The hylozoism hypothesis

Is explanation the final factual frontier?  When we come round to thinking that something ‘requires’ an explanation we base the project on our idea about what might count as such.  But once we assume that we have our explanation we are inclined to forget that the idea of it is grounded in the hypothetical.  Consequently, we move away from the fact that we are relying upon assumption by assuming that we are not, because the fact is now ‘explained’.  And without doubt, the prevailing assumption of our scientific age is that ‘hard facts’ provide the real explanations – that causal explanations rationalise those facts and a joined-up knowledge puts things in their place – with scientific proofs standing at the summit of the known.  In other words, we assume that a real knowledge of the world seeks to explain it and anything ‘known’ in the absence of an explanation is inferior and incomplete.  It follows logically that our knowledge of ourselves, reality, life, the universe and indeed existence in general, must remain incomplete until we find the ‘final’ explanation?  But in what way might we expect it to finalise things?

  • If our presence in existence reflects the power and capacity of the universe as a whole, then is the universe both alive and not alive, thinking and unthinking, chaotic and organised, logical and irrational – and ultimately self-aware, self-justifying and self-explanatory?
  • If life is a material property is matter basically alive?

Despite all our scientific advances and achievements we still can’t account for the ‘isness’ of being.  Then how do we explain ourselves?  All we can do is refer one state of being to another – so life is  basically chemistry and everything is bound up with comings and goings that symbolise the impermanence of the ‘power to be’ within the overwhelming embrace of the ‘law of entropy’.  However this generalisation is more apparent than real and its logical premise merely adds to the confusion.  Confused means ‘fused with’ – for instance, the logic of explanation equates the mind to the brain as if their entirely different states of being are scientifically and, by implication, factually irrelevant.  This resembles the premise of the now defunct ‘hylozoism’ hypothesis: that life is an intrinsic property of matter since there is nowhere else for it to be.  Undaunted, science remains bent on explaining everything into-existence from some primal state – certified as the original cause of any change.  But when the child asks about life and death – that is, really asks – we find ourselves juggling with these conceptual confusions – hoping that our bodies and brains might hold the ‘material’ answers, somewhere.

Mike Laidler



A question of knowing

What do we know?  Is it just a matter of remembering?  Does the memory do it for us?  Is it entirely a state of the brain?  What if the brain is but a staging point with its own quantitative and qualitative limits?  Whichever way we look at it we seem to arrive at a less than satisfactory definition – ‘the known’ could be tainted by its incompleteness, and how would we know?  Laying claim to our experiences doesn’t seem to get us any further forward; yet, for the sake of our sanity, we rely upon our impressions and ideas of an external reality, together with what we are told about things.

Therefore, despite its shortfalls, it seems that equating the known to an external source appears to be the most tactical way of proceeding.  However, our ability to consider this move raises a more fundamental question: is knowledge something else, something more than the facts by which we seek to measure it?  Does the act of knowing appertain to another nature beginning with an awareness which we subsequently fragment in attaching it to the things we are aware of for the time being, apparently on the outside, believing that our awareness belongs there because it has to be an ‘it’ that is like everything else?

Also, don’t we find that the more we know the more we become aware of how little we know – that factual knowledge can harbour deep uncertainties?  Even scientific knowledge advances on the basis of a constantly revisable awareness – knowing now that 99% of the universe doesn’t seem to be knowable in the same way as the 1% known as its observable dimensions.  But in order to consider what that fact means, scientists will need to do something that the facts cannot do for them – consider the meaning in the broader context of an expanding awareness which they can attach to the facts, but cannot find there.

Mike Laidler

“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler

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


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



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

In sight of the supranatural – Part 2: A cosmic consciousness

Phenomenalist:  ‘The question is, either science is observing nature objectively, by looking at or upon it, or it is nature observing itself – because science acts in nature.  Either way something different is happening to the way things change in nature, since perception now has an active role.  So how are we to understand ‘the fact’ of nature?’

Realist:  ‘You seem to have overlooked the fact that perception is explained as an evolved capacity that assists survival, which is the same reason why thinking evolved with all its inherent meanings and purposes.’

P:  The utility of perception and intelligence for survival is without question, but it doesn’t prove that evolution is the explanation.  Evolution is observable as the result of change, but it amounts to a description, not an explanation – although the theory is generally regarded as if it is the cause of those changes.

R:  That’s because the theory proves what actually happens.

P:  There is no doubting the assiduous detective work that goes into piecing together the facts of evolution, but proving a fact is not the same as explaining it.

R:  You’re splitting hairs.  It’s the same thing.

P:  The distinction is not trivial.  The explanations are theoretical, hence it is properly called ‘the theory of evolution’.  Evolution appears to make things happen, but ‘it’ has no capabilities – it is no determinant of possibility – so we can’t explain the capacity for things to evolve by noting their evolution.  In other words, evolution doesn’t supply an answer to the question of how things are possible.  It is neither the beginning nor the end of possibility, nor does it give us an overview of what is possible.  In short, evolution is not the cause that we read into it, though it’s easy to see how the mistake arises, given the belief in underlying causes as the foundation of all explanation.  However, all the information in a picture doesn’t explain the change to its perception even though changes in one state of reality produce changes in the other.  Furthermore, in the bigger picture, we see that causes build upon causes in the constitution of different realities existing in parallel, but it doesn’t allow us to claim that one difference is the explanation of the other or that the unfolding direction of change is explained by the first cause.

