Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Objective versus subjective reality: Which is primary?

This post is a purely intellectual one -- playing at the border between "blog entry" and "brief philosophical essay"..... It transmits a small portion of the philosophical train of thought I undertook while wandering with Izabela at White Sands National Monument a few weeks ago. Much of that train of thought involved issues such as free will and the emergence of notions of self, will and reality in the infant's mind (the epigenesis of conceptual structures and cognitive dynamics in the infant and toddler mind is much on my mind these days, because in the Novamente AI project we're working on putting together a demonstration of Novamente progressing through the earlier of Jean Piaget's stages of child cognitive development). But what I'll discuss here today is a bit different from that: the relation between objective and subjective reality.

One of my motivations for venturing into this topic is: I've realized that it's wisest to clearly discuss the issue of reality before entering into issues of consciousness and will. Very often, when I try to discuss my theory of consciousness with people, the discussion falls apart because the people I'm talking to want to assume that objective reality is primary, or else that subjective experiential reality is primary. Whereas, to me, a prerequisite for intelligently discussing consciousness is the recognition that neither of these two perspectives on being is primary -- each has their own validity, and each gives rise to the other in a certain sense.

OK, so ... without further ado... : There are two different ways to look at the world, both of which are to some degree sympathetic to me.

One way is to view the objective world as viewed by science and society as primary, and to look at the subjective worlds of individuals as approximations to objective reality, produced by individual physical systems embedded within physical reality.

Another way is to view the subjective, experiential world of the individual world (mine, or yours) as primary, and look at "objective reality" as a cognitive crutch that the experiencing mind creates in order to make use of its own experience.

I think both of these views are valid and interesting ones -- they each serve valuable purposes. They don't contradict each other, because the universe supports "circular containment": it's fine to say "objective reality contains subjective reality, and subjective reality contains objective reality." The theory of non-well-founded sets shows that this kind of circularity is perfectly consistent in terms of logic and mathematics. (Barwise and Etchemendy's book "The Liar" gives a very nice exposition of this kind of set theory for the semi-technical reader. I also said a lot about this kind of mathematics in my 1994 book Chaotic Logic, see a messy rough draft version of the relevant chapter here ... (alas, I long ago lost the files containing the final versions of my books!!))

But it's also interesting to ask if either of the two types of world is properly viewed as primary. I'll present here an argument that it may make sense to view either subjective or objective reality as primary, depending on the level of detail with which one is trying to understand things.

My basic line of argument is as follows. Suppose we have two entities A and B, either of which can be derived from the other -- but it's a lot easier to derive B from A than to derive A from B. Then, using the principle of Occam's Razor, we may say that the derivation of B from A is preferable, is more fundamental. (For those not in the know, Occam's Razor -- the maxim of preferring the simplest explanation, from among the pool of reasonably correct ones -- is not just a pretty little heuristic, but is very close to the core of intelligent thought. For two very different, recent explorations of this theme, see Marcus Hutter's mathematical theory of general intelligence; and Eric Baum's book What is Thought (much of which I radically disagree with, but his discussion of the role of Occam's Razor in cognition is quite good, even though he for some reason doesn't cite Ray Solomonoff who conceived the Occam-cognition connection back in the 1960's)).

I will argue here that it's much easier to derive the existence of objective reality from the assumption of subjective reality, than vice versa. In this sense, I believe, it's sensible to say that the grounding of objective reality in subjective reality is primary, rather than vice versa.

On the other hand, it seems that it's probably easlier to derive the details of subjective reality from the details of objective reality than vice versa. In this sense, when operating at a high level of precision, it may be sensible to say that the grounding of subjective reality in objective reality is primary, rather than vice versa.

Suppose one begins by assuming "subjective reality" exists -- the experienced world of oneself, the sensations and thoughts and images and so forth that appear in one's mind and one's perceived world. How can we derive from this subjective reality any notion of "objective reality"?

Philip K. Dick defined objective reality as "that which doesn't go away even when you stop believing in it." This is a nice definition but I don't think it quite gets to the bottom of the matter.

Consider the example of a mirage in the desert -- a lake of water that appears in the distance, but when you walk to its apparent location, all you find is sand. This is a good example of how "objective reality" arises within subjective reality.

There is a rule, learned through experience, that large bodies of water rarely just suddenly disappear. But then, putting the perceived image of a large body of water together with the fact that large bodies rarely disappear,and the fact that when this particular large body of water was approached it was no longer there -- something's gotta give.

