Violent Thought

MK2 FatalityThe intensely busy period is over so I now have time to write articles for this blog again. Apologies to anyone who has been patiently waiting for more pearls of wisdom…

There is an objective reality and a subjective reality. Both assertions can be enjoyably demonstrated through violence. When confronted by a person who refuses to acknowledge the existence of an objective reality, punch him repeatedly in the face. Tell him that there is no need to worry, for there is no objective reality so no objective damage can be sustained. If it appears to him that his face is indeed broken then suggest that he merely look at it a different way, for it is all subjective. On the other hand, if you are confronted by a person who refuses to acknowledge the existence of a subjective reality, punch him repeatedly in the face but espouse a different rationale. Assure him that there is no such thing as pain, for it is just a mechanical response of the body to certain electrochemical stimuli. There is in fact no difference between the cries of your victim and the noises that might emanate from a robot that has been programmed to produce a crying noise upon physical impact (ask him if the robot ceases to feel pain when you disconnect the speaker.)

Having thus reduced the world into two groups – those that agree that there is both an objective reality and a subjective reality and those that are no longer capable of interrupting our discourse – we may concern ourselves with the interaction between the two realities. How is it that we come to know about the objective world? We have succinctly shown that the objective reality of a fist may impinge upon a person’s subjective reality, but how does this happen?

First, we must acknowledge, with due apologies to any of our previous victims who were trying to articulate this subtle point, that our distinction between objective and subjective is the result of abstract thought. We do not, for the most part, distinguish between the two. Only when something goes wrong – when the oasis turns out to be a mirage or the pedestrian appears out of nowhere in front of our car – do we take a mental step back, indulge in some abstract analysis and split what we hold to be our knowledge into two categories: knowledge of the objective world and knowledge of our subjective world. Most of the time, we do not think about it.

Philip K Dick memorably said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” In much the same way, scientists such as Alan Sokal refer to “an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole.” This concept of an external, objective world appears to make sense. After all, if there is no objective reality that constrains our behaviour then how can we have mistaken beliefs? In what sense would they be mistaken? If you are unsure of the possibility of mistaken beliefs, find someone who believes that they are impervious to bullets (apparently you can find them in the Congo) and shoot them. It should immediately become apparent that your victim’s beliefs – be they personal, social or biological in origin – have very little to do with the effect of the bullet.

So, although in everyday life we don’t usually think of it, there is a category of things that we can refer to as ‘objective’ – namely, those things independent of human belief – and it is all these things together that is referred to as ‘objective reality’. We then say that anything that is not objective is subjective, and so we define ‘subjective reality’ as everything that doesn’t fit into objective reality. This brings us back to the beginning – but with perhaps a better understanding of how we got there.

However, we should ask if this is really a meaningful categorisation. Why divide things up in this way, especially if it doesn’t even reflect our normal way of thinking? We do this primarily because it allows scientists to employ the scientific method. Crucial to the practice of science (or, at least, the physical sciences – physics, chemistry, biology and so on) is an idea known as the “Completeness of Physics” (CoP). This states, roughly, that all physical events can be explained by physical causes. For the purposes of this article, we can equate ‘physical’ with ‘objective’. It shouldn’t be hard to see why the CoP is essential to the practice of good science: how can we design an experiment to test a hypothesised cause when that cause is subjective? Without the CoP, anything goes – hypotheses are not falsifiable and science loses its predictive power. So, it is clear that the CoP is a useful principle and therefore the objective/subjective divide is a useful categorisation.

But is ‘useful’ the same as ‘meaningful’? Are we actually describing something real when we talk about the objective/subjective divide? When playing chess, it is useful to assume the principle that bishops can only move along the diagonals. This principle is essential to playing good chess. However, it becomes a pointless restriction when the game is over and you wish to put the pieces back in their box. We set up certain principles, the rules of the game, in order to play a good game of chess, but we don’t apply those rules when we aren’t playing. Can we similarly consider the CoP (and the accompanying division between objective and subjective) as a necessary rule for playing at good science?

Humans have the capacity for abstract thought. It is a capacity that, as far as we know, we alone of all the beings in the world possess. When we employ this capacity we are capable of creating all sorts of arbitrary categorisations, distinctions and so on without limit, at least in theory. (Indeed, “in theory” is an example of this idealised thinking.) Most of the schemes that we might come up with are largely useless – they may serve a particular purpose but cannot be generalised – while some schemes will prove to be profitable in some way. But profitable or not, there is no reason to suppose that any of these schemes, these models that we impose upon the world, these rules we make up to play a particular game, has any meaning beyond its application. We can, if we so choose, decide to view the world as made up of abstract things (or approximations thereto) and we can then categorise those things in various ways. Although my description of the process may sound a little weird, this is in fact a very useful thing to be able to do. Without it, we would have none of the many benefits science has brought us (from hammers to computers.) But, ultimately, we are playing a game whose rules we created for a purpose. When we are not working towards that purpose, when we are not playing the game, we should not bind ourselves with unnecessary rules.

This would seem to suggest that schematic thinking – by which I mean thinking within one of these abstract schemes that we as humans are able to concoct – is in some sense deficient. It may be just right for some task but it must be lacking in a wider context for it restricts us, it holds us back. However, this need not be a problem unless we let it become one. As I have already noted, most people do not enter into such a mode of thought unless something goes wrong. When you are driving a car you do not consider yourself and the different parts of the car to be abstract entities which you manipulate: you just drive. If you are aware of the steering wheel, the accelerator, clutch and brake pedals or the gear lever it is only to the extent that they allow you to do something. Some people have described this as an extension of self. For example, most of the time you are aware of your arms and hands only to the extent that they allow you to do something. If you wish to pick something up you just do so. You may use your arm and your hand but you do not consider them as objects to be manipulated: you do not think, “Now I must raise my fore-arm; now I must rotate my shoulder; now I must straighten my elbow; now I must constrict my fingers” and so on. You do not think about your limbs in that way at all, you are merely aware of what they allow you to do. Such thought only occurs when your arm does not allow you to do something that you thought it would: when you have hurt your shoulder you might start thinking of your arm as an object that you are unable to rotate. Similarly, it is only when you miss a gear that you think of the gear lever as an object that must be manipulated, otherwise you just change gear. Thus it is possible, indeed it is perhaps normal, for us to think and act without applying abstract models and when we do so we are, in a sense, freer than when we restrict ourselves to a set of rules.

The seductiveness of the objective/subjective model arises from the great profits we can obtain through its application. However, when we so succinctly demonstrated the reality of the objective and subjective worlds earlier we begged the question. We employed the objective/subjective model and then gave an example of something that would fit into each category. That is obviously the wrong way around: one should start with the things themselves, not with an arbitrary model. Furthermore, it is now clear that the question of how one world impinges on the other is a stupid question – it arises only due to a limitation of the model in use. So, perhaps those people you punched at the beginning had a point after all. This is why you should always read to the end of the instructions before you start following them.

Published in: on May 25, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (2)