True colours

Understanding the world we live in is not a matter for science alone, because science remains embedded in the psychology and philosophy framing our understandings. Nor is nature being exclusively scientific and mathematical in accommodating our unscientific theories. And even our best theories can be found to dissolve into unknowns that are surrounded by beliefs and misunderstandings. Indeed an appropriate understanding might entail foregoing our aspirations to ‘certain knowledge’ as the epitome of truth – and the reason is simple, for our theories cannot capture a cosmos that is bigger than us by concentrating on an abstract, lifeless, insensate version of nature as the real fact of it.

Then what of reality? The fact that reality now contains the medium of perception and understanding shows that things have changed radically from the anaemic truth we look to and seek to promote as its objective explanation. In fact, matters of truth and reality become relevant only in the presence of an inquiring mind. So we begin by knowing that we live in a medium that is more than the material facts that know nothing, but then we pretend to demote that subjective reality in order to discover a greater truth about its origin in a nature that is devoid – in a reductive truth that we imagine might explain for us the fact of subjective existence, as if that truth could ever exist apart from the imagination.

So what can we understand about the extent of a universe that apparently expands to exceed itself in the evolution of appearances and understanding? Where might we begin? What can we prioritise as the factual basis for an explanation of existence? We like to think that we can begin at the beginning, but explanation is a secondary truth and the notion of ‘beginnings’ is as much of a psychological threshold. And whereas we learn from experience that a new beginning marks a change from what was, explanation tries to identify its own origins with the thing explained, as if there is no difference – as if explanation begins and ends with the facts referenced, as if it is the facts that have explained things to us. However, we learn from the fallibilities of our explanations that there is an unavoidable difference, that explanation marks a new beginning in a nature that has no cause to explain things to itself.

We have invented explanation as a means of explaining things to ourselves on the pretext that the facts are in charge; and by affiliating our retrospective observations with the idea of causality, we demonstrate to ourselves that our suppositions are real, that indeed we can eliminate ourselves from the equation by being objective – by allowing the facts to speak for themselves. In fact, explanation is a myth we hold onto in the belief that the facts can ‘explain things to us’ and show us, by what they are, what can and cannot happen next.   Thereby we deceive ourselves in believing that the facts select themselves and stand alone as concepts of necessity ‘leading us’ to an explanation of existence, including ourselves, in the pre-existence of causes, or nature, or God, even to the existence of alternative forms of existence which, by comparison to everything else we know, amount to forms of non-existence.

Paradoxically, in countenancing the possibility of a comparative reality of non-existence we find ourselves there – in a mind observable as no more than a brain generating motives, purposes, reasons and desires now existing as a part of nature. But we also know these qualities are neither typical of nor fundamental to that nature; yet in thinking about ourselves as a part of a nature containing thought we catch this erstwhile nature accomplishing something new and unnatural – as we think. Thereby, it becomes self-evident, as only it can, that we occupy a reality that can be one thing and another – a reality which challenges our ideas of existence and non-existence – since it is now apparent, in the fact of their emergence, that things now exist which cannot be identified as something else, in things as they were; but neither can they be written off as ‘immaterial’.

The nature of change shows us something remarkable about the nature of nature – that the ordinary is filled with the extraordinary, which we then deem to explain in terms of things as they were, especially when there is nothing else to see. However, change cannot be adequately explained by that means – otherwise we would be concluding that things hadn’t really changed. And this debate about fact and change goes to the heart of our ability to perceive nature and ourselves, bearing in mind that self-perception is not an original part of nature as we see it.   So it should be of no surprise to us, that this tangle of explanatory deficiencies has its roots in the certainties we attach to our perceptions in the everyday.

For instance, an inquiring mind might well wonder about the true nature of sound, light and colour – is it in the reality of the unperceived, or does it depend upon a convergence of possibilities within an emergent reality of mind – in the new nature of perception? And does our qualification to know as much not come from the facts of perception known only to us? Then are we not entitled to say that perception adds something to the physical world – that perception generates the sounds and colours in life, in ‘bringing them to life’; so might it also be true to say that without this living perception such ‘things’ exist in an incomplete state of reality, in a truth ‘for sure’, which is not the whole truth? Even so, why should this realisation endow us with an absolute knowledge of the yet wider reality, in the possibility of things to come? Is it not feasible that our truths could remain subject to endless conjecture for as long as we cannot conceive of the possibility that they too exist as a part of a much bigger truth, beyond explanation in terms of things as they are now?

Mike Laidler

Tooth Fairies

We tell children that the tooth fairies take their teeth away, but are we being any more realistic in believing that nature gave us teeth in the first place – that nature is the place where everything comes from – because everything has to come from something and belong somewhere, because we know for sure that this is how things work, because everything is traceable to something else which acts as its cause, because it all comes down to nature and because natural events can properly explain ourselves and existence at large? In fact, despite ‘its’ apparent prepotency, there is no thing called ‘nature’ that exists apart from the events that happen, which means that there is no cause called ‘nature’ to precede those events and explain them. ‘Natural causes’ are a myth of explanation, not because they can’t be seen to exist, but because they don’t provide us with an explanation. Our ideas of nature are in need of a Copernican revolution.

The funny thing about our knowledge of nature is that we are immersed in an abundance of factual events showing us what it is like, yet we know nothing about what ‘it’ really is. Indeed, the identification of nature as the essential origin of everything amounts to no more than a creation myth, whilst our concept of ‘natural facts’ amount to no more than an approbation of our ignorance. Nor can we account for the evolving state of reality by calling it ‘natural’ or ‘evolved’. Meanwhile, our certainty about what we know underlines the fact of our ignorance by what it prevents us from acknowledging above the line – for if we can be certain that we know nature for what it is, thereby to account for things as ‘natural’, then what else might we be certain about in our ignorance?

Consider our knowledge of the evolution of teeth and what this says about the ‘nature of nature’. There is no doubt why certain species of animals needed to evolve teeth, because if they can’t eat they soon perish. But still we don’t know why some animals, namely ourselves, acquired perishable teeth. And even though we now have the resourcefulness to outlive our teeth by artificial means, evolution isn’t assuaged by the fact that we might be able to ‘intervene’ in such ways – it simply adds another turning point to the process, as also happened when our ancestors took to wearing furs. Seemingly, we can’t escape ‘nature’ – we remain in the throws of a constant evolutionary pressure to change; nonetheless, the shift in reality is now marked by the fact of its artificiality – an artificiality now existing as a part of nature. So, as things change, we find that not everything is explicable ‘naturally’, unless we are prepared to broaden our definition of nature. But do we know what we are doing?

Ultimately, it is our ignorance of what is to come that proves to be the real obstacle to understanding – a problem that is exacerbated by what we purport to know for certain. Nor can we pretend to solve the problem with a knowledge of what is needed. We know that animals need teeth and chickens need eggs, and though we may be able to artificially engineer things so that we no longer need real teeth, or chickens no longer need to lay eggs, it still does not give us more than a retrospective knowledge of what can happen. But it is now an ‘artificial reality’ that occupies the threshold of what happens next, and one that is skewed in its own way by the artificiality of what we presume to know. Then, just as we remain certain about something called ‘nature’, which we really don’t understand, so we presume to understand ourselves on that basis – by explaining away the facts in the same vein – by claiming to know that our existence really comes down to something explicable in terms of something else acting as its cause – having adopted ‘natural causes’ as our explanatory fairy godmother. ​

Mike Laidler