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


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

Needing to know

Green is the colour of nature (photosynthesis) in reflecting the one colour it doesn’t need.

Things seen as causes of consciousness depend on an eventuality that is conspicuously more than those causes.

We know by the fact of knowing as much as of the fact of the facts known.

The fact that an objective world can be separated from our subjective world in an act of knowing owes to the fact of the subject, not the object.

It is a myth that science can explain the bigger picture by subtracting everything from the picture in order to identify an original cause.

Causality is a contextual reality in a context that now includes our line of sight.

The universe is incomplete in all its objective causes and states – which can now be seen as a prelude to the presence of an extensive subjective dimension.

Facts speak to us only insofar as we select them for that purpose.

Science remains a natural philosophy insofar as it doesn’t exist without the need to know – which an objective world doesn’t seem to share with us.

No fact exists on its own, especially a known fact – and the world alone is not enough to account for the fact of knowledge.

Science changes the world through the thinking by which the world became more than it was.

Every perceived fact is a fact made of perception.

It is not the facts that generate a truth or falsity, but our values – our vested interests held in a point of view.

It seems unthinkable that we need to think outside the world that ‘science has given us’ in order to see a world in which science represents but one form of thinking – in which thinking makes science what it is.

We become victims of our own prejudices in judging ourselves by the scientific standards we impose on the world.

Mike Laidler

Angry science

Typically, there is more to a scientific fact than meets the eye and that extra something is the scientific theory.  Of course, all theories begin as speculative and sometimes emotive interpretations of observation.   But no fact becomes ‘a fact of science’ unless it is wrapped up in a theory.  And as it happens, there is nothing more theoretical than our attempts to explain the ‘beginning of the universe’.

Scientists are firstly human beings who relish peer support and it is only natural for them to defend the validity of their ‘pet’ theories by citing the extent of their confirmation.  But theories remain theoretical whilst the principle job of the scientist is, in fact, to seek disconfirmation – though it is not uncommon to see ‘dispassionate scientists’ becoming passionately attached to ‘their’ favoured theories.

For instance, a high-level dispute has recently broken out over the validity of the dominant theory of ‘The Big Bang and inflation’ as the explanation of the beginning of the universe.  Suffice it to say that scientific theories rise to dominance on the back of the amount of support they receive, especially when they are confirmed by observation.  But the observable facts are always open to revision and according to the late Karl Popper, who remains a respected authority on this topic, the weight of evidence is no guarantor of the truth.

In addition, this fracas has all the elements of a classic scientific dispute of the type predicted by the late Thomas Kuhn in his seminal book: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  The proponents of the dominant theory of inflation are acting as though their take on the facts has the status of a ‘paradigm’ – in short, it overrules any facts to the contrary and in so doing stands for an accord that preserves its version of ‘normal science’ as the official view of reality.

But science depends on its revolutionaries – the problem being that it’s all theory at the end of the day; and the speculation remains fallible, especially when the theory is so broad-based in its ambitions as to claim the status of a ‘theory of everything’.

Mike Laidler

Further Reading: Hannah Osborne’s article on 13.5.17: ‘Hawking Pens Angry Letter about How the Universe Began’

To be a Philosopher

What is philosophy?  The answer lies in the question itself, because philosophy is all about asking questions.  Philosophy is not in the business of dictating answers, so an appropriate philosophical non-answer to the question is that philosophy examines the foundations on which we can claim to know anything.  Not surprisingly, this philosophical position challenges the credibility of all those who profess to know, and philosophy gains a well-deserved reputation for effrontery when it pitches the wisdom of not knowing against the authority of those who claim to know better.  The rest is history, but as philosophers we remain interested in what comes next, knowing that one of the obstacles to ‘getting to know’ is the belief that we know already.   This issue raises the philosophical paradox of knowing that we don’t know, which sits at the heart of knowledge like a ‘black hole’ sitting at the heart of the universe, apparently gobbling up its substance.  But perhaps the ‘dark matter’ of paradox is the gateway to another universe of understanding – beyond the confines of certainty.

A ‘certain fact’ is more a reflection of our psychology than the nature of an external world, for there is no fact in mind that has not been elevated to prominence by our selective thinking.  So our certainties may amount to no more than psychological inflexibilities concerning ideas we want to uphold, or myths we don’t want to relinquish.  Such is the case with our ideas of causality and nature as the cause of existence.  Meanwhile, our ideas about the special nature of life remain unshaken by all the explanations reducing it to unliving processes.  And though we might deem to explain consciousness as an outgrowth of unconscious functions, we know that much only because we already know consciousness to be something much more than that. Nonetheless, the facts continue to inform and it is tempting to think that they are selecting and refining our explanations and conclusions – that the ‘weight of evidence’ will eventually iron out any anomalies and contradictions.  But what if the facts are not straightforward in themselves?  What if the cumulative factual data remains inherently contradictory?

