Reality Is Overrated; Why Subjectivity Informs Our Experience Of The World

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke focuses on epistemology. The theory of knowledge.

His most important aim was to know what reality was really like. Like many other scientists and philosophers of his time (Montaigne, Galileo) Locke became fascinated with the difference between ‘reality’ and the way we experience, or perceive reality.

A still from the movie Inception.
A still from the movie Inception.

He complains that we treat all ideas, which in his terminology means ‘immediate objects of perception,’ as equal, when in fact some ‘ideas’ reflect the way things really are, objectively, and some do not. In this context he distinguished between what he called ideas generated by primary qualities and ideas generated by secondary qualities.

Examples of primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, number and motion. These are all inherent in actual physical objects. These are all objective properties of physical objects.

Examples of secondary qualities include all sensations derived from our sense organs, such as color, taste, touch, sound and smell.

Ideas of secondary qualities are ideas generated in sentient creatures like us through the effect of the primary qualities on our sense organs. So, a table objectively has solidity, shape, extension. And to use modern terminology and notions, its molecules are arranged in a certain way. The way these molecules are arranged affects the light waves being reflected from the table’s surface. The length of the light waves is determined by the objective properties of the table. These light waves enter our eyes and through some mysterious transformation, end up as being perceived as color. Thus, color is not an inherent, or intrinsic property of the table itself. Instead, color is the result of the arrangement of primary qualities of the table, which in turn determine the secondary qualities we experience. The color of the table reflects the effect of the table on us.

What exists objectively is the table, and light waves of certain frequencies. ‘Color’ is an emergent phenomenon. Color results from the interaction between the objective properties of objects and the light waves they reflect, and subjectivity/consciousness. Locke argues that color is no more in an object than pain is in the knife that cuts us. Pain is what a sharp knife does to us. Pain is not in the knife.

Similarly with color. Color is not in the object. Color is the result of us perceiving the object. Technically, color is the combination of our sense organs, our consciousness and the objective properties of what we are perceiving.

Sometimes in high school science classes we are told that ‘green’ is really frequencies of light from 540-610 THz. They say that because those frequencies are objective and measurable. But in reply, we can say that the scientists only know that those frequencies are green because we conscious humans told them. All that exists completely objectively, is the light spectrum as a continuum. We just break it up the way we do because this is how non-colorblind people perceive those frequencies.

The world of a color blind animal has no colors. The world of a deaf person is silent. The world remains objectively the same. Objectively, there are sound waves as vibrations in the air. The frequencies of color are still there objectively. But sound and color as subjective experiences are nonexistent. The world is not objectively different for the deaf and colorblind, or just blind. It is just perceived differently.

Locke wanted to distinguish the world as it is subjectively experienced, and how it really is. In perceiving the world we attribute to it properties related to the senses that only really exist in us, not in the world.

Locke is not remotely interested in the possibility that what I call ‘yellow’ may not in fact be what you call yellow. Complete uniformity of perception would not make those perceptions any more indicative of true reality in his view.

Descartes made a firm distinction between mind and body (physical reality). Locke is doing something similar. He is dividing mind and body. The mind he is thinking of as subjective, and therefore not really real. The body is objective and is real. Something is objective because it can be measured and quantified. Science in this sense is monological (i.e., it involves a monolog as opposed to a dialog).

One can only be objective with regard to objects. You don’t need to ask the object questions, or ask its permission, or ask it what it thinks. You measure it. The measurement will be the same for anyone following the correct procedure for measurement using the agreed upon units of measurement. The process is public, repeatable and subject to correction. Opinions are not involved.

Anything to do with consciousness is subjective. It cannot be meaningfully or objectively measured. When we examine someone using subjective methods, our results are also subjective. If I want to find out what you are thinking, I must ask you. I cannot look at your brain to find out what you think of Barack Obama or more importantly, why you think that. What you say cannot be verified, or refuted. I must enter into a dialogue with you. I cannot treat you like an object and so my results are not objective. (Object and objective go together). If I treat you like an object, I can only study what is objectively true of you – your height, weight, etc. I.e., your body, but not your mind.

Criticism of John Locke

Much of what will now be said is not to be found explicitly within Locke’s philosophy. Some of what will be said is simply what are irrefutably the consequences of this way of thinking. They are not necessarily things that John Locke would subscribe to. But this just means that he may not like the logical implications (the consequences) of his own way of thinking. His only rational option, if this is the case, would be to abandon his own philosophy. Just as a well-meaning moral relativist may not want to think of Hitler and Mother Teresa as morally equivalent, but they have to if they stick to their theory. Of course, our purpose is to make them give up their original assertion.

Other philosophers have commented that the picture of reality that follows from Locke’s philosophy is that all that really exists are silent, colorless, tasteless atoms in the void. In other words, meaningless junk.

For argument’s sake, I could accept the division between the subjective and the objective as meaningful and legitimate. However, at no point does Locke give us any reasons for thinking that just because something is subjective, it isn’t real. We humans are part of reality. We are part of the world too. We are not outside the world looking in. John Locke needs to expand his concept of ‘the world’ to include both subjective and objective elements.

Locke pictures us as outside reality, outside the world, looking in. Reality is physical reality which we observe while standing outside this reality. This leaves the status of the observer wholly opaque.

The alternative is to draw a circle around both the observer and the physical world and include both in our conception of ‘the world.’ We, the observer, are in the world too.

