Posts Tagged ‘metaphysics’

A tree falls alone in the forest. It makes no sound, because there is no one to hear it. There can be no sound without the ear to hear, no scent without the nose to smell, and no colour without the eye to see. Nor can any of these things be apprehended, without the brain to reflect them as qualities upon the dark mirror of the mind, thereby creating the human experience of the world.

The common-sense story of the world says there is a universe of material objects – galaxies, stars, chairs, tables, teapots, atoms – all of them occupying space, and enduring for a time, in time. We are objects, too, but, unlike teapots, we have senses plugged into a material brain which, together, and by an unknown process, provide us with a mental image of reality. They also produce this thing we call “mind”, which enables us to be self-aware, to be conscious of ourselves.

This is the orthodox “materialist” story, born of the scientific revolution, and the consequent death of all the gods. It makes sense to us, because we all “seem” to share the same world. The world doesn’t “seem” to depend on our presence. The moon is still there when we are not looking at it. The ocean tides still follow a regular, and calculable pattern that is not of our imagining. And when we experience things in the world, our brains show measurable activity. All of this suggests the material world-model, and our separate subjective mental awareness of it, is the correct way of viewing things. It is the right story to tell, and to believe in. It is the right story to tell our children.

But we cannot explain how the material brain gives rise to the quality of feelings aroused by a sunset, or by falling in love, or the pleasure we take in the taste of things, or the scent of a rose, or in the ways music can move us, or even the perception of our favourite colour. These are all qualities, and are unresponsive to mathematical analysis. Mathematics favours the material. Materials have length, mass, time, temperature, current. But there is nothing about them that explains how they create the mental experience of sensed reality. The material universe exists materially, but our experience of it does not.

This, then, is the often told story of the world, but it has a gaping hole in the middle of the plot, because it does not explain the nature of our selves. And those writing this story are now so frustrated by the stubbornly inexplicable nature of “mind” and “consciousness”, they conclude it must be an illusion, that it is generated by an emergent property of the brain. Thus ends our journey into the material realm, with the conclusion that, although we think we exist, actually we do not. We have already eliminated the gods. Now we have eliminated ourselves.

So, a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound. This is confusing, because we mistakenly believe the material world itself possesses qualities like colour, taste and sound – that the greenness of the grass, the scent of the rose, the sweetness of the musical note, are in themselves physical, and “out there”. But they aren’t. That’s not what the material world story is saying at all.

What is the sound of the falling tree? In material terms, it is a wave of pressure. Quantities of pressure are called Pascals. Pascals are Newtons per square meter, which is a mass, multiplied by gravitational acceleration, which is meters per second, per second. Add it all up, and what have we, got? We have a mathematical statement of mass, length and time. What we do not have are timbre, rush or roar. What is “roar”? What is the mass-length-time of a roar, of a rush, of a timbre? Materially, there is no answer. Only the mind knows these things. What we don’t know is how the mind knows them.

What can we say with certainty about the mind? Let’s ask the materialists: It correlates with brain activity, they say. This is reasonable. But by the same reasoning, one would expect the mental experience to increase in proportion to the measured activity. A brain, lit up and buzzing with neuronal action, would be experiencing a greater degree of mental activity than one that is not. Let’s go further and say an inactive brain should give rise to no experience whatsoever. Such a brain would be unconscious, or even dead. However, there is persuasive evidence that the opposite is the case.

A dramatic reduction in recorded brain function correlates with the most profound expansion of the subjective mental experience. Two areas of research confirm this: near death studies, and the experience of psychedelics. In both cases, there is a diminution of the measured brain function, yet a corresponding explosion of subjective mental awareness. This awareness is not chaotic, as in an hallucination, nor is it passive, as in ordinary dreaming. It is lucid, coherent, memorable and profoundly meaningful to the individual. What does this suggest? It’s hard to say for certain, but there is the sense of a door opening.

A normally functioning brain gives rise to our experience of the world, but that’s not all. It also seems to be restricting access to a transcendent experience of being, one in which we seem to exist as a kind of psychical alter, in a realm of pure mind. This would otherwise overwhelm us for our day-to-day purposes, so there is a narrowing of the mental experience, one that is so difficult to escape, we conclude, quite reasonably, the material world is all there is. The transcendent experience however reveals that by far the greater sense of our being exists in a purely non-material sense, transcending the apparently material dimension. Is it then too far a leap to say that, in the normally parsimonious nature of the universe, there may not be a material reality, as we think of it, at all?

I don’t know, the answer to that question, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I sense the story of the world is not yet done, that a fresh and extraordinary chapter is beginning. With luck, it’ll patch up that glaring plot hole, and arrive at the conclusion we might exist after all, just not in the way we’ve come to think we do. It’s a curious concept, a little unsettling, just like the idea that when a tree falls alone in the forest, it makes no sound.

Thanks for listening

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The true nature of reality?

Human reality may be exactly what it appears to be: a fragile existence on a rock in space, a speck of life born out of a biological accident, with all our self-conscious ramblings on the meaning of it amounting to nothing when the bag of bones we think of as our body finally quits on us. I may be wrong, but I imagine few of us are comfortable with this idea. Speaking for myself, if that’s the point of it, then it might as well be done with now as at some point in the future and I’d rather my genetic material found some other way of furthering its greedy existence without dragging me along after it and making me think I’m important when I’m not.

