By Robert A. Vella
We humans are subjective creatures. We evolved that way out of necessity. The world which bore us is insufferably complex. To adapt and survive in its often harsh environments, we had to think and react quickly. We rely on intuition, pattern recognition, and other intellectual shortcuts to expedite our decision-making. We perceive everything around us through our physical senses – what we can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel; and, we internalize these sensations into our personalities – our beliefs, hopes, dreams, fears, and all the other mix of emotions that make us unique individuals. The time-consuming practice of deep thought was a luxury reserved for a select few – tribal chiefs, elders, wise men, spiritual leaders, and the like.
For most of our existence as a species, these cognitive processes were sufficient. Hunter-gatherers led simple lives. We were wholly focused on eating, sleeping, mating, and protecting ourselves. We created the concept of gods to account for all that extended far beyond our understanding. But, this way of thinking soon became insufficient after the advent of farming. As populations rose and concentrated, we required more abstract forms of cognition. The first true scientific disciplines emerged as specialized and commonly-applied pursuits of knowledge – agriculture, mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy. With these advances came the need for more complex and written language, more social organization, and more sophisticated technologies for warfare. We had taken our very first baby-steps towards objectivity.
However, this evolutionary milestone was achieved sociologically, not genetically. In fact, the size of the human brain has actually shrunk some since the dawn of agriculture (see: How Has the Human Brain Evolved?). Part of the reason for this decline is due to the calorically-high yet nutritionally-low staple diet of a single grain; although, another possible cause is the division of labor created by stratified agricultural societies. In other words, the mass of laborers who toiled in the fields weren’t as intellectually challenged or stimulated as was the typical hunter-gatherer. Therefore, our initial steps towards objectivity came at a cost. Much like numerous ant species, Homo sapiens became greater than the sum of our parts through collective social organization.
The advance of science progressed modestly until the Industrial Age and Information Age when it dramatically leaped forward along with social organization. More comprehensive division of labor triggered more social stratification. This was a two-edged sword. While it enabled some individuals to take scientific disciplines to new heights of objectivity and knowledge, it also relegated the larger population to menial and mundane activities. Humans had transformed themselves from generalists to specialists.
Before going on to the question of whether human beings can ever attain objectivity, I’ll add one final thought on the history detailed above. Increasing social stratification increases social strife. This type of social organization becomes more unstable with time and population growth. Authoritarian means of control will inevitably fail beyond a certain point. Enter institutionalized religion. It feeds off the natural subjectivity of human cognition, and elicits the willful submission to authority by the masses.
Can we humans ever attain objectivity? Given enough time, good fortune, and a healthy degree of stewardship, I suspect it would result as a natural consequence. That possibility appears quite problematic, however, considering the current state of human civilization. But, I’ll not dwell on the negative here. What can we do as individuals to be more objective in our thinking?
First and foremost, we need a resolute commitment to the truth. This may sound easy, but it most certainly isn’t. A commitment to discovering objective truths can be extremely frightening. Such a path of discovery can reveal knowledge that contradicts our most cherished beliefs. It can rattle our emotions and send damaging shock waves through the subjective perceptions we’ve built. Objectivity isn’t for the weak-hearted. It requires great courage.
Secondly, objective cognition must rely on the best available external frames of reference. Today, peer-reviewed empirical science sits at the top of our list. This doesn’t mean that we should always defer to the conclusions of science, but we should accept the verifiable facts it presents. Drawing our own conclusions from them is essential.
Thirdly, we must learn how to be comfortable in accepting that some things are unknowable at this point in time. The origin of the cosmos is a good example. Also, some pursuits of knowledge – metaphysical, spiritual, and even some philosophical – reside outside our current capacity for objectivity. These are best addressed via rationalism, not empiricism.
Lastly, for any chance to exercise our objective capacity, we must let go of our subjective nature – at least temporarily. Never attempt to learn anything while harboring preconceptions because you will only accept information which seems to support your predetermined opinion. Do not blindly trust your intuition, and try to disconnect from your emotions as best you can, for these will cloud your judgment.
We humans are subjective creatures. But, like an atrophied muscle, exercising our objective capacities will make them stronger. It is my opinion that the survival of our civilization, and maybe even our species, likely depends on it.