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Subjectivity &  Objectivity  

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e-mail  Pete Mandik - Washington University at St. Louis Pete Mandik - Washington University at St. Louis

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1. Introduction

Many philosophical issues concern questions of objectivity and subjectivity. Of these questions, there are two kinds. The first considers whether something is objective or subjective; the second what it means for something to be objective or subjective—questions that inquire as to the very essence of objectivity and subjectivity. I call questions of the first kind "questions of application" and questions of the second kind "questions of constitution".

Examples of questions of application include (but are not limited to) the following. Is it possible for science to be objective, or are the claims of science inextricably bound up with subjective points of view? If science is indeed objective, is there anything that escapes its grasp in virtue of being essentially subjective (as some have claimed for consciousness)? Are the things that comprise the subject matter of scientific and folk theories things that exist objectively or are they instead the subjective results of the way our ways of thinking and talking carve up the world? Must all physical things exist objectively and vice versa?

Examples of questions of constitution include (but are not limited to) the following. Is objectivity an unachievable ideal that can only be approximated by degrees of intersubjectivity? How deep is the common analogy between objectivity and subjectivity on the one hand and the literary conventions of third-person and first-person points of view on the other? Are subjectivity and objectivity ways that things exist (mind-dependently vs. mind-independently) or are they ways of representing things (from a particular perspective or point of view vs. from no particular perspective or point of view)? If subjectivity and objectivity are ways of representing, then what are the proper roles of notions of truth and indexicality in a theory of objectivity and subjectivity?

Most if not all of the above questions should strike the philosophical reader as familiar. Each of the above questions has been explored individually by many philosophers, though few have explored them conjointly. I mention these questions to preview terrain I plan to traverse. I mention them also to call to mind concepts that will be key in my discussion of objectivity and subjectivity—notions such as representation, truth, perspective, point of view, mind-independence, and indexical. I turn now to delve a bit deeper into these notions, and the questions framed in terms of them.

2. Objective and subjective judgments

One common use of the notions of objectivity and subjectivity is to demarcate kinds of judgement (or thought or belief). On such a usage, prototypically objective judgements concern matters of empirical and mathematical fact such as the moon has no atmosphere and two and two are four. In contrast, prototypically subjective judgements concern matters of value and preference such as Mozart is better than Bach and vanilla ice cream with ketchup is disgusting. I offer these examples not to take sides on whether such judgements actually are objective or subjective, but only to call attention to a typical way of using "objective" and "subjective". The question arises as to what it means in this context to call these respective judgements "objective" and "subjective". Some have proposed that the difference hinges on truth. Objective judgements are absolutely true, whereas the truth of subjective judgements is relative to the person making the judgement: my judgements are true for me, your judgments are true for you. You and I can each utter "vanilla tastes great" but in your mouth this may constitute a truth and in my mouth it may constitute a falsehood. Subjective judgments are subject relative. Some philosophers have noted an analogy between this kind of subject relativity and a kind that obtains for indexical expressions. You and I can both utter "I am here" and thereby express different propositions. Some philosophers have construed indexicality as an instance of subjectivity and some others have even gone so far as to argue that subjectivity just is indexicality.

I will postpone taking sides on these issues, but let me spell out further what I take the importance of the above remarks to be. I call attention to the precedent of labeling judgements (and beliefs etc.) objective and subjective. In this discussion, it is representations that have propositional or sentential structure that are the first and foremost instances of objective (and subjective) things. The question arises, then, of what it is about these representations that makes them subjective. One suggestion is that the subjective/objective distinction marks a distinction in ways of assigning truth values to these representations, ways that are relativist and absolutist, respectively. Another suggestion is that the subjective/objective distinction marks a distinction in ways of assigning representational content to these representations, ways that are indexical and non-indexical, respectively. Yet another approach seeks to classify representational schemes in terms of the degree to which they reflect a particular perspective or point of view in the literal sense that pictorial representations represent the visual appearance of objects from a point of view. On this suggestion, pictures are the prototypically subjective representations and objective representations are to be defined in contrast. Among the issues to be sorted out in considering the "truth", "indexical", and "picture" suggestions are those concerning whether they constitute distinct viable alternatives, and if so, whether they are compatible. Such sorting will have to wait for another occasion, however. I turn now to consider a different way of construing the distinction between the objective and the subjective.

