Subject and Object: Reality as Person or Thing?

The distinctions between various philosophies and religions are often spelled out in hyper-technical language. An understanding of the millennia-old conflict between Idealism and Materialism, for example, demands an in-depth discussion of the nature of observation, causation, the nature of being, formal logic, and a host of other relatively arcane knowledge. It’s interesting, and even important, especially for those who want to understand all the twists and turns of the historical development of philosophy. But for most people, understanding the details of the conflict between these two philosophical approaches won’t result in any life-changing revelations–particularly since there are many conflicting subtypes of both Idealism and Materialism.

But at the heart of even such a seemingly arcane debate crucial questions lie. The origin of the Idealist v. Materialist debate was an attempt to explain the coincidence of thought, on the one hand, and the material world, on the other. Though modern science has basically resolved this conflict in favor of materialism’s view that thought is an “epiphenomenon” arising from specific structures of matter, modern existentialism and post-modern philosophy, especially in artistic and literary criticism, suggest that there is something yet deeper at question. Ultimately, one of, perhaps the, central question in philosophy is how to account for subjectivity and objectivity in one approach. It’s one thing to show how matter and energy, when organized in a very specific way, can generate, as it were, thought. It’s another question, though, of how to account for the experience of subjectivity. In other words, describing the physical and energetic causes of thought is still an objective understanding of it–how do we understand subjectivity itself?

Ultimately, the neuroscientific explanation of thought can only account for a broad matrix of electro-chemical interactions–billions a second–but there’s no clear reason that such a series of synaptic firings ought to yield anything but a piecemeal computation system. We don’t experience each of our sensory stimuli, each of our emotions, each of our cognitive responses, as individual events. They appear to us as a holistic experience that we call “I” or “self”. While there seems to be some evidence pointing to certain regions of the brain as the center of self-awareness, this would only explain the capacity of our cognitive processing system to analyze its own data–the actual experience of consciousness is not reducible to any specific physical action. It seems only to occur as a relationship of energy-matter in space-time. But its important to point out that it doesn’t “exist” at any given place or time; it occurs at certain places and times in very specific systems, but it’s impossible to actually witness–unless you are the consciousness in question! Consciousness, in other words, can never be reduced down to any simple system, it only occurs when a very specific and complex relationship exists. Yet, as subjective beings, our subjectivity is not some abstract philosophical idea–it’s literally the most real thing we ever encounter.

One of the interesting consequences of this is that what I experience as subjective, everyone else can only understand objectively. This is a central issue that Martin Buber took up in his I and Thou: he defined two ways in which people can interact with the world. The first is the I-It paradigm. In this frame, we look at everything in the world as a body of matter which we can interact with, modify, combat, destroy, or cooperate with to our advantage. Thus everything–from minerals to plants, animals, and other people–is seen only as a physical phenomenon, which we can understand and master through analysis and technology. The other frame is the I-Thou relationship, in which people experience whatever they are encountering as a “thou”–an independent center of reality and meaning. Essentially, in the I-It frame we treat the world as object; in the I-Thou frame we recognize the subject in what we encounter. But this recognition of the subject is always taken, as it were, on faith–I can never experience another’s subjectivity, I can only respect it.

Buber had no intention of denigrating the I-It objective frame; he recognized its vast importance in human life. But he did argue that it is only in the I-Thou subjective frame that we can build real communities, love each other, experience God, and work for the renewing of the world. Where Idealism failed to build a separate sphere for the mental world independent of the material, Buber succeeds, not be cordoning each off the other as Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Kant, et al. tried to do, but to show that they were actually united in a paradox. The objective is reductive and analytic; the subjective is relational and synthetic.

But a central question is to what extent this view of reality can be seen as scientifically valid. And on this question I turn to Fritjof Capra, a physicist who, in The Tao of Physics and The Turning Point, explored the links between the spiritual and the scientific. What was most crucial and interesting, however, were his points that, in fact, even the most reductive science is relational: the fundamental forces of physics (the weak, the strong, the electromagnetic, and gravity) only explain what various particles and fields do when they interact with one another. It’s not possible–not even theoretically–to analyze a particle without interacting with it energetically, and thereby engaging it in relationship. This fundamentally challenges the classical understanding of atomic physics developed pre-Einstein that assumed a sort of unchangeable basic “stuff” which was sort of stacked together to built the universe. Strange as it is, quantum mechanics, at least as Capra explains it, suggests that there is no fundamental stuff–the stuff only comes into existence as various probability fields interact with one another. So the idea that consciousness is nothing itself but a relationship, which would have been scandal to pre-Einstein science, seems, under the light of contemporary physics, not only be a valid route of philosophical inquiry, but perhaps the only way forward in an attempt to understand subjectivity.

For modern people–or at least for one modern person, me–this is crucial for “rescuing” not only subjectivity, but value and meaning in a scientific world. A relational approach to the world allows us to integrate the lessons of analytical empiricism with our subjective experience of the world as a place populated with persons, not just material-energetic activity. This has clear implications for spirituality, ethics, politics, economics, and almost every human social endeavor, which I hope to explore in later posts.