The subject is no object

The parts of speech recognized in many languages reflect an inescapable duality: the fundamental divide between subject and object. To be a subject is to have a point of view. To be an object is to appear (to a subject) in and from a point of view. One cannot see where one is looking from, and what one does see is not the seer. This difference is more than a matter of location, space or physicality. Rather, it is a categorical difference so fundamental that nothing can undercut it because it underlies every act of cognition including imagination. I say this advisedly, because there have been many attempts to transcend this dualism. In my opinion, they do not succeed.

The subject can never see itself, nor can another subject see it. It is not, in fact, an ‘it’. It cannot even be an object of thought (as opposed to a physical object) except as a kind of abstraction. Any way you slice it,  the subject is here—the point of view of the mind in question—and the object is there, some content of a mind’s consciousness. One can look in a mirror, but it is the physical body that one sees, not the subject who is doing the seeing. One might feel a configuration of sensations one is tempted to take to be one’s self, the seeming locus of one’s consciousness; but these are no more than subtle objects of attention. They are not the witnessing subject. One might nevertheless imagine this sort of experience to imply a “presence” underlying consciousness; but that is an act of imagination and not a logical inference. (For this reason, I have no more confidence in the hypothetical enduring Self of Vedanta than in the immortal Christian soul.)

Consciousness requires objects to be aware of. But do objects require subjects? Does the tree fall in the forest whether or not anyone sees or hears it? Naïve realism (or materialism) is the belief that objects can exist without subjects. Naïve idealism is the belief that subjects can exist without a physical basis or “real” objects to be aware of. It includes the notion that there are no physical objects, or that mind creates them. Such beliefs are extreme responses to the conundrum of subject-object dualism, trying to wish away the dualism itself. Materialism denies or ignores the subject. Idealism denies or ignores the independent existence of the object. It is more sensible to realize that subject and object enter conjointly and inseparably into what we know as consciousness.

This mutual involvement means there is no way the object “really” is, apart from how observers see it. Observation is an interaction of subject and object. Observers are necessarily physical agents, subjects embodied as objects. Human beings routinely assume that the way the world appears to them is just how it objectively is. In truth, how it appears to them depends on their state and their needs as living creatures.

Such subtleties do not stand in the way of human affairs. But they do have consequences. The subject/object dualism is at the core of certain problems in science, for example. Observation in classical physics presumes a clear divide between observer and observed: the act of observation ideally has little physical effect on the system observed. Moreover, the observer is supposed to be a fly on the wall, whose considerations or state ideally have no bearing on the world’s appearance. The naiveté of this standard was finally challenged by phenomena that could not be accounted for with classical models. Yet, the subject-object relationship undercuts any possible account, including quantum models. (Entanglement, for example, refers to ties between objects, not the entanglement of object with subject we are discussing.) Science is still implicitly about subjects trying to make sense of objects, even when the subject goes unmentioned.

Self-reference is spoken of as though it were actually possible. (One seems to self-refer in speaking of oneself, for example.) Strictly speaking, however, a subject cannot refer to itself. Logical paradoxes that involve self-reference arise from mishandling the categorical dissimilarity of subject and object. The putative self-reference is actually the reference of a subject to a linguistic or conceptual object. In the famous Liar Paradox, the statement “this sentence is false” appears to involve self-reference. (It contradicts itself because it also involves negation. The statement “this sentence is true” seems comparably self-referential, without being contradictory. In effect, it asserts that “this sentence is true” is true.) However, as the logician Tarski pointed out, “this sentence” is not interchangeable with “this sentence is true,” nor with “{‘this sentence is true’} is true,” and so forth. (Similarly, for “this sentience is false.”) Rather, each reference is a separate object of a separate assertion, iterated on a different logical level, ad infinitum. The asserting subject always escapes to a realm logically distinct from what it asserts, just as the classical observer always stands outside the system observed.

While science and logic are not immune to dualism, religion is dualism writ large. The child innocently asks, “if God created the world, who or what created God?” I doubt that any learned theologian has ever given a satisfying answer. A subject can create an object, since every artifact was made by someone. But a subject cannot create itself. The notion that God is self-creating (‘I am that I am’) is an evasion. So is the notion of a Prime Mover, which simply refuses to consider an endless causal chain. This dilemma has been inherited by modern cosmology, which asks how something (the universe) could boot-strap itself from nothing (the unstable vacuum?) through some series of causal transitions. It aspires to show how an object (the universe) can self-create, without invoking a subject.

We are familiar with objects that can self-replicate, and phenomena that can self-organize. There are computer programs that can copy or modify themselves. And, of course, DNA copies itself, and an organism can self-modify and reproduce. It evolved somehow in the first place. A self-replicating device, even if only a string of computer code, must include instructions about how to copy itself in its entirety, which must include the instructions themselves. Von Neumann addressed the problem by separating functions. There must be a description (blueprint), a constructor mechanism, and a further mechanism to copy the description—which the constructor then installs into the new self-replicator. Presumably a dividing cell does something similar. Strictly speaking, however, these entities are not subjects. They are theoretical objects in the purview of biologists or programmers, who are the actual subjects involved.

Causal explanation involves only interactions among inanimate objects, not the actions or interrelations of subjects. This categorical distinction may seem of interest only to philosophers and brain scientists. In everyday life, however, we are continually beset with the challenge to imagine the subjective experiences of others when all that is presented to our senses is their form as objects. We are used to dealing with inanimate things, along with the physical bodies of people and creatures. Sometimes we fail to make an essential distinction among such objects, for it is our biological nature to treat all objects as potential resources to exploit or threats to avoid. As Buber pointed out, from that fundamental position everything is object to the subject, including some objects that might also be sentient beings like oneself. Yet, another sort of relationship is possible and necessary for human beings. This is the relationship between I and thou, which is categorically different from the relationship of a subject to sensible objects.

Underlying the ethical problem of behavior toward other subjects is the physiological fact that one’s nervous system serves one’s own body uniquely. Empathy is a deliberate effort to compensate for this isolation of subjects in separate bodies. It attempts to imagine an experience that animates the other’s body and resembles one’s own experience—to walk in the other’s shoes, as we say. It is difficult to imagine the experience of another body when one has in mind a use of one’s own for that body as an object. It is particularly difficult to imagine the pain in another body when not in pain oneself. Or to imagine someone’s feelings and motivations when one feels quite differently or unsympathetic. The temptation is to shrink from this challenge and identify only with one’s own point of view as a subject—opposed to the other as mere object, whose experience then is not forefront or does not count.

This retreat is aptly named depersonalization. While deemed morally vicious in extreme cases, fundamentally it amounts to a mundane failure of nerve. Through an unbecoming yet commonplace cognitive trick, one withdraws back into the subject-object relationship that naturally dominates the life of the organism. However, the joke is ironically upon the subject who thus retreats, who is thereby depersonalized along with the victim. For, the depth, the mystery, and the privilege—indeed, the very distinction—of being a conscious subject lies in the relationship to other subjects. Granted, the relationship to objects is necessary and inevitable for biological beings. But human beings have never settled for being merely biological or merely objects.