The Space Between Subjectivity and Objectivity

There are few things as enjoyable as coffeeshop philosophizing, and usually my favorite philosophical topic to mangle is epistemology, which is the study of whether it’s possible to know things, and if so, how we attain knowledge. Over the years, I’ve trended towards a viewpoint that I call radical subjectivity (using radical in the sense of root rather than in the sense of extreme–compare definition 1 to definition 3 here to see what I mean). I can’t remember where or when I first encountered the term radical subjectivity, but it’s a perfectly adequate term for describing this basic concept:

Setting aside the question of whether there is such a thing as Capital-T-Truth, or capital-O-Objectivity, human thought is necessarily limited to a highly subjective viewpoint. Any individual human has had a very limited set of experiences. What do I mean by limited?

-The limitation on the raw amount of experience. Any one person has been in very few places, has talked to very few people, and has had a very limited set of sensory experiences enter their minds. I would argue that even if you posit a set of physical things that happened within a single person’s sensory range (all the things a person could have seen or heard or smelled or touched, because of proximity), which we’ll call Q, the set of all things that a person actually notices is a very small subset of Q. Q itself is a very limited subset of all the things that happen during the time one is alive, all around the world, even if we limit possible experiences to those that actually were experienced by some human being somewhere. My point can be illustrated by a diagram something like this:

(Except that the ratios would be even more extreme, in terms of size difference between each layer.)

-The “compression” of experience into memory. Once experienced, sensory impressions must necessarily be compressed into symbols, to make them first comprehensible and then storable. As admirable as the human brain is, it is in no way a recording device, capable of storing very much at all in the way of raw sensory data. While it’s true that we probably have a few “memories” that we think of as raw sensory experiences (the way something smelled, or the way someone looked at a certain moment), research has shown that even “memories” that seem to us unassailable are notoriously unreliable. An excellent anecdotal version of this unreliability can be found here, but numerous studies have demonstrated a similar point in more rigourous ways, especially with regard to the use of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Numerous factors affect what we “remember,” at the time that a memory is formed, and over the course of time, which can slowly erode and even replace memories. Many memories are reduced to categories, such as “when I used to barbecue with Tim and Janie at that apartment up in the avenues,” and these kinds of categories tend to be catch-all “containers” of sorts for all such experiences, easily jumbled and mistaken one for another. The compression of experience into memory seems like a fairly obvious and necessary adaptive device, from an evolutionary standpoint. The ability to record memory the way a camcorder records things would be prohibitively expensive, and unnecessary, from a survival standpoint.

-The experiences of others. One of the great things about human experience (as opposed to the experiences of other animals) is the ability to express something about our experience, and to codify such expressions and make them portable. While I think that the case for the uniqueness of human language has been eroded significantly by recent knowledge about other animals, I do think that humans still possess a unique ability to encode their expressions and disseminate them widely (though books, emails, or even just telling stories to other people in person). Therefore, you could argue, unlike other animals, we’re not limited to the sum total of our own memories (both raw and encoded), but have a much broader range of human experience available to us. However, the rules of experience mentioned above apply to our intake of others’ encoded forms of experience as well. Which is to say that a) each other person who encodes memory must significantly reduce the sensory experience into tightly compressed symbols to convey their experience, so we’re at the mercy of their encoding process; and b) we likely remember very little, and very distorted versions at that, of all the encoded versions of other people’s experiences to which we’ve been exposed.

-The filtering process. We tend to blot out a great deal of what we experience (including our hearing and reading the experience of others), because we have a vested interest in maintaining our view of the world. Information that conflicts with our view of the world, and how it functions, and what our place in it may be, is easily ignored or discarded. Again, I consider this to be highly adaptive, from an evolutionary standpoint. If we allowed ourselves to re-evaluate our view of the world constantly, we would have very little time left over to actually live life and pursue our personal objectives, most of which involve our relationships and social status. Generally only terrible collisions of internal needs that significantly disrupt our lives cause us to re-evaluate our world view in a very serious or comprehensive way. The formulation I use most often to describe this internal tendency is this: desire infects reason. What we want takes precedence over our ability to form a rational construction of the world. That’s not to say that we are incapable of rational thought–only that all rational thought is suspect, because it is constantly subject to being skewed by our emotional needs, whether during formulation or later during interpretation, and one of our most basic emotional needs is stability.