Despite knowing that life is made of some cheap chemicals that become organised, we still don’t know what makes the difference that makes them ‘come to life’ – knowing, as we do, that life marks a difference we cannot ignore by claiming there is no real difference.  Likewise, there are some important questions we can ask only ourselves, such as: by what property of thought are we able to think that a thought is just a brain process and in what state of knowledge do we conclude that it can’t be anything else?  Then what if facts are no more than markers of changes that can’t be explained adequately in terms of things as they were?  What if nature is a plurality of natures to be understood not as one thing or another, but as one thing and another?   In other words, there may be more to reality than the objective facts can reveal about a natural reality that has no cause to think about itself.

What is the law of nature that says everything is really something else or that knowledge owes to this form of explanation?  Perhaps we need to acknowledge the limits of explanation and look to the knowledge that comes with a re-awakening to ourselves as subjective entities, with subjectivity serving as a prerequisite to knowing anything.  Even in science we like to show that we know we know, but to truly know is to realise its limits – back to the paradox!  Then what can we know?  We know that knowledge is impossible without a reference to the facts, but it would be a big mistake to conclude that the facts are the drivers of knowing and wholesale repositories of certainty.  And whereas it seems quite logical to think that more and more facts are the answer to our factual conundrums and theoretical shortcomings, it is wholly unreasonable to think that the facts draw their own conclusions and can explain for us the nature of thought, reason, consciousness and understanding, as if there is nothing more to knowledge than a body of fact, and more to the better when it belongs to an objective state of reality that remains inherently unknowing – as if there is nothing more to reality, or for that matter, being realistic.

Mike Laidler


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

The God of fact

Belief is our consolation in the face of uncertainty.  It is nice to believe that the truth is out there and that the facts can move us along towards its realisation, yet the path is long and tortuous and fraught with uncertainties, and dogma can easily intervene with the answer that requires us to look no further.   It is in the realms of dogma that belief comes face to face with disbelief; and though it might seem that disbelief has freed itself from a particular delusion, the disbelief upholds nothing more than an alternative belief about an issue that continues to test our understanding – a fact that passes unnoticed by those who continue to believe otherwise.  The resultant disgregation of beliefs occurs because ‘the truth’ remains the most unbelievable uncertainty of all – a bastion of contradictions accommodating panjandrums of belief – only it is the dogma of professing to have possession of the definitive facts that prevents us from knowing it.

  • We are given to believe things when we do not know, we take to know things when we don’t see the belief.
  • We like to believe that the truth is out there, but it remains a belief, and we can know it only as our version of truth, based upon what we are prepared to believe.
  • If disbelief is a form of belief, then we can’t disbelieve in belief, despite believing otherwise.
  • There is more of dogma than fact in the belief that truth will rid us of contradiction.
  • Dogma exchanges the realistic anxiety of uncertainty for an unrealistic illusion of certainty.

Belief is bigger than religion.  We don’t need religions in order to believe in God,  except that shared beliefs give people an increased feeling of being right.  The same is true of atheism, despite its focus on a form of disbelief; and the fact that atheism is no antidote to religion is evident in the influence of Buddhism as a renowned atheist religion.   In fact, belief is the common denominator in all things we profess to know, and despite all the shared dialogue we continue to perceive the truth as a dichotomy between right and wrong, which we then resolve to our own personal and cultural satisfaction in terms of what we happen to believe, aided by the facts we recruit to our cause.   Meanwhile science holds on to its own belief that the facts will tell us what to know and show us the way – as if factual knowledge is sufficient to do away with belief.

  • Whereas an ‘absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’, we have nowhere to look in the absence of a frame of reference in what to believe?
  • We can’t avoid belief by not believing in it.
  • Belief sustains the image of factual certainty that the fact cannot supply.
  • Belief is the God we worship in the name of fact.
  • Knowing that we know is more a fact of belief than knowledge.

Mike Laidler

The way things are

Realists say that they respond to the facts as they are and reality as it is; however, truth, reality, fact and possibility can outdo all our expectations and logical understandings.  For instance, scientific explanations of life raise as many questions as answers; nevertheless, we tend to presume the kind of answer we are looking for by regarding life as a minor rather than a major part of an expanding universe.  On the other hand, a universe without life is conceptually less than one that is imbued, and the same applies to a living universe without the power of conceptualisation.  That being so, it is up to us to ask ourselves whether, in the fullness of possibility, reality is potentially bigger again than us and our powers of conceptualisation – just as we happen to be by comparison to the insentient fabric of the universe that subsists ‘apart from’ us.  Even so, the questions keep on stacking up, such as: is the universe expanding within different dimensions of possibility; does the power to be encompass more than one reality, and if so, are we qualified to define that power and pronounce upon the way things must be or should be according to our parochial ideas and ideals?  In short, to what extent can we get to know the nature of existence, its limits and possibilities, on the basis of the way it is for us?

