Intrinsic and Observer Relative Properties

The New York Times has reported that Peru and Chile have been embroiled in a dispute over which country can lay claim to have given the potato to the world.
Chileans gain comfort from studies showing that more than 90 percent of modern potato varieties outside the Andes have a common origin in potatoes once found in the area around Chiloé Island, in southern Chile. Potatoes from Chiloé found their way to Europe, where they were well suited to latitudes with relatively long days.

But potato experts here, and there are many, point to genetic studies showing that all potatoes currently eaten in the world originated more than 10,000 years ago from a single ancestor, Solanum brevicaule, found on Lake Titicaca's north shore. That would be on the Peruvian side, not in Bolivia.
"The silly part is that the story of the potato began millennia before the concept of nation states existed," said Charles Crissman, a researcher at the International Potato Center. "But, yes, the first potatoes came from what is today Peru." ["Chile and Peru Vie in Spat Over Spud", June 1, 2008, A6].

That potatoes originated in what is today Peru is an "observer-relative" fact about them. Other facts about potatoes, for instance, their genetic composition, their mass, their caloric value, and so forth, are not observer-relative; they are properties that are intrinsic to the potato itself.

The philosopher John Searle explains that, "...there is a distinction between those features of the world that we might call intrinsic to nature and those features that exist relative to the intentionality of observers, users, etc." [The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free Press, 1995, p. 9]. He uses the example of a screwdriver whose intrinsic features include that it is partly made of wood and partly made of metal, but whose observer-relative properties include that it is a "screwdriver". Being a screwdriver is the intended use or function of this particular artifact, as observed from the point of view of "makers, designers, owners, buyers, sellers, and anyone else whose intentionality toward the object is such that he or she regards it as a screwdriver" [10]. It is important to be quite clear about this distinction, since it will figure importantly in our account of moral status. Searle's account is admirably clear in part because he is clear about his ontology and his epistemology. Ontology is that branch of philosophical inquiry that deals with the questions "What exists?" or "What is real?" Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that addresses questions like "How do we know anything?" and "How do we know what exists?" Searle has wants to answer the specific ontological question about things like "money, property, governments, and marriages," or what he calls institutional or social facts, namely in what sense, if any, things like these can be said to exist. Social facts contrast with what he calls "brute facts" or natural facts, such as the fact that hydrogen atoms have one electron, in that natural facts do not depend on human institutions for their existence, while social facts do:

In order that this piece of paper should be a five dollar bill, for example, there has to be the human institution of money. Brute facts require no human institutions for their existence. Of course, in order to state a brute fact we require the institution of language, but the fact stated needs to be distinguished from the statement of it (p. 2).

In drawing this distinction Searle takes exception with those post-modernist thinkers who have argued that all of reality is somehow a human creation-- that there are no brute facts, but only social facts created by human language. Searle (and I) reject this view and defend the distinction that claims that some properties of things or features of the world are intrinsic to them or "observer-independent", while others are not intrinsic to them, or are "observer-relative".

I also agree with Searle when he claims that our contemporary scientific ontology based upon atomic theory in physics and evolutionary biology, commits us to the view that "The world consists entirely of entities that we find it convenient, though not entirely accurate, to describe as particles." (6)

These particles exist in fields of force, and are organized into systems. The boundaries of systems are set by causal relations. Examples of systems are mountains, planets, H2O, molecules, rivers, crystals, and babies. Some of these systems are living systems;...and some of them have evolved certain sorts of cellular structures, specifically, nervous systems capable of causing and sustaining consciousness. Consciousness is a biological, and therefore physical, though of course also mental, feature of certain higher-level nervous systems, such as human brains and a large number of different types of animal brains.

For Searle, the existence of conscious or sentient life forms is a natural fact about the universe, and "with consciousness comes intentionality, the capacity of the organism to represent objects and states of affairs in the world to itself" (7). Intentionality is a technical terms employed in philosophy to describe the feature of representations, signs, and symbols by which they are about something or refer to something other than themselves, for instance, the word "bread" refers to a type of baked food made out of ground up wheat, corn, rye, or other grains. The slice of multigrain bread I had for breakfast had a certain caloric value, one of its intrinsic properties, but the facts that it was understood by me as "food" and that I called it "bread" rather than say, "pane" or "brod" or "Ψωμί" are observer-relative.

Philosophers who mistakenly believe that all features of the world are observer-relative are confused, according to Searle, about two different meanings of the terms "objective" and "subjective," their ontological and their epistemological senses. In the epistemological sense, the subjective/objective distinction is used to express the idea that the truth or falsity of certain kinds of judgments we make about things cannot be settled independently of the attitudes, feelings, and points of view of the makers and hearers of those judgments. So, in his example, the statement "Rembrandt is a better painter than Rubens." expresses an epistemically subjective judgment. The statement, "Rembrandt lived in Amsterdam during the year 1632," expresses a judgment that is epistemically speaking objectively true in that "the facts in the world that make them true or false are independent of anybody's attitudes or feelings about them" (8). When we state true facts about the world in the epistemically objective sense we can also say that we have described objective facts.

