Wow, this post title runs the risk of winning a blogosphere Yawn! award. But hang in there, reader -- this subject of subjectivity and objectivity actually is darn interesting.
And as intimate to you and me as what we're doing at this very moment.
Which, in my case, includes sipping coffee from a yellow cup and watching the letters I type on my laptop's keyboard appear on the screen. I'm experiencing those things, along with much more -- such as hearing my wife open a desk drawer and shuffle through some papers.
Now, there seems to be a big difference between (1) the objective state of affairs in my house, and (2) my experience of that state.
This often is called the "hard problem" of consciousness, explaining that difference.
How does my physical brain generate a sense of subjective Brian? Neurosurgeons who opened up my cranium would just observe a mass of fleshy matter. But somehow my brain cells enable me to experience the world from the inside out, as it were.
As a... words are so hard to come by ... world that lives inside me, not a world that exists separate from my consciousness of it.
Yet, it does.
My wife sees the same coffee cup, the same laptop, and everything else in our house (she, on the other hand, would be justified in saying that I don't see many things she does, such as socks and t-shirts scattered on top of my dresser, and unwiped water drops on the stainless steel kitchen sink after I've made coffee).
So what's going on?
Are mystics justified in claiming that subjectivity is the only reality, that consciousness is the essence of the cosmos and not materiality? Or does science have the inside track on truth, with its emphasis on describing entities that can be studied objectively?
Let's dump the "or" in the paragraph above. That's an insight I've gotten from Owen Flanagan's book, "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World."
It's an excellent read, though if you're thinking of buying it keep in mind that I'm a glutton for philosophical punishment (Flanagan is a philosophy and neurobiology professor at Duke University). Your reading results may vary.
I like how Flanagan zeros in on some basic notions of subjectivity and objectivity that respect the reality of both our inner subjective experiences and the outer objective world. I'll let him speak for himself, since any attempt on my part to summarize his arguments likely would screw up his philosophical position.
Token neurophysicalism is the view that each and every mental event, each and every experience, is some physical event or other -- presumably some central-nervous-system event. Type neurophysicalism is the view that each kind or type of experience, e.g. "seeing a red cube" or "believing that [snow is white]," each kind or type of event -- be it perceptual, emotional, or a belief -- is realized in "pretty much the same way" by each member of the species that has the relevant experience.
...What matters is that each and every experience supervenes in some strong sense on a brain state. We can accept the truth of token neurophysicalism, and thus reject all immaterialist views that deny it, while resisting the conclusion that the essence of a mental event is revealed completely or captured completely by a description of its neural level realizer.
The reason is as follows, and it applies uniquely to conscious mental events: Conscious mental events are essentially Janus-faced and uniquely so. They have first-person subjective feel and are realized in objective states of affairs. As John Dewey said, "given that consciousness exists at all, there is no mystery in its being connected with what it is connected with."
Speaking counterfactually, water would be H2O and gold would be the substance with atomic number 79 even if there were no subjects of experience, no sentient beings, in the world. Objective realism is true of water and of gold.
But even if a conscious-mental-state token (say, your experience here and now of seeing these words on this page) is realized, and realized necessarily, in some complex neural process n in you, it is not the case, speaking counterfactually, that n could occur in a world without subjects.
Specifically, n could not and would not occur in a world in which you were not reading these words.
...The asymmetry between water and gold, on the one side, and conscious mental events, on the other, can be said to come to this: the nature of water and gold is essentially objective -- it is completely objective, ergo objective realism. The nature of conscious mental events is such that despite being perfectly natural, objective states of affairs, they have as part of their essential nature the subjective feel they have.
Call the basic idea subjective realism. Subjective realism says that the relevant objective state of affairs in a sentient creature properly hooked up to itself produces certain subjective feels in, for, and to that creature. The subjective feel is produced and realized in an organism in virtue of the relevant objective state of affairs' obtaining in that organism.
The subjective feel is, as it were, no more than the relevant objective state of affairs obtaining in a creature that feels things.
...For many it produces a mental cramp to think the thought that mental events are neural events but that their essence cannot be captured completely in neural terms. Such is the power of objective realism, a doctrine that is true for most of the things and types of things in the universe but that is not true for experiences.
The cramping can be eased, I propose, by accepting that the subjective realist is claiming nothing mysterious. It is simply a unique but nonmysterious fact about conscious mental states that they essentially possess a phenomenal side.
Well, I don't know if you find this as brilliantly convincing as I do. How would I? You are you and I am me.
Yet as Flanagan says, this doesn't mean that we each inhabit our own utterly subjective world of personal experience.
Our experiencing is an objective state of affairs, along with coffee cups and laptops. Experience simply is a feeling state, according to Flanagan, which makes a lot of sense to me.
There aren't two worlds, one subjective and one objective. Our experiencing is part of the objective world, albeit a unique part -- one which does not exist apart from the experiencer.
(I'm both thrilled and terrified that what I just wrote makes sense to me. "Thrilled," because Flanagan's perspective clears up a lot of philosophical confusion for me. "Terrified," because it's always possible that the confusion is more real than the clarity. Whatever...)