Before and after

We see ourselves perceiving the world on the basis of things ‘as they are’, ‘out there’, ‘in existence’, but there is a problem with this ‘world view’ because perception, in common with everything else, involves the coming-to-be of things that were not – and this raises a question of change which we cannot resolve ‘at source’ either by looking for a first cause or by attributing the form of the effect to its cause.

In addition, knowledge and explanation contrast radically with an external reality of objective facts now drawn into the realms of observation – but we believe that the logic and language of proof can iron out the difference.  Indeed, the grammar of explanation begs the question of a ‘deep structure’, holding everything in place, whereby all ensuing differences are seen to evolve as a result of secondary shaping influences.

However, even though causes are seen to underlie effects, those effects are not merely embedded in their causes like sculptures waiting to be released from blocks of stone.  So there is more to change than the nature of the underlying preconditions, just as there is more to the shaping influences than pure chance.  That is not to say that chance doesn’t have a part to play, but it means that evolution by chance is not the explanation.

Accordingly, whilst it may be said that everything happens by co-incidence, there is more to co-incidence than blind chance.  And whilst we rightly remain wary of accident, we know that all eventualities are contained within prevailing boundaries of possibility – anything cannot happen at any time.  In fact, no cause explains those prevailing boundaries even though we come to explain outcomes as effects belonging to causes operating within them.

Consequently, perception maps the world with contours of its making whilst perceiving itself as the effect of an objective reality.  But the very presence of perception shows that reality is subject to change – with effects arising as modified causes.  And despite our aspirations to explain change causally, causality remains subsidiary to the changing boundaries of possibility.  Then who can say that we too are not instrumental in ‘the shape of things to come’ – beginning with ourselves as mere causes on the threshold of change.

Mike Laidler

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As if in fact

Here we are.  It’s a fact, except our knowledge of the ‘here’ and the ‘we’ is incomplete and compromised by our understandings of the ‘isness’ of it all – as is, indeed, our understanding of the ‘isness’ of understanding.   In fact, we know precious little, but that’s not how we play the game of knowing.  And it is a game insofar as we interpret ‘self and reality’ using theories borrowed from others appointed to do the understanding for us.

So what does knowing that we live in ‘this universe’ tell us about ‘who or what we are’ or even ‘what we are about’?  The first mistake is to believe that knowledge tells us anything – as if there were two sides to it which we can understand as ‘the facts’ conveying a message.  But we only think about it that way because that’s how we convey ‘the facts’ to one another – as messages to be understood.

And the message we receive is that reality must be ‘out there’ in the nature of the universe – as if our nature is reducible to that nature – as if objectivity is more than a way of looking because it is also a fact of existence in which objects are paramount – as if we might understand this ‘for ourselves’ once we defer our understandings to those who say that they are more ‘conversant with the facts’.

Mike Laidler

Sceptic or cynic?

If a sceptic can be seen as a liberal thinker, a challenging doubter and a seeker after truth, then the cynic is something else: a contemptuously abrasive, dismissive and pessimistic type – a wanton disrupter, even an extremist who poses a threat to civilised life – a troublesome pariah who would shun the very truth for the sake of it.  Not surprisingly, in our ‘enlightened times’, hardly anyone wants to regard themselves as a cynic or be characterised as such.  Even the label ‘mildly cynical’ carries pejorative overtones now that we have alienated the notion, debunked its respectability and popularised forms of post-cynicism through our modern brandings of virtue, truth, justice, authority, civility and tolerance.  However, the lip service paid to ‘the right thing to do’ may conceal a Freudianesque veneer of righteous indignation –‘noble’ prejudices against the incursion of ‘inferiorities’. In sum, scepticism is seen as acceptably productive, progressive and illuminating, whereas cynicism ‘is’ unacceptably morose, dogmatic and subversive; but there is a fallacy behind these stereotypes that is hidden away within the ‘dark horses’ of human nature.

Apparently it’s fitting to confront cynicism with cynicism, whereas being sceptical about scepticism smacks of a counter-productive contradiction.  Perhaps the inverted cynicism – the negative stereotyping and demonisation – serves to burnish our tarnished virtue.  Yet, historically, the cynics were seekers after truth and virtue – ‘God’s’ watchdogs who stood as vanguards against the hubris of human pretentiousness.  But now it’s valid to see ourselves as ‘OK alone’, complete in our self-appointed nature as ‘Homo sapiens’.  So reason, once ‘a slave of the passions’, is now a liberator, enabling us to test the truth with logic, even to bring the unconscious mind into line and raise us to the authority of ‘the Gods’ – because the intellect is supreme and logic is infallible.  But this gives rise to the fallacy that all is subject to the higher truths of logic, which defy contradiction – so rendering any dissent illogical and a futile throwback to more archaic now ‘displaced philosophies’ that are riddled with personal points of view, such as the uncivil cynic might indulge in for the sake of being noticed.