3. Objective and subjective existence

I again call attention to the precedent of calling judgements (and beliefs etc.) objective and subjective. Such a usage contrasts against a usage whereby it is not judgements but things themselves that are either objective or subjective. An example of this alternate usage would not call the judgement that the earth has an atmosphere objective, but instead it is the property of having an atmosphere that is objective. Such prototypical examples of objective properties are those that do not depend on the existence of minds for their instantiation. The idea of this kind of objectivity can be extended to include the existence of objects as well as the instantiations of properties. Objects exist objectively if they do not depend on minds to do so. In contrast, subjective properties and objects are mind-dependent. The central issues to be examined concerning this sense of the objective/subjective distinction concern the most theoretically useful and tractable way to construe mind-dependence. Does subjectivity as mind-dependence require only the existence of minds or does it instead require being represented by a mind? I return to such questions later. I close this section with some terminological remarks. I adopt the convention of calling the sense of the objectivity/subjectivity distinction that hinges on mind-dependence "metaphysical objectivity/subjectivity" and the sense of the distinction that hinges on kinds of representations discussed in the section above "epistemic objectivity/subjectivity". One set of questions that I am especially interested in concern the relation between epistemic and metaphysical objectivity. For example, as I will discuss further below, one way that theories of epistemic objectivity differ is over the issue of whether epistemically objective representations must be about metaphysically objective things.

4. The subjectivity of conscious experience

Thomas Nagel (1986) argues that conscious experience is subjective, and thus, permanently recalcitrant to objective scientific understanding. Nagel invites us to ask the question of "what it is like to be a bat" and urges the intuition that no amount of scientific knowledge can supply an answer. Nagel sees the subjectivity of consciousness as posing a special challenge to physicalism.

Before saying more about physicalistic responses to that challenge, I turn to examine Nagel’s characterizations of objectivity and subjectivity. According to Nagel, objective facts are the concern of science: the observer independent features of things, the way things are in and of themselves. For Nagel, scientific and objective characterizations are arrived at by abstracting away from any subject’s perceptions or viewpoints. In contrast, subjective facts differ from objective facts by being essentially tied to a point of view. Thus, for Nagel, conscious experience is the paradigm of subjectivity. Facts about phenomenology, conscious experience, what it is like for a certain entity to be that entity do not exist independently of a particular subject’s point of view. Another way Nagel characterizes the objective/subjective distinction is by saying that only the former admits of a distinction between appearance and reality. Objective phenomena have a reality independent of appearances but su bjective phenomena just are appearances. Consider the phenomenon of lightning, which can be characterized by the way it seems as well as the way it really is. It has the objective feature of being an electrical discharge, and this feature can be apprehended by multiple points of view. The same phenomenon has a particular subjective nature as well, perhaps its appearance to some subject as a bright flash of light.. In contrast, subjective phenomena and conscious experience have no existence independent of their appearance to some subject. Nagel wonders what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the point of view of the bat (1979a, p. 173). Nagel claims that science stands little chance of providing an adequate third person account of consciousness because there is no objective nature to phenomenal experience. Phenomenal experience cannot be observed from multiple points of view.

The alleged tension between the subjective knowledge of consciousness and the objective knowledge of science may be further fleshed out as follows.

I know what it is like to be me, but I do not know what it is like to be a bat. This is because I do not know what it is like to have sonar experiences. In order for me to know what it is like to have sonar experiences, I would have to have sonar experiences. Thus sonar experiences are subjective or perspectival. I must adopt a particular point of view or perspective to know what it is like to have sonar experiences. This is part of what it means for experiences to be subjective.

In contrast, consider knowing that the square root of 144 is 12 or knowing that table salt is a compound of sodium and chlorine (Tye 1995).. Having such bits of mathematical and scientific knowledge does not require having any particular kind of experience. This is not to deny that it may require having experience: maybe every one who has knowledge must also have experiences. But what makes a bit of mathematical and scientific knowledge objective is that it does not require having any particular kind of experience the way that know what iti is like to see red does. Knowing what it is like to see red entails having a particular kind of experience, namely, the experience of seeing red.

This difference between objective and subjective knowledge is at the heart of the famous ‘knowledge argument’ against physicalism (Nagel 1974, Jackson 1980). (See Torin Alter's article in this Guide.) The gist of the argument is as follows. A person that has never had any experiences as of seeing a red thing may nonetheless have exhaustive knowledge of the physical goings on in the nervous system of an individual seeing red. Such a knowledgeable person, may know all the physical facts about see red without having a red experience. But suppose this knowledgeable individual were to finally have a red experience. Many find it intuitive to suppose that such a individual would learn something new, namely, they would learn what it is like to see red. Anti-physicalistic conclusions are supposed to follow on the supposition that learning what it is like to see red involves learning some new fact. Prior to having the experience, the subject new all the physical facts, t hus in learning a new fact post red experience, the subject learns a non-physical fact. Thus, allegedly, physical facts do not exhaust all the facts, since they do not include certain facts about experience.

