Once upon a time

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’?  Isn’t it patently obvious that beginnings are context-specific?  Then are we thinking of some kind of generalised capacity or potential for things ‘to be’– a pre-universe which we understand in the context of what ‘comes to be’ by supposing some kind of cause that pre-exists everything else?  But that opens up the idea of another kind of causality in another kind of reality.  The problem is that we can’t reconcile our idea of everything ‘as caused’ with the existence of a preceding uncaused cause.  It would seem that existence as a whole is bigger than all the causes we can place ‘in existence’.  Also, ideas about the cause of the universe amount to theories that go beyond the empirical evidence.  And doesn’t our capacity for contemplating the nature of existence necessitate the existence of a thinker in addition to the natural causes under consideration – suggesting a nascent context of a different order?  Or do we think that nothing really changes – that an unchanging core of existence explains all: that all things are really one thing, that nature contains the blueprint of itself, in itself, for itself – because the potential was ‘there’ all along?

Is a definitive cause an explanatory myth?  Could ‘once upon a time’ be the stuff of a scientific fairy tale in which everything is explicable in terms of a singular beginning as something else?  Doesn’t the reality of change reveal a succession of beginnings that are distinguishable by their specific differences from the way things were?  Or is our perception of change an illusion?  Some say that the universe was already alive in its primordial state, so that when primitive life ‘appeared’ and subsequently evolved it was really nothing new.  And does the evidence not show that life equates to the material properties of a pre-existing nature, therefore it isn’t all that different after all?  But why then would we contemplate the event of life as a special case, possibly with its own unique beginning on this planet, if we are of the mind that everything shares a universal beginning in the same fundamental properties?  Perhaps there is more to existence than our linear logic can make of it in retrospect, in thinking from effect to cause?  Alternatively, the observable divergences and convergences could be joint aspects of a non-linear continuity that encompasses life, us and everything else – so it is no co-incidence that ‘the beginning of everything’ remains as problematical today for the scientific mind as it was for the ancients – because origins aren’t everything.

Mike Laidler

 

Ghosts of the past and future

It is said that where there is a will there is a way, but where does the will get us without a way?  That is, how can ‘the will’ make a real difference in a universe where matter is seen to be more real than morality – in which the future is not an open book or the past a closed chapter?  Then what can be so special about our lives in ‘the now’ to make the present seem more real than the past and future?  It would seem that we judge reality, including ourselves, on the basis of appearances in a universe that changes around the unchanging.  And in our lives the past can be seen to be more real than the future inasmuch as we know it existed.  Indeed, spectres of the past can be seen to haunt the present in a sea of consequences.  But where might it all lead?

In our rationalised reality of the present, in a universe that doesn’t need a moral compass, there are no benevolent or malevolent states of nature and no errant influences emanating from an insidious past.  Be that as it may, our descendants might not look kindly upon the decadence of our selfish consumerism, especially if they have to live with its crippling legacies manifesting in forms of environmental or economic collapse.  Then might the spectre of the future be beckoning us now, to indulge less, not more, for the sake of the unborn?  Or do we suppose that science will somehow cure our blindness and save humanity from its excesses?  Meanwhile, Nobel prizes continue to be dished out to economists who extol the virtues of macro-economic growth as the mainstay of our wealth which, so it is believed, can also pass on and consequently ameliorate our debt to posterity.

Mike Laidler

 

Magical thinking

Facts are never simply ‘the facts’, except that’s how we prefer to picture them.  Indeed, ‘the world of facts’ becomes an extension of our selective perceptions, referred to as ‘the evidence’, in a reality framed by our recognitions and understandings.  And even though reality is constantly slapping us in the face, the ‘objective facts’, so-called, can neither tell us what to think nor show us how to draw conclusions.  That’s because ‘the truth’ is a product of our thinking in a parallel universe – in which the idea is fundamental.  To that extent, all thinking is magical thinking.  Even in the hard core sciences, thoughts about ‘the way things are’ rely upon ideas that are developed into theories and supported by beliefs as they get pitched against rival interpretations.  So whether we happen to believe or disbelieve, we are utilising beliefs.  But there is one thing for sure: the manner of our beliefs and the contents of our theories continue to change whilst, lo and behold, the facts continue to pour in.

