Objectivity vs. Subjectivity: An Incongruity That Isn’t Really

Photo by Alex wong on Unsplash

Nearly two years ago I started wearing glasses. At some point since I developed the strong impression that I had forgotten to take my glasses off after going to bed at night or laying down for a nap. They had become a part of me to such an extent that, like a phantom limb, I sensed I was still wearing them even though they weren’t there. I could even perceive the faint outline of their rims through my closed eyelids. If I happen to pull the blanket up over my face so that a fold touches the ridge of my nose just so, I become positively convinced I’m still wearing them and have to run a hand over my face to confirm I’ve taken them off.

I’m sure I am not the only person who regularly has experiences such as this. The feeling that something is still being worn or that something is touching our skin when it objectively isn’t can be mildly disturbing. Unless one is intentionally seeking out experiences that cause mismatches between perception and reality, whether by taking drugs or via other means, even minor experiences like this can trigger some reflection about our actual grasp on reality.

That subjective experiences don’t always accurately describe our environment isn’t exactly news. Indeed, subjectivity’s public stock has been steadily declining for well over a century, while its sibling rival, objectivity, has seen an unprecedented surge in credibility. Our collective lack of faith in subjectivity has grown in spite of the fact that when it comes to our own feelings we continue to inevitability overrate their importance.

Objectivity’s worth has reached almost self-evident proportions in some circles. To be sure, human frailties like confirmation bias and blind spots created by feelings such as love or disgust do in fact make a certain degree of self-awareness critical to any effort to define reality with precision. We don’t want our doctor’s judgment to be too clouded by empathy when she’s making a diagnosis or evaluating our best course of treatment. Nor do we want our judges making rulings from the bench that are heavily colored by personal beliefs or a desire for revenge. But the fact remains, no conscious creature can possibly obtain anything like a truly objective point of view.

Objectivity’s appeal, the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote in his famous essay What Is It Like to Be a Bat?, is that it moves us “toward a more accurate view of the real nature of things. This is accomplished,” Nagel concluded, “by reducing our dependence on individual or species-specific points of view toward the object of investigation. We describe it not in terms of the impressions it makes on our senses, but in terms of its more general effects and of properties detectable by means other than the human senses.”

To put it another way, objectivity isn’t a kind of transcendent view from nowhere. It’s actually a universal view from anywhere. A water molecule will ultimately appear the same from the point of view of either a hypothetical silicon-based life form or an actual carbon-based one. Likewise, it will remain unchanged from the vantage point of a species with one eye, two eyes, a compound eye, or no eyes whatsoever. In every case, it will consist of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom because that’s what a water molecule is. All that matters is that the species analyzing it has developed the capacity to detect it.

But the purpose of Nagel’s essay was neither to praise nor bury objectivity. His point was that the one thing we can never be truly objective about is our own experience. Beyond a certain level of complexity, it’s like something to be whoever we are. Consciousness means that even if who we happen to be is Spock or Data, our self-assessments will still have the quality of being subjective. There is no point of view from which our own experience can be truly understood for what it is. Nagel wrote:

It is difficult to understand what could be meant by the objective character of an experience, apart from the particular point of view from which its subject apprehends it. After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?

Fortunately, the “problem” consciousness poses for objectivity is only really a problem if you’re wedded to the idea that individual consciousness can be reduced to an objective essence (self or soul) in the first place. That we actually have such an essence is far from certain. In fact, there have been people making very good arguments that we probably don’t for over two millennia now.

In his excellent book, Why Buddhism is True, Robert Wright describes in some detail the many things modern science, particularly psychology, has confirmed the Buddha got right, or at least probably did. Wright spends some time on what he describes as the Buddha’s “Seminal Not-Self Sermon,” commonly translated as Discourses on the Not-Self. In this sermon the Buddha, according to Wright’s overview, asks his disciples which of what Buddhists refer to as the five aggregates “qualify as self”: form (or the physical body); sensation (feelings); perception; mental formation; or consciousness. He asked ‘is it just the physical body (form)?’ ‘Is it just our feelings?’ And so on.

“If form were self,” the Buddha says, “then form would not lead to affliction, and it should obtain regarding form: ‘May my form be thus, may my form not be thus.” In other words, because our body does cause us suffering, it is clearly not under our control. Therefore, the body can’t be self. The Buddha then applies this same test of control to the remaining four aggregates to show they too could not possibly be self. It turns out that none of these, including consciousness, can truly be described as a self because all of them are beyond our control.

Though the Buddha never explicitly ruled out the possibility of a self, and recognized the practical role self-identity plays for individuals in other suttas, so far as I’m aware no one over the past twenty five or so centuries since his sermon has been able to offer a response to his queries regarding where exactly something like a self or essence can be found. It appears there is no one at the helm steering our individual ships through life’s rough waters. This doesn’t mean we are completely rudderless, but the idea that there is a central self running the whole show is so far completely unsupportable.

