Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Problem with Platitudes II: It's All Subjective!

Some people are excessively enamored of the fact that reality can only be experienced subjectively. It leads them to draw all kinds of goofy conclusions, among them one of the most laughable canards awaiting a serious student of Thelema: “Since everything is subjective, nobody has any ultimately correct answers.”

In practice, people who spout this stupid saying often acknowledge that people can indeed have correct answers about reality (“Look out! There’s a brick wall over there!”). But they often dismiss these answers as the products of “consensus reality” or a “shared reality” that we can speak broadly about but that comes apart at the seams when we discuss the particulars of a single individual’s experience. Thus, while consensus reality may not accept the existence of psychic powers, magic, spirits, ghosts, and the like, since reality is ultimately subjective, an individual’s subjective experience – such as, for example, seeing a ghost – can vary from that of the consensus. Thus, the consensus has no monopoly on the correct answer of whether there’s a ghost or not.

This approach is, however, simply a device for maintaining delusion, and it is the purpose of this post to explore the flaws of this platitude and exactly how it hinders individual progress.

Read on for more

In the first place, we have to distinguish carefully between two different things under discussion: experience and knowledge. The two are quite distinct: knowledge is a rational construct that one assembles on the basis of evidence. Some of this evidence is from one’s direct experience of reality, but other evidence is obtained from other sources of varying degrees of trustworthiness, which has to be evaluated (the conclusions of an expert that have passed through peer review are on the high end of the trustworthiness scale, while the rantings of a hobo on the street corner about aliens are on the low end: much evidence exists in between these poles). Arguably, this “other evidence” is also experiential (as one has to experience reading or hearing about it), but I am simply distinguishing it from experiences one directly undergoes in life.
Experience, by itself, has no explanatory power. All experience can ever tell a person is that one has had an experience of some kind. If one wishes to explain that experience, then one has to enter the realm of reason to form conclusions about the experience on the basis of evidence.

There are undoubtedly people who have experiences that they label “seeing a ghost.” But any given experience is just that: an experience of some kind (seeing a shape, or catching a glimmer out of the corner of one’s eye, or hearing the house go creak, or seeing someone’s head spin around). All the experience can reveal is “I had an experience of some kind.”
If one wants to start explaining the experience and say, “Oh, this experience was X [a ghost sighting, a successful magical ritual, an instance of psychic powers]” one has entered the realm of reasoning about the experience, and the conclusions that one forms through one’s reason are either going to be properly informed by evidence or they are not. Someone who says, “My experience reveals that I saw a ghost!” is blinding himself to the fact that it is his reason that is drawing that conclusion (improperly, in this case) on the basis of his experience. Hence, Liber AL warns that one can “fall down into the pit called Because, and there he shall perish with the dogs of Reason.” Someone who blinds himself to the fact that his reason produces conclusions will inevitably use that reason to reach false conclusions, simply because he’ll think he’s “transcended” reason and won’t use it carefully.

There are additionally two very different meanings of the word “subjective. The first meaning is “through an individual point of view,” and this “subjective” corresponds entirely to one’s experience. It is undoubtedly true that one’s experience of the world is subjective and that one’s experience will never perfectly, 100% line up with another person’s. The second meaning pertains to knowledge, for one’s conclusions about a given subject – including conclusions about an experience – can be classified on a scale somewhere between subjective and objective.

A subjective conclusion is one “colored by individual bias.” An objective conclusion attempts to combat such bias by taking in a great deal of information so as to produce a conclusion from as much evidence as possible. Note that all of this data will be taken in “subjectively” (i.e. the first meaning of “subjective,” personal experience), but this data, taken in subjectively, can still be used to come to conclusions that are more or less objective (in the second meaning of subject/objective).
For example, let’s say I have the subjective (in the first sense) experience of seeing some kind of apparently transparent apparition at the foot of my bed. I could form an entirely subjective (in the second sense) conclusion, by simply falling back onto my personal biases and jumping to conclusions, thereby allowing my reason to mislead me into concluding, “My experience proves that there are ghosts!” or “I have experiential knowledge of ghosts!”

