GUEST ESSAY: Idealism vs. Common Sense

By Scott Roberts

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

Aristotle, the first person known to
have discussed "common sense."

It appears that many people find idealism implausible simply because it does not match up with what they consider to be common sense. Well, they are correct. If by "common sense" we mean our pre-philosophical understanding of what things are like—an understanding that is held in common with most everyone around us—then the philosophical name for that understanding is dualism. It is dualist in that it makes a distinction in our experience between controlled (or at least controllable) and uncontrolled, between what seems to come from within us and what seems to come from outside. The contents of our sense perceptions are uncontrolled, while our thinking, feeling, and acting is, or at least can be, under our control. Further, much that is not under my control does not appear to be controlled by any mind at all. Hence, common sense divides reality into the mental and the non-mental.

This was not always the case. If one goes back to 2500+ years ago, the common sense of that time was that behind every natural phenomenon was the mind of some god or nature spirit. While people now are naive dualists, back then people were naive idealists. And so we are faced with two possibilities:
  1. Modern common sense is correct, meaning ancient common sense was a bunch of made-up stories and superstitions to explain things that modern science explains very differently.
  2. Ancient common sense, like modern common sense, was a consequence of direct experience, but the nature of direct experience has changed. Ancient common sense was a consequence of the mentality of natural phenomena being directly perceived, somewhat like the way we detect the mentality that lies behind the utterances of people. But experience has changed, and we no longer have that sort of direct experience of mind in nature.
A materialist or substance dualist must of course choose the first option. But an idealist has ontological room to inquire into the second. Furthermore, that inquiry comes up with not only providing evidence for the second option, but also with an explanation of how we have changed from being naive idealists to being naive dualists.

The results of that inquiry can be found in Owen Barfield's Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. What Barfield points out is that the distinction between mind and matter, or inside and outside, didn't exist in early peoples. (This is also the basis of Julian Jaynes' The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, though being a materialist, Jaynes explains this with the dubious theory that our thinking was done unconsciously in one cranial hemisphere, which then "talked" to the other.) Thinking happened to the person, and was not felt as being produced by the person. In the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has taken Achilles' slave-girl away from him. Achilles naturally wants to kill Agamemnon, but if he does that would be the end of the Greeks' siege of Troy, so he doesn't. We would say that reason prevailed, but what Homer says is that Athena tells him not to. It is something outside of Achilles that controls his action. And of course, Homer credits his own work to the Muse. One may also note that it is only recently that "genius" came to mean a great thinker, and not some external source that inspires the thinker. There was innovation in ancient times, but such innovation was credited to divine kings and prophets, not to a common individual's cleverness.

All this is to say that the growth of control in our thinking, feeling, and willing is a marker of the evolution of consciousness, which amounts to a change of common sense. This control moved from "outside" (belonging to the supernatural) to "inside." Parallel with this change is a change in sense perception. Supernatural control was exercised equally on humans and nature, which means that humans were just as much "nature" as anything else, all pervaded by spiritual entities. And that was perceived. It was not an "animist belief system" that people made up to explain things. Rather it was, simply, experienced. But as our ability to think grew, the perception of spirit in nature declined, until in modern times it has disappeared. Hence modern common sense divides reality into two: our (more or less) controlled minds on the one hand, and on the other, a mindless physical system. Even in the late middle ages, no one would think of denying that behind what was sensed there was Mind. It is only once this complete separation between human mind and nature was effected that a philosophy like Descartes' dualism could make sense to people.

Barfield calls the early peoples' common sense "original participation," in that with their sense perceptions there was an extra-sensory participation with the object being sensed. While it is difficult to know what original participation is "like," there are some indications of it in our experience. Barfield mentions feeling panic—a fear that goes beyond what the actual situation warrants. Another might be sexual attraction. Another might be the feeling of emotion from hearing instrumental music. As for what thinking was like at that time, I suspect we could relate that to the thinking of children before they acquire egos at about age six. As mentioned, something like original participation can be understood when we converse. We "hear through" the words to the meaning behind the words, and hence our minds participate with each other. In our current state, which Barfield calls "final participation," that participation with the objects we sense still exists (otherwise there would be no perception at all), but has moved from the outside into our subconscious. All we experience consciously is the surface form of the object, like words of an unknown language, meaningless to us. The mentality within, or behind the object is blocked out. We thus treat the surface form as the whole object, like worshipping a statue of God in place of what the statue represents—hence the subtitle of Barfield's book: A Study in Idolatry.