The American psychologist William James didn’t stop with the five aggregates. He turned outward in his challenge to the concept of self, asking us to clearly define where the boundary between the individual and the family lies. If that line exists at all, it is extremely fuzzy. Wright quotes James to lend a little extra contemporary support to the Buddha’s 2500-year-old point.

‘Between what a man calls me and what he simply calls mine the line is difficult to draw.’ In that sense, he [James] observed, ‘our immediate family is a part of ourselves. Our father and mother, our wife and babes, are bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. When they die, a part of our very selves is gone.’

I would go even further than James. Consider the role friends and other contacts we make over the course of our lifetimes play in making us who we are today. Many of these contributions to our identity we aren’t even conscious of. Yet at the same time the number of people we honestly couldn’t imagine being the same without certainly extends well beyond our immediate family.

Wright sums the situation up as follows when describing the related Buddhist concept of emptiness:

In other words: nothing possesses inherent existence; nothing contains all the ingredients of ongoing existence within itself; nothing is self-sufficient. Hence the idea of emptiness: all things are empty of inherent, independent existence.

With the self no longer in the picture, there is no subject for us to contend with. The perceiver becomes a collection of characteristics molded by a combination of biology, personal experience and culture, none of which alone qualifies as the individual subjective viewer. What is it that is being influenced by all these feelings? By adopting a supposedly objective point of view in order to eliminate all the feelings that cloud our judgment, who is the subject we are discarding in order to obtain this more accurate view of the world? In recognizing there is no self, the objective/subjective dichotomy suddenly becomes not so much two sides of the same coin as a false choice created by a faulty dualistic premise.

One of the ten images developed by the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach to help doctors effectively evaluate how their patients visually experience the world.

Perhaps the best demonstration of the fluidity of the boundary between subjects and objects is the famous, if widely misunderstood, Rorschach Test. The ten inkblots used in the test are not random smears of ink like many people think, but carefully crafted images created by the psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach.

Rorschach had been fascinated his entire life with how people see the world. In addition to his psychiatric training, he was the son of an artist with a considerable artistic talent of his own. This made him well suited for research into human perception; an area that had been largely overlooked by his more famous contemporaries, Freud and Jung.

Rorschach’s inkblots are not the visual equivalent of free association. As Damion Searls puts it in his book, The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic test, And The Power of Seeing, “The image itself constrains how you see it — as on rails — but without taking away all your freedom: different people see differently, and the differences are revealing.”

Put another way, a Rorschach inkblot rests on the boundary between something that’s really there and multiple, if constrained, ways of viewing it. It’s hardly as fixed as a water molecule or the law of gravity, but it’s far from an entirely relativistic image either. In this regard, it’s an excellent metaphor for the complex patterns of relationships that make up both societies and ecosystems. According to Searls, Rorsach’s insight was that “perception included much more [than the physical mechanics of seeing or other sensations], all the way to interpreting what was perceived.”

In his recent book on Buddhism, Robert Wright also draws attention to the fact that perception and interpretation cannot be treated as separate actions. To make this case he quotes the psychologist Robert Zajonc:

There are probably very few perceptions and cognitions in everyday life that do not have a significant affective component, that aren’t hot, or in the very least tepid. And perhaps all perceptions contain some affect. We do not just see ‘a house’: we see ‘a handsome house,’ ‘an ugly house,’ or ‘a pretentious house.’ We do not just read an article on attitude change, on cognitive dissonance, or on herbicides. We read an ‘exciting’ article on attitude change, an ‘important’ article on cognitive dissonance, or a ‘trivial’ article on herbicides.

The point here isn’t that what we call objective reality doesn’t exist. Rather it’s that any species with the capacity to unveil truth can’t possibly be objective about their own experiences. There are no objective scientists or philosophers out there. There is no objective people out there period. We all have feelings about our existence that color every decision we make, no matter how rational we think we’re being. Furthermore, we all have the impression there’s an inner objective self or essence guiding the whole show, but there isn’t.

As was stated earlier, what makes something objectively true isn’t that it has been dispassionately observed, but that every single possible subjective observer can’t help but ultimately reach the same conclusion about its nature given the proper intellectual and technological tools to make the necessary examination. No matter how anyone feels about a water molecule, or through what physiological lens or mechanical device it is viewed, it will still be two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen. The same can’t be said about the relationships we form with each other or with our environment. It’s only by realizing we are enmeshed in the world rather than separate “objective” outside observers that we can truly hope to make any real progress in our understanding.