Recently I have become very interested in “the objectivity thesis.” Although there are likely a lot of ways this thesis can be construed, the basic idea is that rational enquiry ideally requires maximal objectivity, or neutrality. According to this view, we should suspend our emotions and the particular values associated with our ideological position, in order to take a sort of God’s eye view on a matter. The Christian, then, ought to examine, say, the evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, without any particular emotional disposition involved in that assessment. One should calmly follow the evidence where it leads and then form emotions or values in response to the best supported position after that process.
I confess, I’ve come to be a little suspicious of this absolute rejection of the role of emotion and value in reasoning. My suspicions are fuelled by a few factors. One, I’m convinced by Charles Taylor’s argument in his incredible book Sources of the Self that this view is one perculiar to modernity. He identifies this move to the ‘disengaged subject’ as one on the path away from the collectivism of pre-modernity, to the individualism of modernity. Of course, the cultural uniqueness of the objectivity thesis isn’t an argument that it’s wrong, but it ought to make us realise that it might not be necessarily true – it hasn’t been obviously the right way to other cultures, and perhaps there are alternate positions to take. Additionally, I unashamedly take into account the teachings of the Christian faith, which seem to indicate that one’s attitudinal disposition toward God has a drastic effect on one cognitive assessment of Christianity. Paul teaches in Romans that sinful desires suppress or draw attention away from, the evidence of God’s existence. But it isn’t just that negative attitudes prevent arriving at the truth, rather, positively, one needs the correct attitudinal dispositions. Indifference doesn’t draw one to God, rather a heartfelt yearning for God does. Additionally, I am not afraid to say that I find such absolute neutrality practically impossible. I am emotionally involved in my view of the world. I think I am an honest thinker, but I know I’m not a neutral one. I’m also sure that I’m not alone in this, and I wonder whether, rather than being just a let-down of human nature, there might be legitimate need for this sort of “bias” in reasoning.
So those are some of the reasons why I’m not totally sold on the objectivity thesis. But that said, I recognise that an alternative which just opened the door to an emotional merry-go-round would not be satisfying either. I think a position with more nuance than cold objectivity, or raw emotionalism needs to be sought. I don’t have such an account yet, but I do have some ideas as to why values and desires are an integral part of rationality. Today I’d like to share one:
Why is it that I spend so much time reading and thinking about religion and philosophy, and not so much time doing the same for Albanian Politics, or Jurassic plant life, or ancient Egyptian farming? Because I enjoy religion & philosophy and not so much those things? Well yes, I do, but is that a full answer? I think, plausibly, the answer (or a large part of it) is that I think religion and philosophy are more important topics than those. I don’t think it’s the only important topic, (Albanian politics certainly isn’t a matter of indifference to those directly effected by it), but I do think that philosophy and religion are more ultimately important. Of course, someone else might not agree with me. Someone else might think that questions about the existence of God, and what morals are, and what human beings are, are pretty trivial and uninteresting. Instead such a person might think that what really matters is, say, what mating habits flatworms have. Perhaps this persons reads endless journals on flatworms and partakes in flatworm forums and discussion boards. Clearly this person would have invested far more effort into learning about flatworms than myself.
Should I have done the same level of thinking about flatworms? Should I be investing more time in researching them? Is my opinion on flatworms unjustifiably ill-informed? Have I forsaken my intellectual duty in not giving this topic more attention? But that isn’t the only question we could ask. It isn’t just flatworms I haven’t thought very deeply about. There’s A TON of topics I just haven’t got much clue about. Should I think more deeply about the properties of glue? Should I take more of a keen interest in submarine engineering? Ought I be more involved in computing developments from the 70s-80s?
It seems to me that without reference to some sort of value system, my preference for philosophy and religion would be purely arbitrary. If every matter is of equal importance (or if every matter is equally without worth), then no topic deserves more attention than any other. But I don’t have infinite cognitive resources! I can’t treat every single subject with the same level of care and depth. I simply must prioritise, otherwise I couldn’t make any sense out of my intellectual life. Imagine what it would be like if we truly couldn’t let our values interact with our intellect…
You pass a newspaper on the floor. “Ah I’m in a rush, it’s contents are unimportant! Oh wait, hang on, I can’t rank things like that. I need to treat this newspaper with the same level of intrigue I ought to treat everything else. No impartiality! And I’m a deep thinker so I ought to study it carefully.” You read through it and inside hundreds of truth claims are made, ranging from claims about local history, to claims about politics. “Ah, politics! I don’t know much about politics but it’s really interesting. This guy is claiming that conservative ideals are the best for running a country. I might have to get some books on these topics and look into all the different views! Ah… right, yeah I forgot, I can’t prioritise politics. Guess I need to equally research the history of that bridge behind the post office. And the police reports from the stabbing in ’79. And then after lunch, every other truth claim made. And then tomorrow, I need to look into all the claims today’s research will have brought up! Better call the boss and tell him I’m quitting.”
How absurd! Unless you have some values already in place, you cannot sensibly discern where to focus your cognitive gaze. Moreover, you cannot first be value-less and neutral in a rational quest to find the right values, because that quest would itself be similarly unmanageable. This mean, then, that we have to approach our intellectual life with some values in place already. It would be horrible if we didn’t! Values thus have a crucially important role to play in reasoning. We cannot come from a completely neutral position.