For the purposes of this article, the key aspect of the knowledge argument is the distinction between objective knowledge and subjective knowledge. I turn now to the question of what this distinction might consist of. What is it about knowing that salt is sodium chloride that makes the knowledge objective? What is it about knowing what it is like to be a bat that makes the knowledge subjective? In both cases, some suggest, it is the representational aspects of each that contribute to their objectivity/subjectivity.

In Nagel’s discussion of the subjectivity of conscious experience, it often seems that the notion of subjectivity employed is metaphysical in that he discusses objective things in terms of their existing independently of minds. At other times, Nagel talks as if he intends the distinction to be epistemic: He writes that "It is beliefs and attitudes that are objective in the primary sense" (1986: 4). Some have suggested that Nagel’s challenge to physicalism depends on trying to make the subjective a special metaphysical category, but that the challenge is met (or dissolved) by treating the subjectivity of experience as epistemic. The general strategy of this physicalistic response (i) notes that experiences are representational (ii) supplies an account of how representations can be objective and subjective and (iii) indicates how representational properties in general can be incorporated into a physicalistic framework.

One such physicalistic response to Nagel is due to the philosopher William Lycan (1996) (Similar accounts are advocated by Tye (1995) and Rey (1997)). Lycan's account of subjectivity is as follows. Experiences are representations. My visual experience of my blue coffee mug is a mental representation of the mug as being blue. When I introspect my experience, I form a second-order representation of the first-order representation of the coffee mug. Other people may form syntactically similar second-order representations, but those representations will be about their first-order states, not my own. The crucial analogy here is to the use of indexicals in speech. When I say "my leg hurts" I am referring to my leg, and only I can refer to my leg by using that utterance. You may use a syntactically similar construction: you may utter the words "my leg hurts", but in doing so, you would be representing your leg, not mine. Analogously, only I can represent my first-order states by the introsp ective application of self-referential indexical concepts. And this, according to Lycan, is the ultimate explication of subjectivity. The relevance of indexicals to the knowledge argument is supposed to be the following. Upon having a red experience for the first time, one can finally correctly apply the indexical thought "I am experiencing red and is what it is like" to the events in question. Prior to actually having the experience, the very same physical thoughts could be thought of, just not using the right indexicals. Analogously, you can think of my house without ever visiting it, but only after you arrive can you correctly think of it as "here".

Lycan’s indexical analysis of the subjectivity of experience is open to criticism both internal and external to issues of consciousness. One internal line of criticism concerns the viability of accounts that require higher-order thoughts for the subjectivity of consciousness. One external line of criticism concerns the degree to which Lycan’s suggestion is able to answer questions raised above concerning the objectivity and subjectivity of judgments. What, if anything, does the higher-order application of self-referential indexicals in introspection have to do with the subjectivity of the judgement that Mozart is better than Bach? I leave the discussion of consciousness and turn to briefly consider scientific applications of objectivity/subjectivity.

5. Objectivity and subjectivity in cognitive scientific explanation

Cognitive scientific explanations commonly quantify over representations. A version of the epistemic objective/subjective distinction appears in explanations of cognition under the guise of a distinction between allocentric and egocentric representations.

Several philosophers and psychologists interested in the topic of spatial representation have identified a distinction between egocentric and allocentric representations of space and described this distinction as one between subjective and objective ways of representing space (see, for example, Brewer 1996; Campbell 1996; Evans 1982, O'Keefe 1996).

For one example of egocentric and allocentric representations, consider certain kinds of receptive fields uncovered in single cell physiology studies. Fiegenbaum and Ross (1991) recorded the electrical activity of individual neurons in the hippocampus of macaque monkeys. In their study, they look for neurons that were maximally responsive the particular spatial location of a visual stimulus. They then changed the spatial relation of the monkey with respect to the stimulus so that, although the stimulus had not moved, it projected to a different part of the monkey's retina. Cases in which activity in neurons was still maximally responsive to stimuli in that location regardless of what part of the retina the stimulus projected to were regarded as allocentric representations of that spatial location. In contrast, neural activity maximally responsive to a spatial location defined relative to the site of retinal projection is regarded as an egocentric representation of that location.

