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Southend Philosophy Group Message Board › The subjective

The subjective

luke e.
user 87805792
Rayleigh, GB
Post #: 1
I'd like to discuss a bit more what I was saying about the importance of subjective experience. To me, it seems that contemporary thought downplays this because of an unthinking, wholehearted subscription to a "scientific" worldview. And from the scientific perspective, the subjective is worthless. Science cannot study the subjective. Science is about being objective and detached. Yet we can't always be objective and detached. We constantly find ourselves plunged into a world of experience.
A former member
Post #: 11
This is a really interesting point, thank you for posting. So how might we begin to consider 'experience' from a philosophical point of view? Does anyone have any examples from philosophy?
A former member
Post #: 8
Hello Luke
Some thoughts on your post.
I agree with you that subjective experience has created a lot of problems for both science and philosophy. It has, in some quarters, been seen as just an illusion created by our material brains, something that doesn't require explanation. You are right in saying that subjective experience must be more important than that. It is after all the totality of our lives!
But I think that is as close as our views will come (no disrespect!)
What follows here is a random selection of thoughts that may or may not have anything to do with the topic!

First of all, I think we need to define the subjective as what it is like to be a human organism.
I urge you at this point to read Nagels What is it like to be a bat? (Link to pdf here)

I think the basis of Nagels piece is that we can't know what it is like to be a bat. The reason for that is that its sensory system is considerably different from our own. We have no way to imagine what it is like to have those type of senses and how they create a different view of the world. Subjective experience is therefore very difficult to describe in any terms, let alone scientific.

Secondly, following on from Nagel, we can never experience an objective world. We connect with the world outside us by our senses alone. Our, so called, reality is therefore only one of appearance. It is how it appears to us. We therefore cannot have an objective experience. All experience is subjective. The objective world, as it is in itself, cannot be known to us. (This remains true even with the ascendency of science - consider Paul's example on Wednesday evening - we see a red piece of clothing but there is no colour to the fabric when we look with a microscope at the atomic structure). In the history of philosophy there are many outlooks that express this theme (Kant: appearances / things in themselves)

Third - from the above - subjectivity is all about sense experience, the knowing what it is like to see colour or smell coffee, for example (qualia). But this subjectivity seems absolutely tied in with the level of sense activity. As soon as our senses are muted, as in sleep, the subjective self falls apart and is replaced by some chaotic unconnected mash. Only when the sense data pours in does the subjective self materialise - basically as a focus for acting in the physical world.

This does not solve the issue of course. Our subjective experience seems so personal and detached from the physical reality that surrounds us. But we should tread carefully here. Why shouldn't material substance, nature if you like, be capable of producing the subjective? The problem (as I mentioned above) is that we can't look objectively at the subjective! We can't stand outside of ourselves. The subjective self is always going to be elusive to science.

Sorry about the randomness but it is late.



luke e.
user 87805792
Rayleigh, GB
Post #: 2
Thanks, Steve, some interesting points.
I just so happened to pick up a book in Waterstone's on this very topic and I LOVE IT!!! It's called "The Science Delusion" by Curtis White.
His argument, which I agree with, is that science is NOT a philosophy. Science is a method of looking at matter. That's all. Yet many high-profile writers - like Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking - behave as if it is the supreme philosophy and moreover that other ways of looking at life - like religion, art or other philosophies - are irrelevant. Stephen Pinker, for example, refers to art as a "biologically frivolous and vain" pursuit.
A few points on this - it's nothing new. Empiricism has been around for a long time.
Secondly and most importantly, science has NOTHING to say about any of these aspects of human life: Creativity; beauty; freedom; morality; emotion. (Ok, correction, science might be able to locate their origin in the brain as a chemical reaction. This in itself is debatable but even if admitted represents the extent of science's understanding of these things.) And for most of us, these things are not optional extras - they ARE our lives. And we use art, philosophy and religion to understand them.
Lastly, if we believe, as Dawkins et al would have us believe, that we are nothing other than “products of evolution”; “machines”; or “atoms jiggling around”; won’t the consequence of this be a mechanistic society where work and life is meaningless, and the ordinary individual is a replaceable cog?
That seems to me a pretty fair representation of society. The good news is that “scientism”, despite its mass acceptance, is deeply flawed and far from the only way of looking at things.
A former member
Post #: 9
Hello again Luke
I can't say I've heard of the book you mention but it does seem to throw up some contentious views on science.
Here is my take on it.
Firstly, I'm not a scientist but I do recognise how important the scientific method has been in helping us to unravel what were once classed as mysteries and superstition. The scientific revolution since the seventeenth century has dramatically changed the way we live, basically because the scientific method actually works.
Wherever we look in today's world - medicine; space travel; weather forecasting etc - we see expanding knowledge that is the result of using the scientific method as a basis for our observations of the physical world.
We should not denigrate the scientific method, but applaud it!