However, we also use the terms subjective/objective in an ontological sense in which they are predicates not of judgments but of entities and they ascribe to these entities a certain mode of existence. In this ontological sense, pains and other sensations, are subjective entities, "because their mode of existence depends on their being felt by [conscious] subjects." Mountains, such as Mt. Everest, on the other hand, are ontologically objective "because their mode of existence is independent of any perceiver or mental state" (8).

These two senses of the objective/subjective distinction yield four categories of judgments that we can make about entities or features of the world:

(1) Epistemologically objective judgments about ontologically objective things;

(2) Epistemologically objective judgments about ontologically subjective things;

(3) Epistemologically subjective judgements about ontologically objective things; and

(4) Epistemologically subjective judgments about ontologically subjective things.

Judgments of type (1) concern features of things that are objectively real in that their existence is observer-independent. For instance, the Delaware river is objectively real and it would exist had there been no human beings or other sentient creatures around to observe it. Judgment of type (2) concern what can be called institutional or social facts, for instance, the judgment that a certain piece of paper is a five dollar bill, is a judgment of this type. The piece of paper has an ontologically objective existence, but that it has the status of "money" with a value of "five dollars" are observer-relative or ontologically subjective features it has. Yet, it is objectively true that this piece of paper is a five dollar bill, since it is true independently of my own attitudes, feelings, and point of view; its status as money having a certain value is fixed by social institutions in which I participate but which I do not control.

The moral status of entities or features of the world, that is, whether or not it can function as a "holder of rights" or as an "object of moral obligations" is due to certain social or institutional facts and are thus observer-relative features. However, that there are certain things in the world that are "alive" and "sentient" is ontologically objective fact about the world. Of course, the linguistic conventions we use to state facts about these kinds of things in the world depend upon human institutions and social facts, but again, it is a mistake to confuse the fact stated from our statement of it. So to state that "I am a living, sentient creature." is to state an ontologically objective fact in an epistemologically objective way. While, to say that "I am the holder of a right to life." is to state an ontologically subjective fact in an epistemologically objective way. The latter statement is ontologically subjective because "rights" are things, like money, that exist because of social institutions, which in turn, presuppose the existence of sentient social animals like us. We assign the moral status "holder of a right to life" to creatures like ourselves and in doing so we impose (or assign) a status function to creatures like ourselves. Similarly, if we call something a "moral patient" meaning that it is the sort of things towards which moral agents like ourselves can have moral obligations, duties, and responsibilities, we also assign to those things a certain "status function". Status-function assignments are subject to revision; but revising them requires changing our social institutions, not just changing our attitudes and feelings. Moral status functions, then, are observer-relative features of the world, but statements we make about them can be objectively true in the epistemic sense.

As Searle notes, "whether a feature is intrinsic or observer relative is not always obvious" (11). He suggests that a good "rough and ready" way to distinguish between something's intrinsic and its observer relative features is to ask yourself "could the feature exist if there had never been any human beings or other sentient beings?" (11). So for instance, the body of water known as the "Delaware River" must have existed for many millennia before European settlers (and perhaps even Native Americans) came to occupy North America, just as the potato existed before humans discovered they could eat them and before the nation states of Peru and Chile were created. The Delaware river is an intrinsic feature of the North American landscape. However, that the Delaware River is the political boundary between the states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is an institutional, social, or observer-relative fact about it. We could, if we chose to, revise this fact, and change the boundary. But we haven't, so it is objectively true to say that "The Delaware River is the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey." I am not making this fact up and it does not depend on my personal feelings or opinions. It is an institutional or social fact that depends upon the existence of sentient social animals like us. If we subtract all of the human observers, then the body of water would still exist in itself; it just wouldn't have the status function "border".

There is an important caveat to this simple test for "intrinsic" vs "observer-relative" features of the world, namely, "Because mental states, both conscious and unconscious, are themselves intrinsic features of the world, it is not strictly speaking correct to say that the way to discover the intrinsic features of the world is to subtract all the mental states from it" (11). If mental states are themselves intrinsic ontologically objective features of certain kinds of organisms that really exist in the world, sentient organisms, it follows that mental states constitute intrinsic features of the world which do not exist independently of sentient organisms and their mental states.

With these concepts and distinctions in mind, we can now proceed to consider theoretical questions concerning the notions of intrinsic moral value and moral status. As I have suggested, moral status will always be observer and observer relative feature of things, one which we, moral agents, assign or ascribe to them. However, at least in some cases, we can choose to base our social institutions about moral status on natural facts or intrinsic features of various kinds of things to which we assign moral status. I am going to be arguing for revising our social institutions about moral status to make them more inclusive than they are normally understood to be.


jbalint said...

what is the difference between intrinsic vs observer relative and ontological objectivity vs subjectivity? Thanks.

Morton Winston said...

The mental states of sentient organisms can be ontologically objective yet observer relative. Your pain objectively exists in the cosmos but only you can feel it. This entails that not all ontologically objective states of affairs are also observer-independent or intrinsic.