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Subjectivism: The Egotistic Theory of Knowledge

By Greg Nyquist

   Several readers took issue over my recent philippic against astrology. One reader suggested that I was “intellectually biased against astrology” because it does not square with my “materialistic view of the universe.” Another, in a long and eloquent peroration on behalf of the subjective theory of truth, insisted that “real” astrology “is much more ‘scientific’ than religion, especially Christianity which is truly a ridiculous and unbelievable fairytale.” Both readers argued that there was more in astrology than meets the scientific eye, and urged for greater openness to alternative ways of looking at the matter. Their whole argument was framed as the narrowness of science and logic versus the open-mindedness of astrology—as if science is somehow “limited” or “stunted” in relation to the open-mindedness of astrology and other phenomena of the “expanded consciousness.” But framing the debate in this way seems to miss the whole point at issue. What really separates science from astrology is not the breadth of their respective visions but the difference in the way each tests claims to truth. Science emphasizes a critical attitude towards all truth-claims. It seeks not so much to prove a theory or hypothesis true as to refute it. While this critical, skeptical attitude can seem merely “negative” (especially when applied to morals and religion), it is nonetheless crucial in all matters dealing with practical calculation, as when, for example, we attempt to determine whether a certain substance is edible or poisonous. The trouble with people only attempting to prove a theory, the philosopher Karl Popper noted, “is that they are inclined to take everything as supporting or ‘verifying’ it, and nothing as refuting it.” This is precisely the problem with those who believe in astrology. They are uncritical and credulous. Indeed, they do not know what scientific criticism amounts to. They equate it with having a “materialistic view of the universe” or creating “a specific way of seeing reality.” But it’s not that at all. It is simply a product of a scrupulous honesty, of the desire to solve the problem of our relation to the universe without resort to dubious postulates or cowardly precepts. In order to accomplish this task, we must become truculent realists: the central problems of existence must be stated in the harshest and cruelest terms possible. It will not do to meet God or nature half way. Either we accept the universe as it is, or live in ignorance of the true sources of our being.

On the practical side of things, science has proven our best guide to date. The methods developed by science—experimentalism, criticism, logic, etc.—are the methods by which every claimant to practical knowledge can be judged. Now astrology presumes to be a method of practical divination. It presumes to give us true knowledge of what we are and what the universe has in store for us. When, however, these assumptions are tested by the methods of science, they are found to be baseless. For this reason, anybody who seeks to be rational must reject them.

But there is another issue involved in the astrology controversy that is perhaps of even greater importance than a disagreement of method. One of my readers suggested that a scientific refutation of astrology is invalid because reason and logic are incapable of understanding an “everchanging” universe. “‘Real astrology says that we are ‘sensory’ beings before ‘logical’ ones,” explained this intrepid defender of the astrological delusion.

   ‘Logic’ and ‘reason’ are mere by-products of human fear and mania concerning the impossibility of understanding the workings of the universe, which are ‘everchanging’ and therefore lack any definability or universality. As sensory beings, the most crucial moment determining our psychological make-up occurs at birth, which is the moment that we actually enter the outer world from the inner world of our mother’s womb. At this moment the mind is unformed and completely unfamiliar with the filtering mechanisms of ‘logic’ that create a specific way of seeing reality (such as yours) exclusively by filtering out a multitude of other sensory data that is readily available to the child’s mind. The relative positions of the planets in our solar system, which also affect weather patterns, leave a lasting imprint on the mind of the newborn infant. With every passing second, which turn into months and years eventually, we become less and less sensitive to such stimulus—partly as a natural process of maturing into adulthood, and partly from being forcibly trained in a particular view of ‘reality’ which is ‘logical’ and regards most other phenomenon as ridiculous or false.

What is especially excellent about this defense of astrology is that it demonstrates a real understanding of the basic points at issue between the defenders of astrology on the one side and its scientific critics on the other. Astrology, our correspondent asserts, does not debase itself by wallowing in reason and logic! It is above such petty fears and manias! Knowledge involves, not intelligence, which merely filters out sensations which the child’s mind would otherwise eagerly lap up, but in creating a specific way of seeing reality which will allow the mind to perceive so important a fact to our destiny as the relative positions of the planets in the solar system.

