A Confusion of the term Subjectivity in the philosophy of Mind *

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1 A Confusion of the term Subjectivity in the philosophy of Mind * Chienchih Chi ( 冀劍制 ) Assistant professor Department of Philosophy, Huafan University, Taiwan ( 華梵大學 ) Abstract In this paper, I argue that unlike the mental concept "pain", the concept subjectivity is a reducible concept. My main reason is that we cannot find any subjective phenomenon or quale that especially belongs to subjectivity. Although we say that all types of qualia or subjective phenomena have subjectivity, there is no similarity among them except that they are all subjective. This subjective, I believe, is where we know about subjectivity. In addition, this subjective can be explained by self-detection mechanism, which is not a subjective concept. Thus, we can also claim that subjectivity is not subjective. 1. Irreducibility of the Mind Some theories suggests that physical concepts cannot explain the mind completely. Taking pain as an example, many scientists and philosophers suggest that pain is nothing but neural activities, but this kind of reductive explanation encounters a problem that the most important quality of the pain has been left out (Searle 1992, p.117). Thus, they conclude that the mental is irreducible to the physical (Nagel 1974; Jackson 1982; 1986; Searle 1992; Chalmers 1996). In addition, when we discuss the problem of the irreducibility of the mind, we often use the concept subjectivity to indicate what is left out. As Searle says, * The 12 th annual Meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness (ASSC12), 2008/6/19-22, National Taiwan University, Taipei, Taiwan. 1

2 For scientific purposes, we might even define a pain in the elbow as a sequence of certain sorts of neuron firings occurring in such and such a place in the brain. But we leave something out in this case, something essential to our concept of consciousness. What we leave out is subjectivity. (Searle 1998, p.57) These words may make an impression that subjectivity is one thing that really exists, and then we may have a following reasoning, all mental phenomena possess one thing called subjectivity that makes these mental phenomena irreducible, so that the mind is irreducible. In this paper, I would like to argue that this kind of reasoning is misleading. Even when we discuss subjective phenomena, subjectivity can only exists as a concept, not a real thing that exists in the world. The problem of the irreducibility of the mind is the problem of each quale, but nothing that can be called subjectivity exists as a part of the mind and makes the mind irreducible. Indeed we can say that all qualia have a common property, which makes us called them subjective. I believe this is not a misleading expression, and I also agree that based on this expression, we can say that all qualia possess subjectivity. Here, subjectivity may really refer to something in the world. However, under this expression, the term subjectivity can be understood as an objective concept rather than subjective concept. This means we can use objective concept to thoroughly explain subjectivity in this expression. Thus, subjectivity under this expression refers to nothing subjective. Since we may confuse these two meanings of subjectivity, there is confusion when we use it to discuss the problem of the irreducibility of the mind. 2. Subjective and Non-subjective Before discussing whether one thing is subjective or not, I would like to do a simple analysis between subjective and non-subjective entities. First, some examples like the sensation of red and the feeling of pain are unquestionably subjective. Emotions like sadness and happiness are also subjective. These subjective entities have a common property that one needs to have a specific experience to understand 2

3 the term that is used to describe the specific experience. For example, if we do not have the specific experience of red, then we cannot know what the red is. In addition, if we do not have the specific experience of being a bat, then we do not know what it is like to be a bat (Jackson 1982, 1986; Nagel 1974). For non-subjective entities, we do not need any specific experience to understand them. For example, we do not need any specific experience to know what or why 1+1=2 and {[(P Q) & P] Q}. Thus, we say that math and logic are both non-subjective things. However, most concepts possess subjective and objective content. For example, we know colors through both the first person point of view and the third person point of view, the content of sensation belongs to a subjective aspect and the knowledge of physical waves belongs to an objective aspect. When we try to use their objective content to explain their subjective content, we encounter the problem of the irreducibility of the mind. Some philosophers and scientists believe that the key in this problem is subjectivity. It seems to suggest that all subjective content or subjective objects possess a property called subjectivity, which makes them irreducible. I think this is a mistaken thought. For clearly explaining this, we need to think how we get this concept subjectivity and what it may refer to. 3. The acquiring process of the concept subjectivity When we learn how to use the term subjectivity and acquire the concept, what does it refer to? This answer can also show what the subjectivity is. If we can answer this question, then it is easier to find the answer of whether subjectivity contains subjective content and whether it is reducible. But, it is very hard to directly answer this question. However, we can only get some clues from the following discussions. (1) Subjectivity refers to nothing subjective The simplest way to answer the question of whether the concept subjectivity refers to something subjective is to search whether there is something that directly 3