Mike Laidler

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“No man is an island”

It’s a fact that we might be loath to accept, but the act of experience changes the constitution of reality.  Indeed, no fact exists in glorious isolation – even as an act of self-knowing that seeks no other point of reference: “I think therefore I am”.  Tellingly, there is an artificial objectivity in this rank subjectivity: to set thought apart as a ‘thing in itself’.  Furthermore, there is an underlying subjectivity in our ambitions to know the world objectively – for the idea of a factual firmament existing apart from our knowledge requires a momentous act of imagination.  The point is that neither the subjective nor the objective does justice to the knowledge that is now a blend of both, and anything we purport to know outside of that ‘now’ amounts to a speculative abstraction.  Similarly, it is unrealistic to say that the truth must be ‘one thing or another’ – since all the evidence tells us that ‘the reality’ is both one thing and another, and there is no static world that sits in the middle – except when construed as a point of reference for the understanding of what has become.  How else are we to understand the fact of an insensible universe that is knowable by a part of it, a lesser part at that, but which is nonetheless sufficient to confirm that the reality is now both conscious and unconscious?  Then what might a greater ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ amount to?  What might make humanity more than a passive cog in the mechanism of nature?  Alternatively, what technical possibility allows a biological ‘mind machine’ to deceive itself with its beliefs?

The trouble is we are inclined to hang onto truths as representatives of the whole truth, as if our experiences cannot fail to guide us – as if change is wholly predictable from the fact of what is.  However, change also bewilders us.  For instance, are we to assume that the biological facts, in making us what we are, actually recognise this fact of themselves without the intervention of ‘our assumptions’?  On the other hand, ‘the whole’ that is more than the sum of its parts remains nothing apart.  So what gives the biology beliefs and ideas about itself?  What allows us to imagine that there is more to thinking than the physical functions of the brain – even though there is nothing else to see when we stay focused on the brain alone?  And what obliges us to believe in ourselves, to see nothing beyond the empire of our humanity in the facts of culture and biology?  But where would culture be without imaginative thinkers like William Shakespeare or John Donne?  Therefore, whilst it remains true that Shakespeare drew inspiration from his surroundings, it doesn’t mean that we can explain his contribution analytically – as if his creativity is no more than a summation of mindless causes that can reproduced by a suitably programmed machine or replicated at random by the antics inside a suitably equipped ‘infinite monkey cage’?  Likewise, the immortal meaning in John Donne’s dictum is both distorted and diminished in being detached from its original context of belief which reaches out to the wholly inexplicable possibility of a yet higher purpose.

Mike Laidler

 

Defining democracy

It is said that actions speak louder than words, but the subtleties of context and meaning are honed to perfection through the power of language as it channels ideas into deeds.  Indeed, civilised life relies upon words taking control of muscles, and to this day politics manages the delicate balance between the two – with various persuasive methods serving to manipulate mass action in the cause of adopted truths.  Even liberal democracies institute systems of leadership and control to curtail freedoms in the name of ‘the greater good’.  In the event, democracy is legitimated by the idea of it, which doesn’t necessarily translate into bowing to the voter’s express wishes.  A crude example surfaced with ‘Boaty McBoatface’.  In 2016 the British Government’s Natural Environment Research Council invited the public to name a new polar research vessel, but the Council couldn’t countenance the outcome when ‘Boaty’ topped the list of chosen names by a wide margin, so they demoted the public’s choice by deciding to assign it to one of the on-board submersibles.  This democratic slight is significant precisely because it is so trivial, because the Council stood to lose nothing by acceding to the popular vote – except for the loss of face.  The name finally chosen, The Sir David Attenborough, was selected by the Council in allowing itself the final say.

Governments govern in the same fashion.  Voters in ‘proper’ elections are given the impossible task, made ‘possible’ because they accede to it, of being required to assent to a raft of issues loosely held together by manifesto pledges that ‘their’ elected government will deliver on its promises.  But governments are subject to their own internal politics which can lead to changes in their policies, priorities and captainship – sometimes leaving the electorate with a leader they didn’t vote for.  In reality, votes count most when they reflect societal norms and values carried by an ‘implicit manifesto’, usually defined by the language of money – the reality being that governments and the electorate alike find that their choices are curtailed by ‘their’ spending power in a world where borrowing money is a fact of life and investment (qua money) is seen to make money.  Consequently, successive governments have taken the liberty of borrowing mountains of money over the years in the name of necessity – defined on an ad hoc basis by the rule of ‘as and when’.  Afterwards, the public are left wondering why their taxes never seem to stretch whilst forgetting that substantial amounts have to be spent on servicing the wealth of lending cartels and other vague repositories of virtual money which can hold the ‘wealth of nations’ to ransom.

