Can we trust our experience?
Considering subjective realism.
In Re-Assembling Reality #17a, #17b and #17c, we have discussed three kinds of realism that always come into play in the work of both science and religion: ontological, epistemic and semantic realism. In different scientific disciplines and in different religious traditions, we can find different combinations of realism and anti-realism at the ontological, epistemological and semantic levels.
In this essay and the next one, we will examine two other forms of realism: subjective and symbolic. It will come as no surprise that these two forms of realism are common in religion. But we also find them in science, even though our scientific training obscures this fact. And while we might not be surprised to find subjective and symbolic anti-realism in science, these positions are also common in religion.
In this essay, we specifically consider subjective realism.
Subjective realism considers that our subjective experience is ontologically or intrinsically real, and that it can produce direct knowledge of ontological reality: it can produce direct access to noumena.
Subjective anti-realism considers that there is nothing real about subjective experience: subjective experience is merely a phenomenon of something else, such as neurochemical changes in your brain. And it cannot tell us anything about ontological reality.
Subjective realism is very important in many religious traditions. Although it has not been named as “subjective realism”, it also has a long history in Western philosophy.
Descartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” Out of this statement, he developed deductive rational philosophy.
What Descartes is describing when he says “I think, therefore, I am” is a subjective experience. Descartes decided to doubt everything he knew or believed about the world, and came to the conclusion that there was one thing that he couldn’t doubt: his experience of thinking. For Descartes, the subjective experience of thinking is the confirmation that there is a reality, and it is the foundation of our knowledge of reality. This is an example of subjective realism: building a philosophy based on the belief that subjective experience gives direct access to some aspect of reality in itself.
More recently, in 1974 the philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote a paper entitled “What is it like to be a bat?” in which he argued that subjective experience is an intrinsic dimension of reality .
It’s possible to observe bats. In the book 50 Years of Bat Research: Foundations and New Frontiers, several subdiciplines of bat research are discussed, including echolocation, ecology, feeding, flight, heterothermy, molecular systematics and parasitology. The North American Society for Bat Research was established after a group of bat biologists, having a cocktail at the 1970 annual meeting of the American Society of Mammatologists, complained that “it was too bad we had to sit through all those mouse and rat papers just to hear one paper on bats”. The field has several journals, including Acta Chiropterologica: the International Journal of Bat Biology. As of 11 October 2021, there were over 80,000 academic articles on bats referenced in Google Scholar.
But Nagel asked, can we know what it’s like to be a bat? In other words, can we know what it is like to experience the world as a bat?
No matter how much biological, chemical, physical, ecological or virological knowledge we have about bats, none of this knowledge can ever tell us anything about what it feels like to be a bat. In other words, there is an irreducible reality to the subjective experience of a bat, which can never be accessed through any kind of external observation.
Therefore, to Nagel, objective truth is not the complete truth. Knowledge of a being from the outside — looking at it ‘objectively’ — is doomed to always miss a fundamental aspect of reality. Nagel suggested that bats undoubtedly have subjective experiences we can never know. He stated that:
“Every subjective phenomemon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view.” 
Subjective realism has a few important implications.
The first implication concerns perspective. One person’s (or a bat’s) subjective experience represents the reality of the universe as seen from the standpoint of a unique set of coordinates in the universe: from a specific point and orientation in space and time, through a specific bodily form, through a specific set of accumulated memories and from a specific emotional configuration. All of these unique factors shape our subjective experience, which gives us a unique perspective on the universe.
As humans, we experience the world through the way that our body is shaped — we have two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth, the surface of our skins, and their relative positions on the overall form of our body — all of which shape our subjective experience of the world. Bats with their radar sensors, flies with a thousand eyes, or octopuses with chemotactile receptors on their suction cups — presumably experience the world differently because of the different designs of their bodies. Our different bodies give us different perspectives on the world.
We also experience the world differently depending on our accumulated memories, which shape the ways in which our perceptions and experiences become meaningful. Your experience of tasting a dung beetle will differ based on whether grew up enjoying dung beetles as crunchy snacks (a protein-rich edible recommended by the UN) or developed the habit of shrieking in fear at the sight of any creepy crawly critters, especially those that live in dung.
