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Viewing The Viewpoints

Michael R Finch

Ingredients for this essay include: Nagel's View from Nowhere, Douglas Harding's Headlessness, a touch of Focusing, and a pinch of Mathematics.

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1 - First and Third person viewpoints

In order to think clearly about our being human - how we should live, what we should do and how we should do it - it is important to first distinguish two viewpoints from which we can think.

One is the objective viewpoint, or third-person viewpoint, where we see everything from an observer status, including ourselves. The other is the subjective viewpoint, or first-person viewpoint, where we look and think from the very privileged position of ourselves as living in our body, and from our body.

Much philosophy down the ages has been a conflict between these two positions, and their implications, in various forms. Yet as I review this 2,500 year philosophical debate, both sides seem to me very reasonable - more than reasonable, in fact, compelling.

I cannot deny that I am me, that I am conscious, that I have feelings and thoughts that only I know about (or can know about), and that I live from this point here. Some version of Descartes' I think, therefore I am must hold. I view subjectively.

Yet equally I cannot deny the ability to put aside my subjective viewpoint, to step outside of myself, and to view objectively. I can not only view the world objectively, but I can self-reflect and view myself objectively. Descartes' cogito I quoted above is an attempt to succintly express his own subjective existence objectively.

Not only can I think objectively, but there are clearly benefits from actually doing so. Science and technology - the computer I am writing this essay on, the electric light on my desk - are the products of objective thinking. Logic, the child of objectivity, has given us much.

Since I find that I think and view myself and the world both subjectively and objectively, and that in fact I must do so, then I had better fashion a philosophy accordingly.


2 - A spectrum of viewpoints

What I have written so far is in many respects philosophically naive. However, I can avoid many of the criticisms of the professional philosopher by adopting a strategy popularized by Thomas Nagel (although I do not use it in the way he does).

This is to think of a spectrum or range of viewpoints from subjective to objective, rather than just the two. Instead of thinking either subjectively or objectively, I now have the luxury to slide along this spectrum, and to view any situation more objectively or less objectively, more subjectively or less subjectively.

I can also avoid the absolutes, the extremes at either end of the spectrum. I can neatly sidestep the issue of 'pure' objectivity at one end, the 'view from nowhere' as Nagel eloquently puts it, where by definition there is no subject to do any viewing. I no longer have to commit to an absolute ideal objectivity; but I can always think more objectively if the occasion demands it, as it often does.

What about the other end of the spectrum? It is true that pure subjectivity has its champions, just like pure objectivity does. The originator of Zen in America, D.T. Suzuki, defined enlightenment as 'pure subjectivity'. But by definition there is no objectivity there at all, so it would be impossible to think or write about it (which is of course an implication Suzuki would approve of), and so I put aside that end of the spectrum as well.


3 - Two-way movement

Another benefit of putting aside both ends of the spectrum, is that from any other point on the spectrum I have the liberty of two-way movement.

For example, I am lying in bed just before going to sleep. I have a report to write tomorrow morning, and I am thinking about what I should write and how. The light is off, my eyes are shut, there is no sound to disturb me - I am in a fairly self-contained world of my own that many would characterise as subjective, or in my metaphor I would say that I am towards the subjective end of the spectrum.

But from that point I can move both ways, and I can think about my report both more objectively, and more subjectively. The report itself is, or will be, an outside object, and the words I am thinking of will soon be out in the wider world on paper as public objects. I can even move more objective-wards along the spectrum and see how other people will read my report and view it, and think with logic (the objective tool par excellence) about what I should write.

But I can also move towards the subjective. I can feel in my body the sense of how I feel about this report, a knot in my stomach perhaps of fear and trepidation about it. I can also fantasize, think up ridiculous things to say in the report, imagine outrageous scenarios, which are fun and entertaining, but which I have to put aside when I slide back to a more objective viewpoint and think about my report 'responsibly'.

