Chapter 4: The Power of Subjectivity

Far from finding chaos, we find exactly what we should expect if good is indeed something objective and reason the organ whereby it is apprehended—that is, a substantial agreement with considerable local differences of emphasis and, perhaps, no one code that includes everything. – C.S. Lewis

            It is at this point that I must step back from the argument I’ve been building. Now that I have been unveiling my methods, which are rather optimistic about the possibility of the human mind answering questions, I must make answer to those gnawing questions of subjectivity. I feel its power in myself. We have been fed a great deal of ideology about subjectivity’s powers and dangers, not all of it false; it started out rather hopefully with the Romantics when they thought to turn the tide against problematic aspects of Enlightenment values, but which became, in the end, a postmodernism landing us squarely and, some might say, hopelessly in Plato’s cave, with no chance of ever getting out. If anyone wants to find a much better discussion of subjectivity and its relationship to Christianity, I suggest reading the essays contained in C.S. Lewis’s posthumously published collection, The Seeing Eye. For a much more difficult and complicated discussion of subjectivity and its relationship to “truth-making” and “knowledge-making,” I recommend looking at the philosopher Immanuel Kant. My goal is to rescue subjectivity just enough for our purposes, to build the case that subjectivity can, and even must, have a place in answering questions like, ‘Why is there anything,’ and, ‘Is there a God?’

My hope is to do this in two directions. First, as Kant would call it, I want to rescue the “noumenal realm” or, in more common language, things which actually are, having their reality apart from the human mind, as something which in our subjective states we can comfortably assume to exist. In the other direction, I wish to rescue subjectivity itself as not fundamentally depraved, but a necessary part of truth-making. I think it a very Calvinistic atheism indeed which thinks the human mind so depraved as to be incapable of having plausible ideas about reality; if they are right that the human mind is so frail in its subjectivity that we cannot trust it, how can we begin to hold positions like atheism or theism in any sense? You see, I have argued that all means of knowing, together, point to something real, and this is a very upsetting concept to many people. So, since reality and the minds used to apprehend it have been slandered, here is how, in my thoughts, I attempt to set the record straight.

Rivers of Subjectivity

Let me begin with a picture. Imagine that there is a beautiful river flowing through a forest. This river is filled with clean, good water, and on the banks can be found many places comfortable for humans. The river is filled with fish, and it flows along at a nice pace; fast enough for boating, but not so strong that it would make swimming dangerous.

What is the proper use of this river? The answer is, well, there is no one proper use. One can say, in fact, that the proper use of the river is somewhat subjective. For an athletic swimmer, the proper use of the river is to swim. For the fisherman, the proper use of it is to fish. For a person running a shipment business, the proper use of the river is to float his barge down the river. For someone living near the river, the proper use may be to get water to feed his plants or cook. For an artist, the proper use may be to paint a picture of the river, for the musician, to create an electronic synthesized version of the sound of the river, maybe with other kinds of music too. For the novelist, if this is the Mississipi, he may want to write the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For the weary traveler, he may want to simply lay beside the river, like Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid, and simply take a nap. Which of these approaches is the “true” way to use the river? None of them. They are all valid, and depending on your subjective approach, these may each seem more or less appetizing. You may have never learned to fish or swim, so you may only want to take a boat ride down the river.

Subjective attitudes towards the river are fascinating. Many people have believed rivers to be sacred or magical, others have looked at them with capitalistic greed, others with the eyes of military strategy. But what if we are to say that rivers are really only subjective, social constructions? If rivers are really only a product of human thought, let me ask you a question: Had you never seen a river, could you imagine one any better than a color you’ve never seen?