Every single being that is capable of experiencing the world has an absolutely unique perspective coming from its embodied location in the universe.
The ideal of objective knowledge is knowledge without perspective. In an ideal world where absolutely objective knowledge were possible, this would be a knowledge that had lost all perspective. Nagel, in another of his books, defined objective knowledge as the capacity to attain “the view from nowhere”.  Such a view, however, is impossible for a human; it would theoretically be possible only for an absolutely transcendental God.
Humans in an epistemic community can strive for objectivity only to the extent that they can transcend their subjectivity and take a common transcendental point as the common perspective from which they attempt to construct knowledge. Abstract theoretical models, often expressed mathematically, are among these attempts to establish a common perspective that transcends individual subjectivities. But no intellectual model created by humans will ever provide a common transcendental point from which to understand all of reality. Our own subjective realities as observers, and the subjective realities of other beings, such as bats, dung beetles and octopuses, will always remain as the shadows that prevent a total objectivity.
A perspectivist approach, however, does not see this as a limitation. On the contrary, knowledge that eliminates all perspectives would be an impoverished knowledge indeed. Rather, the integration of multiple perspectives can lead to a more complete knowledge of reality. As we argued in Re-Assembling Reality #11, the more different perspectives we take into account, the more objective our knowledge will be. Theoretically, perfectly objective knowledge would be knowledge that incorporates every possible perspective in the universe. This would theoretically be possible only for an omniscient God, but impossible for humans. And yet, tending to that theoretical ideal, we can seek to enhance objectivity by increasing the number of perspectives that come into the construction of knowledge. Subjective knowledge is thus an intrinsic part of the construction of objective knowledge.
2. Common subjective reality
Subjective experience is absolutely unique, and nobody can fully perceive or understand the subjective experience of another person. This is generally taken to be the weakness of subjective knowledge when it comes to constructing common knowledge that we can be certain about.
That said, while subjective experience is never fully transparent and knowable to another person, humans are capable of living together because they are sufficiently capable of sharing and understanding each others’ subjective knowledge. What is often called “emotional intelligence” or “social intelligence” is the capacity to understand and respond appropriately to other peoples’ subjective states.
To the extent that people are able to perceive, understand and respond to each others’ subjective states, their social interactions will be more smooth, harmonious and fruitful. On the other hand, imagine a social situation in which nobody pays any attention to anybody else’s subjective states, and deliberately avoids responding to the subjective states of other persons. This would be a fitting description of the relationships between different computers sending commands to each other.
Society is an inter-subjective reality, in which members of society are constantly communicating and sharing subjective experience with each other. Just as different peoples’ subjective reality varies in quality — some people have empty, bleak, tormented or painful subjective worlds while others live joyful, varied, serene or rich subjective lives — social groups and societies also vary in the quality of their collective subjective life. For some groups this shared collective experience is one of unity, joy, companionship and inspiration, while other groups might have share experiences of alienation, anger, hatred and collective despair. And for both individuals and social groups, the subjective reality changes with time.
How would we describe the quality of a human society in which subjective knowledge was eliminated from relationships? In fact, much of modern society organizes human relationships in such a fashion: bureaucratic procedures, military commands, and financial transactions are some examples. And we might agree that organizing relationships in this manner is beneficial for many reasons such as fairness and efficiency.
But raising the question of subjective realism allows us to consider the implications of objectifying relationships in such manner. If we are committed to building a world on realistic foundations, and we deny any intrinsic reality to subjective experience, then the only relationships that matter are those, such as bureaucratic procedures, military commands, and financial transactions, that are optimised for the elimination of subjective factors. Similarly, the only legitimate scientific knowledge would be knowledge that strives to eliminate subjective factors. In such a society, it would not matter if inter-subjective human relationships and understanding were to wither away and disappear. Joy, love, friendship, caring, imagination, dreams, and the relationships and knowledge that sustain such experiences, would be nice things to feel — but since they are not real, it would be fine to do without them.
