause both eternalists and nihilists to think meanings are non-existent or worthless unless they are objective:

You can skip this page if the previous one’s claim seemed reasonable: that some objectivity in meaning is often possible, desirable, and nebulous. If you didn’t, this page might change your mind, but it doesn’t attempt a comprehensive philosophical argument. Either way, you might find the details theoretically interesting for their own sake.

Objectivity is not one thing

The plausibility of “no objective meaning” depends on sliding between different senses of “objective” without admitting it. It’s true that there isn’t any objective meaning if “objective” means “minds aren’t involved in any way.” It’s false if “objective” means “agreed upon by a broad community who have considered the matter carefully, paid attention to evidence, and set aside personal and group bias as much as possible.”

That “objectivity” is dangerously ambiguous is a mainstream view:

So many debates in philosophy revolve around the issue of objectivity versus subjectivity that one may be forgiven for assuming that someone somewhere understands this distinction. There certainly exists a widespread intuitive imagery associated with the duality that is sufficiently vivid to motivate heartfelt philosophical commitments, but, once approached directly, the distinction nevertheless proves extremely difficult to nail down. It is likely that part of what is causing confusion is that there are a number of non-equivalent ways of drawing the distinction, some of which are better suited to certain subject areas than others. Expecting a monolithic theory that applies to all cases is probably an unreasonable aspiration.1

If what is so great about science is its objectivity, then objectivity should be worth defending. The close examinations of scientific practice that philosophers of science have undertaken in the past fifty years have shown, however, that several conceptions of the ideal of objectivity are either questionable or unattainable. The prospects for a science providing a non-perspectival “view from nowhere” or for proceeding in a way uninformed by human goals and values are fairly slim, for example.2

No mindless meaning

A simple understanding is that objectivity is about the physical world, whereas subjectivity is merely mental. Objective truths are things that would remain true if all minds were removed from the universe. If meaning is a mental thing, it isn’t objective and doesn’t exist, or at least isn’t any good.

This proves too much. Most nihilists would not want to deny the existence of all mental things, nor their value.3 Memory, for example, is routinely studied scientifically, and shown objectively to exist (if you somehow doubted that). “Meaning is just a mental thing” might suggest it is fallible (like memory), but not that it’s always worthless or arbitrary or delusional.

Anyway, since meaning is mainly interactive, not subjective, it’s not solely mental (although minds are generally involved). It is often observable, and sometimes objectively so. More about that below, and later in the book.

No inherent meaning

Cat food advertisement

On the theory that “objective” means “mindless,” objective meanings would have to live in mindless objects (and mindless processes, events, and so on). Those would be “inherent” or “intrinsic” meanings, probably installed as part of the Cosmic Plan. Such meanings were taken for granted by the Western mainstream until the scientific worldview discredited them.

It’s common for nihilistic thinking to skip from “everything lacks inherent meaning” to “everything is inherently meaningless.” That’s a much stronger statement: that nothing could have any meaning whatsoever. It doesn’t follow at all; it implicitly assumes that intrinsicness is the only way meaning could work—a common form of nihilistic logical error. In fact, many things do have meanings that aren’t inherent.

Are there any meanings that are inherent? It’s reasonable to say “no,” because the pre-scientific view that objects are imbued with non-physical, meaningful essences is wrong. But it’s a more subtle question than it seems.

What is an intrinsic property? Gravitational mass is perhaps the strongest candidate.4 What is it? It is the propensity to exert an attractive force on other objects, in proportion to their own mass, decreasing with the square of distance.5 That force is an interaction, whose effects which can be observed and measured. But mass itself can’t be! Mass is a purely theoretical, hypothetical abstraction, based on observing a mathematical pattern in the observed interactions.

It’s a convenient simplification to posit mass as an intrinsic property, but only because gravity is indiscriminate. Any object is willing to interact with any other object. If some objects were finicky, and exerted a whimsically unpredictable attractive force mostly only on objects that belonged to the Emperor, were embalmed, or trembled as if they were mad, assigning a mass to them would not make sense. We might also be inclined to ascribe subjectivity to them.

