“You can never know objective truth, because you’re stuck inside your own mind.”
I’ve heard this argument many times. Supposedly, we cannot know anything about the world because we cannot “get outside our own minds” to verify whether our claims are true. The argument goes, “we live in a subjective mental bubble, and we’re restricted from ever knowing what lies outside the bubble.”
On its face, this seems plausible. After all, our minds are inescapably tied to our personal perspective. All our experiences are fundamentally subjective. Think about it: what would be required to know with certainty that the chair you’re sitting on exists? You might think it exists, because you feel like you’re sitting on it, but can you know for sure? Well, to answer, you’d have to accumulate evidence. You could look at the chair, feel it, sit on it, smell it, kick it, etc. You could gather all kinds of sensory data showing that the chair exists. But what if your data-gathering tools are flawed? If you’ve been hallucinating for hours, for example, your senses are not reliable.
Somebody with poor vision sees a blurry world. Without glasses, all of their experiences suggest the world is a blurry place; but it isn’t – it just appears that way because of faulty equipment.
Well, how do we know our minds aren’t faulty equipment? What experience could we possibly have to prove our minds have access to external reality?
Do we trust our senses because our senses tell us they are trustworthy?
That seems problematic. If our minds are fundamentally flawed, that means all our tools for verification are flawed, too. Thus, the skeptic concludes, “our minds cannot judge whether or not they are good judges. We have no access to objective truth.”
Breaking the Circle
The skeptic’s argument is fatally flawed. Our minds can know both logical and metaphysical truths with certainty. This is a profound claim, with many implications, so let me make the argument.
First of all, the idea that we have to “get outside our minds” in order to verify our claims about the world is inaccurate. It is a false epistemological requirement.
Metaphysical questions are about what exists in the universe. We exist, and we have eyes. Our perspective is sufficient to give us some direct metaphysical insight into the universe, as I will explain shortly.
Second, there is a conflation of the subjectivity of a person with the subjectivity of the truth. A subjective mind can know an objective truth. These things are not mutually exclusive.
I like the analogy of being in a cave. Imagine you’re in a pitch-black cave, and the only tool you have is a flashlight. Without the flashlight, you couldn’t see anything. When you turn it on, the walls become illuminated, and you can see. Are you prevented from seeing the “real walls of the cave” because you have to use a flashlight? No. Does the flashlight somehow create the walls around you? Of course not. The “real nature of the cave” doesn’t remain veiled just because you have to use a tool to see it. The same is true with the human mind. You must use a mind in order to make sense of the world. But that doesn’t somehow mean you’re incapable of understanding its nature.
Finally, our minds are not only limited to their subjective perspective. In fact, one of the essential functions of the mind is to evaluate truths from an objective perspective. Claims to the contrary are self-refuting, as will be shown.
Let me give you an example of an objectively certain metaphysical truth: perception is a real phenomenon in the universe. Perception happens, and I have direct knowledge of it.
This doesn’t mean that perception is accurate. It might be illusory. Everything I think I see might be a hallucination. But that doesn’t matter. The phenomenon of perception happens, regardless of its accuracy or cause.
This truth has a number of unique qualities. For one, it’s not a “mere logical necessity”. It isn’t a necessary truth – we can imagine a universe where perception isn’t a real phenomenon. It isn’t a linguistic convention; I’m not defining “perception” in a tautological way. It’s a certain truth, and yet it’s about metaphysics – philosophically speaking, that’s a remarkable combination!
Take a more concrete proposition: I am experiencing writing. This is also a certainly true statement. And I can reference this phenomenon both subjectively and objectively; I can say “Within the universe, there exists at least one experience of writing.” In fact, this is true for all the contents of my experience. Everything which I experience has some kind of real metaphysical existence.
I call this principle the objectivity of subjectivity.
The mind can recognize both the “internal” truth of my experience – what it subjectively feels like – and the “external” truth of the experience – i.e. that it is an objectively existent phenomenon.
This reflects on the nature of the human mind. It is necessarily capable of understanding objective truth. To deny this results in a contradiction. Take the sentence:
“The mind is trapped in an impenetrable subjective bubble.”
This is, quite clearly, an objective claim about something in the universe. It’s saying “There exist such things as ‘minds’ which attempt to evaluate the accuracy of propositions, and given their nature, they can never know the truth. They are epistemologically stunted.”
But this is a claim about what resides in bubbles from an outside-bubble standpoint!
Our minds are inescapably tied to both subjective and objective perspectives. We can see both sides of the coin at the same time. We can take any subjective truth and immediately turn it into an objective one:
“Chocolate is the best flavor of ice cream.”
“At least one mind in the universe evaluates chocolate as the best flavor of ice cream.”
The former is a subjective truth; the latter is an objective metaphysical truth, which you can know with certainty if your mind happens to think that chocolate is best flavor of ice cream. Just by being aware of your perceptions, you have a connection to certain objective truths.
Now, a natural question is to ask, “Just how can the mind do this?” I don’t know the answer, but I do know that the question is secondary. Square one is establishing, beyond a shadow of doubt, that our minds do have this ability. Contemplating one proposition will demonstrate this to anybody: subjective experiences are part of the universe.