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

In sight of the supranatural – Part 1: Out of oblivion

Part 1

Realist:  ‘I don’t see a place for God in the universe.  There is no supernatural meaning to life, no divine purpose to existence, no celestial antidote to the finality of death, no sublime answer to those heart-felt ‘why’ questions – and we are quite capable of deciding matters of right and wrong for ourselves.’

Phenomenalist:  ‘How do you know you are right?’

R:  It’s obvious.  Show me otherwise.

P:  Do you regard yourself as a product of nature?

R:  Of course, and that’s why I can see things for what they are.

P:  Then what makes you begin to consider the status of meaning, purpose and the supernatural in the first place?

R:  I’m simply responding to what others claim.

P:  But wouldn’t you agree that all manner of events take place within nature?

R:  What’s your point?

P:  Well, things change and either nature represents everything through a plurality of natures or because it hosts a supranatural reality that goes beyond the parameters of the purely mechanistic.  Either way, the idea of a universe that remains devoid of thoughts and intentions doesn’t do justice to the facts.

R:  That doesn’t prove there is a meaning to existence.

P:  Nevertheless, the presence of a mindful, meaningful overview represents something of a larger reality than that portrayed by the blind workings of nature in its biological forms.

R:  Aren’t you are jumping the gun by claiming that this proves there is a meaning to life itself?

P:  Perhaps it is you who are failing to address the facts, because you want to say that the reality can be explained in terms of its ‘building blocks’.

R:  Well it can.

P:  Only by redefining the facts to suit.

R:  It is you who are doing that, by implying that mental life is something more than the physical properties of the brain.

P:  Yet, without a sentient dimension to reality the physical functions of the brain would not be observable.

R:  But there is nothing to see except the workings of the brain.

P:  However, you wouldn’t expect the brain to display anything else.

R:  That’s because there is nothing else.

P:  Only at the level of brain processes.

R:  Don’t be ridiculous.  You are contradicting the accepted findings of science.

P:  It was once thought that the brain changes colour when we perceive different colours, but now we know that brain processes differ from the properties of light in the outside world.  Likewise thoughts differ in kind from the biological properties of the brain.  The evidence suggests that effects, like perceptions, are not simple copies of their causes, otherwise nothing would change.

R:  But causality is in control.

P:  Although we can’t be sure what it amounts to.

R:  What do you mean?

P:  Causality is a transitional process – causes change, effects redefine causes and the tide of change raises questions about how to address the evidence – how do we find a basis in fact, and is it right to start by assuming beforehand what must constitute an acceptable candidate?  In short, what we find is that the cause doesn’t tell us everything.  We can’t even be sure about what nature is and whether we can explain it as a thing that explains other things – the cause of all causes.

R:  So what are you saying?

Mike Laidler

To be continued…

 

 

Life: as we know it

Reporter: ‘What makes life alive?’

Professor: ‘All the things that constitute a living organism.’

R:  ‘But those things started out as non-living chemicals – so what makes the difference?’

P:  ‘Well, we now know that life evolved gradually and became more and more sophisticated.’

R:  ‘So did evolution make life?’

P:  ‘Not exactly.  It may be that life arose by chance to begin with – in a very primitive form – and evolution took over’.

R:  ‘And does evolution work by chance?’

P:  ‘Not exactly, but evolution makes the difference that enables life to change and become more complicated.’

R:  ‘Then can we understand life better in its simplest forms?’

P:  ‘As it happens, evolution tells us more about how life works, even at a basic microbial level.’

R:  ‘So what is the difference between a living organism and a non-living thing?’

P:  ‘The clue is in the name – in the way a living thing is organised.’

R:  ‘How does this show that chance might be the original cause?’

P:  ‘Because there’s nothing else to see.’

R:  ‘Does it mean that chance is organised?’

P:  ‘All we can say is that something happens.’

R:  ‘But how does not seeing a cause mean that it can be identified as chance?’

P:  ‘You need to understand that science is based upon a combination of observation and reason, and scientists are always ready to change their conclusions when new facts are observed.

R:  ‘So we can conclude this interview in the knowledge that evolution does and does not explain life, and chance may or may not be the cause – because the fact of an explanation does and doesn’t mean that the facts are explained.’

P:  ‘As it happens, there is no better explanation than the scientific one.

R:  ‘Is it the observation of life as different that causes the problem for explanation, especially when it is scientifically plausible to look at it in terms of something else – as if the problem can be reduced by identifying its non-living causes?  Is that why some scientists want to regard viruses as alive and computer viruses as forms of life created by us?’

