What is Subjectivity?
Recently, I have been in debates that involved the concept of subjectivity, and I discovered that many people are confused by it, or don’t have a clear understanding of it. So, I thought I would try to explain it.
“Subjectivity” can have different meanings in different contexts. It can mean consciousness or the content of consciousness. It can also mean that a claim or property is relative to a subject, or depends on the perspective of a subject. By “subject”, I mean a mind.
Something is subjective if it is mind-dependent or perspective-dependent.
Let’s consider a simple example: left and right. Your left is defined relative to you. Your left is not my left. If I am facing you, then my left is your right and vice versa. Left and right are perspective-dependent. They differ depending on one’s perspective. There is no cosmic left and right.
Foward and backward are similar. They depend on a perspective and a direction of motion.
Up and down are also perspective-dependent, but in a less obvious way. Up and down are relative to a position on the Earth (or some other planet). Essentially, the up-down axis is a line from your position to the center of gravity of the Earth. The up-down axis is not perceptibly different for people in the same room or in the same city, but it differs a lot between China and Canada. There is no cosmic up and down.
In the past, many people naturally thought of the Earth as a flat surface, and up and down as a cosmic axis. In the more sophisticated Ptolemaic cosmology, up and down were not absolute, but the center of the Earth was the center of the universe. In modern cosmology, we know that the Earth is a ball in space that rotates and orbits the Sun. There is no cosmic up and down, and the universe has no center.
That is a good example of how something that seems objective/absolute can be reconceptualized as subjective/relative.
Experience is Subjective
Experience is “mind-stuff”. It is part of the informational content of the mind.
Looking into the blue sky is an experience, and the content of that experience is inextricable from the experiencer. No one else can experience my experiences. You can’t see the world through my eyes, and I can’t see it through yours. We could look at the same object and have very similar brain states, but our experiences would not be the same.
Suppose that I see you stubbing your toe and saying “ouch”. I would know that you are experiencing pain. I could empathize with you, and feel sorry for you. But I could not experience your pain. It exists only from your perspective and within your mind.
Experience is subjective in two ways. It is tied to a perspective, and it exists within the mind of the experiencer. It is not accessible to anyone else.
Truth is Subjective
The notion of “objective truth” is philosophically naive, because it presupposes direct knowledge of reality, and/or a correspondence between reality and mental models. Knowledge is indirect. We know the world through mental models and mental processes. Our mental models do not correspond to what they represent, and they cannot be compared to reality.
When I see a tree, my brain creates a mental model of a tree. That model does not correspond to the tree. It is a completely different type of thing. It represents the tree, to me. The model is generated by applying an abstract concept to the current data of my senses. The concept was induced from past experience. It reflects the order of reality, but not in a mind-independent way. It reflects correlations between sensory, emotional and motor data (what I call “semex”). The concept “tree” contains information about how objective reality affects me. It depends on the properties of my body and brain, not just the properties of what it represents.
We cannot compare our mental models to reality. Our brains judge a model to be truthful based on its ability to compress/predict experience. The use of a particular model in a particular situation is a judgment made by the brain. Truth judgments are made by brains, and they depend on the properties of the brain. There is no subject-independent way to model reality, or make a truth judgment.
Truth can be (mostly) detached from personal biases and experiences. Science is a method for acquiring very general knowledge of reality that is not tied to any individual perspective. However, science depends on human brains. It is not brain-independent. It depends on the way that human brains acquire and use knowledge. It involves different brains working together, so the judgements of science are not tied to any individual perspective. It has processes (such as operational definitions, explicit theories and replication) that reduce personal biases. But science does not generate objective truth.
In ordinary life, we take truth for granted. If I see a tree, that is considered adequate evidence of the tree’s existence. But we can’t take truth for granted in philosophy and psychology, because we can’t take our minds/brains for granted. We can’t just ignore the distinction between representation and reality. It is a very deep question how an idea in the mind, such as the perception of a tree, relates to objective reality.