It should be noted that the above paragraphs only give the conclusion of Barfield's investigation. In the book one will find the reasoning that leads to these conclusions, from anthropology, history of ideas, and above all a study of changes in word meanings. Why is it, he asks, that all of our vocabulary for mind has been taken from the vocabulary for nature? Why did the Greeks have just one word, 'pneuma,' which we must variously translate as 'spirit' or as 'wind' (or 'breath')? And of course the Latin root of 'spirit,' inspiritus, also meant breath. The same goes for most all of our vocabulary for mental activity. The explanation is simple:  the ancients simply did not differentiate between our two meanings. That is, in ancient common sense, wind is spirit.

The "how" of the change from naive idealism to naive dualism is, then, that about 600 BCE, give or take a century or two, people started experiencing thinking as coming from within themselves. Hence there was what Jaspers calls the Axial Age, those few centuries which in the East saw the appearance of the Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tse. Barfield's concern is with the making of Western common sense, and so his focus is on the contemporaneous appearance of the likes of Solon and the pre-Socratic philosophers in Greece, and in Israel the Deuteronomic move to monotheism. Although very different, both of these movements gradually caused original participation (which is to say paganism) to die out. The move to monotheism is, of course, a direct assault on paganism. The development in Greece was that people started to think about natural phenomena, which requires one to distance oneself from those phenomena. It took about 2000 years for this distancing to have the full effect of conscious participation disappearing. But it did, resulting in a second major shift that gave us the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Scientific Revolution, and the so-called Enlightenment, that is to say, modern common sense.

Thus the "how," which still leaves us with the question of "why." Idealist philosophy tells us that our common sense, being dualist, is wrong in how it views physical reality. But there has also been another source for that information, namely, mystics. Vedanta names this wrongness 'Maya,' usually translated as 'illusion' or 'delusion.' Buddhists call it 'avidya,' or 'ignorance.' Christianity also has a doctrine of wrongness, called Original Sin, though in its traditional formulation it is not an indictment of common sense. Nevertheless, in all three cases, the religious import is that this deep wrongness is the source of our suffering and sinful nature. This raises a serious question, which is: Why did this occur? This is, basically, the well-known Problem of Evil: If God is so wonderful (or fundamental reality so blissful), why are we suffering?

There are two common replies to this question, neither of which, especially the first one, is all that satisfactory. The first is to push it off as a mystery, that God is so far above us that we cannot assume to be able to grasp Its rationale. The second is to assert that the possibility of evil must be allowed if we are to have free will. While this makes some sense, I think it can be improved on. If we accept that consciousness has evolved, then we can ask whether this evolutionary process can tell us something about why we are in this mess. What follows is speculative, but seems to me consistent.

While not all idealists might agree, idealism generally goes from saying that all is mentality to arguing that fundamentally, mentality is One. In doing so one can then refer to that Fundamental, or Absolute, Consciousness as God. This, however, raises the risk of anthropomorphization, but the only way to avoid that is to make one's language so stilted that the story I want to tell gets lost in the stilted vocabulary. So forgive the anthropomorphization in what follows. Call it a myth if that helps.

For God, to think is to create, and every thought of God is a creation which can never be truly separate from the Thinker. Since God is all there is, Its thinking would be a manifestation of Itself, that is, acts of self-expression, a seeking to know Itself by creating images of Itself. It is a creator, and so a self-image would itself be a creator, a creature that creates. For the creature to be truly creative it must have its own will, and not simply be a conduit for God's creativity. Which in turn means that it must have a sense of itself as, if not separate, at least distinct from the totality which is God. Perhaps there are more benign ways of making this happen, but one way is to have the creature go through a stage believing that it is not God, that it is an independent entity. Which is the state we find ourselves in. It is, however, a necessarily false belief because as thoughts of God we cannot actually be separate from God. In other words, we are in a state of delusion.