4 corresponds to the concept through the first-person point of view. For example, if we want to know whether there is a subjective entity that corresponds to the concept red, then we can try to introspect what is going to appear when we think about red. If the concept red is subjective, then we can find it through the first-person point of view, otherwise we have no good reason to call the concept subjective. Since the concept red corresponds to something we find based on the first person-point of view, we can call it subjective concept. Except for the concept red, through the same approach, we know that concepts like pain, itch, happiness, cold, and sweet also have subjective content. Because they possess subjective content, many people say that they have subjectivity. It does not seem strange to use subjectivity here. But, what is subjectivity? What does it suppose to mean here? If we use the same approach (the first-person point of view) to search what subjectivity is, we cannot find anything that directly corresponds to this concept. Although it is easy to find something that possesses subjective content, but there is nothing that belong to the concept subjectivity. In this situation, we may ask a question of how we learn this term subjectivity. Since subjectivity cannot refer to any specific subjective phenomenon, it is impossible for us to learn this term based on any subjective phenomenon. Thus we may suggest that the term subjectivity is only a common word that refers to something that possesses subjective content. (2) Subjectivity may come from the distinction between subjective and objective Since the concept subjectivity does not refer to any specific subjective phenomena, we cannot directly introspect and understand what subjectivity is. However, we may know what subjectivity is through the distinction between subjective and objective stuff. The concept subjectivity presupposes the existence of non-subjectivity or objectivity. If we cannot think about what is not subjectivity, it seems impossible for us to know what subjectivity means. As psychologist Henry Smith shows, if one does not possess the concept objectivity, then he or she cannot 4

5 possess the concept subjectivity (Smith 1999). This means that the concept subjectivity depends on the concept objectivity to some degree. If we do not know what objective stuff is, then we do not know what subjectivity means. In other words, we can say that the distinction between subjective and objective stuff is a necessary condition for us to know what subjectivity is. Based on this, we also find that the concept subjectivity is different from those mental concepts like pain, because we can know what pain is through pain itself without knowing what objective stuff is. (3) Need not any specific subjective phenomenon to know subjectivity Although if there is no objective stuff, we do not know what subjectivity is, if there is no subjective stuff, we do not know what subjectivity is, either. We still need subjective stuff to know subjectivity, but not any specific subjective entity. If there is any subjective thing and the distinction between subjective and objective objects in our cognition, then it is enough for us to understand and create the concept subjectivity. According to this thought, I propose that there is an objective way for us to understand what subjectivity is. For example, there is a machine M, which can detect objects outside and also detect something about his thinking processes. In addition, M can create concepts to distinction the difference between these two. Thus, we can say that M possesses subjectivity. If this description is clear enough for subjectivity, then it seems that we can give subjectivity an objective description. This also means that subjectivity is not a subject concept like pain and red. However, there is still a controversial problem. Although we need no specific subjective phenomenon, we need at least one or two of any subjective phenomenon to understand what subjectivity is. Subjective stuff is still necessary for understanding what subjectivity is. If our thought contains no subjective stuff, it is impossible for us to learn the concept subjectivity. In this situation, can we really say that subjectivity is not a subjective concept? For answering this question, we can borrow a criterion from Searle that if something X is reducible by objective 5

6 concepts, then when we use objective concepts to explain X, there is nothing left out (Searle 1992, 117). Thus, following this criterion, the key question of this paper is that when we use objective concepts (e.g. a self-detection mechanism) to explain subjectivity, whether there is anything left out? If no, then we can conclude that subjective is reducible. It is simply an objective concept. If yes, then what is left out is the key for the problem of reducing subjectivity. 4. The reduction of subjectivity (1) If the concept subjectivity can be explained completely by an objective mechanism, then we can say that subjectivity is reducible. In other words, subjectivity is not like those irreducible mental concepts like pain and red because it does not possess any specific subjective contain. Concepts directly related to sensory experiences like pain or red could be irreducible to physical concepts that are used to describe physical phenomena because those irreducible concepts possess some contains that are hard to be explained by objective concepts. If we try to reduce them, then we will find that something important has been left out. Thus, if a concept directly refers to a mental phenomenon, it is reducible to physical concepts. However, when we use the same way to examine subjectivity, we cannot find any specific subjective content that makes the concept irreducible. But, even so, we do not want to simply say that subjectivity is reducible. Intuitively, it seems that there is still something that makes subjectivity irreducible. Let s call it mystery item in subjectivity or simply MIS. Although it is very hard to point out what MIS is, subjectivity is still unlike those reducible concepts. This situation makes the problem of subjectivity more difficult, because when we try to reduce it, we do not even know where and how to find the right place to do it. First of all, we can know that MIS is not any specific subjective phenomenon, because if it is, we can easily find it through our introspection and declare that we know what it is and why it is not reducible. But, we cannot do it. A possible explanation is that MIS is the main difference between subjective concepts and 6