Let’s look at the term “construction.” What does it mean? Con literally means “with,” and “struction” comes from a word meaning “to pile up with.” It implies the act of building. “What are you building that house with?” “Bricks.” “What are those bricks made of?” “Bricks.” “No, I mean, what are the BRICKS made of.” “Bricklike matter.” “Where did you make the brick?” “In a brick-producing place of brickery.” “How did you make the bricks?” “With bricks.” Frustrated yet? This is the answer of the social constructivist, when left unchecked. “Where did this social norm come from?” “Social construction.” “And where did the society which constructed this social norm come from?” “Social construction.” “And where did this social construction come from?” “From previous social construction.” . . . Not very helpful, is it? Let’s break it down to the individual level: “Where does your perception that it is cold come from?” “From my subjective perspective.” “And where does your subjective perspective come from?” “From my subjective experiences.” We eventually need to leave this place of subjectivity to fulfill its purpose.

A river is not made from subjective experiences. A river is made from rocks, soil, water, debris, perhaps fish, sand, etc. A river has hard, objective reality. Yes, rivers can be man-made or diverted by man-made activity, but what does it mean to divert or make something unless it is really there? Now, philosophers will get into all kinds of crazy arguments about what it means for something to be there, but there are really only two kinds of answers: the river is really there, or it is only there because of the human mind. The second answer, I hope, I have shown to be unsatisfying above. What the human mind does with the world is only understandable, only comprehensible, if the human mind is doing something with something other than itself. The subjective enjoyment of swimming in the river, fishing in the river, boating down the river, or painting the river is not made less subjective or poignant because the river is real. The opposite is true. The subjective experience of the river is enriched by the fact that there is actually a river. Consider this: What if you have read about rivers in books for years, but never seen one physically present? I have read about the Mississippi in Mark Twain’s writing, yes, and that is a real experience, but the river was not really a part of my experience until I had been to it. Mark Twain’s writing is interesting without ever having visited the Mississippi, but that it is a real, historical river means something different for his novel, than if the river had simply been imaginary. What the different meaning is, may not be easy for the critic to explain fully. But if Huck had sailed down the river where Gollum found the One-Ring, this would mean something different for the story, because the river is not a place I can then visit. The reality of the Mississippi allows for stories, both true and imagined, to spring up around it with a significance different from stories told about rivers which do not exist.

I think that people are scared that if they find there is a world which is really out there, that if there is such a thing as truth, that they will somehow lose their freedom. A world which just is, without our consent, is a very scary thing indeed. But that is the world we live in. It is there, and pretending like it is merely a product of social construction is a very foolish thing, for the reason that to be deluded about the nature of reality prevents us from actually being able to change it. There is no doubt that the human mind has a vast impact on its world. To paraphrase Henry David Thoreau, the sun may rise a thousand times, but the noteworthy fact is that a mind was there to witness it. I agree with him, but I think he agrees, too, that the value of subjectivity, even if it is higher than mere objective actuality, stems from, and is not in spite of, the present universe.

Pure subjectivity, I believe is empty. As I showed in the mock “dialogue” above, assuming an infinite regress of subjectivity limits our apprehension of the world in a very serious way. I agree with the principle that to be a perceiver is to be subjective, to be biased, so there is no doubt in my mind that we cannot escape our subjective perspectives. But the very fact of this, that we cannot escape our subjective moment, is an objective fact, a reality as hard as a bullet wound or a thunder storm. I cannot see things from your point of view because I am me, and this subjectivity is as much a proof of objective reality as anything science can throw at us. Believing in a world which is really out there does not limit or weaken human subjectivity; such a recognition empowers us to interact with the world in a more honest and fulfilling way. For if we concede to the radical subjectivists, then we will let them dump waste in the river, for it’s all relative anyway. And when the fish have died, the boats can no longer travel downstream, the swimmer could only swim at his peril, and the painter no longer sees beauty in the ruined river, I ask you, what has a belief in pure subjectivity done but destroyed our ability to live, and live well?

That is, of course, a side point. Whether our lives are better or worse with an assumed objective reality underlying our subjective experience is, admittedly, a subjective opinion, though I would say that our subjective opinion on the matter is only possible because of something actually present in reality which allows us to have the opinion. We do not need to think that the beauty of subjective experience is not undermined by the realness of reality behind it; it seems more useful to intellectual inquiry to assume that human interpretations of the world are vindicated in their intricate splendor by a corresponding intricacy and splendor in the actual world.

