Is it Real or just in my Head?Stephen Farah
The Objective vs. Subjective ParadoxWe are looking specifically at the Objective vs. Subjective paradox with respect to discovering the meaning of our lives. Let’s start off by clearly defining the question:
The philosophical debate
Objective- independently verifiable, reproducible, collectively true
Subjective-concerned with me only, as seen through my unique filters
1. Is there such a thing as objective reality? Meaning, does a reality exist independently of our perception of it? In philosophy this kind of objectivity is referred to as Objective Realism or Mind Independent Reality.
2. Alternatively to point 1, Objective Realism, is it possible that there is no objectivity at all and that we are constrained in a completely subjective reality, with the objective either not existing at all or, if it does exist, us having no access to it?
3. Is the answer somewhere in-between these two polar opposites?
First my assumption:
I accept from the get go that our perceived reality has an element of subjectivity. Whilst this may seem obvious to most people, I mention it because I am aware of a percentage of the population who subscribe to the belief that we have direct and ubiquitous access to objective reality.
Then with the above assumption in mind let’s pose the questions I am considering in this post:
4. From a practical, and less philosophical, point of view is our reality, meaning the experience of our reality, principally objective or subjective?
5. What does this question mean for us? What are its implications for you and me as we go about our daily lives?
The Objective Perspective
The case for the objective point of view is very convincing. We live in the age of reason, an age where science and the scientific method has eclipsed traditional theology to become the real global religion. This is not to dismiss the threat to the enlightenment paradigm by religious fundamentalism which as recent world history has shown is very real. Nevertheless for the thinking man or the New Renaissance Man, as I like to call him, it is science which is currently the most charismatic standard bearer of human redemption. Reason, materialism, science, utilitarianism, capitalism and objectivity are amongst the supreme ideological aspirations of the post modern age.
And the degree to which we lie prostate before the modern god of reason and objective truth is ubiquitously evident. For many years I was amazed at friends of mine, devout Catholics, propping up Catholic dogma with arguments based on reason. It was only very recently that I came to understand how closely modern science and Christianity are linked. That faith, supported by reason, is in fact the defacto position of the Hoy See. And the tremendous debt owed by science to the God of Abraham and His three religious traditions Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
How people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and their ilk are in some weird kind of way making the case for a transcendental being, which the church calls God and they call Objective Truth or sometimes the UTE (unified theory of everything). For all that they disagree on; both are unanimous in their belief in a supreme, rational, objective and transcendent truth.
The New Age movement is another case in point. The moment there is a suggestion that a truth, long speculated on, is scientifically verifiable, the new-agers will give any rationalists a run for their money in their rush to use this as the ultimate proof of their previously mystical supposition. A good example of this is the appropriation, or miss-appropriation according to the physicists, by the new age movement of Quantum Theory.
Generally speaking then the case for the objective truth is overwhelming and we need little argument, in the current zeitgeist, to convince us of its pre-eminent position in our set of values.
The Subjective Perspective
One cannot say the same for subjectivity though, which needs much argument to convince us of its value and validity. What can we say in defence of the case for the subjective perspective?
Well for one whatever boasts we, meaning humanity as a collective entity, can make about having an objective perspective, we can only say the inverse about ourselves as individuals. Meaning simply, that our personal perspectives, naturally, are personal and as such subjective. And we (as individuals at least) have no direct (untrammelled) access to the objective. (That is to say if we mean by objective a truth untainted by subjectivity.) But rather that our path to the objective truth has always, of necessity, to travel through and be interpreted by our innate subjective context.
Is any stone (any particular) actually average?
So who then actually has this objective perspective? I am reminded of an analogy from Jung used to describe the value of the individual as opposed to the collective. Jung makes the point that in a pile of stones we can determine a statistical mean (weight, size etc.) for the ‘average’ stone. But search as we might we can be sure of not finding a single stone, in the pile, that conforms exactly to the statistical average. Each stone, naturally, is somewhat different from the perfect average.
And so it is with our subjective perspectives of objective reality. Allowing for the sake of argument that there is a mind-independent-reality, or if not that the shared subjectivity of humanity as a whole converges on a mean average perspective, which we can call objective. We still have to accept that as individuals our personal perspective differs to a greater or lesser extent form the perfectly objective.
Nevertheless possibly this degree of personal colouring in our views of the objective is not so significant. Or possibly we may argue for the existence of certain truly objective forms on which we can agree universally and which are untainted by subjectivity. The most obvious example that comes to mind is mathematics.
