Subjectivity is neither created nor destroyed, only revealed
846 visits since 12/07/2015
Manu Herrán
Subjectivity, Philosophy, Sentiocentrism

Democritus wants to know first of all why the Good Lord created Ahriman. It's a good question, that my grandfather answered once and for all.
--Gore Vidal. "Creation"

We distinguish in the barking of a dog or the meowing of a cat their expressions of happiness and unhappiness, because even if they are different from human expressions, we are able to recognize the similarities. The fact that we do not see any similarity in the expressions of a shrimp or an ant, or even in those cases when the subjective experience is not expressed, this does not mean that the experience does not exist.

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Translated from spanish by Laura Paglia

What is subjectivity?

The sudden, unexpected death of a loved being often leaves us in shock. The monotonous life is perceived as unreal, we feel something transcendent boiling within us. It is beyond comprehensible to exist and, suddenly, to cease existing. We feel a strong sensation that that person is gone, and at the same time that this is not possible.

Indeed, how can subjectivity disappear? That, which makes "Me" being "Me", which allows me to have (or be) a point of view, how can it go away? And also: how has it gotten here?

There are two possibilities I will try to express through metaphors. One is that subjectivity is created and destroyed. The other is that subjectivity lingers after death. The first seems intuitive. The second desirable. As we shall see, both are plausible.

First hypothesis: Subjectivity is created and destroyed

In the first case, the most intuitive, we understand subjectivity as an emergent property that arises under certain conditions, and disappears in their absence. Like fire that we can create with a spark, fuel and oxygen, and can turn off by depleting oxygen or fuel.

Since the moment we learned to understand it better, the fire has lost its magical character. Will we be able to evolve the same way, about the knowledge of the subjective aspect of existence? I think the next challenge facing the scientific community is to understand the nature of subjectivity.

The fact is, that we have no idea what the conditions are that bring forward the appearance of subjectivity in living beings. Is subjectivity caused by complexity? I do not think so. The mammalian brain is certainly complex, but so is a computer, or the network of all world computers connected by the Internet, and there is nothing that makes us think that this computer network possesses its own subjectivity, a point of view, experiences sensations, pleasure, pain etc. On the other hand, we are thoroughly convinced that all mammals do, even the smallest mouse.

Is subjectivity caused by the central nervous system of living beings? We may think it is. Let us suppose that it is. But why? If natural nervous systems are essentially networks of information-processing elements (neurons) what do living beings have, that artificial beings lack? And why has nature created subjectivity, if it is not necessary?

The conclusion, as I will argue, is that subjectivity is pervasive; what is not pervasive is the ability to recognize it. In summary: Since the only subjectivity we are sure of is our own, we believe it exists in our fellow living beings and we take it more or less for granted depending on the degree of their similarity to ourselves. For example, other human beings, other mammals, other animals, and so on, according to the capacity of empathizing of each individual. A measure of the recognition of the subjectivity of others is the recognition of rights. Historically, humans have marginalized and denied rights to beings that were different from themselves. The more other beings (living or non-living) are alien and foreign to ourselves, the less subjectivity we confer to them. Therefore, the attribution of subjectivity to others is false, partial, incomplete. Although it seems counterintuitive, we have good reason to think that everything is subjective.

Form and substance

Is this a cup or two faces? Everyone knows the image so it is hardly necessary to show it. Both answers are correct. Any object can be defined by itself, or in opposition to everything else. Therefore the "Me" (subjective) can be defined both by what it is, as well as by what it is not.

Fig. 1 Two faces or a cup?

As to say, the self can be identified by 75 kg of weight, or by the entire mass of the universe except those 75 kg of weight (each one of us, instead of 75, can state whatever applies). There is no substantial logical difference between the two definitions.

Therefore the expression:

Me = Universe

is almost true. It is expressed correctly as

Me = Universe except 75 Kg. of nothing (that do not belong to me)

and so, when I shed those 75 Kg. I can identify with the whole Universe.

When I say that the self can be identified by both those 75 Kg of weight as well as by the whole universe except those 75 Kg, I am not using the word "identified" in the sense of "described" but in the sense of being identical. In essence, it is the same thing. How is this possible? The universe is, basically, energy, which in turn is, basically, information. All information is susceptible to transformation into a binary sequence (zeros and ones) and all binary sequences are identical both in positive and negative logic, as to say, ones can be changed into zeros. Indeed, we can replace the symbols "1" and "0" for any other pair of symbols we prefer (for example: "7" and "€") and we would be transmitting exactly the same information.

Fig. 2 A point or a hole?

Second scenario: Subjectivity is neither created nor destroyed, only revealed

Imagine a picture covered with a cloth. The picture is there but we cannot see it. We than make a hole in the cloth, that allows us to see only a small part of the whole picture.

Well, our subjective experience (I am Me) could be considered as the vision of the picture that is possible through the hole in the cloth. We can only see reality through our particular hole, but the reality of the picture exists with or without hole, and what is shown through the hole still exist if we close the hole.

Our life begins with this hole and, interestingly, what forms our point of view is not the existence of something, but the absence of something (the hole). We are only aware of that small part of the total picture that the hole allows us to see.

Mystical expressions on Reality of the different schools of thought, are explained by metaphors that are very similar to this one of the hole in the cloth. Our life begins when the hole is made, and ends when the hole disappears. But although we identify with the hole, the identification is erroneous: The hole is what allows us to see part of the picture, but we're not the hole, nor are we the small portion of the picture that the hole shows us, but the whole image of the picture, which is much greater than the small part we can access.

Each of us, identified (incorrectly) with our vision or our hole in the fabric, consciously participates only to a part of the total subjectivity: the one that corresponds to our small portion of the picture. Some will enjoy a beautiful section of the picture, others will not be so fortunate. But the only real subjectivity (image) will be the complete picture.