This was also the case in pagan times, that is, they were operating under a false belief. Though all was mind, it was all separated minds. Because those minds were separated there was as much if not more strife and suffering as now. The person was at the mercy of those natural/spiritual forces. Overcoming that was (and is) what thinking serves to accomplish. As mentioned, by thinking about natural phenomena one creates distance from them—their power on the person diminishes, and with that the sense of being an individual increases. There was also the other factor involved, namely the influence of prophets and mystics in the gradual replacement of pagan religion with monotheism. In both cases this meant denying power to all those invisible forces in nature.

And so, by the modern age—and this is pretty much what defines the modern age—mind in nature had by and large disappeared. In philosophy, the many minds of nature had been replaced by the single Mind of God, but it wasn't long before that too was dropped, giving us mind/matter dualism or materialism. Separation between minds has been replaced by separation between human minds and nature. And while this creates a bunch of new problems (notably the tendency to despoil nature), a necessary step in the creation of images of God has been accomplished, namely, we now think of ourselves as autonomous individuals.

But it is only a step, for while we may think we are autonomous, we still have quite a ways to go before we actually are autonomous. Most of what we experience remains beyond our control, and that is not limited to our sense perceptions. Unwanted thoughts, carrying unwanted emotions continue to plague us. Hence, our continued development depends on us, to discipline our thinking further, to detach it from our selfish concerns.

And what of uncontrolled nature? Recall that "final participation," as Barfield calls it, doesn't mean the end of participation, rather that participation has moved from appearing outside of ourselves, as it did in original participation, to being a subconscious process inside of us. Hence we can consider the possibility of that process becoming conscious. We will then be conscious of the creative process that produces nature's outward forms. Which is to say that what is now a collective subconscious would become a collective consciousness. We would be experiencing how we—human minds and the minds behind natural phenomena—are collectively creating the reality we perceive.

In sum, while philosophy can tell us that modern common sense is wrong, it is a study of the history of consciousness that can tell us how we came to be in this current wrongful state, and it is religious speculation that can give us a reason why we should be in such a state.

Copyright © 2017 by Scott Roberts. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: Is Panpsychism irreconcilable with Idealism?

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

Orbitals of a hydrogen atom. Source: Wikimedia Commons.


The well-known writer Bernardo Kastrup, an idealist, has repeatedly argued against the notion of panpsychism, even calling it a "threat." In this article, I will argue that Kastrup's interpretation of panpsychism is but one among many and that there are interpretations of panpsychism possible which do not contradict idealism in the least. One of these interpretations is my "hierarchical panpsychism of self-sustaining systems." Although I fully recognise that consciousness is ultimately unified and that the world, its objects and inhabitants are in non-dual consciousness rather than the other way around, I do not see why the line of sentience should be drawn at biology. As a biochemist, I will inter alia argue the versatile and complex nature of the behaviour of atoms and molecules at the individual level, their ability to respond to stimuli and their morphological fitness to harbour a reflective cybernetic feedback loop. Please note that I am not arguing that chairs and rocks are sentient; give me the benefit of doubt and do not condemn my theory prima facie based on the use of the heretic terminology "panpsychism." I am not presenting some kind of naive animism. Explore whether you can agree with me if an atom and/or a molecule could perhaps harbour a form of sentience.


In the past philosophers defined panpsychism as the view that consciousness, mind or soul (psyche) is a universal and primordial feature of all things. A materialistic interpretation thereof is that matter either has consciousness or that consciousness is an intrinsic aspect of matter. In such an interpretation of panpsychism consciousness is fragmented, unlike the unified form it has in idealism. Moreover, this type of panpsychism would suggest that our human consciousness is merely the aggregation of all our atomic "consciousnesses." Rocks and chairs, by this definition, would also be sentient.

In my idealist interpretation of panpsychism or hylozoism consciousness expresses itself as a hierarchical fractal, which is also unified, but in which every sufficiently autopoietic, or at least self-sustaining, phenomenon is endowed with a form of sentience at an individual level. Primordial consciousness or "That Which Experiences" (TWE) is thus able to sense via these phenomenal self-enabling forms at every level of existence, not excluding sensing such phenomena from within via an individualised perspective. In the more traditional philosophy of idealism only biological life is capable of consciousness and inanimate or inorganic phenomena could be considered as mere metaphorical ripples in an ocean of non-dual consciousness. It has always puzzled me whether in this interpretation inanimate or inorganic phenomena could be sensed in all aspects of their versatility, and the present essay is an attempt to show that it is not excluded that a form of individual experience (but still ultimately experienced by TWE) is also present within the most simple self-enabling phenomena such as atoms and molecules.