Mike Laidler

The aura of the physical

As every student of physics learns, ‘solid’ matter is not solid.  So they ‘discover’ a fact that is counter-intuitive; yet they still understand it on the basis of naïve experience – that is, they rely on the concept of solid in order to appreciate its opposite.  In other words, understandings of fact remain rooted in our subjective realisations which build a knowledge of the world and ourselves upon the capacity for recognition.  In short, there is no knowing without its subjective content.  And whilst we can appreciate that reality is bigger than our concepts, we have no notion of the real, the right or the true that is ‘discoverable’ without some reference to those intuitive sensibilities.  How else might we recognise a truth for ourselves?  Unfortunately, a mutual distrust lingers between scientists and proponents of common sense over the identification of ‘objective facts’ which allow for the recognition of things that are ‘meant to be’ independent of what we think.

Actually, the physical sciences don’t replace common sense or vice versa – they are mutually complimentary – and no pragmatic physicist or engineer behaves as though the world at large can’t be solid, or functionally flat.  In fact, ‘behavioural phenomena’ matter at all levels – as constituents of diverse realities from the quantum and beyond.  The fact is, there is more to reality than a single version – the world is and is not solid etc.  Likewise, there is more to the ‘world at large’ than the ‘characteristic’ properties of the physical, especially when they turn uncharacteristically subjective and reflective.  Thus objects ‘do science’ but not like scientists do it.  Then, in order to bridge the gap, scientists look upon the fact of conscious experience retrospectively as an effect that is wholly identifiable with its physical causes – as if physics encounters itself in the ‘psychoplasm’ of the brain – as if to cancel out any duality in the event – as if dualities are unnatural.

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

Standing stones

There is more to a memory than its physical traces.  And despite the importance of libraries, a book recedes into oblivion until someone opens it.  The same applies to the data filed on the ‘world wide web’ – for just like our books, artworks or machines, and even the ancient stone circles, it represents ideas and memories that cannot be realised or revived without an act of recognition.  Indeed, as with the world itself, all such devices remain essentially oblivious to the fact that theirs is a reality of oblivion.  Together with the universe at large, they simply function as temporary storage devices for the information built into them, which scientists read as the laws of physics.  Nonetheless, this physical memory is active at its own level – because everything exists in active form.  Thus the physical world ‘behaves’ lawfully.  However, there are other sorts of activity that build into different realities – where information translates into knowledge, meanings and understandings that act both within and upon the laws of physics.

Of course anyone can set a stone rolling, and the physical world happens to resonate with our activities.  The computer is a more sophisticated example which appears to take on a life of its own; but in terms of that ethereal thing called awareness, or its ephemeral counterpart called intention, it is more like the rolling stone.  And of course, only physical forces can upend stones, though no one is in any doubt that these stones were put there intentionally. As such they represent a part of nature that is more than just natural.  They represent an intentional shaping of reality located in a nature that acts without intention or awareness.  They remind us of a fact that physics does not teach – of things we are apt to forget.  Meanwhile, scientists hang onto the idea that it is always possible for the standing stones to have fallen into place by chance.  But where in nature do we find the ‘thingness’ of intention and awareness except as resonant features of our beliefs, theories and ideas?

Mike Laidler

Vital factors

No fact exists alone.  Every perceptible fact is the manifestation of a state of existence relative to the existence of other facts.  Thereby every fact is distinguishable by what it is and isn’t, including the ‘fact of existence’.  Then life is and is not a prominent feature of the way things are – because reality amounts to a continuum of changes that can be traced backwards as a convergence upon what was and forwards as a divergence from the past.  Consequently, whatever importance can or cannot be attached to the nature of ‘things in themselves’, it remains a fact that the difference they make is set within a wider reality.

In every case, we may perceive a fact in terms of its origins in something else – that is, relative to some other fact identifiable as its cause.  But even then we can never see an ‘original cause’ as it is, on its own, since every cause is manifestly incomplete in the absence of an effect.  In turn, effects are seen to make a difference when it becomes apparent that things differ from the way they were – a difference which at first contrasts with the state of ‘the cause’ as it was and afterwards with ‘the effect’ as it furthers a succession of changes.

However, causes do not explain existence.  For instance, we do not find the nature of life in the non-living states of its precursors; and it is only after its appearance that we can begin to look for its causes there.  So we perceive life as a fact that is wrapped up in a continuum of factors which we cannot explain fully in terms of the way things were – because of the essential ingredient of change. Therefore we can neither explain this vital factor retrospectively as an ‘originating cause’ nor in terms of the difference ‘it makes’, which becomes consummate only in the wake of things yet to be.

Mike Laidler