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John Locke – Quantifying Reality

John Locke – Quantifying Reality

The modern division between the words “objective,” and “subjective” can be traced back to certain thoughts of John Locke, and Galileo before him, at the start of the scientific revolution. “Objective” has become a synonym for truth and reality. Just as it sounds, being “objective” means treating things as objects and quantifying them. “Objectively true” thus means “we measured it and the measurements were correct.” “Subjective,” anything not measurable, is then regarded as not true and not real. Applying this objective/subjective distinction then means that anything debatable and not provable using measurement is then supposed to be a kind of nonsense. Morality, beauty, purpose, value, meaning, emotion, consciousness and mind, and all interior phenomena, not being quantifiable, would then be “subjective,” and thus regarded as not real, which is intensely nihilistic. The word “subjective” needs to be rehabilitated as having to do with treating people as subjects, rather than objects. Subjects are moral agents with interiors; with minds, thoughts, feelings, desires, ambitions, and volition. To treat someone as an object is to relegate that person to the status of a rock, an “It.” This is what all sciences do, including psychology. A person is transformed into data and facts. They are reduced to the facets of them that can be measured. To treat them as a subject, a “Thou,” is to treat that person as having an interior life as rich, important, and meaningful, as your own, rather than a one-way “study” of that person. You engage in dialogue with them to discover their inner life; their thoughts, feelings, and desires, with moral worth; subject to subject. The “subjective” then is what is most importantly real about a person. It is what is being asked when someone queries whether you know someone. The tragedy of much of modern life consists in treating people as objects to be manipulated. To stop doing this, it is necessary to rethink the “objective” is real, the “subjective” is unreal, division. The good news is that since someone just made up this point of view a few hundred years ago, it is possible to change it. It is not an immutable feature of the human condition or human outlook.

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke focuses on epistemology; a theory of knowledge.[1] His most important aim was to know what reality was really like. Like many other scientists and philosophers of his time (Montaigne, Galileo) Locke became fascinated with the idea that there is a difference between “reality” and the way we experience, or perceive reality. The fact that he identifies reality with physical reality only drives the rest of his conclusions and philosophical points.

Locke complains that we treat all “ideas,” which in his terminology means “immediate objects of perception,” as equal, when in fact, in his view, some “ideas” reflect the way things really are, and some do not. In this context he distinguished between what he called ideas generated by primary qualities and ideas generated by secondary qualities. Examples of primary qualities include solidity, extension, figure, number and motion. These are all inherent in actual physical objects. Locke regards them as objective properties of physical objects which we then have corresponding “ideas” about, meaning solidity, extension, etc., as perceived properties of objects.

Examples of secondary qualities include all sensations derived from our sense organs, such as color, taste, touch, sound and smell. Ideas of secondary qualities are ideas generated in sentient creatures like us through the effect of the primary qualities on our senses. So, a table objectively has solidity, shape, extension. And to use modern terminology and notions, its molecules are arranged in a certain way. The way these molecules are arranged affects the light waves being reflected from the table’s surface. The length of the light waves is determined by the objective properties of the table. These light waves enter our eyes and through some mysterious transformation involving consciousness and minds, end up being perceived as color. Thus, on this view, color is not an inherent, or intrinsic property of the table itself. Instead, color is the result of the arrangement of primary qualities of the table, which in turn determine the secondary qualities we experience. The color of the table reflects the effect of the table on us. Color is not a property of the table itself. For this way of thinking, it does not matter how uniform the perception of color is between people. A modern person might associate the word “subjective” with something that arbitrarily varies between people, like “opinions,” but for Locke, color would still not be a property of objects if every last human being on earth agreed about it. Color is “subjective” in the sense that its existence depends on human interiority, on the subject, for its existence. Color is not “objective” because it does not reside in the object. It is mind-dependent on this view.

What exists objectively, measurably, is the table, and light waves of certain frequencies. Locke argues that color is no more in an object than pain is in the knife that cuts us. Pain is what a sharp knife does to us. Pain is not in the knife. Similarly, color is no more in the knife, or table, than pain is in the knife. Color is not out there in the world. It is all in your head.

Sometimes in high school science classes students are told that “green” is really frequencies of light from 540-610 THz. The teachers say that because those frequencies are objective and measurable, although this view is not sufficiently objective for Locke. All that really exists completely objectively is the light spectrum as a continuum. Scientists just break it up the way they do because this is how non-colorblind people perceive those frequencies.