There are at least two hypotheses one can make to explain away this contradiction:

1. one could decide that deserts are populated by a particular type of lake that disappears when you come near it, or

2. one can decide that what one sees from a distance need not agree with what one sees and otherwise senses from close up.

The latter conclusion turns out to be a much more useful one, because it explains a lot of phenomena besides mirage lakes.

Occam's Razor pushes toward the second conclusion, because it gives a simple explanation of many different things, whereas explanations of form 1 are a lot less elegant, since according to this explanatory style, each phenomenon where different sorts of perception disagree with each other requires positing a whole new class of peculiarly-behaving entity.

Note that nothing in the mirage lake or other similar experiences causes one to doubt the veracity of one's experiences.

Each experience is valid unto itself. However, the mind generalizes from experiences, and takes particular sensations and cognitions to be elements of more general categories. For instance, it takes a particular arrangement of colors to be a momentary image of a "lake", and it takes the momentary image of a lake to be a snapshot of a persistent object called a "lake." These generalizations/categorizations are largely learned via experience, because they're statistically valid and useful for achieving subjectively important goals.

From this kind of experience, one learns that, when having a subjective experience, it's intelligent to ask "But the general categories I'm building based on this particular experience -- what will my future subjective experiences say about these categories, if I'm experiencing the same categories (e.g. the lake) through different senses, or from different positions, etc." And as soon as one starts asking questions like that -- there's "objective reality."

That's really all one needs in order to derive objective reality from subjective reality. One doesn't need to invoke a society of minds comparing their subjective worlds, nor any kind of rigorous scientific world-view. One merely needs to posit generalization beyond individual experiences to patterns representing categories of experience, and an Occam's Razor heuristic.
In the mind of the human infant, this kind of reasoning is undertaken pretty early on -- within the first six months of life.

It leads to what developmental psychologists call "object permanence" -- the recognition that, when a hand passes behind a piece of furniture and then reappears on the other side, it still existed during the interim period when it was behind the furniture. "Existed" here means, roughly, "The most compact and accurate model of my experiences implies that if I were in a
different position, I would be able to see or otherwise detect the hand while it was behind the chair, even though in actual fact I can't see or detect it there from my current position." This is analogous to what it means to believe the mirage-lake doesn't exist: "The most compact and accurate model of my experiences implies that if I were standing right where that lake
appears to be, I wouldn't be wet!" Notice from these examples how counterfactuality is critical to the emergence of objective from subjective reality. If the mind just sticks to exactly what it experiences, it will never evolve the notion of objective reality. Instead, the mind needs to be able to think "What would I experience if...." This kind of basic counterfactuality leads fairly quickly to the notion of objective reality.

On the other hand, what does one need in order to derive subjective reality from objective reality? This is a lot trickier!

Given objective reality as described by modern science, one can build up a theory of particles, atoms, molecules, chemical compounds, cells, organs (like brains) and organisms -- and then one can talk about how brains embodied in bodies embedded in societies give rise to individual subjective realities. But this is a much longer and more complicated story than the emergence of objective reality from subjective reality.

Occam's-razor-wise, then, "objective reality emerges from subjective reality" is a much simpler story than the reverse.

But of course, this analysis only scratches the surface. The simple, development-psychology approach I've described above doesn't explain the details of objective reality -- it doesn't explain why there are the particular elementary particles and force constants there are, for example. It just explains why objective reality should exist at all.

And this point gives rise to an interesting asymmetry. While it's easier to explain the existence of objective reality based on subjective reality than vice versa, it seems like it's probably easier to explain the details of subjective reality based on objective reality than vice versa. Of course, this is largely speculative, since right now we don't know how to do either -- we can't explain particle physics based on subjectivist developmental psychology, but nor can we explain the nature of conscious experience based on brain function. However, my intuition is that the latter is an easier task, and will be achieved sooner.

So we then arrive at the conclusion that:

  • At a coarse level of precision, "subjectivity spawns objectivity" is a simpler story than vice versa
  • At a higher level of precision, "objectivity spawns subjectivity" is a simpler story than vice versa

So, which direction of creation is more fundamental depends on how much detail one is looking for!

This is not really such a deep point -- but it's a point that seems to elude most philosophers, who seem to be stuck either in an "objective reality is primary" or "subjective reality is primary" world-view. It seems to me that recognizing the mutual generation of these two sorts of reality is prerequisite for seriously discussing a whole host of issues, including consciousness and free will. In my prior writings on consciousness and will I have taken for granted this kind of mutual-generationist approach to subjectivity/objectivity, but I haven't laid it out explicitly enough.

