02
Feb
10

the third person and first person perspective

I think one of the most interesting conflicts in philosophy is the conflict between the third person and first person perspective.

The conflict basically spans all of philosophy and it may not be solvable.

Here is the general idea. People can abstract away from their particular circumstances and think about their own actions from a detached or scientific perspective. I may not feel hungry right now, but perhaps I’m diabetic and so know that I need to have sugar or put myself in danger. I know something about my body by viewing my situation externally. It makes no difference that I don’t want to eat right now; I see that I need to from the perspective of the biologist or a watchful third party viewing my situation but not feeling my apathy toward eating.

However, the third person perspective on life is not the whole story. One philosophical way to see it is to take Frank Jackson’s case of “What Mary didn’t know.” Imagine Mary in a room where everything is black and white. She is then given a book with a flawless theory of the universe in it. Every physical fact and causal relationship is explained. Mary is so smart that she reads this book in a short time and then begins to operate with this theory. She can predict all events and explain every phenomenon. However, the idea is that when Mary walks out of the room and sees a red apple, something happens. She has a WOW! moment, and the reason for this is that a third person account of the world is incomplete; it leaves something out —  namely, what its like to have the experience of redness. Such an experience is only available from the first person perspective. We cannot become neutral scientists to investigate it, rather, we have to plunge into our subjectivity.

Free will is another example. From a scientific perspective, there is no possibility of humans having free will. However, from the inside, from the perspective of me typing this post, its obvious that I do have free will, or at least, free will is just a natural feeling of my first person view on the world. Of course, the rejoinder here is just to fall back on science. If we don’t have free will then we don’t, end of story. But that’s just the problem. If fall back totally on science, there isn’t anything at all about human life that is interesting. We are just molecules and atoms arranged in certain patterns. What about the actions we take, the responsibility we assume, and our very consciousness. These things resist scientific explanation, and yet they are there nonetheless.

There are other examples from ethics and epistemology, but the point is that these two viewpoints (first the third person) may be irreconcilable, and we may have to start trying to live with both rather than show how science or the objective perspective is all there is.

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