On the other hand, if we take a subjective realist position, the society we build and the knowledge we construct must necessarily strive to take into account its subjective reality. To the extent that we consider objectified social relations (such as bureaucratic, military, or financial relations) to be important, we would ask if they help or hinder the quality of our common subjective reality. Do they help us build a society in which we have rich inner lives, woven together with care and love?
3. Training subjectivity
It is possible for people’s subjective experience to be similar enough that people can communicate and understand each other about it, even if never completely. There is always something irreducibly unique about every person’s subjective experience, and yet, to the extent that we are all humans, we can communicate about our subjective experience and know what we are talking about.
Consider this chocolate brownie. I moan — mmmm! — when I take a bite of it and let its rich flavour linger on my taste buds.
This is a subjective experience, that you will never have: you will never experience what I am feeling when I enjoy that moist bite of chocolate brownie. Perhaps this experience is not real?
And yet, assuming that you have also previously experienced the pleasure of eating a delicious piece of chocolate cake, you probably can relate to my moaning. You may not know what I experience when I eat chocolate cake, but you know what you experience when you eat chocolate cake. You know what chocolate tastes like, and you have tasted different chocolate cakes and snacks. Even though you didn’t try that particular piece of cake, and you have no direct access to what I feel when eating it, we can reasonably assume that our subjective realities sufficiently overlap that we can come to some common understanding of the heavenly experience of eating chocolate cake.
But this is not a universal experience. A person who has never eaten chocolate cake can’t have the slightest inkling of my experience. Seeing me moaning when biting a dark brown spongy substance, this person might reasonably conclude that my experience is purely imaginary. And some people who have eaten chocolate cake don’t like chocolate cake, or are allergic to it — so that some aspects of my subjective experience — the pleasure that finds expression in my moaning — may seem foreign to them.
Subjective experiences are important in many religious or quasi-religious activities. Prayer, ritual, and meditation, for example, can generate strong subjective experiences among participants.
I have done a lot of research among people who work with Qi.  Most people have no idea what these people are talking about when they speak of Qi; thus, like the alien who has never eaten chocolate cake, they consider that these practitioners “believe” in an “imaginary” Qi. For the practitioners, however, it’s not a mere belief — they experience it; they practice various physical and mental exercises to generate different experiences of it, and do different things with it; and when they talk to each other about it, they know what they are talking about.
When someone says “as I rotated my palms around my navel, it filled with Qi, which gradually expanded, filling my abdominal region and giving me a feeling of fullness, drawing me into a state of relaxation, with my breath slowing and a blissful energy rising into my mind”, a seasoned practitioner will understand what is being said, because she has done the same thing and had more or less the same experience. Practitioners — like chocolate-cake eaters — have a common subjective reality, which they can communicate about. On the other hand, those who have never “tried” Qi, just like those who have never tried chocolate cake, will be utterly unable to fathom what the “crazy” practitioners are talking about.
Can we conclude, then, that subjective knowledge, while it can be understood by those who share similar experiences, is faulty because it is always unevenly distributed? There will always be some people who know the taste of chocolate and others who don’t; some who know the feeling of Qi and others who don’t — should we not, then, seek knowledge of things that are universally shared by all people?
Might we, for example, take blood pressure as a universal knowledge? We can take a blood pressure monitor, strap it onto the arm of any person, and no matter what they feel, the correct number will appear on the indicator. But when the doctor took my blood pressure a few months ago, I felt absolutely nothing when I saw the number 143, but he looked a little worried. The doctor has been trained such that an inner alarm bell will go “ping” in his mind whenever the number exceeds 140. After he explained the “normal” range for blood pressure, I started to experience worry and stress, and asked about what could be done to reduce my blood pressure. When I told my wife, who already knew the “normal” range, she also experienced worry, and we discussed how I could lower my blood pressure through changing my diet and doing more exercise.
