Objectivity: Newsletter 42

The well known philosopher, Thomas Nagel, called science the “view from nowhere.” That’s to say, the scientist takes herself out of the world she’s studying so that she’s nowhere in that world. Of course, as a human being she’s somewhere; either in a lab agonizing over the bacterial culture or staring at some equations or fixing bugs in a program, but the scientific “veil of ignorance” prevents her from inserting her actual location in space and time into her scientific investigation. As far as her investigation goes, the bacteria could be in front of her, in the room next door or under the microscope halfway across the world.

The phrase, veil of ignorance, is from the moral philosopher John Rawls. A person wearing the veil of ignorance is incapable of distinguishing between people; she makes her moral judgments without knowing the identity of the person on the other side. It could be her, it could be her sister, it could be the annoying neighbor across the street; the veil of ignorance masks the identity of the person who’s being judged. That way, you make a truly objective judgment. A society governed by the veil of ignorance makes laws that don’t discriminate between the rich and the poor. No tax breaks for corporations in the name of job creation.

Nevertheless, the veil of ignorance has a whiff of theology trailing behind it. It is, after all, a vision of perfection, of a view from nowhere. Another way of putting it: the Gods eye view of the world. God doesn’t discriminate between His creatures. Neither should the state. While the view from nowhere is usually postulated as an ideal, it has clear practical value as well. Unless you want to create a totalitarian monster, the state cannot and should not track every citizen’s actions, passing judgment second by second. The veil of ignorance plays two equally important roles: the laws of the land do not discriminate between you and me, and the state stays out of my life. That’s the subtlety of Rawls’ design, and the subtlety of scientific inquiry as well.

I appreciate good design when I see it, which is why I don’t mind the veil of ignorance. It only becomes a problem when it’s turned into a metaphysical principle, the true and best formulation of a just society or the only route to knowledge. The opposite of the view from nowhere is the view from here. It’s often the better view. Whether it’s the mother cooing to her child or two friends sharing intimate secrets, some of our deepest moments come from embracing the overweening importance of the person in front of you. The view from nowhere says: Be fair. The view from here says: I love you.