Fortunately I’ve come to believe there’s more to things than this, and my voyages into the greyer areas of reality have led to a more positive and optimistic outlook, rather than a negative one. And that’s without getting into religion.

A certain kind of psychologist will smile sagely at all our fanciful musings and tell us we are unconsciously afraid of death and would rather not face the pointlessness of life, so we invent scenarios in which “magic” becomes a part of our reality, thereby granting us the deluded notion of an escape route – reincarnation, heavenly realms, or some other form of personal psychical continuation of life after death. Magical, mysterious mysticism is thus demoted to the level of a childish coping-mechanism.

In my case,  there’s nothing unconscious about it – of course I fear death and I agree speculation on the magical or mysterious aspects of reality may be a coping-mechanism. If so, they are a very effective one  because I feel better about myself and my place in the universe when I explore these things.  I’m also convinced there’s more to them than wishful thinking.

There’s more to my conviction than deluded zeal, as anyone of an open and enquiring mind can surely testify. There are many clues that suggest the nature of reality isn’t so hard and cold as the materialists tell us. In fact its edges are fuzzy, and you don’t need to be religious to find them. I might even go so far as to say a religious perspective is the last thing that’s going to help you. In religion we say our lines, we conform to the group-speak, consider ourselves holier than the Jones’ if we go to church more often than they do, or we feel guilty if they go more than we. As for belief, well,  we trust the vicar knows what he’s talking about and leave it at that. That’s religion. But, if you want to know, really know then you have to blow the dust off the history of the world and you have to examine the experiences of ordinary people.

A certain kind of biologist will tell you the mind – the thing that makes you think you are you – is  confined to that lumpen grey organ called the brain and when the brain stops working, the illusion of you vanishes without a trace. This is the conventional view. It’s a safe position to hold, but when you start to dig you realise the truth is more complicated. A century of study has yielded a tidal wave of evidence that tells us the mind extends beyond the brain, that it can sometimes see around corners. It seems there really is such a thing as ESP, and people sometimes really do experience moments of precognition, and moments of heightened awareness in which time dissolves and all things become one  – like the mystics tell us.

But nothing in this fuzzy realm is certain. ESP can only be demonstrated as a general effect in a large group of people, but when it comes to specific individuals, ESP is difficult to reproduce on demand. It exists, but it cannot be reliably demonstrated in front of a body of hardened skeptics aiming at the gold standard of a peer reviewed publication. The same goes for precognition and so called mystical experiences: they cannot be dialled up, nor paraded for inspection.

What use is it then? We know these things exist, but for all practical purposes, they might as well not.

For me it’s enough we are given the occasional glimpse behind the curtain, for the reassurance it grants us that the cold, hard, physical reality we see is not everything there is. Personally I’d rather not live in a world where magical things are the stuff of every day experience. I don’t want others to know routinely what is inside my head because, like the contents of my diary, I would fear their misinterpretation. Similarly, I would not like the ability to see inside of yours, for fear your thoughts might be hurtful to me.

The most I think we can say for certain is that there is more to the mind than the brain. If we go one step further, we could also speculate, with some justification, that the mind’s ability to exceed it’s apparent biological boundaries suggests it might also capable of some form of psychical existence independent of them. What that tells us about the nature of reality, or the survival of the personality after death is anyone’s guess. Beyond this point the speculation becomes ever more tenuous, and we risk falling over the fuzzy edge of reality into a void that is impregnable to the human intellect – and where our only recourse is to invent stories.

So far as our personal, tangible, non-fuzzy reality is concerned, it seems to be defined by the choices we make. Whether those choices will lead us to happiness or to misery is very much dependent upon what our motives are when we make the choices. A certain kind of thinking will lead us towards a happier and more contented kind of life. Material circumstances are irrelevant: we might be rich, we might be poor, but material wealth is not a goal in itself, and story books are full of moral tales that teach us how its pursuit can lead to personal ruin if we’re not in firm control of ourselves in other ways first. So, while the true nature of reality remains largely hidden from us, there is a feeling the best way of approaching it is to discover what that “certain kind of thinking is”, and to practice it.

Like many of my generation, I’ve come at this down a long, rocky road, through the distilled essence of three thousand years of eastern philosophy, dimly grasped but enough I think to shine a light into my own little corner of the world. I can hazard a guess then at what that certain kind of thinking is, and when I’m struggling I have the eccentric option of consulting the I Ching – which usually puts me straight. For many of course this will seem barking mad. It’s just my way though, and you must find your own. But however we come at it, you can take all the words that were ever written on this subject and disregard them because a lady called Beatrix Potter summed it up long ago in this delightful quote:

“All outward forms of religion are almost useless and are the causes of endless strife. Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself and never mind the rest.”

You heard the lady. Just be congnisant of the fact that there’s something there.  It’s intentions are benign, and beyond that you don’t need to think about it much at all. Just behave yourself and never mind the rest. Behaving yourself is the tricky part of course, and working out what it means is possibly the one thing you were were born to do.

Graeme out.

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