Thursday, May 16, 2013

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone ...


I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way

- Johnny Nash sang those words in his hit song, 'I Can See Clearly Now' (1972).

Thomas Nagel did not write those words

- and Wile E. Coyote certainly did not listen to them.

But they still help focus our attention on the meaning of the word "objective".

Carrying over from our last post, Bat Day #12, we need desperately to distinguish the word "objective" from the word "subjective".

Why do we desperately need to distinguish objective from subjective?

To refresh our memory - - which happens to be subjective, I suppose, or, is it? - - we previously quoted Thomas Nagel as saying, "Consciousness is what makes the mind-body problem really intractable." Consciousness, like memory, is something which connects directly to that part of my own innards which other people, who are not actually me, cannot access, and therefore cannot "know". It is this which Nagel referred to as "the subjective character of experience." For Nagel, there may be a permanent veil between the subjective, first person point of view, or inner experience, and the objective, outer, observational view of the world around us.

The difference may be something like these two views of the Sutro Tower in San Francisco; the first veiled in a fog; the second as clear as a bell ... or in this case, as clear as day:


When the veil lifts, hoo-wah, we can see what is really, positively and fur (sic) sure, actually there. If a table is 3 feet wide and 6 feet long, those are objective knock-on-wood, hard and true facts. Everyone in my family and everyone in your family who measures that table with a true yardstick will report back the same data: yup, 3 feet by 6 feet, that is what that table "is", no doubts about it.

But if the thing we are observing, like the Sutro Tower above, is shrouded in some kind of veil, then we cannot observe the thing, or the tower, objectively. Elements, like shape and height, are obscured or they are distorted. We are at a loss to report back the objective facts of that tower. We must make, at best, some guesses or estimates, but we can't all agree on the hard facts of the case about that tower.

This beautiful picture of the Golden Gate Bridge makes the same point, but in a slightly different way:


This image of the Bridge may model Nagel's idea about the subjectiveness of human consciousness, human inner thought processes, the obscurity of what it means to be YOU, better than the two views of the Sutro Tower, which we have already discussed. Why? ... Because here, with the Bridge picture, we can clearly and objectively observe various features of the Bridge, while at the very same time we cannot observe, or know, what the hidden features objectively "are". Only the Bridge can know what is hidden from view, and the Bridge ain't talking.

"Wait!" you say, "If we just wait, the fog will lift, and we will know fur (sic) sure what is hidden from view."

"Wrong!" says I, "because the deepest part of the foundation for the whole Bridge would still be hidden from view by an ocean load of water and piles of rock and mud. That part, down below, can only be known by the Bridge itself, and even if the Bridge tried to tell us what it was like to have its feet buried all the time in piles of rock and mud, we could not really know what that was like, because our feet are free to move around by themselves. Only the Bridge can know, for sure, what it is like to be standing in all that rock, mud and water."

"Well," you might say, "we can measure that Bridge with our yardsticks, we can determine the forces on it in every direction, we know it because we designed it from scratch, we built it, we have observed it for decades -- surely we can say that we know that Bridge. After all, the Bridge is not alive."

"Well said," is how I would have to respond. "Yes, you might come to know all the external, third party, observable, and therefore objective facts about that Bridge. But, if the Bridge were alive, you would still not know what it is like to be the Bridge, am I correct?"

So where is your bright ... bright ... Sun-Shiny day, now, Mr. Wile E. Coyote?


UPDATE: this post was moved from (5-07-13) along with any comments.

Image Credits

--- image credits will be added soon, from Wikipedia and Flickr --- soon ---



  1. Note to readers: I am shifting a few posts (and the comments) in order to create a space to introduce Part One of my 'live book'. This is a bit unusual perhaps, but I plan to open each new Part with a short Intro, so better to fix Part One now, rather than later. I apologize for this "remodeling". Have a good day. My next post will continue my examination of Nagel's view on objectivity.

  2. Heidi's comment moved (by ce) from 5-08-13:

    On an observational level this makes me think of two things. On the one hand it shows that we can only glean so much from our sense data, because there may be other factors in play (such as the fog, parts of the bridge below ground, etc.) One the other our observations may be affected by our perspective, as is the case with Wittgenstein's duck/rabbit.

    That carries through to our observations of people. Even if two people share the same moment, a particularly nice pot of tea overlooking a beach, for instance, each will have a slightly different experience based on their own perceptions and memories. Neither will be able to fully grasp the experience or reaction of the other, because they don't have access to all of the past experiences and other aspects that make up that person's viewpoint.

    If we expand that to trying to understand what it is like to be that person as a whole (not just for the shared moment) we can try to imagine it, but cannot really come close. There are simply too many factors in play, most of we wouldn't know about.

    And yet somehow there is enough commonality in the human experience that most of us can still communicate and exhibit empathic behavior, without knowing the true inner selves of those with whom we interact.

  3. c emerson's comment moved (by ce) from 5-08-13:

    > And yet somehow there is enough commonality in the human experience that most of us can still communicate and exhibit empathic behavior ...

    Yes, there are some very important ideas embedded in this thought of yours, thanks so much for sharing it here. I have also been to your site, which is marvelous. I hope all my readers view it immediately. Thanks, again.

  4. c emerson's comment moved (by ce) from 5-08-13:

    Btw, Heidi, I thought I would just link here your designRoomcreative website/blog as well, should any of my current or future readers be interested. I know I am. The praying mantis photo was fantastic.

    And I see you have a personal website & blog as well at

    We can learn a lot from your efforts! Thanks.

  5. Anna Maria's comment moved (by ce) from 5-08-13:

    Hum...objective versus subjective?

    The day I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge, twice, it was neither gold nor did it have a gate on either side of it.

    It was a huge orange suspension bridge I could care less about how it's muddy feet felt as long as they held up our car long enough to get safely back across it to hurry back to the hotel with my eager lover after we visited one two many California wineries. Would you call those feelings subjective or objective? ;D

  6. Grundy's comment moved (by ce) from 5-14-13:

    Even on the clearest day we still have our imperfect perception. We can't even see color objectively...or at least I can't. Am I wearing black or navy? It's unclear.

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