Saturday, October 31, 2009


Sire, je n’ai point besoin de cette hypothèse. (Pierre Laplace)

Consciousness is assumed by the conscious person to be a reflection of the whole of reality – at least in principle. Doubts concerning what may lie outside of the brightly-lit area of consciousness are quickly turned into comfortable rationalisations. The human intellect always has absolute pretensions in this respect. The mind has to inhabit a world; and no mind is satisfied with the thought that the world it knows is not the whole world. What may or may not exist in that world is for many an extremely emotive issue, exciting the most fundamental feelings of our species. It is nevertheless the case that our comprehensible world is relative to us and to our sensory-cognitive apparatus. Our world always requires the possessive adjective, and always will, even if we ourselves turn into something different. Nevertheless, we are conscious of our permanent position outside of and ‘beyond’ any world that we inhabit, intellectually speaking. It goes without saying that when we talk of a ‘world’ we are talking of a strictly intellectual notion, a construct that is not given in immediate sensory awareness. What is given in immediate sensory awareness is something far more restricted that we habitually amplify by means of our intellectual world. When we talk of a ‘world’ we are more often than not talking of a Theory of Everything.

Theories of Everything, whether they be in myth, religion or science embody our attempt to establish the framework of individual and social life within the cosmic context. This can be established as a meaningful relation between mind and world or it can be established as a meaningless relation. Theories of everything in the modern scientific sense are chiefly of the latter kind. There is no scientific reason for this except that post-Enlightenment science gave itself the task of opposing the claims of religion (or what is referred to as ‘subjectivism’) and in so doing threw the baby of meaning out with the bathwater of unconvincing symbolism. Modern Theories of Everything not only insist on their completeness, but also take pride in their ‘objectivity’. This word means in essence that the minds that dream up the Theories of Everything have no place at all within them and remain unaccounted for. It remains, however, the case that the totality words all, whole, entire, complete, always, forever, eternally, never, only etc. are among the most powerful in the language because of the emotional charge they carry. Intellect and emotion come together in sentences containing these words and they thus constitute powerful motivators. The motives to engage in an intellectual enterprise that permits the use of these totality words arise in a range of emotions difficult to characterise but spanning the whole range of desires for wholeness, belonging, possession and power from the benign experience of oceanic, mystical ‘oneness’ to the malign wishes of the totalitarian spirit of control. Such feelings are among our most powerful motivators and allied with the intellect constitute some of the deepest reasons we have for doing anything, including spinning the supposedly ‘objective’ theories of science.

Just as children represent the world of their experience in simplified stylized geometrical pictures of what they perceive, leaving out the inconvenient, unmanageable, fuzzy or complicated bits, so do we with our theories: they are simplified abstractions, toy versions of what we think is there or what we want to be there. They are ‘models’, that is to say, adult toys. Inevitably, our theories are beds of Procrustes, because we simply chop off the inconvenient bits and deny them reality. This is in certain cases just good mental hygiene, allowing concentration and clarification; but in others it is akin to a kind of madness in which ‘reality’ is experienced in a distorted fashion. All beliefs are necessarily an interpretation from a standpoint and therefore a distortion of reality; but belief that regards itself as exclusively valid and as providing a kind of repeatable ‘recipe’ for reality is probably more dangerous than most. The most dangerous of theories are possibly those that deny any place for the psyche for they reify human beings and prepare the ground for inhumanity.

Since the eighteenth century, theories of everything have been theories of matter and as such they have been theories of things, theories that have completely left us out of the picture except insofar as we can be considered as things. With his conception of the geometrifying mind and the geometrifiable world, René Descartes set the groundwork for the mechanisation of all things, us included, and since L’Homme Machine by de la Mettrie, the enthusiasm for making mindless robots out of us has been unbounded. Dualism having subsequently been abandoned, there was no place in a theory of matter for the person. So while theories of everything have striven to be literally theories of every thing, i.e. object, in the universe, they have not been theories of every aspect of reality. How could they have been, since so-called ‘things’ are constructions of our (i.e. the human) sensory-cognitive apparatus. Since things are mere abstractions and to that extent illusory, theories of every thing are based upon a delusion. Theories that leave persons out of the picture because persons are not things are like theories that say “because you are not white – or blue-eyed, or rich or male or whatever – you do not merit consideration” or some other such reductive, de-humanising nonsense: they are in essence an attempt to deny status to what is inconvenient to an all-embracing theory. They are attempts rigorously to define what should be included in the theory in order to exclude certain realities by denying that they are real. Persons, are entities of incalculably higher dimensionality than items in the 3D world of our everyday sense-perception, and therefore have immeasurably increased degrees of freedom. They are inconvenient to those minds that would enthrone themselves as controlling gods over a universe of meaningless and mindless things flying around according to immutable ‘laws’. Thus they have to be abolished by such minds.

The fact that physics no longer supports such an eliminative view of persons and minds – how could it since the observer is an integral and essential part of the system observed – should encourage those who have chafed under the materialistic dogma for years to decline to go along with the prevailing wisdom any longer and assert the right of the person to the consideration it deserves. This is a rebellion heavy with consequences, since it entails re-incorporating persons into our world-view. This cannot be done without a radical shift in the ruling paradigm and such a shift will have seismic consequences for many other systems, not least of all for science, education, ethics, the law, economics and so on. Once the thing-ideology has been exposed for what it is – a feature of our sensory and cognitive handicaps – we will be able to consider all manner of wholes that so far we have reduced to what we thought of as their basic ‘building-blocks’, but which were, in fact, no more than features of our habit-ridden mental powers. We unquestionably need the geometrification of reality for our technological enterprise; but we need for our own well-being to see it as no more than heuristically, and far from exclusively, valid.

