Perspective shifting is a skill we all have to develop because as a child, we are mentally incapable of differentiating between private knowledge (what we know) and public knowledge (what others know).
In an experiment demonstrating this, a young child is placed in a room and shown the hiding place of a toy. Another researcher goes in and pretends to look for the toy. Until a certain age, the child will be confused that the researcher is looking in the wrong places. After all, if I know where the toy is, why wouldn’t you?
Stepping into someone else’s shoes is a phrase we’ve all heard often. It’s understanding that our subjective experiences are different from others’ as well as different from “objective” reality. The reason we ask kids in a conflict, how do you think the other person feels, is precisely to get us out of our own heads and imagine another side to the story.
Aside from the idea that everyone can have different feelings, why is perspective shifting so important yet so difficult to grasp? It’s because, as some philosophers would say, there is no objective capital T Truth. Everyone has their own unique subjective realities but it’s challenging to acknowledge that there are other realities because we can’t relate them to each other. I can’t say that my reality is 5 units in the x direction away from objectivity and yours is 3 units in the y direction away.
To demonstrate, let’s take a really simple example. Picture a leaf. Now what were you thinking of? It could have been a green maple leaf or a yellow oak leaf or any of the others pictured below.
And each person probably imagines something slightly differently, even two green maple leaves are not exactly the same. Yet most of us go through life never really acknowledging that our mental pictures don’t align.
Now before you start protesting about all of the loopholes in that thought experiment or start arguing it doesn’t matter that we picture different leaves, let’s explore this idea of objectivity and Truth through the following lenses:
We’ll focus primarily on philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas as a jumping off point as he was one of the most well known to formalize this way of thinking.
Immediately you might be tempted to see science as a golden pillar of truthfulness and objectivity. However Nietzsche notably had a disdain for the sciences, or at least for the reverence people places in scientific fact. In a time when people were questioning God and religion, he saw to turn towards science as simply another vessel for devotion.
Above all, Nietzsche was focused on knowledge. Reason and knowledge to him was the search for meaning and Truth. He viewed science as merely thinking, a way to identify facts.
Science doesn’t provide meaning though. It can explain how something works — how leaves photosynthesize, how leaves change color. But it cannot explain why leaves exist in the first place. Science cannot answer why the things in the universe are the way they are.
In science we make observations, conduct controlled experiments, and replicate results to arrive at a hypothesis or theory about how something works. This is like gaining multiple perspectives; controlled experiments mean that you know where the errors and biases are, and replication prevents a single fluke experiment from being trusted. Through science we can describe the world, (and have learned so much through that process), but it cannot explain. It’s just another perspective through which we may observe the world.
If we accept this idea that everyone has a unique perspective then we arrive at Nietzsche’s idea of pluralism. Around us there are a multiplicity of perspectives and each of our worldviews are tinted by our own experiences.
The way to arrive at objective Truth, or as asymptotically close as we can, is to combine several perspectives, understand the prejudices each perspective has due to life experiences, and know which perspectives are trustworthy to answer a particular question. Each person is biased in a unique way so by merging all of the imperfections we can have a better idea of the real picture.
It’s like if you take the average of several ovals, you can determine their common circle (assuming the ovals generally follow an even distribution around the perfect circle).
In the leaf example, we can create a summary of a leaf. We’ve all seen several leaves before so we have several perspectives and we know which parts matter and which don’t. We know that whether it has two or three or six forks doesn’t matter and neither does its color (assuming of course that it’s not rainbow striped or something). We know that leaves are generally flat though, etc.
Through this mental model of a leaf we have come to understand the essence of a leaf — the whole idea of “you know it when you see it”.
As another example of essence, we can look to Tim O’Brian’s novel The Things We Carried. In a series of short stories about his memories from the Vietnam War, he points out that the meaning of the stories isn’t in the exact events, but rather the feeling or essence the story evokes. It does not matter whether the person who jumped in front to shield the others from a bullet died or not or even whether that exact event happened. The meaning, the essence of the memory, is some amorphous sense we get from reading about a man willing to sacrifice himself.
Let’s further unravel this idea that things and words have some sort of essence of meaning, and while we’re at it, let’s also send you into a catatonic spiral of pointlessness in which nothing means anything :)
A word, in its most basic sense, is simply a sound copy of a nerve stimulus. Words are arbitrary constructs made up by humans. Their associated meanings are also made up by humans. There is no inherent natural reason that a red light must mean stop, it just is because we say so.
Linguistically this is known sign-signified relationship. A literal leaf meaning is associated with the word leaf. And even more fun is when you chain these together and a literal leaf meaning is a proxy for life or spring.
Language is made up of a series of metaphors and metonymies in which each word stands in for a meaning or essence. And yet, we can take this even further.
How can we even define tree essence? According to Jacques Derrida and the principle of différance, meaning is only defined as a negation of everything else. In other words, the concept of a leaf only exists because there are things that are not leaves. And it is impossible to define the concept of a leaf by what it is, you must use process of elimination to determine what it is not. Only after doing that are you left with a bounded void which determines the edges of what can be considered a leaf. Therefore, we cannot define the meaning of anything.
And to keep going, we can see this become quite paradoxical. A leaf is defined as not a dolphin, not a peach, not a chair, etc. But a dolphin is partially defined as not a leaf. So now we have a problem. We cannot identify something without placing it in relation to everything else, but that every other thing must also be placed in relation to everything else.
So now we have come to the conclusion that nothing means anything, and there is no objective Truth clearly, and your mind is probably spinning. Fortunately, Nietzsche has a solution for that.
Nietzsche believed that we should strive towards objective Truth because without it we remain self-delusional, but he recognized that as a species we have created many systems to maintain our innocence. Even the process of merely understanding different perspectives and moving closer to uncovering the Truth will be difficult as we are forced to confront the arbitrariness of our language, faith, systems of power, and much more.
His proposal is to use art as a counterforce. Art inherently creates an illusion and creates something beautiful where there once was nothing special. Broader than art is creativity as a whole; it is an escape from the harsh realities of the truth and allows us to harmlessly engage in fictitious daydreams.
Yes, Nietzsche’s support of the arts contradict his value of truthfulness, but they are both important and powerful not despite their contradictions, but because of their contradictions.
So all in all, there is no such thing as objective Truth. But, we can still aim to get closer to objectivity by understanding things from other perspectives. Just as we do not want a single story in literature, we should aim for a multiplicity of perspectives about life. We can look at a leaf from the perspectives of ourselves, a stranger, and a ladybug. There will always be inaccuracies, but we can at least mitigate some of our prejudices and expand beyond our one dimensional view of life.
And finally, one last fun thought: is the idea that there is no objective Truth an objective Truth?