The Primacy of Consciousness

The terminology "The Primacy of Consciousness" was introduced by Peter Russell. It entails that consciousness is the most fundamental, irreducible ground of existence. If it is irreducible, it is impossible to define or express it in terms of other things or concepts. After all, everything is then made out of consciousness rather than the other way around. This primordial consciousness is also the ground of our human, individual consciousness and this is often where the Babylonian confusion starts. After all, we can describe certain aspects of our consciousness: It is that inner faculty that allows us to become aware, that is, to know our surroundings and ourselves; it is that via which we know that we feel, that we have sentience. This ability to sense, feel and "know" in an undifferentiated, formless omnipresence may well be ground of being and our individualised ability to sense, feel and know, a metaphorical "tentacle" thereof.

Are these individualised abilities to sense, feel and know, reserved for biological life forms? Can there only be sentience in biological life? If so, at what level does it start? And where does egoic self-reflective awareness start? Does an insect have egoic self-reflective awareness or is it reserved to vertebrates only, or even to just more complex forms thereof? Are the building blocks of biological life, the macromolecules, molecules and atoms more like metaphorical eddies in an ocean of otherwise undifferentiated consciousness, in which egoic self-reflective awareness would be like metaphorical whirlpools?

The idea that sentience and self-awareness are limited to biological life forms is also a hypothesis. Nobody (other than some mystics perhaps) has ever been able to sense from the perspective of an atom, molecule or macromolecule. Another, perhaps equally likely, alternative is that all self-sustaining or independent forms of existence might have a quality of sensing, perhaps even a sense of individuality. Yet another alternative is that the ability to sense does not arise before there is a kind of network capable of integrating information and acting as a consequence thereof. Is then only animal life, by virtue of its neuronal networks, capable of sentience? Or do plants or even single celled organisms, such as yeast or bacteria, which have or form other types of networks of information transfer, display a form of sentience?

This brings us to the question "What is sentience?" Is it merely a cybernetic feedback loop involving input, throughput (integration), output and feedback? Or is there something more to the story? Is there a sense of individuality associated with the ability to make choices?

My speculation is that sentience indeed involves a cybernetic feedback loop encompassing input, throughput (integration), output and feedback, but that this is not enough to render an entity sentient. It would mean that networks in computers are sentient, if this feedback loop were enough. I postulate that only entities that have evolved in a natural way, as metaphorical tentacles of the singular primordial consciousness, and which form a kind of reflective feedback loop allowing them to sustain themselves, are sentient. They may even have a sense of individuality and the ability to make choices at a rudimentary level. This notion of a "hierarchical panpsychic fractal of autopoietic systems" does not need to contradict idealism.


This brings us to the topic of "autopoiesis." Autopoiesis is Greek for Self-Enabling. I learnt about this terminology when reading in books about computer networks, such as Ben Goertzel's Creating Internet Intelligence, where the possibility to create self-sustaining artificially-intelligent agents was discussed. This term was however first coined by Maturana and Varela to describe biological systems, which not only are able to sustain themselves but also to replicate themselves. Since this reproductive aspect was perhaps not intended by Ben Goertzel, I must conclude that it seems the terminology "autopoiesis" has undergone some semantic drift.

Whereas I originally intended to use the terminology "autopoiesis" for self-sustaining systems, I will try to see in this essay if my arguments can be stretched to even meet the stronger requirement of the ability to replicate. I will now explore how far the terminology "autopoietic" can be attributed to atoms, molecules and macromolecules.

The opposite of autopoietic is allopoietic, which is a terminology used for systems that do not organise themselves but are rather assembled in a kind of factory. This applies not only to human utilities we fabricate, but also to, for example, a virus. A virus is a conglomerate or aggregate of macromolecules (DNA and proteins), which cannot self-replicate, but which can be replicated by a cell functioning as a factory.

Are atoms autopoietic or at least self-sustaining?

