mind, matter, meaning and information

subjective and objective states

There seems to exist in the human psyche the concept of a state of total objectivity; whether in the context of some particular thing of which we believe we can have perfect knowledge, or in general terms, where science is usually seen as the means by which it will be achieved. Most of us tend to assume that

  • there is a “solid” reality out there, independent of and unaffected by our perception of it;
  • it is good to know about reality;
  • we can learn about it by practicing “scientific method”.

A problem arises, though, if we believe that this process will terminate at some point due to our having learned everything. In fact the goal of total objectivity is unreachable; for one thing, we can never know that we have reached it:

...the word “truth” in science should always be written with a “t,” not a “T.” Scientific information is continually subjected to review and re-evaluation in light of additional studies or the development of new and more sensitive tools of analysis, so science is different from other areas of human activity because its ideas are always subject to re-investigation and re-interpretation. As our base of information expands and our experience increases, we expect that the scientific interpretations we make, and the predictions which we are able to make from these interpretations, will be better and better, but they're always just best guesses and always subject to change or modification... (Geneticist Dr. Doris Zallan on Science Now, BBC Radio 4, 3 August 1991. Quoted with permission.)

Scientists themselves are not generally so naïve as to believe in the attainability of the objective state. It can be conceived simply as the way things really are; but perfect knowledge of the way things are, union with reality, of subject with object by maximising objectivity, is merely an ideal, and to believe in it is to fail to recognise the essential difference between subjective and objective information.

Relative objectivity, meaning “a sufficiently close correspondence to reality for practical purposes,” obviously is attainable, even though the objective state is not. We must however distinguish between actual correspondence to reality, or accuracy, and the mere attempt to achieve it. Where absolute objectivity is viewed as an attainable state, that practical distinction is naturally neglected. “Objectivity,” “being objective” and similar expressions below will most often mean behaviour that would generally be expected to result in relative accuracy. The actual achievement of a degree of accuracy, though often of immense importance, of course, is not our particular concern here.

While that of objectivity is a state of affairs (the way things really are), the state of subjectivity is a state of mind, and unlike the objective state is for us certainly, though perhaps not easily, attainable. Sometimes described as non-cognitive consciousness, it is a state in which all action is spontaneous, i.e. unconsciously initiated.

Some sports coaching techniques seem to be aimed at maximising spontaneity of play: these include “The Inner Game” (see The Right Brain, pages 76-85) as applied to tennis and skiing, and the traditional martial arts of Japan and her neighbours.

The association of the martial arts with Zen Buddhism is well known, and D.T. Suzuki writes of Zen's goal as being the state of “absolute subjectivity,” (Lectures on Zen Buddhism, page 4) in which action (or, rather, the decision to act) is unconscious, and swordsmanship, for instance, is optimised. (Lectures on Zen Buddhism, page 19.) The author of Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel, a Westerner who learned archery in Japan, describes being taught to release the arrow “unconsciously”: “The shot will only go smoothly when it takes the archer himself by surprise...” (page 44).

It seems likely that the subjective state is the goal not only of Zen, but also other religious traditions; in particular those in which practitioners are encouraged to aspire to Enlightenment, as in Zen. Of course, adherents of such traditions might be reluctant to identify their ultimate destination with that of a sports technique, but Zen does tend to be relatively down-to-earth.

Despite the Zen-martial arts connection, it is difficult to believe that the state aimed at by the Inner Game technique, as a way to improve one's tennis, and the ultimate goal of major religious traditions, are one and the same. The concept of the subjective state is certainly over-simple for some purposes; but its explanatory power is such that the way forward would seem to be to refine, rather than discard it. (And one obvious candidate refinement is that its attainment be considered a matter of degree.)

The subjective and objective states may be considered absolute subjectivity and objectivity, respectively. In the state of subjectivity, there is no subject/object distinction—even though when we consider that state intellectually, as here, it seems there must be a subject to experience it, and something of which that subject is aware. In the objective state there is no subject.

In the state of subjectivity there is no conscious thought, no self-consciousness, no ego; nothing but awareness. In fact, the person experiencing that state is likely to feel more intensely aware than at any other time. This may be due to resources being freed from planning or any other kind of cognition, and utterly undivided, so able to concentrate fully in the “here and now” upon the senses, the immediate surroundings, the tennis racket and ball in the case of the Inner Game, and so on. Of course, the need for thought does occasionally arise—for strategic planning, for instance—but there seems to be no problem in moving temporarily out of the subjective state at such times, and then back into it. Or no problem, that is, once the ability to enter the state at will has been achieved.

The extremes of subjectivity and objectivity are the poles of a dimension upon which we perch, almost continually shifting to and fro. While attempting to solve a practical problem, especially one that does not involve people, indulging in abstract theorising or other intellectual pursuits, we tend towards objectivity. When engaged in some sporting activity, or deploying any physical skill, being creative, seeking inspiration, or making love, we tend towards subjectivity. Creative intellectual pursuits, like many others, require a degree of balance.

Copyright © 1998--2005 by Robin Faichney. This material may be distributed only subject to the terms and conditions set forth in the Open Publication License, v1.0 or later (the latest version is presently available at http://www.opencontent.org/openpub/). Distribution of substantively modified versions of this document is prohibited without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. Distribution of the work or derivative of the work in any standard (paper) book form is prohibited unless prior permission is obtained from the copyright holder.
Last modified 01-May-2005 13:30:13 by Robin Faichney .