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30. What’s wrong with ‘subjective’?

(A full list of the contents of this blog series is available here.)

For decades — centuries in fact — science got people wrong. Blame Galileo if you like. For the purposes of his work, Galileo carefully divided the world into two:

  • ‘primary qualities — shape and size, number, position and motion’. These qualities were objective. They were properties of the thing itself and could be measured.
  • ‘secondary’ qualities such as taste, smell, colour and sound. These were not measurable and they did not belong to the bodies themselves. They were subjective, existing only in the mind of the person observing the thing.

Galileo argued that for the purposes of scientific research you cannot rely on the ‘secondary’ qualities delivered by our senses, because they will almost inevitably lead you astray. To get to the objective truth of the primary qualities, you need to set the secondary, sensory qualities aside and focus on the primary attributes that you can measure.

This distinction between ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’ eventually become a litmus test for what it is to be ‘scientific’. Scientists looked for research methodologies that eliminated ‘merely subjective’, ‘personal’ assessments (after all, our senses tell us the world is flat, while science tells us it is round), and this resolute focus on ‘objective’ facts delivered stunning results.

Yet ultimately it became unscientific because it couldn’t explain what makes people tick, including why we have ‘merely subjective’ senses in the first place.

A simple but compelling answer

Evolutionary theory provides a simple but compelling answer to this question. Organisms evolved the senses they need to survive in the environments in which they have to operate. These senses aren’t meant to act as pure, ‘objective’ measures of things. They are designed to help us to act appropriately within our environments, and to do this they combine affect with perception. Through them we either feel ‘better’ or ‘worse’ and (generally speaking) we do things that we believe will help us feel better.

Early behaviourist psychologists like John Watson and B F Skinner, who claimed that there was a one way line of cause and effect from the external environment (‘stimuli’) to an organisms’ behaviour (‘responses’), got it exactly the wrong way round. Our perceptions don’t control our behaviours via some sort of hidden black box. We use our behaviours to control our perceptions — perceptions provided by our senses to tell us how well we are doing in the quest for survival. So, if we feel hungry, we seek food and feel satiated. If we feel thirsty, we seek fluids. If we feel tired, we seek rest. If we feel lonely, we seek company. And so on.


The implications of this simple insight are far-reaching and profound. They mean we can never — repeat, never — develop a purely ‘objective’ measure of wealth creation such as ‘amount of money made’ or ‘GDP’. The real test of success can only be, and will always be, what people feel about their lives: our perceptions giving us a constant commentary on how well we are doing in that quest for survival and flourishing.

In other words, it makes human beings the measuring device of real wealth creation, and for this measuring device to work properly it needs voice. People need to be able to say how they feel, and to be listened to.

It also transforms our understanding of people’s motivations and behaviours. For example, we are not all driven to maximise our profits, as the economists would claim. But we all want to feel better in our lives: our real ‘profits’ (if we can call them that) are emotional, not financial. And it makes us active agents in the world, with purposes, intentions and motivations, not just automatons to be manipulated by the right external stimuli.

And it changes that the purposes to which we put our productive activities. These purposes cannot credibly or sustainably by the maximisation of this or that external ‘objective’ measure. They have to be about how best to help people feel better in their lives: their wellbeing.

What I’m not saying

Now, there are many things I am not saying here. I’m not saying that our perceptions are always right. (Galileo had a point). I’m not saying that the actions we take to feel better or improve our chances of survival are always right. (In fact, they are often wrong.) I’m not saying that ‘feeling better’ boils down to pure hedonism: eating too much, drinking too much, having lots of sex and so on. Feeling better in our lives is a lot more complex than that.

I’m not saying we all feel the same about everything. And I’m not saying that all human behaviour everywhere is always about immediate feelings. Often we do things that make us feel worse (or even die) a) because we are mistaken or b) believe we have good reasons to do so and have another goal in mind.

It’s in all these ifs and buts where the complexities lie and where the challenges of effective human action lie. But the fundamental point remains. Like all other organisms, we humans do things in order to control our perceptions — to feel better in our lives. And the measure of success — of our social, economic and political systems — is how good we are at doing this.

As Antonio Damasio wrote in this book Looking for Spinoza nearly 20 years ago:

If feelings index the state of life within each living human organism, they also index the state of life in any human group. Intelligent reflection on the relation between social phenomena and the experience of feelings of joy and sorrow seems indispensable for the perennial human activity of devising systems of justice and political organisation

This, I believe, is a revolutionary line of enquiry.

Next in this series: 31. ‘Feelings’: the Litmus Test of System Health

Previous: 29. What makes humans tick?


Books and articles I found particularly useful researching this blog include:

  • Gary Cziko, The Things We Do: Using the lessons of Bernard and Darwin to understand the what, how and why of our behaviour, MIT Press, 2000
  • Antonio Damasio, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling and the Making of Culture, Random House, 2019
  • Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow and the Feeling Brain, William Heinemann, 2003
  • Murray Shannon, Embodiment and the inner life: Cognition and Consciousness in the space of possible minds, Oxford Scholarship Online March 2012. I particularly liked this quote:

Cognition has arisen because it beneficially modulates a creature’s behaviour. That is to say, it helps the creature to survive, to thrive, and to procreate, and to do this it intervenes in the sensorimotor loop by means of which the creature interacts with its physical and social environments

  • Mark Solms, The Hidden Spring: A Journey to the Source of Consciousness, Profile Books, 2021

The full contents of this blog series can be found here.



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