Does Objective Knowledge Exist?

This post is the first of my views on the EdTechTalk discussion (audio here and transcript here) recently between Stephen Downes and George Seimens about (among other things) views on objective and subjective knowledge and its impact on teaching (transfer of knowledge vs. connective learning). See my previous post for many more details and transcripts […]

This post is the first of my views on the EdTechTalk discussion (audio here and transcript here) recently between Stephen Downes and George Seimens about (among other things) views on objective and subjective knowledge and its impact on teaching (transfer of knowledge vs. connective learning). See my previous post for many more details and transcripts etc.

The initial focus of the discussion was on objective vs subjective knowledge – Stephen arguing that all knowledge is subjective and George maintaining that some knowledge is objective. The example of a red apple was used – George thought that the colour of the apple was objective, while Stephen asked “what if the apple is in the dark?, what if you ask a colour-blind person?”.

I guess I am biased by coming from a science background, but I would tend to agree with George – I think some knowledge is objective – may be not as much knowledge as many people may think, but some. I think the fundamental factor is details – the same reason that some of the debate became circular and struggled to advance in places. I’ll advance the apple example used in the discussion: the question “is the apple red?” is too vague, and therefore can be argued both ways without really advancing the body of knowledge or coming to a conclusion. It also cannot be considered objective. However, breaking this down into a number of more detailed questions can resolve these problems: “Does the surface of the apple contain red pigments? Does light that bounces off the apple become more red? Does the observer in question perceive of this light as being red?”. Often, one of these more detailed questions is the one that was really being asked in the more general question, although sometimes you will find that one person was focusing on one of the more detailed questions, while the other person was focusing more on another. Also note that this layer of detail may still not be sufficient – both the second and third detailed questions need more detail, for example, “Does light that bounces off the apple become more red?” needs to address the colour and brightness of the originating light. So it is very constructive if you can drill down and down until all parties agree on the detailed questions, and then slowly work your way back up towards the general question, noting your assumptions as you go, and finding where people start to disagree.

This is also a very useful technique for effective communication and conflict resolution in general, and the same discussion offered another relevant example. They debated whether a unicorn is objective or subjective. I think the extra detail that would have been relevant here would have been to isolate abstract vs. concrete, and objective vs. subjective, and then discuss whether abstract concepts can be objective, drilling deeper where necessary. While I am not expert enough in this area to answer this question, I think it may have helped clarify and advance the discussion.

In his summary, Stephen mentioned that “Objectivism is inherently false and cannot be made true by artificially creating smaller domains of discourse”, so he may in fact be disagreeing with everything I have just proposed above. If that is the case, I don’t recall it being discussed directly in the show, so I would like to know why, because it sure seems to me that it would have helped the discussion.

In fact, in his summary, Stephen says “meaning is an emergent phenomenon arising from connections between underlying entities”. I could almost take that to be a reference to drilling down to deeper levels of detail (as I have proposed above) and making connections between these details as you rise back up to a more general concept. So is Stephen and myself looking at two sides of the same apple of connective learning? – Stephen looking at it from the perspective of connective learning requiring objective knowledge to be false, and myself looking at it from the perspective that responsible deconstruction of objective learning may in fact lead to connective learning.

Author: EricWoods

See all posts by EricWoods (35)

12 comments until now

  • Add to my Bookmarks )

    By alex 10 December, 2008 @ 11:34 am
  • you’re dumb.
    the apple is red is a stupid example.

    By skanky pooter 24 January, 2009 @ 2:30 am
  • nice article.

    By lin 25 February, 2009 @ 9:01 pm
  • thats pretty good stuff. i completely agree. do you think that objective knowledge needs to be broken down that way for every area of knowledge?

    By abs 11 March, 2009 @ 9:40 pm
  • Hi abs,
    I guess it depends on what you are trying to achieve, but I can’t think of an exception that would never need to be broken down that way. Unless, of course, the concept was already at an ‘atomic’ state (could not or did not need to broken down further). Though I dare say almost all concepts and communication are built on a body of assumptions, whether we realise it or not, and sometimes these can cause problems in communicating and in learning.

    By EricWoods 6 April, 2009 @ 4:37 pm
  • Very interesting. Until now, I did not know that there are OK and SK. Is lack of knowledge subjective or objective? What type of knowledge one need to break down a question up to atomic level? If I do not know the properties of light how can I think about those 3 questions you have mentioned. Somehow, my gut thinking(?) or gut knowledge(!) tells me that most knowledge required to survive in this world is subjective. I can’t think of any part of knowledge I have today which I can classify as an objective knowledge.

    By Arvind 16 July, 2009 @ 11:26 am
  • Authentic words, some authentic words man. Made my day.

    By Hoicectemeats 12 December, 2009 @ 8:48 am
  • Is objective and subjective knowledge belief?

    Believing something doesn’t make it true. At the same time, not believing the truth doesn’t change the truth.

    By teenspirit 19 February, 2010 @ 7:24 pm
  • Then more friends can talk down this problem

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