We like to think that logic entreats us be realistic, whereas, in fact, logic takes its starting point from our initial presumptions about the facts.  So what can we presume about this thing called reality?  We take for granted the fact that we live in a world of things that come to be, which also suggests that things are subject to change.  Yet does it mean that things can change radically?  Is reality itself subject to change?  Is everything necessarily the same at one level yet different at another?  Can things be one thing and another?  Is reality a plurality of realities?  Must all possibilities conform to logic?  Not surprisingly, there remain fundamental questions about the nature of change that the facts as they were and are cannot answer for us, and which science struggles to explain by filling-in the gaps with a logic that states what must be the case in order for the explanation to remain logical – that is, in order to preserve the logic.  But what if it is possible for ‘the real’ to be transformed by facts to come?  What if things that are impossible in one context become possible in another – because of change – as when the chemicals that make up our bodies become a part of a knowing reality that thinks, perceives and wonders about itself?  What if change builds on chemistry, extending it into the reality of thought wherein the chemicals in our brains are and are not the cause of our capacity to consider the nature of reality, truth and logic?

The rational mind draws on logic as an absolute truth in a world it struggles to understand.  So is truth the servant of logic or logic the servant of truth?  If the latter, it would be wrong to conclude that the truth must conform to logic in order to be true – as if to restrict the nature of truth to our logical conceptualisations of what must be the case.  However, if the truth is indeed something grander and stranger than we can make it out to be, might this not alert us to the limits of logic for resolving the factual contradictions of a universe that is grander and stranger than the imagination?  For instance, it may be perfectly true to say that the space-dust of which we are constituted is and is not the cause of the living mindful panoply that is known to us and occupied by us – since the evidence shows the physical world achieving sentience rather than supplying it.  But logic continues to nag at us and aver that the facts as they were must be the ‘real’ cause.  And whilst it is true to say that an effect, such as a thought, is a particular consequence of causes identifiable in non-thinking physical states, it is not possible to say thereby that the difference between cause and effect can be explained by that fact or any number of causal convolutions, or that the cause is capable of saying anything to us unless we put the ‘words into its mouth’, with a meaning that never belonged to the facts as they were, or nature as it was.

Mike Laidler

Where is reason?

The mind in nature sees something nature cannot – itself.  It introduces unique faculties into nature, such as intention, design and reason.  Reason is regarded as our ‘highest’ faculty – a fact seen as a part of nature and apart from nature.  We observe that the facts we illuminate and explain in nature don’t reason or find things out about themselves; nevertheless, we conclude that everything belongs to something else that causes it to be the way it is.  We use our unique faculty of reason to tell ourselves that we are not alone, adducing that our perception of the world as it is, is caused by the world as it is.

Everything has a cause, including causality.  Causality is a statement of reason that the mind projects upon the world.  We impute powers to causes by identifying with them the fact of change – as if the cause holds the answer – as if nature explains life or the brain explains thought and reason.  But causality isn’t the whole story.  We create explanations in reason by identifying one fact with another, cause with effect, now said to be ‘the reason’ that the facts have given us.    But reason is a fact of mind that is unlike any other fact that other facts ‘alone’ can supply – in the body, brain, nature, number, pattern, process, structure, order or evolution.  The mind is a fact in addition, a reality uniquely placed to recognise a change in reality, beginning with itself – a change that is then ‘explained’ by causes acting mindlessly, without will or reason, leading some thinkers to deduce that the mind is an illusion.

Explanation is not all it seems.  Causality ‘explains’ one thing in terms of another, and we think that the same applies to our thinking because the mind cannot be fundamental.  But reality exceeds explanation – things are simultaneously one thing and another – perception does and does not mirror the world, the molecular world is and is not alive, nature does and does not comprise and compose our intentions.  Reason pursues the fact of the ‘must be’, but paradoxical facts defy reason and rob us of the conclusiveness we try to invest in an objective world, nevertheless we proceed to draw conclusions by ignoring their paradoxical nature, and our own – we consider that the mind may be prone to illusion but reason cannot be – so paradox is resolvable by the ‘hard’ facts upon which our reasoning rests because fact is definitive and paradox poses but a temporary contradiction in terms.

