ARE WE OBJECTS OR SUBJECTS?

In his book, The Universe in a Single Atom, the Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism is a subjective study, while science seeks to be objective. This is also the position I took in my book, Buddha Science. But my thoughts are beginning to evolve on this based on some new reading.

First of all, what do we mean by “objective” and “subjective”? Generally, the term “objective” it taken to mean that  the study is being done by an outside observer, someone who is outside of the thing being studied and whose actions do not affect what is being studied. “Subjective” generally means that the subject is studying itself, so it either cannot fully understand what it is studying or it cannot study without somehow affecting the outcome. Science has come to regard subjectivity in a negative light, basically equating subjectivity with bias. In other words, the position of science is that to be valid, any observation must be made with complete objectivity. You must step outside of the system you are observing. You must also use passive measurements to ensure that any observations you make do not affect the system that you are studying. So scientists carve out little, isolatable parts of the world to study and then piece them together to try and understand the bigger picture.

This creates a dilemma for the social sciences, specifically psychology and psychiatry. If the object of study is yourself, how can you be objective? And if you can’t be objective, how can psychology actually be science? In order to address this dilemma, social scientists use a number of techniques. They bring subjects in with certain instructions, without telling them the actual reason for the study. They study large groups of subjects and use statistics to tease out trends. And in the client/therapist situation, the therapist attempts to maintain an objective aloofness so he/she does not lose their objectivity, while at the same time trying to help the patient deal with their highly subjective angst.

As I suggested above, Buddhism studies the human condition from a highly subjective viewpoint. The dilemma that the Buddha struggled with 2600 years ago is that it seems impossible to break out of the subjective angst of being human. We have to study the system that is our consciousness from the inside. And although we can study little bits and pieces of it from this subjective perspective, the Buddha found that you can also see the whole enchilada unfold in front of you. By some quirk of human consciousness, you can not only be inside of consciousness, but outside of it was well. You can be both subject and object at the same time. And if that’s the case, then subject and object actually don’t exists as separate, independent entities, do they?

Back to science, there have been many books written about the quantum world, and a few of these blog posts have discussed it as well. The basic piece to bring in here is that quantum systems cannot be studied without affecting the outcome that you are trying to measure. In other words, it is impossible to be completely outside the system you are studying, and therefore you cannot be completely objective. You are part of the subject/object system when you are studying quantum phenomena.

In his fascinating book That is That: Essays About True Nature, Nirmala says that reality outside of mind and beliefs is pure, empty, limitless potential, and that this is an objective state. This would suggest that if you reach a state of perfect, non-conceptual awareness, i.e., nirvana, you are now observing yourself objectively. But wait a minute! Didn’t I just say that Buddhism is subjective? Well, yes, it starts out that way in its approach. But ultimately, it becomes both objective and subjective through the understanding that we exists in a dualistic, relativistic and subjective paradigm but that we can also experience the ultimate reality, which is non-dual, absolute, and objective.

Science has discovered exactly the same thing from the other direction. At some point, by studying very tiny particles, science has discovered that the assumption of pure objectivity breaks down and we discover a level of reality in which subject and object cannot be distinguished. So the objective view of science reveals an underlying subjectivity in the reality that we are studying. Science cannot fully explain this subjective reality. It is possible that the assumption of pure objectivity need to be reconsidered?

So the answer from both science and Buddhism seems to be that, at least from the perspective of the human animal, reality has two related aspects – a subjective reality of relativity and quantum uncertainty, and an objective reality. Paradoxically, science shows us that the objective reality cannot currently be defined or understood through an objective, intellectual approach. The further paradox is that according to Buddhism this larger, objective reality can be experienced directly, but only through the subjective approach of discarding mind and beliefs.

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