The debate about whether consciousness is reflexive, as discussed in last week’s post, is related to the fact that we experience an inner as well as an outer presence. If so, the question would then arise as to whether these apparent presences are real or illusory. When we look out we typically see what is real, or at the very least a representation created by brain processes of what is actually there. But when we look in I think we are seeing an illusion, something which typically appears real and substantial, but something which is other than it seems.
Knowing or thinking that something is illusory does not always convince us that it is so. For example, in the Muller-Lyer illusion the horizontal lines still seem to be of different lengths, at least at an initial glance: -
Of course, visual illusions are rather different to existential ones. So far, we’ve argued that the self is no more than a collection of physical processes in body and brain, and in that respect is no different from the way in which, say, the immune system works. But we have also seen how the self-model that is created by these physical processes sits within our world model, and how both are transparent, thereby both appearing real, substantial and immediately present to what it is that experiences them. This makes interrogating the self, and indeed interrogating the view that we have of the world, rather tricky.
At the same time, human beings possess one attribute that other species do not appear to have, namely conceptual thinking. We can to a degree use our ability to think, to examine, to reflect, as a way of interrogating our experience of the self and of the external world. However, there appear to be limitations to what we can achieve. In particular, there is a considerable gulf between phenomena, the way things appear to us, and the way they actually are or (if that is strictly unknowable) the way the world is currently described by our conceptual knowledge. The way things appear to us generally stays the same, notwithstanding the fact our conceptual knowledge and understanding is constantly changing.
Whilst the Buddha taught that the self was only conventionally real, he didn’t expect that this statement alone would persuade everyone, or indeed anyone, to share that view. The self was always going to remain a pervasive phenomenon, possibly the most immediate experience that we have. Of itself, conceptual thought will always be unequal to the challenge posed by selfhood. Instead, what the Buddha focused on were the ‘skilful means’, the chief of which was meditation. When we focus our minds in meditation, when we pay attention to what is immediately before us, our sense of being selves disappears; repeated exposure to this weakens the sense that there is a self with which we are or should be identified. What has replaced the self is the presence of the moment.
For much of its history, humanity has been described as occupying two distinct realms, that of body and that of spirit. With the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, and the weakening of the hold of religious sentiment, this duality became more simply to be seen as that between matter and mind. Even within the concept of mind we are inclined to see at least two aspects, that of our immediate, private, subjective experience on the one hand, and on the other that of the shared human social and cultural environment. Combining these subjective and inter-subjective realms with our physical origins amounts to a ‘three-world’ template that has been developed by many writers and thinkers of the modern age; there are differences of emphasis but much that is common in these views. The central idea is that each of the three worlds has a core reality that cannot be ignored but which at the same time cannot satisfactorily be reduced to or reconciled with the other two. As a result, our existence is somehow trifurcated into these separate perspectives of matter, mind and the inter-personal realm.
This is an approach closely associated with the twentieth-century philosopher Karl Popper. For him, as for many of us living in a ‘scientific age' and in particular an age informed by Darwinian theory, humans are firstly material objects occupying a particular spatial and temporal dimension. Although we can argue endlessly about whether the world is as it appears to us, we do not in practice doubt that the material world arises independently of human observation, and that if we were all suddenly to cease to exist the mountains and the oceans would remain in place. In this view we have no choice but to see mankind as the product of material forces that existed long before humanity evolved and will likely remain long after it has disappeared or evolved into something non-human. From this perspective a material ‘World One’ is the bedrock on which our existence is founded.
At the same time, each of us has something that, as far as we can tell, no mountain nor ocean possesses, namely our individual, subjective experience. Only I know and have my experiences, and this world of private experience is effectively a second world; it may depend on the material world, and it must have logically originated from it, but for human beings this subjective world is both the medium through which we communicate with the other two worlds and is the world to which each of us is most strongly attached.
