The modern mind differentiates itself from the pre-modern by making a stark distinction between the object and the self. Rene Descartes takes this to its logical extreme by recognizing that consciousness is the root of the subjective self. The body and all the senses could be deceptive, but there is something that thinks – cogito ergo sum.
Yet consciousness is experience. Whether or not the world is as our senses indicate, we experience sensations of taste, touch, smell, sight and sound. Those senses constitute experience, they are all that exist to the self. From those sensations we make sense of reality, drawing conclusions, testing hypotheses and trying to figure out why the world is as it is.
Before modernism the world of the senses was part of the self. Instead of a stark distinction between object and subject, the notion of subjectivity was expanded to include objects. Existence was rife with symbols, consciousness pervaded all of what one sensed, the self mingled with all experience. Modernism broke this link, and separated the self from all of what was sensed. The self — or consciousness — thus stood outside of the rest of the world. That world consists of other conscious selves, no longer connected through shared subjectivity, but disconnected from each other as separate thinking beings.
From there sensory experience was categorized, studied and tested. Since other humans appear to be as we are we assume that they have the same kind of conscious experiences as we do. Thus we are in a world populated with “thinking machines,” or bodies that function in service of a mind that itself may simply be a myriad of material chemical reactions — an extremely sophisticated ‘natural’ computer.
Other entities appear to have sensual experience, but apparently do not have the capacity to reason and reflect. These creatures are animal life forms. We know that animals can reason in a limited manner, but the lack of linguistic capacity and reflection mean their consciousness is different. Other life forms do not seem to experience the world, they just grow — plants lack consciousness. Below that are non-life forms such as rocks, soil and inert matter. Energy (and plasmas like fire) have a different status, though we know realize that matter and energy are the same — matter gets converted to make energy.
All this is accepted because it works in the world. We can analyze reality as if we are discrete minds experiencing a reality we somehow find ourselves in for no apparent reason. Yet this is an odd conclusion. If our minds consist of only chemical and electric reactions, with DNA shaping our personality and capabilities, then there is really no separate mind able to comprehend experience. Where does the self end and the object begin?
The self is our reflective thinking capacity. Yet where is it? Is it the brain? But the brain is made up of objects – cells, blood, chemicals and the like. What mix of chemicals, electric nerve impulses and the like constitute the self at any time?
At this level the distinction between object and self breaks down. There are lots of objects that make up the brain, but the self emerges from it in some indistinguishable form. To be sure, the self cannot live without the body (especially not the brain). It can lose some parts of the body, but if the body cannot function at a fundamental level the self disappears — the body dies and the subjectivity is lost.
But what if the modern take on subjectivity is wrong? What if it is not the case that a discrete subjective self is in a world of objects, trying to make sense of the objective reality in which the self finds itself? What if objectivity is an illusion, what if the pre-modern view of expanded subjectivity is accurate?
First, it is only habit and bias that cause some to dismiss that possibility. Since the self is constituted only by sensual experiences the idea that the self is separate from those experiences (or the source of those experiences) is pure conjecture. In dream states, for instance, no distinction is made between what one takes within the dream as sensual experience (you can touch, see, hear and taste in dreams) and the self. The dream is an illusion of objective reality during the sleep state.
There is no logical reason why waking reality could not be seen in a similar light. It is more consistent and less malleable than dream reality, but that simply means it functions differently, not that one is pure subjectivity and the other is a discrete subject adrift in a world of objects. Moreover, modern physics and brain research have mainstream theories that draw the same conclusion. The holographic principle posits reality as a complex hologram, with the brain operating much as a hologram operates (it appears there is no other way to account for how the brain functions).
The fact that it is possible that the stark subject-object distinction is an illusion doesn’t mean we should dispense with it. Practically, it has proven very useful, allowing us to manipulate the world of objects to achieve numerous goals. Pragmatically, accepting the object/subject differences makes sense.
But does that practical manipulation of reality require that we posit a subject-object dichotomy? Probably not. It does allow us to remove ethical consideration of how we deal with the world because objects that are not conscious (or in the case of animals possess lower consciousness) do not require ethical treatment. Killing a tree, killing ants and forging steel are all acts with no ethical content — we’re dealing with non-conscious objects.
If objectivity is an illusion and the self is mingled with experience, ethical issues become more complex. It still may not be wrong to poison ants or build skyscrapers, but the act of doing so could affect the subject in some non-trivial way. Moreover, how we deal with others would change. With the subject-object distinction we can assume that our choices are individual and thus have no impact on others unless there is some objective trace (e.g., we hit another person, steal their money, or something like that). Without the distinction then humans are not discrete separate selves, but may indeed be linked at some level with the rest of the world of experience. In that case, ethical systems built on the idea of discrete individuals interacting through choice have to be rethought.
Of course, one could argue that the experience of reality as objective is enough to simply make that a working assumption. Samuel Johnson used a similar argument against Bishop Berkeley (who also doubted the existence of objective reality) when he kicked a rock and said “I refute Bishop Berkeley thusly.” The object moved when kicked, the world operates as a world of objects. Yet as one learns in philosophy class, that doesn’t refute Berkeley or prove anything. Johnson simply gave a pragmatic reason for accepting the subject-object distinction.
An expanded view of subjectivity seems odd to the modern mind, even if that’s the “natural” state of the human mind in nature. Seeming odd doesn’t make it wrong, however. It also wouldn’t mean the modern mind is inferior to the pre-modern mind, only that we may have one point wrong and we should consider the implications for how we live and understand the world. This also could be an alternative to cold positivism and meaningless relativistic skepticism.
Row, row your boat, gently down the stream, merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream…