Active Subjectivism: Navigating between Objective Truth and Subjective Falsehood

By Dr. Peter C. Lugten


It isn’t hard to do. Scientists tell us that all the people in the world are descendants of a group of only a few thousand people that lived in Africa less than 100,000 years ago, so it is possible to imagine that all the world could all live as one. Now, twenty years into the third millennium, there are eight billion more people and counting. Even so, experts insist that the earth’s resources are still sufficient to feed every one of us, and to provide each child with an opportunity to prosper, were it not for colossal issues of mismanagement. These issues are so pervasive that they can’t be fairly attributed to the misguided work of individuals. On the contrary, it seems that we must blame our very human nature: that it is still mired in the consciousness of our primitive ancestors. It seems well suited for internecine tribal conflict, but not for the co-operative husbandry of the global ecology we have overrun. There is good reason to suspect that this human nature has been shaped by self-perpetuating ideas which captivated the way of thinking of our most primitive ancestors and persist, largely unchanged, to this day. Biologist Richard Dawkins called these ideas memes, and physicist David Deutsch has divided them into regressive and progressive species. It is Deutsch’s lament that the regressive memes of maintaining the cultural status quo within tribal units completely dominated the human intellect for so many thousands of years, inflicting untold suffering and thwarting progress, and, sadly, that struggle continues today. In these pages I will attempt to expose the most basic regressive memes of all, our mistaken notions of truth and falsehood. I’ll do this by exploring their relationship to the means whereby we perceive, sense, and gather and test knowledge about the world, a process I call Active Subjectivism. These pages are excerpted from a chapter of my philosophy, The Inversion Theory of Truth, in which I break down this world of knowledge through a process of navigating between Sir Karl Popper’s Worlds 1, 2 and 3. The larger manuscript can be accessed by emailing me to request a passcode.

The Objective and Subjective States

I would like to start by dividing the world into two separate, different but co-existing realms. Following Popper, I’ll call them World 1 and World 2, which then interact in the most amazing way to form what Popper called World 3. For the time being, however, I must stress the importance of conceptualizing the difference between Worlds 1 and 2. First I will describe them, then I will give them labels, and then I will discuss definitions for these labels. 

To conceptualize World 1, imagine that the Universe began in a “Big Bang”, the stars and planets formed, and on Earth there existed mountains and rocks, rivers and the sea, but not a trace of intelligent life. All the objects in the Universe would exist in World 1 each as they are in themselves, without anyone having any knowledge of them.

World 2 occurs over a thousand million years later, as life evolved to that very pinnacle represented by philosophy students. These sentient beings are able to perceive World 1, analyze and understand it, and create mental models of their experience which are used to guide their behavior. World 2 is our conscious representation of World 1. I shall be careful to define my terms in this chapter, as I wish to introduce some new ones, and argue against the standard usage of “true” and “false” in particular. As a result, this entire work of philosophy could be dismissed as a mere reshuffling of standard definitions, but that would be wrong. The implications of a change to the meanings of truth and falsehood as they apply to knowledge, when followed through, enable us to reconcile the disagreements between all the philosophies that have gone before.

Many philosophers in the past have identified a distinction between the objective and the subjective. The word “objective” has been used to describe facts about an object that are interpersonally accessible, i.e. that anyone can experience, such as the fact that it is a certain color. I will use as a starting point the dictionary definitions:

“of or relating to an object existing independent of mind, belonging to the sensible world and being intersubjectively observable” (Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary), and: “belonging not to the conscious, or perceiving or thinking subject, but what is presented to this, external to the mind, real.” (Concise Oxford Dictionary).

In other words, the word “objective” refers to World 1, and by extension, the state of being in it. When we wish to describe the object as it exists in World 1, we will refer to it as being in the “objective state”.

The word “subjective” has been used to describe a person’s conscious experience, such that, in saying that an object is a certain color subjectively, we are describing something about the observer rather than about the object. Definitions include: 

“characteristic of or belonging to reality as perceived rather than as independent of mind” (Webster’s 7th New Collegiate Dictionary), or 

“belonging to, of, due to the conscious, or thinking, or perceiving subject or ego, as opposed to real or external things” (Concise Oxford Dictionary). 

In other words, the word “subjective” refers to World 2, and, by extension, the state of being in it. When we wish to describe the state of being of an object within the purview of an observer, we will refer to the object as being in the “subjective state” of that observer.