Modern theories of everything, despite their encouraging features, are still theories of matter. As such, they come in two varieties: those that are still in the old, essentially classical mode of the ultimate algorithm governing all the behaviour of every particle; or else they are in a slightly more modern, less presumptuous, less arrogant mode which leads people to want to see our models of reality as no more in essence than symbols of a totality that we can only partially understand, symbols that – while they make productive contact with reality – bear more resemblance to artistic and mythical symbols than to definitive and exhaustive representations or re-constructions of some universal machine. Let’s call the defenders of the former type of theory the ‘reducers’ and those of the latter the ‘includers’. The reducers in the scientific community have a tendency to make fatuous statements about knowing the mind of God or making His existence impossible. The includers, by contrast, bring people to a much more modest view of the extent and tentative character of our knowledge. The reducers express the desire for universal mechanical stasis. The includers express a much more dynamic and creative conception both of the place of human beings in the cosmos and of the interaction between their mind and the world. The reducers see knowledge as reaching an end-station in the perfect parallax, presumably, of model, world and understanding, of midworld, foreworld and hindworld, forgetting hyperworld, the world as such, the world that overarches the one we think we grasp, the ultimate unknown that neither they nor anyone else understands. The includers, by contrast, seem more inclined to trust the unknown process – let’s call it ‘chaos’, despite the value-judgement inherent in this word – and to dignify it with the ability to conduct its own affairs. After all it did it for billions of years before we came on the scene. Order that we can grasp arises out of chaos in non-predictable, non-mechanical, non-deterministic ways – unless viewed by one of those who, even in contemplating the emergence of order from chaos, still nurture an irrepressible nostalgia for the ‘mechanism’.

The Theories of Everything of the past three hundred years have been strictly theories that deprived the world of any possibility of our establishing a human relationship with it. No-one any longer considers the possibility of establishing a relation with reality as if it, too, were a quasi-human. We ought to be grateful that it is not. But that in no way entitles us to assume that reality has less than personal qualities. It is simply not logical to assume this. It is impossible for humans to live in a universe in which they have no place, from which persons are squeezed out, and in which they are de-humanised and reified. But the really liberating thought is this: we don’t have to live in such conditions any more. We don’t have to assume that our desire to belong arises from delusion.

The prophets of mechanistic meaninglessness – and there are still far too many of them – no longer have physics or philosophy in their thrall; they do not even have them on their side, for mechanism as a belief is officially defunct. Theirs is a worn-out ideology, an intellectual dead-end; and as an ideology it can profitably be cast aside. It can profitably be retained, heuristically, as a method for continuing the prosthetic extension of our bodies, that is to say our technological enterprise. But any theory of everything that we try to work out has to abandon the reductive concept of a fundamental building-block to the universe and evolve the means of considering the whole as an integrated, co-ordinated and perhaps intelligent if unpredictable process. String-theory is not a theory of ‘things’ in any sense that we understand the word ‘thing’. It is far more a theory of dynamic processes.

The world appears to be much more an active system of interconnected and interacting wholes than a collection of bits. The system of wholes is hierarchically structured, but the hierarchy is not one of relative importance since each part reflects the whole, each part mirrors the whole. Each part in the system is an information-driven whole that, as it were, looks both ways: it is connected dynamically to the apparently simple levels below it and also to the apparently more complex levels above it. One is reminded of Leibniz’ system of monads, each of which mirrors the entire universe; but in distinction to the monads which Leibniz understood in mechanical terms as hermetically sealed from each other and orchestrated by a ‘pre-established harmony’, the wholes of the present universe appear to be dynamically related to each other in informational, one could say ‘intelligent’ or ‘creative’ terms as well as in material terms. Innovations in sub-wholes have implications for other sub-wholes and also for the whole system. Wholes can be analysed in terms of their own sub-wholes; but to imagine that only analysis gives understanding is foreign to the nature of a holistic approach. Wholes have to be understood, in their turn as sub-wholes of a greater system. The mind is one such whole or sub-whole, depending on one’s point of view. It is connected downwards, by analysis, to a series of ‘objects’ of increasing simplicity from brains to cells to molecules to sub-atomic particles; but the arrows of explanation do not any longer all point downwards. To the synthesising mind, it is connected upward to a system of meanings, personal, social, cultural, historical and perhaps cosmic that are no less legitimate objects of investigation than any so-called ‘ultimate’ consitutents. The mind, our organ of cognition, cannot be explained away by descriptions of its material basis. Its meanings are an essential aspect of its structure. Minds and mindlike entities such as meanings, intentions, projects, values and so on are only material if one adopts a one-sided, analytical approach to them. There is no logical or empirical reason for denying them substantial existence in their own right as sub-wholes of a universal mental realm.

Meanings and objects are not of course fundamentally different; but the observer’s position in the ‘hierarchy’ determines how they appear. Thus the mind can not be reduced to a collection of things, be it brain or anything else, though seeing it as such may be illuminating for certain purposes. The mind can be considered in its own right as a complete system reflecting the universe. The brain as object, in this case could be seen as the projection in three-dimensional space, and accessible to the senses, of a vastly more complex, multi-dimensional entity making use of quantum processes in ways that are not accessible to our object-besotted obsession with objects. When entities of higher dimensionality are understood by means of such projections, they are inevitably simplified, shorn of some of their degrees of freedom and distorted. The person, however closely allied with a brain and its history, can be viewed by a similar logic not as a collection of 3D things as the Positivist dogma insists, but as an indivisible multi-dimensional whole that is destroyed by any attempt to decompose it. This whole may, of course, be a projection in human consciousness of an entity of even higher dimensionality.

Certain scientific egos may want to understand the self as just the movement of particles, but they will always exclude their own self from such reductive strategies because it is not only disagreeable but also impossible to understand oneself that way. It is time, for this reason, that the mechanising ego was eliminated from science altogether. The nonsensical, inhuman, ego-driven vision of the Comte de Laplace is dead and gone – fortunately – and in its place there are the glimmerings of a new synthesis that will make the universe a more benign place, that accommodates us not as anomalous objects equipped with the delusion of consciousness, but as persons. Nothing is lost in this new synthesis. All scientific methods retain their dignity as heuristic devices; they just no longer rule the roost as the only intellectual attitudes possible and can now be cut loose from the thing-ideology. Nothing is lost and much is gained by an intellectual pluralism that relativises the scientific idiom and keeps it in its place. This procedure enables us to get out of the intellectual strait-jacket that prevented us from viewing ethical or spiritual statements as having any meaning, even though we always knew we can’t live without them. In terms of the thing-ideology, they indeed have no meaning, but that is because the thing-ideology as a vision of totality can dispense with meaning as part of its housekeeping; it is not because ethics or spirituality are meaningless. These matters are only meaningless within a species of discourse that cannot or does not need to deal with them, namely a reductive, materialistic discourse. It is now completely obvious that another types of discourse, the holistic, synthesising type, is required to supplement the ideology that has bedevilled science for centuries.