The occasional referendum appears to give voters exactly what they vote for.  The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum asked people if they wanted to ‘remain’ in the European Union, or ‘leave’.  The choice was clear cut, but complicated by the government’s expensive publicity blitz which described the EU as ‘reformed’ – a nuanced misnomer suggesting the EU had changed when it hadn’t.  The issues were shrouded in dubious delineations from the start, although the electorate applied their own interpretations and voted to leave.  The ‘apple cart’ was really upset when the unprecedented skirmishing continued after the vote, after it transpired that there was no formal policy on what leaving was supposed to mean – so the idea of a second referendum was mooted.  Also it was rumoured that Brexit could become Brino (Brexit-in-name-only).  Some politicians claimed that the existing referendum had been legitimated by the encompassing general elections, when the public had two opportunities to vote-out the whole idea.  Throughout this political wrangling the electorate had been assured that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  Of course the word was absent from the dictionary, but then the dictionary has yet to be written in which every word simply means itself.  Meanwhile voters are constantly being reminded that ‘the right thing to do’ is, by definition, the right thing to do – implying they don’t need to be asked to vote on it.

Mike Laidler

Changing things

Nature is said to act without design or deliberation – then along comes consciousness.  Consequently, intentions get deposited in objects, and things on the surface begin to change, with surfaces serving as active interfaces in a succession of levels.  For instance, when a naturally formed pit is turned into a primitive animal trap set by our early ancestors, the investment of intention becomes a manifest extension to the nature of nature.  Likewise, albeit at a lower level, the instinctive behaviour of the spider, in building its web, doesn’t so much define what can happen in nature as redefine it.  Nowadays, things are vastly more developed – static features, machines and smart devices serve artificial purposes, and computers are being designed to mimic a conscious rational intelligence.  Yet the underlying natural events remain oblivious: unchanged, un-living, unconscious and unintended.  In effect, things become more than they were.  Indeed, an ‘unconscious reality’ becomes recognisable only via its conscious counterpart – a paradox of change overlaid by the rational illusion that we can always explain occurrences retrospectively, as if the answer is tucked-away in the way things were.  However, it might be more realistic to accept change for what it is rather than searching endlessly for the ‘holy grail’ of an original cause.

The dawning awareness in nature, of nature, is an event centred in a ‘from-to’ reality.  However, our causal mythology portrays it as a bottom-up chain of events in a temporal succession, as if the effect was somehow embedded in the preceding sequence of causes, just waiting to be released, as if nature already contains a rudimentary consciousness – otherwise, logically, where else might it come from?  Then can we, in general, unlock the mystery of change by looking for a primal cause, as if all can be explained by unpacking the nature of nature at its inception?  Or does the answer come from evolution, which is change by another name, diffusely portrayed as the explanation of itself – that is, things change because they evolve?  The problem with explanations of change is that they don’t do justice to the ‘quantum leaps’, unless we put them down to chance – how else did life emerge?  And though reality is seen to unfold by one event preceding another, we can’t explain the emergence of causality without postulating an exceptional origin in an event that independently triggers everything, but which does not equate to pure chance if it so much as contains a seed of an intentional intelligence to become manifest when the right conditions materialise.

Mike Laidler

 

Mythscapes

It’s entirely possible that everything we know about how things happen will remain purely academic until we find out how existence happens.

The fact of change is the big event of the ‘big bang’ and beyond, which we incorporate into our explanations as if to explain it – as if by taking it into account we have accounted for it.

Evolution, as it happens, is the effect that we presume to identify as the cause of change.

Despite our collective faith in the infallibility of logic as ‘true’ in itself, logic provides no guarantees that it will ‘externalise’ to show us truths about the world at large.

It’s a mass delusion tantamount to madness: the belief that logic cannot fail to show us the truth.

If science can admit to the incredible yet ‘finite calculable probability’ of a person being able to pass through a solid wall under certain circumstances – because objects are and are not solid – then what about the certain circumstance in which the earth is both flat and round?

We talk about consciousness as a phenomenon to be explained by the fact of life, as if we have already explained the fact of life.

We know of the phenomenon that is existence only because of what knowing brings to it.

In all the sightings of ghosts throughout the ages, duly attired in the dress of their time, has anyone ever wondered how the clothing manages to gain an afterlife?

Can a scientific explanation of the universe explain its most curious feature – its evolution, through us, of a curiosity about itself?

How can an objective account of nature, by precluding the subjective elements of conscious sensation and understanding, show us a greater truth in the lesser fact of existence?

Strictly speaking, we are but ghostly manifestations in the midst of an essentially physical universe that knows nothing of our existence – since, in the scheme of its absolute reality, our presence amounts to nothing more than a negligible flurry within an all-engulfing tide of atomic flux.

Does a mathematical proof of the universe not reflect more upon the enlarged particulars of mathematics than the particulars of the universe at large?

Presumption is the ancestor of all myth and a living part of all we take to know.

Mike Laidler