So I would say that certainly within my own mind itself, this subjective-objective spectrum is apparent, and any mental activity that is commonly called 'subjective' lies in fact on this spectrum and allows me to view it both more objectively and more subjectively.

But also activity in the public arena, which is well along towards the objective end of the spectrum, can usually be viewed both more objectively, and also more subjectively. Science is often taken to be the achievement of the objective viewpoint. Yet science can be done from a more subjective viewpoint than usual - and it is then often called 'bad' science from those straining for maximum objectivity. The 'hard' sciences (physics, etc) where maximum objectivity is the goal, often look down on the human and moral sciences as being less objective.

Math and logic are also an interesting case. While they are the epitome of the objective viewpoint, many practising mathematicians in fact obtain their results in a subjective manner, by regarding their mathematical field almost as a mathematical landscape, a kind of Platonist Ideal which can be explored. New results in Math are called 'discoveries', as if there is a mathematical reality in some Platonist sense which can be researched subjectively (in the mind) and yet also objectively meaning this landscape has a reality independent of the mind. The results of such subjective inquiry are then written out objectively so that other mathematicians who are familiar with the same mathematical landscape can verify them. In my doctoral research in Math I worked in this way; all my fellow mathematicians admitted privately to doing so too, although they were wary of stating this publicly.

There are also physical scientists who admit to doing this, such as Einstein's famous intuition about Relativity, and Kekulé's discovery of both the tetravalent nature of carbon and the structure of the benzene molecule in two separate dreams! But it is much more prevalent and significant in the case of mathematics and logic.

My main point in this section is that wherever on the objective/subjective spectrum I am, I have the freedom to move both ways - more objectively and more subjectively. The only places I cannot do this are at the very ends, and I ignore each end - the absolute objective and the absolute subjective - for my reasons above.

For the rest of this essay, when I say to view or think 'objectively' I take this as shorthand to mean 'towards the objective end of the spectrum', and similarly with 'subjectively'.


4 - Subjectively subjective

Since from any viewpoint I have the capacity to move both objective-wards and subjective-wards, I can do the same with my viewpoint of this model, the objective/subjective viewpoint spectrum, itself. I can recursively apply the model to itself, viewing the viewpoint spectrum model from different places on the spectrum. By writing about it in words and concepts, I have been looking at it from the objective end of the spectrum. It is as if there are two spectrums: the one 'out there' I am looking at and writing about, and the one that I am actually viewing from, on which my position is objective-wards. But I can also move subjective-wards.

To put this another way, I can either think about the subjective end of the spectrum from the objective end, conceiving of it as I have described so far in this essay; or I can view the subjective end from the subjective end itself. I cannot do this objectively by definition, but only by metaphorically merging the two spectrums that I am allowed when viewing objectively (the one I am viewing from, and the one I am viewing) and in a sense sliding along the now one spectrum towards the subjective end and report what that view is.

To demonstate this needs the active cooperation of you the reader in a different way than merely reading. Consider looking at yourself in a mirror. You will see yourself objectively, how others see you, and you will see yourself as having two eyes through which you see, just like everyone else in the world except the blind and partially sighted.

Presuming that you did not check the last paragraph by actually looking in a mirror, since you could easily imagine what I described and gave your assent, then now comes the actual experiment you will need to make to follow me.

Without moving from where you are, what on present evidence alone are you looking out of? It is certainly not two small eyes. You will see yourself as looking out of one large round and crystal clear window, the further side of this window being the words of this essay, on computer screen or on paper, the landscape or roomscape behind and to either side, perhaps your two arms and hands emerging from the bottom of this window, and also at the window's bottom a faint fuzzy pink shape, sometimes to the left, sometimes to the right, which you objectively recognise as the tip of your nose.