The Subjective Lens

Generally, we are told that our subjective positions blind us from being able to see the truth. Psychoanalysts will say, for example, that trauma experienced as a child makes one unable to see certain events as they really are; you are “blinded” by the damage to your psyche, so that you cannot see the objective. Historicism, such as the episteme suggested by Foucault, similarly traps us in old ideas which hide in new forms, so that our ability to think about ideas on their own is ruined by an inherited bias. Marxism argues that capitalist ideology prevents us from seeing humans as humans or things as things; feminism suggests that we are unable, because of the patriarchy, to see men or women as we should, that our “sexual vision” is warped by societal norms.

I do not propose to reject out of hand the above statements. I can agree, in fact, that they are all on to something. I will grant that subjectivity is a force to be reckoned with, that our lack of an “out” from our subjective lens, whether created intentionally or not (or somewhere in between), should inhere in us a certain skepticism about premises we find in the world, in others and in our own minds. I do propose, however, to provide an alternative: that the subjective does not only always blind us from “Truth,” but that the subjective can in fact empower us to see more clearly, to see better than before.

I have two basic arguments for this. First, imagine that you are God, and you have created the world. The world is not merely a place to be molded, according to your laws, by subjective truth. No; you have actually designated a “way things work,” an order to the system of the universe. Now, you have a task before you. It is your intention that your creations will be able to learn about the world. How would you do this?

Well, being God and therefore very clever, you have given qualities to the world. You have given it textures, tastes, appearances, odors and sounds. You have also created certain arrangements of the world which cannot be tucked so neatly into those five categories, but which nonetheless do exist and can be learned. So how do you do this? Well, of course, you must create these beings with some means of learning, right? If you want them to learn, you must give them some sort of function to take in these aspects of the world. So, you might give a creature a nose to smell the flowers, eyes to see the sunset, ears to hear the sea breaking on the shore, skin to feel the breeze of the air, and a palate to taste delicious ice cream! Ah, hmmm, ice cream . . .

What is the difficulty here? Well, the problem is that all of these things are “subjective.” In other words, there is mediation implied in the act of creating a subject; you could create a being which only smelled, but insofar as this being is a Nose, this being is a subject, subjected to the senses it has of the world. Indeed, to be a creature of sense is to be subjective, for that being will have its experience of the world. It is, it seems to me, impossible to create a creature which is both distinct from God, and can learn about the world, but who is not a subjective being. Even animals, with their lack of higher level cognition, are subjective beings in the sense that they experience the world, and the world, as it exists, is not reducible or equatable to the experiences the animals have as subjects of sense. And yet, would you call an animal with a nose that does not work more or less empowered to learn about the world? Less, I should dare say. And therefore, does it not follow that, in creating a subject, by allowing, at base, subjective experience, is not this the only means to give a creature the power to learn at the sensory level, short of directly informing the creature’s brain? But then, the creature’s brain would still be the sense organ, as would its soul, or whatever is “getting” the information.  Again, short of being God, to be a perceiver, to have sensory experiences, is to be subjective, and it appears that the only way to help a creature learn about the world is by empowering it with subjective senses. Therefore, it would be impossible for you to teach your creatures about the objective world, unless you made them subjective creatures.

At this point, of course, it will be objected that I am being circular. I am using the concept of God to prop up subjectivity, and then using subjectivity to prop up God. But that’s not actually what I am saying, of course. The use of God is only an illustration; putting yourself in a position like God’s, I am saying, what other option could there be? Or even simply positing the possibility of learning at all, what other means could one imagine other than having perceptions of things, in one form or another, for a creature to be capable of learning? I see no possibility of escaping a being which is subjective, if we wish to make it able to gain knowledge about the actual, objective world.