There may be some who have difficulty accepting that an object exists in these two mutually exclusive groups. This problem may be solved by way of the indisputable axiom of Descartes; “Cogito, ergo sum”, which can be split into two parts. Clearly, “I think, therefore I am, subjectively”, is a given, being a statement of self-awareness. “I think, therefore I am, objectively” is also necessary if we are to accept “Cogito, ergo sum” as a statement designed to communicate our condition to second parties. If we cannot accept our objective existence based on our thinking of it, then we are rejecting the existence of the material world and everybody in it. If each of us is able to accept the statement “I exist objectively”, as well as the statement “I exist subjectively”, then we are prepared to benefit from the very different powers that we, as objects, are able to obtain from a simultaneous existence in two mutually exclusive states.

The Objective State

This is populated by a universe of objects and events, some of which we are aware of, and many of which we are not. From a philosophical standpoint, there is an interesting distinction to be made between objects in this state: that between objects which have been perceived, understood and known, versus objects which have not been mentally processed, and are unknown. Here, we  are drawing a distinction between two objects, or the same object over time, based on a property which is not possessed by the object in itself. The properties of being perceived, understood, and known are attributed to the object during the course of its being experienced, and, as a result of this experience, the object becomes subjectivized, or transferred to the subjective state. (It still, of course, remains in the objective state).

The Subjective State and Essential Falsehood

The subjective state is the culmination of our active perception and understanding of the objective world. It depends, therefore, on active biological processes, both conscious and subconscious, requiring sensory organs and nervous integration which for each species of animal is an inborn characteristic. The resulting experience gives the illusion of “containing” the objective world within it, whereas it is, of course, contained by the objective world. This is just the first of many illusions that subjective experience conceives, and they are consequent to the attribution to objective objects of the extrinsic property of “being known”. Because our experience of an object involves a considerable element of illusion, we can derive an original and unorthodox definition of falsehood. Falsehood is the experience of any quality or concept which lacks an objective existence. Since the very property of “being known” is included within this definition of falsehood, all knowledge of the objective world, counter-intuitively, is basically false. However, this very basic level of falsehood, which we may call “Essential Falsehood”, has minimal practical impact on our affairs. It is necessary to understand what the effects of Essential Falsehood are and what are the limits of its influence.

Essential falsehood is incorporated by the information-processing infrastructure of our sense organs to become integrated step by step into our perception. Vision, perhaps our most sophisticated mode of perception, is inherently unfaithful to the objective world. It provides us with a prime example of a quale (pronounced qual-ay, plural qualia), defined as a property as it is experienced as distinct from any source it might have in a physical object. The very colors that we experience so vibrantly are merely differences in the energy of massless particles called photons, which are perceived as color by the brain. To oversimplify, what happens is that a neutral object reflects or emits light predominantly of one wavelength, then photo-receptive cells respond selectively to that wavelength, then the brain deduces what color the object should be, and then we experience the sensation of that color – one could almost say “imagine” it. Nothing is really colored except our image provoked by those photons. Since color is something we subjectively perceive, which objectively doesn’t exist, it is an essential falsehood. The auditory equivalent of this illustration is better known. What happens when a tree falls down in the middle of the forest? If no one is there to hear it, we reason that, objectively, it sends compression waves of various frequencies through the air, but that this, in itself, does not make any noise. If someone is there to convert these air waves into perceived noise through the biological engineering of his ear and brain, then it is experienced that the tree made subjective but not objective noise. Color and sound share the analogy, for objects have no color unless someone is looking at them. Color, like sound, is the product of the interaction between the object and a subject.

I have read of philosophers who categorically state that the tree falling in the forest makes noise, not merely vibrates the air, even when no one is there to hear it. To which I answer with this experiment. Instead of a tree, imagine an ordinary whistle. Suppose I’m wearing a noise-abating headset, and you are 2 miles away, but I blow it as shrilly as I can. You say it made noise, not merely vibrated air, even though neither of us could hear it. So now, headset off,  I pick up a high-pitched “dog whistle”, and blow it right in your ear. You and I still hear nothing, but this time, we have to agree that it made no noise, certainly, nothing we could describe as a noise. Presumably, it vibrated the air, but no more. However, Rover has just run in from the next room – he heard noise. This principle has been applied to the development of ring-tones for cell phones that are too high pitched for adults to hear, even though they sound out loud and clear to children. Therefore, we see that a noiseless vibration of the air will create sound in the minds of those individuals equipped to hear it. 

One can go further and mention that one in 100,000 persons are reported to share a neurological condition called synesthesia, whereby sounds are able to evoke the visualization of corresponding colors. This implies either that perceptive processing by these people is more inventive than it is for the rest of us, or that the rest of us are blind to an important natural property of falling trees and compression air waves, giving us a false impression of our world.

