In Defense of Subjectivity: Sound, Color, Beauty
I am aware from the many conversations I’ve had where people have run circles around me that I am not a particularly stellar philosophical thinker, but there is something that I’ve thought for a while that I wanted to try to put onto paper.
Frequently, in conversations, people argue for the objective existence of certain qualities that I perceive/conceive of as subjective — but even more, I perceive and conceive of these things as not really making a lot of sense as being objective. To this extent, while I may be able to conceive of objective models for these things, I don’t see how those models or definitions are particularly helpful, and sometimes, I think they may be harmful to our discussion of these things.
Morality is usually the biggest ticket item for which this applies. People seem to really like the idea of an objective morality in a way that I just don’t get the appeal of. Believers in objective moral values (as well as objective frameworks for other concepts I will discuss as well) seem to also believe that if something does not have an objective basis, then it does not actually exist, or it must be an illusion. I think I want to get to morality in a future post, but since I see parallels in a few other concepts, I want to discuss those first.
I want to put onto paper my thoughts about the subjectivity of the concepts in the title — sound, color, beauty [and eventually morality] — as well as sketch out why, to a subjectivist, objectivity isn’t necessarily the end-all, be-all for “what exists” or “what matters, etc.,
In the title of this post, I’ve arranged three concepts in terms of what I find to be “easy” to “hard” (and in my previous paragraph, I have a fourth concept that is even more “difficult”) in terms of my perception of how likely someone might be persuaded by my explanation. Instead of addressing the “hardest” of these (morality), or even the second “hardest” (beauty, of which the following post from Agellius’s blog has really inspired this blog post as Agellius’s thoughts seem to be a good representation of the “objectivist’s” viewpoint), I want to start from the easier ones.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
As I mentioned above, I don’t consider myself a particularly good philosopher. I am effectively philosophically illiterate; my philosophy knowledge is either from my own thinking (and being bashed about on the interwebs), from overhearing various theories and thinkers from other articles, or from reading summarizing articles at places like Wikipedia or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I therefore do not apologize to ripping wholesale from Wikipedia in this post.
The question I’ve highlighted first, that great thought experiment on sound, hinges on a few different things, but the basic idea is: what is sound? For this, I go to Wikipedia on sound first:
In physics, sound is a vibration that propagates as a typically audible mechanical wave of pressure and displacement, through a medium such as air or water. In physiology and psychology, sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain.
This right here captures to me how the objectivist and subjectivist would differ on this thought experiment.
I think that the objectivist thinks about the physical definition. From that definition, one might say that just because this tree’s falling isn’t actually heard in this instance, there is still a vibration wave of pressure and displacement, there is still presumably a medium through which that wave could be heard (if there had been someone to hear it.)
I would note that even in this “objective” definition of sound (that does not depend on any observer actually being present), there is still a reference to the potential of an observer to hear had there been one. So, in contrast, we say that in space “there is no sound” because even if there are vibration waves, there is no medium through which one could hear those waves, so even if there is an observer, the vibration waves would not be audible. Consequently, even an “objective” definition of sound is made in reference to what would have happened if a potential observer had been there.
So, that’s the objectivist. The subjectivist, however, looks at that latter definition…sound is the reception of such waves and their perception by the brain. The subjectivist recognizes that humans generally share similar biology and mechanics on terms of processing waves, and as a result, we may talk about sound being a certain way. We may say, based on our understanding that humans generally share a particular biology, that deviations from that biology are disabilities (e.g., deafness) because we take being able to process certain wavelengths as being normal (in a statistical sense, at the very least.) But the important thing to note is that this “normality” is not objective. It still hinges on subjectivity. It is normality with reference to particular subjective beings evaluating particular criteria.
As I read through the back and forth on the wikipedia article for this thought experiment, I am struck by some other relevant perspectives on this. For example, the article mentions George Berkeley’s subjective idealism. In there is the idea that perhaps, if there are no observers, then one might say that the tree’s very existence is in question. To summarize subjective idealism, “to be is to be perceived” — and Berkeley applied that not just to sound, but to trees. (And I am vaguely aware that he later goes on to say that the tree still exists because even if there aren’t human observers, God saves the day [and the rest of the universe] by observing all things in the universe at all times.)
However, for the purposes of my defense of subjectivity, I am not taking Berkeley’s far-reaching metaphysics. I can see a distinction between the sound that a tree makes and the tree itself in that I think that we colloquially define and use sound in subjective terms (even if we do so inconsistently), while we do not colloquially define the criteria for the existence of trees in subjective terms (as Berkeley’s subjective idealism proposes.) In other words, while the physiological and psychological definition of sound (as subjective as it is) will make sense to a lot of people, Berkeley’s “to be is to be perceived” will not necessarily have the same reception. (And I know that what “a lot of people” think isn’t a slam dunk case for anything…I’m just saying that it can count as a heuristic for reasonableness. I understand reasonable people can also disagree.)
I think that similar principles for sound can be applied to color, although I think people may be more resistant to this at first.