All these issues will be dealt with in my philosophy-of-mind book "The Hidden Pattern", which I expect to complete mid-fall. I wish I had more time to work on it: this sort of thinking is really a lot of fun. And I think it's also scientifically valuable -- because, for example, I think one of the main reasons the field of AI has made so little progress is that the leading schools of thought in academic and industrial AI all fall prey to fairly basic errors in the philosophy of mind (such as misunderstanding the relation between objective and subjective reality). The correct philosophy of mind is fairly simple, in my view -- but the errors people have made have been quite complicated in some cases! But that's a topic for future blog entries, books, conversations, primal screams, whatever....

More later ... it's 2AM and a warm bed beckons ... with a warm wife in it ;-> ... (hmm -- why this sudden emphasis on warmth? I think someone must have jacked the air conditioning up way too high!!)



Supurb Ben!

I totally agree with you that neither Objective nor Subjective reality has to be primary. They can both be equally valid.

However I've pushed the idea a bit further. I think that there are not one, not two, but *seven* different equally valid ways to describe reality at the most fundamental level. As you may have seen on the lists, I've recently been going on and on about these '7 Universal Knowledge Domains' (categories of cognition which I think are applicable everywhere in the multiverse). You can further devide up the 'Subjective' and the 'Objective'. I eventually settled on a 7-fold division of reality for my theory.

My final 7 categories were:

Mind, Morality, Models (Computation), Meaning, Mentality (Qualia), Maths and Matter. I hold they are all equally valid perspectives.

I'm strongly inclined to think that the secret to consciousness/intelligence lies in the *mapping* between the different fundmental perspectives.

Intelligence/Consciousness appears to be associated with the ability to *map* between different perspectives (i.e form analogies, metaphors). At the base level there may be some fundamental perfect mappings that are the actual cause of consciousness.

Your attempt to derive the subjective perspective from the objective one and visa versa is an attempt to carry out a *mapping* between them, so I'm most interested in these ideas.

Q said...

Overall, I very much like what you wrote and agree, in general, with the content.

My only contention would be the assumption that Occam's razor can be applied non-subjectively. That is, what is "simple" for one person, may not be "simple" for another. Whether or not an individual mind regards one theory as "simpler" than another is *dependent* on the theories extant in the mind of the observer.

Ultimately, that is why I believe that many will consider the "theory" of objective reality the "simpler" idea(s) (or vice versa). It is because the cognitive makeup of the one making the decision will manifest a preference with respect to those ideas he/she already has.

Somewhat obvious, but I believe it is a necessary point to be made and kept in mind.

Anonymous said...

Ben, I stumbled across an article you wrote about probability and science (Science, Probability and Human Nature: A Sociological/Computational/Probabilist Philosophy of Science) that raised some questions related to your blog post, so I will ask all my questions here. Thanks for putting so much stimulating information up on the web. I spent an enjoyable afternoon on your site. My academic background, by the way, is non-scientific (linguistics, religious studies, law, MBA) and I am a practicing tax attorney by trade.

My interest in this topic relates to a project I am working on related to understanding the interface between science and spiritual issues. This project is spawned by my fairly recent departure from the Mormon faith and hence the need to re-construct my worldview from the ground up. So I am biased by a life long experience with an extremely authoritarian religious organization that posits an emotional (and hence subjective) epistemology, making it easier to control the perception of what is real. This inclines me in favor of seeing the dark side of spiritual technologies, if I can call them that, while I still appreciate much that you have to say about their bright side.

I loved a quote I clipped from one of the essays on your site, which runs as follows:

“The evolutionary-history-bound nature of human emotions is well depicted in a snatch of dialogue from William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition (2003, p. 69) – a discourse by an advertising executive on the importance of humans’ odd cognitive architecture for his trade:

“It doesn’t feel so much like a leap of faith as something I know in my heart.” …

“The heart is a muscle,” Bigend corrects. “You ‘know’ in your limbic brain. The seat of instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. That is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it as all of consciousness. The mammalian spreads continent-wide beneath it, mute and muscular, attending its ancient agenda. And makes us buy things.”

“… [A]ll truly viable advertising addresses that older, deeper mind, beyond language and logic.”

This accords precisely with my experience with the marketing of religious products.

In any event, my questions related to the subjective – objective distinction deal with how we might use probability theory to assess the justifiability of religious belief system. If you have anything to which you could refer me that addesses that point specifically, I would be pleased to read it.