In explanation, the terms are everything.  We begin by naming things, then proceed to draw connections.  We call it reasoning.  Reasoning seeks to explain itself by referencing its terms to a world outside, but ‘outsides’ are facts relative to ‘insides’.  We project our reasoning onto the world, to find it there – thereby to attribute our reasons to the facts.  We distil from our findings the principles that are ‘there to be discovered’ from all our observations, thereby to construe a fact that pre-empts proof – that things are not alone.  Proof requires the equation of one thing with another, so our reasons are seen to gain their authority from principles that are bigger than us, in reasons that equate to the facts of an outside world, in facts acting without reason or intention.

Likewise, science is an application of reasoning to a world outside.  We see the world as filled with science; but we don’t really find ‘science’ there, except that we create the fact of science in the world.  In reality, proof is relative to the mind that considers something proved according to the principles it brings to the equation.  Furthermore, because reality is bigger than science, we find that the ‘facts of science’ amount to no more than our interim conclusions.  Undaunted, we conclude that science belongs to the outside world, as if our reasoning can now be validated as a fact of science, in facts that can be discovered to speak for themselves.   But however conclusive we may find the facts to be, the fact remains that only minds draw conclusions.

No fact does our thinking for us, not even in the brain.  Finding the cause of thought in the brain does not explain the change to thought in the nature of a physical world, neither does attributing that change to evolution.  Meanwhile, we continue to invest our reasoning in the facts by seeking to confirm a match, thereby to conclude that there is an ultimate conclusiveness to be found ‘out there’, in the facts of the external world.  But our humility veils our hubris; for in deducing that the mind also owes its source to those same externals, we give ourselves the authority to claim that there is nothing better to conclude, since the facts must select our conclusions – facts telling us that reason is grounded – confirming the fact of what is there, as if what is the case is better known from the nature of something else, as if reason resolves the paradox of change by proving that things change without really changing.

© Mike Laidler

Believing in Belief

What is truth?  How do we know that we know?  Is it all a collection of beliefs?  Even science may say one thing today and another tomorrow, so an individual who follows yesterday’s precepts might now seem ridiculous – as if today’s explanations are closer to the truth.   Then does that make the truth, even factual truths, belong indefinitely to tomorrow’s understandings?

Then how do we truly know that we know?  Should we stick to our senses, or is there more to know?  We live and learn, and form opinions based upon experiences that lead to differences of opinion, even among experts.  Facts can be inconclusive, but they can’t make our decisions for us in any event.  Experiences are far from simple and those we take to be conclusive are usually filtered through tacit decisions about what counts, the primary filter being belief.  Our confidence in the facts is really a confidence placed in our tacit beliefs about the facts, certainty playing second fiddle to these beliefs.  Hence belief enables us to make decisions when we don’t know any better, the belief supplying the feeling of knowing better.

Knowing anything strikes a balance between the knowing and the knowing otherwise. The balance point is determined by belief.  Beliefs fabricate our certainties based upon images of reality.  Beliefs are the active mental screen on which those images are projected, together with the elaborated images of our senses.   Sometimes we recognise our beliefs, seeing belief as a form of thinking for tidying-up our thinking.  But if belief is a power we exert over our own minds, it is also a power exerted over us by the collective mind of our culture.   Often we can’t tell the difference or don’t bother to try.

We see as we believe, believing we see as we see.  Believing in belief flourishes amidst the urgency to know.   In a paradoxical world, belief is the possibility inviting us to entertain impossibilities that just might be true.  Not knowing is the only restraint we can exercise, but the exigencies of decision making may not allow us the scope for this luxury.  And the various forms of disbelief, non-believing and unbelieving all function as forms of belief serving as alternative social co-ordinates bearing an aura of superior neutrality.  Meanwhile the question about what is truth converts into an issue over what may stand as proof – as if proof is the unequivocal imparter of knowledge that remains independent of what we believe.

If it is ‘true’ to say that belief is the last refuge of the individual, then knowing that we believe is the last refuge of our integrity as individuals.  Then what of truth?  Perhaps belief affords a more pragmatic approach to truth – in accepting that truth is greater than our knowledge, and that the truths we make do with reveal more about our tacit systems of belief than we can ever discover by looking to the facts as absolutes, as decisive matters of fact.  But the same applies to the truth about our beliefs, for we cannot find an absolute in their content simply by believing in our beliefs.

Thus it may be true to say that knowledge is power, especially within our various spheres of influence and cultures of belief, including the religious, the political, the economic and the ‘factual’, but who can say that knowledge is truth?  Alternatively it might be more prudent to consider a more basic truth about knowledge:  knowing that we believe is the safest form of knowledge, believing that we know the most dangerous.

© Mike Laidler 2015