I'm a mathematics PhD student, and I've often wondered how one distinguishes subjective phenomena from those that, instead, depend extremely upon initial conditions (i.e., are mathematically chaotic).

Hear me out.

The Question:

What if something we thought was subjective was in fact a function of the situation at hand that has chaotic output; how would we test for that?

Now, I'm not trained as a philosopher, so I apologise if this is poorly articulated or otherwise a bad question.

My understanding is:

  • subjectivity, in layperson terms, is where things depend on the agents involved; they're opinion.
  • chaotic systems, in layperson terms, are systems that (are objective and) depend extremely upon initial conditions: given a slight perturbation of the input, there can be vastly different outputs.

What motivates me to ask?

Well, my intuition suggests - and I'm aware that intuition can be very problematic - that certain things are indeed chaotic, when the common perspective I encounter from others is that they're subjective.

Take morality for example. Who is to say that each trolley problem doesn't have a correct answer, and that naïve changes in the conditions are largely futile, because "the system" is chaotic, so of course many different people give different answers, because their experience they bring to bare on the problem is so diverse that "the computation" in their heads is duly effected; thereby giving a false sense that "it depends on the person you ask"? Yes, it depends on the person somewhat, but only because - hypothetically - "the computation" is like a computer rounding numbers out of necessity when predicting the weather, thus producing wildly different results than before the minute rounding.

(The example above is hypothetical. I'm not trying to argue that morality is objective.)

Please take this question in its spirit, for I am afraid I cannot quite articulate what I'm getting at here.

  • <<because "the system" is chaotic>> if it is... You have given no hint as to how there should be a similarity or connection between subjectivity and chaos, and, at least in a first instance, indeed I see none. Commented May 6 at 9:17
  • Yes, it's a hypothetical, @JulioDiEgidio. Also, I don't know how to express this (without repeating myself) . . . Please give me a while to come up with an explanation of my thoughts.
    – Shaun
    Commented May 6 at 9:22
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    There might be something to it, but the morality example is bad. It is unclear how what one should do can be "objective function of the situation that has chaotic output". Namely, how can moral obligation be an output of what is, chaotic or otherwise, without involving some (subjective) system of values? It would work better with people disagreeing over a description of the situation rather than over their moral obligations in it. Then we could say that objectively correct descriptions are too sensitive to details, so people disagree and make it seem subjective.
    – Conifold
    Commented May 6 at 9:45
  • Morality was the best example I could think of at the time, though, of course, I'm not trying to say it's objective. Your example seems better, @Conifold. Thank you.
    – Shaun
    Commented May 6 at 9:52
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    @Shaun I'm trying to figure out what is the thing you think might be chaotic, what the potentially-chaotic output is, and what the initial conditions are that it depends on. I presented 3 potentially possibilities for that, which seems to cover all bases. If it's none of those, what is it? I saw what you wrote in your question - I was trying to clarify that, because "something" and "the situation at hand" are too vague for me.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented May 6 at 15:35

1 Answer 1


One characteristic of chaotic systems is that the exact same system yields wildly differing outputs depending on slight variations in the input.

Since people's minds are not at all exactly the same, not even one person's mind at different times (different neurobiological wiring, different metabolism, different life experience, different exposure to mind-affecting substances such as alcohol or caffeine, etc.), the concept of chaos as understood in the mathematical sense isn't really applicable to subjectivity.

Subjectivity is a useful concept in itself. Since mental processes aren't exact algorithms, their results can't always be categorized as "right" or "wrong", and different minds coming to different conclusions given the same problem is exactly what should be expected. Accepting subjectivity makes it possible to accept someone's opinion as valid even though it does not match mine, which is an essential necessity in a society with very diverse people.

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    No, I get that. My question is not whether subjective things exist. I'm asking about how we would test to see whether a system is chaotic or just subjective.
    – Shaun
    Commented May 6 at 10:28
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    Is the mind part of the system? Then I'd say the outcome of the system is subjective, as no two minds work alike. If not, you don't have subjectivity in the system itself, and any differences in the outcome could be attributed to a chaotic amplification of small differences in the initial conditions (or to nondeterministic effects such as quantum randomness). Commented May 6 at 10:40

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