Again, to steal from Wikipedia:
Color…is the visual perceptual property corresponding in humans to the categories called red, blue, yellow, etc. Color derives from the spectrum of light (distribution of light power versus wavelength) interacting in the eye with the spectral sensitivities of the light receptors. Color categories and physical specifications of color are also associated with objects or materials based on their physical properties such as light absorption, reflection, or emission spectra. By defining a color space colors can be identified numerically by their coordinates.
Because perception of color stems from the varying spectral sensitivity of different types of cone cells in the retina to different parts of the spectrum, colors may be defined and quantified by the degree to which they stimulate these cells. These physical or physiological quantifications of color, however, do not fully explain the psychophysical perception of color appearance.
Again, just this snippet provides the tools to fashion objective definitions and then subjective definitions.
I think that the objectivist would be drawn to aspects like the spectrum of light, the wavelengths, and so forth. So, red is wavelength roughly 620–740 nanometers. Sounds pretty objective, right?
The subjectivist response would look, as with sound, toward the perceptual aspects. We recognize that human biology and physiology typically yields similar perceptual responses to certain wavelengths of colors, but that human biology and physiology put the ball into the subjective court. To different observers with different physiologies, there may be different responses to color. We see this with other humans (e.g., those with color-blindness…), but we can also see this by evaluating different species (e.g., dogs on one “side”…bees on another “side”). Different mechanics for different observers yield different perceptions.
Not to withstand that the brain has its own processing foibles with various lighting mechanics, surrounding colors, and so forth.
As with sound, we may set statistical norms based on our understanding of human biology as being generally similar to one another…so we set deviations from the norm as disabilities (e.g., color-blindness). But these are set within particular parameters with respect to certain observers (so we don’t say that humans are color-blind with respect to the variety of ultraviolet colors that bees can see.)
But with color in particular, the philosophy gets a bit weirder…but more favorable for the subjectivist. Because as we are talking about all these objective aspects of color like wavelength and rods and cones and physiology and whatnot, we are totally avoiding questions of what it feels like to perceive that wavelength, and also how we can be sure that two people are perceiving similarly. Enter the topic of qualia. These topics are generally meant to discussion whether physicalism has deficiencies in its account, but I just want to emphasize that these questions ultimately concern whether subjective experience adds something to the table.
As I move from basic elements like color and sound to more abstract concepts like beauty, I recognize that although the explanation might seem a little more amorphous, the basic ideas are the same. As I noted above, this post was inspired greatly by Agellius’s 2009 post arguing about beauty as an objective fact. Agellius’s post was arguing about whether such beauty could occur by chance or whether a better explanation is design, but that is not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on this one aspect from his post:
You write, “But again, your argument hinges on beauty being more than an invented human concept and beauty being objective. Neither of those two premises are substantiated.”
I disagree that it’s not substantiated.
When you say that beauty is subjective only, what you are saying is that objectively, there is no beauty. Which is the same as saying, beauty doesn’t exist. People who believe that beauty exists, are suffering an illusion. But I don’t believe I am suffering an illusion when I contemplate beautiful things, any more than I believe love and trust are illusions when I contemplate my wife. Further, people in every culture and from every period of time have understood and appreciated beauty. I don’t believe the entire human race has been suffering delusions in doing so. Rather, I believe the universality of the concept of beauty reflects its objective existence; just as the universality of the concept of love reflects the objective existence of love.
I quote this selection because this captures what I suspect many “objectivists” feel about subjective frameworks on a variety of issues. If something does not objectively exist, then it doesn’t exist at all. If something only exists subjectively, then that is an illusion or a delusion. Illusions or delusions have a negative connotation (they are not desirable things to have). But since we do not view that beauty, love, morality, etc., are undesirable things to have, they cannot be illusions or delusions. Therefore, we must be motivated to believe in their objective existence.
But I think that “objective” or “illusion” is a false dichotomy, or maybe begging the question from the objectivist’s perspective. In other words, either there is something in between “objective” and “illusion”…or, even if it is illusory, we should recognize that some sorts of illusions can still be desirable, meaningful, etc.,
So, here it goes:
When someone says “beauty is subjective only,” then they are indeed saying that objectively — meaning, without relationship to any subjective minds — there is no beauty. But it does not follow that beauty therefore doesn’t exist, because objective things aren’t necessarily the only things that exist. For subjectivists, there are a class of things that are defined subjectively, and whose existence is defined subjectively. I’ve already discussed this for things like color and sound, but I would say that beauty fits in this category.
Even more importantly, for this class of subjectively-defined things, the meaning or value or importance of these things is not based on whether they objectively exist or not, but precisely on our subjective experiencing of these things. Beauty is meaningful to us not because it may or may not be something “out there” but because when we are alive, when we are conscious, we experience the response and perception that things are beautiful. (This post isn’t going to address love and trust in particular, but since Agellius mentions them, I’ll say: when we love, love is meaningful to us not because it is something “out there” but because it is something “in here”, for ourselves and our beloved. Same with trust.)
When we talk about the widespread nature of things like love or beauty (but also color or sound), this does not necessarily mean we have jumped from the subjective to the objective. To the contrary, we are referring to concepts like intersubjectivity — the extent to which one’s subjective experience may align or agree with another. Agreement among subjective beings seems more important for these concepts in particular than an objective existence that makes no reference to what any subjective beings experience at all.