The Myth of Objectivity
When people ask me what I do for a living, I typically respond that I practice psychotherapy. I often hear the response, “Oh, so you’re a shrink.” Notwithstanding that I’m a psychotherapist, and not in fact a psychiatrist (the more proper match for being a shrink), being called a shrink causes me to pull back and defend myself. I’d rather expand than shrink.
Although my comment might be seen as glib, it really speaks to my shifting worldview and my intention to practice a psychology that is in coherence with this shift – emergence as opposed to reduction.
Psychotherapy, for the large part, has been rooted in an old paradigm of reality, which values reductive thinking and objective analysis. From this perspective, based upon certainty and determinism, we believe that with sufficient information we can drill down to the root causes of an individual’s afflictions. So our focus is often on the cause, hence the reductive thinking and the term “shrink.”
Yet from this methodology, we sadly neglect how to get from here to there and what there looks like. Many people seem to have a reasonable understanding of why they have become who they are and what their struggles are. A continued replay of these life events – ad nauseam, without sufficient focus on emergence – leaves many people dissatisfied with their therapeutic experience. So many people who come to work with me share their hope that they won’t have to encounter once again the same retelling of their life experience.
Moreover, therapists tend to become steeped in the diagnostic penchant, which limits our capacity as healers and has us treat the diagnosis rather than co-creating new realities with our clients. This approach would provide a framework grounded in a humanistic venture of actualizing new possibilities. Let’s take a look at some of the core tenets of mainstream psychology and how they limit the healing potential of the profession.
Traditional psychology, still in lock step with our bio-medical approach, rests its foundation on diagnosis. In fact, health insurance requires a diagnosis for coverage. The operating assumption of diagnosis is that objectivity, in fact, exists. In order to diagnose someone, we must assume that our subjective interpretations aren’t getting in the way and that objectivity actually prevails. From this perspective we should assume that a dozen clinicians working with the same individual would all render the same diagnosis. I can assure you that no such thing would happen.
We each see through the subjective filter of our own life experience, colored by our beliefs, thoughts, personal history, prejudices, biases, and our unconscious stirrings. Therapists are not calculating automatons – thankfully – but simply educated professionals hopefully doing our best, although perhaps constrained by an outmoded model of thinking.
The root of the word objectivity is object. This is the basis of reality in Newton’s atomistic paradigm. The world is thus comprised of separate and discrete objects and objectivity becomes not only desired but amongst the highest of ideals. To be objective requires the capability to stand apart, unaffected by the other. We’ll soon discover that this is entirely implausible.
Webster’s third dictionary defines the word objective as follows:
Of or relating to an object, phenomenon or condition in the realm of sensible experience, independent of thought and perceptible by all observers. Having reality independent of the mind: expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations.
This definition requires that the observer’s experience be sensible, independent of thought and perceptible by all observers. The notion of sensible is of course completely contextual and relative, and we need not delve too deeply into that; suffice it to say that the circumstances and a consensus of agreement determine sensibility, which is hardly objective, but mostly subjective.
As an aside if we consider the etymology of sensible, it likely limits the notion to that which our five senses can appreciate. Might this be somewhat limiting?
What is sensible in one set of circumstances might be insane in another. Indeed, the very wedding of the words sensible and objective is ludicrous.
The next parts of the lexicon are particularly curious. Independent of thought implies that in an independently objective state there resides a truth, which has nothing at all to do with thought. An interesting proposition indeed and rooted in the philosophy of positivism. Yet, how would we know of anything without thought? The absoluteness of perceptible by all observers leaves no room for exceptions. Therefore, if we now had one hundred or one thousand psychologists observing an individual they would all have to concur without exception. Good luck!
Now for the last part of the definition: Having reality independent of the mind: expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations.
Again, we are confronted with a reality independent of the mind. As such, we detach from the constructs that mind creates. In our profession all diagnoses are constructs, creations of mind. Does borderline personality disorder or attention deficit disorder exist without mind? Mind created them. We then label people as such and lose sight of the fact that mind invented the terms. The noted philosopher Alfred North Whitehead referred to this dilemma as the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Thought constructs and then denies its creation, conferring upon it an independent reality. We might correctly say, “Jane appears to have behavior consistent with what we call borderline personality disorder.” That is far different from, “Jane is a borderline.” When we observe from the former perspective, we lose both our intuitive and humanistic skills as therapists. The person becomes the diagnosis.
I am in no way suggesting that the behaviors that describe these conditions don’t exist; they most certainly do. So creating the term or the diagnosis in order to facilitate a description is most useful. But conferring upon the diagnosis (a few descriptive words) an actual thing-ness or reality is altogether a different matter. So the very nature of objectivity, requiring reality independent of mind becomes perhaps untenable. Could we imagine circumstances in which attention deficit disorder might be regarded as functional and highly desired? Of course we could, and under those conditions what we see as pathology might actually be functional.
Expressing or dealing with facts and conditions as perceived without distortion by personal feelings, prejudices or interpretations really seals the deal. As humans, we are feeling, interpretative individuals. This is an essential part of our humanness. Should we not be repulsed by certain acts and comforted by others? To perceive without feelings might be very dysfunctional. Were the judges at the Nuremberg trial objective, suggesting that they had no feelings or prejudices? If so they may have indeed been objective, but not quite human. The goal of dealing with circumstances devoid of our evocative feelings and interpretations might indeed, of itself, qualify us as a sociopath.
A number of years ago, I was a prospective juror on an alleged rape case. Not surprisingly I found myself in judge’s chambers explaining that as a therapist I have often worked with individuals who have suffered from sexual abuse. The prosecuting attorney asked if I could nevertheless be objective. I mischievously broke into some pontification on the subject. I concluded my interlocution by suggesting that a more appropriate question to inquire of jurors might be, “Can you be in touch with your biases and still feel that you can be reasonably fair?” In case you’re wondering what happened, I was dismissed and directed to serve on another jury.