A theory of everything that does not include in it persons, their purposes, their values and their meanings is merely a partial theory. After all, we as persons, are products of the universe just as sub-atomic particles are and we are wholes just as they are. A universe without any possibility of persons’ being integrated into it is not a universe but a toy distortion. The wailings of the Existentialists about the absurdity of human life were only sustained by the thing-ideology and the 3D vision of reality; and these are unable to accommodate us. To abolish ourselves because of these prejudices is, however, completely and utterly silly. Once we have shrugged them off as anything more than useful intellectual methods, our place within reality can be re-established and rediscovered. Our history is as old as the universe and our future destiny is inseparable from it. There is no reason at all why we should not have a stake in it, a role in its total economy and a part in its future.

The ideology of meaninglessness, the ideology of purposelessness, that enjoyed such a hand-rubbing vogue for so long, as people extricated themselves from the arbitrary oppression of religious authorities, stands or falls with the ideology of things, the thing-obsession, the thing-dogma. When we reduce the notion of the world as a collection of three-dimensional things to no more than a practically useful fiction we thereby we abolish the reasons for which we have seen the world as a heap of inert matter without sense or direction, without any feature that we can relate to. We are sick of meaninglessness and it is the thing-ideology that has made us as sick as we are. But this is a totally unnecessary sickness since it results from a self-induced purblindness and not from any necessary feature of the world. All we have to do is to cease seeing the world as a bunch of dead things and start seeing it as a co-ordinated, living, intelligent process that while clearly not personal is nevertheless not less than personal. Once we acquire the ability to do this, we will be vastly more open to the thought that it is a benign process that accommodates us. As an assumption, the notion of the intelligence of the universe is not in any sense irrational and we should think twice before indulging in knee-jerk rejection of it to which our adolescent rejection of religion drove us. He adolescent fury that abolished God because of His alleged tolerance of evil is really not very sensible. The notion of a universal intelligence is completely compatible with what we call ‘evil’ in the universe, because the universe, after all, was not designed in any way or according to any purpose we can grasp and was therefore clearly not designed for our comfort. To expect an intelligent universe to pander to human frailty is infantile. Such a universe would be a sort of nightmarish universal nanny state.

Since it is the controlling ego and its rather immature emotions that rejects talk of an intelligent universe, and since the mind, when left to itself without coercion, without forced belief, naturally experiences its innermost processes as harmonisng with those of the world, there is already in that alone much good evidence for the intelligence of the universe. If we approach the issue of our relatedness to the world in a spirit of open-minded preparedness to be surprised, we do not necessarily lose anything at all. Rather than trying to prove a negative all the time (“the universe has no meaning,” “human life has no sense,” and the like) we should have the courage to adopt a new assumption (e.g. ‘the universe is an intelligently co-ordinated whole’) and, without thinking in terms of some definitive ‘proof’, nevertheless assess dispassionately the evidence we can find for this view. There is evidence for viewing human beings as intelligently co-ordinated wholes, there is evidence for viewing societies as intelligently co-ordinated wholes, there is evidence for viewing the planet as an intelligently co-ordinated whole and in the new physics, there is evidence for viewing the universe as an intelligently co-ordinated whole. If this were not so, physicists of the stature of Fred Hoyle and David Bohm (not to mention Newton and Einstein) would not have entertained the idea for more than a few minutes. Many, if not all, of the greatest scientific and philosophical minds have entertained the assumption without that impairing their ability to do rigorous science. It has been the little ego-maniacs, terrified at the idea that they may not be top dog, who have rejected it. So if, in addition, this holistic view of the world is vital to our moral health and psychological well-being, and if the egoist is ill, we owe it to ourselves to see if we can make sense of it. It is not a matter of resuscitating an outmoded theology, it is rather the need to make spiritual and moral sense of the universe that calls for such a policy. We need to feel at home in the universe, however uncomfortable that universe may be for us.

We need a theory of everything that is not simply a theory of bits of matter mapped in a mathematical model, a very big binary number, but rather a theory of everything that, far from excluding us, considers the world as a creative totality, a permanent self-creating entity that is constantly renewing itself, a universe of which we are parts and of which we possess the fundamental properties of intelligent creativity. Wholes are not just inert lumps of stuff, they are units of meaning and value; their meaning and their value being the reasons for which they exist to interact with other wholes. The universe is a volcanically creative and staggeringly protean whole that is constantly exploding into the adjacent possible and generating bursts of creative innovation. And no reductive analysis can do justice to this generative drive to innovation. In our most recent model we see it as evolving explosively from particle soup to plasma to gas cloud to first generation suns and galaxies to second generation suns and galaxies to life-seeded milieux, to the home of consciously self-observing intelligences. This creativity, says the thing-ideology is the result of chance and necessity, and nothing else.

Believe it if you like!

In fact we don’t have to believe that any more. The word ‘chance’ does little more than indicate our ignorance of all but the surface properties of things apparent to our rather gross senses. The creativity of the universe clearly has a large element of opportunism in it and that is as it should be, for otherwise we would have a dismal mechanism again. There is clearly an indeterminate element that is crucial, for intelligence requires freedom of operation (is this what we mean by ‘random’ and ‘chance’?). But we must not assume that ‘indeterminate’ means the same as ‘random’ and that by the use of such terms we exclude any thought of intelligence in the main current of creativity. We should never forget that intelligence is not necessarily human and intelligent creativity that surpasses our power of understanding could on occasion appear to us as what we call ‘chance’.

