Of Facts and Feelings

The Subjectivity of Science

Photo by Danylo Suprun on Unsplash

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this guy, right? He’s clean cut but kind of schlubby, unintimidating but very bold, and he gets very upset at women and minorities online. He’s rational, logical, relatable. He loves nothing more than owning the hysterical masses with a simple phrase:

Facts don’t care about your feelings.

It’s a beautiful thing. A perfectly airtight piece of circular logic. He is a dangerous truth teller, here to force you to confront that which you know to be true but would rather ignore. He DEMOLISHES all who would stand in his way, as all they can do is weakly state their feelings while he has to be the adult in the room and show them the gospel of the One True Fact.

He also doesn’t have any formal training in any scientific field, social or otherwise, because if he did it would make him a lot worse at his job.

Photo by Miguel Henriques on Unsplash

I don’t talk about it a lot online, but I actually did really enjoy my time getting a Mechanical Engineering degree. It was a transformative experience and almost everything I studied went on to become a special interest that I could literally go on for hours about. I lose my mind over the opportunity to explain calculus to someone, and it’s even better if I can do differential equations instead, or fluid mechanics, or control systems, or even system dynamics …

The point is, I have a real appreciation for what you can do with science, and the difficulty and complexity behind how we discover facts and learn about the world. I’ve had a lot of fun with it all, the analyzing, the problem solving, the equation rearranging. It’s like the universe is a gigantic puzzle and you get to sort things into boxes, separating fact from fiction.

So I think facts and logic are pretty cool. That being said, If you went to school for STEM and the experience didn’t make you a postmodernist, I don’t believe that you actually have any idea how STEM fields work. That may sound a little extreme, but I promise if you hear me out I can explain it in a calm, rational —

Part 1: Math is fake and we made it up

Photo by Roman Mager on Unsplash

Let’s start with something simple. How about a basic elementary school math problem? Anyone can do that, right? Here it is:

8 ÷ 2(2 + 2) = ?

Did you do it? Did you get the right answer? Some of you might’ve had to scrape the rust off your old friend PEMDAS, but of course you’re not stupid or anything! Obviously the correct answer is s̛͜҉͏͏i̸̶͟x̛́͢ǫ̡͟͠n̕͜e̵̴t̢̢̕̕͢ę͜҉̡̛é̕ǹ̨̧͞͞. Wait, you thought it was ò̵̡͜n̢̧͠͡͞s͘͜i͢͞҉̛͞x̀͏̧t͏͏̵e҉́͜͡e͜͟҉n̸̴͏̸e͢͢͞? Looks like someone didn’t learn much as a kid, did they? The M and D go left to right, Mrs. Kuwhilacher taught me that! And it only makes sense to give the implied multiplication of the parentheses priority. Some of you really need to go back to school and learn basic math.

Okay, enough screwing around. Hopefully you get the point here. The problem I gave was ambiguously framed —both answers you could’ve arrived at are equally valid because I didn’t give you enough information to fully understand what I meant. That may seem weird for a math problem, because we usually think of math as being perfectly objective and unambiguous. Unlike the vague and flowery realms of the social sciences, math is supposed to be pure fact, one unilaterally correct answer for every problem. Unfortunately, that conception of math has almost no relation to the real-world practice of math.

Photo by Andrew Ebrahim on Unsplash

Fundamentally, math is language. It’s a method of writing we as humans created so we could communicate complicated quantitative concepts for the purpose of analyzing and predicting the world we live in. It’s not necessarily a language in the traditional sense, but its primary purpose is social and psychological nonetheless. That is, it’s a social construct.

Of course, that makes math no less valid for analysis. When I say “math is a social construct”, I don’t mean that it has no purpose or that knowledge attained through math has no value. I just mean that it was invented by humans, the same way we invented money, or language, or like, all of society. That’s why they call it a social construct — it has value within our society, but wouldn’t necessarily mean anything to anyone else in the universe. It could be rebuilt from the ground up completely differently while still serving the same function, because it is by its nature invented. Sure, groups of picked fruit and trains approaching each other at particular speeds objectively exist, but they only carry the meaning we give them.

