Mountains and molecules have an existence that does not depend on being experienced by a human or animal subject; they are ontologically objective. Pains, tickles, and itches exist only insofar as they are experienced by a subject. They are ontologically subjective.John Searle, After the End of Truth – part 1
The above quote is central to John Searle’s philosophy. But I’m not sure if it makes sense. As a broad issue, I’m wary of philosophical theories that essentially say, ‘this theory applies to everything in the universe except to humans (and animals).’ You’d better have extraordinary arguments and evidence to support this extraordinary claim.
Secondly, is there really a clear and fundamental distinction between ‘ontologically (meaning to do with existence) objective’ and ‘ontologically subjective?’ Yes, I alone can experience my pains, tickles, and itches – or even more consequentially for philosophical discussion – the experience of my consciousness. But why would that mean that these things don’t exist objectively? We have a pretty good idea that other consciousnesses, pains, tickles and itches exist – from first-person reports, to all kinds of observational studies, to brain scans associating behaviour with the reported phenomena.
And how exactly could something not exist objectively? The pains, tickles etc definitely take place in the universe, and they are incorporated in living beings in the universe, beings which definitely have an objective existence. If the beings exist objectively, how could the things that happen within those beings not exist objectively? I’m not sure if there’s a coherent answer to that.
The actual answer given is that only the subject can have these experiences. But essentially, so what? I alone can have my tickle, but this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist in any other sense, including as an objective phenomenon that can be observed/studied/noted – or even simply inferred – from outside, along with an infinite mass of other events in the universe. (Being only able to infer something from the outside, does not mean it doesn’t exist objectively – I’ve used the example of black holes elsewhere – no one can enter black holes, let alone experience them, but scientists are very confident that they exist objectively, from evidence of the conditions around them). I alone can have my own broken leg, turn on a light, work on a computer, think about my next meal, smell onions, have an itch – but all of these actions have an existence which goes beyond my own, solipsistic bubble – they are capable of being exposed to outside perspectives, even if those perspectives can’t capture everything about them. An x-ray of my broken leg is, to me, a pretty good indicator of the objective existence of my broken leg, even though no one else can have my broken leg. And equally, someone can observe me scratching my arm and saying I have an itch. No doubt a machine could also measure disturbances on the skin of my arm, and probably detect neural activity. So we have plenty of external evidence of the itch.
Here’s where I think the mistake is – Searle talks about epistemic (to do with knowledge) versus ontological objectivity. It looks to me, that one is being confused with the other here: I do not have a completely full and objective understanding of EVERYTHING about someone’s pain from outside – but I can have a pretty well-informed knowledge of what is happening, even if I don’t feel it myself. Surely the problem is with EPISTEMIC objectivity – not ontological?
Returning to the tickle – we could describe it as a physical activity taking place in a physical being, involving some kind of contact, the firing of neurons, leading to a reaction in the brain, in turn producing behaviour – usually wriggling and laughing. Likewise a car starting up, involves a key turning in the ignition, which leads to a series of events – fuel flow, combustion, a series of small explosions which push a piston, which causes the axle to turn, which pushes the car forward, and so on. I can’t access either of these events fully from outside – or experience them directly (though I’m familiar with and understand both pretty well) – but they both appear to have a very definite independent, and objective existence. I’m not convinced why we should conclude that the former one doesn’t have these properties because it involves a brain.
Yes, the involvement of a brain means that, in some senses, there is a self-awareness connected with the event, unlike the car. But why should that self-awareness be the critical decider on whether the event is objective or not? And it’s unclear, if Searle’s theory says that self-awareness doesn’t exist objectively, how that self-awareness could transfer to anything that is objective – ie the existence of my head. There is a suggestion of dualism here, without a satisfactory explanation of the crossover between the non-objective to objective realms. What would the mechanism be for that process?
It seems as if Searle is saying, “I can’t fully access another person’s subjective experience, THEREFORE it doesn’t exist in an objective sense.” Note the crucial words in his quote at the top of the article – tickles exist “only exist insofar as” they are experienced by a subject. That’s simply an assertion. Why Mr. Searle? I think that’s an untenable claim. You have made a very large leap from “experienced by a subject” to denying objective existence.
I suspect this is an outgrowth of Searle’s, to me, rather desperate attempts to deny that human consciousness could ever be described by, and ultimately implemented, in material or machine terms.