Something like the cumulative effects of intelligence seem with hindsight detectable in the events that led from the Big Bang, through the synthesis of heavy elements, the synthesis of life and the emergence of consciousness to us. The ‘happy’ coincidences, even before the appearance of life, are far too numerous to be comfortably ascribed to accident (some of them are described in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle by Barrow and Tipler). Intelligence is indeterminate and the creativity of the universe can be seen as the streaming of its indeterminate potential into the world of time, space and causality. In creativity, the indeterminate becomes world, though it only becomes determinate thereby when viewed by the mechanising intellect. Of course there is stability. But we do not need to deduce from temporary stability the horrific eternal stasis that is entailed by mechanistic theories of everything in which movement is merely banal repetition and therefore nothing essentially happens.

As digitised modelling becomes the normal way of understanding the universe as totality, we more and more hope to find the Holy Grail of the Grand Unified Theory of physics. We put our faith in this Very Big Binary Number. This can never be anything more than the algorithm governing the latest model by means of which we understand the universe. This algorithm can only ever be a virtual machine within the computer, that is to say that it can never be anything more than a very long string of noughts and ones. The ideal is that it should be a maximally compressed number, a completely determinate recipe for every possible eventuality. Such a big binary number would amount to the subjugation of foreworld, hindworld, and hyperworld to one particular midworld methodology. But this big binary number, as a virtual machine, will inevitably leave most of reality out of consideration. It will thus always need supplementing by a symbol of totality that takes account of us and captures our sense of relatedness to the whole. Beliefs that minds arise inevitably from sufficiently complex computations are delusory, for minds will always grasp truths that are not part of the most comprehensive systems of logic while being required for the understanding of these very systems. A mind, to cut a long story short, will always understand the big binary number from some vantage-point beyond it. That is the in the nature both of minds and of computations.

The theories of everything come and go, they are our creation; we do not discover them. They do not lie around to be found. We discover the world in inventing them. That is their purpose. They change as we discover more. Discovering the world is to this existent analogous to discovering a person, in that one’s understanding is never finished, never closed off. One never has direct access to a person, but only indirect, and persons will always surprise. Approaches to a person have to be tentative, subtle and varied. Similarly, our Theories of Everything are perpetual approximations towards an unknown content. We must not assume, moreover, that because we approach we must necessarily arrive. The notion of a definitive theory of everything is a contradiction in terms. If we find ourselves speculating, in our visions of totality, on the nature of the intelligence that is capable of co-ordinating the entire universe, then so much the better. There is now no longer any danger of conceiving such an intelligence in human terms. The anthropomorphic universe is dead and gone, and good riddance. The universe is clearly not designed for our benefit by a smiling Father Christmas, but that does not mean that it is not intelligent or that we have no place in it. It does not mean that the universe is not providential or that we do not have a permanent stake in it. There is clearly in the creativity of nature much that strikes our intellect as ill-organised and wasteful, much that shocks the sensibilities that we have, as fearful and vulnerable creatures of flesh and blood that detest pain. But we should reflect that the universe can not be expected to be organised around us even though we belong in it. Moreover, the fringe of apparently wasteful and destructive chaos that surrounds all the creative accomplishments of nature may be precisely the zone of experimentation without which creative intelligence cannot function. The world can not be arranged for our comfort. There is clearly no use in searching for human values and human purposes in the cosmos; but that does not mean that the cosmos has no values or purposes. It very probably does have a place for our values and purposes, because it has a place for the values and purposes of every other entity that we encounter. Evolution is a value, survival is a value, adaptation is a value... and so on. Thus our theory of everything could well accommodate the notion that our intelligence and the meanings it vouchsafes us is nested within the universal intelligence and that it has its significance there and only there.

Thursday, October 29, 2009


It is a modern dogma that claims that mental phenomena – and a fortiori, metaphysical beliefs – exist only because of the phenomenon of language. This dogma is in essence nonsense. Sequential, methodical thought, and public sharing of such thought, may only exist because of language; but thought of this kind is very different from intelligent self-awareness, which is where metaphysics begins. Where sequential thought is essentially the manipulation of a particular formalism, the cranking out of conclusions according to rules, and therefore algorithmic, intelligence is, by contrast, primarily the generation of new form out of undirected reflection on awareness. We could characterise these two types of mental function roughly as rationality, in the first case, creativity, in the second. Intelligence has from the dawn of human history generated the forms in which human culture has evolved. Intelligence creates form in order to achieve presence in the world. The history of human culture has been driven forward by creative intelligence and not by thought: thought is conservative, bound to the everyday; intelligence is revolutionary and generates the future. Thought, particularly rational thought, is a secondary ability that merely applies and exploits the formal properties of what intelligence creates. Thought manipulates the syntactic rules and semantic vocables of language as if they were the most authoritative aspects of the mind; but it is generative intelligence that creates these to give itself presence. Our culture is obsessed by rules and laws – a hangover from our belief in a lawgiver deity. This indicates the extent to which convergent, language-structured thought is dominant in our civilization and real creative intelligence is not prized. We imagine that the only valid thought is thought that is mandated normatively by this or that set of rules (logic, maths, grammar), rules considered by the unwary to be absolute. It is for this reason that we fantasise about machines one day becoming ‘intelligent’. It is for this reason that we also fantasize about a correct observance of the scientific method one day arriving at the final truth about reality. It is for this reason that our so-called ‘intelligence-tests’ pick out for the award of ‘high IQ’ only a particular type of obedient individual.

Starting with the so-called ‘laws of nature’ and finishing with the so-called ‘laws of thought’ we imagine that every operation of the mind, including our very experience itself, can ultimately achieve the status of epistemic validity by virtue of conforming its mode of expression to an accepted canon of formal validity. Knowledge and understanding, those obsessed by rationality presume, come from following the rules. This is manifestly in error, since both clearly originate in creative insight. We dream of framing the ultimate sentences. We imagine that this procedure is the exclusive guarantee of epistemological warrant. We are mistaken in this, since it is of the essence of intelligence in general and human intelligence in particular to be intrinsically beyond any mode of expression that it may adopt in order to achieve presence within a particular context. Gödel proved this mathematically. Whereas thought is essentially repetitive, intelligence, by contrast, is essentially innovative. Intelligence is not culturally determined as thought is; it is of a piece with the indeterminate ground of reality, from which the phenomenal world of our experience arises by natural creativity. This phenomenal world does not arise mechanistically as we used to suppose. It arises from quantum processes that are forever beyond out power to predict. The articulation of intelligence is at the frontier between the indeterminate and the determinate. But intelligence itself is of a piece with indeterminate, form-generating Being. It is at the heart of the universal process of perpetual innovation that we call the world and that we could legitimately call ‘Creation’. Our attempts to keep up with this process of uninterrupted creativity that we perceive around us is now the prime motivator of our desire to speak.