Do we find Real Objectivity in Mathematics?
Having cited mathematics as probably the single best example of objective thought, we encounter a few interesting dilemmas faced by the mathematicians.
G’del’s Incompleteness Theorem
Specifically G’del’s Incompleteness Theorem and the problem this caused for David Hilbert and Giuseppe Peano’s attempts to formalise mathematics into a set of complete, logical and self-contained axioms.
Very briefly: the implication of G’del’s two incompleteness theorems are that any consistent set of axioms are incapable of proving all arithmetic truths; apropos arithmetic contains certain knowledge which cannot be axiomatically and completely proven in and of itself.
The physicist Roger Penrose, amongst others, infers from this that there are certain truths about mathematics or, any formal axiomatic system, which we know, but we don’t know how we know. And that this is a serious flaw in the goal to create self conscious AI applications, because very simply this knowledge cannot be reduced to binary code.
Bertrand Russell and the Barber Paradox
As well as Bertrand Russell heroic attempt, in the monumental Principia Mathamatica, to reduce mathematics to logic. Bertrand Russell along with Alfred Whitehead took on the Herculean task (some might say Promethean) of reducing all of mathematics to symbolic logic. To his dismay Russell encountered the Barber Paradox which is a form of the paradox concerning set theory originally discovered by the mathematician Cantor.
A tough call for the Chief Librarian
Robin Robertson in his book Jungian Archetypes cites the following illustration of the paradox: A central librarian requests all the regional librarians to submit a complete list, a directory volume, of all the books in their particular library.
When she received the directories from the various regions she found that some of the librarians had included the directory volume (the list of all the books) in their directory and some had excluded it. So she split the directories into two groups:
‘ Those that included their directory in the directory and,
‘ Those that excluded their directory in the directory.
And on that basis she began to compile a master directory of each group. When she got to the second group (the directories which did not include themselves) she had a problem. Should she list the master directory itself, i.e. in the directory, or not?
There is no consistently logical answer to this dilemma, either option produces a paradox.
An analogy to this issue is the Liar Paradox: This sentence is false. Which is neither true nor false.
The full story behind G’del’s Incompleteness Theorem and the challenges this creates not only for mathematicians but also for those involved in developing artificial intelligence systems is very interesting, but beyond the scope of this blog. For those interested in learning more about this I recommend reading Jungian Archetypes by Robin Robertson and Shadows of the Mind by Roger Penrose. Or for a very brief overview go to: Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems
Subsequent to Russell and Cantor a different set theory was proposed which did away with Russell’s paradox as it came to be known. Although another paradox the Greylling- Nelson Paradox, which is similar to the Russell Paradox still stands.
What about Geometry?
Similarly with geometry: mathematicians realised relatively recently that, contrary to their previously long held beliefs, geometry is not a realistic description of the physical universe. Perfect geometrical shapes exist within geometry only, not within the physical realm. Much like the Perfect Platonic Forms of Jung’s Archetypes. That is to say they exist within the realm of the abstract (or archetypal) rather than the actual.
So is Mathematics proof of Objective or Mind-Independent Reality?
Well in a nutshell no, at least not with respect to the question of mind independent reality. Mathematics exists in consciousness; there is no way to step outside of our consciousness to evaluate its independent validity free of that consciousness. This is in truth a disingenuous point to make because naturally that (that reality is seemingly or phenomenological linked to consciousness) is a ubiquitous philosophical and experiential truth. Nevertheless the point stands.
The more interesting question is whether the paradoxes we find in mathematics such as those illustrated above bring math’s objective truth into question. And the answer to this, at least in my opinion, is no. Objectivity does not necessarily entail a paradox or mystery free universal description. The attempt to find the UTE (unified theory of everything) is a scientific, specifically the science of physics, aspiration rather than a definition of philosophical objectivity.
However what it does suggest is that mathematics, the seemingly most objective science, contains knowledge which cannot be explained purely axiomatically. Meaning simply we know that we know, but we are not sure how we know. That is to say that we are not able to completely remove ourselves (subjectivity) from the proofs.
What about Physics?
This situation is of course very well known already in micro physics. And has been spoken about so much already that it hardly bears mentioning. Still for the sake of completeness let say simply that in quantum physics there are two significant issues in terms of our discussion:
‘ Consciousness influences that which is being measured.
‘ Quantum Entanglement brings our experience of time and space, as absolutes, into question.
