Is consciousness an illusion generated by the brain? But how would we know it without the overview that enables our recognition? So consciousness ‘looks on’. And there can be no scientific discoveries without a sentient faculty of realisation. Hence the dawning of awareness heralds a new kind of reality in which facts become identified as perceptual objects. Likewise, self-awareness marks a new kind of realisation – evocative of ‘a self’ as the object of its own perception.
However, reality is not necessarily limited to that which is framed by perception. And there is something odd about the nature of self-discovery because it involves the perception of facts that had hitherto escaped recognition – even when the recognisable element of such facts obtains imaginatively of the subjective realisations of insight. Then what of science’s embrace of an ‘objective reality’ of things natural – is it inclusive enough to show that scientific knowledge represents nature’s insight into itself?
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.
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’.
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?
Scientifically speaking, the lesser reality is the greater – assuming that an underworld of physical processes will provide a ‘theory of everything’. But that ‘everything’ is not everything – because experience reveals that a universe which subsists beneath the threshold of self-perception is not the whole thing. However, experience might be confined to a world of its own with no inkling of a ‘bigger picture’ beyond the images that happen to hold our attention.
On the other hand, whatever else reality may or may not be, we can know without further ado that it includes the perception of ourselves thinking. And if our capacity for reflection is the thing that distinguishes our thinking, albeit in the absence of a definitive knowledge of anything else, then at least we can know that thinking exists as a feature of the way things are, though the wider reality may not be tied to the way we think about it.
Even so, this would be sufficient to tell us that we inhabit a sentient reality, as augmented by a power to be, which we can know but incompletely by its instantiation in the vagaries of our understandings. And we can know as much because of the reflective experience of the vagaries of our understandings. Then again, even if we could know everything in terms of ‘something else’ identifiable as the source, we would still need to ask ourselves: have we really identified the whole, or explained the something else?
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.
Once upon a time Goldilocks chanced upon a baby bear’s bowl of porridge that was just right for the eating. Sometime later, scientists took a fresh look at the fact of a universe that happened to be just right for the emergence of life, and recognised that the necessary fine tuning of the manifold preconditions, the ‘physical constants’, seems more like a contrivance than a coincidence – a conspiracy of coincidences – so named the ‘Goldilocks enigma’ because there is no settled evidence for it beginning other than by chance. But what if both scenarios are true: chance and non-chance – the evidence for the co-existence of chance and non-chance possibilities being everywhere in the world that surrounds us? Then perhaps the enigma is actually a paradox which reflects the true state of existence – something we cannot reduce to our logical truths by which we demarcate the facts as either right or wrong, true or false, possible or impossible. Paradoxically, there is more to the fact of existence than the prerequisite of an explanation that requires itself to be logical. And it is logic, not truth, that requires the facts to be logical. Perhaps our belief in logic is holding us back – believing that logic gives us exclusive access to the ultimate truth – a truth to withstand all contradiction.
Perhaps paradox is nearer to ‘the truth’ than the logic that demands its resolution. So let’s begin with three truisms: ‘the universe’ is vast, ‘everything’ and ‘contains’ life. Given the scale and scope of it all, together with the potential diversity of planetary environments, then the right conditions for life on more than one of these planets becomes a loaded possibility. And though we see life as a novel possibility, it is explained as an effect of causes that subsist within existing boundaries of possibility. Yet the effect causes profound changes. It looks like non-living causes determine the mix of possible preconditions, but, ultimately, it is the potential for life that sets the limits. Furthermore, that potential remains a defiant mystery, regardless of how much we learn about the preconditions for life on earth, or indeed the preconditions for different types of life on different kinds of planet. Moreover, no amount of causal analysis explains how effects ratchet up the course of change, beginning in the observable differences between cause and effect. Indeed the paradox at the heart of existence is the pre-existence of its possibilities, despite their probable absence in certain forms at certain times – subsequently to ‘emerge’ in the times and events an observer chances upon, in the form of co-incidence called ‘reality’.
Who can claim that there is no such thing as truth without affirming the truth of their denial? Who can attest to the absence of meaning without upholding what they mean? Whose experiences can lay claim to the facts? Who can countenance the mind of God, or know by default that there is nothing to behold? How can we know what is ours, even of our thoughts – does it suffice to think that that our brains are doing the thinking for us? Can we see the bigger picture in its elements, by recognising the greater in the lesser or the end in its beginning? Does reality reveal to us its beginning and end in our realisations?
Every point of view is a microcosm of the bigger picture, which we do not see because of our focus upon the facts within our view. Nor can all the points of view in the world add up to that bigger picture, as if they can capture it all and perceive full-on the reality that remains greater in its inexplicable power to be – as if ‘explanation’ can equate to that power in which reality perceives itself.
Reality is a confluence of the is, the was and the will be. We live in a universe that is going somewhere in the process of becoming more than it was. We see ourselves in two worlds – the mental and the physical. Our mental world is characterised by thoughts and feelings, but it is not a world we can easily ascribe to a physical world outside. Yet we readily explain mentality in terms of its dependence on the physical, believing there can be no other source of its existence. This is because there is a part of the physical world that we claim as ours and identify with in our thoughts, namely the brain.
So we bear witness to an externality that merges with our subjective internality; but this is not an explanation because we also know that these two realities are worlds apart, unless we mean to claim that the physical world already incorporates a primitive form of consciousness. However, no explanation has ever done justice to our perspective on the difference, a perspective that occurs only because we have crossed the threshold into subjectivity.
Then is it not feasible to take our ideas off in another direction, beginning with the idea that subjectivity is a distinct property of existence that manifests in the physical under specific conditions, an example being ourselves? But still we are left with unsolved puzzles – of the origins of subjectivity in particular and physical existence in general, which remain unexplained, yet which we temporarily believe to be explained, at least in our case, by their observable association.
Perhaps we confound ourselves in thinking that change is explicable by tracing it to the point from which it is first observed. This is a rational notion so far as the observation of starting-points allows, but it soon becomes dubious when we try to hang onto the idea that change is explicable as a property of the things changing, as if change itself can be explained by those things as they were, unchanged and insensible – as if everything has to be the one thing, of the one nature, because it all has to have the same starting point.
© Mike Laidler 2015