All of which to me adds up to this: the viewpoint of any one person is necessarily very narrow, and since all human experience happens within the confines of individual minds, all human experience is subject to a radical (fundamental) subjectivity (limitation of, or narrowness of, viewpoint). Something like this idea goes under many names, including relativism. Some of my friends have argued that there’s a bigger form of consciousness, of which all human minds are merely atomic components, a kind of hive mind, but if that’s so, I don’t appear to have access in any meaningful way to the hive mind, and so, as with many other beliefs, such as that of deity, it feels fundamentally unknowable and therefore irrelevant.

For me, and many others, however, the big question that immediately follows is this: even if you believe in something like radical subjectivity, what’s next? How does that affect your thinking patterns and behavior? That’s where all the trouble comes in, for me. This problem takes you right back to the basic arguments against radical subjectivity or relativism: if you accept the premise that all human thought is inherently subjective, you’re left with the notion that either rational thought is impossible, or that all attempts at rational thought are equally valid (or invalid), which could easily devolve into a form of nihilism, which seems to branch in one of two directions: either despair (why bother?) or a kind of Nietzschian uber-mensch narcissism (if all views are equally valid, then all that matters is whose will prevails, and why should it not be mine?). Neither of these options are particularly attractive to me. Instead, I have tried to chart a path by which I assume that it’s valuable to attempt to form a rational construction of the world (embracing the notion of objectivity), but to temper my enthusiasm for my own results, as well as the results of others, with a healthy dose of humility and skepticism (embracing the notion of radical subjectivity). In this way, my hope is to hold contradictory and quite possibly mutually exclusive notions in my head simultaneously, which I think is one of the hallmarks of human intelligence–a sort of individual, internal version of the governmental concept of checks and balances.


Loves to read books. Frequently does so. Currently lives and works in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

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4 Responses

  1. I agree that we are radically subjective. It’s interesting however that you both extol the human ability to share information while denying the possibility of a shared consciousness. Of course we don’t have the first person privilege to the inner workings of others’ minds, but we do share experience and collaborate just as you say.

    This is just like an individual ant who is not directly aware of the experiences of other ants in its colony but manages to collaborate with its sisters to further the colonies goals. The colony seems to have thoughts and intentions which emerge out of the combined thoughts of all its individuals. If we look at the colony from a higher perspective than of the individual ant, then the colony looks like a mind in its own right. (Props to Gödel, Escher, Bach)

    In this way, the human species could be seen as an organism with its own mind. This collective mind seems to be better (but not perfect) at making rational choices and objective observations than its individual members.

    It makes me think of the peer-review process which takes knowledge out of the hands of individual people and subjects it to the scrutiny of others who have slightly different biases. The marketplace of ideas averages out individual biases. Our science probably still suffers from a systemic human bias, but I trust that it is much more objective than what one individual could achieve.

    In this way, the human collective organism draws much closer to ideal objectivity.

    Of course this kind of ignores the individual’s problem of accessing the collective wisdom of humanity. It’s still a subjective problem for the individual.

    If only we could find an alien civilization to further diversify our peer group. 🙂

  2. aerin says:

    As far as I’m concerned, it’s just important to bring up that one person is not always right or their opinion isn’t always true.

    Just because no one I know personally has developed lung cancer from smoking, doesn’t mean that it’s not real. But I’m always willing to look at new information – if scientists come out with a new general consensus that something else is a bigger factor in lung cancer deaths.

    With some subjects, it is hard to embrace the other’s point of view with any degree of civility (racism, hom_ophobia, etc.) But for the most part, it is important to recognize that everyone has their own point of view, and the right to their own opinions.

  3. Hellmut says:

    Human beings are creatures that have to adapt to their environment. While there are infinite ways to do so successfully, there are also tight boundaries.

    At least, survival requires human behavior to be effective. Insofar as that is a matter of conscious thought, I do not think that subjectivism justifies relativism. At best, subjectivism justifies relativism within the boundaries of effectiveness, which are sufficiently narrow to essentially undermine the concept of relativism as a useful category of human insight.

    Regardless, a Darwinist approach to the human condition explains why a variety of opinions may be valid while others can be ruled out as incorrect.

  1. June 17, 2007

    […] don’t have a problem accepting a lot of the limitations of being human (see QZed’s post on that), but I guess I’m still working on accepting the fact that my total experience is limited in […]

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