This is to say that once again in physics, as in mathematics, there is a component of the subjective, of the observer, in the apparently objective observation.
Okay so if we have no absolute proof of Objective Reality where does that leave us?
Well this dichotomy or something very similar anyway, is expressed in philosophy as the argument between realism (the belief in mind independent reality) and idealism (the belief that the only reality is the reality of mind).
Either perspective taken to an extreme leads to a nonsensical world view. Absolute belief in subjectivity locks us in what is referred to as solipsism, the condition in which only I (the subject) exist and nothing can ever be known beyond my own subjectivity, a rather absurd position to find oneself in.
And the complete belief in objectivity has a few rather serious obstacles as well. Specifically it no longer accords with evidence from empirical science, more specifically from quantum physics, nor logical philosophical enquiry. Also perhaps most significantly, at least from a Jungian perspective, it denies the all too obvious truth of our own subjectivity.
If we make a authentic effort to confront this dilemma, of the transcendence of subjectivity or objectivity, we find ourselves in a paradox. Truth it seems is not objective or subjective it is, if anything both objective and subjective or neither. Possibly it needs a new word to describe it which transcends our current language limitations. However my personal take on this is that there is not a word which will deliver us from the truth of the paradoxical nature of the subject-object dichotomy. It is the inherent nature of consciousness to present us with paradoxical perspectives.
The Veiled Reality Hypothesis
I very much like the Veiled Reality hypothesis of the physicist d’Espagnet. Very simply what this hypothesis states is that we have no direct access to objective reality, nevertheless it appears to exist. There is something which is not synonymous with our consciousness and which resists our conscious will. This is similar to what Immanuel Kant proposed in his Critique of Pure Reason, however significantly for the realists, this is now based on scientific empiricism as opposed to pure philosophical reasoning.
In as much as this paradox affects our lives, us what can be said?
An excess of either position leads to an imbalance in ourselves and our world view.It seems we need to be cognisant of the objective perspective without being overwhelmed by it. What does this mean? Well for one it means never devaluing our subjective perspective, our thoughts and our originality- in short our unique perspective, whatever that may be. A beautiful quote from Jung illustrates this perspective poetically: He who looks outside dreams, he who looks inside awakes.
This point of giving ourselves sufficient credit, of holding our subjective perspective as having value is the calling card of the greatest creative geniuses, without exception. Only a psychology that is significantly internally referenced, and differentiated, ads value and is truly authentic. If your life is a copy of a collective norm then you are mining a mine that has already been mined.
To mimic, to copy, which is the unspoken ideology of collectively (meaning of society and its institutions as a collective entity) does not produce meaning and authenticity in the life of the individual. Nor, converse to the collective impulse, does it add value to society, except possibly at a very low level. The level of the worker bee perhaps. But culture and consciousness is not expanded by retreading or recycling.
The above being said I return to the importance of keeping the objective in consciousness. The way I stand on the shoulders of the giants who preceded me is by awareness and a respect for their accomplishments. I am who I am, at least in part, because of who they were and what they did.
Watch out for the Fabulists they may just lead you astray.
For me at least, and I must concede a personal bias for the Technocrats, becoming a Luddite is a real danger. I believe in the redemptive power of evolution. Whilst I concede that mistakes have been made and continue to be made- the only way to affect change is to be a part of it. For the sake of ourselves and future generations we should, I believe pay careful attention to where humanity has consensus and convergence. So whilst diversity adds to our humanity, fragmentation detracts.
Abstraction vs. Concretisation
One last analogy, courtesy of Chatillon Coque, which is helpful in illuminating how the objective and subjective perspective, differ but are also complimentary, is that of abstraction versus concretisation. He compares the objective perspective to the perspective of abstraction, the process of drawing on the knowledge that has been distilled and recorded by others.
And then the application of that abstraction in the individual’s life, he refers to as concretisation, and this naturally is subjective. The process of right action requires an admixture of both abstraction (objective reason) and concretisation (subjective evaluation).
Embrace the Paradox (well that’s my suggestion anyway )
The lot then of the conscious man, of the New Renaissance Man, is to live this paradox. To find himself suspended between the twin, opposing poles of subjective and objective consciousness, and by holding this space to complete the circle. Much like the alchemical image of the Ouroboros, the snake or dragon eating its own tail, an image from Gnostic Alchemy representing the opposites facing each other, illustrating that consciousness is always a consciousness of paradox.