7 objective concepts. If this explanation is correct, then subjectivity is only a common name for all subjective phenomena. But, the problem is that among different types of subjective phenomena, there is no common phenomenon in the subjective aspect. Thus, if the concept subjectivity is used to refer to something subjective, then it is an empty concept. But, if this is true, why we intuitively believe in MIS? Another reasonable explanation is that when we use the term subjectivity, we always think some subjective phenomenon, so the term always connects to a subjective content. But since the connected subjective contents have nothing in common, there is no specific subjective phenomenon necessarily connected to the concept subjectivity. This phenomenon makes us mistakenly believe that there is a mystery item that is directly referred by the concept subjectivity. I think this is a plausible explanation. If this explanation is correct, then we can simply forget MIS, and conclude that subjectivity is in fact an objective concept. This conclusion makes it reducible. We can also use Nagel s term to discuss this problem: objectivity is to see things from outside and subjectivity is to see things from inside (Nagel 1986; 1998). The mechanism to see things from inside is just what previously we called self-detection mechanism. For explaining this, we can imagine a cognitive mechanism M which can detect things outside. Let s call this outside cognitive process. Except for this cognitive process, M can also detect its own outside cognitive process. Let s call this inside cognitive process. In addition, M can also detect the inside cognitive process. We can call this cognitive process of self-consciousness. Let s suppose that the cognitive process of self-consciousness is subjectivity. This is an attempt to reduce subjectivity to objective concepts. If this reduction succeeds, then we can be sure that the concept subjectivity does not refer to any subjective phenomenon and that there is no mystery item in subjectivity. The mechanism may have qualia when it detects the cognitive process inside, but there is no way for us to know what the qualia should be and it is also possible that there is nothing that can be called qualia. However, at least we can say that there is something subjective inside the mechanism and this is enough for us to say that the mechanism possesses subjectivity. According to this reduction, is there anything about 7

8 subjectivity that we have left out? Intuitively, it seems there is still something about subjectivity left unexplained and it also seems there is nothing left out. So far, the analysis of subjectivity is objective. Anyone who denies an objective reduction of subjectivity may say that we do not directly cope with the real problem of MIS. But, the problem is that we cannot find MIS. If MIS really exists, why we cannot find it through our introspection? Thus, the previous explanation seems better. The MIS does not really exist. It is only a mistaken intuition. According to the analysis above, we can find that for the problem of subjectivity, there are two important problems. First, is it true that the concept subjectivity refers to no specific subjective phenomenon? In other words, is it possible that the subjectivity can refer to a specific subjective phenomenon but hard to pick it out? Second, why do we feel that there is still something in subjectivity, which makes subjectivity irreducible? There are two possible answers to these questions. First, subjectivity can really refer to something subjective, but it is very hard for us to find what it is. This can also explain why we feel something there but hard to pick it out. Then, the way to solve the problem is to capture it and declare that subjectivity is subjective concept. The other answer is that subjectivity does not refer to any specific subjective phenomenon, and then the feeling of something there is a mistaken thought. It is not difficult to give an explanation of why we have this mistaken thought. Since when we think about subjectivity we always think something subjective, there is always a subjective item that follows from subjectivity. But, since no specific subjective items always follow from subjectivity, we cannot pick it out what it is. Thus, since it is not difficult to explain why the feeling of something irreducible in subjectivity is a mistaken thought, the controversial problem is in fact only one: Does the concept subjectivity refer to any specific subjective phenomenon? If yes, then it is really what subjectivity means. If no, then subjectivity is reducible to objective concepts. 5. The reduction of subjectivity (2) 8

9 If there is a specific subjective phenomenon that belongs to the concept subjectivity, then it is reasonable to believe that we can find it through introspection because if it cannot be found through introspection, there is no reason to call it subjective. However, it is possible to declare that some objective things exist but beyond our cognition. For example, Immanuel Kant (1781; 1965) believed that there are things-in-themselves but we cannot know it. Colin McGinn (1989) believed that there is a necessary connection between the mind and the body, but it is beyond our cognition. This way to declare something exists but beyond our cognition is reasonable. However, this cannot be applied to subjective things. If something cannot be known through introspection, it cannot be called subjective item. This is simply a definition of subjective things. Thus, if subjectivity possesses any specific subjective content, then it should be found through introspection. Since all qualia possess subjectivity, if subjectivity contains some specific subjective phenomenon, then all qualia must have a common subjective property. For example, pain and red are two different qualia and both of them possess subjectivity. If subjectivity can refer to a specific subjective phenomenon, then we can conclude that pain and red possess a common subjective phenomenon. But, we cannot find it. We cannot find it through our introspection and does not think that there is a mystery subjective item between them. This situation can support the hypothesis that MIS comes from a mistaken thought. Otherwise, we should also introspect MIS when we compare pain and red. However, if it is true that different types of qualia possess no common property, we must encounter a problem: how can we learn the concept subjectivity? The following analysis will make this clearer. When we say pain or red, there are two parts, A and B, in the cognitive processes. Pain: I know a quale appears in my introspection (A) + the quale of pain (B). Red: I know a quale appears in my introspection (A) + the quale of red (B). According to the analysis above, we can find when we say that there is no common property between red and pain, what we compare is the second part B. But in the 9

