November 19, 2017

Subjective classifications in science

Appendix 11 of The Stable Society: its structure and control: Towards a Social Cybernetics, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1978.

Originally published as “Subjective classifications and their definition” in The Ecologist Vol. 3 No. 1, as part of the Towards a Unified Science series.

Processes occurring at a relatively low level of complexity, i.e. at the atomic, molecular, or cellular stage, lie to a large extent outside our immediate experience, and are therefore less subject to subjective thinking. However, as soon as we leave this level, and especially when we attain that of the human being, and the societies into which he is organized, we gradually find ourselves heir to a plethora of subjective concepts, in terms of which we have been taught to think since childhood. Examples are mind, consciousness, memory, religion, democracy, etc. Even when we admit the desirability, for scientific purposes, of adopting objective classifications, we are loath to abandon such subjective terms, which are so well established in the society we live in and so firmly ingrained in our minds that we tend to regard them, unconsciously at least, as real constituents of the environment. Rather than be forced to admit that we are guilty of subjectivity and nominal realism, there is a tendency to avoid defining such terms altogether. In some cases, we even persuade ourselves that a definition is not required. Such terms as ‘life’, and ‘culture’, for instance, have never, to my knowledge, been adequately defined. This, however, has not prevented innumerable academics from devoting their lives to the study of these subjects, and accumulating vast amounts of ‘empirical data’ that appear to be relevant. As Woodger writes:

“Nothing is more striking in this science than the contrast between the brilliant skill, ingenuity and care bestowed upon observation and experiment, and the almost complete neglect of caution in regard to the definition and use of the concepts in terms of which its results are expressed.”165

Let us take the term ‘life.’ George Wald, a Nobel prizewinning biologist, observes the fact that no one has in fact defined it. Thus I quote:

“A curious thing about biology is that it flourishes as a science of life without attempting to define life. We are often told that the beginning step in any science is to define its terms, indeed, to give them operational definitions, by which one usually means to describe the operations by which they can be measured.

“Biologists long ago became convinced that it is not useful to define life. The trouble with any such definition is that one can always construct a model that satisfies the definition, yet clearly it is not alive . . . And, of course, we do not measure life. We can measure many of its manifestations accurately; and we combine those with others that we observe, but perhaps cannot measure, to make up our concept of what it means to be alive. The life itself is neither observed nor measured. It is a summary of and judgement upon our measurements and observations. What biologists do about life is to recognize it . . .”166

Contrary to Wald, I maintain that all precise terms must be definable if they are to be used for the purposes of building an effective model.

When I say ‘definable’, I am referring to an objective definition, or the role that a variable plays in a given model.

The term ‘life’ is applicable to systems at a particular level of complexity, usually associated with the development of a cell, though this is by no means a clear delimitation, since pre-cellular systems such as bacteria are considered to fall within the field of biology.

The discovery of the virus caused a shift in the exact field of biology, since these ‘independent genes’, having a still simpler organisation than the bacteria, manifest certain characteristics of living things when in a vegetative stage, though when deprived of a source of protein they will revert to a crystalline stage, at which point they appear to be little more than crystallised nucleic acids.

Naturally, it has not yet been decided whether viruses fall within the field of biology or not, as no One can decide to what extent they are in fact alive.

My contention is that such systems cannot be classified as living or nonliving things because ‘life’ has not been defined, and no satisfactory definition of ‘life’ is available because it does not constitute a scientific classification.

Rather than refer to the role played by a particular process in a larger one, or a particular situation in a larger one, as is the case with the classification ‘level of complexity’, for instance, the classification ‘life’ corresponds rather to the way things appear to us. It is a subjective classification rather than an objective one.

George Wald’s article provides us with another example of the same principle. I quote:

“Once, years ago, I was asked to attend a conference entitled ‘Fatigue in the reading of microfilm.’ For the first two days, we all gave papers; they were about everything to do with vision except fatigue. A round-table conference on the third day was opened with a paper on fatigue. He began by defining fatigue as a deterioration in performance. He then described giving experimental subjects a battery of about a dozen different tests of performance, then keeping them awake for two or three days and re-testing them. None showed any demonstrable deterioration in performance. The psychologists kept assuring us that nevertheless he was certain that these persons were fatigued.

“I learned then that this familiar concept, fatigue, cannot be adequately defined. The most rigorous operation for determining fatigue seems to be to ask a person whether he feels tired. For a long period there was a Fatigue Laboratory in operation at Harvard University. At one time its Director, reviewing the subject of industrial fatigue, concluded that it is largely boredom. And how does one define boredom?”166

The trouble with this treatment of the term ‘fatigue’ is that it is being used in two different senses. To define fatigue as ‘diminished ability’ appears to be a legitimate scientific definition that can be measured. Personally, I should prefer a slightly narrower definition in terms of diminishing ability, due to over-use of a particular faculty. Thus a curve could be drawn for most of our behavioural mechanisms, showing that up to a certain point the more they are made use of the more highly they will develop. A point, however, will be reached when ‘fatigue sets in’. At this point, the mechanism is being used beyond its normal possibilities, and performance, which until now has slowly increased with use, will begin to deteriorate. The only argument that Wald could furnish against the use of such a term as ‘fatigue’ was that people showing such diminished ability did not actually ‘feel fatigued’, i.e. the objective use of the term did not correspond to its subjective use.

It must be clear that two different concepts are involved. The first is of definite scientific value; the second, the subjective one, is not. What a man says he feels, any psychologist will tell us, is not a reliable guide to his physical state. The man could have been subjected to various forms of suggestion, or out of sheer vanity he may not wish to admit that he was not in the pink of health. Fatigue used in this subjective sense can conceivably have a place in a psychological model in which people’s sensations, or more precisely, people’s statements about their sensations, are taken as a guide to their physical condition; but not in an objective model, in which ‘diminished ability’ will be translatable in terms of lower efficiency. Indeed, whenever a currently-used term appears difficult to define, it is well worth considering the possibility that it does not constitute an objective classification, but merely a subjective one.


165. J.H. Woodger, Biological Principles Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1948.

166. G. Wald, ‘Innovation in Biology’ Scientific American September, 1958.

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