Value is Subjective
Value judgments, like truth judgments, are made by brains, and are tied to the perspective of a subject. But value is also subjective in another way. Truth judgments are about objective reality. Value judgments are about the subject’s orientation/attitude toward existing or hypothetical events.
Mental models do not just represent objective reality. Our brains use mental models to generate action. The models have three aspects: truth, value and action. Value is projected onto real or hypothetical objects or events. Value judgments are then used to generate actions.
If I see a $20 bill lying on the sidewalk, I will pick it up. The perception of money involves the concept of money, which includes the value judgment that money is good (for me). This value judgment then generates the desire to pick up the money, which generates the action of picking up the money. These mental events are rapid and subconscious. They are generated by pattern recognition.
The positive value of money (to me) is not an objective property of money. It is my orientation toward money: that I positively value having it.
Unlike truth, value is not convergent for similar brains. Tom and Joe could have identical brains, but they would make very different value judgments from their perspectives. For example, suppose that Joe and Tom both want to date Sally. They have the same value judgment, but from different perspectives. Taking the perspective into account, their value judgments are conflicting. Joe positively values Joe dating Sally, and negatively values Tom dating Sally. Tom positively values Tom dating Sally, and negatively values Joe dating Sally.
In What is Value?, I define different types of value: biological, psychological, social and philosophical. All are tied to a perspective. In this essay, I have been talking about psychological value.
Apparently, some people believe that they are perceiving objective value when they make value judgments. This seems utterly absurd to me. I don’t know how anyone could be so confused. But see: Talking to Different T.
Some things exist as an agreement between brains. Such things are intersubjective. They depend on many subjects, not just one.
Language is a good example. The English language exists in a distributed way, in the brains of English speakers. It is part of culture. The word “dog” means what it means because English speakers map it to the same concept in their brains. A language is a system of knowledge that is shared by multiple brains, and used to communicate ideas between those brains.
Money is another example. What makes money valuable is that people believe it has value. If people stopped viewing money as valuable, then it would no longer be valuable. The value of money exists intersubjectively.
Norms of behavior, such as politeness, are another example. In Japan, it is polite to bow when meeting someone. In America, it is polite to look into their eyes and shake their hand. These behaviors are polite because people view them as polite. There is no objective standard of politeness, just different cultural standards.
Moral values are intersubjective. People naturally create collective values that solve social problems. Societies impose these collective values on their members. That is what creates the social order. Moral imperatives, such as “Do not murder”, “Do not rape”, “Do not steal”, etc, are not commandments from God, nor are they derived from logic, nor are they built into human nature. They are social rules that make societies work.
People often view social values and imperatives as cosmic. They are not aware that they define and create them, collectively.
If something is intersubjective, it depends on a collective, not a single individual. It is mind-dependent, but it depends on multiple minds, not just one.
Subjectivity is not Random or Arbitrary
Many people believe that calling X “subjective” implies that X is meaningless, arbitrary or random. This belief is based on naive realism about truth and value. They believe a truth claim is correct if it corresponds to objective truth, and a value claim is correct if it corresponds to objective value. Calling a claim “subjective” implies that it does not correspond to objective reality, or is not about objective reality.
But no truth or value claim corresponds to objective reality.
Truth claims are about objective reality, but there is no way to objectively verify or falsify them. We subjectively verify or falsify them, from our own perspectives, based on the data we have available to us, and using the mental abilities that we possess.
Value claims are not about objective reality per se. Value is a subject-object relation: subject values object. A value judgment could be intersubjective, in which case it is a society-object relation. Regardless, it does not correspond to objective value.
The subjectivity of truth and value does not imply that they are meaningless, arbitrary or random. It means that they are perspective-dependent. That perspective is not random. You could call them “arbitrary” in the sense that they are judgments, and the subject is the judge (arbiter). But truth and value judgments are not arbitrary in the sense of being whimsical.