To the extent an object interacts consistently, that interaction may be described as (relatively) objective, and due to some (relatively) intrinsic property of it. Take cat food. Some cats are finicky, but if they are hungry enough, almost any cat will eat almost any commercial cat food. It’s pretty clear cats regard “edibility” as an intrinsic and meaningful property.

Cats are not altogether mistaken in this philosophical view, even if it is characteristically egocentric. Edibility is a moderately objective, moderately intrinsic, moderately meaningful property of cat food, because cat food interacts in an edible way with many (but not all) carbon-based life forms. Most humans would also eat cat food if hungry enough, but koalas would not.6 Humans would find the discovery of a pallet of cartons of cans of cat food highly meaningful if we were starving after the robot apocalypse, but koalas would not.

Hedgehog eating cat food
“my hedgehog loves cat food” courtesy Alice Popkorn

This may have seemed like a whimsical and irrelevant philosophical entertainment. It is not.

Why is it temping to say “everything is inherently meaningless” when we’re feeling nihilistic?

It is because, at those times, we lack confidence in our ability to enter into meaningful interactions. We don’t feel up to doing our part—because nihilism makes that seem a gigantic and hopeless effort. We don’t think the meanings we co-produce can be good enough. We want the Cosmic Plan to take full responsibility, and provide solid, definite, separate, permanent, inherently existing meanings for us. Then we are hurt and angry and frightened when it doesn’t.

Completely inherent meaning would require no work on our part (which is what eternalism promises). Inherent meaning would be reassuring and dependably just there. However, meaning is always nebulous, fluctuating, uncertain—like a dance, not like a statue. That might seem unsatisfactory. However, it provides freedom and creativity and lightness and exploration, where cosmically fixed meanings would be inescapable, boring, heavy, and restrictive. If the universe had inherent meaning we would all be living in a totalitarian prison.

No universal meaning

Cat looking dubiously at an apple
Image (CC) Lisa Zins

If eternal meanings are the same across all time, it’s natural to wonder about meanings that are the same across all of space. That would be a natural interpretation of “universal meaning.” This doesn’t seem to be interesting, if we’re considering space beyond the earth. Meaning is portable. If you take your cat and a pallet of cat food with you to the Andromeda Galaxy, cat food will have the same meaning there it does here. The vast ionized gas clouds there do not create a meaning-distortion field.

More significant is universality across observers, regardless of where they happen to be situated in space. Uniformity of meaning across all possible observers would be inherent meaning, but it is hard to know who is possible.

Our discussion so far has concerned the objectivity of objects; the rest of this page shifts to discussing the objectivity of subjects. Uniformity across all actual observers is strong evidence of “objectivity,” and sometimes taken as a definition of it. Or, since some people are deluded or subject to perceptual errors: uniformity across all rational, competent observers.

Unfortunately, complete but mistaken agreement is possible, even for basic facts. Nearly everyone throughout human existence has agreed that the sun is much smaller than the earth,7 and has been wrong. Consensus is evidence for truth, but no guarantee.

It’s also not clear meanings should be the same for everyone. People are different, and individual differences contribute to meanings. “The meaning of life” is a common demand, and nihilists often deny there is one. But different people have differently shaped ears, which doesn’t mean ears don’t exist. Why would we want everyone to get the same meanings, or insist they don’t exist if they aren’t universally shared?

Underlying “no objective meaning” is anxiety about disagreements. Unfortunately, ideologically contested issues are the ones most likely to come to mind when “meaning” is brought up. That gives the impression that agreement is usually impossible without totalitarian coercion, and therefore meanings are arbitrary fantasies.

This is most obvious in the dimension of ethics. If one person says that homosexuality is an immoral and unnatural deviation and an abomination in the sight of the Lord, and another says it’s morally neutral, widespread in nature, and deserving of special protections, and they get extremely upset with each other, then what?

