Observant-Dependant Social World

by Augusto Cuginotti

There has been some discussion about the world being complex in all instances or if we could consider some things simple. Most of the discussion does not distinguish between ontology and epistemology, which I’ll attempt to explore here.

From the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Ontology: a particular theory about the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence.

Epistemology: the study or a theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits and validity.

I will distinguish between context-dependant or context-free things on one side (connecting to how we know something, epistemology) and on the other between observant-dependant and observant-free (relating to the way things are, ontology).

As a premise, I’ll claim that human beings are interpretative beings, meaning we interpret the world around us, devise individual and collective meanings, and communicate these meanings with others.

As such, how we experience the world is interpretative, which does not mean it’s all relative and there is no objective reality. It only means that we interpret objective reality all the time.

Let’s think of the sky at night, for example. Although we are bound to our biology in the way we can perceive the sky (we can only see what is available to us, in this case, the viewable spectrum of light), the existence of a starry sky is not dependent on a human observer.

A way to guarantee the sky and the stars are there is to look at them, but it is safe to say they do not depend on us checking; they are independent of the human eye. We can call this ‘external’ reality, and they are observant-free.

Even when observing external reality and receiving the same impulses in our cornea, human beings remain interpretative.

Imagine four different people looking at the sky and the stars in the same position and at the same time: one is a poet, the other a scientist, the third, more specifically, an astronomer, and finally, the fourth is an astrologist. They look at the same sky but see the same thing?

If you ask them to describe it, each individual will describe it differently. When an astronomer shows you the sky, you can locate Venus in a place where there was just another shiny dot before.



So, even though we claim there is an objective reality when human beings are not around, we also argue that we interpret it to give meaning and bring it to our social communications. Everything that has to do with us as social beings is ontologically observant-dependant.

Everything that is said is said by someone and carries some interpretation. No exception.

Now that we talked about things that are observant-free and observant-dependant, let’s move to the realm of epistemology.

Saying that we are interpretative beings does not mean everything is subjective. Pick up a banknote from your wallet (if we still have those at hand) – a banknote is a piece of paper representing a promise of payment. If that banknote reads $1, that’s how much it represents. If someone else gives you another note identical to your own, you will now have $2.

That is not a subjective thing. You now have two banknotes of $1 and a sum representing a promise of payment that equals $2. That is true regardless of your interpretation of that being a lot of money or just a little, for example, and the amount and promise are independent of whoever is holding it. We can say how much money you have in your hands or the bank and how it adds up with your salary and diminishes with your bills are objective and context-free.

Even though this representation is independent of whom is the person holding it, it is not independent of human beings or society. It is context-free but still observant-dependent. It is society, people, who assign meaning and confer value to the banknotes, which otherwise would be a piece of paper with a drawing. It is also an institution, a central bank, that guarantees the promise that the representation dictates. If there is no observer, the banknotes do not mean anything.

Finally, we can talk about things that are context-dependent. Building on the example above, the judgment of having little or a lot of money when I get my $2 depends on who judges. Even if we agree our money doubled, my daughter might consider it much more money in her hands, whereas I might not be so excited.

There is more to explore on all those. Still, the great confusion, and what I’d like to leave here with, is that matters related to our world representation are always ontologically observant-dependant. As a unit of measure, a meter is invented and has value because we assign value to it. And that does not mean it is up to dispute that I’m 1,8 meters high: with a measuring tape anywhere in the world, that is a fact.