19 April 2013

The Myth of Subjectivity

BUDDHISTS keep implying that I'm a materialist. I've tried expanding the discussion by pointing out alternatives and nuances, but it seems hopeless. Buddhists only seem to have two categories: materialist and non-materialist. All scientists are materialists. Because I talk about science, I'm advocating materialism. It has become quite tedious. 

In response I've been thinking about subjectivity. We so often hear that the much vaunted objectivity of scientists is a myth. Yeah, we know. It's old news. This critique over-emphasises the role of the individual in science. Each scientist might bring an irreducible element of subjectivity to their observation and interpretation, but millions of scientists working together can sort out what is noise and what is signal. Objectivity is an emergent property of collective observation and criticism. Individuals certainly make contributions to science, but they almost always work in teams, and in concert with peers and critics. Scientists like nothing better than to prove a rival wrong, or at least criticise their sloppy use of statistics. And the success of this manner of working has produced breakthroughs that have changed the world, for better or worse. The infrastructure of the internet stands out as an monument to objectivity - virtually every branch of science is represented in some form.

The emphasis on the individual betrays the influence of Romanticism in these anti-science critiques. For the Romantic the individual--the subject--is at the forefront of their world. They resist making the subject an object of study because axiomatically the subject is indefinable and ineffable. To define and understand the subject would be to destroy the edifice of Romanticism entirely. Which I'd happily participate in.

How ironic, then, that so many Buddhists are crypto-Romantics since one of the main themes of Buddhist thought is the deconstruction of the subject. This takes many forms including an outright denial of the existence of a self. The early Buddhist critique of the self or perceiving subject is a little more subtle.  It assumes that all experiences arise in dependence on conditions, and examines the claim of an existent self accordingly. 

The five branches of experience (pañcaskandhāḥ) according to early Buddhism are: a body endowed with senses (rūpa), sensations (vedanā), names (samjñā), volitional responses (saṃskāra) and cognitions (vijñāna). When we take each of these in turn, or all at once, we do not discover any basis for an existent self. The classic formula is:
netam mama, nesohamasmi, na meso attā
this is not mine, I am not this, this is my not self.
In other words there is no subject: you don't own or control your experience; you are not found in the parts or the sum of your experience; and there is no entity which is you. What we experience as  "I", or the first person perspective, is simply another aspect of the processes of experience. It is an experience we can have, but no more than this.

In an earlier essay these three statements were equated with the three target properties for a first-person perspective outlined by Thomas Metzinger (See First Person Perspective). 
  1. mineness - a sense of ownership, particularly over the body.
  2. selfhood - the sense that "I am someone", and continuity through time.
  3. centredness - the sense that "I am the centre of my own subjective self".
When experience is endowed with these three factors, then experience appears to be centred on a perceiving self. The Buddha's deconstruction of the self rests on the inability to find a definite basis for the permanent self - nothing in experience is able to be a basis for the existence of any permanent entity since experience is an ephemeral process. Experience is quick-sand on which no castle may be built.

Metzinger's approach is to show how each of these target properties can be altered or disrupted in specific ways, by brain damage for example. The way that the sense of self can be disrupted implies that the properties must be virtual rather than real. In other words Metzinger also argues the sense of self is not intrinsic to experience. We might think of selfhood as like a Kantian a priori. The three target properties are a priori structures that our organism uses to make sense of experience in the same way that time, space, and causality are. Our interpretations of experience rely on properties that are projected onto experience, which by itself is otherwise incomprehensible. 

The intense experience of apparently being a self is a simulation--and every night it must be switched off and on again. The self is a myth, therefore what we think of as subjectivity is also a myth. All the beliefs we have about subjectivity are questionable. All the speculative philosophy about the nature of consciousness over centuries is based on reified subjectivity - making an experience into an entity. Subjectivity is simply what the brain presents to awareness in the absence of, or indifferently to, external stimuli. Subjectivity is a story, a myth, that informs our experience of the world, but has no basis in fact.

Romantics tend to play up the importance of our inner life. Dreams, for example, take on deep significance. Our unconscious urges, the Freudian Id, become reified into entities that enact a little psychodrama "inside our head". Romantic Buddhism emphasises the forms of ideology which posit a pure self covered in defilements just waiting to be freed from the constraints imposed by conditioning and society. The free individual is, in particular, spontaneous: their behaviour and utterances come bubbling up without being filtered through imposed frameworks like morality. In other words at the same time as attacking the myth of objectivity, Romantics affirm the various myths of subjectivity and reify the subject into a self. Romantic Buddhism is thus a total contradiction.

