Subjectivity, Existence, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves

Subjectivity, Existence, and the Stories We Tell Ourselves November 20, 2014

All of us are born into a world we do not understand. All human beings who have ever lived were born into a world they did not understand.

What has humanity done with the mystery of our existence? We tell stories.

And thus, slowly, we learn. Stories. Stories that explain the origin of the universe. Stories that explain the origin of the things in it. Stories that tell us how to act in this mysterious, beautiful, and tragic world.

Some stories are as old as the human race. Some stories are as new as the latest science. Some stories have agendas.

All are stories.

We experience worlds within worlds. We experience both the natural and the social worlds of which we are a part. We understand little of either of them intuitively.


Life in the Valley


One of the first people to tell me how the world worked was my grandmother, who was illiterate and had spent her life as a sharecropper’s wife and had given birth to eleven children. It’s not, in other words, that she did not know “reality,” but her reality was of a . . . particular type.

Her god was one that kept constant watch and kept a tally of every sin and every good deed. He handed out favors and rewards and punishments. Her god was like a European king.

Despite the magic of her world, I found her world frightening.

It’s good I think to reflect sometimes on those people who were formative in our thinking. The people who told us stories. And why we continue to carry those stories with us. The ones that we still believe. The ones that we don’t believe any longer.

Two (or three) Ways to Exist

One of the things that I’ve learned since I left my grandmother’s world is that there are at least two ways for things to “exist.” One is existence without need of experience. Oxygen is like that. Canyons and mountains are like that.

The second way to exist is an existence only in experience—fear or happiness, for example. We won’t deny those exist, but they exist only in individual consciousnesses. It isn’t that happiness does not exist—it’s just that happiness only exists as a result of being—of consciousness.

These distinctions get difficult. Energy and matter exist in the first sense—they are just there. Space and time exist in the second sense—they are relative to consciousness. Yet, space and time appear to exist more like mountains than they do like fear or joy.
Now: my grandmother, and fundamentalists of whatever stripe, will argue that their god exists or does not exist exactly as does oxygen and canyons—that gods are there whether we are experiencing them or not.

(In this scenario, an atheist is merely someone who says “no, they don’t exist.”)

What fundamentalists, or perhaps we should call them merely literalists . . . What literalists, be they Christian, Muslim, or atheist, miss is the other way of being—that which exists only in experience. In this sense, gods exist because someone experiences a god or gods—feels them.

This feeling is no more valid or invalid than saying something is too salty or not spicy enough.

Agreed-Upon Subjectivities 

But many gods are not complete800px-Henry_Lovie_-_View_of_Bald_Face_Creek_in_the_Ohio_River_Valley_-_Google_Art_Projectly subjective—because groups choose to agree on certain properties for their subjectivities, which we can call culturally conditioned experience. Groups agree to agree on some particular gods with particular attributes as a group. Thus, many god concepts are a shared subjectivity.

My grandmother had agreed to experience a god that was much like a European king. This was the god agreed upon by the Europeans who had settled in the Ohio River Valley. My grandmother didn’t know that she had agreed to that subjectivity, but she had. As did most of my family.

I have chosen not to agree with that concept.

One way to get our minds around this is to think about a holiday—Thanksgiving, perhaps. Thanksgiving exists because whole groups agree that there is such as thing as the US Thanksgiving and that certain things occur on or around that day.

Thanksgiving exists as a shared subjectivity—we all make it happen. If we all stopped believing in Thanksgiving, it would cease to exist.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. Wisdom lies in knowing which stores we are telling ourselves and why.

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