In the following paragraphs, the terms perception and sensation will be used without distinction between them, although pathological situations can arise that separate them. The best known of these is the “blindsight” investigated by Larry Weiskrantz and Nicolas Humphrey in the 1960’s. Lesions to the visual cortex of the brain can eliminate the sensation of vision entirely, leaving victims completely in the dark. Yet thanks to an alternate visual pathway through the superior colliculus, concerned with subconscious functions related to visual input, it is possible for these individuals to learn to navigate obstacles without realizing that they “perceive” them. 

There is one other aspect of subjective experience to consider and that is the emotional sensations, or qualia, we experience associated with our active subjectivism of objects, together with thoughts about our moods, aspirations, sentiments and affections. These sensations, such as joy, anger, fear, hunger and love, are an aspect of our experience we can call introspection.

Representational Inexactitude and Active Subjectivism

If subjective knowledge of the objective world contains inherent “essential” falsehood, it is valid to question whether the world actually exists as it is represented to us by our senses. The answer is disquietingly limited to either “not exactly” or “absolutely not”. To these possibilities we assign the terms “representational inexactitude” and “representational uncoupling”. They differ from representational exactitude, which is the impossible condition whereby our senses mirror the objective, without distortion, into the subjective. This situation would require the known object to be identical with knowledge of the object, which would require a thing outside the mind to be identical to a thought inside the mind. I hope to show why it is reasonable to believe in a special case of representational inexactitude, namely that the subjective knowledge of each individual in a species improves on the objective world by highlighting that information it gathers which is of particular use to it. I call this theory of mine Active Subjectivism. The emphasis that an individual will accord to aspects of its perception, and hence, to a large extent, the form its knowledge will take, will depend upon its biological requirements. Active subjectivism allows a selectivity in knowledge processing that ensures optimal speed and efficiency. In the late 1950’s, neurophysiologists demonstrated that the eyes of a frog will forward to its brain only the information it needs for survival. For instance, out of reflex, the frog will snap forth its tongue in a fly-catching movement whenever a black spot moves across its visual field, no matter what the spot actually is. Furthermore, the frog seems oblivious to stationary stimuli. Therefore, what you or I might not recognize until we had tracked it down by its noise and then observed the shape of, the frog has recognized as its next meal on the basis of a single moving image, and has already eaten. Clearly, this difference in response time is critical to the survival of an animal that depends on flies as a staple of its diet. Contrariwise, it would not help us to perceive flies in such a batrachian fashion not only because flies are not a popular menu item in polite society, but also because a frog, it was concluded, “will starve to death surrounded by food if the food is not moving”. (Lettvin et al: What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain. Proceedings of the IRE, Nov 1942)

In contrast, if we were to take the extreme position of representational uncoupling, we would adopt the argument that not just some part of our experience is a falsehood but that ALL of it is, even to the point of maintaining that the material world doesn’t exist. Famously, this was the position of Bishop George Berkeley, and is associated with the religious notion that Absolute Truth can be revealed to us by God. The full implications of such a stance are discussed in Chapter 2 of The Inversion Theory of Truth; suffice it to say now that such a universe, and, by extension, the notion of “Revealed Truth”, would necessarily alienate everybody except the person who maintained that view:  indeed, were it correct, nobody else would exist. Nonetheless, it is important to remember that the adoption in this work of a material world of representational inexactitude is a matter of faith and not logical proof. The useful role for logic in these pages is to show that any philosophy that strives for representational exactitude will be shown to exhibit internal inconsistency, incompletion, and ultimately, representational uncoupling despite concession initially of an equivalent degree of faith. 

In summary, subjectivity is the experience of a small domain of the objective state – that with which we are familiar – which has adapted through evolution to enrich and improve upon its raw material. Subjective experience of the objective state is more than a mere copy of it; it is a method by which the intellect can extrapolate from our experience both abstract thoughts and ideas that help us compete for biological success.

Active Subjectivism and its Role in Evolution

        Active subjectivism is an evolutionary process that improves upon the objective state of the world to facilitate our survival. Our sensory processes have evolved to be hypersensitive to the detection of threats to our survival, i.e., predators, , as well as stimuli facilitating the acquisition of food and reproductive opportunities. Consider the completely neutral perception of a shrubbery. Alice the Australopithecine examined it, paying equal attention to each leaf and twig, and wondered whether an orange glint of light was sunlight catching a flower, or whether it might be reflecting from the eye of a tiger crouching behind the shrubbery. Her friend Betty’s Activism Subjectivism immediately highlighted the orange glint and screamed “Might be Tiger! Run!”. Clearly, Betty is the more likely of the two to have survived this encounter to become our distant ancestor. Her Active Subjectivism has improved upon the neutral, more objective Active Subjectivism of Alice. By incorporating a greater degree of essential falsehood into her subjective perception, Betty’s life was saved by her ignorance of the complete truth about the shrubbery.

