In Defense of the Subjective

In Defense of the Subjective

30th May 2020
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Philosophy, Ontology

This post is part of a series on philosophical ontology, following The Three Worlds. Specifically, this post depends on the reader understanding the basics of the pluralist ontology of Karl Popper's Three Worlds and Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. Briefly, this ontology states that there are three related, but distinct, kinds of existing: World 1, the objective physical world of natural laws and forces; World 2, the subjective mental world of our inner lives; and World 3, the inter-subjective fictional world of human inventions.


Over the last few centuries, we've developed great skill in describing the Objective world and using that knowledge to improve the material conditions of our lives. The improvements we've made thanks to the advancement of science would be literally astonishing to our ancestors from previous eras. Objective reality, existing outside of any subjective opinion or doctrine, is reassuringly undeniable. It's no wonder that many of us choose to place a heavy emphasis on World 1, dismissing or at least downplaying the reality of anything that can't be easily quantified.

World 3, the inter-subjective realm of economics, engineering, and politics, is also treated seriously by our society, again because of the material benefits that can be gained from these collective activities and because they, too, are seen as somewhat quantifiable and therefore defensible. It seems like World 2, the subjective world of our internal experience, seems to be the most in danger of neglect.

I also decided to write a specific defense of World 2 because I see potential for criticism of the concept from monists, especially materialists and physicalists, whose ontological preference is that only the material universe exists, and everything subjective can be explained by or reduced to physical processes. I explained in the earlier post that in the Three Worlds ontology, the Subjective world supervenes on the Objective, meaning that in principle all Subjective objects correlate to physical objects, even if we can't actually correlate them.

So, if Subjective and Inter-subjective objects can be reduced to objects in the physical world, what use is there in calling them distinct realities? Should we instead say that only the physical world "really exists", and the Subjective and Inter-subjective are simply metaphors for discussing extremely complex physical relationships? It's true that we could talk about The Road Not Taken in terms of the untold billions of quantum states in the brains of hundreds of millions of people, but that would make literary analysis inconveniently complicated.

We can never actually have access to a completely Objective accounting of the material components of a Subjective or Inter-subjective object, and we couldn't process it all if we did. We are not privileged observers of the physical universe; our perspective is limited and specific. Recognizing that our mind is dependent on and created by physical processes doesn't mean that's our best way of understanding ourselves, because we have only our mind to work with, and we can only work with it from inside it.

We only exist Subjectively. The Objective world, by definition, is mindless. Objectively speaking, there is no you or me. World 1 objects are just amalgamations of forces and relationships without any inherent meaning. Meanings are Subjective objects, contextual constructs that only exist in relation to other Subjective concepts. A beautiful sunset makes me feel awe and wonder. But beauty, feelings, and even sunsets only mean something because someone experiences them. None of the elementary particles and fundamental forces involved can imbue those events with any meaning. Meanings are created by minds.

If a tree falls in the woods and there's no one there to hear it, does it make a sound? Yes, in the Objective sense that it causes air molecules to move as a pressure wave. No, in the Subjective sense that the pressure wave does not stimulate an eardrum and cause a mind to associate a meaning to it. The air does move, but no one cares.

In the same way, innumerable places on innumerable worlds throughout the universe are rotating away from their parent stars at every moment; but without someone there to see it, what would it mean to call them sunsets?

Taking a purely materialistic approach does a disservice to our consciousness, our experiences, and our rich inner lives. I suspect that the conceit of a purely materialistic ontology arises from imagining oneself as a purely objective observer, looking at the universe from a detached and unbiased vantage. But we cannot actually evaluate the universe without bias; we are embedded within it, confined to an extremely limited and specific point of view.

Descartes, defending his dualist ontology, said cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). It may well be that our sense of self is the product of evolutionary mechanisms, and that someday we will be able to describe the process our brain uses to create it. Nevertheless, we are ourselves, and as such the mental events of our inner lives are real to us. When I feel pain, or joy, or melancholy, those experiences are real to me, as I presume yours are to you.

"What is real?" Morpheus asks Neo in The Matrix. "How do you define 'real'? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain." In other words, it doesn't suffice to say that the material, physical world is all that exists, becuase we only experience it subjectively anyway.

I've always thought it was interesting that we call our emotions "feelings" - the same word we use to describe our sense of touch. After all, if what you're talking about is happiness, despair, anxiety or desire, those are just electical signals in your brain too. The Subjective world is just as real to us as the physical because it is us - the only way we get to experience any existence at all.

As Karl Popper says,

Human suffering belongs to world 2; and human suffering, especially avoidable suffering, is  the central moral problem for all those who can help.

Just ask anyone you know who works in the medical field how frustrating it is to try diagnosing a patient who feels intense pain from no obvious source. Just because we lack the tools or the knowledge to measure or describe pain objectively doesn't mean it doesn't exist. Pain may only be in your mind, but then again so are you.

TV writer Dan Harmon summarized this concept eloquently in a 2017 Twitter thread (since deleted) in response to a fan suffering from depression: feelings are real but they aren’t reality. Just because suffering can't be quantified, measured, seen, or felt by others doesn't mean it doesn't exist.


© 2020 Craig A. Butler
First Posted: 30th May 2020
Last Updated: 23rd Nov 2020