The notion that humans will one day achieve definitive understanding by means of the right application of the rules of discourse is so crazy as to be close to psychosis and it is high time we realised that it not only shrivels reality to a pitiful tissue of half-truths, it also diminishes us. Reality is infinitely protean, eternal, unpredictable change, and there is no alternative open to us, as aspects of that reality, than to change along with it.

The ordering of reality by humans takes place in language via pattern-recognition and the creation of categories, classes of being, embodying the perception of significant similarities and significant differences. In traditional societies, these ordering categories were believed to have a connection with the order of the universe as a whole and preserving them preserved that order. Something of that primitive attitude survives in scientific orthodoxy and in the mental rigidity of certain scientists. The creation of new categories requires a leap of the imagination, a creative new synthesis that can only come about in an undetermined manner. This is the essence of intelligence: the perception of new possibilities of order and the ability to incorporate the new order into the existing order or to transcend and recast the old order in terms of the new. The notion that the laws of nature could one day correspond completely with the laws of thought in some definitive body of formally valid propositions negates the nature of language which appears to be infinitely creative and therefore to open up new levels of understanding without limit.

Language is an infinite system. Its grammar has the capacity to generate an infinity of different sentences and its vocabulary can be expanded infinitely. It is an order of infinite degree, but this does not mean that it is random – on the contrary, it is the very opposite of random. It has an infinity of meanings that can be predicted by no known method. Yet these meanings, if they are to be retained, will be incarnated in sentences that cohere formally with the existing system either by respecting existing rules or by expanding their formal power and recasting them on a higher level. Yet this does not mean that all innovation both within the formalism and of the formalism itself is ultimately random. An order of infinite degree is only apparently random when viewed by us. We must never forget that language, far from being a static system of rules, is a living process by means of which the intelligent apprehension of a reality achieves presence in the world.

Language is the specifically human mode of expanding access to the multi-dimensional conundrum of reality. Something of the rich dimensionality of the universe opens up to human beings by virtue of their ability to speak and saves them from being bound by instinct to a narrow slice of it. If consciousness constitutes the first major level of the self-reflectivity of the universe achieved by life on this planet, and self-consciousness the second, then the linguistic realm, the realm of meanings, constitutes a third. We do not know how many levels of reflectivity are possible in the universe, their number may be infinite; but we know that we have access to these three. It is on the linguistic level that expansion of the self-conscious awareness of the point of view that we call the ‘individual’ first begins. It is language also that reinforces the illusion of the first person singular, of a substantial ego. In reality there is only the world, as the unfathomable given, and the levels of self-reflection of the world. For us humans, this is equivalent to saying that there is only mystery and history, only the unknown and the narrative.

The illusion of the substantial ego is the result of the linking of self-reflectivity to a narrow and restricted point of view defined by the human body and its needs. This point of view then turns into a body of ‘truth’ about the universe, ‘owned’ by the ego in question, as each individual shares his or her linguistic insights about his or her point of view and builds a consensus. Fundamental to this process of accumulating consensus is the ability possessed by the self-reflecting self-awareness to compare disparate experiences provided by consciousness and to connect them by means of the concept ‘like’. Language relies upon essential repetitions: universals as nouns, verbs, prepositions etc. denote the belief that certain processes, things and relations repeat themselves. It is of the essence of being human to classify experiences that seem to resemble each other, either as repetitions or, more subtly, by means of metaphor. Thus language both opens up the world, as we espy pattern and regularity, and also freezes the world into classes of object and rules for their behaviour. In itself, the world may have none of the structure we impute to it by language. But for us, it has the structure it has because of language.

No doubt language began to evolve from the simple equation of items in the experience of primitive man with noises, perhaps onomatopoeic noises. Once this trick had been discovered, the insight that every item of experience can have a name, the name of either a universal or a particular, must have developed with extraordinary rapidity. Word-lists must have blossomed very quickly. No doubt the whole grammatical paraphernalia of highly developed language took rather longer to develop as methods for sharing new concepts developed. The ability to say when and where and who or what was doing or would do what to whom, must have required a very great number of separate creative insights and creative acts of intelligence. But it seems obvious that underlying this process of creation would have been the ability, within language, to connect disparate elements of experience from different frames of reference within one single frame and from there to generalise inductively with yet more concepts. We can see now from our elevated vantage-point that language is a realm of reflection that is sui generis. Its essence is comparison – the sunset is like a dragon swallowing the god, the ultimate filaments of matter are like strings, or whatever – and that comparison is, in itself, an indication of a level of self-referential, self-reflection that is far above the simple mirror-like reflection of mere consciousness. The ability to compare like with like by means of signs is supplemented by the ability to compare like with unlike: this is the origin of symbolism. In poetry, religion and related linguistic phenomena, symbolism has blossomed intelligently into the representation in sensuous form of the supersensory, into the representation in terms of sense-experience of what is experienced in non-sensory ways.