Let us start with the atom. It is assumed that the first atoms were formed when space expanded after the Big Bang and elementary particles such as electrons, protons and neutrons started to condense to form a kind of plasma. Electrons were trapped by the nuclei being formed and thus the first atoms arose, mostly hydrogen, some helium and perhaps a trace of lithium. As space expanded, the temperature dropped to a level where nucleosynthesis was no longer possible. By gravitation, atoms attracted atoms forming clouds of atoms, which under the pressure of gravity collapsed into what became stars. The internal pressure here was so high that nucleosynthesis started again, giving rise to heavier atoms. Eventually, atoms formed that were so heavy they had only a limited lifetime and decayed after a while, giving birth to inter alia helium atoms (alpha particles); a process we call radioactivity. Stars have a limited lifetime and, depending on their size, can undergo different paths to dying. Often they become an exploding supernova, which flings a great deal of matter into space, whereas the remainder collapses to form dwarf stars, neutron stars and finally black holes.

If an atom escapes the environment of a star and is stable, it can "live" almost indefinitely until it is scavenged by another celestial body and finally destroyed in a collapsing star again.

We see that the life-cycle of an atom is strongly intertwined with the life-cycle of a star. Should we see a star as a factory that assembles atoms (in which case atoms are allopoietic), or is it in a certain way fair to see a star as a higher order stage and part of the life-cycle of an atom? Analogously, one could say that our bodies are not really factories to assemble cells, but rather a higher order stage and part of the life-cycle of cells.

If you do not accept this argument, perhaps you have some sympathy for the notion that radioactivity gives birth to new alpha particles, so that it cannot be ruled out 100% that atoms cannot self-replicate.

You may still consider these arguments far-fetched and consider the processes of nucleosynthesis and radioactivity as purely clockwork mechanisms, but you should be aware that these processes take place at the quantum level, where indeterminacy plays an important role, so that only the behaviour of an ensemble of particles can be predicted but never of that of an individual particle. This indeterminacy of atomic behaviour at the quantum level might be a pointer to the ability to make choices at the individual level, whereas at the macro level these choices appear cancelled out by probability.

Can atoms sustain themselves?

There are 81 elements in the periodic table that are stable and not prone to radioactive decay. Once formed and liberated from a star these atoms will exist for almost an indefinite amount of time as explained above. What makes these atoms so stable? Why do the negatively charged electrons not crash into the positively charged nucleus? It is said that, when approaching the nucleus, the potential energy of an electron goes down, but that this is more than compensated for by a gain in kinetic energy, which prevents it from crashing into the nucleus. But why does the sum of potential and kinetic energy always stay the same? Why is the balance never lost? Why does an atom appear to defy the second law of thermodynamics? You might answer, "but the electrons in an atom move in a vacuum, there is no friction." The "frictionlessness" of the vacuum has however been challenged by the observed slowing down of the Pioneer spacecraft after it left the solar system. I am not a physicist, (I'm a chemist) so maybe I see these things wrongly, but to me it appears that an atom maintains its total energy content and internal order against entropy.

Can atoms sense?

Whenever atoms approach other atoms, there can be repulsion or attraction. Electromagnetic forces are predominant at this level of aggregation, so attraction or repulsion is mostly ruled by charges in motion. Is the nearby presence of another atom sensed by an atom, which then redistributes its internal charges when the other atom approaches, or are these laws of nature like clockwork mechanisms? Again I remind you that, at this quantum level, indeterminacy is still present and that the behaviour of an individual atom cannot be predicted. Thus the ability to choose cannot be ruled out a priori.

When an atom catches a photon and becomes excited, lifting electrons into a higher orbital, is this a merely automatic reaction, or does the system as a whole sense the raise in energy in one of the orbitals? Clearly the whole atom reacts holistically. The redistribution of charge has consequences through the whole atom and changes the overall reactivity of the atom in regard to external factors. Do the different electrons in different orbitals in cooperation with the nucleus form a kind of intricate information network? Is such a network capable of integrating the information so as to come up with an appropriate reaction? Or is this some kind of emergent harmony arising as a feedforward side effect?

