Continuing on the “sciencey” thread from this post… (I’ll come back to the “14 billion years” issue, since it’s been pointed out to me that my criticism of the concept of measuring time would only apply — if the scientists are correct — to the first few seconds or so of the universe.)
Here’s a question for all of you:
What does the universe look like to an objective observer?
Let’s unpack some of the assumptions and traps hidden inside this question.
(1) That there is a universe (“the” universe), and not something else instead (such as a multiverse, which would make objectivity even more elusive than it is).
(2) That looking is more significant than hearing, feeling, sensing, or other modes of perceiving. Perhaps “prehending,” in the sense that Whitehead uses it (as referring to any mode of “taking account of”), is a more “objective” term: how would an ultimately objective observer prehend the universe?
(3) That objectivity — treating something as an object separate from oneself — is possible at all for any observer. This assumes that observation is not a form of interaction that affects what is being observed. But: at what level should that observer be situated? In the case of the universe, would an objective observer have to be located outside the universe, or can he/she/it be part of what they’re observing, but nevertheless distinguishable from it?
But let’s try.
For starters, if our current science is correct, that observed universe would probably appear awash in waves, currents, force-fields, and relational interactions — things spinning around other things (electrons around nuclei, planets around suns), things popping into and out of existence, things we (humans) cannot currently see without visualization tools that translate what is “there” into a mode that our sensory organs can register. Gradations, but also quantum leaps (sudden changes).
It would also be extremely complex, with levels upon levels upon levels. But “complexity” is a relative term — relative to the capacities of particular kinds of observers.
All of this begs the question (#4) of whether observation itself is a given, or if it is an emergent phenomenon — something that arose out of the dynamic structure of the universe, and that has only evolved to a certain point (as it is found in entities capable of observation at this point in the evolution of the universe). If it’s the latter, then there is no objective observer of the universe… Yet. (And maybe not until the end of time, at least as we know it…)
On the other hand, if observation has always been around, then an observer of the universe, to be objective, would have to be capable of being aware of so many things that they would be akin only to what humans have speculated would be “God.” (And only the God of the most capable and complex speculators would count for much here. The history of religion would be littered with broken effigies of weak speculations.)
That itself assumes that God would be singular, unified, and capable of observation. But the God of a multiverse may not be that at all (if such a God were possible).
Now, let’s add time to the picture: would the observer be time-bound, like us and everything we know of, or could time be a dimension within which entities like us are caught, but from which a truly objective observer (a God) would be free? If so, then time-bound (or time-constrained) objectivity would seem to be impossible.
So… If objectivity is impossible or at least out of our reach — as embodied, time-bound beings with limited capacities — is it worthy of being treated as a possibility to reach toward, something we might never get to but can nevertheless get closer to?
Well, if the universe is evolving (as opposed to merely changing), then perhaps the effort to be objective is part of the evolution. (I don’t mean that it’s necessarily programmed into it; it could be an emergent phenomenon that has now begun to influence what it’s part of.)
If anyone tells you anything more about objectivity — that not only is it possible, but that they practice it — you might want to ask them (politely) if they are lying.
All of that is, of course, just another way of saying that the “God’s eye view” is impossible for limited creatures like us. Feminist (and other) science studies scholars have been suggesting that for years. But it also expresses the promise that, hey, we might be creeping collectively a little closer to it, inch by inch, epoch by epoch, 2 steps forward, 1.9 steps back. That part is a Peircian leap of faith.
Bottom line: objectivity is relative. (But what isn’t?)
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