Subjectivity and the Limits of Science

A computer scientist friend recently told me that science studies the objective world and the objective world is the real world. Period. His abhorrence for religion did not carry over to art, pagan mythologies, and the works of imagination, which he found purely escapist but harmless enough, but did carry over to philosophers, as the latter breed seemed more forcefully to claim access to some truth outside the scope of the scientific method. I could bear with equanimity some of his slings and arrows, but I could not abide the assault on my brothers and sisters of the philosophical persuasion.

I submitted to my scientific friend that it’s misleading to call the “objective world” (which is the full scope of scientific inquiry) real or unreal; it is more accurately an abstraction from reality. There is no purely objective world just as there is no purely subjective world.  Each is an abstraction from lived reality.

(Don’t the abstractions called “objects” in computer science suggest as much? A computer program at Tulane University may have an “object” called Wayne Johnston. This object is an abstraction that consists of a character string (name), numeric string (birthdate), etc.  A different database—say that of the IRS—may also have an object called Wayne Johnston but with different characteristics abstracted. The physical scientist, like the computer scientist, studies only those details relevant to his or her level of abstraction.  But scientists sometimes forget this and make claims that go “beyond scope.”)

Just as the scientist elucidates valuable truths from his abstraction from reality (called the “objective world”), so might poets, philosophers, and Zen masters elucidate valuable truths from their abstractions from reality. When I look at the philosophical assessment of nature in Kant’s Critique of Judgment, or the elaborate expression of natural and human forces in the world of Greek mythology, or Blake’s visionary poetry, it’s not at all clear to me that these teach us less about reality than Darwin. I agree that they tell us less about the abstraction of reality called the objective world, but they tell us about the subjective abstraction of reality — love, friendship, betrayal, creativity, despair, all the flora and fauna of what Jung calls the collective unconscious. One could at least argue that this subjective line of vision on lived reality is closer to the heart of human experience than the objective line of vision.

But, you may argue, all this “subjective stuff” is really just the effect of objective stuff happening in the brain. We may be stuck with an irreducible chicken-and-egg problem here. Which is more real and which is the shadow cast? But let me try to work it out a bit.

Picture the first time you fell in love.

Now imagine we’ve isolated the electronic arc in the brain that corresponds to falling in love. Turns out, every time someone falls in love electricity fires across this arc. Now we open someone’s brain and you see the arc.

Which is more “real”? The subjective feeling you got when you fell in love or the electrical arc in the localized time-space of a certain lobe of the brain?

It seems like you as the scientist have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is just unproven, ungrounded nonsense unless and until we can locate the electrical arc that gives it a quantifiable, demonstrable value.

It seems like I have come close to saying that the feeling of being in love is the only reality that truly matters and the electrical arc is insignificant.

How about this: the feeling of being in love is one kind of abstraction from reality (we’ll call it “subjective reality”) and the electrical arc is another kind of abstraction from the same reality (we’ll call it “objective reality”).

Now let’s define “objective reality” as “reality abstracted as information.” When we see red or green or blue, what has happened is electrons moving at certain wavelengths have been decoded as information that is usable to the brain. Same with every other sensation we receive from the objective world. Your pencil is 99% empty space with billions of little atoms flying around, but you see and touch the pencil — you see it as abstracted information you can use (and the fact that you can use it as a pencil is a tremendous tribute to the power of human imagination).

Maybe we could define subjective reality as “reality abstracted as feeling” but “feeling” doesn’t quite seem sufficient in this context.

But somehow I suspect that the feeling of “being in love” is not about getting information. Surely we can study “being in love” and get information about it, but “being in love” is now being viewed “from the outside.” We have shifted the interface. We are now working from the vantage point of the “objective” abstraction of reality and see the objective aspects of being in love. This may prove a very useful study, and it can yield interesting information (such as the electrical arc) but it will never, no matter how many studies you do and no matter how subtle your analysis of the arc becomes, it will never give you the actual feeling of being in love. This feeling is by nature out of scope for an analytical tool that evolved to express information about the objective aspect of reality.