R:  Nor does the idea of parallel realities help to explain anything.

P:  I’m not pretending that there is an explanation for everything.  It’s as basic as this: a book is filled with information but nothing is recollected until a reader comes along – so a book is and isn’t the source or explanation of knowledge, it just seems so when using it as a point of reference – but we don’t make the mistake of believing that the book knows anything.  The same applies to our observations of cause and effect as an explanation of change.   The explanation is in the mind, not in the cause.  Nor can we validate those explanations by claiming that they are direct effects of our observations – as if that explains what we see.  The same mistake arises when we believe that the brain does our thinking for us.

R:  It doesn’t mean that the theory of evolution is wrong.

P:  It does and doesn’t – it is wrong to believe that evolution provides a ‘missing link’ that explains change.  The theory is not self-explanatory, rather the explanation is an embellishment we attach to the observation that things change – which we presume to evolve that way because the changes are useful in the struggle for survival.

R:  So you accept that evolution has a place?

P:  However, it’s not the facts of change that owe their origin to the theory of evolution, rather it is the theory of evolution that owes its origin to the facts of change.

R:  Nevertheless, natural selection explains those changes as adaptations in life.

P:  Except the nature behind it all has no need to be selective.  That is, according to the laws of physics, there is no need for life to emerge, no necessity for there to be additional ‘evolved’ states of existence.

R:  But there it is – identifiable as a process of natural selection, which is also the explanation of how evolution works.

P:  I am not denying the fact of natural selection in evolution, but I am questioning its status as the definitive explanation of change in nature.

R:  There is no better explanation.  Also you are raising your objection in defiance of all the accumulated evidence.

P: The process of natural selection is but one unexplained change to the nature of nature, and it is not the end of the story.  The evidence indicates that things change, and the ensuing difference reveals properties that exist in addition to the observable cause – hence the laws of physics contrast with the relatively extraneous functions of biology, psychology and survival.  Nor can we explain away those differences as superficial versions of their underlying causes.  At the same time, we see the face of nature being transformed through the activities of a host of shaping influences, which we interpret variously and retrospectively as the marshalling of order, organisation, necessity, need, purpose and design.  Of course, science does not associate all of these factors with ‘things natural’.

R:  Because the explanation that things exist by design has been discredited scientifically.

P:  However, design exists in the real world – so where are you going to place it, or its agents, if it is not in the course of nature as defined and explained by science?

R:  But where’s your evidence that nature turns into something else?

P:  Remember, I am talking about a plurality of inexplicable natures, compared to a single version which is equally inexplicable.  In fact, things diverge in extraordinary ways from a reality seen to be unified by insensible natural causes; but you want to solve the problem by predicting that the facts will one day show us that it is all one and the same, so we might as well start believing it now.

R:  Then how would you approach the problem?

P:  Despite nature having been described as a ‘blind watchmaker’, implying a non-designer of ‘things natural’, we still have to explain the presence in nature of real watchmakers and their purpose-built designs.  To put it crudely, nature works as nature works, with the mind working as the mind works – bear with me on that for the moment – but the fact that thought fails or alters if the bio-chemical system fails or alters doesn’t prove that thought is just biochemistry, or that consciousness is explained by the cells of the brain becoming conscious.

R:  So is consciousness floating about in a world of its own?

P:  Yes and no.  Consciousness is different from other natural states – though we see it as growing out of those states.

R:  So how do you define consciousness?

P:  By the fact of what we know in being conscious.  But there is a reason why we cannot equate it to something else, thereby to explain it, because it means becoming conscious of it as something in addition to itself – the cause of the becoming – which nudges our awareness of the original fact out of the frame for the sake of a non-conscious fact that we claim to be more original.  Alternatively, if consciousness is a property of nature, albeit incomprehensible and inexplicable at present, then nature is both conscious and unconscious – something that we wrestle with in ourselves.   Either way, it is the definition of nature that gives way, not the fact of consciousness.

R:  You still haven’t defined consciousness.

P:  You’re missing the point – which is, the moment we try to relate consciousness or thought to something else, ostensibly in the name of explanation, we stand to lose sight of the features we are talking about – since we are now talking about them as features of something else.  This is why I asked you to bear with me earlier – because beneath it all, we can see that everything remains unchanged.  So, apparently, things change and don’t change – we really are stardust – however, the preconditions for change don’t explain the inception of change, or where it leads.  The point is that we need to alter our approach to the way we define things – beginning with our definition of ‘things natural’ – and we can make a start by accepting that we don’t have an adequate understanding of ‘things natural’ or ‘things explained’ or, indeed, ‘things conscious’.

R:  Then would you say that the problem is solved by the idea of a grand design within it all and a grand designer behind that?

Mike Laidler

To be continued