Home > philosophy > Can We Grasp Reality With Our Subjective Minds?

Can We Grasp Reality With Our Subjective Minds?

Can we grasp objective reality with our subjective faculties? Natural science says yes, as does institutionalized religion, and atheism. Postmodernists, humanist scholars, hippies and agnostics are likely to be more skeptical. Personally, I can say that pretty much my whole current world view is based on the idea that it is impossible to grasp reality through our subjective means. This goes for my view on doing science, the organization of the political sphere, as well as spirituality.

I agree, for example, very, very much with this view on “skepticism and the last dogma” on weblog L’Hôte :

For me, I would merely put it this way: that we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs that seem to be the products of evolution. And the belief (however you want to define a belief) in evolution makes the idea of those consciousness and sensory mechanism being capable, no matter how long the time scale, of perfectly or non-contingently ordering the universe around us seem quite low. Evolution does not produce perfectly fit systems, it only eliminates those systems so unfit that they prevent survival and the propagation of genetic material. A chimpanzee’s intellect is a near-miracle, capable of incredible things, but it will never understand calculus. I could never and would never say this with deductive certainty, but it seems likely to me that our consciousness has similar limitations.

They tell me that the Copernican revolution and the rise of evolution have permanently altered the place of humanity in the human mind. They say that the collapse of the Ptolemaic worldview towards a vision of our planet and our sun as existing amidst a sea of stars of incomprehensible vastness has destroyed our arrogant notion that our planet is special. They tell me that evolution has destroyed any belief in divine creation and with it the notion that humanity is anything other than an animal species. And they say all of this from the position of didacticism and superiority, weaving it into a self-aggrandizing narrative about how these skeptics are the ones who are capable of looking at the uncomfortable truths of the world and not flinching.

To these specific changes in fundamental worldview, I say, fair enough; I can’t argue with either turn, I suppose. For my part I would only remind them that we live here, in the relentless narrative of our human subjectivity, and such things are of little interest when the rent must be paid. But fair enough, all the same. What I ask of them– what Nietzsche asks of them; what so many in the field of the humanities, that beleaguered but proud area of human inquiry, have come to ask of them– is to take it one step further: that if we are indeed a cosmic accident, the result of the directionless and random process of evolution, then it makes little sense to imagine that we are capable of ordering the world around us, beyond the limited perspective of our individual, subjective selves. This has always been to me the simplest step in the world, from the first two beliefs the the third, from the collapse of geocentrism and creationism to the collapse of objective knowing. Yet I find that it is one many people not only refuse to make, but one that they react against violently. This is the skepticism that is refused, and this refusal is the last dogma.

Now this is of course the Nietzschean take on the matter, extrapolated further by the existentialists: we simply have to acknowledge that we are very much incapable of grasping any truth, that we live in a meaningless universe; we have to tear everything down, embrace a radical skepticism and submit to our inherent subjectivity, and then live with it. Even take some pride in it.

I don’t know whether I agree with that; I feel like the fact of my own existence, my own self-consciousness, is at least one truth that can not be denied. But that is really everything. What is not possible at all is to say anything about the world around us, apart from the way we experience it. Take one magic mushroom and you’ll understand: your experience of “reality” changes so fundamentally that it’ll forever make you wonder whether your ‘normal’ perception of the world says anything at all. Normality is merely one state of consciousness among others, and consciousness is all you have.

But this raises the question what ‘objective’ reality then is; what’s on the ‘sending end’ of the experience. In this discussion, it has been assumed that even though we experience subjectively, there is an objective reality that is being ‘filtered’. And here Julian Sanchez makes a point in his reply to L’Hôte. For if you accept that you only have your subjectivity, then the term “objectivity” in itself becomes meaningless. Something is only objective within criteria defined by subjectivity.

My bigger problem is that I don’t think Freddie’s picture fully appreciates how incoherent and useless the idea of a transcendent objectivity really is. The implicit account here seems to be that, after all, we might hope we had these divine immaterial minds capable of directly apprehending truth, and then we might have a firm foundation for objective knowledge, but alas we’re stuck with these electrified meatsacks whose chief virtue was to make our grandparents relatively good at staying fed and shagging.

The thing it, this turns out to make no difference at all for the underlying epistemic problem. God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any.


[If] you have a view that recognizes that the transcendent anchor wouldn’t actually do you any good, or make any epistemic difference, even if it were available, then you’re in a different boat. You’re not falling short of “objectivity” or “certainty,” because these terms have no coherent meaning except within the frame of reference provided by the brains and deductive practices we’re stuck with. If you wound the idea of transcendent objective knowing, you conclude that all we’ve got is our plural subjectivities. But if you kill it and really burn the corpse, you realize that picture of “objective knowledge” is a meaningless phantom.