But I could also form an objective (in the second sense) conclusion about my subjective (in the first sense) experience. I could make a comprehensive study of the evidence available to me, that there is no reliable evidence for ghosts, no known mechanism by which “spirits” or “souls” could exist (let alone leave bodies and “haunt” places), no room in any of our best models of the universe for the existence of such beings, etc., etc., etc. No single piece of evidence – by itself – is the be-all and end-all of the case. But all together the evidence points very strongly to the conclusion that whatever it was that I saw, it wasn't an actual ghost. Now, all of these pieces of evidence are gathered by me through subjective (in the first sense) experience, but the conclusion that my reason comes to does not have to be subjective (in the second sense). By appealing to all of the evidence available to me – and by forming as comprehensive a picture of reality as possible – I can attempt to create a conclusion that is as objective (in the second sense) as possible.
Even if I never figure out exactly what it is that I saw, I can still reach the conclusion that I’m not justified in saying it was a ghost. No matter how unlikely a natural explanation is, the evidence clearly points to the fact that any kind of natural explanation is somewhere in the realm of a billion times more likely than a supernatural one.

As we can see, it’s not “all subjective.” Even though I can only experience the world subjectively – and even though my personal subjective experience will be filtered through my brain and thus not 100% identical to someone else’s subjective experience – my conclusions aren’t limited to my first, gut, instinctual reaction to something.
Anyone who’s aware of optical illusions, pranks, and other such phenomena is aware of how easily an individual is fooled, how the subjective experience seems to be “revealing” a claim that it really isn’t. For example, in a number of optical illusions, my “subjective experience” tells me that lines are crooked when they are really straight or vice versa.

Except, of course, my experience “tells” me nothing of the sort: my reason draws this conclusion on the basis of my experience, and unless my reason is informed by more evidence – unless I can obtain enough information to see the situation objectively, even though I perceive through my subjective point of view – then I can easily be led astray.
Now it’s true that my subjective experience is necessarily different from other people’s in a number of ways. Even if I were sitting in the same room as you were, we would at least be viewing the same room from different angles. Further, we’d be viewing it with a different context of understanding and memories and different brains that will filter the details of our senses in different ways. I might be struck by the books on a shelf in the room, while you barely notice the books and are taken instead by the color scheme of the d├ęcor, which I might entirely overlook.

But despite the differences in our subjective experience, we can use reason to come to similar conclusions. The more evidence we each gather – the more objective each of us is about the process – the more similar our conclusions become. Though our conclusions may never be identical, they can be so similar that the differences are infinitesimal and irrelevant for all practical purposes.

[EDIT: I'm clearly talking above about conclusions about the room in that example. I am in no way implying that reason will lead all of us to hold the same opinions or will even inevitably point conclusively to a single conclusion in all situations]
Some believers are very confused about this point. Take, for example, the ravings of amadan-De, a poster who usually writes like an intelligent person until someone challenges claims he (apparently) holds dear. When someone does  this, he turns into a babbling fool whose arguments are laughable. For example, he's one of these "Thelema-has-lots-of-different-meanings" clowns, and when someone dares to suggest that Thelema is a real subject with a real definition, the buffoonery begins. Listen to this ridiculous rebuttal he once made to me:

In a world where the descriptions of the same brick-wall (to use a basic example) written by both of us would certainly not agree exactly and even after discussion we would likely still see subtle differences and value various properties/qualities differently it is a foolish thing to claim ownership of the only correct definition of anything.

It’s hard to know how to respond to comments so stupid. Sure, two people are going to perceive the same brick wall or the same leaf or the same whatever in slightly different ways through their subjective experience. But our rational conclusions – including correctly defining things – aren’t hampered in one bit – in any practical sense – by the minute differences between two people's subjective experiences.
Once more, in case anyone’s missed it, there’s a world out there, outside of my head and outside of your head. It certainly seems as if it’s outside of my head, and it certainly behaves as if it’s largely outside of my control. Our subjective experience catches some of the real world, but it is limited in all sorts of ways.

Rather than taking the limitations of our subjective perceptions as a permission slip to interpret the universe in any which old way, Thelema demands that we investigate the world – especially ourselves – and adjust those faulty perceptions so as to align ourselves with reality.
Put another way, the flaws of our subjective perceptions lead us astray from our actual inclinations. Instead of happily asserting that everyone sees the world differently and therefore no one is correct, Thelema requires us to correct for these errors, to attempt to attain as objective as possible a view of ourselves and our environment, so as to conduct our lives in the most fulfilling manner possible.

To do otherwise is to allow this platitude to build up the walls of our mental prisons.

1 comment:

  1. 93 Dear Los,

    I've been having a strange couple of weeks lately. A few days ago (to everyone's horror it seems) then I pulled an anagram out of Liber Al vel Legis.

    I,7 - "...Aiwass the Minister" = "I sin, I was the Master."

    Just one of the little gems that's been coming to me lately, and I just had this feeling that you would enjoy it. :-)


    Dara Allarah. 93 93/93