What made us take steps to change my behaviour was not the blood pressure itself, nor the number 143, but our subjective experience of worry that arose in response to the number. But we would not have had this subjective response if the doctor and we had not been trained — first, trained to use a monitor; second, trained to interpret the number that appears on the monitor. The subjective response to blood pressure readings is not universal.
Similarly, children in modern society are “trained” to enjoy chocolate cake, while, in most Western societies nowadays, they are not trained to enjoy dung beetle crisps. A report of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, however, recommends that insects are a rich source of protein whose production is environmentally sustainable; and that we should train future generations to enjoy the taste of dung beetles, stinkworms and other insects, as do children from countries as varied as Laos, Congo, Uganda, Mexico and Brazil.
Subjective experience doesn’t merely “happen” to some people and not to others. It can be trained, to high levels of sophistication. It is possible to intentionally induce the production of subjective experiences, or qualia — to become more sensitive to certain qualia, to focus one’s attention on them, to enhance our awareness of them, to increase their influence on us, and to have some degree of control over them.
Take wine tasting as an example. People who get trained in wine tasting have words to describe myriads of different kinds of tastes. Maybe it’s a dry white wine with a “melony”, “floral”, “buttery” taste. Or it’s an aromatic white wine with a “gold”, heady”, “lanolin” taste. I don’t drink wine now; but even when I did, I had never reached such a level of appreciation that I could describe the flavours of different wines with these words. These words, though evocative, are absolutely meaningless to convey the meaning of wine to me. I have no idea what “botrytis”, “floral”, “gold” and “barley sugar” mean when describing wines. And yet, professional wine tasters and amateur connoisseurs can understand each other when they describe wines in such fashion — these descriptions, for them, are not idiosyncratic poems. It is possible to be trained as a sommelier, to gain a deeply textured subjective knowledge of the nuances of taste of hundreds of different wines. These nuances can be described with these words, which are meaningful words, pointing to rich and differentiated flavours. Through developing their subjectivity through training, the sommeliers can access a deeper knowledge of the reality of wine.
For a subjective anti-realist, sommeliers are merely creating their own imaginary world, since their words can never be verified by someone who doesn’t share their subjective experience. And anybody’s subjective experience of wine is equivalent: since subjective experience is not real, all experiences of wine are equivalent insofar as they are all unreal. Why, then, should I bother training my palate? Your experience of “floral”, “gold” and “lanolin” wine, and my inability to make such distinctions, are equivalent because none of them is really true. If none of them is true, why bother training to achieve different experiences?
For a subjective realist, not all subjective experiences are equivalent. If subjectivity can potentially open access to reality, it needs to be trained. It needs to be reflected upon, disciplined, and deepened in order to come to a fuller access to reality.
4. Subjective realism in religion
Subjective realism is widespread, to varying degrees, in different religious traditions. Some interpretations of Buddhism provide a paradigmatic example: the ultimate goal is to reach nirvana. Nirvana is a state that can only be experienced subjectively; it is also the ultimate reality. Reaching this state requires disciplined training of your subjectivity. You need to become aware of your subjectivity and to transform it. This training makes you become aware of the subjective states that are associated with desires and emotional attachments, until you reach a state of complete self-awareness. Knowledge of the impermanence of these states allows you to become detached from them, until you reach the unconditioned state of nirvana. Meditation techniques aim to train the mind to become more conscious of subjective realities.
We also find subjective realism in different forms of prayer that are practiced in religion. When people pray, they may experience what they call answers, insights, intuitions, inspirations, confirmations, epiphanies, or blessings. Within a subjective realist framework, those insights, inspirations and answers are real. They are subjective, since nobody else can observe the experience. But they are considered to come to subjective experience from a deeper spiritual reality.
Subjective realism is widespread in religion, but not all religious traditions subscribe to it to equal degrees. There is a range of different positions. At one extreme, some traditions are anti-realist with respect to subjectivity: the only thing that matters is following proper doctrine, scripture, or ritual. Your subjective experience is irrelevant, and is certainly not a pathway to the truth. What matters is how to live a good life and be a good person, and not mystical experiences. What matters is to pray in the correct manner, and not what you feel when you pray, if anything. What matters is giving offerings to ancestors on grave sweeping day, and not what it feels when you do it. If you don’t feel anything, it doesn’t matter. If you dream of your deceased grandmother, it doesn’t have any particular significance.
