On Subjectivity

Science places a heavy emphasis on the objectivity of the physical world. As a result, consciousness, and specifically its subjective aspect, is often understandably ignored. What interests us is not the experience of heat, but real heat, the underlying physical reality of molecular motion, collisions, etc. However, to say that the final scientific “picture” contains nothing subjective seems to ignore a large (and significant) part of our universe. It is important to note that when I say subjective, I mean the first person nature of conscious experience, not something based on opinion or personal feelings. Subjectivity is the most immediate and inexplicable aspect of consciousness.

Rather than just deny the existence of subjectivity (something I’d like to see anyone try without proving themselves wrong), we should try to understand what it is and its place in the universe.

Diffusion tensor image of sagittal fibres in human brain. Thomas Schultz, University of Utah.

First, to solidify the point I’m trying to make about subjectivity, I’d like to quickly lay out what is known as the Knowledge Argument. Here’s the scenario, presented by Frank Jackson in his (1982):

“Mary is a brilliant scientist who is, for whatever reason, forced to investigate the world from a black and white room via a black and white television monitor. She specializes in the neurophysiology of vision and acquires, let us suppose, all the physical information there is to obtain about what goes on when we see ripe tomatoes, or the sky, and use terms like ‘red’, ‘blue’, and so on. She discovers, for example, just which wavelength combinations from the sky stimulate the retina, and exactly how this produces via the central nervous system the contraction of the vocal chords and expulsion of air from the lungs that results in the uttering of the sentence ‘The sky is blue’. (…) What will happen when Mary is released from her black and white room or is given a color television monitor? Will she learn anything or not? It seems just obvious that she will learn something about the world and our visual experience of it. But then is it inescapable that her previous knowledge was incomplete.”

If Mary learns something new, then we seem to show that subjectivity (qualia) does exist and that it is quite different from the objective knowledge she held while in the black and white room.

Now, if we know that all mental processes are caused by the brain, and that the brain operates according to physical laws, how can a collection of neurons produce subjectivity? How can mere pulses of electricity create consciousness, a feature unlike anything else in the (objective) universe? I really have no idea.

But, let’s try a few thought experiments to see what we can learn. If, as I’ve posted earlier, consciousness is a complex collection of sensory input and motor/behavioral output, then does removing any or all of these channels cause a decrease or loss in the subjective aspect of consciousness? If I suddenly lose all of my senses (sight, hearing, position, etc.) and even become completely paralyzed (save for whatever is needed to keep me alive), I don’t believe I’d lose the subjectivity of consciousness. I’d perhaps get very bored and lonely, deprived of the sensory fix I so desperately need, but I would still have my thoughts and memories.

So, what is consciousness? What produces the subjective experiences that are so significant to me (that, in fact, define me)? It could be a separate region of the brain, some kind of coordinating or binding center. However, that seems to just push the problem into a mind within the mind. Everything I’ve learned about the brain shows that it’s a highly interdependent system, and saying that any one region has a single function is almost universally false.

Another option is that subjectivity is a “learned” process like language. Let’s return to the thought experiment. When I lost my sensory faculties, I maintained my subjectivity, but what if I were born in that condition (senseless and paralyzed)? Now the situation seems a bit different, but why? The difference is that I have no memories of stimuli and responses to fall back on.

A baby is born without subjectivity, merely reflexes and innate behavioral responses. However, as it receives new stimuli and experiences new things, it begins to learn from and form memories of these events. If the brain can compare incoming stimuli to memories of similar stimuli (which seems to be a big part of how the mind works), then there is a link between a past and present pre-subjective perceiver (p-p-potentially). Imagine we have a newborn who is crying. The cause is hunger contractions which trigger pain receptors and eventually his crying response. I should note that the infant does not experience pain, they are merely physiological responses at this point. Moments later, he sees friendly figures and reflexively initiates a feeding response which causes a cascade of responses ultimately producing satiety and he stops crying. A few hours later he begins to cry again from the same cause. This time around, the baby has a memory of the last feeding experience. The diff, so to speak, of the incoming stimuli to his memory leaves behind his now unpleasant hunger relative to the pleasant satiety he experienced earlier and he (perhaps consciously) initiates the behaviors that resulted in his feeding earlier.

The brain is still a physical machine, a computer. Features like subjectivity seem far-fetched for the computer in front of you, but maybe not for the type of computer the brain is. It’s a huge and incredibly active organ, constantly creating and pruning connections among its 100 billion neurons (supported by 10 to 50 times as many glial cells). Your brain doesn’t crunch numbers, but raw sensory experience and maybe that makes subjectivity possible.

Jackson, F., 1982, “Epiphenomenal Qualia”, Philosophical Quarterly 32: 127-136.

