Science: Relative or Subjective?

This essay aims at: (1) clarifying the distinction between relativity and subjectivity, and (2) examining a belief system, i.e. Science – examining whether it is objective and gives us Absolute certainties or whether it starts with subjectivity and gives us Relative claims. The point of doing this is to help us in our further enquiry on the nature of knowledge and of knowing. Examining subjectivity and relativity examines our nature of knowing and helps us make an account of the knowledge that we have. Whether there is actually a metaphysical Absolute Truth (or ‘noumena’ that we cannot know) or only epistemological Relative truths is not part of this enquiry. The focus is only on the level of knowing and that which we can only know without necessarily making an account on the existence or non-existence of ‘noumena’.

Relativism (a framework that believes in Relativity) comes in different senses but the main claim is that ‘truth is not Absolute’ (that there is no truth with a capital ‘T’). On one hand, Relativism claims that something (e.g. truth) is relational or relative to something that is outside of it (e.g. it may be an individual, historical circumstances, community, etc.) Protagoras’ doctrine of Relativistic Truth, which stems from his claim ‘Man is the measure of all things’, is an example of Relativism wherein truth/Truth is relative to an individual. The doctrine may actually be paraphrased as this: “Truth is significant only because of an individual that makes it”, and this is what makes it relative. Another example of Relativism is Ethical Relativism, which claims that ‘what is ethical is only relative (or dependent) on culture’. This is different from the previous sort of Relativism as the previous shows the truth as relative to an individual while this shows the truth on ethics as relative to culture. Both show that the existence of something, i.e. truth, is dependent on something, i.e. either an individual or community.

Here, we can infer that in Relativism, the existence, quality, or significance of something is dependent upon another something’s existence. This is the second sense of Relativism, which is actually deducible from the first sense. Thus, in Relativism, we cannot talk of metaphysical things (e.g. Truth) if we are to say that these beyond physical things exist in their own right and are devoid of any significant relation[1] to either an individual or community. Hence, metaphysically speaking, there is no Truth (using Relativism); Truth cannot exist in its own right, outside of either individual or community. However, epistemologically speaking, Truth/truth exists as something that is dependent upon something (either individual or community/cultural constructs). In this case, hard Relativism could be described as something whose concern is only at the level of knowing then jumps at concluding that nothing that is beyond our ability to know exists – that there is no entity (e.g. Truth) that can exist metaphysically; no entity that can exist outside of the knower/s.

Subjectivity, on the other hand, does not necessarily deny the existence of the Absolute. It focuses on the experience of the subject whether or not there is something in the object (the object of subject’s experience) that the subject does not experience. Kant’s ‘phenomena’, for example, is subjective because it depends on our experience of a particular thing; it shows how that particular thing appears to us. The fact that what we can only perceive is this appearance of things (phenomena) does not deny the existence of ‘noumena’ (or the objective component of a thing). Moreover, our subjective experiences in this world do not imply the non-existence of an Absolute Truth. Hence, we should not be confused and say that the terms ‘relative’ and ‘subjective’ are just the same. Subjectivism does not necessarily disregard a metaphysical (Absolute) Truth.

However, the argument on Subjectivity does not also necessarily imply the existence of a metaphysical and Absolute Truth. Indeed, some subjectivist theories may lead to Relativistic ones. These theories claim that there is no noumenon; that because our subjective experiences deal only with phenomena, we cannot say that noumena exist. Here, ‘knowing’ is said to be ‘mind-dependence’ – that there is nothing outside of us that our minds cannot know and that the truth about everything we can know (or everything) is dependent on how we perceive and conceive it.

At this point, we can make a clear distinction between Subjectivity and Relativity: Subjectivity focuses on experience, which is private to the individual, without necessarily making an account on metaphysical things; Relativity focuses on the claim that there is nothing in the thing, which is (metaphysically) Absolute, e.g. Truth, regardless of the method/s[2] used to arrive at such claim.

When it comes to truths of belief systems, we start by saying that the truth of a particular thing is either subjective or objective, and not as either absolute or relative (because relativity and Absoluteness deal not with particulars as they deal not with experience; they rather deal with the universals). Examples of subjective truths are those of opinions (as opinions are dependent solely on our subjective experiences), e.g. “Chocolate flavored ice cream is more delicious than vanilla flavored ice cream”. Recognition of the subjectivity of taste could lead to a conclusion that ‘Taste is relative’. The statement “This table is red” could also be a subjective truth (depending on theories) if we are to say that the red-ness is recognized as an appearance of a thing and is grasped through our subjective experience of the table. However, if we are to say that color is a primary quality of a thing (as opposed to Locke’s claim), then the statement is not a subjective truth as it rests not on our subjective experience of the table but on the table itself. The issue on this statement needs further investigation but we cannot speak of it as of this moment. There is a need for another essay to discuss this issue.

Examples of objective truths are the logical truths, e.g. A = A, A ≠ ~A, etc. There is no question when it comes to objectivity of these logical truths, so let me focus on the ‘considered objective truths’ or those that we can get from Science.

The claims, “Biology is the study of living things”, “Salt is Sodium Chloride (NaCl)” and “The amount of Force can be obtained by multiplying the mass with acceleration” are said to be objective truths. The first one is true by virtue of definition. It is analytic and could be lined up in the list of logically true propositions (because of analyticity). The second one is true as concluded through observation. The third one is true by virtue of being a Scientific law (second law of motion), and as a result of calculations and derivations from other pre-established laws. The objectivity of the second and third claims is still questionable. First, because they are not analytic and so we cannot say that they are true a priori. Second, they are products of empirical observation and any other observation of a fact contradictory to them could lead to their falsity.[3]

In this case, scientific claims cannot actually claim objectivity. Through the want of scientists to arrive at objective truths or an Absolute Truth, they tried to institutionalize scientific claims, which actually made Science Relative. The Truth of Science is Relative in the sense that its claims are relative or relational to the scientific community; anything that they accept is scientific, anything that they reject is unscientific. If the previous examples (second and third Scientific claims in the previous paragraph) are falsified through experimentation, observation and Mathematical calculations, they will be devoid of being called as Scientific claims. The objectivity of Science is not really objective because it is not possible for us to be extremely loyal to the object; we cannot speak of anything that we did not experience in the object. In science, scientists can only have an account of their subjective experiences (through experimentation and observation) of objects. Through their want to claim these subjective experiences as objective truths, they institutionalize their claims, which actually makes Scientific claims Relative. Science merely purports to be objective in its being Relative.

[1] Let me use significant relation to mean the relation of something to another something without which that another something, something would not exist.
[2] With ‘methods’ that lead to a relativistic claim, I am referring to either subjective experience of an individual or conventional claims of a community.
[3] “Salt is NaCl” can be falsified if someone happens to discover that salt is actually composed of (let’s say) two atoms of Sodium per Chlorine. In this case, the statement is wrong and must be replaced with “Salt is Na2Cl”.
“The amount of Force can be obtained by multiplying the mass with acceleration” can be falsified if any scientific proposition that is contradictory with it will be considered as true or if through calculations, it were disproved.

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2 Responses to “Science: Relative or Subjective?”
  1. silentbob14 Says...

    On April 15, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    A very good article ;] It really got me thinking about the whole scientific method:)

  2. Tommy Says...

    On January 9, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    Obviously Science is relative and therefore also subjective for it is limited by those who do the observation. Ultimately those who study science us their relative perception to make their observation and therefore the ultimate measuring unit of science is man\’s relative physical perception. Every scientifically conclusive statement should be followed automatically with the statement of \”as far as we perceive it\”.

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