(Excerpted from the book Noise Music: Cognitive Psychology, Aesthetics and Epistemology)
Subjectivity is a constant and integral part of the human experience. Love, lust, like, dislike, taste, smell, views about beauty and ugliness and art. How you view this paragraph and this book involves subjectivity— your taste about the writing style, word choice, chapter subjects and length, book cover.
By definition, a subjective experience is a product of the individual’s mind. While real and often profound, the subjective experience cannot be objectively measured by others. When someone is listening to music, the music’s note, pitch, speed, volume and the listener’s ear vibration and heartbeat can be measured by scientific instruments, but the listener’s aesthetic experience cannot. This experience is experienced by the listener alone. Even if asked to, the listener could not fully translate the experience to others, in part because it is beyond words.
It’s doubtful that two people have the same subjective perceptions. People may have similar, but not identical perceptions. People regularly like the same song but perceive it differently. It’s common for best friends to like a movie, but one likes it more than the other or for different reasons.
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A large range of things determines a person’s subjective perception and experience. This includes genes, education, culture, where and when born, personal experiences, upbringing, travel, family make up and personalities, friends, acquaintances, natural temperament, mental abilities, physiological abilities (quality of eyesight, hearing, smell), talents, language, mood, health, hobbies and work.
Little things influence, such as what toy one had as a six year old and what tea grandmother drank. While walking in a foreign land, the scent of jasmine tea can bring back a rush of memories. The appearance of the toy in a movie will alter one’s emotional reaction and interpretation of the move. It may have been chance that the movie viewer’s parents bought that toy, making his movie interpretation a result of chance. It’s not just the tea and a toy, but millions of little things that influence, including from forgotten events.
If a bird watcher and a rock collector go for a walk together in the park they may have equally grand times, one due to the birds in the trees and the other due to the rocks on the ground. Though they were side by side, they will give decidedly different descriptions of the walk.
Do you dislike a name simply because it was the name of someone you couldn’t stand?
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Even when they experience similar feelings people will usually have these feelings under different circumstances, if only slightly different. People will be artistically excited, but for different works of art or when interpreting differently the same work of art. People have similar feelings of romantic love, but for distinctly different people— different looks, personality, culture, interests, sex, race. The emotional states may be alike, but the objects of desire are not.
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You cannot separate your biases from your perception, because it is those biases that help create the perception. Without those biases, you would have a different perception. Even that childhood toy affected the movie goer’s perception thirty years later.
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Humans believe they receive important objective insights, including cosmic truths, through strong subjective experiences— such as through the sublime experience of art, epiphany of music, nature, love, lust, religious experience. The psychological power of these experiences is considered verification of the ‘truths.’
A question is whether these experiences involve genuine insight into external reality or are merely strong biological reactions. Love and lust themselves, after all, are standard genetic, hormonal reactions. Psychological reactions to certain sounds, such as in powerful music, involve genetics.
The reactions to high delicate notes (such as from song birds or a pop song) and low booming notes (distant thunder, the start of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony) have been shared by humans for thousands and thousands of years. You and your ancient ancestor have remarkably similar psychological reactions to the sound of a songbird and the sudden deep roar of a bear. It’s no coincidence that church music uses delicate high notes to invoke heaven in the audience, and the loud, deep bass of the organ to invoke power and awe.
It’s not coincidence that horror movies use discordant notes. The director knows audiences find the sounds scary and creepy.
In the famous 1960 Psycho shower scene, the sharp, grating, discordant musical notes invoke violence, evil, something gone horribly wrong. They sound similar to someone scratching a chalkboard, one of the most despised sounds to humans.
It can never be known to the experiencer that an epiphany made through a strong psychological experience is anything more than a genetic reaction. If there is insight into the external, the insight is shaped by the experiencer’s subjectivity, and what parts of the insight are objective and what parts subjective is unknowable.
Even if important insights into the universe are gained they still are in subjective format. For example, if your epiphany comes through your experience of art, your experience of art is personal and different than that of others. Not only is your ‘insight’ intrinsically tied to your subjective views, you likely would not have had the insight at that same time, place or format, or at all, if you had different aesthetic views.
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Humans use aesthetic rules for defining truths, including what is good and evil, what is moral and immoral. Common rules include conditions of beauty, symmetry, color, tone (light versus dark), fashion and order.
Even if the rules were valid, it would mean truth is subjective. If truth is beautiful, your definition of what is beautiful differs from others’ definitions. Further, an individual’s perception of beauty changes with time and experience. A culture’s perception of beauty changes with time. Compare the depictions of the desirable feminine body from 1450, 1850, 1950 and this year.
Cultural definitions of ‘objective truth’ are formed by cultural sensibilities, including fashion, politics, gender, race, beauty, geography, self interest, desire for social order, etc. There is no indication these are identifiers of objective truth, or are even related, but they are still used as criterion.
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To humans, simplicity is that which is simple to them. Simple matches one’s sensibilities, knowledge, intuition and expectations. If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be simple. What may be simple to one human may not be to another. What may be simple to humans may be simple only to humans.
Simplicity has long been used by humans to define supposedly absolute things such as cosmic truth, goodness, beauty, logic and purity. There are a number of problems with this. One is there is no proof that cosmic truths, for example, are simple. Another problem is simplicity, and thus what is defined as cosmic truth, is in the eye of the beholder.
Normal, even nonconscious thinking involves simplification, translating complex information into something understandable. Conceits are simplifications.
Your visual perception involves simplification– interpreting a complex scene, grouping and labeling the objects according to your experience, focusing on what you seem to recognize and ignoring what you don’t. Visual illusions and mirages shown throughout this book involve simplification. The scene or graphic is translated by the viewer into something understandable, an understandable translation that happens to be wrong. This alone proves that simplicity is not proof of truth, and that truth isn’t always simple. Lies are often simpler than truths.
Simplicity, of course, has many practical uses. Scientists strive for simplicity in theories and testing. A scientific theory that is needlessly complicated will needlessly confuse students and seasoned scientists alike. Needlessly muddled theories are harder to test, study, correct and understand. In our daily life, good verbal communication requires simplicity, including using words, phrases and language the listener understands. If a traveler speaks only English, it does them no good for you to give road directions in Spanish. Road directions in Spanish may be simple to a Spanish speaker, but it’s complicated to someone who doesn’t know the language.