Subjective and Objective

Subjective and objective are adjectives that describe two different ways of knowing.

Objective refers to objects and events in the world that anyone can, in principle, observe. Subjective refers to feelings and experiences that depend on the individual's own particular viewpoint and traits.

Figure 1 Galileo.

Objective knowledge. Anyone can look through a telescope; therefore, looking through a telescope provides objective knowledge (see, however, Hetherington, 1983) and see that the planet Jupiter has moons around it. In the 16th century, Galileo (Figure 1) pointed his primitive telescope at Jupiter and was the first person to see these moons.

His opponents in the great debate that was raging over the nature of the universe could have looked through the telescope and seen the same thing, but they refused. They wanted to preserve their belief in an eternally changeless and perfect universe which remained just as God had created it. To preserve this belief, they applied the way of knowing about the world they understood: logical argumentation rather than objective observation. Galileo was acting as a modern scientist; his opponents were not.

Here's another simpler, everyday example. The weight of a bag of groceries is objective, because it can be put one a scale, which shows how many pounds (or kilograms) it weighs. Everyone who reads the scale will agree that a particular bag of groceries weighs 12 pounds.

Subjective knowledge. An individual's subjective experiences are private mental events limited to that one individual who experiences them. Therefore. subjective feelings, etc. can and do differ among people. The grocery bag that weighs 12 pounds will feel subjectively light to an athlete but feel subjectively heavy to someone who avoids physical activity. Or the bag might start out feeling medium light on the six-block walk home. By the time you get home, the same bag feels heavy. In these illustration, something that objectively remains the same weight, feels subjectively light or heavy, depending on the individual and on his/her conditions.

Bias and objectivity. Objectivity includes the idea of the absence of bias in observation. Unfortunately, no individual can be fully unbiased, no matter how hard s/he tries. Everyone comes with preconceptions, preferences, desires, etc., which they often cannot even recognize they have and often have a very hard time shedding them, when the biases are pointed out. The scientific enterprise approaches the goal of being unbiased by the debate between people having different sets of biases.

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