You can trace the edge of this window with two fingers, even while still reading this. Hold your two index fingers up straight in front of you, about a foot away. Now move them slowly apart, and while still reading these words, see where they disappear. Most people have to spread their arms quite wide before it becomes hard to see both fingers at the same time peripherally. That is the left and right edge of this window. Now you can slowly move your fingers first down, and then up, keeping them just in sight while still reading these words, to trace the circumference of this window. It is a surprisingly large circle. It traces a window with no interface, yet which clearly has a 'this side' where you are, and a 'further' side where the world is. Your two pinholes have become one large, matchless, single eye.

When doing this and other 'headless experiments', as Douglas Harding calls them, many people dismiss them as just demonstrating a difference in perspective, and nothing else. They do experience the subjective viewpoint (everyone experiences seeing the world through one large window, and not two little peepholes); but they think objectively, and thus say that objectively ('really') they are seeing the world through two smallish eyes, and to point out otherwise is a childish game, that the one large eye is merely illusion, appearance, a difference in perspective only.

Yes, it is childish. For the first three years or so of our life, as a baby or toddler, we viewed the world subjectively in exactly this way. If we looked in a mirror, we only saw another toddler. At about four years of age we started looking in a mirror and seeing ourselves. Psychologists call this 'developing a theory of mind', the ability to objectify ourselves and others, to see others as having a mind that is similar to ours, and to build out this subjective/objective spectrum of viewpoints I am writing about.

We are by now, as adults, so used to thinking objectively, yet experiencing subjectively, that we find it hard to appreciate the difference, and we tend to collapse the spectrum of viewpoints up into either a single point (bad, leading either to a mental institution or a flat, fixated and impoverished life), or perhaps into two points (the subjective and the objective, better than one point but still weak compared to recognising the whole spectrum).

Another way to get a handle on viewing the subjective/objective spectrum of viewpoints both subjectively and objectively, is to take an example from Gene Gendlin. To start thinking from perception immediately polarises the spectrum into what is perceived, out there, objective; and the mechanism for perception, in here, subjective. Instead Gene suggests starting with interaction, and illustrates this by way of a plant.

A plant does not have senses or perception, but it nevertheless lives as and through interaction with its environment. The immediate subject/object spilt we find with perception is avoided in this example by noting that the plant is its own environment! The life process that starts as a seed interacts with its environment to create its own environment. The plant's body is the earth and air and water of its environment that is interacted with to both shape it 'externally' (the ivy outside my window has killed two trees and is demolishing the fence) and to incorporate it within its own body to form its stems and leaves, which allows ongoing further process and interaction to occur.

That is the view of the plant's interaction from the objective end of the viewpoint spectrum. What does it look like from the subjective end? Obviously we cannot view that from the plant's perspective (although we can imagine such), but we don't need to. Since we as humans evolved from plants, we have our own plant body too! Of course, we also have animal and human body as well, but the interaction just described for plants applies to us as well.

I find that just as I can see/view/feel what it is to look out of my one large single eye subjectively, I can also do the same with feeling. As I focus into my body and its sensations and feelings, I feel much going on, both viscerally and kinesthetically. I have readily identifiable sensations, such as warmth, hunger and the sensation of my sitting bones on the chair; I have various subtle tingling and humming sensations in my outer limbs, particularly as I put my attention on them - for instance right now I can sense a warmth in the palms of my hands that is beyond the warmth I feel generally, and also a sensation in my finger tips that I cannot put a name to. There is a sensation in my abdomen that is not hunger, a slight restriction in my chest, and I can feel my Adam's apple as I swallow.

In addition, I notice that as I think different thoughts, and feel different emotions, the sensations in my body change a little, or even a lot. There is a connection between my thoughts and bodily sensations, which is even reflected in our language (being nervous is like 'having butterflies in our stomach', being fearful gives us a 'lump in our throat').

This whole collection of feelings and sensations forms a space. To be precise, it forms two spaces: one space is my mapping of where in my body the sensations are. The three dimensional space we live in is so basic to us (some cognitive scientists think that it is hard-wired into us), that even with our eyes shut we place our bodily sensations in such a space. As we do this we are clearly edging objective-wards along the viewpoints spectrum.