The Romantics were immune to the petty conceits of conventional morality. Some of the key figures of the Romantic movement were drug addicts. They eschewed conventional mores and sought to justify their hedonistic indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh. They sought to leave their bodies behind through ecstasy, and like many people in history sought short-cuts to the realm of spirit. Some Buddhists have, incomprehensibly, gone down this road as well. 

It is quite true that objectivity has distinct limits, even when applied by millions of individuals working together. Yes, there have been a continuous stream of stunning insights into the world and how it works that have totally changed the way we live, but some things are, and may remain, beyond our understanding. The contrary holds for subjectivity. Subjectivity is not what it seems and is, and will increasing become, accessible to study. Subjectivity is not unlimited or ineffable - these are just stories we tell because we are intoxicated with experience. By the way the Buddha seemed to take a dim view of intoxication with experience. We are quite capable of conceiving of the subject as an object. Subjectivity is amenable to study.

A major aspect of the myth of subjectivity is the search for something we call "consciousness". The search for consciousness is first and foremost hampered by philosophy and philosophers. Consciousness  has been the subject of wild speculation which mostly seems to take everyday hallucinations as real. If we were setting out to explore the phenomena of the mind today we would not, on the basis of anecdote and generalising from personal experience, invent a whole raft of wild speculative theories, each with their own jargon and then set about trying to prove one of them right. I suggest that the scientific study of consciousness needs to detach itself from centuries of metaphysical speculation however interesting and concentrate on making observations.

Let's not assume that the way we talk about consciousness has any basis in fact until we can show that it is so. Where is the evidence, for example, for a theatre of consciousness? We really only have personal anecdote! But, since the idea infects our intellectual landscape, we grow up with this as an unchallenged background assumption. If there is in fact no entity which might be called a subject in the brain or mind, then we need to start again and work out how to talk about the phenomena we can experience, including the experience of selfhood. The simple fact is that how experience seems to us, is not how it is. We should no more trust individual subjectivity than we trust individual objectivity. That we do trust it is a barrier to progress. For example we still spill huge amounts of ink and research funding on the fundamentally Christian notion of free will. Of course there are juridicial repercussions to doing away with the notion of free will, but recent research is showing that the question of freedom is badly phrased because of legacy arguments that have now lost their relevance (we're not longer interested in how God came to be so incompetent as to allow evil; Buddhists never were). Freedom is relative to a number of constraints. We now know, from scientific investigation, that all of our actions are initiated unconsciously and the appearance of a decision in our awareness is timed to make it seem like we consciously willed the action to happen. Whence free will now? How do we even conceive of morality in this new light?

I imagine that there will be great hostility to the downgrading of the individual to a biologically convenient fiction. Not only from libertarians, but from Romantics. We might be forced to admit that the Chinese view of a person, with it's emphasis on collectivity, relationships and obligations is more in tune with reality. Individual behaviour is not simply the product simply of psychology. Individuals are frequently responding to environmental factors, especially social cues. But Western society is founded on basis that individual liberty is a high good, if not the highest good. And if the individual is a fiction? Then what? There's certainly a lot at stake. 

I could briefly mention Lynn Margulis's observations that we are not individuals but communities. We are colonies of symbiotic organisms, some tightly bound in our cells and some loosely bound in our bodies. For every human cell in this colony there are 100 bacterial cells without which we probably wouldn't survive. Bacteria mediate our physical interactions with the world! I might also cite the fact that the smallest viable unit of humanity is not the individual nor even the family. It must be the troop of several families, or even the clan of several troops, for our genes not to become overly recessive and kill us.

Individuality, the autonomy of a self, is another myth; another Romantic myth. We are emeshed in webs of dependency and obligation from the molecular to the societal level. The myth of individuality is central to the divide and conquer policy of NeoLiberalism, and to the transfer of wealth to the wealthy creating disastrous levels of economic inequality in nations and globally. At present the rogue individual is free to exploit the community to their own advantage. Such individuals are even admired and made the subject of movies. Survival of the fittest ought to refer to the community best able to cooperate, but it seems to have become affixed to the predator best able to kill it's prey (this is a kind of Romantic Victorian fiction about how nature operates that modern science has yet to eliminate). We're a social primate species which is evolutionarily successful through our ability to empathise and cooperate,  so why do we admire rogue predators rather than successful team members? Something is deeply wrong with this picture!

Most people I meet have a crude, but effective, critique of materialism, though little appreciation of the sophisticated views of contemporary scientists and thus no way to really engage with what science is telling them about their world. I certainly value contact with people that don't fit this narrow mould but they are a minority. Almost no one I meet is aware of their Romantic conditioning or how it manoeuvres them towards particular conclusions about their experience of the world. Reifying the subject ought to be anathema to Buddhists. Ironically, it seems to be the norm.

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