The notions of allocentric and egocentric representations also surface in accounts of navigation. The Morris water maze is an apparatus filled with water in which rats can swim. Objects such as small platforms can be placed in this arena. Milk powder can be added to the water to make it opaque, and the level of the water can be adjusted so that when a platform is submerged it is not visible to rats swimming in the maze. In Eichenbaum et al. (1990) a water maze was set up such that rats had to swim to a platform visible during training trials, but occluded by the opaque water in the testing trials. Varied visual stimuli were positioned around the maze to serve as orientation cues. The experimenters trained intact and hippocampal-system damaged rats to swim to the platform from a given start location. During test trials, both the intact and damaged rats were able to swim to the platform if they were started from the same location as in the learning trials. However, the performances of the intact and damaged rats diverged widely when they were started from novel locations in the water maze. During test trials, intact rats were able to navigate to the platform from novel start locations, whereas the hippocampal damaged rats required much longer to find the platform, sometimes never finding it during the test trial. Many researchers follow O’Keefe and Nadel (1978) in hypothesizing that the hippocampus serves to create a "cognitive map": an allocentric representation of the spatial layout, whereas rats with damaged hippocampi must rely on egocentric representations of the route.

Navigation based allo/egocentricity may be connected with the notions of perspective dependence in the following way. Cussins (1990) asks us to imagine two different abilities employed to arrive at some destination in a city. The first, perspective dependent, ability would allow you to get to that destination, but only if you started at a particular point and then proceeded to follow a particular path. If your ability were maximally perspective dependent, then you would be unable to arrive at the destination if for some reason you were to deviate from the original course or begin from a different starting location. The second, perspective independent ability would allow you to get to your destination from any starting location.

Given the notion of perspective dependent and independent abilities, we can now begin to make sense of the notion of perspective dependent and independent representations or representational abilities. Imagine, then, that the representational repertoire of the perspective dependent urban navigator is something akin to the list of directions one might be told for getting to a party. They would be on the order of "starting at Moe’s tavern, go about five blocks down Green Street and turn left down the alley that has a blue van parked near its entrance".. If this were the only representation of the area that you had, such a representation would be quite useless to you if you started anywhere other than at Moe’s tavern. The representation employed by the other navigator, however, might be something akin to a map of the entire city. This map represents all the relations that the destination bears to all other locations in the city, allowing the map user to get to the party from alm ost anywhere in the city. Let us contrast, then, the way the list of directions and the map represent the location of the party. The perspective dependent representation of the party is a representation from the Moe’s tavern perspective. The map user, on the other hand, can represent the party from the Moe’s tavern perspective, but may also represent the location of the party from many other perspectives as well.

Note that in the discussion of the notions of egocentric and allocentric representations of space, notions employed in the previous discussions of objectivity and subjectivity reemerge. Key among theses notions are the notions of perspective dependence and independence. The role of indexicals in analyzing these notions again suggests itself: in the "Moe’s Tavern" account of perspective dependent representations, the directions to the party from the Tavern employed indexical terms. The question arises of how seriously to take this suggestion in pursuing an analysis of egocentric and allocentric representations as employed in explanations of the function of hippocampal and non-hippocampal neural representations of space. Does it make sense to think of neurons with egocentric receptive fields as indexical representations of spatial locations? Exploring an answer to this question, be it negative or positive, is a line for further research perhaps not best explored here.

6. Theories of Objectivity

In the previous sections I have indicated how the notions of objectivty and subjectivty have figured in philosophical discussion, especially those pertaining to the philosophy of mind and cognitive science. In this section, I briefly gloss some theories of objectivity/subjectivity that have been explored in the literature.

Above I mentioned that the objective/subjective distinction has two senses: a metaphysical sense and an epistemic sense. At the heart of the metaphysical notion of objectivity is the notion of mind-independent existence (where metaphysical subjectivity just is mind-dependent existence). What lies at that heart of the epistemic notion of objectivity is difficult to specify without describing a particular theory of epistemic objectivity--a task I postpone until later in this section.

For now I indicate the gist of the epistemic sense by way of contrast with the metaphysical sense. The difference between the epistemic and metaphysical senses hinges on the different sorts of things that may be said to be either objective or subjective. Only intentional phenomena--things that have aboutness (e.g., knowledge, beliefs, fears, judgments, theories, sentences, mental representations, and news reports)--are epistemically objective or subjective. So, for example, one might consider my judgment that the moon has no atmosphere an epistemically objective judgment. In contrast, my judgment that vanilla is the best ice cream flavor may be regarded as epistemically subjective.