[1] I appeal to anachronistic things like light waves, and soundwaves because I believe Locke would have appealed to them too if he had known they existed. Instead he refers to things like “insensible particles,” which you and I would now called photons. I am doing this to make it easier for us to understand him, and to make sure that we are making his case as well as possible before we criticize it.


colorwavelength intervalfrequency interval
red~ 700–630 nm~ 430–480 THz
orange~ 630–590 nm~ 480–510 THz
yellow~ 590–560 nm~ 510–540 THz
green~ 560–490 nm~ 540–610 THz
blue~ 490–450 nm~ 610–670 THz
violet~ 450–400 nm~ 670–750 THz


The world of a color blind animal has no colors. The world of a deaf person is silent. The world remains objectively the same. Objectively, there are sound waves as vibrations in the air. The frequencies of color are still there objectively. But sound and color as subjective experiences are nonexistent. The world is not objectively different for the deaf and colorblind, or just blind. It is just perceived differently.

Locke wanted to distinguish the world as it is consciously experienced, and how it really is. In perceiving the world we attribute to it properties related to the senses that only really exist in us, not in the world. The alternative, that is rather hard to conceptualize at this point in time due to the influence of Locke, is that the world really is a place of color, sound, taste, smell and feel. Trees really are green, and the sound of the wind in the leaves, is really there, and the flowing river beneath it feels wet and cold, has a certain taste, burbles, and our sense organs just allow us and animals to be aware of all those things. Our senses allow us to perceive these real features of the world. When a tree falls in the forest, it makes a sound whether someone is there or not. On Locke’s view, it does not. Only soundwaves actually exist,[1] and they are just vibrations in the air that our ears and minds turn into sounds when we perceive them.

Objective knowledge is knowledge of objects only and thus is highly restricted. It is low-level and unspiritual. It has nothing to say about anything truly important like love, value, purpose, and meaning. Two people meet a third person. They might arrive at completely different views concerning him, but the least important aspects about him they can at least agree on – those things that can be measured, like his height and weight. Agreement is easy about things that do not matter and is harder on the important stuff. When the third person is considered as an object, he can be measured, including in a personality test. When viewed as a subject, it is necessary to enter into dialogue with him and find out about his mind which is far more essential to him. Interpretation and evaluation will be necessary. Jim is still Jim with an arm missing, but Jim is barely Jim at all with advanced Alzheimer’s. From this point of view, science is trivial, and philosophy which can handle interiority potentially profound.

Criticism of John Locke

Descartes made a firm distinction between mind and body – for philosophers “body” and physical reality are synonyms – think “heavenly bodies.” Descartes regarded mind as supremely indubitable. For Descartes, “I am thinking therefore I am.” He then derives his knowledge of external, physical reality, from this primary fact. Locke accepts this division but takes it in the opposite direction. He rejects the thinking subject, expelling it from reality, and chooses external reality as his paradigm of the real, probably because this is what science focuses on and the scientific perspective was the new, exciting “way of the future,” which remains a popular view for many today. This creates the odd situation described in Ideas Have Consequences by Richard Weaver, namely that the human mind creates science and theories, and then this theory existing in the human mind is used to reject the existence of minds and their contents; including the very mind doing the theorizing; a very strange and contradictory state of affairs.

Much of what will now be said is not to be found explicitly in Locke’s philosophy. Some of the following criticisms are simply what are irrefutably the consequences of this way of thinking. They are not necessarily things that John Locke would subscribe to. But this just means that he may not like the logical implications, the consequences, of his own way of thinking. His only rational option, if this is the case, would be to abandon his own philosophy, just as a well-meaning moral relativist might not want to think of Hitler and Mother Teresa as morally equivalent.

Other philosophers have commented that the picture of reality that follows from Locke’s philosophy is that all that really exists are silent, colorless, tasteless atoms in the void. In other words, meaningless junk. This is consistent with nihilism – the notion that life is a pointless waste of time and that we would be better off dead.

Plato discovered noumenal reality; reality accessible to the subject, a person with an interior. Physical reality he regarded as having an inferior ontological and existential status. For Plato, life was a journey involving moral aspiration which includes a search for the divine and transcendent. The progress of the person was dependent on spiritual development and the love of wisdom. Wisdom is not mere knowledge, but includes all aspects of a person, his body, mind, will, and emotions. An anxious neurotic person is not wise. A wise person has deep insights into the nature of human existence, is ethical, and lives in accordance with those insights. Wisdom is essentially connected to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. Kant also identified the noumenal and associated it with freedom; something Plato did not concern himself with. This addition gives preeminence to the interior, subjective, spiritual, and free nature of the Person, while the objective world of measurement is deterministic and oppressive, governed by various laws, both manmade and natural.

Locke’s epistemology abandons philosophy in favor of science. Philosophy, as the love of wisdom, only exists if wisdom exists; if the Good, the True, and the Beautiful exist. For Locke, the scientific perspective is the only one associated with reality and reality only concerns objects, not subjects.

The negative effect of John Locke’s philosophy is that by saying that only things that exist objectively (are quantifiable and measurable) are real, then everything we love about the world is deemed unreal. This encourages us to disparage everything worthwhile about our existence as unreal, when in fact there is no good argument why we should have to do this.