Personally, I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think they merit some consideration. We should at least wonder whether by putting the dividing line of sentience at biological systems we aren't throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It is my conjecture that if some kind of cybernetic feedback loop is present in an atom, this is a natural consequence of the sentience of the atom as it attempts to know itself. This does not imply reducing sentience to mere stimulus and response: As I said, I require that the information stimulus is integrated and then willingly acted upon by intent to give an output. The throughput integration and associated action by will discriminates this idea from e.g. sand forming dunes by the action of wind or water evaporating by the action of sunlight. Of course I do not have proof of this, but I think we must not underestimate the complexity and inner workings of an atom.

By virtue of their orbital shapes, atoms present an ideal vessel—at least morphologically—for sentience to engage in a process resembling (self-)reflection; a kind of turning in upon itself. There is a certain morphological analogy to the above in the metaphorical notion of whirlpools as a representation of egoic awareness. Not that I wish to imply that atoms can be aware of themselves! Rather, I see the "self-reflectivity" loops of the orbitals as a physical representation of their mind-like processes. The conscious energy of the primordial consciousness ocean might form reflective micro-loops, which at the atomic level may be visible to us as the overall interference pattern of an atom's orbitals, at the molecular level as the molecular orbitals, at the cellular level as the cell's nucleus, and at the organism level as a brain. Thus a hierarchy of sentient, reflective feedback loops can be present. The physical forms we can perceive are perhaps but the lower-dimensional shadows of a higher-dimensional metaphysical reality, with the consciousness fractal as its ground. Electromagnetism or other primordial forces such as gravity and the strong and weak nuclear forces might be the physical reflections of a mind in action, a mind willing and intending, a mind that consists of societies of smaller minds, but is not emergent therefrom.


A strong counter-argument can be that I'm basing my ideas on abduction: The fact that it walks and quacks like a duck does not necessarily mean that it is a duck. The fact that I see whirlpool-like structures in inanimate natural phenomena does not mean that they are conduits for self-reflection involving egoic awareness. I will certainly not argue that a whirlwind is aware. Rather, I argue that if a vortex-like structure is self-sustaining and if there is a possibility of information integration in a system, these might be indicators we're looking at a sentient entity.

Giulio Tononi indicated that there can be feedforward complexes in network systems, which behave exactly the same as feedback systems, where integration of information takes place. A whirlwind or a virus can perhaps be compared to such a feedforward complex, a living cell or an atom to an integrative feedback system.

Molecular sentience

With molecules my speculative game reaches a new level of complexity. There are plenty of circular and toroidal orbitals in molecules, but this does not necessarily mean that they can give rise to an integrative self-sustaining feedback loop that could harbour sentience. At least for as long as a molecule "lives," it would appear to defy the laws of thermodynamics in the same way as an atom. Most molecules, however, are not that stable and decay, disintegrate or form other molecules by reaction. Extremely stable molecules often have very strong bonds between their atoms. Is a molecule a mere society of atoms or can there be a higher-level of sentient energy that uses a molecule as a vessel? Again we see an indeterminacy of molecular behaviour at the individual level as a pointer to the ability to make choices at this level, whereas at the macro level these choices again cancel out by probability.

Perhaps it depends on the nature of the molecule. Crystals can grow out of molecules and/or atoms and, at least in esoteric traditions, these have often been associated with more sentience than molecules, which do not undergo crystallisation. Crystallisation is a kind of morphological self-replication in a sense. Are molecules that can undergo crystallisation already meeting the requirements of "autopoiesis" in its stronger form? Or do we have to seek until we get really self-replicating molecules such as RNA? RNA can self-replicate and sustain and repair itself. It does not necessarily need the factory of a cell to achieve this feat. RNA can also curl upon itself, form hairpin loops. A very versatile molecule, this RNA. It can interact with cofactors and perform catalytic and autocatalytic functions. A reflective feedback loop in form and function? Are the conformations it adopts to perform these functions a mere random walk resulting in haphazardly clicking into the right conformation? Is it electromagnetically steered? Or is there "will" and individual sentience involved?

An RNA molecule is not what qualifies as a living cell yet. Is RNA a mere feedforward complex occurring in nature, or is it already an integrative feedback system that can harbour the reflective feedback activity I postulate for sentience?