The following questions are drawn from the essay noted above.
First, you described the way in which science largely depends on what people agree is included in the set of data that can be measured and tested scientifically, and use a community of advanced Buddhists and the characteristics of caves on the dark side of the moon as your examples. It seems to me that your discussion in the blog of Occam’s razor and intuition based on experience is relevant to this, but in your paper you did not mention it. For example, the probability of the existence of underground caves on the moon depends upon data in our possession that we accept as reliable (“reliable data”) related to the probability that the government may be faking data, reliable data related to the characteristics of the dark side of the moon, reliable data related to the capabilities of moon expeditions, etc. The probability that the mental system posited by the Buddhists is real depends upon reliable data related to human psychology, physiology, neurology, reliable data related to the incidence of religious and other similar groups inventing complex systems of this type that have been shown to be highly likely to be the psychological equivalent of Ptolemy’s cosmology – useful in some ways but not descriptive of anything real, and whether any of the observations can be tested by third parties or is merely subjective. On reflection, do you think you may have usefully added some of the analysis in your blog piece to that essay? For my purposes, I liked the blog approach better than either the “progressive v. regressive” dichotomy you mentioned later in the essay (but I see how that is helpful regarding scientific research programs) or the idea that Hume’s infinite regress is broken by referring to instinct based in evolutionary theory. Using Occam’s razor plus probabilities based on all other reliable data appeals much more to me.
Second, you described Lakatos’ point that the use of probability theory is unfeasible in practice. I have not read him on this, but found Peter Godfrey-Smith’s explanation of him and others useful (see “Theory and Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science). Godfrey-Smith’s conclusion was that Bayesian probability theory was the best we had to work with, but that we did not have a justifiable starting point from which to develop probabilities. We have to start with a guess, and then refine that guess based on experience. Hence, at best we have a probability (the more experience the more likely correct) that we are using the right probability model. This sounds right to me. Hence, I would not say that the use of probability theory is unfeasible. It is just loose. And at that, it allows us to predict future “real” states with amazing precision, much more than any other predictive tool we have at our disposal. In what sense did you have in mind that probability theory was “unfeasible” as a means of choosing between alternative means of choosing our epistemic and other theories? I understand the way in which socially constructed theories can influence outcomes, but believe that this can be filtered out too an acceptable degree with enough attention. I thought Michael Ruse’s treatment of this subject in “Mystery of Mysteries: Is Evolution a Social Construct?” was compelling.
Third, you questioned our ability to rely upon the apparent accuracy of the predictions that any of our scientific theories produce because they are based on approximations that are computed using approximation techniques that are part of the theories being tested. Are not those techniques often tested on their own as part of separate experiments? And in many cases are not the approximations so close to reality in any event that it is possible to use the results to at least tell which scientific approaches are well off the mark?
Fourth, you use Marxist theory as an example of how the progressive – regressive dichotomy might work. This seems to me to assume a relatively efficient “market” of ideas. In that case, I agree with your analysis, and you are discussing scientific theories after all and great resources are dedicated to making that market efficient. However, when it comes to spiritual ideas in general, the market is often not efficient. Many religious groups suppress information, and you noted in other essays the human tendency toward conservatism, the tendency of ideas to grow roots, etc. Many religious groups harness this tendency and the forces of many cognitive biases and cognitive dissonance in an attempt to leave power in the hands of those who have it. Hence, I question the idea that the kind of intellectual market force you describe can be counted on to do much outside relatively efficient intellectual markets. Part of the market related to Marxism would be relatively efficient (the part that is academic in nature), but much of it is not. You of course limited your comments to the social science segment of Marxism.
To shift gears a bit, I read your review of Boyer’s “Religion Explained” and agreed with it for the most part. I wrote a long set of notes while reading that book, and my basic criticism was the same as yours. I thought that if you added Newberg’s “Why God Won’t Go Away” and a large dollop of Joseph Campbell to Boyer he would have been much better. I spent a week with Newberg and some of his friends this past summer, and find the things he is working on highly explanatory. I note, however, that your criticism of Boyer based on William James did not quite take with me. James went out of his way to study the anomalies of the religious world – those who had the earth shaking experiences. Boyer was focused on the run of the mill for whom ritual and tradition are much closer to the core of experience. Newberg explains the whole spectrum in my view from a different perspective. Add to that how we understand memory is reconstructed and how our perceptions favor what we need to believe in order to get along in social groups, and you have a pretty robust explanation of why religious groups have been so successful in many parts of the world. The religious market in the US explains its differences for what happens with religion in the rest of the developed world to my satisfaction.
And one general question. I recognize that computer games are not right up your line of work, but you do deal with complexity theory, and I understand that this is what underlies some games of the Sim City variety. Have you ever thought about creating something like Sim City but for the religious world? Change the behavioural paramenters of the group, or neighboring groups, or the environment and then see what happens. How dogmatic and faithful can you make them before they start strapping bombs to their young people and sending them down the way, for example? How highly can you cause them to value goods only received after death before your economy breaks down? Etc.
Thank you again creating a rich set of ideas for us plebes to study and enjoy.
I look forward to hearing from you.