Objects, Events and Ideas

  At this point, it is necessary to enter into our discussion of objective and subjective a new distinction: the ability to distinguish between an object or an event and an idea. For example, David Hume applied the terms “matters of fact” and “relation of ideas” to his discussion of the subjective state, but his concepts need to be extended to the objective as well. “Matters of fact” were things knowable through experience, constituting the domain of genuine knowledge. “Relations among ideas” were formal principles of logic, knowable by introspective reflection. Their referents in the objective are respectively the objects themselves, and the laws that govern their behavior. 

By object or event, I include all things, objects and happenings, and changes of state. Objects and happenings are related in as much as happenings cannot occur except to objects, while objects comprise temporary assemblies of smaller objects, which have happened to conjoin. Precedence for this classification, objects being treated as events of uncertain substance or duration, was acknowledged by other philosophers, for instance, John Dewey. Therefore, in the category of “Event”, I include the objects and the happenings to which they are intimately bound. Which brings to mind Carlo Rovelli, who, in “The Order of Time”, gives this unforgettable description of the importance of objective events: ‘A stone is a prototypical thing; you can ask where it will be tomorrow. A kiss is an event. It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is a network of kisses, not stones.’

By “Idea”, I include all theories, thoughts, relationships, inferences and extrapolations, which imply a degree of analysis, and which serve to explain or account for the interactions of objects and their happenings or events. The categories of Events and Ideas are mutually exclusive. 

EVENTS may be both objective and subjective. An objective event is that simple, unadorned object and its happenings, already discussed, isolated to a specific time and location. A subjective event is our perception of the event or our experience of it, and it is known with a degree of certainty that corresponds to the trustworthiness of our senses.

IDEAS also may be both objective and subjective. An idea extends from and, in so doing, relates one event to another. In the objective state, an idea is the relation between cause and effect; they are the physical laws governing the interaction between one object and another, as they would occur in the absence of a human observer.

Within the subjective state, ideas link events in a process of understanding whereby their meaning is transformed into knowledge. These ideas are experienced as thoughts within our minds. The intent or content of thoughts is formed by our expectations or experience and is expressed in the meaning of statements drawn from them. It has been recognized that thoughts are not arbitrary patterns of activity within our brains, but instead, are highly structured according to syntactical rules of language. The work of Noam Chomski and other psychologists suggested that the infant mind possesses linguistic parameters, including possible sets of grammar and syntax, which are resolved according to cultural factors during different upbringings. By using such rules of sentence construction, we develop both a deep language structure (giving semantic meaning) and a surface language structure (giving strings of phonetic utterances) that constitute a generative grammar.  This enables us to issue well-formed sentences. In short, man has evolved as a manipulator of symbols with respect to inborn mental structures, which vary only superficially from one language to another, such that their meaning is understood and can readily be conveyed between individuals. Our ability to generate meaningful sentences is taken for granted by Active Subjectivism on the same biological grounds as is the belief that our subjectivism is a successful adaptation to improve on our objective chances of survival. Therefore, it is axiomatic that any well-formed sentence has meaning and is a subjective idea. “Cow the plus with beat Jumped laugh” is not a well-formed sentence, is not a subjective idea, and has no meaning. But “The cows are flying low across the basement” is a well-formed sentence. It has meaning despite being blatantly false, because cows can be imagined to fly across a basement, as we learn when we’re old enough to watch cartoons. Other well-formed sentences are descriptions of subjective events within our past experience, which are either inwardly thought or outwardly expressed. Some well-formed sentences are self- referential or paradoxical, and require a separate  consideration of their special significance. When expressed to others, these sentences rejoin World 1 to become “objective knowledge”, a special blend of objective and subjective that Sir Karl Popper designates as World 3.

