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John Locke – Quantifying Reality

John Locke – Quantifying Reality

In An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke focuses on epistemology.*

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 difference between “reality” and the way we experience, or perceive reality.

He complains that we treat all ideas, which in his terminology means “immediate objects of perception,” as equal, when in fact some “ideas” reflect the way things really are, objectively, 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.

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 sense organs. 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, end up being perceived as color. Thus, 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.

What exists objectively is the table, and light waves of certain frequencies. “Color” is an emergent phenomenon. Color results from the interaction between the objective properties of objects and the light waves they reflect, and subjectivity/consciousness. 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 with color. Color is not in the object. Color is the result of us perceiving the object. Technically, color is the combination of our sense organs, our consciousness and the objective properties of what we are perceiving.

Sometimes in high school science classes we are told that “green” is really frequencies of light from 540-610 THz. They say that because those frequencies are objective and measurable. But in reply, we can say that the scientists only know that those frequencies are green because we conscious humans told them. All that exists completely objectively, is the light spectrum as a continuum. We just break it up the way we do because this is how non-colorblind people perceive those frequencies.


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 subjectively 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.

Locke is not remotely interested in the possibility that what I call “yellow” may not in fact be what you call yellow. Complete uniformity of perception would not make those perceptions any more indicative of true reality in his view.

Descartes made a firm distinction between mind and body (physical reality). Locke is doing something similar. He is dividing mind and body. The mind he is thinking of as subjective, and therefore not really real. The body is objective and is real. Something is objective because it can be measured and quantified. Science in this sense is monological (i.e., it involves a monologe as opposed to a dialogue).

One can only be objective with regard to objects. You don’t need to ask the object questions, or ask its permission, or ask it what it thinks. You measure it. The measurement will be the same for anyone following the correct procedure for measurement using the agreed upon units of measurement. The process is public, repeatable and subject to correction. Opinions are not involved.

Anything to do with consciousness is subjective. It cannot be meaningfully or objectively measured. When we examine someone using subjective methods, our results are also subjective. If I want to find out what you are thinking, I must ask you. I cannot look at your brain to find out what you think of Barack Obama or more importantly, why you think that. What you say cannot be verified, or refuted. I must enter into a dialogue with you. I cannot treat you like an object and so my results are not objective. (Object and objective go together). If I treat you like an object, I can only study what is objectively true of you – your height, weight, etc., i.e., your body, but not your mind.

Criticism of John Locke

Much of what will now be said is not to be found explicitly within Locke’s philosophy. Some of what will be said is 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 may not want to think of Hitler and Mother Teresa as morally equivalent, but he has to if he sticks to his theory. Of course, our purpose is to make them give up their original assertion.

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. (“Nihil” means “nothing.”)

For argument’s sake, I could accept the division between the subjective and the objective as meaningful and legitimate. However, at no point does Locke give us any reasons for thinking that just because something is subjective, it is not real. Contra Locke, we humans are part of reality. We are part of the world too. We are not outside the world looking in. John Locke needs to expand his concept of “the world” to include both subjective and objective elements.

Locke pictures us as outside reality, outside the world, looking in. For Locke, reality is physical reality which we observe while standing outside this reality. This leaves the status of the observer wholly opaque.

The alternative is to draw a circle around both the observer and the physical world and include both in our conception of “the world.” We, the observer, are in the world too.

Because we exist, consciousness exists. Because consciousness exists, so does the experience of beauty. Likewise, emotions, morality, love, meaning, good conversations, good food, good books, films, and music. If humans did not exist, barring space aliens, on one view neither would the universe be conscious of itself.

We are part of the universe, and we contribute something unique to it. Our contribution is not nothing. Our contribution depends on subjectivity, but because we exist, subjectivity also exists. There are no good arguments for suggesting that consciousness does not exist and those arguments that do exist are self-defeating, because if consciousness does not exist then the arguer is not conscious and the person he is trying to persuade is not conscious. No one argues with a chair, or a table. This would be pointless. Those things are not conscious. So why did the arguer choose conscious human beings to argue with when we are not qualitatively different from tables and chairs? And how is the arguer managing to argue at all?

John Locke gives no reasons for thinking that subjectivity is unreal. He should instead note that when we perceive the world we add something. In the act of perceiving an object, the object now has color and sound. If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, it makes no sound. It makes a potential sound – namely, sound waves. But without a conscious observer with functioning ears, no actual sound exists. But because such observers exist, sound also exists. It is true that this sound is not objective because it exists in our consciousness. But “objective” is not synonymous with exclusively real. Subjective things exist, like love, and no one except a dogmatist would deny it. And I and pretty everyone else only want to live in a world where love exists.