Secondly, I don't think Dawkins ever claimed that science was a philosophy. He has claimed that science may have made some aspects of philosophy redundant. (I may not fully agree with him there but when we do discuss things like the mind/brain distinction, we automatically refer to scientific studies (not just neuroscience but psychology and social psychology I suppose). We recognise the validity and reliability of these studies and readily use them. And so we should!

Thirdly, the aspects of human life that you mention - beauty; freedom; morality; emotion. The first three are not static in their meaning. They change over time and from one society to another and one individual to another. Natural science cannot say anything about these - but social science, social psychology and evolutionary psychology can (as well as philosophy). As far as emotion is concerned, hundreds of thousands of pill popping individuals will tell you how their scientifically tested medication can alter their emotional state.

Just one extra point on creativity. As far as I see it, creativity is only a form of synthesis - of putting existing things or ideas together in a different way. Creativity is not about getting something from nothing. Humans and other animals have to work within the bounds of their inheritance - both genetic and experience (environmental) - in order to create anything.

Please don't get me wrong here though. I think artistic creativity is extremely important as an expression of the human condition. It's just that the human condition I'm considering is, as you say, nothing other than the product of evolution. Whereas you see the term product of evolution negatively, I see it as life affirming. How wonderful it is to know that we are connected to all forms of life in all ages of the Earth!

Finally, yes, it seems we are in a mechanistic society / universe and that universe is meaningless. But we can never see it that way because we are looking through the eyes of an evolved species. For the majority of human existence, meaning has equated to nothing more than survival and reproduction - both instinctive. We still have these instincts which are now overlaid with cultural meanings that are grafted onto us in different forms (religion; consumerism; politics; football - the list goes on).

All this sounds like there is little room left for philosophising in the modern world. But we will always continue to ask questions that science cannot answer. (mainly because there are no answers!)


luke e.
user 87805792
Rayleigh, GB
Post #: 3
All right, Steve? It seems we disagree!
You didn’t mention a few other aspects of scientific advance for us to be ‘thankful’ for like eugenics, nuclear (and other) weapons and environmental destruction. I do recognise science’s contribution. I’m not going to applaud ‘science’ though as it’s an impersonal method. I may well choose to applaud the work of such and such a scientist.
Secondly, I’m sure Richard Dawkins wouldn’t describe science as philosophy because he has no respect for philosophy. My point is that when he writes books like “The God Delusion” he enters the realm of philosophy like it or not. Any philosophical questions he encounters he brushes off as if they’re irrelevant or simply gives a glib answer as if it’s obvious.
For example, your comments on creativity. Creativity is only the synthesis of ideas. Why the “only”? As if that’s all there is to say about it? If so, my job as a Primary School teacher trying to foster creativity suddenly becomes very easy. I can just read the definition to my kids and tell them to get on with it! If only Vincent Van Gogh had access to it when composing his masterpieces! What’s with the angst, Vince? Chill out! Just synthesise a few ideas, you’ll be all right! Leave your ear alone!
If that is all there is to say about creativity, then there’s no real difference between Van Gogh on the one hand and someone who designs a new mop on the other. Both are ‘synthesising new ideas’. Is this true? That there is no difference between the creativity of a mop designer and of Van Gogh?
Dawkins et al dismiss the traditional concerns of philosophy (a) as if they’re of little importance; (b) as if they’re incredibly simple; or (c) if it turns out they’re not simple, that they’re not worth bothering about because there are no ‘answers’ anyway, all the while disregarding the fact that for billions of people, these things are what life is about, not to mention the wealth of profound religious, philosophical and artistic material humanity has produced.
Finally, I do regard the term ‘nothing other than the product of evolution’ negatively, yes. ‘Products’ are cans of beans, computers, marketing campaigns. I regard being compared to a can of beans demeaning. Also, ‘product’ implies complete dependence on a sentient ‘producer’. This is hardly an appropriate analogy as evolution is not sentient. Clearly in one sense we are the result of evolution, but that is far from the only way of looking at it. It’s like someone insisting the only way of looking at the Eiffel Tower is as a hunk of metal.
Mark (Luke's my internet name!)

A former member
Post #: 10
Hello Mark

Looks like this could go on for a while yet!

I'll start by working backwards on your last post. I do believe I've heard that most Parisians in 1898 did think that the Eiffel tower was just a hunk of metal. Most wanted it removed as quickly as possible. It's funny how eyesores become iconic features, but that's the nature of art - it's fluid, totally dependent on the cultural sensitivities of the time (which it, no doubt, helped to change).

Is it any different with Van Gogh? I would confidently say that most of the western populace would rather have a Jack Vettriani print in their house than a Van Gogh. And art is only relative to social conditions. In a house without fuel a Van Gogh would serve the occupants better on the fire than on the wall.

You argue against my view of creativity in your post -
(you say) creativity is only the synthesis of ideas. Why the “only”? As if that’s all there is to say about it?

Well - yes! That is all there is to say about it! (But I also recognise that new ways and techniques can be discovered by accident. Whether it's true or not, we like to believe that Newton was propelled to discover gravity by seeing an apple falling from a tree.)

