Objective vs. Subjective

We have all been shaped by a culture that assigns high value to “objective knowledge” and low value to “subjective knowledge.” So it would help if we made an effort to define both the objective and the subjective.

Let’s begin with the dictionary, as the dictionary conveys the manner in which words are commonly understood and thus best reflects what people are trying to communicate. The dictionary defines ‘objective’ as follows:

not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice; based on facts; unbiased: an objective opinion.

intent upon or dealing with things external to the mind rather than with thoughts or feelings, as a person or a book.

being the object of perception or thought; belonging to the object of thought rather than to the thinking subject

of or pertaining to something that can be known, or to something that is an object or a part of an object; existing independent of thought or an observer as part of reality.


We could coalesce these definitions and define objective knowledge to mean knowledge about things external to our minds that does not depend on feelings, interpretations, or prejudice. In other words, it is unbiased knowledge about the world around us.

Now, let us use the dictionary to define ‘subjective’:

existing in the mind; belonging to the thinking subject rather than to the object of thought

pertaining to or characteristic of an individual; personal; individual: a subjective evaluation.

So we can define subjective knowledge as that which exists in the mind and pertains to the one who holds the knowledge.

Are there any problems with these definitions?

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3 responses to “Objective vs. Subjective

  1. I’m guessing your going to apply this to your design matrix. If you still think you have only offered us a subjective criteria, I disagree, and think it is an objective one, but one that is difficult to quantify. I think concepts such as analogy, discontinuity, rationality, and foresight are objective concepts. Most people would agree, for example, that a bacterial flagellum is analogous to an outboard motor. However, they would disagree as to how much they are analogous. So the concept of analogy is objective — people understand what is meant by it and can recognize it. The problem is quantifying it.

    If hard sciences are distinguished from other disciplines by their ability to accurately quantify whatever it is they are trying to measure, then we would have to say that the concepts used in your design matrix are not applicable to hard science. Does this mean that they are not science at all? I would tend to disagree, and place them in the “soft sciences,” such as psychology, sociology, or economics. Which means that I would disagree with you that ID isn’t science. I would agree that it isn’t hard science. But I don’t see why we couldn’t call it a soft science.

  2. Hi Bilbo,
    You raise a couple of interesting points:

    I’m guessing your going to apply this to your design matrix. If you still think you have only offered us a subjective criteria, I disagree, and think it is an objective one, but one that is difficult to quantify. I think concepts such as analogy, discontinuity, rationality, and foresight are objective concepts. Most people would agree, for example, that a bacterial flagellum is analogous to an outboard motor. However, they would disagree as to how much they are analogous. So the concept of analogy is objective — people understand what is meant by it and can recognize it. The problem is quantifying it.

    This is why the matrix has people a) put a numerical score on their inference and b) defend/justify the score. This is why I also note that while the scores may be subjective, they are not whimsical – one has an easier time justifying a high analogy score for a molecular machine compared to a pseudogene. I’m reminded of something Lutepisc wrote on Telic Thoughts last year:

    Hi, Mike. You wrote (in The Design Matrix):

    “It is important to again stress that the Design Matrix is not an objective, physical measurement that detects design. The Matrix is a scoring system and, as such, is ultimately subjective.”

    This sounds analogous to the method used to diagnose a particular mental illness. There are no laboratory tests which can detect schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, for example. Rather there are sets of descriptors which serve as diagnostic criteria. Whether or not a given descriptor applies to an individual is ultimately a subjective decision which may vary from one rater to another.

    However, a measure of inter-rater reliability can be obtained, which identifies the variability between raters for a given descriptor or set of descriptors. By refining the descriptors in order to achieve a high inter-rater reliability, we can approach something akin to objectivity…although, of course, we can never get there. Our measurements will never be as precise as those who are detecting physical illness…but even there, imprecision and errors go with the territory.

    And that gets us to your next point:

    If hard sciences are distinguished from other disciplines by their ability to accurately quantify whatever it is they are trying to measure, then we would have to say that the concepts used in your design matrix are not applicable to hard science. Does this mean that they are not science at all? I would tend to disagree, and place them in the “soft sciences,” such as psychology, sociology, or economics. Which means that I would disagree with you that ID isn’t science. I would agree that it isn’t hard science. But I don’t see why we couldn’t call it a soft science.

    This is an interesting angle that I have not thought through enough. I do tend to think of the hard sciences when I hear the word ‘science.’ And you won’t have a hard time finding a physicist, for example, who denies that something like sociology is science.

    Still, I think of the DM as being a nascent proto-science. However, it could, in principle, become more like a soft science. What I would envision is a community of experts who assign DM scores to objects. It is likely the scores would differ because of the subjective element to the scores, and such differences, once hashed out, could lead to ideas about experiments that would address these differences. The results of those experiments would feed back into the disputes about the scores. The net result is getting something like Lutepisc mentioned – high inter-rater reliability. The problem is that, unlike the diagnosis of an individual, a design inference comes with metaphysical and socio-political baggage.

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