RE: Objective versus subjective reality: which is primary?

From: Norm Wilson (
Date: Wed Jul 20 2005 - 10:49:05 MDT

This is by no means a rigorous argument, but I feel that it contains something important about the relationship between subjectivity and objectivity.

Consider the following experiment: You are told that ten people are connected to electrodes and that pressing any of ten buttons will administer an electric shock to one of the subjects. Each person is also connected to an array of sophisticated monitoring equipment, which produces various readouts about the physical states of their brains. You start pressing buttons and each person receives a shock and reacts in a predictable way. You find that the subjects' reactions are dictated by the electrical states of their brains, and eventually you even learn how to predict each subject's reaction in advance based on data from previous readouts. However, one thing you did not predict was the painful experience you felt when you pressed the sixth button. For some reason, pressing that button was very different than pressing any of the others, and none of the readouts could have told you that in advance. What is it about person number 6 that makes him or her so special? As you sift through the data you find t
hat each person in the experiment has their own life history, personality, genetic makeup, memories, self-concept, etc., all of which play a part in determining their reaction to the shock. Still, search as you may, there's no hidden brain circuitry that fundamentally distinguishes person number 6 from the others.
Of course, the experiment is less interesting when examined objectively. Given the prior knowledge that person number 6 is the one pressing buttons, it's predictable that after pressing the 6th button this person would experience something different. However, in offering this explanation, the subject "YOU" has been replaced by "person number 6." Objectively, this substitution makes sense and does not make any difference, while from your perspective it makes all the difference in the world. What is this strange connection between "YOU" and person number 6? It seems to me that starting from the subjective perspective (and from where else can you start?), there are aspects of the subjective perspective that cannot be derived objectively.

Norm Wilson

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