But there is also a second space, a space in the sense that mathematicians mean it, as an ensemble, a wholeness in which things exist. There is something in which all my sensations and feelings are, a container or context for them if you will, which I just cannot view objectively. If I notice this space or context, that becomes another thought or feeling which is contained within the space. So as to the contents of this space (thoughts, feelings, sensations) I can move subjective-wards or objective-wards along my viewpoints spectrum to view them, but with their context, the space I am writing about, I cannot do that without losing my sense of it.

I consider this space to be analgous to my large single eye I look out of subjectively. I can of course view either objectively (I am writing about them in words and concepts), but I lose the essence of them when I do so. You can only really experience the one large single eye when you do so subjectively, as in the experiment above; likewise the space.

I see Gendlin having much the same problem in his writings. He gives qualities and concepts to what when viewed subjectively does not have those qualities and concepts. In my terms, his viewpoint is towards the objective when he uses words such as intricate and implicit. He then uses the extended ellipsis (five periods.....) to both refer to that which loses its reference when named, and also to invite the reader to pause and feel subjectively what he is writing about.


5 - Two positions simultaneously

This final section of the essay brings what I have written about above into the realm of practice. The observation which allows this to happen, is to note that when viewing almost anything, I can view it at the same time both objectively and subjectively.

What I mean by this, is that when I am presented with a datum - sensed or thought - there is a natural place on the viewpoints spectrum from which to view it. This position on the spectrum will be related to the purposes of my viewing. I will view a stomach ache first from the subjective end of the spectrum, as a feeling I feel; if the feeling is one of pain, I will want to understand it better to deal with it, and so will try to move towards the objective end of the spectrum to get a medical perspective.

So for a given datum of experience, coupled for a specific purpose, there is a point on the spectrum where I naturally view the experience. I can then consciously make the effort to deliberately move more objective-wards from this natural point, and I can also simultaneously move consciously more subjective-wards. In other words, I can move away from this natural viewing point in both directions at once, both more objectively and more subjectively, and get a kind of binocular view of the experience rather than my view from the usual one single point on the viewpoints spectrum.

I have found this a most valuable thing do in many areas: in thinking carefully about anything, in dealing better with my moods and emotions in everyday life, in loving others, and in my daily meditation practice - in short, to answer the question I posed at the start of this essay, how we should live, what we should do and how we should do it.

Let me take these in order. To think carefully means to use well-crafted and pertinent concepts. Such concepts must come from an objective-wards stance, as most thinkers would understand it; and then trying to get more objective, getting a more inclusive view of all aspects of the topic to obtain better and sharper concepts. But I have observed in myself that if at the same time I can move subjective-wards, and in particular feel how my body holds the issue, as it were, then the interaction between the more subjective and the more objective viewpoints can combine to give a conceptual structure that is both more powerful and more genuine (I use 'genuine' in the sense of Gendlin's 'carrying forward').

One of the most obvious features of a more subjective view from a more objective view, is that it is so very different. Indeed, for most people, trying to make someone else understand a deep and personal experience which is felt to be unique, is difficult. Phrases such as 'it is hard to explain' and 'you had to be there to understand' are common in such attempts. When a person is at a point on their viewpoints spectrum that is towards the subjective end, they feel that what they actually experience is unique to them, unique to viewing from that viewpoint, which is not shareable, and that the other person 'has to be there to understand'.

And it is not just in explaining subjective views to other people. I myself feel that a deep, personal and very subjective view has a completely different order of understanding, and is qualitatively quite different, from an attempt to objectively describe or understand it. (Here 'deep' and 'personal' of course mean 'very subjective'). Gendlin uses the term 'intricate' of the felt-sense, his 'direct referent'. Yet when I am viewing or feeling my felt-sense subjective-wards, it feels utterly simple, not intricate at all; it is only when I attempt to become more objective and see what emerges from it, as it were, that I realise that 'intricate' is a very precise and meaningful description of it.

