Have you ever looked into a mirror and had the strange feeling that the thing that is looking out of the mirror is actually you, so that you can say ‘I am that’? This is, among other things, what we were considering in philsoc this week as the result of a wide-ranging talk that connected many different areas in philosophy and even looked at the impulse from which the whole philosophical enterprise sprouts.
It is a “pedagogical requirement that in class you don’t say too much about what you think.” This week in MCS Philosophy Society, this tiresome restriction was dodged for once as, very excitingly, the founding member of philsoc, so often confined by the pedagogical limitations of his classroom teaching as Head of Philosophy at MCS, gave his first ever philsoc presentation. I am of course talking about Mr J P Unwin.
Mr Unwin opened by reading to us from Confessions of a Philosopher by Brian Magee. In this book, Magee talks about first coming to be interested in philosophy when he was a child (slightly pretentiously), describing lying awake in bed at night fretting about the nature of time and space, and his state of mental panic and near-madness at the thought of being ‘enlocked’ in a specific consciousness, unable to take in the whole vastness of the time-space continuum.
Mr Unwin explained that if he has had anything like such an existential experience that could be couched in philosophical terms it is the feeling of looking in mirrors and suddenly thinking “I am that” –that one is me, “the feeling of being confronted by your own physical embodiment”. He cited Hume’s bundle theory of personal identity as exemplifying the elusiveness of this self (we have no impression of our ‘self’, only a flow of experience) that suddenly seems to be manifest in mirrors.
One of the things that Mr Unwin said motivates his desire to do philosophy is to find that which could unify and maybe attempt to solve the subject/object problem, which arises for example when a subject objectifies itself when viewing itself in a mirror. He told us that he “craves understanding and resolution of the subject/object problem.” Another illustration of the subject-object divide involving mirrors is offered by the artwork ‘The Weather Project’ by Olafur Eliasson, which is designed to get viewers to catch themselves in the act of viewing.
There are four particular philosophical problems that Mr Unwin looked at which have to do with subject/object thinking. But before going into them he offered us a framework for considering them. Typically, a philosophy proceeds by being confronted by a set of phenomena, x, from which a dilemma arises, working by empirical method. Two options are usually posed by this dilemma:
- Things really are like that! This usually leads to 1a. Big questions about the ramifications?!
- No no! Things aren’t really like that: they only seem so. Which can lead to 1b. Why do they seem son? And 1c. What are the ramifications?
[Time constraints have prevented me from presenting this as a diagram. Anyone with editorial privileges for the blog may feel free to revise this to do so.]
There are four topics connected by the difficulty of subject/object thinking which Mr Unwin plugged into this framework.
(1) The meaning of life. Is it the case that there really is meaning to life, or does it only seem like that? It seems to be difficult to think about meaning and purpose to life unless we think objectively from outside of our subjective system, sub speculae aeterintas as it were. But when we try to locate an external objective truth, meaning for many seems to be lacking. Natural science seems to work in this way, looking for objective truth, but it doesn’t seem to be very good at providing us subjects with meaning for our lives. Difficulties arise because of the problem of subjectivity. But on the other hand, purely subjective meaning that we make just for ourselves with no objective basis seems to be unsatisfactory. Both ways are problematic.
(2) Free will. Is it the case that we are really free, or does it only seem like that? It seems to many that reductive accounts of free will fail to pay heed to obvious intuitions and are implausible. Any analysis of agency needs to take into account certain brute facts about the sensation of freedom that we are as certain of as we often feel was can be certain about anything. But on the other hand, it doesn’t seem compatible with objective thinking about deterministic laws that govern the material world.
(3) Personal identity. Is it the case that I am me(/that), or does it only seem like that? What is it that allows me to know that a future experience of some being (‘myself’ in the future) is really mine? The ‘teleportation’ problem of whether your constituent atoms reconstituted at another location would really be you highlights difficulties here. Is self a physical objective thing, and if so how is it subjectively you? Is your self a body, and ego, a soul? What makes it your body/ego/soul?
(4) The mind-body problem. Is it really the case that I am a conscious mind ‘inside’ a body, or does it only seem like that? You are conscious. Why is the case that complex systems of neural networking in the brain become conscious? Is there a fundamental relationship between objective matter and subjective consciousness? In that case is everything in the universe conscious (panpyschism)? Or is consciousness only an epiphenomenal emergent property of some arrangements of matter? In which case, how does that work?
Mr Unwin noted that in thinking through these problems, some come down more on the side of everything being subjectivity, some on the side of everything being objectivity. He said that, if pushed, he is more tempted to think of everything as subjectivity, in a way that is sympathetic to the Hindu worldview (which has a Sanskrit term for ‘I am that’) and a form of pantheism.
What do our reading subjects think? Is the world fundamentally subjective, or objective? Is there a way to solve the problem? Is it really a problem at all? Please comment below, and let the discussion continue.