Color and sound exist in the interaction between what is normally considered the subjective and the objective. They are neither wholly subjective – they are not typically hallucinations – nor are they wholly objective. Taste and touch exist in the interface between inner and outer. But hallucinations are also real in that they too exist.

Color, sound, beauty and ugliness can be thought of as emergent phenomena that only exist at certain level of complexity. They exist in the interaction between subject and object, the organism and the environment.

Another possibility is that color and sound and the other “secondary qualities” are real, objective aspects of reality and our senses are just the means by which we become aware of these properties of the universe. In that case “objective” reality does not mean what is measurable; it would mean instead the way things are independent of human thought and perception – a larger, spiritual reality that postulates consciousness as a fundamental component of the universe. This is a position that has gained more acceptance than it used to, it seems, and is suggested in mainstream philosopher Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos.

If the cosmos itself is conscious then color and sound might be part of reality whether humans existed or not. This notion is related to concepts like “the music of the spheres.” It also suggests that human consciousness is an aspect of cosmic consciousness of which we are a part.

Along this train of thought, if there is a connection between complexity and consciousness, which there seems to be, then the sun might be conscious. The sun generates electromagnetic fields and activity far surpassing the complexity of the human brain, which also works electromagnetically, and could even be in communication with the activity of our brains and thus could conceivably be aware of our thoughts. Humans are within the penumbra of the sun’s electromagnetic fields, hence the phenomenon of the “Northern Lights.” Likewise, the sun is part of the galaxy, etc. Thus the cosmos might itself be conscious since it is by definition more complex than any one part of the cosmos. We know that the universe has been developing since the Big Bang in the direction of greater organization and complexity and so might be increasing in the scope of its conscious activity.

So, color and sound might be inherent in the nature of reality and human sense organs just allow the perception of them, in much the same way that mathematical truths exist whether anyone is there to discover them or not.

The Bad Consequences of Accepting Locke’s Dismissal of Subjectivity

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 we tried to do economics from a purely objective perspective, we would have to ignore morality and pain and suffering. One could argue that child prostitution is very good for the economy and makes otherwise unproductive units contributing members of the economy.

This objective way of thinking was actually instantiated in a cost benefit analysis of the Vietnam War I once read. Cost benefit analyses only include economic costs and benefits, but ignore, pain, suffering and death. It would be fine if the cost benefit analysis was claiming to be a very partial examination of just this economic aspect, but it was not. It was claiming to be an evaluation of whether the US had been right to fight the Vietnam War. Such an analysis is immoral because it ignores morality all together.

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 sex tourists, otherwise known as the rapists of children, then the family is contributing to GDP and benefiting the economy by bringing in foreign currency. If subjectivity is not real, then the suffering and misery of the child prostitute cannot even be considered.

One might wonder why I am picking on Locke since he is hardly alone in thinking this way. The reason is that 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. Hume’s skepticism is largely the result of embracing Locke’s strange rhetorical move of expressing extreme contempt for the subjective nature of perception on the one hand and to claim that our knowledge of the world is based on our senses on the other – a view known as empiricism.

Logical Positivism

Rudolf Carnap and others developed a theory called logical positivism. The positivists thought that a lot of problems in philosophy are pseudo-problems generated by thinking about concepts that really ought to be excluded from thought. To this end, positivists put forward the “verificationist theory of meaning.” This said that any nouns used in thinking must be scientifically verifiable. For instance, the word “God” has no scientific reference, and therefore should be considered meaningless. The word “moon” is meaningful because instructions can be given as to where to find it; e.g., look at the sky at this particular time of day or night during a period of cloudlessness.

The trouble is that logical positivism, the notion that only nouns with a scientific reference are meaningful, cannot be scientifically verified and thus should also probably be considered meaningless.

The problems with empiricism can be overcome to some degree if we agree that many of our ideas about reality should be based on experience but accept a far broader, more ordinary language notion of what constitutes experience. I would include religious experience, intuition, faith, hallucinations, lies and dreams, love and loss, hope and despair and all the rest of things that make up human life. Restricting experience to so-called “sense experience” is an arbitrary decision with catastrophic consequences for thought.

Alfred North Whitehead said in Chapter XV of Adventures of Ideas:

“Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience skeptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal.”

The world looks quite different depending on one’s state of mind. It can look meaningless and ugly if one is feeling low in energy and motivation – if one is depressed. And it can look rich and purposive when one is feeling strong and energized.



* I will appeal to anachronistic things like lightwaves, 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.

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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