The Objective Existence of the World, Revisited

Posted on 6 March 2006


In an earlier post entitled Does the world have objective existence? we saw that what we call the objective world is the product of a conceptual framework that is adopted by convention, and not imposed upon us by nature. Yet, despite these philosophical doubts about the objectivity of the world, there is still a deep sense that the universe and its laws really are independent of our thoughts, and not just a free product of our imagination. The naive realist in us points out that we can’t stop the sun from rising or stop airplanes from flying by merely changing our minds. It is hard to be a skeptic of the laws of physics while flying at 30,000 ft. So, how do we reconcile this apparently irrefutable objectivity of nature’s laws with the philosophical critique of objectivity?

This apparent contradiction has its root in our tendency to fall into extreme opposing views without seeing the subtle truth hidden in the middle. On the one hand, the naive realist in us is satisfied with taking the world at face value: since we can treat it as objectively existing, we believe it must be objectively existing. Sophisticated philosophical arguments are just not convincing in the face of what appears to be the plain and simple facts. On the other hand, the extreme skeptic in us can see how all the so-called “facts” of experience are theory-laden, how everything we thought was objective is implicitly dependent on how we look at it. It then seems that our experience of objectivity is a complete illusion, and that we “create our own reality” without any objective constraints. These views are opposite extremes. While one asserts the truth of objectivity, the other denies it.

To see the more subtle truth that lies between these opposites, consider this analogy. Taken at face value, the US-Canadian border has, for practical purposes, an objective existence. You can’t simply move the border or make it go away at your personal whim by changing your mind about it. Like a physical law, you can’t ignore it without consequence. For example, if you cross the border without stopping at customs, you may be arrested. You could even go out and experimentally “prove” the objective existence of the border by moving around and measuring where your travel is stopped by customs, where different currency is used, etc. You might formulate the results as a kind of objective law of experience. At the same time, at a deeper level, the US-Canadian border is not a truly objective reality. In principle, it could be moved or erased entirely. Although you can’t personally decide to move it, at the societal level we are free to move or erase the border by collective agreement. At the same time, since its existence is grounded in a collective agreement that transcends your personal views or desires, the border is, in effect, an objective reality for you. So, while the border is, in effect, an objective reality for the individual, it is not an objective reality at a deeper level but is based on conventional agreement. And that conventional agreement has real consequences for individuals.

The above example illustrates how an apparently objective reality that has tangible consequences at one level can, at the same time, be based on a conventional agreement at a deeper level. So, just because something is based on conventional agreement does not imply that it can’t have the appearance and effect of an objective law at another level. Conversely, just because something appears as objective and can be proved to be lawful and reliable through experiement does not imply that it is not based on convention at a deeper level. A complete understanding of the true nature of reality requires an understanding and appreciation of these different levels of understanding. A denial of one or the other is missing part of the truth.

Posted in: Philosophy, Science