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pathways (essays)

Alan Bradnam

Egocentric Subjectivism

It was at the beginning of my vacation that I realised the world was not all it appeared to be. Up until now, I had always accepted that the world was a collection of material objects independent of myself. As I sit in the airport lounge waiting for my flight, it now seems that everything I see is nothing more than a series of images projected in my mind. The lounge is like a stage set and people, like characters in a film, pass by and disappear. The world, or rather my world, is simply that which exists in my mind, but has no material existence in my mind. Does that mean that the objects of the world have no existence outside my mind?

My understanding of existence is what my mind reasons it to be. Even if someone tells me what existence is to them, I must still consider their comments in the context of my own knowledge and interpret it as what existence means to me. For example, a passenger in the airport lounge complains that a flight delay will lose him a valuable contract. I know what the loss of a contract means, but only because I can relate it to my own experience of a similar situation. I then make an assumption that it means the same to him, but I cannot be certain of that. I can only know what existence means to me, and it is egocentric subjectivism that takes this to its ultimate limit.

My world and everything in it are dependent on my mind for its existence and without my mind that world would not exist. Despite this reasoning, it does seem that I am moving about within a three-dimensional world. Movement itself can be illusory depending on what is believed to be stationary. When I arrived at Zurich I boarded a train and waited to travel on to my destination. A train on the next track also stood waiting. Before long we were off and I watched the carriages of the other train swiftly disappear from view as we gained speed. As we passed the last carriage, I saw that we were still in the station and realised that it was the other train moving and not ours. However, when the train made its way around the mountains and up into the Alps, it did seem as if there was a three-dimensional space through which it moved. Suppose I create an image of a train in my mind. I then create laws of perspective and objects that obey those laws. Now instead of me moving towards a small distant mountain, I imagine a series of images in which the mountain increases in size and each image appears slightly to the left of the previous one. In the temporal world it would seem that my train is moving towards, and past, the mountain. In a virtual reality world such as a computer game, it would appear as if the mountain is moving toward me. However, as all the images are in my mind, it is possible that nothing moves at all. The images appear and disappear and the succession of images, through the laws of perspective, gives the appearance that I am moving in a three-dimensional world.

The images that appear are not merely scenery in my mind. The world is filled with all kinds of objects that appear to consist of material substance. Walking along a mountain path, I scramble over immovable rocks, slide down scree slopes and wade across shallow streams. At the end of a long hike even my tired body struggles to do what I want. Why do I seem to have little or no control over these objects if they are merely creations of my mind? When I first create a scene in my mind, say one of a mountain with a path leading up it and rocks and trees scattered about, my first view of it is as an observer looking down on the scenery. I then create a new object, that of a human body, which I can direct about the scenery. However, even though I may call this body me, my consciousness is separate from my body and I am using it only as a puppet. If I want to take part in my world as my body then my consciousness needs to perceive the world through the body. To achieve this goal, I endow the body with sense organs which project images of the world to my consciousness. I then limit my consciousness to the body and its sensory perceptions. The body's senses then need some way to identify the various objects in the world. I then endow each object in the world with properties that are recognisable to the different senses. For example, the rock will have a property of weight and coarseness, which the sense of touch will recognise. Trees will have a property of colour that the sense of sight recognises. All objects will thus have all the different properties to varying degrees so that when my body moves about the scene the senses transmit a view of the scene to my mind. Of course, none of the properties of objects are ultimately real. The rock has no weight in reality; it simply appears that way in my mind in order to give an impression of a material world. The material world appears to be so real because my mind has spent so much of its time limited to the body and its sensory perceptions. In Metaphysics ch. 4, Hamlyn considers the possibility of secondary properties, such as colour, being a necessity. If we look at this a little closer, it seems that the difference between primary and secondary properties is one of degrees of perception. Properties may be classed primary or secondary, with the distinction that objects cannot exist without primary properties, but may exist without secondary properties. For example, shape is a primary property and odour is a secondary property. I would argue that all objects must possess all properties in order to exist. The difference between primary and secondary properties is one of degree that is emphasised by the greater use of certain senses. As I walk along the mountain path I stop at a mountain hut for a cold beer and food. When the waitress brings me the beer, I recognise the bottle immediately just through the sense of sight. I know I am going to enjoy the taste before the beer is in the glass. It does not make sense to say that the beer could exist without its colour or its taste. To say that it would be a colourless, tasteless beer is a nonsense. It would not be beer. Every liquid has colour and taste. With some, such as water, those properties are more difficult to distinguish. The difference is more a case of saying that we can recognise objects from their primary properties and are able to ignore secondary properties. However, it is the secondary properties that add 'flavour' to objects to make them appear different.