But coming back to art and Van Gogh. To say that he was creative without strings implies that he need not have any reference to all the works of art of humanity that had gone before. That would be astonishing. Similarly, the inventor of the first watch had to have reference to previous achievements in science and engineering as follows: - the concept of time - transfer of motion through gearing - various material technologies - and countless others.

Van Gogh didn't have to produce the genre of portrait painting before he produced his own self portrait. As many artists admit, the creative process is more about perspiration than inspiration. There is no magic ingredient here. It's about dedication and refining of technique. It's about using existing ideas and methods and weaving them in different ways.

To move on - I don't see anything wrong with being a product. It doesn't strip away my humanity - in fact it informs me that I have a heritage (and that is a fundamental part of being human in my thinking). I think you're limiting the use of the word product to production of goods. I'm more inclined to see it in a mathematical sense - six is the product of two and three. Again, it just recognises our heritage (genetic / cultural / social).

Final point - the scientific method is not responsible for weapon building or environmental destruction. That is down to the political and economic systems that use it. A scythe is used to cut hay. If someone uses it to cut off an adversaries head - don't blame the scythe! (Of course, we could also argue that atrocities have been carried out in the name of religion, but should we therefore lay the blame at the feet of their Gods?)

It's unfortunate that half terms over
Have a good week

luke e.
user 87805792
Rayleigh, GB
Post #: 4
All right Steve? Back to school – argh!
I’m puzzled by your insisting that “creativity is only the synthesis of ideas” and that is all there is to say about it! Especially as you yourself go on to say plenty more!
Why a refusal to discuss it? To admit its importance and its complexity?
Your definition itself raises a number of further questions. For example, what do we mean by “synthesis”? Just putting things together any old how? And what ideas? Any old ideas?
If so – idea 1: “I am a partridge”; idea 2 – “Chocolate is nice”. Put them together – “I am a chocolate partridge”! That’s creativity, is it, on a par with “To be or not to be”?
Creativity is elusive. Great creative geniuses often suffer fallow periods without understanding why. Many people find it hard to be at all creative despite many years of education. Why is this? I think it is a profound and important question.
A former member
Post #: 11
Hi Mark
Mmmm ... a chocolate partridge sounds quite nice (and some people may actually consider it a work of art - equivalent to a cow in formaldehyde perhaps?).
As far as I see it, synthesis involves bringing together ideas and experiences in a way that creates new ways of living. These new ways of living may give some advantage to a species in it's drive to secure it's evolutionary niche. For example, humans created flint tools which were eventually superseded by bronze and iron - more efficient materials for transforming the environment. And the same drive can be seen in other animals. When a chimpanzee first used a stick to draw termites out of their mound was it not being creative? How did it combine the concept of the stick with the termite mound? Through synthesis!
The basis of this creativity is little different from that that drives artistic expression in humans. It's just a difference in degree. Don't think I'm trashing creativity here. I'm not. As I said, it is of fundamental importance in attempting to describe the human condition - but you must also recognise it has a more basic use in the development of new tools and utensils. The chimpanzees termite stick certainly has it's equivalent in our spork.
Therefore, I don't think creativity is elusive in the sense that it's a mystery. And I never denied it's importance and complexity. But that is born out of the complexity of our language, culture and political / economic structures, all of which tip their hat to evolutionary imperatives.

I'm glad you see it as an important question - as I do too. It is good to discuss and try to understand these things. But I certainly would stop short of using the word profound as it seems to deny the role of the physical brain in generating the conditions necessary for creativity (synthesis).

Right, I'm off to make my cornflake and asparagus sandwiches for tomorrow.


luke e.
user 87805792
Rayleigh, GB
Post #: 5
All right, Steve.
I hope I’m not around when you are trashing creativity if all it is to you is a monkey using a stick!
Why the compulsion to explain everything in evolutionary terms? They’re inappropriate. I’m interested in creativity and wish to become more creative. What you are saying is of no help to me. I wouldn’t hire a poet to fix my car, so why would I ask an evolutionary scientist to help me be more creative?
Furthermore, where does your conviction that the physical brain is entirely responsible for creativity come from? There is no scientific evidence at all for this. Jonah Lehrer tried to find some. In “Imagine: How creativity works” (2012), the best he could manage was this. A group of subjects were set to solve crossword puzzles. During this, there occurred a change in blood flow to a small fold of tissue just above the ear. There seemed to be a rough correlation between the activity and the blood flow. That was the best ‘evidence’ that he, a leading neuroscientist, could find.
Ideas such as, “the physical brain is entirely responsible for creativity” are philosophical dogma. But they are often presented as facts. They are not facts! It is not a fact that we are just our biology. It is not a fact that the mind is simply a function of the brain. It is not a fact that we are just the products of evolution. These are philosophical ideas and as such deserve discussion. That some scientists, who are supposed to have a meticulous regard for the truth, assert them as facts is scandalous.
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