Truth and value judgments are ultimately based on innate mental processes, and those processes are not random. Mental processes have functions within the brain, and the brain has a function within the body.
If I look out my window, I will perceive a tree, not a pink elephant or a seven-headed pig. That perception is regular, not random. It is generated by a mental process that evolved to work in a certain way. That process applies conceptual knowledge to the data of my senses. The conceptual knowledge was induced from past experience by another evolved mental process. The data of my senses are not random. Sense organs evolved to convey information about objective reality to my brain. So, the perception is far from random or whimsical. It depends on my brain and objective reality in regular ways.
“Subjective” does not mean “independent of objective reality”. Truth and value judgments depend on both the subject and the object, and the subject is not a random decision generator. The subject has a nature, which is regular and stable, and which was generated by evolution.
My judgments are arbitrary in the sense that I am the arbiter. But that doesn’t imply that they are meaningless or random. As a subject, I am not random or radically free. I have an evolved nature. Truth and value judgments are generated by evolved mental processes, and they have biological functions.
Intersubjective judgments are also regular, not random. They are generated by multiple brains. They depend on the nature of brains and the nature of society. A collective value, such as “Murder is bad”, is not random or whimsical. It has an important social function. A society is not a random decision generator. It has a structure, and only certain social structures can exist.
There are objective constraints on subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Neither is random nor radically free. Both are ordered.
Subjectivity and Nihilism
Now, I need to address the non-existent pink elephant in the room: nihilism.
Most people assume that their beliefs and choices have an objective basis of some kind. They have never thought about it. They just assume that there is some way to objectively justify their beliefs and choices. They presuppose the existence of objective truth and value. They believe in cosmic good and evil, and a cosmic imperative to do good, not evil.
This is all delusion.
A few people start thinking philosophically and psychologically about themselves: about truth, value, meaning, morality, etc. They start questioning their naive assumptions. After a long search, they discover that there is no objective basis for beliefs and choices. Instead of an objective foundation, they discover the abyss.
This is a process of disillusionment. It destroys the illusion that you have a foundation. It annihilates the illusion of objectivity. I call the resulting state of disillusionment (and enlightenment) “nihilism”.
Few go down this path. Of those that do, many get stuck at this point. They view the absence of a foundation as an irresolvable problem. It seems to render their beliefs and choices meaningless. Life seems absurd.
But that is because they still have an unexamined assumption: foundationalism. They assume that meaning requires a foundation. They assume that truth and value must be objective, not subjective. But this is just another delusion. Truth and value are intrinsically subjective. They cannot be objective.
Truth and value exist from a subjective perspective. You are a subject. So, truth and value exist from your perspective.
Philosophy and psychology are the self thinking about itself. They require that we view ourselves from an imaginary detached perspective.
The Copernican revolution in cosmology involved a similar shift of perspective. We see the Sun moving across the sky, and it is natural to interpret this apparent motion as the Sun moving. But we can imaginatively view the solar system from a position in space “above” it. From that imaginary perspective, we can model the Earth rotating and orbiting the Sun. This model requires that we “detach” ourselves from the ordinary perspective of an observer on the Earth.
Likewise, we can adopt a cosmic perspective imaginatively, and view ourselves from “above”. In that view, there is no truth or value. Adopting that perspective allows us to understand that truth and value are tied to a subjective perspective. It also seems to annihilate them, because it makes us aware that they aren’t objective.
That is what the nihilist does. He looks down on himself from this imaginary cosmic perspective. He sees a machine whose motions have no cosmic significance. This conflicts with his ordinary assumption that his choices are important, and that he is important. From this detached perspective, life seems absurd.
But this imaginary cosmic perspective is not the “right” perspective. It is just a perspective that we can adopt, imaginatively and philosophically. It allows us to better understand ourselves. And it is still subjective. We are not actually getting outside ourselves. There is no objective cosmic perspective.
We are subjects. Truth and value exist to us.