If this seems a little abstract, consider specifically the argument that “we do not encounter the physical universe unmediated but through a consciousness mechanism and sensory inputs.” This sounds like a limitation—like there’s an ideally clear picture of how things are, and all we’ve got is this filtered versionExcept, what could it possibly mean to “encounter the physical universe unmediated”? Nothing. Well, maybe a brain hitting a rock—but if by “encounter” we mean “form representations of and beliefs about,” that has to be “mediated” in the minimum sense that some process or other correlates mind states and world states somehow. But if there really is no timeless frame of reference, then the only sense in which it’s at all coherent to talk about knowledge and certainty is internal to an epistemic system. There is nothing transcendent to lose—all we could ever have meant by “truth” or “knowledge” all along, if we were succeeding at meaning anything, was the domesticated local version.

The question I have is whether L’Hôte and Sanchez aren’t really saying the same thing. Sanchez holds that he does believe that it is possible to make ‘objective’ judgments; only these judgments are objective only relative to our sensory perceptions. But, says Sanchez, since this is all that objectivity ever meant, that’s objective.

Anyone can object that this is talking semantics. Now it depends on one’s definition of subjectivity and objectivity whether one likes to hold that making judgments about the latter is possible. But, I would like to hold that the average take on objectivity (like in positivist science) does imply some sort of transcendent, universal reality independent of sensory perception. Renaming subjectivity into objectivity, like Sanchez seems to do (although he has a point), doesn’t clarify the discussion. Maybe we should get rid of the dichotomy entirely, and embrace something in the middle…

  1. maartenp
    April 3, 2010 at 2:36 PM

    Very interesting piece. Two comments:

    – The “something in the middle” you would like to see already exists I believe, it’s theorized in the form of Pragmatism. It’s a form of subjectivism, inspired by Darwinian evolution, which erases the dichotomy between theory and practice, thereby also erasing the dichotomy between subjectivism and objectivism. Sanchez ideas are based on it I think.

    – Although I personally think, like you, that psychoactive substances radically alter your subjective experience, there’s still an unsolved matter about it. There’s still no answer to the question about what part of a “mind-expanding” psychedelic experience is triggered by external stimuli and what part is internal. Or, what part of the experience is hallucinogenic and what part is reality-expanding?

    Peace out man

    • adriejan
      April 3, 2010 at 8:13 PM

      Thanks. What do you mean with erasing the dichotomy between theory and practice, thereby also erasing the dichotomy between subjectivism and objectivism? How are the two related?

      What I am interested in is a way to bridge the Cartesian mind-body divide, or better put, the idea of the Cartesian mind-body divide. In the terms that I would like to get rid of: is there a possibility to acknowledge one’s fundamental subjectivity, while also grasping objectivity? One interesting avenue, but one that I unfortunately know far too little of, might be the “fundamental ontology” of Martin Heidegger. This way of thinking aims to combine Husserl’s phenomenology, or the study of structures of consciousness as experienced from a first person view (which I think is hugely interesting in itself), with ontology. Heidegger sees, I believe, experiencing as a form or mode of being itself (Dasein); it gives access to Being (“the things as they are in themselves”); but how Heidegger makes this bridge between the subjective experiencing of being, and stating that this is objective reality, I do not understand.

      Other avenues are of course Eastern philosophy or Buddhist thinking, which is not hampered by the mind-object divide. It is interesting to speculate about how Heidegger might be influenced by this way of thought. In the humanities as well, the idea of the independent subject is increasingly seen as a typically Western construct, which is also something to keep in mind. The terms objectivity and subjectivity themselves might just be the product of cultural evolution.

      Which brings me somehow to psychedelics. I’d say that the whole internal-external divide is irrelevant when it comes to this. Saying that the experience of a trip is “all in your head”, merely caused by external stimuli, does not prove anything. After all, everything is in your head!, including normality. Which or what causes anything doesn’t matter. And of course, the one thing that psychedelics can also do, in addition to merely shake you up and make you question normality, is temporarily erase your (Western) sense of independent subjectivity… Which is where stuff is getting interesting.

      • maartenp
        April 3, 2010 at 10:08 PM

        Pragmatism teaches that the distinction between theory and practice is false. Something can only be true or real if it “works” in practice. So there’s no theory, but only intelligent practice and uninformed practice. Knowledge and action are not two different spheres “with an absolute or transcendental truth above and beyond”. Pragmatism provides an “ecological” account of knowledge: inquiry is how organisms can get a grip on their environment. Real and true are functional labels in inquiry and cannot be understood outside of this context.

        If that’s the case there is no room for an objective reality, but only a subjective reality. Or the subjective becomes objective. A priori knowledge and introspection are irrelevant for pragmatists.

        Ya dig?

  2. April 3, 2010 at 5:28 PM

    I believe it is absolutely incorrect that science says that we can grasp morality with our subjective minds. I think science is totally consistent with deBoer’s opinion. The fundamental problem at stake is Harris’s (and your) misunderstanding of what science and morality are. Because I believe that science is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between rationality and intuition, with the ultimate goal of explaining phenomena, and morality is a process for maintaining an appropriate balance between action and inaction, with the ultimate goal of minimizing harm, I think it is doubtful that science or morality will ever be more than imperfect approximations; yet I must now venture out of my cave, and it serves me to choose an answer that is immediately applicable, although I can never be certain that this answer is right.


  1. May 3, 2010 at 1:10 PM
  2. October 19, 2010 at 12:24 PM
  3. January 31, 2011 at 6:20 PM

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