That’s the best I can do for now.


17 thoughts on “Subjectivity and the Limits of Science

  1. This is an interesting subject indeed. But I suspect that some scientists tend to assume that we can study the objective world. In my opinion that is too arrogant. As arrogant as the posture of fundamentalist religions and in this sense “science” behaves the same way religions do.
    We humans cannot study the objective world as we are limited by our five senses and our intelligence. If we study the objective world, there must be several objective worlds then. Because, as far as I can tell, classical physics and quantic physics don’t agree at all in their view of the universe but both seem to work at different levels.
    So as scientists, all we can do is to use the REASON to provide REASONABLE explanations of the universe. In that sense, it is possible to provide an OBJECTIVE reasoning strictly based on logics and testable ideas.


  2. Thanks, Ivan, for the interesting new turn in the discussion. After viewing your note, I believe my philosopher friends would say that science studies not the “objective world” but the “phenomenal world” (or the world as it has been mediated/constructed through our five senses). I believe this is the crucial distinction in Kant, who towers over modern philosophy: there is the phenomenal world (the world we can know) and the noumenal world (the world as it is independently of human apprehension). The noumenal world is entirely inaccessible to us but we may have to presuppose that it exists in order to make sense of the phenomenal world — will have to think on it more, or call in one of my professional philosopher friends.


  3. “Victorian science would have left the world hard and clean and bare, like a landscape in the moon; but this science is in truth but a little light in the darkness, and outside that limited circle of definite knowledge we see the loom and shadow of gigantic and fantastic possibilities around us, throwing themselved continuously across our consciousness” (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, from “The Coming of the Fairies”).


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  5. Most scientists would argue in the existence of an objective world. Scientific laws are one step removed from this objective reality. They are invented by humans, The scientific methodology tests the predictions of scientific laws against reality. The laws of science can never be proven – the aim is for us to diligently fail to disprove them.

    Now the existence of an objective world is a philosophical question that the scientific method cannot test. But nevertheless, science has made enormous advances and strides. You could picture science as the person who “goes out and solves a problem” whilst another person spends their time wondering whether the problem can be solved. You can doubt science if you like, yet we are having this conversation around the world, typing on keyboards and viewing each other’s thoughts on digital displays.

    Response to Ivan: yes, classical physics and quantum physics don’t agree. Both are incomplete models of reality, not reality itself. Classical physics is a good model for explaining any kinds of motion that aren’t at the atomic scale – QM is needed to study the very smallest objects, and relativity theory is a better model when speeds approach light speed. None of these models are much use for explaining human emotions or the rules of chess.


    • Thanks for another good comment, Steve. I think we’re not that far apart on the value of science and the limits of science. That we can type these thoughts to each other I think is a tribute to human imagination as well as to science.


    • Wise expression Gary: “The laws of science can never be proven – the aim is for us to diligently fail to disprove them.”
      We can prove theories but we cannot prove the reality. From that perspective we can just try to disprove a given interpretation of reality.


      • Hi Ivan. You can thank Steve Morris for that expression. As I mentioned on another blog recently, I say hooray to scientists and philosophers and artists, all of whom push in their own way to expand our range of fulfillment


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  8. I saw some of your comments on SelfAwarePatterns and thought I’d check out your post on this subject. I enjoyed this thoughtful write up and I think we share a lot of common ground if I understood you right.

    As a philosophy person myself, I see some of the outspoken and popular scientists as lacking in their ability to dismiss philosophy as irrelevant (which is actually a philosophical position and one that could be quite rigorous). Perhaps these scientists could be more philosophically rigorous, but choose to be rhetorical, funny, interesting, etc. I don’t know. I find it sort of annoying, but I take it with a grain of salt since a lot of them seem too breezy to be taken seriously. The circulated quotes make them seem dogmatic and unquestioning from the point of view of philosophy. In pitting science against philosophy, they don’t seem to be speaking to philosophers, but rather to the general public. That said, their quips get attention and spark interesting debates, so hooray to that!

