Getting to Objectivity

William Oliver II (1823-1901)

Getting to Objectivity

Lately I’ve been reading a book titled What is Fiction For? The British philosopher Bernard Harrison wrote it to defend novels – defend writing them and reading them – from the accusation that they don’t tell the truth!

I had no idea that anyone thought this was a serious charge to level against novels. That they’re fiction?   Duh.

In my teens, all my girlfriends read them, serious novels by gifted writers, and they contributed mightily to our girlish hopes and dreams.

We read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, taking at face value the report of Maria, war-battered guerrilla fighter for the doomed Spanish Republic, that when she connects (shall we say) with American volunteer Robert Jordan, “the earth moved.”

We read D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and envied Constance Chatterly — lonely wife of an emotionally withdrawn English aristocrat who returned from the first world war shattered below the waist – who falls in love-and-lust with her husband’s gamekeeper. “You would have thought a woman would have died of shame. Instead of which, shame died.”

Like the girls in novels, we too wanted the earth to move and shame to die. There were veracity questions, of course: Does any woman ever feel that the earth moved? Does any woman get to experience shame dying (and with its death a new birth of womanly self-approval)? We did wonder how realistic these dreams were and whether they presented peak aims for a woman’s life.

Though I now think the earth can move without having first to get gang raped and then become a guerrilla fighter and also that shame can sweetly die without having first to cheat on your husband, I never found the erotic intensity of such novels false as such. That part seemed to me kinda true.

According to Bernard Harrison, the current attack on fiction has nothing to do with the folly of particular aims cherished by characters in novels. Rather, what the attackers underscore is the gap between any novel and truth. By definition, these critics say, there can’t be objective truth in a made-up story.

So what do such critics mean by “objective truth”? They mean that physical objects are the only things to count in an inventory of the things that are real. And the laws of physics supply the truest descriptions of physical objects. Make assertions that can’t be subsumed under physical law and you’ve left the realm of objective truth. Philosophers who think this way are called “physicalists” and they still dominate the tough-minded sectors of philosophy in the English-speaking world.

Science, of course, is not so much a domain of immovable conclusions as a method, a way of investigating the world. Much exploratory work is being done nowadays to try to pin down the notion of “scientific explanation.” Earlier definitions have been discredited, new ones are being tried, but everyone agrees that an explanation that is scientific must at least cover the relevant data.

More than one well-regarded physicalist has admitted that

well-confirmed evidence

of nonphysical causes would be

fatal to physicalism.

By now there is a towering pile of such evidence. One recent collection of well-confirmed cases is The Self Does Not Die, edited by Rivas, Dirven and Smit. People who are deemed clinically dead and lying on a gurney, give accurate reports of what their surgeons were doing, when the actions they describe could only have been perceived from the ceiling. Or patients report seeing what the nurses were doing in the corridor, during the time when the patients were flatlining.

In this collection, each report is confirmed by two or three competent observers. The collection also includes skeptics’ profferred physicalist explanations for the data. The latter turn out far more tortured and improbable than the observers’ conclusions: that here is evidence of effects that can’t be explained in any known physical terms. Much evidence of this kind is simply ignored by the physicalists. But it’s relevant data and it needs to be explained. If it’s well confirmed, it shouldn’t be “explained away.” Because, by now, there is too much of it.

What’s the upshot? There is more to “objectivity” than the description of physical objects. To refuse to concede this is unscientific. If we don’t yet have a satisfactory explanation of the data, we need to get one. That is very different from pretending that there is nothing to see here folks — nothing worth explaining. It’s also a far cry from claiming fraud in cases where all the usual markers of serious research are present and there is no evidence of fraud.

What does this tell us? A lot more than I can collect here. But I can tell you what it tells me now. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, there’s been a vast human landscape that was left unsurveyed and undescribed because it could not be sufficiently measured by the physicalists. We have very good nineteenth-century novels, by writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Henry James and Leo Tolstoy. They were written before the dark curtain of physicalism had descended over the intellectual landscape. The novels were nuanced, closely observed and intelligent. They dealt with full-bodied characters, people in the round. They actually told us what life is like.

But very few deep and talented novels have appeared since, to tell us what it’s like for people like us to be here now. Bracketing the talent of particular writers, it still seems to me that science fiction, horror novels, surrealist novels, zombie and pornographic fiction are last-ditch efforts to pole vault out of the dreary here-and-now of the physicalists. Novelists who want to avoid those genres have to make their way through the white water of theories: Freud’s, Marx’s, the Frankfurt School, post-modernist, et al. They seem varied but they all agree that nonphysical aims, hopes and dreams are “false consciousness.”

If there is more to the real than the physical – then

all these wise heads are wrong.

Meanwhile, the terrain we walk on has been filled with dramatic trials – tests of valor, goodness and wisdom — and the challenges of our days have gone largely unseen, unheard and unrecorded.  The sociopaths are in the foreground. The rest of us are somewhere in the background.

It’s time for novelists — unencumbered by the contrived pessimism of physicalist theory – to reacquaint us with the space where we live. Its actual pitfalls, its hidden delights, its ever-new surprises and perilous adventures have become unfamiliar to us. Eventually, scientific theory, improved and expanded, will have to catch up. But for now,

let the novelists light the way.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” ( where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to Getting to Objectivity

  1. Abigail says:

    Heartening words, from a novelist “reporting in” from the field! Thanks Johan.

  2. Johan Herrenberg says:

    I think that the novel which keeps to theories and the quantifiable will miss reality.

    Thanks for your apologia!

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