You may think this idea would render you too busy with semantics to actually do any math, but math gets surprisingly easier to work with when you understand its arbitrary nature. PEMDAS didn’t just fall out of the sky, it’s an arbitrary convention we established to ease communication. There doesn’t have to be any grand, spiritual reason why the ratio between the diameter and circumference of any circle is an irrational number, because it’s just a result of the particular system we use for counting. Everything we learned as kids about math is the result of a pile of axioms people established centuries ago simply for the sake of having something there.

Once you understand this, a million doors open. Tired of using an annoying number like 10 as a base? Try working with seximal, or hexadecimal! That’s what the entire field of computer science did. Got a really annoying and messy equation with sin(x) everywhere? Well, if you’re working with small enough numbers, sin(x) is basically the same as x, so you can just substitute it as long as you keep that assumption in mind. Is the square root of negative one coming up too often and making it hard to analyze harmonic motion? Try replacing that term with i and see what happens!

You have to do this kind of free-wheeling substitution and approximation all the time when you’re working with math. The key to not losing yourself in all of it is to keep a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve and the definitions you’re using. This was impossible with the problem I gave at the beginning of this section, because you had no context for it — problems like this are meaningless without the reality they’re meant to describe. Math is a tool, and there’s no use in having a hammer without any nails.

Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

I think most of us learned math in a very algorithmic way. A bit of memorizing tables, some algorithm we used to write down arithmetic, and a belief in the importance of those numbers in and of themselves. It’s quite frankly a terrible way to actually learn math, because it isn’t motivated by anything; it’s just the recital of Objective Facts without context or meaning, as if in worship of a pure and righteous God of Numbers. Not to get too Foucault in here, but our traditional educational paradigm is less about teaching math and more about teaching deference and obedience.

Ideally, math should be a free and intellectual pursuit, not simply a series of right and wrong answers. It doesn’t always have to be grounded in the form of a word problem or anything, but it ought to be taught with an appreciation of the internal structures at play and how they can be challenged. Unfortunately, even the weakest attempts at addressing this are often jeered by parents who would prefer their children learn math the way they did, by reciting a series of algorithms in order to discover Truth, verified by an objective and all-powerful authority. Unsurprisingly, this kind of rigorous, useless, meaningless math is not popular with children.

It’s a real shame, too. Math can be fun, interesting, empowering, and more, but for most of us it’s just a chore. I was only able to enjoy it once I reached calculus and my teacher’s propensity for establishing the motive and method behind the rules we were learning helped break me out of the illusion that it was all just a bunch of empty God-given Facts. I learned that like any science, math is an ever-evolving set of frameworks that we use to understand and predict the world around us. And, like any science, it’s an arbitrary, shifting collection of rules that are only correct because we all think they are.

Part 2: Science describes reality but it’s still made up

Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash

Remember Pluto?

I was a child back in 2006 when the IAU formalized a definition of the term “planet” which deliberately excluded Pluto. Scientists had recently discovered a number of similar objects in the Kuiper Belt, most notably the dwarf planet Eris, a body more massive and farther from the sun than Pluto. Because Pluto behaved much more similarly to these kinds of objects than it did to any of the other planets, the IAU decided it made more sense to classify Pluto separately from the others. Hence, there was a relatively boring change of classification for a rock that continued to exist and everyone moved on with their lives.

Okay, we all know that’s not what happened. I still remember how bizarrely hard people went to bat for Pluto. All the people at the IAU did was decide a different arbitrary taxonomy would make their jobs a little easier and a significant portion of the general public acted as if a War on Pluto had just been declared. New Mexico declared March 13, 2007 as “Pluto Planet Day”, Illinois, home of Pluto’s discoverer, claimed it was “unfairly downgraded to a ‘dwarf’ planet”, and even those who agreed with the decision tended to act unbearably smug about it, as if some ultimate Truth had won out over Feelings. All this over a glorified “is a hot dog a sandwich” argument.