It would be nice if there were some unquestionably correct—”objective”—way to settle ideological disputes without having to kill millions of the enemy. What we want are meanings that compel agreement, all by themselves. It’s temping to try reading moral philosophy, which purports to address this problem. Unfortunately, that not only fails, but adds a hopeless mass of complex confusions.8 It’s common for rationalists to recognize this conceptual mess, and to conclude there is no way of achieving agreement, so morality is “subjective” and therefore entirely arbitrary. Then they might generalize the rejection to all meaning, falling into nihilism.

Focusing on ideological disagreements obscures the fact that most meanings are non-controversial, so we hardly notice them. Some are trivial and situation-specific. What was your purpose in stopping by the corner store on the way home? To get cat food. Some meanings are major and universal across human cultures: it is wrong to injure members of your family.

Nihilists sometimes dismiss “meaning” as a delusory human invention, but the basic morality of cooperation, trust, loyalty, betrayal, and punishment evolved separately in many unrelated non-human social species. It probably results from a deep mathematical pattern that is independent of biological specifics.9

Sometimes nihilists say that space aliens would have incomprehensibly different ideas about meaning, or none at all, which proves that it’s illusory. The sales pitch in “No cosmic meaning” claimed the civilizations of the eldritch abominations in the Andromeda galaxy would be “utterly alien and incomprehensible in terms of human values.” I think that’s probably not true, for evolutionary reasons.

In any case, do you really need tentacle monsters’ consent before admitting meanings exist? Why would you outsource your opinions about ethics to eldritch abominations?

No scientific meaning

A bit later in the book, we’ll take up the 190-proof argument that science proves everything is meaningless, and a series of claims that specific scientific theories show this. Here we’ll consider the lite nihilist suggestion that science finds that nothing is objectively meaningful. (That would leave open the possibility that it is meaningful in some other way—probably “subjective” is assumed.)

A great value of science is that it can sometimes definitively end disagreements with an unambiguous experiment. Inability to do the same for ideological disagreements about religion, politics, and so forth is a major source of nihilistic disappointment with meaningness. It would save enormous trouble if a few objective measurements could conclusively resolve ethical questions about abortion, income redistribution, and cannabis use. It is frustrating that they can’t. Social groups have different “subjective” opinions, and there seems to be no way of determining who is right. Recognizing this can lead to rejecting the whole dimension of ethics as meaningless, or “objectively meaningless,” or at least “not objectively meaningful.”

This both overestimates and underestimates the value of scientific objectivity. Sometimes science yields effective certainty: about the melting point of bismuth, for example. Often it doesn’t. Many billions of dollars worth of research over many decades have failed to resolve disagreements among theories of quantum gravity, or about the nature and cause of Alzheimer’s disease. On the other hand, ethical disputes often centrally involve uncertain matters of fact, which objective scientific methods may clarify. Many culture war participants consider relevant what brain functions fetuses exhibit at different gestational ages, how economic growth and income inequality affect each other, and the severity of harm done by different methods of cannabis ingestion. Although these particular issues remain in dispute, sometimes ethical disputes are settled by taking into account objective facts.

“Nevertheless,” nihilism insists, “ethical principles themselves are just opinions. Science shows they have no objective basis, so they’re pretty much meaningless.”

Is that true? Treating the question abstractly and in general leads you into philosophy, which is never a good idea. It gets very complicated very quickly, with a lot of arguments that depend on concepts (like “science” and “objectivity”) that are ill-defined, and turn out not to be single coherent things, but many nebulously similar strands.10 Sorting this out isn’t on our agenda, but I want to point out some reasons to doubt that “nothing is meaningful” follows from science or objectivity.

It is common to confuse “nothing has an objective meaning” with “objectively considered, nothing is meaningful.” Relatedly, science may be understood as “discovering things about objective reality,” or as “objective methods for discovering things about reality.”

You know how many thumbs you have, what a potato masher is, and which letter comes after W. This is not scientific knowledge, but it is objective under some reasonable definitions: those that emphasize public testing, rational evaluation of evidence, and effective certainty. This suggests knowledge of meanings could be similarly objective although not scientific.