Types of Subjective Falsehood

            The intersubjective ideas of objective knowledge are known with a degree of certainty that corresponds to our mental trustworthiness or that of our reporter. This is not necessarily very great. In the expression of an idea, the objective event may be misstated by telling a deliberate lie as might the defendant in a criminal trial, or by our being mistaken in our perception as might be a witness in the same courtroom. In this respect, the term “known falsehood” can be defined as a statement which contradicts our experience, and an unknown falsehood is one which in retrospect, might stand corrected by our subsequent experience. These definitions can both be derived from our original definition of falsehood, although it is necessary to interpose a degree of faith, as previously mentioned. Starting with both 1) the premise that falsehood is located in the subjective state, as being an experience without an objective base, and 2) the faith that the subjective state serves as an inexact representation improving on the objective state, we are able to distinguish essential from superessential falsehood. Essential falsehood is the process whereby the property of having-been-experienced is attributed to the objective state. This degree of falsehood cannot be avoided, and we can never know the degree by which it misleads us. For practical subjective purposes, it is irrelevant, as long as we are content in our faith that it is acting on the objective world in a manner advantageous to ourselves. Superessential falsehood is any subjective manifestation which, in addition to not being identical to an objective base, is not even the result of an essential operation on an objective base. In other words, such falsehoods are completely untied from objective reality. To the extent which they can mimic essential falsehoods, they are biologically disadvantageous. Fortunately, it is possible to determine the extent to which superessential falsehoods are misleading with respect to material objects. This ability depends on a certain property of matter which must be taken on faith: that it behaves consistently with respect to our experience at all times. Acting on this assumption, we develop, upon receipt of a claim made about a material reality, expectations about how an encounter with it would be experienced by ourselves. If the original claim was spurious, then the extent to which it was misleading is measured by the difference between our expectation and our experience. Both the claim (our expectation) and our interpretation of the experience are subjective ideas. When they contradict each other, or prove different, it is the expectational idea which is by definition super-essentially false. In this determination, the essential falsehood of all experience is not a factor. The act of acquiring an experience which contradicts an expectational idea is called the “disproof” of that idea. The idea is then, by conventional usage held to be “false”. There will probably be other spurious ideas which relate to material we have not yet encountered. These ideas, while super-essentially false, are not yet disproven, and, in a hypothetical sense, can be regarded as unknown-false.

The Concept of Truth

It has been said that philosophers, however much they may disagree about most things, use the word “Truth” as a property of propositions, sentences, or beliefs, i.e., as a property of subjective ideas and never of things, or events in the objective state. The word “True” is defined in the Concise Oxford Dictionary as:

  “1. In accordance with fact or reality, not false or erroneous” and

“2. In accordance with reason or correct principles or received standard, rightly so called, genuine, not spurious or hybrid or counterfeit or merely apparent”.

These definitions are descriptive of the “Correspondence” theory of truth. Other theories of Truth, the Coherence Theory, the Performative Theory, the Pragmatic Theory and the minimalism of Frank Ramsey are all ‘subjective’ theories of truth which ultimately depend on correspondence. Because of the essential falsehood in our experience, the Correspondence theory has problems with respect to the description of our interactions between the objective and subjective states. This difficulty is only made worse by the fact that, when we use the word “True”, we think of something that is somehow both complete (has 100% integrity) and self-consistent (is unable to contradict itself). Since it would be impractical to dissociate the concept of “Truth” from these connotations, it is my belief that “Truth” should be re-defined to be that which is both complete and self-consistent. According to my “Inversion Theory of Truth”, the word is no longer applicable to objects and events in the subjective state. These include the result of any process of subjectivisation, with the exception of introspective statements, such as “I am happy”, “my toe hurts”, or “I like beer”. It should remain as a descriptor of objects in their objective states. (Arguably, introspection is an examination of our body states as objects). These statements differ from statements of “revealed truth”, such as “I know that God exists” insofar as “revealed truth” is meant to say something about the objective world. Yes, it can be true that one knows one’s belief in God is profound, introspectively, without any truth being revealed about World 1. What we have in the subjective state is our knowledge of objective objects and events. This knowledge may be essentially or superessentially false, but never true. In the case of certain categories of knowledge, specifically scientific claims, we may try to eliminate superessentially false knowledge by means of a program described by Sir Karl Popper as “falsification”. The predictions of theories are rigorously tested, and, when found erroneous, the theory must be remedied or supplanted, and tested all over again. Theories that make useful predictions and survive falsification can then be considered “best knowledge” that we have available at any given time. They join metaphysical ideas, basically memes that cannot be tested, such as “I know that God exists”, and introspective knowledge, in the intellectual landscape of Popper’s World 3, or objective knowledge; the physical utterances, records and constructions that conscious animals share with each other and posterity. Within this world, Popper drew a Criterion of Demarcation between metaphysics and science, based on whether or not a thought system, (or collection of memes) makes falsifiable predictions. In the former, certain ideas tend to be considered “true”, certain authorities considered to be Absolute, without there being any ability to prove them false or bogus, and these memes tend to be regressive. The survival of civilization now depends on the final ascendency of progressive memes, of science and best knowledge replacing those metaphysical philosophies that insist on a subjective truth. Of course, you may say that I’m a dreamer, but regressive memes can be defeated with a word. Imagine.

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