So I just take it as a fact of this world and myself in it, that views from the subjective end of my spectrum of possible viewpoints are qualitatively quite different from views from the more objective end, and that it is in combining them that some further wisdom, not available from either viewpoint on its own, becomes possible.

My second broad category of things that this binocular combination of viewpoints is applicable to, in my list above, is in my dealing better with my moods and emotions in everyday life. I am not meaning here therapy in the sense of a protracted effort to understand my emotional life - I regard that as being taken care of in Focusing and what I have written above in the previous few paragraphs. Here I am meaning how better to deal with feelings and emotions that just well up, seemingly from nowhere, during the course of my day, and if negative can have disastrous consequences if I let them overwhelm me unthinkingly.

Suppose someone says something or acts towards me which makes me very angry. In some cases, anger is an appropriate response; but more often it is inappropriate and results from my misreading the situation in some way. My response these days, if I can, is to apply the same binocular vision. I try to step outside my anger if I can, and see it as one element in my inner space I described above. It will typically be the biggest and most unruly element in that space, but nevertheless it loosens my identifying with it, and is a start. I also try to move even more objective-wards, and if I can see the situation from a viewpoint other than my own, which if successful will defuse my anger some more.

In my paragraph above, I used the phrase 'if I can' several times. This is of course the problem with such homely and common-sense advice: 'calm down, it is not what it looks like' or 'look on the bright side of things', or 'cheer up' when I am sad. Obviously when I am sad I want to cheer up, and I know I want to cheer up, so just telling me to cheer up is worse than useless, it is intensely annoying. I don't need to be told to cheer up when I am sad, like I have forgotten, I want to know how to cheer up. It is the same with my anger - I typically know that it would be to my advantage if I could objectify, but the problem is that I am in the grip of it and cannot do so or will not do so, even though part of me knows that would be best.

That is why I also need to subjectify - go 'nose to nose' with my anger, in Jon Kabat-Zinn's marvellous phrase - feel it through and through, sink into it. Again, if I only do this, if I only subjectify, I will quite likely simply reinforce it and encourage it to overwhelm me. But if I do both together, subjectify and objectify at the same time, look at my anger with binocular vision, through one lens of up close and personal, and one lens of including it as an element in a wider context, then I have found that something almost magical can happen. True wisdom and stability can emerge which would be much harder to obtain though one viewpoint alone.

My third broad category I mentioned above is loving others. As my thinking has developed along the lines of this essay, I have come to almost define loving others as simply seeing them through this binocular vision. The same paradigm holds as I have described above. As I interact with someone, there is typically a whole series of viewpoints involved, usually averaging out to a general view of them from about the middle part of the viewpoints spectrum. I separate out this viewpoint to view them as objectively as I can, and simultaneously as subjectively as I can, and I see them through my large single eye, out there, but also filling up my field of vision in a way that does not conflict or clash with my emotions and personal issues.

I see them like I see myself in the mirror, human-shaped with two eyes. If my view of myself is out there too, as I see myself in the mirror, then there is the potential for a clash of two similar entities. But if I don't exist as a two-eyed being out there, one among many, but as a singular being in here, including the world and the human I am facing within my large matchless single eye, then there is nothing for that human out there to clash with, and true love is possible.

The final category in my list of four is meditation. I have found the traditional meditation styles to be enriched enormously when practised with this binocular vision. I have particularly developed two ways of meditation - based on whole-body breathing and body scanning - from this two-viewpoints-at-once model.

Meditation is often considered a very subjective activity, in which the objective viewpoint is not welcome - indeed, is taboo. Certainly if one considers meditation (either one's own, or the topic as a whole) solely from the objective end of the spectrum, the essence is lost. But I have found using the paradigm presented in this essay, with the specific two practices I allude to, that my own daily meditation sittings are enhanced greatly.

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