You might object that in theory you could build an instrument that would objectively determine how many thumbs someone had; whereas you cannot build one that would determine whether abortion is murder, even in theory. However, it seems questionable whether, even in theory, you could build an instrument that would objectively determine that X comes after W, nor what makes something a potato masher. Maybe a fully general artificial intelligence could; but it isn’t clear those would be any more objective or scientific than we are, and it seems reasonably likely they would develop opinions about abortion.

Meaningfulness is not measurable as a single-dimensional property of objects (nor of brains). However, meanings manifest in interactions, which are often publicly observable and verifiable. The meaningfulness of cat food can be determined by showing it to hungry cats and watching what happens. “But,” you might object, “that’s hardly a meaning at all. You can’t measure ethics!”

Let’s take fairness, for example. A new hire has just joined your workgroup. At the next morning meeting, the boss passes a box of donuts around the table, as she always does. The box gets halfway around, and the new guy takes all the donuts that are left and stuffs them in his mouth simultaneously. It seems reasonably certain that there will be publicly visible consequences. Exactly which is hard to predict, but you can project several likely next events. You can find objective evidence that a fairness violation has occurred: “Hey!! What the—!” for instance. I’m confident that it is possible to use an AI vision and speech recognition system to detect some of these (although this is at the edge of what is feasible in practice currently).

“But,” you might object, “you aren’t observing meaning, just behavior!” This is analogous to the situation with gravitational mass. Mass just is an abstraction of a pattern of specific, detectable interactions. Analogously, there are patterns of observable interactions that we abstract as “fairness” and “unfairness.”11 The objection that these interactions are not meaning itself comes from the mistaken assumption that ethics must live in some undetectable metaphysical plane, rather than in the physical world.

Anyway, there’s been quite a lot of unambiguously scientific investigation of ethics recently. I find some of the results helpful in thinking about ethical questions objectively. I’ll review some of this work in “No meaning from evolution.”

Surfing meaningness

“No objective meaning” is motivated by shock and revulsion at disagreement about meanings. We don’t want to have to deal with that. Especially, we don’t want to deal with having meanings we had thought reliable slip out from under us.

This is, however, just how meaningness is: nebulous, uncertain, ungraspable, fluid, sometimes chaotic. When you realize that, you can hide in the black hole of nihilism, hoping meaning will go away and leave you alone. Or, you can get on your board, adopt the complete stance, and learn to surf the surge—accepting you’re going to get tossed around sometimes, and enjoying the exhilarating ride when you can stay up.

  1. 1.Richard Joyce, “Moral Anti-Realism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2009 Edition). Bold emphasis added. The current version of the article says much the same, but less directly. I suspect his wording cut a bit too close and produced protests to the editor. In any case, the surrounding discussion is worth reading.
  2. 2.This is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Scientific objectivity.”
  3. 3.Some rationalist nihilists do back themselves into denying the existence of all mental phenomena, seemingly motivated by a desire to deny meaning in particular. As far as I can tell, this is just silly stubbornness, and not their genuine belief.
  4. 4.I took this example from Paul Graham’s excellent online essay “Is there such a thing as good taste?”, November 2021.
  5. 5.This is Newton’s Law of Gravitation. I’ll ignore later complications to the physics.
  6. 6.Koalas are among the very few mammal species believed to be “obligate herbivores,” meaning they won’t eat meat under any circumstances. Nearly all herbivores, although not adapted to hunt, eat meat when they can get it—dead, immobilized, or unusually unwary prey.
  7. 7.The truth of this is obvious. We know the sky is the same size as the earth, because it reaches from horizon to horizon, from one end of the world to the other; and the sun takes up only a tiny fraction of the sky.
  8. 8.The ethics chapter of Meaningness begins by dismissing moral philosophy, and starts over with different, non-philosophical methods.
  9. 9.We’ll explore this in “No meaning from evolution.”
  10. 10.If you can’t resist, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Scientific objectivity” explains different senses in which science might be considered objective. Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s Objectivity is the most influential work on this topic from the past couple decades.
  11. 11.This analysis owes a great deal to accountability, as that is understood in ethnomethodology. “Accountability” is an explanation of the moral force of social norms in terms of publicly observable interactions.