The metaphysically objective and subjective are broader categories than the epistemically objective and subjective. All things, in the broadest sense of the word "thing" (e.g., objects, properties, events, etc.) are either metaphysically objective or subjective. Something is subjective in the metaphysical sense if it requires a mind, or more specifically, being represented by a mind, for its existence or instantiation. Something is metaphysically objective if it may exist or be instantiated without being represented. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder and truth is what ever I believe to be the case and nothing is good or bad but thinking make it so, then beauty, truth, and goodness would be metaphysically subjective.

It may be worth noting that something can be both epistemically subjective and metaphysically objective. My belief that vanilla is better than chocolate may be epistemically subjective. But whether I have the belief may not depend on the belief itself being represented. That is, the belief may be a representation, but it need not be about itself nor need any other representation be about it. Thus, the original representation, the belief, may be metaphysically objective. Likewise, something can be both epistemically objective and metaphysically subjective. Suppose that I believe that frogs are amphibians only if someone believes that I believe that frogs are amphibians. In that case my belief would be metaphysically subjective. But it would be epistemically objective since whether frogs are amphibians isn't a mere matter of idiosyncratic opinion or something. As mentioned above, it is hard to say much about epistemic objectivity without describing some theory or other. I turn, then, to the theories.

Three kinds of theories of epistemic objectivity include consensus theories, indexical theories, and correspondence theories. (See Rorty (1979) and Gauker (1995) for discussion of the difference between objectivity as consensus and objectivity as correspondence. For discussion of indexical theories see Bell (1992), Lycan (1996), and McGinn (1983).) Consensus theories define as objective representations that are agreed to be true. Indexical theories define as objective representations devoid of indexical constituents. Correspondence theories define as epistemically objective representations that are about metaphysically objective things. Here I will discuss only correspondence theories and use them to develop my own account of epistemic objectivity.

The core notion of correspondence theories is that an epistemically objective belief or sentence must be in some sense about something metaphysically objective. Rorty describes this notion of objectivity as "mirroring" for it is a notion of objectivity that involves the notion of representing things as they really are, that is, the way they are independent of the way they are represented. (Note that neither Gauker nor Rorty are advocates of the correspondence theory of epistemic objectivity.) A description of something as being a hunk of titanium would be epistemically objective, according to the correspondence theory, because something can be a hunk of titanium independently of any one's representing it as such. In contrast, my belief that Brussels sprouts are disgusting is epistemically subjective because being disgusting requires being mentally represented as disgusting. To contort a cliché: Being disgusting is in the mouth of the taster.

Gauker notes that since a judgment may be objective while false, since on a correspondence theory an objective belief need only purport to describe the way things really are (1995: 160). Thus, the aim of correspondence theories of objectivity is to reconcile (i) the requirement that the objectivity of a belief consists in its corresponding with metaphysically objective things and (ii) the possibility of a belief being both objective and false.

A natural, but I think incorrect, way of cashing out the correspondence theory is by defining as subjective any thing that depicts a metaphysically subjective state of affairs. On such an account, the sentence "a is F" is epistemically objective just in case the subject term and the general term both pick out things that are metaphysically objective. (For simplicity's sake, I consider only atomic sentences with monadic predicates (and later, atomic sentences with binary predicates), but I intend the points made to generalize beyond these simple cases.) This comports with the intuitions that the sentence "Jane is a mammal" is epistemically objective while "Jane is beautiful" is epistemically subjective. However, this version of the correspondence theory has the unintuitive consequence that the sentence "Beauty is a subjective property" is epistemically subjective. This seems unintuitive because, while beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, whether beauty is in the eye of the beholder n eed not itself be in the eye of the beholder.

On a correspondence theory, the difference between "John Smith is ugly" and "John Smith is a mammal" in virtue of which the former is epistemically subjective and the latter epistemically objective does not consist in the fact that the latter is true. This is because the correspondence theorist wants to allow that the former may be true as well. Nor does the difference hinge on whether the individual named by the subject term is metaphysically objective, since the cases do not vary in that regard. I offer, then, that the proper explication of a correspondence notion of objectivity requires only that the predicate correspond to something metaphysically objective. Metaphysically objective objects need not be referred to in singular sentences nor quantified over in quantified sentences in order for the sentences to be epistemically objective. Instead, I offer, what makes a singular sentence of the form "a is F" epistemically objective is that the property F named by the predicate term "F" is metaphysically objective. Thus I call the correspondence theory of epistemic objectivity that I advocate the predicational theory of epistemic objectivity. (See Mandik 1998 avalaible online for further discussion).                         

[To be continued in subsequent drafts. . .]

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