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Objective Reality vs Subjective Reality

Updated: Jun 26, 2020

According to Indian mythology there is a story which goes like this. There was once a competition between Ganesha and his brother Kartikeya as to who can go around the world three times and come back the fastest. Kartikeya sets off on his peacock and goes around the world three times and just before he could finish the race, Ganesha just goes around his parents three times and claims victory. When asked for his reasoning by Kartikeya, Ganesha responds by saying, you went around ‘The’ world and I went around ‘my’ world.

The point of this story is, there is something called Objective reality and Subjective reality. For Kartikeya, world is what is commonly believed to be ‘the world’ however for Ganesha ‘his world’ is his parents. Objective reality is something that exists completely independent of any conscious entity to observe it, like the sky, stars, planets etc. Subjective reality on the hand stems from our perceptions, rooted firmly in ‘our’ reality. Our thoughts and feelings, our dreams and our memories, that is known only to us. So these differ between individuals and is heavily dependent on our sensory apparatus, sensory processing, conditioning, belief system etc etc. Hence what one person experiences is always different to someone else’s experience. So what matters more, what everyone sees (which again is subjective) or what we alone feel?

So what is, the truth/reality, is pretty subjective and relative. Fundamentally we really cannot prove the existence of an objective reality. We can only infer its properties through observations, which of course, are again subjective. Like the story of the blind men and the elephant, The idea of an elephant having four legs, a tail, a trunk and tusks is in our experience but is that the absolute truth? Maybe its just how we perceive an elephant to be however some animals/life forms use other means of measurement based on their sensory apparatus to derive what truth is. So for the blind man who’s only ever known the trunk of an elephant (his experience of what an elephant is), its both his absolute and relative truth/reality.

The problem with measurement is, it only deals with one half of the truth. The objective part that can be measured and what can be measured is strictly limited by the tools of measurement at our disposal. But can everything be measured? We might be able to grade/rate emotions but how do we measure it? Like in the story of ‘The Goose Girl’, When the father asks his two daughters how much they love him, for which one daughter responds by equating her love to salt and the other to sugar. So how will the father measure who’s love is more? In his mind sugar had a higher score so he ends up rejecting the daughter who equated her love for him to salt. However in her mind without salt you pretty much cannot eat anything. So it all comes down to perception.

The measuring scale might be objective however the person measuring is not. Nor is the person reading the measurement. Each one comes to the table with their own biases and prejudices. So the truth that emerges is not what just the measuring scale tells us but a combination of the measuring scale and the subjective reality of the person measuring it, which leads to a very warped reality. So measurement and the objective truth we seem to believe in is always flawed. It can be an indicator of the truth/reality but not the whole truth/reality.

The observer effect shows that, the mere observation of a phenomenon inevitably changes that phenomenon. This pretty much undermines the basic assumption that there is an objective world out there, irrespective of us. If the way the world behaves depends on how or if we look at it, what can "reality" really mean?

So does this mean that what we perceive as this universe is an illusion? Is the idea of objectivity in our heads? Does the moon really exist only when we look at it? Just like how electrons can be in two different places at once, maybe our quantum brain can hold multiple realities that are mutually-exclusive at the same time?

According to Pascual Jordan, "observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it. We ourselves produce the results of measurements." If that is the case then objectivity goes for a toss.

Although reality exists in infinite possible states, this does not necessarily mean that we are making something happen with our thoughts (needs to be looked into) or we are capable of influencing the external reality. Observation (nothing to do with consciousness or awareness) here merely refers to the physical aspect of us or anything that is pretty much made of matter will inevitably change the reality as it interferes with the electrons.

It’s a rather incredible way to look at life in general. We are not just part of evolution but rather participants/creators of evolution(consciously or unconsciously). We are actively creating this universe as we see/know it. Interestingly enough, 640 odd years ago, in his book of ‘Advaita’ (Non Duality) called Panchadasi, The author Vidyaranya discusses various aspects of reality. Unlike theistic religion’s view of the creation of this universe, which states ‘God’ created this universe, according to Vidyaranya, this universe is a joint production by Consciousness (Brahman/Atman) and us. Its what we superimpose on consciousness (this has a completely different understanding and meaning in advaita) that leads to Maya or in other words the subjective universe/reality, which we seem to mistakenly think to be the absolute reality.

Best example to demonstrate this paradox is something we experience every single day or rather night when we sleep. Our dreams. There’s an objective layer beneath our subjective dream world. limitations of our physical brain constrain the depths of our, subjective dream world simulation. The software of our dreams are literally running on the physical hardware of our brain. Our subjective reality is pretty much dreaming up the objective reality even in the waking state and that is what is called as Maya in Vedanta.

If dreams can trick us into thinking it is an objective reality at that moment of dreaming, then it isn’t a far reach to assume it might be the case in our waking world as well.

So the question now is can we change this simulation of ours? This Universe is infinite but our measurement of it is finite, our knowledge is finite, but our ignorance is infinite. So how do we know there is an absolute truth/reality. We can only use objectivity to validate something out of our subjectivity. Maybe this waking stage of ours is just another dream as well and the point of human endevour is to wake up from this slumber of ours to the true reality!

Reality, just like anything in life, evolves as the tools of measurements evolves becoming the absolute truth in our relative experience, at that given moment. So as long as we are willing to keep at it, have an open mind, identify with our ignorance because its boundless rather than our knowledge, which is limited, and open to learning and exploring, our reality will keep evolving.

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