10 cognitive process of introspection, part B is not the only part, a cognitive mechanism must also have cognition of the first part that part B is being known. When we find that red and pain in fact possess some common property, we can find part A. According to part A, we can say that red and pain have a similar property and call both of them subjective phenomena. I suggest that this is where the subjectivity comes from and what it can mean. However, the cognitive process can be explained thoroughly by objective concepts. But, it is still too soon to declare subjectivity is reducible. We have to ask one more question. Does the cognitive process of part A corresponds to any specific subjective phenomenon? In order to answer this question, we need to distinguish three different cognitive processes to explain what a self-detection mechanism needs. (1) Outer cognitive process: To detect object outside. (2) Inner cognitive process: To detect object inside including outer cognitive process.. (3) Self-consciousness cognitive process: to detect inner cognitive processes. The third level cognitive process is what we previous called Part A of a subjective phenomenon. Now the question is: does the third cognitive process have a subjective phenomenon or quale? If the answer is no, then we can conclude that subjectivity does not refer to any specific subjective phenomenon. In this situation, we can declare that subjectivity is reducible and the MIS is simply mistaken thought. We already have a reasonable explanation for why we may have this mistaken thought. However, another possible answer is yes. According to this answer, we have to face another question: how can we know that the specific subjective phenomenon exists? For answering this new question, we must suppose there is the forth level cognitive process, which is for knowing the subjective phenomenon of the third level. In this situation, we can also ask another question: is there any specific subjective phenomenon for the forth cognitive level? We can continue asking this question if the answer keeps yes and then we must stop somewhere and say no there is no specific subjective phenomenon for the cognitive level X. The problem is what is the 10

11 reasonable number for the X to make us believe that the cognitive mechanism possesses subjectivity? I suggest the answer should be 3. If a cognitive mechanism can detect its own inner cognitive process, we can believe that it possesses subjectivity. It is not necessary for the cognitive mechanism to have another subjective phenomenon when it detects its own inner cognitive process. This analysis cannot definitely conclude that MIS does not exist, but it can conclude that even if MIS exists, it is not necessary for subjectivity. Here, I can only offer a conclusion that it is more plausible to believe that MIS does not exist and even if it exists, it is necessary for the subjectivity. 6. Conclusion The term subjectivity is often used as if it referred to a specific subjective phenomenon. However, if we really think about what is referred by the term, we can only grasp a vague feeling to correspond it. Since this feeling is vague, when we try to reduce it, it seems more difficult. When we do not even know what it is in our introspection, how can we try to explain it through objective concepts? In this paper, I suggest that there is another explanation to cope with this problem. Subjectivity refers to nothing subjective. There is no specific subjective item for subjectivity. Of course, this needs an explanation. I think I have offered a plausible explanation to show that it is only a mistaken thought to let us believe that there is a MIS (mystery item in subjectivity). In addition, we can use a self-detection mechanism to reduce subjectivity and find nothing left unexplained except the MIS. Thus, when we believe that MIS does not exist, then we can declare that the concept subjectivity is in fact reducible by objective concepts. 11

12 References: Chalmers, D. (1996). The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jackson, F. (1982). Epiphenomenal Qualia, Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.32, pp Jackson, F. (1986). What Mary didn t Know? Journal of Philosophy, 83, pp Kant, Immanuel (1781;1965). Critique of Pure Reason, Trans. Norman Kemp Smith. New York: St. Martin s Pres. McGinn, C. (1989). Can We Solve the Mind-Body Problem? Mind 98, pp Nagel, T.(1974). What is it like to be a bat? Philosophical Review, Vol. 83, pp Nagel, T. (1986). The View from Nowhere, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Nagel, T. (1998). Conceiving the Imposible and the Mind-Body Problem, Philosophy Vol.73, No.285, pp Searle, J. R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind, Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. Searle, J. R. (1998). Mind, Language and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books. Smith, H. (1999). Subjectivity and Objectivity in Analytic Listening, The Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Vol.47, Number 2. 12

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