Best regards,

bob mccue
Calgary, Alberta

Anonymous said...


I posted the above fairly late last night, and this morning woke up with a different approach to the same kind of problem that that I would like to run by you as well.

Let’s use something similar to your example of the Buddhist system of organizing consciousness as a test case. But rather than that system (which I don’t know anything about) let’s use the Kundalini Yoga system with which you and I are likely both at least passingly familiar. It posits the existence of certain energy systems within the body that can be stimulated in certain ways through meditative practise to certain effects, and offers many centuries of phenomenological data and even some scientific evidence related to various facets of its theory and practise. The question is, how could we best assess the merits and demerits of that system? I can think of several axes along which the analysis might proceed.

We might ask ourselves how likely it is that the KY system in question is real. That is, how probable is it that the various entities involved in the KY system, and the various cause and effect relationships posited between them, actually exist. Alternatively, we might be dealing with something similar to Ptolemy again – correlation confused with causation. Or as a further alternative, we might be dealing with something similar to alien abductions – correlation confused with causation supercharged by memory construction, various cognitive biases and perhaps some medical pathologies.

We might ask ourselves what kind of goods (tangible and intangible) the KY system purports to deliver, and how likely it is that it really does deliver them.

We might ask ourselves what kinds of goods the KY system actually does deliver in terms of individual and social outcomes.

We might ask ourselves which perspectives would deem the KY system goods “good” and which “bad”.

The “subjective – objective” distinction that drew my attention to your blog is obviously integral to this analysis. Without saying more about my approach (which is still under construction) I wonder what kind of methodology you would recommend for use with regard to this kind of issue. My interest in this question relates to how one might assess ideologies of all types.

When I have heard from you, I will respond with my own analysis such as it is at the moment.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

This is a test to ensure my comment will post.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this essay man. I'm totally gonna cite it in my Theory of Knowledge class presentation.

- Daniel

Some Guy said...

i enjoyed reading your "objective vs subjective reality: which is primary?" blog.

i agree with the bulk of your ideas,
and here's my take:

either objective reality or subjective reality being more primary seems simpler (more linear, and less dimensional) than the two being equally primary, and so indecision for the sake of pragmatics seems an inappropriate resolve here.

if the question is "which is more primary subject or objective reality?", and occams razor is the device which is being used to determine the answer, then the simpler of the two possibilities would be correct, regardless of the precision of data a particular system seeks, as any system is contained in reality.

also, when computing precise date, neither logic nor math are compromised by assuming that a subject must generate objectivity.

ultimately subjectivity is a constant in the total experience of any one observer, where objectivity is merely a gesture or attempt at understanding made by the subject.

also object permanence is mental and subjective construct.

i don't know i'm just kind of rambling at this point...i realize this post is very disorganized, but
i hope you let me know what you think.

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Anonymous said...

Nice article very late I know but you should actually look up Confirmation Bias and other related research. Its seems we humans are not logical by nature but actually engage in subjective reality and that is by default. We actually lie to ourselves to make our experiences fit our current set of beliefs so subjective reality is indeed Primary to the individual and closed groups whereas Objective reality is Primary to the larger population.

You should really study up on the lastest research. Much of what you use as example a suspose has been shown to be false but it was as much a surprise to the science fields as it maybe for you hearing it now.
However this does bring up a interesting question what would call those things that turn out to be false?(subjective or objective) the problem was that assumptions were made and accepted as fact when they were not.
You argue that they should be treated the same or held in the same regard. Does that mean a lie and a fact should be regarded equally? If I believe something and can convince others of my belief (even if it is completely false) is that reality? what then does reality mean other than perception (shared or not)? Subjective reality should only have an inpact on the subject it is a human failing to believe falsehoods and not correct itself even to the point of leading us to our own demise. One is valid the other is not. period. It only our mental construct that makes them seem valid. Ignorance truly is bliss in a world where people truly believe and argue that subjective reality is valid. Again are lie and valid as facts? because that is what you are arguing in a sense.

Ben Goertzel said...

To Anonymous -- I'm familiar with the Heuristics and Biases literature, and I don't see it as relevant to the foundational issue of Objective vs. Subjective reality. It "merely" describes some interesting habitual patterns of human cognition, which actually apply regardless of the issue of the objectivity of the world.