P:  ‘Who knows what we might discover in the future.’

R:  ‘But surely it all goes back to the fact of life as something different, otherwise we would have no idea of what to look for or explain?’

P:  ‘Perhaps we will find new forms of life in the universe which will completely change our ideas about what life is’.

R:  ‘Except you must be able to spot a vital difference in order to identify it as alive, and we can’t avoid the problem of explaining that difference by finding out that life is really something else – it just shifts the burden of explanation onto something else.’

P:  ‘That’s the fun of doing science – we just never know for sure where the evidence might lead us.’

R:  ‘Then we will have to conclude by admitting that we don’t even know what amounts to a conclusion.’

P:  ‘Exactly.’

Mike Laidler

 

A question of stature

What does it mean to exist?  What is our place in existence?  What makes nature ‘necessarily so’, perceptible, or an ‘it’?  What makes us think that we can capture it in our concepts any more than we can lay claims upon the world through the possession of bodies?  What if it is all transitory and our temporary presence is but a faint speck in the ‘cosmic panoply’ – an integration of ‘material’ and ‘mental’ dimensions in which notions of ‘our time’ and ‘our experiences’ furnish vain illusions of self-importance?

However, just as time extends space and vice versa, so the various perceptible dimensions – such as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought – may be seen to co-exist ‘in nature’ as an extended reality that is simultaneously one thing and another.  Hence we cannot specify ‘being’ in terms of the way things are or were, nor ourselves for that matter, any more than we can know the extent of the mind in terms of our contemporary thinking – since there is more to existence than we can find ‘in existence’.

Mike Laidler

Nature Watch

Nature baffles us – it is so ingrained in the imagination that we can’t help but to see ‘it’ as ‘a thing’ ‘out there’, and so we claim to know things as ‘nature shows us’. However, ‘nature’ shows us different things that confound logic with facts that change the character of the truth we are able to discern. For instance, it is evident, on the one hand, that nature has no grand design or purpose for life, and there is no goal to evolution – yet we act with purposes as a part of nature and work towards artificial goals that nature does not have, therefore cannot give us – though, on the other hand, ‘it must’ if we truly ‘belong to nature’. And even when the truth is as definitive as X = Y, it doesn’t mean that we don’t need to take account of the observable difference. But the logic of explanation avers that one thing can be seen as a form of the other, as if the difference is superficial and amounts to no real difference – as if the change can be accounted for by the underlying sameness.

Seeing one thing in terms of another begins with the observation of a difference that explanation then tries to lose with the claim that everything is really one thing – so ‘we are really nothing more than chemical entities’ – mere versions of the common fabric of the universe. These causal extrapolations also get applied to observable differences within the living world, such as between our sentient thoughts and brain functions – so that ‘thinking is nothing more than something the brain does’. Nevertheless, we continue to wonder what it means for thinking to exist at all, knowing that the abstract truths of explanation don’t amount to the whole truth – knowing that awareness is alien to the ‘nature of nature’ in a universe ‘explicable’ by its physical laws – in a universe that doesn’t aspire to know or explain itself, yet does, through us, since we exist as a part of that universe – a universe in which the possibilities for life, thought, meaning, purpose and perception equate to a larger truth in which ‘blind nature’ and the physical laws add up to a lesser fact.

Mike Laidler

What next?

The past may be seen to predict the future for all solid-state elements in a mechanistic universe. This excludes the sub-elements of the quantum universe and the supra-elements of the sentient universe.

However, what is known of the quantum universe, in the context of the everyday physical reality that is ‘more real’ to us, is that the peculiarities of the former support, but don’t resemble the nature of the latter, which can be seen to exist in addition, ‘on top’ – in a supra-reality that now includes the fact of the seeing.

Only it seems that we have yet to learn this lesson with respect to the sentient universe regarding itself, a lesson that can only begin by recognising it as a reality known to be peculiar to the nature of itself – a reality as real as the peculiar nature of solid rock, which we also know is really not solid in a different reality.

Perhaps the difference is due to the diverging nature of reality, whereby what is and what ‘is next’ simultaneously occupy different realities. And as we learn that there is more to existence than either quantum or Newtonian physics can explain, we know that we can know it because of our first-hand experience of a peculiar reality of a different order – of knowing, learning and explanation in a reality that simultaneously occupies the physical universe, yet is not peculiar to it.

Mike Laidler