From a temporal viewpoint, the creation of the world is generally seen in a spiritual sense as an act of God, or in a material sense in the theory of the 'Big Bang.' From the egocentric subjectivist's viewpoint, the characters in his world are not aware of him as their creator, and to them he could easily be interpreted as the higher power of creation. The Big Bang theory has a flaw in that it assumes that something is created out of nothing. Yet physical science states that matter cannot be created or destroyed, only rearranged. However, as the world is a creation in the mind of the egocentric subjectivist, matter is not ultimately real. It simply appears real at a temporal level. The world can therefore be created from nothing, or at least from consciousness. Consequently, the world may be destroyed and result in a Big Bang.

The creation and destruction of the world imply a passing of time, but what is time? The world measures time by the movement or change in objects or events. In Metaphysics ch. 7, Hamlyn considers McTaggart's proof of the unreality of time. Much seems to rely on a past, present, future series of events. However, the events in such a series are only possible with change and movement. For example, when I set out to climb a mountain I move uphill during the morning, rest for lunch and then come downhill in the afternoon. At the end of the day I can recall the passing of time by relating the series of events during the day. Suppose I lived in a world in which there was no movement and my body was like a statue with a consciousness that simply perceived an unchanging landscape. With no movement there would be no events either. Time would become meaningless because there is nothing to measure it against. The consciousness would only be able to think of a succession of thoughts and say 'I thought of that a few moments ago.' How could the consciousness be sure of that though? With nothing to measure against, the thoughts of a single consciousness become a 'private language.' The unmoving world is nothing like the temporal world and the consciousness might just as well have nothing to observe. If there was no temporal world, the consciousness would simply exist as pure being and have no thoughts at all. As soon as consciousness thinks, it has begun the act of creating its world. With the creation of the world, movement begins and time makes its appearance. Time is simply movement within a temporal world and has no existence outside that world. Although we could say that consciousness exists in a continuous present, it would be more correct to say that there is no past, present or future because time does not exist outside the temporal world.

Despite this being my world, other human bodies seem to possess a will of their own. This does not seem to be a problem when people are at a distance. They simply pass across the scene just as clouds pass across the sky. There are other people, however, who do not just pass by. For example, when I was hiking along the mountain trail, I met a fellow hiker walking from the opposite direction. We exchange greetings and he tells me of a new mountain restaurant that I am not aware of. It is not marked on the map, but I make a slight diversion and arrive at the restaurant. The problem this raises is that it appears that the other hiker has an existence before he appeared in my world and may still exist even though he is no longer present in my world. Of course, the world I perceive at the moment is only that part I perceive through my senses. I created a much bigger world, but then limited my perception by using the body and its senses to enable me to take part in my world. I must have created other humans to populate my world and I perceive them only when they are within reach of the senses.

Later that day as I sit in the bar of my Gasthof, I discuss my theory with another customer. He argues that for all I say, he could say the same, that I am merely an object in his world. He is conscious of his own experiences just as I am of mine. In Theories of Existence ch. 7, Sprigge considers consciousness from Sartre's writings. However, his arguments seem to revolve around individual consciousness, but could it not be part of a whole consciousness? If I have created my world and the people in it, I have also made them appear as if they have their own consciousness. However, whatever it is that they call consciousness, it is so like my consciousness that I would have to admit that it is a consciousness. Is it possible though, to create a separate consciousness within my consciousness? Outside of the temporal world, my consciousness has no form or limitation. It would seem like creating a separate space within an infinite space. It is still one and the same space. The separate consciousness is then, not separate, but simply my consciousness. This means that the other bar customer's consciousness is my consciousness. Yet I am not aware of his consciousness or perceptions as he experiences them. My consciousness is, therefore, divided into a part that I am conscious of and possibly a number of parts that I am not conscious of. If there is one consciousness that is divided into parts each represented by a separate body, then it seems that my body has no more authority than another. It also raises the question of whether that one consciousness is solely mine, or in fact anyone else's. Another possibility is that the one consciousness is a universal consciousness and what we perceive as our own consciousness is merely a part of the whole. The temporal world is the world of the universal consciousness. However, the universal consciousness as a whole does not perceive the world through a body. If it did, then the argument would regress back to another universal consciousness. Instead, each of us is a part of the universal consciousness and perceives the world through separate bodies. Although each of us perceives our own world, our perceptions are of one world created by the universal consciousness.

* * *

Bibliography

Hamlyn, D. Metaphysics (CUP 1984)

Sprigge, T.L.S. Theories of Existence (Penguin 1985)