At the other extreme, in some spiritual traditions, anything you experience may be the truth. If you saw your grandmother in a dream, there is no doubt that she wants to tell you something, and you should see a shaman who will travel to the spirit-world to speak with her and find out what she wants from you. If the shaman says she heard your grandmother say that you neglected her grave and need to rebuild it, it’s true and you need to do as she says.
The more decentralized the community, the more extreme the forms of subjective realism. On the other hand, the more centralized and highly institutionalized a religious organization is, the more likely it is to uphold subjective anti-realism. This is because it becomes difficult to build common knowledge if every individual considers that their own subjective experience is the ultimate truth. But if the religion is too dismissive of subjective experience, people may find it to be too dogmatic, ritualistic or impersonal. Large-scale religious institutions face the challenge of integrating subjective realism into the need for consistency in religious teachings and knowledge.
Most major religious traditions can be situated somewhere between these two poles. They consider that you can access some aspects of reality through subjective experience, but that not all subjective experiences tell us something about reality. This kind of attitude — both acceptance and skepticism with regards to spiritual experiences — could be deemed a “moderate subjective realism”.
Religious epistemic communities, when they discuss and debate the validity of subjective spiritual experiences, often use methods comparable to what social scientists call “triangulation”. This means to verify data from one source, such as interviews, by cross referencing it with data from other sources, such as observation and documentary sources. If the data from the difference sources corroborates and fits together, it will be considered to be reliable. On the other hand, if the different types of data paint contradictory pictures, there must be a problem with at least one of the datasets or with the overall design.
In religious epistemic communities, when someone claims to have a new insight or revelation coming from subjective experience, other members of the community may well remain skeptical or suspend judgement. They may consider a number of criteria to judge whether the claim is true. For example, they are likely to examine to what extent the claimed revelation is in alignment with the religion’s scriptures and established teachings. Is it consistent with the teachings, or does it advocate a course of action in violation of scripture? They will consider the credibility of the person making the claim. Is this a person who is widely respected for their wisdom, virtue and understanding, or it is someone who is well-known for being a little on the crazy side? They may consider the practical consequences of the claim. Will the course of action lead to benefits for the individual or the community, or would it have negative consequences? The more the claim satisfies these different criteria, the more likely it is to be accepted within the community. In the opposite case, members of the epistemic community are likely to reject the claim. But if a minority accept the claim and rally around the author of the claim, schism may occur — leading either to the founding of a new branch of the religion, or to the birth of a new religion — a “paradigm shift” in religion, to use Kuhn’s term.
5. Subjective realism and subjectivism.
We must stress that subjective realism is not equivalent to subjectivism. Subjectivism is a philosophical position that considers that all knowledge is subjective: there is no objective or external truth.
But a subjective realist can also be an objective realist: it is possible to consider that both objective knowledge and subjective knowledge are possible; that different aspects of reality can be known through both objective and subjective means.
From a subjective anti-realist standpoint, subjective experiences are not real and do not give you any access to reality. All subjective experiences are equivalent because none of them are real. This can be compared to subjectivism, which implies that all subjective experiences are equivalent, since they are all real. The subjectivist and the subjective anti-realist agree that subjective experiences are all equivalent; they disagree in that one considers them to be real and the other considers them to be unreal.
Subjective realism, on the other hand, considers that some aspects of reality can only be accessed subjectively. This doesn’t mean that all subjective experience must be uncritically accepted as reality. The generation of subjective knowledge require processes of training and validation by an epistemic community.
 Nagel, Thomas (1986). The View from Nowhere. Oxford University Press.
 David A. Palmer (2007). Qigong Fever: Body, Science and Utopia in China. New York: Columbia University Press.
 David A. Palmer and Elijah Siegler (2017). Dream Trippers: Global Daoism and the Predicament of Modern Spirituality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forumand the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.