  1. Very nice point you got. Isn’t it similar to the tabula rasa concept in a way?

    Jonathan Solichin

    Aug 23, 09:26 PM #

  2. I’ve come to the conclusion that science cannot explain qualia so long as we restrict the idea of qualia to a purely private, purely subjective phenomena. I believe that qualia, in that sense, simply do not exist. But I do believe that qualia, more generally, in the sense of “what it is like to be…” can be studied scientifically. The key is to understand qualia in terms of “process philosophy” (grounded on the work of A.N. Whitehead). The bottom line is that qualia are not physically located in the brain. The world-as-a-whole is a single process, and any given quale is a worldly subprocess that “ends in a brain.” In most cases, the process that constitutes a quale is a process that extends over vast expanses of spacetime, but culminates in a brain process. This requires the elimination of the idea of fundamental substance. Process is fundamental, but substances are always emergent (never fundamental). You might like an article I published called Quantum Sex (yeah…go ahead and laugh ;-) in which I somewhat address the issue of qualia from this perspective (in a larger context that you might find amusing). If you click on my name/homepage, the link should take you there.

    Gaylen Moore

    Aug 24, 06:51 AM #

  3. Jonathan Solichin: Very nice point you got. Isn’t it similar to the tabula rasa concept in a way?

    Definitely. If we start off with a simple grid of interconnected neurons and those connections are developed and pruned from early stages of development, then it’s like a blank slate.

    Gaylen Moore: The key is to understand qualia in terms of “process philosophy” (grounded on the work of A.N. Whitehead).

    Very cool article, it took me a few reads to grasp the process paragraphs (and I’m not sure I’ve gotten it completely). It takes a huge shift in how we think about our universe to be able to understand something so hugely different.


    Aug 24, 05:27 PM #

  4. Ok say we view the brain as a physical machine, what about the “thing” powering the brain? We use our brains (or not), I am typing this comment, yet I realize that my body is simply an instrument being used to act out my will..so I ask, what is it that powers the body and subsequently the brain? Descartes said “I think therefore I am”, as far as i am concerned “I am therefore I think”. All there is is subjectivity…none of us experiences anything from within anothers body. Of course science places “a heavy emphasis on the objectivity of the physical world”, science would have us believe that the human race evolved from some form of primeape, just to justify evolution! Even science knows that it cant truly know anything for a surety that is why all theories are left open to be changed in case something new is found. Science does not want to deal with anything that can not be measured, calculated and repeated…therefore it totally excludes anything spiritual denying a part of what it means to be human. Physics tells us that on the subatomic level there is no distinction between matter and energy…the soul is a very real thing and until there is a merger of science and an understanding of the human spirit the picture will always be incomplete.


    Sep 10, 02:46 PM #

  5. Hi astronaut,

    I talked a bit about how the experience of “willing from within” could be described in terms of a central nervous system here and here. Basically though, it’s the most efficient way to have a fine level of control over so many muscles. This (motor output), combined with sensory input could be precursors to advanced consciousness.

    science would have us believe that the human race evolved from some form of primeape, just to justify evolution! Even science knows that it cant truly know anything for a surety that is why all theories are left open to be changed in case something new is found.

    Well, we did evolve from primates. I think you’re talking about the problem of induction which is a very interesting issue, but it’s mostly a philosophical problem and not really an argument against evolution. Do you think the sun will rise tomorrow? When you walk down the street do you count on not suddenly floating into the sky? Yes, you make these assumptions because they help you get through your day. Similarly, scientists make the assumption that the future will resemble the past. Just as you make the assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow, scientists make the assumption that physical laws like gravity will continue to operate as they always have.

    I don’t know that the soul is a very real thing. I do think, however, that the brain is at least a very important component in producing consciousness and that we can study how the brain operates to learn more about what consciousness is.


    Sep 12, 07:26 AM #

  6. Subjectivity

    Every conscious experience will be having contributions from both the object and the subject.The

    experience is an interaction of natures and they appear to be intertwined.

    Sensory inputs are processed by neurons,transmitters and chemicals of the brain ( carrying our

    genetic nature).This process is also influenced by acquired nature traceable to past

    experience.The inputs,processors and processing are unique to the particular brain and hence

    their product,the conscious experience is unique to the individual.

    The unique contributions of the subject, within conscious experience may be thought of as

    subjectivity.Subjectivity need not confine itself to qualia or “what it is to be like“feelings.

    Subjectivity reveals the nature of the self.


    Mar 23, 10:57 PM #

  7. Subjectivity may be an accumulation of interactions. I don’t recall who suggested a rainbow is neither in the world nor in our heads, but a phenomena of both water drops in the air AND our position in space relative to it. What is ‘in our heads’ isn’t magical or imaginary, and thus inaccessible. It’s because no one has our specificity of arrangements.


    Jul 2, 04:40 PM #

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