I need to make it very clear that it literally does not matter what we as a species decide to call Pluto. It’s a rock in space. There is no objective name for it, and the only thing that matters when categorizing it is how effectively its categorization helps us talk about astronomy. Pluto didn’t go away when it was reclassified, its feelings weren’t hurt, it is a rock. And yet, there’s nothing an armchair scientist or a Rick & Morty writer loves more than doing yet another bit about poor, poor Pluto.

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

There’s a reason things are like this, of course, and it’s the same reason people argue so fiercely over that poorly stated math problem from before. When we learn about science, we are led to believe that the facts we’re learning are reality, that we are simply unearthing the fundamental laws of nature the same way we might unearth a dinosaur fossil. But just as fossils are merely rocks molded into the shape of a lost species, the facts we learn are only reflections of reality. We are strange, imperfect creatures. The theoretical structures we have invented to help us think about the world are unique to our species and our time, and they reflect us just as much as they reflect reality.

Of course, that means that the same kind of approximation and assumption from before is totally valid when we try to learn more about the world. As a wise man once said, being an engineer is about solving problems. If I’m trying to estimate how hard to throw something so it goes a certain distance, I’m probably going to ignore the curvature of the earth, not to mention the mechanics of general relativity and the variable density of air with respect to humidity. I could get a slightly more accurate answer if I take that stuff into account, but for a lot of applications a flat earth in a 2D universe with no wind is good enough. Like with math, it’s crucial to keep in mind both what assumptions you’re making and that you’re never not making assumptions.

Science is often more focused on understanding than specific applications, but it’s still very focused on results, and it’s still open to a lot of assumption. Dark matter is a good example of this; people seem to believe that it’s some kind of magical secret matter that scientists just suddenly noticed one day, but that’s not true at all. It’s just an acknowledgement that based on what we know about gravity, the only way the universe could behave as it does is if there’s a ton of completely unobservable matter all over the place. There’s a discrepancy between prediction and fact, and people are trying to figure out why. It’s really not that complicated or weird, especially in the field of astronomy, where the distance from here to the sun is basically negligible.

The key thing to understand here is that none of this stuff has to work the way it does now. If we wanted to, we could rebuild science from the ground up and do it completely differently. The basic laws of mechanics were stated one way by Newton, but Lagrangian mechanics are a completely different method that we invented just because it’s more convenient for some applications. It doesn’t actually matter what we call any of this stuff — if there was a system of magic that was just as effective at helping us predict, describe, and understand reality as our current scientific frameworks are, it would be exactly as valid.

Photo by Cristian Escobar on Unsplash

Of course, magic is rarely empirically tested and peer reviewed the way scientific knowlege is. Neither is religion, because spirituality doesn’t operate in an empirical manner, nor is it supposed to. But that contrast reveals exactly why science is seen as so pure and objective by people who barely understand it — too many people engage with science purely on a spiritual level. To the “I Fucking Love Science” crowd and the nu-atheists, science isn’t this evolving, complicated framework I’ve described, but a simple series of dogmas to beat over the heads of nonbelievers. There are only two genders, I learned that in high school. Pluto can’t be a planet, Science said so. Everyone knows that the answer to that math problem is 16 and you’re basically doing a 1984 if you think otherwise. It’s just 2+2, after all.

Empirical frameworks involve a lot of collaboration between people to learn about the world and eliminate as much individual human bias as possible. We verify our results with other people so that we can be sure our understanding is correct and not the result of individual bias. But this only creates a collective truth, not an objective one. We are all humans, and there will always be biases we share. In the face of this, the steadfast belief that our scientific exploits represent some pure and objective truth is just another kind of spirituality.