Because we exist, consciousness exists. Because consciousness exists, so does the experience of beauty. Likewise, emotions, morality, love, meaning, good conversations, good food, good books, films, and music. If we didn’t exist, barring space aliens, neither would the universe be conscious of itself. We are part of the universe, and we contribute something unique to it. Our contribution is not nothing. Our contribution depends on subjectivity, but because we exist, subjectivity also exists. There are no good arguments for suggesting that consciousness does not exist and those arguments that do exist are self-defeating, because if consciousness does not exist then the arguer is not conscious and the person he is trying to persuade is not conscious. No one argues with a chair, or a table. This would be pointless. Those things are not conscious. So why did the arguer choose conscious human beings to argue with when we are not qualitatively different from tables and chairs? And how is the arguer managing to argue at all?

John Locke gives no reasons for thinking that subjectivity is unreal. He should instead note that when we perceive the world we add something. In the act of perceiving an object, the object now has color and sound. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it makes no sound. It makes a potential sound – namely, sound waves. But without a conscious observer with functioning ears, no actual sound exists. But because such observers exist, sound also exists. It is true that this sound is not objective because it exists in our consciousness. But ‘objective’ is not synonymous with exclusively real. Subjective things exist, like love, and no one except a dogmatist would deny it. And I and pretty everyone else only want to live in a world where love exists.

Color and sound exist in the interaction between what is normally considered the subjective and the objective. They are neither wholly subjective – they are not typically hallucinations – nor are they wholly objective. Taste and touch exist in the interface between inner and outer. But hallucinations are also real in that they too exist.

The negative effect of John Locke’s philosophy is that by saying that only things that exist objectively (are quantifiable and measurable) are real, then everything we love about the world is deemed unreal. This encourages us to disparage everything worthwhile about our existence as unreal, when in fact there is no good argument why we should have to do this.

Identifying numbers with reality is number mysticism; an actual bizarre religion that included Kepler and Pythagoras. Thanks to John Locke and others like him, Montaigne and Galileo, we have been encouraged to equate ‘real’ with the measurable. We are still in the grips of this mistake and the majority of college classes and high school classes continue to encourage this religious devotion to numbers.

If only what is objectively measurable is regarded as real, then we would be pushed into some horrifying conclusions. Most people have too much common sense to do this – but only at the expense of being inconsistent with their claimed intellectual opinions.

If we tried to do economics from a purely objective perspective, we would have to ignore morality and pain and suffering. One could argue that child prostitution is very good for the economy and makes otherwise unproductive units contributing members of the economy.

This objective way of thinking was actually instantiated in a cost benefit analysis of the Vietnam War I once read. Cost benefit analyses only include economic costs and benefits, but ignore, pain, suffering and death. It would be fine if the cost benefit analysis was claiming to be a very partial examination of just this economic aspect, but it was not. It was claiming to be an evaluation of whether the US had been right to fight the Vietnam War. Such an analysis is immoral because it ignores morality all together.

One might wonder why I am picking on Locke since he is hardly alone in thinking this way. The reason is that he was one of the first to start thinking in this way and is to a large degree responsible for a line of thought that culminated in the logical positivists and continues its influence on the general population to this day. Subsequent philosophers, like David Hume, merely made some implications of his thought more explicit. Hume’s skepticism is largely the result of embracing Locke’s strange rhetorical move of expressing extreme contempt for the subjective nature of perception on the one hand and to claim that our knowledge of the world is based on our senses on the other – a view known as empiricism.

The problems with empiricism can be overcome to some degree if we agree that many of our ideas about reality should be based on experience but accept a far broader, more ordinary language notion of what constitutes experience. I would include religious experience, intuition, faith, hallucinations, lies and dreams, love and loss, hope and despair and all the rest of things that make up human life. Restricting experience to so-called ‘sense experience’ is an arbitrary decision with catastrophic consequences for thought.

Richard Cocks2Richard Cocks teaches philosophy with key interests in ethics, metaphysics and consciousness from Platonic, Christian and Buddhist perspectives, with an especial interest in canonical works of Western Civ.

2 Comment

  1. Michael Presley says: Reply

    The author writes: “Identifying numbers with reality is number mysticism; an actual bizarre religion that included… Pythagoras.” Attributing a definite line of thought to Pythagoras, who either never wrote, or if he did his books are lost, is rather tenuous. In any case, like other ancients, almost all has to be inferred from later sources. At the same time, although the relationship of number to the regularity found in the world is the basis for positive science, and although it can engender a high degree of conceptual unreality (i.e., when numbers are taken not as representations or relations anent things, but rather as the things themselves), number also has a grounding within certain “esoteric” lines of thinking and practices–practices contrary to strict empiricism. However it may be, this latter situation has nothing whatsoever to do with measurement in the usual cardinal, geometric, or otherwise “quantified” sense. As an example of a sort of non-empirical “numerology” we could cite aspects of Taoism, yet other Traditional forms are likely not uncommon.

  2. Richard Cocks says: Reply

    Hi, Michael. Thank you for reading and commenting. I take the Presocratic fragments as our best evidence as to what those philosophers thought, but no one can be too certain about them. You’ve understood me best when you refer to the high degree of conceptual unreality. My reference to number mysticism is more along the lines of a rhetorical flourish and provocative analogy. I am not suggesting that we have resuscitated actual number mysticism as it is found in esoteric traditions, just that we have elevated what can be measured to an idolatrous status comparable to a bastardized parody of a religion. I’m happy if I’ve met my burden of proof in arguing that we have taken measurement in the usual sense and cobbled together a most disgraceful metaphysics from it with disastrous effects, leaving in the numbers and editing out love, emotion, God, consciousness, beauty, morality and meaning; a deracinated and perverted mysticism.

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