Even so mankind is not entirely confined to mental isolation; each individual reaches out to other minds and other bodies by means of family, kinship, language, societies, cultures, economies, art and science, laws and values, morality and religion. Popper regarded this third world as having an objective status, a status as independent as that of the material World One. Although it originates from the World Two mental realm it transcends the dark privacy of those subjective minds and becomes an objective, or quasi-objective, body of shared mental content, one capable in turn of dissecting, augmenting, manipulating, and even possibly one day destroying the material world on which it and human minds depend.
Of course, a human observer might seek to ‘reduce’ Worlds Two and Three to the world of matter from which they arose and see matter and its products as all there is. But that is not in practice how we live, nor how we see the world; it is not how our minds are structured. Just as human minds originate in World One, the world of ideas and cultures is created by human minds. The portion of that World Three creation that includes science then looks back on World One by observing appearances and attributing those appearances to an underlying reality and its laws. World Two meanwhile appears to be known initially only to each separate subject, and includes our sensations, experiences, thoughts and intentions. Rather than containing any truths about Worlds One and Two, Popper envisaged World Three as being occupied entirely by theories that human minds had created, many of them being theories about the other two worlds.
Popper was primarily interested in science, an endeavour which he saw as comprising the development of theories which could be tested critically against our experience of the world, each time attempting to deepen and expand our understanding of some phenomenon. No theory could ever contain the ‘truth’, rather each hypothesis had to be tested to destruction until a better, more wide-ranging or explanatory hypothesis emerged which in turn would be subject to the same process of error elimination. Indeed, he envisaged this process as extending to all aspects of human life in World Three, to art, culture generally, society and human relations. Thus what links World One with World Three is this repeated process of trial and error, eliminating the weaker World One species or World Three theory and selecting the better fitted, only for the latter to be subject to the same rigorous testing, whether by nature in World One or by human minds in World Three.
This three worlds approach has been employed not just in the scientific context but in the historical one too. In his 2011 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind the historian Yuval Noah Harari encompasses the whole of human history from the emergence of modern man to the present day. He too adopts the notion that there are objective facts about the world and everything it contains, subjective ones (in humans and any creature possessing consciousness) and, for humans at least, inter-subjective reality, our experience of living with other humans and the shared world that is thereby created. Of this latter world Harari’s critical insight is that almost everything in it is a fiction, a narrative. What is crucial in the human inter-subjective world is the ability to create narratives and persuade other humans to believe in or share them. Thus, the underpinnings of our societies- whether we are speaking of commerce, money, nations, religions, values, social and personal identity, laws and practices- are fictions or narratives which individuals are persuaded to adopt, believe and invest in for a period of time.
In this view almost everything that we hold dear is a theory, and our theories change as events unfold, and have varied between different cultures at different times. Even science is a series of temporary theories that will change as they are tested. It is shared theories and fictions that bind people temporarily together, and unshared ones that keep them apart. In Harari’s view mankind as a fiction-creating machine is a product of the cognitive revolution that occurred some 100,000 to 70,000 years ago when the last wave of migrants from Africa, modern humans, arrived in Asia and subsequently Europe. Once bound together by fictions, humans could effectively by-pass the genome through the language games they played, and the stories they told and held to be true. We know that these individual humans were anatomically identical to humans living now so that we owe our world, our culture, and our humanity to them. Thus, humanity is founded on story-telling and belief in the stories told, although all beliefs eventually perish and are replaced with new ones.
Of course, there is something rather unsatisfactory about occupying three distinct realms, and the fact that we do so, or appear to do so, poses problems for any attempt to establish an identity which embraces all aspects of our lives. What are we essentially? Bold and deep thinkers who can in theory manufacture anything that the laws of physics allow? Timid and fragile selves in which we seek to protect and preserve that which seems closest to us? Or creatures that seek to reach out to others in the world and by doing so enhance the quality of our lives and those of others?
There is however one feature that appears to unite our view of what is inner and outer, and this is the fact that we have a transparent perspective on both of those worlds. We experience both those worlds, and our selves, in an unmediated fashion. This is a fundamental aspect of our experience and something we will turn to in the next post.