Explanation is not all it seems.  Explanations owe more to matters of language than fact.  They echo the voice of authority, partly borrowed from the facts, but crucially sponsored by the credibility of who says what.  For most purposes they serve as rarefied beliefs – vouching for the way things ‘must be’.  At the cutting edge they take the form of specialised communications between like-minded thinkers claiming to speak for the truth – assuring us that facts dispel uncertainties, and truth is furthered by the elimination of contradiction.  Contradiction showcases opposing statements of fact.  Either way, the facts are neither disposed to tell us anything, nor explain themselves.  In most cases the facts have been selected to suit the explanation, though their proponents gain rhetorical advantage in pretending it is the other way round.   Politicians are particularly adept at this – the fuzziness of language being the politician’s weapon of choice and first line of defence.

Scientific explanation tackles the problem by putting its explanations on trial – as if the facts will decide.  Scientists acknowledge known unknowns, but it is the unknown unknowns that weaken their conclusions, which harbour a persisting hiatus that outstrips all progress in working towards an ultimate truth.  The strange thing about scientific explanation is that it can seem right, because it works, yet still be wrong – being ‘right’ for the wrong reasons.  Nevertheless, for scientists, it is the explanation that counts, and they soldier on without knowing whether their findings will ever have a practical application.   In the meantime the whole of explanation comes down to tentative theories which remain fallible because of the ever vacant space for the unknown.  But the greater fallacy is due to our precepts of what we need and don’t need to know, given the fact of what we take to know already – prescribing that whereof we cannot know, thereof we must ignore.

Mike Laidler

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

The ‘dark matter’ of science

There is more to existence than can be captured by that part of it called explanation, because explanation is merely a part of it.  Accordingly, there is a dark matter in science that science attributes to the ‘dark matter’ of the universe – the 95% of the ‘known’ universe that remains inexplicable.  This inexplicability is currently described as the problem of ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’, as if the problem lies with the facts of nature.  However, the problem of explanation does not rest with the facts of nature, for science’s inability to explain is actually explanation’s inability to explain.

Explanation is a selective statement of fact that reveals, upon reflection, a fact about itself – that there are many ways to look at reality, but no way to see it as a whole.  And the selectivity in explanation creates the parameters of the inexplicable – in terms of what is necessarily excluded.  It doesn’t matter whether this is intentional or unintentional, the result is the same – explanation carries a cost that we accept as a fair trade, a price that we are willing to pay to find out what we want to know.  And so long as the knowledge we glean accords with the facts we know about, we are content to claim that the facts can’t be wrong, as if the facts are the source of their explanation, indeed as if knowledge belongs to those facts.  Factual knowledge becomes the agency of its own ignorance.

The relative nature of explanation highlights a longstanding problem of what it actually explains, for explanation has to be more than a matter of faith or acceptance, indeed it purports to be more.  But the whole basis of explanation sits on a point of faith – that one thing explains another – so the universe owes its explanation to something else – facts that we deem ourselves privileged to know from a position of neutrality.  However nothing is altogether neutral, not even the ‘nothingness’ of dark matter, and especially the urge to know.  Everything known is relative to a point of reference.  We tentatively proceed to commission explanations as ‘objective’ observers of reality, but objectivity is a subtle version of subjectivity, for there can be no objective point of view without a point of view – objectivity owes its existence to a subjective presence.

All knowledge attests to a fact that objectivity tries to preclude – the inexplicable nature of subjectivity in the fact of the known, in the nature of existence itself.  Explanation has much to do with what is said to be the fact of the matter, on the premise that it is the ‘objective’ facts that are saying something about themselves.  We like to think that the fact of a mental entity sitting in the midst of the universe has no relevance to the place or form of explanation, so we believe that the place of explanation is outside us, thereby giving credibility to explanation – and to make doubly sure that our explanations are not misunderstood as belonging to us, we claim that they belong to science, as if science is out there waiting to explain things for us.

Unfortunately this view of explanation is a myth and its fault lines are evident once we stop keeping faith.   The myth is built on a false belief in what causality explains.  We believe that everything has a cause and that causes explain how things change.  But there is a problem; whereas we can see how this works in reality, in our perceptions of reality, it fails as an explanation of how ‘existence got here’ – that is, in the realities outside our participation as subjective entities, where the explanation of the universe and existence is meant to be found.  Our view on causality represents our predilection toward the idea of what comes first – first being a fact of elevated psychological significance in our partial viewpoint on reality.

Explanation doesn’t work as an explanation of existence if explanation implies that everything owes its existence to something else – for the evidence we uncover as a validation of that paradigm merely pushes the problem back one stage, into the realms of dark explanation, currently manifesting as the ‘dark matter’ and ‘dark energy’ of science.  And the problem gathers momentum with the observation that everything has a definitive cause – as if the change, of which causality is the vehicle, is explained by hitching a ride.

Paradoxically, the energy invested in the elevated status of explanation is the true dark matter awaiting its enlightenment in the realisation that explanation neither explains things for us nor ourselves in the bargain.  Science sees the problem otherwise, in terms of a shortage of facts, in terms of the dark matter out there in nature, on the premise that matter is a conversion of energy explicable by the fact that it happens.  But how are we to calculate a conversion of energy, such as we are, to exist in the midst of the universe in a form that is animated to explain itself and the rest of existence in the process?   Are we not deluding ourselves that existence is inherently explicable because it happens, in the same way that our explanations are intrinsically viable because they ‘explain’.


Mike Laidler