Not to say, of course, that spiritual frameworks are bad. Some form of spirituality resides at the core of each of our self-concepts, not in an “everyone worships a god” kind of way, but in a “we need some sense of purpose to keep us from crumpling before the terror of existence” kind of way. Spiritual frameworks aren’t empirical, and empirical frameworks aren’t spiritual. That is why the dogmatic, mystical mainstream conception of science is so harmful, because it tricks people into thinking that their core principles are simply a result of the absolute word of Science.

I think the facts/feelings dichotomy is meant to describe a similar divide to the one I’ve just described with my idea of empirical and spiritual frameworks. You may notice, however, that both sides of my dichotomy are collections of feelings, because feelings, sensations, observations, etc. are the only way we get in touch with the outside world and with ourselves. “Facts” are simply collective, consistent feelings that are useful for achieving material goals. Paradoxically, though, if feelings are the only thing we can truly observe directly, then that means:

Part 3: Feelings are real and we didn’t make them up

Photo by Bret Kavanaugh on Unsplash

Let’s go back to that thinly veiled jab at Ben Shapiro from the beginning of the article. When you imagine the phrase “facts don’t care about your feelings”, you can also imagine the kind of person it’s meant to shut down: a nebulously queer college kid with dyed hair who gets heated and irrational when their pet causes are challenged. They’re probably in the middle of shouting at Ben because the Objective Facts Of Gender are offensive to them. The only things they have to back that offense up are meaningless feelings like “their personal experience” or “a belief that everyone deserve a basic standard of respect.”

In this exchange, Ben is positioned as a cold, logical truth teller who doesn’t let feelings influence his opinions. The problem with this idea is that it’s literally impossible to exist as a human without being guided by core emotional principles. That’s what having a conscience is. Ben advocates for his ideas because he believes they will lead to better outcomes for humanity, and for him to do that he has to have some axiomatic opinion about what is good and bad. Even if it’s as simple as “it is good when people are happy and bad when they are unhappy,” there must be something he cannot prove.

Crucially, though, there is nothing wrong with the fact that his moral code, like the moral code of everyone in existence, has some core piece he can’t prove. Trans people can’t prove that everyone deserves a basic standard of respect, communists can’t prove that workers being alienated from their labor is a bad thing, and Ben can’t prove any of his spiritual beliefs. These feelings are not the enemy, they’re the fundamental basis of humanity. Without them, we have no drive, no opinions, and no reason to collect data and create facts in the first place. To be human is to be driven by passion.

Photo by Timothy Dykes on Unsplash

So feelings are pretty clearly a basic part of humanity. Why, then, do we imagine that the way people feel is somehow outside the realm of facts? Consider the thought process of a psychiatrist when diagnosing someone with a mental illness. They don’t do some kind of magic brain scan for most diagnoses, they learn about their patients by listening and put together a psychological profile based entirely on feelings. Within the realm of a patient’s own mind, their feelings quite literally are the facts in question.

Similarly, the existence of trans people is generally based on the very direct observation of the feelings in our heads. Those feelings are the relevant facts that must be taken into consideration when trying to discuss gender in an empirical manner. Ben’s notion of “only 2 genders”, by contrast, is not based on anything empirical; it’s based on a spiritual gut feeling that trans people are not a valid category and their objectively present feelings are just wrong somehow. I can’t ultimately disprove that, because Ben can’t prove it. That’s kind of how spirituality works — unfalsifiable, but all-important.

Photo by Jamie Morrison on Unsplash

More than anything, it’s sad to see the way that someone like Ben perpetuates this dogmatic facsimile of “science” where whoever suppresses their emotions the most wins. No one can ever admit that they believe in anything or care about anyone lest they be labeled “emotional” and therefore irrational. There’s a weird toxic masculinity to it — a big strong man like Ben isn’t supposed to be concerned with sentiment or the gaping, empty hole slowly eating away at any remnant of a soul he still has. The political beliefs of a Correct Man have nothing to do with how he feels; they must be derived from pure logic, as if they had simply been found growing on a tree. And a True Man doesn’t care about even that, because caring about things is fake and gay and his opinions are just the objective facts, somehow. Isn’t that just incredibly depressing? Like … the literal definition of depression?

