Objectivity as Intersubjective Agreement

Posted by Bruce Nevin (May 06, 2019)

I had a first post in progress here yesterday, but apparently did not save it.

C.S. Peirce proposed that scientific objectivity amounts pragmatically to intersubjective agreement among scientists observing the same experiment. In practice, agreement is shown by their reports being consistent with each other. (Later, Karl Popper was less confident of objectivity; findings of science are provisional if the several reports are consistent with each other, i.e. none is falsified by another.)

In my view this is as close as we get to objectivity. Our organisms construct perceptions which we take to be that which is perceived. This accords with Buddhist view that the observing subject and observed object both come into existence as such in the act of observing the object as other. We are confident the latter exists, but we have no knowledge of it apart from our perceptions. Our perceptions, our organized reports of our perceptions, our narratives of experience, constitute our knowledge of reality.

Science tests our reports and narratives. The Test for Controlled Variables is central to PCT methodology. Science ‘interrogates nature’ by devising tests whether our reports of observations are not only consistent with one another but also internally consistent and comprehensive across the range of perceptions comprehended within a field of science. Further, each field of science has a responsibility to be consistent with epistemically antecedent sciences, e.g. pharmacology to biochemistry, biochemistry to organic and inorganic chemistry, they to physics with its subfields.

If objectivity amounts to intersubjective agreement, not all intersubjective agreements qualify. There are other forms of agreement that only test whether the reports of one person are consistent with those of another. Conflicting experience may be ignored. Tests of the veridicality of those reports may actually be resisted as a disturbance to controlling a perception that the agreed reports or narratives are correct.

In my experience, this seems related to one’s tolerance for uncertainty. There can be various reasons for controlling a perception of certainty.

Freeman, Eugene (1973) Objectivity as “intersubjective agreement”, The Monist 57.2:168-175

Posted by Martin Taylor (May 05, 2019):

Protocols as the means to reach agreement, if not objectivity

In the topic Collective Control/Language, I posted a message both supporting and differing with one Bruce Nevin posted there. That message <viewtopic.php?f=31&t=3#p4> could equally well have been posted here, as it sketches the Layered Protocol method of reaching agreement between perceptual states in two distinct perceptual hierarchies. I am not clear, however, why “Objectivity” is paired with “Agreement” in the topic title. As the current state of US politics makes very clear, Collective Control of agreement is very far from control of objectivity. Very early in the Trump presidency, Kelly-Ann Conway introduced the then novel concept of “Alternative facts”, which were just as objective as any other competing facts. Trump’s supporters agree on one set of facts, others in the USA and around the world probably agree on an entirely different set. Agreement and objectivity seem to me to be orthogonal concepts.

Picking up from the topic “Controlled Variables are Perceptual Variables”:

What is “the knowing subject” but that which is aware? PCT has nothing to say about awareness. (The correlation of attention with error doesn’t count because attention is not the same as awareness. Attention is somatic-branch control of our limited-capacity sensory input functions directing them toward aspects of the environment that have become controlled variables. They might be controlled under ‘conscious’ cortical functions or under much faster ‘subconscious’ limbic functions, or perhaps most frequently by an interaction of both. Cue here the cortical processes we label ‘rationalization’.)

Buddhism says that subject and object bring each other into being, diverging from and reflecting back to what we call awareness. That seems to be a recurrent message from all those who have experimentally investigated the matter. Qabalah says the same (the appearance of duality at the top of the Tree of Life). Even G. Spencer Brown in Laws of form (in a space, draw a distinction). PCT can’t bridge the gulf between perception as signal p and perception as experience. Experience as simple awareness after an MoL session has been mentioned a few times.

Yes, we can agree with Rick that p is a function of variables {v1, v2, …, vn}, and we can say that (in principle) those variables are specified by the physical sciences, but we cannot legitimately punt the question of reality over the wall to those epistemically prior sciences. That is mere evasion of the question. Physicists, chemists, cosmologists, and so on are doing the best they can, but their models are still controlled perceptions. And just as Newtonian physics is perfectly adequate for virtually all engineering applications, not all the variables {v1, v2, …, vn} that are posited by a given physical science are pertinent to the perceptions studied in PCT. In any PCT experiment that has been envisioned so far, quarks, pi mesons, and gravitons have nothing to do with the case, tra la. Nor do chemical bonds and molecular structures. And unless one proposes to conduct The Test on physicists by somehow disturbing their control of such variables it’s hard to see their relevance to future PCT experiments. PCT is concerned with the structure and function of living organisms in their experienced environment. This appeal to primitives of the physical sciences is no more than a way to encapsulate the controversy as to what is controlled. With apologies to Shakespeare,

O where is that which is controlled
Or in the head or in the world?
Your body, from embryonic growth
til now, says “Hey, wake up! It’s both!”

Subject and object bring each other into being, diverging from and reflecting back to what we call awareness.

Eetu, you did not touch on the basis that we do have for imputing reality to our perceptions. We cannot compare perceptions to reality, but we do judge the accuracy of our perceptions by how reliably we control them. The purpose of scientific experiment is to test our control of the perceptions posited in our models. If the model works reliably, we project it back onto the experience that is modeled and attribute reality to it.

PCT counsels us to pragmatism: what works is as good as it gets, until in some respect it doesn’t work and we come up with something different that works there too. We keep discovering that some things are not true that we thought were true, and we keep replacing them with things that are not untrue so far as we can tell, but it does not follow that we are looking for absolute Truth.

