Objectivity, Epistemic and Ontological

So, after some blank stares yesterday, I figured a bit more clarity could be brought to the distinction between the two kinds of objectivity discussed by John Searle in his argument that qualia are, in fact, accessible to scientific enquiry.

First, some basics: epistemic relates to epistemology, the study or a theory of knowledge; ontological relates to ontology, pertaining to being. Applied to the problem of qualia, these two modes are differently oriented–one towards what we can know about qualia, the other towards the essential being or nature of qualia.

Objectivity and subjectivity make an easier pair, at least at first glance. A fact is said to be objective if its validity (or invalidity) can be established independently of any given subject’s (i.e., person, sentient animal) reactions and feelings, etc. A “fact” is subjective if its validity (or otherwise) is dependent on reactions, feelings, etc: it is a matter of taste, opinion, prejudice, etc. So the fact that Barrack Obama is president of the United States is an objective fact, because the validity of this claim is independent of my opinions about it (regardless of what the Birthers say); the fact that Katherine Mansfield is a better writer than Ernest Hemingway is a subjective fact , and it is meaningless outside the context of the perceiving, feeling, biased subject: it’s a “fact” for me.

Now let’s mix the two pairs of concepts: objectivity/subjectivity and epistemology/ontology.

The “facts” I’ve just discussed are objective and subjective in an epistemic sense: they are epistemically objective and subjective, respectively. They have to do with what kinds of knowledge we have about the presidency and about the relative merits of two modernist writers. But this kind of objectivity and subjectivity should not be confused with ontological objectivity and subjectivity. Unless we are hard-core idealists (i.e., unless we believe that reality is only a projection of our minds, and that there’s nothing “out there” independent of our projections), there are things whose existence (remember, we’re talking about ontology) is objectively true: say, the fact that there is such a thing as hydrogen. But there are other things whose existence is only subjectively true: the way lavender smells to me, the precise feeling of my headache at this moment.

Now I’ll hand off to John Searle for the conclusion:

My pains have a subjective mode of existence in that they only exist as experienced by me, the subject. But mountains and molecules have an objective mode of existence because they exist whether or not they are experienced by any subject. It can be an epistemically objective matter of fact that I have a pain even though the mode of existence of the pain is ontologically subjective. (Searle. Philosophy in a New Century. New York: Cambridge, 2008.167)

Now Searle’s point in relating these distinctions to qualia is that science is concerned with epistemic objectivity–with what we can know objectivelyWe can know objectively about something whose existence is only experienced by a subject. If this is right–something Daniel Dennett would deny, I think–then qualia, which are by definition things that exist only for a subject, can still be legitimately studied by science as facts whose validity does not depend on taste or opinion. Although science will not be able to confirm the nature of the pain I feel (because this is an issue of ontological subjectivity), it can confirm that I have a pain (because the pain itself, which I experience in a certain undescribable way, is an issue of epistemic objectivity, and can be confirmed independently of my testimony).

Here’s a concrete example that might clarify things: consider the issue of motive in a murder case. For the prosecution, proving there is a motive for the murder assumes that we can have objective knowledge of the suspect’s state of mind and desires (i.e., the court uses scientific procedures based on an epistemically objective mode) EVEN THOUGH the suspect’s actual thoughts and desires, the states of mind themselves, are ontologically subjective.

For Searle, making sure we don’t confuse these two types of objectivity and subjectivity is an important first step towards a clear scientific and philosophic analysis of consciousness. He thinks too much enquiry has been crippled by the fact that scientists and philosophers have failed to appreciate that there are two kinds of objectivity, only one of which (epistemic) is a necessary feature of scientific knowledge.

My impression of how this relates to David Lodge’s project in Thinks… is this: that Lodge seems to be saying that though I can’t ever confirm the reality or the existence of your qualia (because these are ontologically subjective), literature is a medium that allows us to know something objectively about how others experience things (I don’t just mean fiction: memoirs, poetry, even anecdotes you tell about yourself could all make this knowledge objectively accessible to people who haven’t themselves experienced your qualia). Hence Helen’s point about Henry James and The Wings of a Dove.

I hope this makes sense. But now I must go catch a plane.

Have a great, safe long weekend. See you Wednesday.


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