Note that I have carefully avoided speaking about DNA, because DNA leads to a chicken and egg problem: To synthesise DNA you need the enzyme DNA polymerase, but to make DNA polymerase, you need DNA. I have no clue how nature pulled off this trick.


Is this model parsimonious enough? It states that every self-sustaining expression by primordial consciousness is a kind of reflective feedback loop; a form of proto-egoic self-involvement. It argues that matter appears as a reflective feedback loop in consciousness, endowed with a form of individual sentience, wherever such a loop can be formed in a self-sustaining manner. This formation of reflective feedback loops might even be what happens when a string forms in string theory. Loops of self-involvement, loops of individualisation, loops creating the will and desire to experience and sense. (The question of at which level self-reflective egoic awareness starts, involving being aware of one's awareness, could become the topic for a future essay).

This model is highly monistic, I would say. One could also ask, isn't reserving sentience exclusively for biological systems an unwanted form of dualism?

If my model is monistic, how can it deny parsimony? Is the fractal too pluralistic? Or is everything joined at the hip?


I have tried to argue that placing the dividing line for sentience at biological systems might be arbitrary. I have tried to argue that atoms and certain molecules might meet the definition of autopoiesis or at least be self-sustaining rather than an assembled aggregate. I have tried to argue that these systems not only are sensitive to stimulus and response but that this might happen due to an integration of information involving individuality, choice and will. Of course it is speculation. But I seriously doubt whether it is more speculative than materialism or pure idealism. Call it the third ontology if you wish. Consciousness groping to know itself by generating sentient self-representations at different levels of complexity: A highly parsimonious model.

Copyright © 2017 by Antonin Tuynman. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: The Marketing of Philosophy: A Preliminary Report

By Peter G. Jones

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

The School of Athens, by Raphael.
Source: Wikimedia Commons.

There is much talk in the profession these days of finding ways to improve the marketing of philosophy as an academic discipline. The department is under attack from almost all sides for its ongoing inability to reach a conclusion on any important philosophical question and some prominent scientists publicly doubt the value of studying it. In the US at least the teaching of philosophy is coming to be seen as inessential to a credible university curriculum and departments are closing.

A commercial enterprise finding itself in this positon would initiate a marketing review as a matter of urgency, probably bringing in external consultants armed with have a fresh eye and holding no stake in maintaining the status quo.  It is interesting to wonder what their report might look like.

Marketing is often confused with selling but would normally refer to a broader range of activity.  Confusion on this point afflicts many suggested approaches to promoting philosophy as an academic discipline and rarely are they more than proposals for selling the current product by dumbing it down, repackaging it, making it cheaper or increasing the advertising budget. This is disrespectful to the customer. It is being assumed that the customer is at fault for not seeing what a wonderful product the company is selling. This is naïve and a well-known recipe for failure. In the way it pre-judges, makes assumptions and fails to look at the complete picture it is even unphilosophical.

Marketing in a full sense would begin with the design of the product. If the product is poor then it will require much effort, a large budget and considerable copyrighting sophistry to sell it. A great product will be relatively easy and cheap to sell and customers will keep coming back. It is not always easy to change a product when it loses its appeal and sometimes a manufacturer has no option but to continue to promote it at any cost up to the bitter end, but few companies have total inertia and philosophy is not one of them. A company with a marketing focus will be continually re-designing its products and services in order to minimise the cost of selling them. In this way products evolve and do not become ossified relics of their former glory.

Is university philosophy a great product? Clearly not, given the widely acknowledged difficulty of selling it and the current interest within the profession in finding new and more effective ways of doing so. The question then arises of whether the product has to be this way, such that it must be sold at any cost, or whether it can improved. The first question to be asked would be that of whether this is a problem affecting the whole industry or just our own product.

This latter idea is rarely considered in the Academy. The only successful alternative to the current university product belongs to its main competitor, the Perennial philosophy, and so it is felt that this must be shunned and its good features denied. Most importantly, the study of it must not be encouraged for this might lead customers to take it seriously. The success of this denial is such that over time a myth has arisen that there is no competitor product and it is only poorly known. It is assumed by almost all professional philosophers in our universities at this time that philosophy is what universities currently sell, no more and no less, and that this cannot be improved. No improvement would be necessary anyway, since on this view the customer has no choice as to what to buy.