That sad, empty ignorance of one’s own emotions is a serious problem. Our feelings are facts in and of themselves, not because they must always reflect an accurate picture of reality, but because even if they don’t, they will still be there. Our feelings are just another sensation, like the physical input of our eyes and ears. We can be biased in how we report on them, just like we can with what we see or what we hear, but they will always be as real as anything else in the universe. We can manipulate them, we can change them, but we can’t simply pretend they don’t exist.

Even spiritual frameworks are objectively present. We can all come to our own conclusions about whether they’re righteous or not, but we cannot argue the fact that they exist. Just as I am powered by a distaste for arbitrary rules with no purpose, each of you hold your own core beliefs and motivations, and neither of ours will ever be objectively better. All we can do is keep in touch with ourselves through our feelings and advocate for the things we care about. Our beliefs will not always be true. But those beliefs still exist. We can try to deny the fact that we have feelings, but ultimately the facts of how we feel don’t care about our feelings on those facts.

That is to say …

Part 4: Facts are Feelings and Feelings are Facts

Photo by Leslie Lopez Holder on Unsplash

I’ve gone in a lot of different directions with this article, but the unifying idea behind all of it is the bizarre nature of this dichotomy between facts and feelings. We like to imagine that everything in our brains can be neatly separated into objective and subjective camps, that every question must have a universally correct answer, and that we can discover some perfect truth already laid out for us using nothing but pure logic. We pretend that language, science, and law simply fell out of the sky while ignoring the very real motivating factors that have been with us for as long as we have been human. This way, we can disregard whatever makes us uncomfortable and reach contentment in the illusion that we can have all the answers.

The truth is, all that we believe to be pure and untouched knowledge is nothing but a collection of centuries of human feelings. We can create great things and understand our world by looking at where all of our feelings as a species overlap, but these facts will always be arbitrary constructions, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Facts are created by us and for us and understanding their subjective nature is a necessary part of learning how to effectively use them. Facts are Feelings.

At the same time, our minds and the ideas therein are just as much a part of the universe as anything else. The way we feel about things is real, and it’s unreasonable to deny the existence of feelings we don’t like. There will always be conflict between people with different core values, and people will always be capable of changing those values, but there will never be any human motivated by pure logic. We must learn to observe and respect our feelings as the extant things they are. Feelings are Facts.

Photo by Presley Roozenburg on Unsplash

This critique may seem very semantic and purposeless, but I think understanding the weird and complicated way that facts and feelings are established is extremely important for working with either. My ability to work with STEM concepts has only been improved by my insistence on learning exactly why we establish certain rules and where we can break them, and my mental health was drastically improved when I started critically examining the way I feel rather than pretending I don’t feel anything. I advocate for this way of thinking about the world not because I hate science or think objectivity can’t exist, but because acknowledging the limits of science and the reality of experience only stands to make us better scientists and healthier people.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t trust scientists or that we should just be okay with everyone believing whatever truth is convenient to them. I just want us all to understand that the construction of unquestionable facts and irrelevant feelings only serves to stop us from questioning the world we live in and keeps us miserable and oppressed. If we want to have productive scientific and philosophical discussion, we have to understand that the people we disagree with aren’t exclusively irrational and that that doesn’t mean we can’t think they’re wrong. Everyone has their own priorities, their own core beliefs, and their own way of thinking about the world, and God is never going to come down from heaven and tell us which are right and wrong. It’s up to us as human beings to acknowledge our limitations as subjective creatures and find a way to sort it out for ourselves.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Alexis

Alexis

Trans Internet Creator with an engineering degree. She/they.