But no model is ‘real’ in science until it is collectively controlled. When a model and the observations of phenomena that it explains are collectively controlled in the community of workers in a field of science, those workers regard the phenomena, the observations, and the model as objective facts of their field. This comports with C.S. Peirce’s proposal that objectivity is a function of intersubjective agreement, whence the heading of this topic.

Bruce, thank you for your eloquent message, which I find generally difficult to disagree. Some comments, though.

BN: What is “the knowing subject” but that which is aware?

This may depend on how you define the knowledge. If it is according to classical definition “a justified true belief” then it seems to require an aware or conscious subject. But If we accept the idea of tacit knowledge then the subject does not necessarily have to have anything to do with awareness.

BN: PCT has nothing to say about awareness.

I think this is an exaggeration. Powers had something to say about it, not much but important still. I hope that some others have more. Actually, this is clearly a subject which should have an own topic in this category.

BN: Buddhism says that subject and object bring each other into being, diverging from and reflecting back to what we call awareness…

I am not sure I quite understand what you mean here. I understand it so that the concepts of subject and object are part of out conscious / aware knowledge, and creatures without this kind on knowledge and conception blow if off. However, I regard them useful concepts when used cautiously. If someone is controlling something, we can call that someone a subject and that something an object. The same goes for observing, affecting, knowing etc. etc. In a way they are grammatical concepts after all.

As for the latter part of your message where you actually start that new topic: “Objectivity as Intersubjective Agreement” I have nothing much to add. However, I would be cautious with “pragmatism” and keep it just “practical pragmatism” - if that expression makes any sense. I mean that theoretically / philosophically we can think either that “X is objectively true because it works” or that “X works because it is (maybe) objectively true”. The first is pragmatism and latter is scientific realism. So, I would express the idea in the title of this topic rather this way: “Intersubjective Agreement as a sign of Objectivity”.

If ‘know X’ is defined as 'have perceptual input function that constructs perception X together with a reference value for X and control loop(s) effectively controlling X" then knowledge may be either in awareness or ‘subconscious’.

I was commenting on this:

PCT says that the organism constructs a perceptual signal p correlated with an experienced perception X which it takes to be the perceived reality existing separate from the organism in the environment. Martin especially, and Bill and I and others, have referred to this as ‘projecting’ the universe of constructed perceptions into the environment. This projected ‘mirror world’ is all that we know of reality, and our recognition and control of perceptions in it constitutes our knowledge of reality. Subject and object bring each other into being.

The hazards of imagination and illusion are obvious. Science and Buddhism both are deeply concerned with screening out such errors and perceiving just what is. Buddhism, as I understand it, is a science of awareness and knowledge. (The religious aspects come from people fearing the dying process and its sequela and anticipating that they will need help.)

The organism–any living thing, not limited to organisms to which we attribute ‘consciousness’–constructs a signal p within its body, generates an endogenous reference value for that signal, and controls it by means of a more or less complex control loop. The perceptual input functions, perceptual signals, reference signals, and output functions constitute one form of knowledge which is not available to awareness as such. The experiences correlated with the perceptual signals, usually projected into the environment as the realities there perceived (except e.g. those recognized as illusions) constitute another form of knowledge. Something that is often called the Witness is aware of perceptions constituting the subject (a self or persona) and perceptions constituting the environment. As Bill has commented regarding a resting state after an MOL process, the character of the Witness is simple awareness. Some have called it the experiencer, the enjoyer, the rider in the chariot, and of course Dennett derides it as the ghost in the machine. Subject and object bring each other into being, diverging from and reflecting back to what we call awareness.

We are accustomed to finding relationships among things. Here, the relationship creates the relata. This is seen in language, where control of contrasts between words creates the appearance of phonemes. The enormous variability of pronunciations of a word–contextual, dialectal, nonnative, changing through time, etc.–includes, for every possible context, whatever suffices to maintain the contrasts with other possible words. There is no thing there corresponding to the descriptive entity called a phoneme (or phonological feature, etc.)

Reification is a most persuasive habit.

November 18

Picking up from the topic “Controlled Variables are Perceptual Variables”:

Controlled Variables are Perceptual Variables

Because our only knowledge about the reality is based on perceptions, we cannot study the accuracy of perception by comparing reality and perceptions and neither can we derive the types of perceptions from the structures of reality. The types of perceptions can still be studied only by studying perceptions. Similarly, the accuracy of perceptions must be studied by comparing perceptions to other perceptions.

BN: Yes, we can agree with Rick that p is a function of variables {v1, v2, …, vn}, and we can say that (in principle) those variables are specified by the physical sciences, but we cannot legitimately punt the question of reality over the wall to those epistemically prior sciences. That is mere evasion of the question.

RM: What question is being evaded?

RM: Perhaps this is a good place to point out that in actual PCT research controlled variables are rarely described in terms of physical variables. The variables {v1, v2, …, vn} that are the basis of most of the controlled variables that have been identified by PCT research are actually perceptual variables themselves: such as the length of the lines that make up the sides of the rectangle controlled in my “What is Size” demo or the colored shapes that make up the components of the program controlled in my “Program Control” demo (yes, it is a program that is controlled in that demo – not a sequence or sequence of sequences; there is no sequence that is maintained in that demo when you are controlling a program).

RM: It is these kinds of definitions of controlled variables – definitions in terms of lower level perceptual variables of which the controlled variables are a function – that are sought in PCT research. The question of the correspondence between controlled variables and their environmental correlates is rarely asked because, except possibly for the lowest level perceptual variables – intensities and sensations – there is no environmental correlate of these perceptions variables. The definition of controlled variable in terms of lower level perceptions is enough to give one an idea of what aspects of the physical environment – the environment described by the models of physics and chemistry – are actually controlled