15 Jun 2013

Solving the Problem of Subjectivity

Posted by jofr

Google Glass and GoPro cameras make it easier than ever to show what it is like to be someone or to do something, because they show the world from a first person perspective and from a deeply subjective point of view. Everybody is able to record his own personal film from his individual point of view. If you ever wondered for example what is it like to take part in a Kayak Championship, then watch these videos and you will get a glimpse of it:

What is alpine skiing or mountain biking like? Watch these videos and you will get a first impression. We say “so this is what it is like to..” if we experience s.th. ourselves, if we are in the same situation, if we travel along the same path.

Why does this help to solve the problem of subjectivity? Because apparently “wearable” camera/camcorders such as helmet cameras show the world from a certain point of view, from the point of view of a particular subject. And as Thomas Nagel said [1] “..every subjective phenomenon is essentially connected with a single point of view, and it seems inevitable that an objective, physical theory will abandon that point of view”.
And as we have seen earlier, because subjective experience is path dependent we can solve the hard problem of consciousness by simply following the same path, showing for example what it is like to be an adventurer.

What is subjectivity? According to the “Oxford Companion to Philosophy” [2], subjectivity is a term that “often refers to unargued or unjustified personal feelings and opinions as opposed to knowledge and justified belief”. It goes on to say that “subjectivity has been argued [..] to be the ultimate obstacle to any reduction of the mental to the physiological. Subjectivity, on this account, is phenomenological experience, or ‘what it is like to be’ a certain conscious being”. And..

“the notion of subjectivity is also used, particularly in multicultural contexts, to underscore the importance of perspective, the fact that everyone sees the world from his or her (or its) individual vantage-point, defined in part by nature, by culture, and by individual experience” [2]

The vantage-point, the point of view and the first person perspective of the subject can apparently be well understood by cameras which show what the subject sees. What they do not capture directly is what the subject feels. The secret ingedients of subjective experience are emotions. Emotions are, according to Martha Nussbaum [3], “highly discriminating responses to what is of value and importance”, they are “judgements of value” and indicate which things are important to us and our well being. They also always belong to someone and contain an ineliminate reference to that person, they “view the world from the point of view of my own sheme of goals”. In principle, they “see the world from my point of view”.

Martha Nussbaum argues subjective experience means to make judgements of value. They involve emotions which contain a reference to a certain subject. In general one can speak of subjectivity if there is someone who makes a value judgements, for a example a jury. In sports there are “subjective” disciplines like dancing and figure skating which are assessed and judged by a jury. And there are “objective” disciplines where the results can be measure (was it short/long, light/heavy, slow/fast).

  • Subjective means to assess values

    • Subjective: making value judgements (good/bad) and assess values
    • Objective: making value mesaurements (short/long, ..) and measure values

  • Subjective means emotions are involved, which contain a reference to the subject

    • Subjective: in relation to ourselves, emotions involved
    • Objective: in relation to other things, no emotions involved

  • Subjective means there is a jury somehwere, which has to make a value judgement

    • Subjective: if there is a jury somewhere which has to make a judgement
    • Objective: if there is no jury, if it an be measured physically

So far so good, does it help us to tackle the problem of subjectivity? Yes. The longer the path we follow a certain person, the smaller the difference becomes between watching what a person does and experiencing what a person feels. Consider this film of the Mountain Games Steep Creek Championships. Notice the difference to the small Kayak clips above? There is an additional soundtrack. Sound effects and film music are used in films to represent the character’s emotions [4].

We do not only see what the actor sees, we also feel it to a certain degree because the sound effects and film music trigger certain emotions. We can see in films what is like to be in a train crash, to cancel your wedding, or to murder someone. And the sound additionally tells us what it feels like to be in that situation. The effect is so profound that humans indeed go to dark rooms to watch humans pretending to be other humans. Films allow us to view the world through the eyes of someone else. When we watch a photo or a film, we see the world through someone else’s eyes – those of the photographer or filmer. In films we learn to see the world differently, since everybody has a unique perspective and an individual point of view. And now we have even the devices that show it.

[1] Thomas Nagel, “What is it like to be a bat?” in “Mortal Questions”, Cambridge University Press, 1979
[2] Ted Honderich (Ed.), “Oxford Companion to Philosophy”, Oxford University Press, 1995
[3] Martha Nussbaum, “Upheavals of Thought”, Cambridge University Press, 2001
[4] Timothy Corrigan and Particia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction, Bedford/St. Martin’s; 3rd edition, 2012

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One Response to “Solving the Problem of Subjectivity”

  1. “The effect is so profound that humans indeed go to dark rooms to watch humans pretending to be other humans.”

    Excellent statement. I can’t help but think this has something to do with the importance of mimicry in ontogeny.


    glen ropella

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