Thanks to John Locke and others like him, Montaigne and Galileo, we have been encouraged to equate “real” with the measurable. We are still in the grips of this mistake and the majority of college classes and high school classes continue to encourage students to despise everything they value most.

If only what is objectively measurable is regarded as real, then we would be pushed into some horrifying conclusions. Most people have too much common sense to do this – but only at the expense of being inconsistent with their claimed intellectual opinions.

If economics is approached from a purely objective perspective, it ignores morality, pain and suffering. Cost benefit analyses typically only include monetary losses as “costs.” Such analyses are nonproblematic so long as they are explicitly represented as utterly partial and are not exclusively relied upon in decision-making. Economics is a part of considering a marriage proposal, but nobody in his right mind would confine his considerations to just that. If a cost benefit analysis of the Vietnam War becomes the sole basis for deciding whether the war was a good idea or not, which does happen, then this is grossly immoral. Phosphorus was added to sticky napalm so it would penetrate deeply into the musculature and continue to burn day after. Napalm B continues to burn underwater if a little oxygen is trapped in your clothes. Flame throwers, which also used napalm, were also employed against people who had proved resistant to other forms of killing. Horror and misery has to be included among the actual costs of war.

Likewise, a family engaging in subsistence farming in Thailand contributes nothing measurable to the Thai economy. However, if one of the children is sent off to engage in childhood prostitution with visiting so-called sex tourists, then the family is contributing to GDP and benefiting the economy by bringing in foreign currency. If subjectivity as interior experience is not real, then the suffering and misery of the child prostitute cannot even be considered.

Locke is hardly alone in assuming this point of view, but he is particularly significant because he was one of the first to start thinking in this manner and is to a large degree responsible for a line of thought that culminated in the logical positivists and continues its influence on the general population to this day. Subsequent philosophers, like David Hume, merely made some implications of his thought more explicit.

Locke and Hume are known as “empiricists,” meaning that they claimed that knowledge came from the senses. Berkeley, another empiricist, pointed out that in actual experience primary and secondary qualities are always associated with each other. For instance, no solid figure with extension is devoid of color in actual sensory experience. We know about primary qualities just as much through the senses as secondary qualities and they are always commingled. If our senses are fundamentally poor guides as to what is real, claiming that all knowledge comes from the senses is going to lead to extreme skepticism concerning knowledge, which was Hume’s position. The supposed unreality of the subject implies an unreality to the knowledge of the object – for knowledge resides in subjects.

Logical positivism, which began in the 1920s, represents the final step in this hundreds of years long train of thought and takes it to its extreme. Like Locke, the positivists were committed to the claim that only scientific truths are true – abandoning philosophy in preference for science. The positivists considered most of the issues with which philosophy is traditionally concerned as meaningless pseudoproblems based on sloppy language. They claimed that only statements verifiable by observation-based procedures or logical proof were considered meaningful. This renders ethics and metaphysics meaningless and not worth discussing, containing only pseudostatements that are neither true nor false. Some logical positivists contended that assertions of moral goodness are the equivalent of “yum,” and assertions of evil, “yuck,” a theory called “emotivism.” In other words, good and evil are irrelevant assertions of taste, with no real content.

One huge problem with logical positivism is that empirical claims cannot be verified as universally true, as pointed out by Karl Popper. There is no way to prove that the laws of nature, for instance, admit of no exceptions. It would require searching every spot in the entire universe and even then the researcher might have missed something. Scientific claims like “there are no absolute vacuums in nature” cannot be verified. They can only be proven wrong, not right. Disconfirmed, not confirmed. If we start pointing at all the things that are not absolute vacuums we are not “confirming” the theory. Everything that, following Einstein’s theory, does not exceed the speed of light, is not evidence in favor of Einstein’s theory. Pointing at a snail not traveling at the speed of light does not prove that nothing travels faster than the speed of light. If it is claimed that all swans are white, then gesturing at a cat saying “yet another example of not a black swan” does not confirm that all swans are white. No matter how many white swans are found, it does not prove that there are no black swans. Disconfirming the assertion, however, is easy. A single black swan is all that is required, and there are plenty of black swans in New Zealand and Australia.  Since scientific claims cannot be verified as universally true, only potentially disconfirmed, then logical positivism would consider these claims to be meaningless, destroying science, the last thing they wanted to do. In addition, the verifiability criterion of meaning cannot itself be verified using some scientific observation-based procedure, making it meaningless by its own standards.



[1] Again, the concept of “soundwaves” did not exist in Locke’s time, but he would have no problem with them, and they help elucidate his theory.


Richard CocksRichard Cocks

Richard Cocks

Richard Cocks has been a faculty member of the Philosophy Department at SUNY Oswego since 2001. Dr. Cocks is an editor and regular contributor at the Orthosphere and has been published at The Brussels Journal, The Sydney Traditionalist Forum, People of Shambhala, The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal and the University Bookman.

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