This curious theory of knowledge, which owes more to the imagination than it does to careful, detailed observation, has one glaring flaw. With all these many sensations streaming indiscriminately into the mind, how are we to make out which of these sensations are important to our destiny and which are not? Fortunately, our correspondent has seen fit to offer at least a hint of a solution to these difficulties.

   Why is the ‘logical’ person’s reality any more ‘real’ or legitimate than, say, a schizophrenic person's reality? Each is a person subject to the consistent flow of sensory data, which the brain interprets and processes to form a particular set of beliefs and a subsequent idea of truth and reality.... In this context, can the schizophrenic person’s reality, which is vastly different from the ‘logical’ person’s, be considered any less ‘real’? Whatever ‘proof’ we may so arrogantly think we have attained of ‘true’ versus ‘fictitious’ reality, all of our assumptions of such proof are ultimately based on the processing of specific sensory data.

Here we find ourselves boldly confronted with the subjective theory of truth. There is no one single objective reality, but an infinite multitude of subjective realities, each with its peculiar locus and pathology. But before we dismiss this as palpable nonsense, it is only fair to note that this view, which makes a mockery of human knowledge and wisdom, is merely a logic corollary of the dominant view of knowledge in modern philosophy. Ever since René Descartes, the seventeenth century thinker who placed philosophical speculation firmly on a subjective basis, modern philosophers have accepted the notion that ideas and sensations, and not their objects in reality, are the most certain of realities. When someone steps forth and asserts that all claims to knowledge of reality are based merely on “the processing of specific sensory data” and that this processing is ultimately nothing more than a “consistent flow of sensory data,” what we are being told is that knowledge consists of nothing more than sensations. And if knowledge is merely the awareness of meaningless sensations, then there exists no reason why the schizophrenic’s sensations must be held as any less “true” than anyone else’s. This view of the matter effectively banishes intelligence, science, and logic from the mental scene. Anything which gets in the way of the unimpeded flow of sensory input must be banished. We should all aspire to be like idiots who sit and stare at the sensations which traipse stupidly through our minds.

This way of looking at things certainly opens the door to astrological speculations—which is the reason why our correspondent advanced it. But it nonetheless has a number of serious problems. If there exists no objective reality which it is the business of intelligence to perceive and understand, then all claims to truth have the same cognitive value—that is, they have no value. The subjectivist theory of truth is ultimately untenable, because, in asserting itself, it devours itself. Is this theory, may we ask, objectively true? Or is it merely subjectively true—that is, true for you but not true for me? And if truth really is subjective, what is the point of arguing about anything? If everyone is entitled to their own private reality, why should we bother ever to correct anyone? You say that cyanide is poisonous, but that is only true in your reality. In the schizophrenic’s reality, cyanide might be viewed as a wonderful nutrient. Why, then, should we seek to prevent the schizophrenic from ingesting cyanide? Because, you say, he will die. Ah, but that is true only in your reality. Who’s to say that in the schizophrenic’s reality, the schizophrenic continues to exist, despite the fact that in your limited reason-and-logic reality, he is six-feet underground and pushing up daisies?

The subjectivist theory of truth is an impossibility, a veritable solecism of common sense. If what is true for you can be false for me, then knowledge is impossible and truth finds itself swallowed up in one gigantic solipsistic gulp. But we all of us know, if we know anything at all, that the subjectivist theory of truth is not true. Knowledge is not mere sensations trickling through the consciousness: it is the play of intelligence upon those sensations. Nor are logic and reason mere “by-products of human fear and mania.” They are precisely what controls intelligence and gives it wisdom and insight and direction as it sifts through the sensory stream and judiciously selects and interprets those sensations as signs of an external, substantive reality. We may resent logic when it is used to refute one of our pet ideas, but it is the height of folly to dismiss logic because we find it at cross purposes with our fears and wishes. Ultimately, logic is nothing more or less than the will to honesty. In this context consider what happens when a perjurer is placed on the witness stand and cross-examined. Indeed, there is nothing that so convinces us of the objectivity of truth then when someone lies to us. So why should we slander logic and objective truth merely to save astrology? Is astrology really more important than truth? That would appear to be the real point at issue.