    To speak more directly to your post, I appreciate that you’ve taken that step back to ask the question of what we are going to call “real.” This is a fundamental question that sits at the heart of the debate, but rarely do I hear it discussed at length. “Objectivity” tends to be preferred (called “real”) even by non-scientists, and this preference is a natural tendency. Heidegger thinks this preference is an error, and one which caused the problem of dualism, but I’d say he went too far.

    I made a little video about Heidegger in which my husband, a retired philosophy professor, gives a little laid back lecture of how the objective comes to trump the subjective…it’s sort of a thought experiment in how the objective is born and how it necessarily arises out of the subjective:

    There’s a transcript there if you don’t feel like listening to my first filmmaking attempt. (The audio could have been improved.)

    My position is that we need not dismiss one or the other.

    One of your comments caught my eye:

    “I believe my philosopher friends would say that science studies not the “objective world” but the “phenomenal world” (or the world as it has been mediated/constructed through our five senses). I believe this is the crucial distinction in Kant, who towers over modern philosophy: there is the phenomenal world (the world we can know) and the noumenal world (the world as it is independently of human apprehension). The noumenal world is entirely inaccessible to us but we may have to presuppose that it exists in order to make sense of the phenomenal world — will have to think on it more, or call in one of my professional philosopher friends.”

    I think there are a lot of different views amongst scientists about what we’re calling phenomena/noumena. Scientists view their work in different ways. Some are instrumentalists, others are scientific realists. Some may not really know what they are, but may waffle between the two (I’ve seen this happen in a Philosophy of Science course with a physics professor).

    Well, I could ramble on and on here, but I have an appointment to make…hopefully we can continue this discussion!


    • Re this and your comment on my

      I see science, I think, like Heidegger – that it is one abstraction of the world superimposed back onto the world as if it were the one and only real deal, and that its particular abstraction involves seeing the world as “objects” divorced from lived reality.

      But your husband’s fascinating lecture raises some fun tangents for me.

      If I’m not mistaking, Aldous Huxley argues in The Doors of Perception that consciousness evolved not to expand our apprehension of the world but to reduce it. Consciousness filters out all of the irrelevant stimuli so we can focus on the problem-at-hand and get something done.

      Or the visionary poet, Blake. The “mountain” of which your husband speaks is a construct of our sensory apparatus. Primordial consciousness for Blake is infinite, but the present cosmic age has narrowed our inlets of knowledge to the 5 windows of the 5 senses, and the mountain is a reflection of the 5 coordinates produced thereby. Blake exemplifies with “body” rather than “mountain”: “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul: for that called Body is a portion of Soul discerned by the five senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.”

      What would Heidegger make of art? It too would seem by definition to be a chunk of reality stripped of its utilitarian function. Someone with an artistic temperament might argue that all of the things of real human value occur when the utilitarian function is stripped away. Love for love’s sake (rather than use value), friendship for friendship’s sake (instead of use value), art for art’s sake. Could we say that animals apprehend only readiness-to-hand but evolution into homo sapiens involves evolving a capacity to see objects as present-at-hand, as mere objects in their own right; hence, the possibility of science (viewing the world as “objective” stuff) … and of art and beauty.


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  10. Reality should be never limited to that which falls under science’s scope, as you have suggested in your comment at my blog… An “objective world” would be an abstract world… Feelings and anything related to the subjective point of view would be literally excluded… But, even from a scientific perspective, one could never put off the scientific, himself… and even if he were the most flat, impervious human being… his subjectivity would be right there… I guess there are many trade-offs that somehow question the rigor of the methods, if you stop to think about it!…
    A great reading… very accurate points. Sending best wishes. Aquileana 😀


    • Thanks for your comment, Aquileana, and for your inspiring blog on philosophy, science, and the arts. And I mean no disrespect to science — it’s a very powerful tool within its scope. Btw: I’m not really a Popper fan — not only the science quote, but I recall also finding some of his Plato comments out of sync with my own — of course, it’s still nice of him to stimulate discussion 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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