If we moved the fabric so that the hole showed different areas of the picture, our hole (the "Me") would experience different realities. It would be like getting into the body of others and experience their feelings and memories. Indeed, if our subjectivity (but not our memory) were to be transferred to another body, we would experience nothing out of the ordinary.

There are many situations that, by definition, are difficult to ascertain, if not impossible. If time stopped to continue "later", or if all the dimensions of the universe evenly expanded or contracted, it would be difficult to realize what was happening. Or also: if we had a sedative that did not eliminated pain, but the memory of pain, the result would be the same. We would have no way to check.

By its very nature, our subjectivity, any subjectivity, is independent from the experiences or memories, and could be very well "jumping" from one body to another without anybody noticing anything out of the ordinary. Since subjectivities are indistinguishable from one another, it may be more appropriate to identify them as the same thing.

Talking about subjectivities that jump from one body to another is a way of explaining the simplest case: that subjectivity is the same, it is singular. That is, you, me, everybody is a single, gigantic being, experiencing and feeling what each sentient being feels. Therefore my real-Me (big) feels what my little-Me feels, as it feels what you feel, what they feel, etc. But the little-Me does not remember feeling it, because it observes reality (and itself) through the hole in the cloth.

In this interpretation of the single subjectivity, the fact that the good we do onto others we do onto ourselves is to be taken literally.

The existence of multiple independent subjectivities, one for each individual, is an intuitive theory, but it is neither simple nor explanatory.

The existence of a single subjectivity is simpler and explains better what subjectivity is.


The appearance of multicellular beings is explained by the theory of evolution. Metaphorically, mammals are machines built by our genes for self-perpetuation. But this does not explain the emergence of subjectivity in living things.

When evolution created survival machines, they were equipped with subjectivity. Why? If nature just wanted to create machines that behave in certain ways (perpetuating their genes) why giving them subjectivity? We seem to be unable to recreate it even on purpose. If we built a robot that mimics subjectivity, expressing pain or pleasure, the simplest explanation would be that the robot does not have these experiences, but that it simulates them. Natural evolution achieved, without any difficulty and without even needing it, subjective machines, while it is impossible for us to recreate them artificially, or so we think.

The concept of subjectivity is complex to define and, if stripped of the non-basic, the subjectivities of all beings appear as one single thing. The existence of a single subjectivity in which all sentient beings participate, is a more coherent and explanatory hypothesis, albeit less intuitive, than the hypothesis of independent subjectivities. Also, it matches with the descriptions of mystical experiences.

The moment robots will be indistinguishable from humans, mimicking subjectivity, there will be no way of knowing whether they are subjective, capable of having rights, if we cannot understand the nature of this subjectivity.

We understand the subjectivity of the other humans by means of analogy with our own, we do the same with mammals, with other animals and so on... up to which point?

The more different the other being, the more difficult establishing the analogy will be. That is, it is difficult to understand that other living beings experience subjectivity, but this may be for the simple reason that we are too different from each other.

We distinguish in the barking of a dog or the meowing of a cat their expressions of happiness and unhappiness, because even if they are different from human expressions, we are able to recognize the similarities. The fact that we do not see any similarity in the expressions of a shrimp or an ant, or even in those cases when the subjective experience is not expressed, it does not mean that the experience does not exist. All beings, at all levels, could be subjective.

The subjectivity we experience (our own) and the one we suppose (that of our peers) is the limited vision offered by the "hole in the fabric."

And matter? Can matter it be subjective too? The question may seem strange, but it makes sense in light of the hypothesis of the single subjectivity. It makes little sense to say that this and that stone have subjectivity, if we understand subjectivities as individual things. And if we broke the first stone in two, would we get two different subjectivities?

Therefore, if matter is subjective, it must be subjective according to single subjectivity. But why must matter be subjective matter? And why not? This supposition, coupled with the hypothesis proposed by Jose Antonio Jauregui in his work "El ordenador cerebral" according to which pleasure might not exist but only various degrees and types of pain, was what inspired me to write the lyrics for "Hypothesis Mass" of the Death Metal band Mortem Tirana, in which the idea that mass creates life to avoid pain is developed. Likewise the opposite could be true, that mass could be experiencing the fullness of pleasure.

In any case, what is certain is that the human race applies itself to making life unpleasant for the rest of the species of the planet, as well as for many of the members of its own species. They would not, if they realized that what they do they do onto themselves, as to say if they reached enlightenment.

Surely, the hypothesis of single subjectivity repulses our attention because it is terrible and it would be better if it was not true. We would prefer to think that ducks fattened on farms to make foie-grass do not suffer, our course that is nonsense, we know they do. But we would like to think they don't. Contemplating the hypothesis that we are each one of of those ducks is even worse.

The holy men who always walk with a broom to gently sweep insects off their path hence avoid causing any sufferance, they were right. Everything becomes coherent according to the hypothesis of the single subjectivity. The single universe that observes itself with a multiplicity of eyes.

Interestingly, for the enlightened (apparently) "there is no merit" in loving when enlightened: He who feels the universe as one entity, loves himself when he loves the others since everything is one (although it is not that simple). And for the others? It seems that nature has programmed us with the delusion of ego (the "veil" of the self) that is a terrible egoistic force that puts our own, before another being's sake. Great. Damn nature, that has deceived us into believing that the other is the other, thus hurting ourselves.

Certainly, a deity who creates living beings to torture them must be, by definition, absolutely evil. In other words, the Good Lord did not create Ahriman. The Good Lord is Ahriman - Gore Vidal. "Creation"




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