It follows from this ability to espy pattern and to connect pattern with pattern, of course, that the goal of coming upon the ultimate reflection, the ultimate metaphor, the ultimate model, whether scientific, mythological, poetic or whatever, is a complete illusion analogous to the illusion of the substantial self, since, quite simply, language will never be the universe itself, will never stand duty for the universe itself. Language is, after all, only one medium at one level of self-reflectivity of the universe, a universe moreover which we must assume to be vastly more complex than any human experience of it suggests. Even the most exact scientific theory is in essence no more than a metaphor in which the resemblance (to human eyes) between the image and the associated experience has been pushed to an extreme limit of precision with the aid of mathematics. We can incarnate this theory in items of technology; but in both the theory and the technological realisation of it, we have simply made machines that, while they may be new realities within the universe, say nothing essential about that universe as such. To a certain extent we can push things further, but when our comparisons are cut loose from sense-experience or technological realisation, we lose the ability to be sure of the precision of their resemblance and we start to practise metaphysics. This has happened, for example, in string-theory, however precise its language. It may be, however, that in metaphysics we have the first stammerings of our nascent awareness of a yet higher level of the self-reflectivity of the universe.


On Schopenhauer:

On Sartre:

On Wittgenstein:

On Kierkegaard:

On Camus:

On Goethe:

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


What is, for want of a better phrase, the God-dimension of thought? Let's equate it with the whole strange menagerie of irreal entities we invent: art, ethics, theories, predictions and all the rest. Do we have anything more in these structures than mere grammar bamboozling us into thinking that the phantoms of language are substantial entities? Or is language doing something different here?

At some point in our evolution, our ancestors acquired the ability voluntarily to represent to themselves the world of their experience; and this ability was presumably related to the development of language. Rather than simply perceiving the world and reacting to our perceptions by patterns of instinctive behaviour released as reflexes, as non-human animals largely do, we (this sense of identity with them is part of the phenomenon) acquired the ability to conjure up experience in our own heads, to imagine and to anticipate. We must have started imagining the things of most interest to us, the animals, fruits, roots and suchlike that we fed on, the diurnal rhythms, the weather and so on. We conceivably acquired such tricks as representing to ourselves not only the type of circumstances in which interesting things would be found and where these circumstances could be encountered. We must have begun to recognize typical conditions required for our favourite plants and to search for these purposively as promising the reward of food. We must have done the same with the typical haunts of our favourite animals. We presumably began to represent to ourselves the types of behaviour these animals might be expected to indulge in and having recognized this, we conceivably began to anticipate the behaviour of these animals. Once we could anticipate the behaviour of animals, our ability to surprise and overwhelm them at our convenience was presumably massively enhanced.

But the ability to imagine and predict possible events clearly became the occasion for something else: for a riot of creativity that conjured up in our heads not only possible events in our environment, but also a more phantasmagoric world that gave presence to our emotions, our fears, our hopes, and our curiosity concerning those features of the world that struck us as full of fathomless potential. This realm of the imagination has never been ours to command. It has always forced its scurrilous imagery upon us with intrusive urgency, overwhelmed us with its threats and promises; and to the extent that it just happened to us, much as did the outside world, we began to consider it as a world in its own right.

This type of second-order perception, whether associated with the day or with the night, that super-imposed itself upon immediate perception of the world in front of us, must have truly become second nature to us and must then have given rise to the explosion of imaginative planning that propelled us into the universe of culture that made us human. Once we had acquired the ability to conjure up possible scenarios of interest to us we must then have become very good at designating these possible experiences by means of abstract symbols. We can assume that this was so even if we do not know precisely how the language modules evolved in our brains or to what extent our ability to represent the world to ourselves was dependent on the evolution of speech. If this ability to articulate our imaginings had not developed, the ability to imagine would have been useless to us because it would have remained a private possession locked inside the heads of individuals. The big step forward in our evolution was the alliance of language with imagination. This was the basis of symbolic thought. No-one knows precisely how this came about. Nobody knows why. The stories told by the Darwinians, although clearly part of the truth, have the character of ‘just-so’ tales and do not get us very far beyond the niggardly notion of ‘survival’. But by whatever means and for whatever reasons our language-engine got going, it provided us with a virtual world inside our heads which we could compare and contrast with the world of brute perceptions before our noses. This ability to compare a multiplicity of possible types of experience with our actual experience must have developed slowly, but at some point during its development, presumably the sense of self arose, and along with it, a sense of the other.

The sense of self has to do with a relation to the world which is not immediate, not simply one of experience. One could almost say that the self is in essence a relation – a relation between a present brute reality of immediate pain and joy, life and death, and an infinity of possibility. It is a relation of the reality of immediate awareness to that of unlimited possibility. The question whether the self is no more than the superposition of multiple drafts of possible experience or action within the theatre of our imagination is a complex one; but it seems clear that something more is going on. We should at least entertain the notion that our imaginative ability and symbolic language-engine may not have simply created the world of the psyche, other minds and God, but may have simply grown out of our access to the realm of the objective psychic. As a remark intended to indicate no more than a hint as to how this might be possible let us refer to the meaning in quantum physics of the term ‘superposition’ and suggest that what we call ‘mind’ may be some sort of access to the many worlds it allows. Those accustomed to characterising the world of immediate sense-experience as the ‘real’ and that of mental experience as the ‘unreal’ should reflect that in the notion of quantum superposition, any clear distinction between real and unreal disappears.

At all events, once the powerful combination of imagination and language had got started and we had begun to get good at thinking up and describing possible worlds, we must have begun to wonder about the ontological status of the things we encountered inside our heads and shared with our fellows. The very fact of naming and talking about entities of our imagination must have given them objective existence. The mere confirmatory nod of understanding from a fellow-creature – perhaps descriptive gestures leading to the discovery of the existence of shared inner pictures – must have begun the process which was to mushroom rapidly to include not only possible experiences that we might have had, but also the representation of impossible experiences that we could never have had in the world of everyday experience, but which would have engaged us nonetheless simply by their apparent possibility.

But this sort of anthropological aetiology of the creatures of our imagination does not necessarily do any more than give us the illusion of understanding. We are suckers for a coherent story. Narrative is what we live by. If the story coheres, we are more likely to entertain the possibility that it corresponds to supposed facts of the matter. Our wishing for particular stories to be true is also a notorious facilitator of belief. We might want to believe that our imagination represents truth to us for all sorts of reasons. But there remains a very big question nevertheless over the entire irreal realm of gods, demons, spooks, spirits and the like. There seems to be a qualitative difference between our ability to picture to ourselves possible experience and believe that we might encounter such experience in our real everyday lives, on the one hand, and to believe as strongly, and maybe more strongly in things that know we could never encounter in everyday life, on the other. The question then is still this: did our imagination and our power of symbolic representation give rise to the irreal, the world of God, or did it simply give us access to this world, access to a realm of mental experience as objectively real as the world of three-dimensional objects?

