Re: Serious thoughts about objectivity

John McCreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Mon, 7 Oct 1996 23:12:29 +0900

Drew Walker writes,

>What do you (or others who see the point) see the difference between
>"social constructions/compositions" and ""things" in the real world" as

I take this as an occasion for another bit of metaphor: reality conceived
as a hamburger. For purposes of this metaphor, the buns are the areas in
which there is substantial agreement on measures and methods of
measurement. Mike Cahill points to "composed" stories, the realm of what
has historically been known as "fiction." Here the ideal is clear. As the
old disclaimer puts it, "Any resemblance to real persons or events is
accidental." Ralph Holloway points to clearly identifiable variations in
human biology. In both cases, there is a strong consensus on the criteria
being invoked and the ways in which they should be applied. Our current
difficulties arise when we turn to the "beef," the juicy, tasty, meaty
stuff where a good deal of life's flavor is. Here, alas, we lack strong
consensus on how best to take the measure of what we experience.

My own position is, I think, relatively clear. I accept the "postmodern"
deconstruction of scientism, a ideology that mistakes 19th century science
for the epitome of human knowledge and has unfortunate political uses as a
justification for cool, tough-minded, "objectivity" when it comes to the
sufferings inflicted on others: "Mere emotions, ya know, can't pay
attention to that in bizness." At the same time I see the larger ideals of
empiricism, consensus-building on what it is that we claim to observe, the
separation of observation and explanation or interpretation, and, yes,
something approaching mathematical rigor in fully developed explanations as
high ideals that deserve to be pursued. I agree wholeheartedly with
Bourdieu when he observes that, yes, these ideals are products of certain
historical moments--and no less worthy on that account of pursuing and

Some years ago, I mentioned one of my heroes. Now I will do so again.
Warren McCulloch was the founder of automata theory, one of whose goals is
the mathematical representation of the operations of neurons. In the
introduction to _Embodiments of Mind_, McCulloch remarks that he is a
builder of logical machinery that attempts to simulate human behavior. The
machines he has built have never achieved that goal. There are those, he
observes, who, confronted with this failure, leap to the conclusion that no
machine will ever achieve the goal. They commence hand-waving [a term of
contempt among mathematicians] and muttering words like "God,"
"spirit,"human nature," whose ultimate meaning is, "I don't have a clue."
McCulloch examines his failures and sets out to build a better machine.

My machines may be metaphors, my tools devices for spinning and weaving
skeins of meaning that erupt from sites where polysemic words encounter
unexpected realities. But I, too, will build better machines and struggle
toward that asymptote where representation approximates Truth, whatever
that turns out to be. Discipline adds pleasure to the act and--at least in
my experience--makes it more saleable, too.

Here endeth the rant for today.

John McCreery
3-206 Mitsusawa HT, 25-2 Miyagaya, Nishi-ku
Yokohama 220, JAPAN

"And the Lord said unto Cyrus, 'Shall the clay say to him who moldest it,
what makest thou? Let the potsherd of the earth speak to the potsherd of
the earth." --An anthropologist's credo