Let us entertain a somewhat more sophisticated argument, however, because the aforementioned argument falls short of the difficulties posed by skeptics, Marxists, feminists and psychoanalysts. They argue that the issue is not the senses, but the more complicated mind which has to sort through the senses. Remember before that as God, in addition to the five aspects of the world you created which correspond to the senses, you also made certain aspects of the world more complicated than those which the mere senses can allow discovery of.  It takes a combination of senses and reason, for example, to come up with the concept of cause, or the senses, reason and imagination, to come up with the concept of beauty. These higher order truths of the objective world take a different kind of work to discover, a kind of research and testing of the world which would require activity on the part of the subjective creature. Now, this is the argument of the postmodernists and others mentioned above: Events in the environment and in the psyche prevent us from seeing the world in an unbiased way, so that we cannot trust our judgment, in order to posit anything like truth.

So far as it goes, this might sound reasonable. After all, an abused child or an oppressed minority clearly cannot see the world the way a child raised with love or an individual born into privilege can. However, is it not the case that subjective experience, in these cases, are also used by postmodernists to support the idea that some subjective experiences are better than others? The woman, who has experienced patriarchal oppression, is more able to discover chauvinism than men, who instead benefit from the patriarchy (or better, as I would argue, are fooled into thinking they benefit from the patriarchy). In some sense, does not being a woman, which in a sense inherently biases a creature from being a man or being a girl, give a special insight into the truths of healthy feminism? Much as having a nose empowers one to smell flowers, doesn’t having an experience potentially empower one to use reason to better organize the world? How can a man, who has never been shown the pain women have because of the patriarchy, or the ways in which he himself is oppressed by patriarchal norms, begin to care? Does not a subjective lens actually empower him to contact the world in a superior way than the man oblivious to such experiences?

Or another way. A child raised in the middle class who never comes into contact with poverty may well live out his adult life believing only the precepts of middle class adults. Never seeing upper class privilege or lower class poverty, he may never come to see that his life could be better, or worse. A child tied only to the middle class is in someways limited, debilitated, by his experiences; his subjective lens is not improved in its contact with the actual world for lack of experiences, but worsened by them.

Or again, let us take a nun who has lived her whole life in a monastery. She has taken a vow of chastity, and obeys this vow, as well as a vow of poverty. She thus never has to experience the pain of not feeling good enough for being unable to keep up with the materialistic society around her, and never feels pressured into sexual deviance, never has to experience the pain of child birth or the pain and embarrassment of STDs. Now, in some sense, we could be upset about this person’s estrangment from experience. But could we not also argue that she might have a sort of pure wisdom, an adult yet innocent experience of the world which may have an acuity far beyond the “world-wise” people who have grown calloused to their ways of life?

We tend to think of subjectivity as a barrier between us and the truth of the world, a premise we have inherited from the tradition of Western philosophy, going back to Plato, forward to Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard and so forth. But can we not see different subjective perspectives not only as barriers, but as lenses into the world? Could we instead of seeing Christianity, atheism, Buddhism, gender, economic and political positions and so forth, as only impairments, and instead see them as lenses giving some sort of insight into the real world? Is it not possible that by having a perspective, much like having eyes, one is not merely impeded, but also potentially enabled, to see some part of the world as it really is?

So here, I think, I have articulated two plausible premises which work together. The first is simply that our subjectivity seems to indicate, and is in fact enriched by, a superstructure of actual, real things. Second, I have argued that subjective apparatus, whether biological or psychological, can not only be barriers, but could also be gateways into learning about the aforementioned superstructure of reality. Having thus, hopefully, somewhat reduced the power of the subjective argument against forming theories about reality, in the next chapter I will talk more in depth about the concept I had touched on in the previous chapter, that an interdisciplinary approach to the cosmos is the path to seeing God.

One thought on “Chapter 4: The Power of Subjectivity

  1. Pingback: Chapter 1: Science | the boethian acolyte

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