Did we invent the infinite world of coherent possibility, or did we encounter it.

Did we invent God or did we discover him? I think that we could at least look at the possibility that our imagination and language did not spawn the realm of God, but simply gave us the means to deal with it, share it with our fellows and talk about it. We do not have to assume that God is a creature of our imagination in the same way that planning an expedition is the creature of our imagination. We do not have to assume the priority of the imagining of the real over the imagining of the irreal, or that the latter developed necessarily out of the former. It may be that our ability to designate the world of imaginary experience that we knew we could have in the everyday sphere gave us the tools and the vocabulary for discussion of the entities that we did not encounter in the everyday sphere, but only in the sacred. If this is so, then their confusion is clearly also a possibility. But the confusion of a concrete object of perception with an irreal entity or vice versa does not imply that the irreal is ‘nothing but’ the concrete.

It is easy to conduct a reductive ‘explanation’ of our belief in God in the anthropological manner tried out above. It would be easy to say ‘symbolic thought derives from concrete perception and God is nothing but the power of symbolic thought and imaginative representation raised to a high degree and confused with reality’. But is it as easy as that? Is there an obvious continuum between our ability to represent to ourselves virtual worlds that correspond exactly to the world of brute daily experience, and our need to believe in worlds and entities that we would never ever confuse with the world of everyday experience? It seems to me that despite overlaps in vocabulary, the two are so completely distinct as to require different treatment. We would never really confuse a deity with some real being of our everyday experience without invoking the category of the sacred. We might, and frequently do, decide that this or that real-world entity, animal, man, plant, heavenly body, or whatever is the physical presence of this or that divinity, but we would never make the mistake of thinking on the basis of this that there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. This distinction was fundamental to our very consciousness for a very long time indeed. Its essence was not a confusion; on the contrary, we knew exactly which items of our experience were profane or non-sacred. So it seems impossible to accept that we began to believe in the real existence of the entities of our imagination by mistake. The belief in the sacred was not a mistaking of the real for the imaginary. The distinction between the sacred and the profane, the holy and the ordinary was never in doubt to any human beings who made use of it. It may well be that the sacred cow in front of us was after all just a cow, but we did not designate it as ‘sacred’ because we were confused about its difference from other animals. The sacred cow in front of us is sacred because of what it stands for, what it represents and what it represents is an entity of our imagination that we could never confuse with an entity in our everyday perception. The parallel between the sacred and the profane is a parallel of shared vocabulary, shared imagery, shared grammar, but no-one who uses the categories of ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ is ever in any doubt that two fundamentally different objects of thought are at issue.

Since the continuation of the world of our imagination beyond the mere picturing of possible scenarios for practical reasons into dimensions of reality that lie above or beyond the everyday cannot be based upon a confusion, it would seem that in the picturing of real-world things and events and in the picturing of non-real, ‘irreal’ things and events, we have two fundamentally different uses of the imagination. Since this is so, does it make sense to equate the God-dimension with our grammatical prowess, say, as Nietzsche thought? I think not. I think that it is far more likely that once our ability to use symbolic thought with reference to our real environment had developed to a level of sufficient complexity – and that level of complexity would seem necessarily to involve metaphor and abstraction – we simply used the same trick to deal with the experience of the mental which we always knew to be quite distinct from the physical. It is perfectly conceivable that human beings had been wrestling with the mental along with the physical, as two distinct realms, long before they acquired the knack of imaginative and linguistic representation. It strikes me as somehow silly to assume that the mere ability to represent to ourselves possible experience would as a matter of course detach itself from the everyday sphere of brute reality and spawn a fictitious realm of God. It is conceivable that the realm of God is as much a realm of our experience as physical experience is, and that though we cannot use our physical senses, we use by default the same linguistic tricks to communicate it as those used to communicate the concrete. This possibility is one which the reductive predilections of the scientifically minded will render as difficult to accept as belief in the tooth-fairy. But unprejudiced minds should consider it nevertheless.

Monday, October 26, 2009


... the bewitchment of our intelligence... (Wittgenstein)

One of the big mysteries of human culture is why we humans should be so optimistic concerning our ability to express in our language the fundamental realities of the universe. Why are we so fanatically intent upon achieving a perfect parallax between language, world and experience, between midworld, foreworld and hindworld? It is not at all clear why we should even imagine that such a perfect ‘map’ of reality is either possible or desirable. Why we should imagine that our language is capable of such a feat is almost incomprehensible. Sentences are sentences, and the world is the world; and the ones will never be the equivalent of the other. Moreover, our human thoughts concerning the universe are precisely that – human thoughts, no more privileged than chimp or gorilla thoughts; and there is absolutely no guarantee that those thoughts are in any way representative of the way the world is in itself, rather than the way it appears to us. Yet we continue to believe that one day our science will achieve a fully exhaustive account of reality in language. The fatuousness of this belief is perfectly captured by Borges in his little tale On Exactitude in Science.

By language we discover the world; but in itself, we must admit, the world is the unknown. In order for the known, i.e. the ‘truth’ of our theories to be complete and incontestable, this equivalence would have to be the case: the map and the territory would have to be identical. Moreover, for this truth to be final, the territory would not be allowed to change in ways not provided for by the map after the final version of the latter had been made, because such change would indicate that the map was in fact less than the territory after all and thus to that extent untrue. Thus to demand that our truth be a definitive map of reality is silly enough; to demand, in addition, that reality, once definitively mapped, should cease to change (except in ways foreseen by the map) is crazy, given the creative unpredictability of the world. Yet something approximating to these demands still drives the scientific enterprise in the minds of its most enthusiastic reductionists. In the minds of the eliminative strain of scientists (those who used to be called the ‘Positivists’), these demands are almost equivalent to the reason for which they do science: they hope to be able to restrict reality to their particular conceptions of it. In this they are apparently unaware of the remark of George Bernard Shaw in his Maxims for Revolutionists concerning such efforts: “The reasonable man” he said, “adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.” There is of course a profound Shavian irony in this; but it makes nonsense of the supposed rationality of the Positivists’ pretensions.

As creatures we have always – or at least for as long as we have been using language – talked about the world in at least two quite distinct ways. We have always talked about the world in practical terms concerning what, according to our everyday experience, is possible for us and what is not; and language has always functioned as a justification between individuals of those views concerning practical possibility or impossibility. This kind of practically useful talk has always been characterised by a need for precision and has always resulted in precise descriptions for the purposes of permitting or forbidding action. Within the domain of our experience, these precise descriptions have led to ever greater control over our environment as the descriptions have revealed more and more potential in our environment for applications useful to us. The truth of these descriptions has always been established by their ability to predict how the world of our experience could be expected to behave; and that truth depends entirely upon our action – i.e. what we do with it. So our theories became self-confirming, as we applied them practically. They were made real by becoming, for example, the artefacts of our technology. We may have talked in terms of absolute truth while doing all of this, but we never really believed that that was what we were discovering. We were interested primarily in what could be achieved by our own efforts and how.

But then we have also always talked about the world in total and absolute terms, albeit in a quite distinct idiom; and for millennia we have not confused the practically useful talk of technology with the metaphysical talk of our total vision. We have always wanted a total picture of the world for reasons other than those of the resolution of practical problems presented to common sense. We have always wanted a total sense and meaning to the entire cosmos. But this total picture, we have always known in some corner of our consciousness, was never anything more than a symbol, a myth, because it had to include aspects of the universe not accessible to our experience and about which we had only hunches expressed more or less poetically. It may well have been that in the mind of pre-scientific man the practical and the mythical were not hermetically separated the one from the other; but that in no sense prevented his practicality: he was not confused. The striving to achieve a vision of totality had above all moral import. The practical and the moral, though very closely linked were nevertheless distinct.

With nineteenth and twentieth-century science, however (it is too early to comment on twenty-first century science), the first type of account, the practical scientific one, arrogated to itself the features of the second, the metaphysical, mythical one. The mythical and moral dimension disappeared and its striving became associated, in the minds of those who pursued it scientifically, with some kind of definitive, exhaustive, impersonal picture of all that is, a picture that by its very accuracy would enable all problems, whether moral, social, political, intellectual or whatever, to be solved by the observance of a specific methodology. Nothing was deemed to be outside the range of the experience, and therefore of the empirical method, of the natural scientist. This developing picture, however, was in the final analysis about control. All ethical problems would disappear with the achievement by man of complete control over nature. That this striving was driven both by the practical concern, on the one hand, and by the power of the myth of totality, on the other, is beyond doubt; the mystery is that it continues in existence in the enduring urge to work out a complete, definitive, deterministic ‘Theory of Everything’- the ultimate achievement of language.

In such a Theory of Everything the algorithm governing the sum total of all the facts in the universe is imagined as being 1) represented in maximally compressed form, that is to say in a mathematical model from which all redundancy has been removed, 2) a model that accounts for all possible change and 3) a model that an individual mind can grasp and contemplate in its entirety. A moment’s reflection should give anybody who thinks seriously about this striving cause for serious doubts. Why should a structure that exists only in the formalism of a particular language, and has been dreamed up in the contingent head of a contingent creature with all its contingent limitations, correspond perfectly with the complete state of affairs of the universe? What (except ignorance of their limitations) entitles human beings to imagine that this could ever be possible? How, moreover, could such a complete state of affairs and such a correspondence be apprehended in the mind of some single human individual? It seems obvious to anyone with a little imagination that there is inevitably going to be a large number of vital factors missing from each of the three elements of the ‘complete’ theory enumerated above. We can never be in possession of all the facts and therefore can never achieve perfect accuracy in our acquaintance with the world; since, therefore, we can never achieve perfect accuracy, the axiomata of our model-framing formalism are going to be insufficiently information-rich to correspond to the world and the model thus will fail; the apprehension by an individual mind will, in consequence, be in a real sense denied what it seeks and be deluded by what can only be a false picture of reality. It should be obvious to anyone that any total picture of the world of our experience is going to be false in the same sense, and exactly to the same extent, that we wish it to be true, because it will be necessarily incomplete. It is our wish for total knowledge and total control that misleads us. There is, moreover no use in saying that we are primarily interested in principles and not in a simple collection of facts, for the principles are mere abstractions from the facts and will change as new facts come to light.

The simple facts concerning our knowledge are these: firstly, the individual mind, hindworld, can never be exhaustively acquainted with foreworld, the world it experiences, because our experience is limited by the very nature of our bodies and their sensory-cognitive apparatus (this limitation is not solved by prosthetics) and by our personal limitations in space and time; secondly, formalisms, i.e. language or midworld, can never exhaustively represent foreworld since the information-content of any midworld structure will be inadequate and the axiomata upon which the logic of the system is based will be insufficiently powerful; and thirdly, the fundamental processes of nature, the quantum processes and the emergent properties are in principle unpredictable and therefore beyond our power to know in the sense that science understands the verb ‘to know’..

Thus hindworld will never be able to combine in perfect parallax both an exhaustive experience of foreworld and a complete representation of that experience in a formal language, for the foregoing reasons. It is the power of the ancient mythical striving of the human race that makes certain members of the scientific community – specifically, certain physicists – claim with such insistence that a ‘Theory of Everything’ is not only the Holy Grail of science, but also a graspable reality within sight of those now active in the domain. Individuals such as Stephen Hawking are massively deluded in this way; but their eminence gives them undue influence. One can only suspect that it is the power of the ego linked to the seductive attractions of the old mythical vision of totality that sustains them. The Promethean desire to compete with and defeat the gods – i.e. to show that they do not exist and to elevate the human ego to sole authority in the universe – is undiminished. Hawking specifically articulated this latter thought when he referred in his book A Brief History of Time to the day when we would ‘know the mind of God’ - that is to say, make any deity redundant and put ourselves in His or Her place.