A consultant would be duty-bound to point out that this is not marketing but commercial suicide. It is also the betrayal of philosophy, albeit that this is not a strictly commercial concern. A corporate culture exclusively focussed on selling the traditional product has blinkered the company’s vision and acts as a major obstacle to the creation and implementation of a well thought-out and effective marketing plan, one for which product design would be at the core and not promotion and selling. The consequence is a product that has not evolved in centuries that is becoming increasing difficulty to sell even to highly intelligent and interested students of science and religion.

A marketing plan would normally start with the needs and wants of existing and potential customers. What do they want? Fortunately no market research is required. They want to know how the world works, whether life has any purpose or meaning, what happens to them when they die, whether they have freewill, whether God exists, whether space and time are real, whether Materialism is true, how they should interpret quantum mechanics, whether it matters how they behave and if so how they should, how they can find happiness, how they can make sense of their own consciousness, the list is a long one. Does the current product meet their wants and needs? No. So how can it be sold effectively? Only by arguing that although the company’s product cannot provide these benefits it is better than nothing. This requires maintaining the pretence that there is no alternative product. It requires that the customer be misled not just at the time of purchase but on an ongoing basis and it ensures that the product never improves.

Must the company suffer increasingly from cut-backs and closures or might the situation be turned around? If it can be turned around then it could only be by making the product more attractive. This will only become possible if the organisational culture of the company is re-oriented away from promotion and selling towards a process of constant product-improvement on behalf of its customers. Here university philosophy may have much to learn from industry.

The academic study of philosophical questions brings well-known benefits regardless of its success as long as it is serious, but are these fringe-benefits incidental or are they what customers really want? Are they enough to generate healthy sales forecasts? Are they enough to fill courses and attract investment and grants? It seems they are not even enough to convince many scientists or university administrators that philosophy is a worthwhile activity. What most potential customers want from philosophy is answers, conclusions, results, tangible and quantifiable benefits that would include a better understanding of themselves and their world. The product currently on offer is not what customers want but what they settle for because they have been told they must. This is marketing madness. The walls of academia are coming down and even a casual browse around Youtube would be enough to establish the ineffectiveness of the philosophy department’s product and the low opinion of it held by many senior academics. Indeed, often those with the lowest opinion of the efficacy of philosophy are often professors of philosophy, for it is they who are most affected by the failure of the current product.

A vital ingredient for any marketing review would be a close examination of the products and services of competitors. For the modern Academy the main competitor would be the school of practice and thought known as the Perennial philosophy, yet it appears that at this time little is known about this competitor. If there is an alternative to its own product in the same market then a commercial company would usually know it as well as their own, and for anyone involved with marketing this would be a matter of professional competence. Yet ask most professional philosophers to explain this competitor product and their lack of competence is likely to become immediately clear.

What does the competitor product offer? What would the philosophy of the writers of the ancient Upanishads, the Buddha, Lao Tsu, Al-Halaj, Rumi, Eckhart, de Cusa, the Gymnosophists, Druids, Advaitans and Nondualists be able to claim in its marketing brochure that the Academy cannot claim for its own product? That it provides answers to questions and solutions to problems. That is has a strong and global customer base, a myriad of ecstatic customers and thirty centuries of positive customer-feedback including endorsements from countless well-known celebrities. That it has proven reliability, is unbreakable and remarkably cheap to teach while offering something for everyone from the dabbler to the professional expert or committed practitioner. Unlike the traditional ‘Western’ or northern European product - which accompanies and supports a religious world-view rejected by its competitor for having become as naïve and misleading as the philosophy that supports it - it is a product only very occasionally criticised by physicists, who rarely know anything about it, but that is quite often endorsed by them where it is studied.

Its brochure could, without demonstrably breaking the Trade Descriptions Act,  claim that it offers an interpretation of quantum mechanics, an explanation for consciousness, a way of avoiding philosophical ‘hard’ problems and of solving Metaphysics, a ‘hands-on’ method for increasing happiness in life and reducing fear of death or even of overcoming it, an ethical scheme that is forgiving, clearly-defined and practical at all times and a description of Reality that reaches beyond time and space to enshrines Love and Compassion as Cosmic principles. It offers a vast multi-lingual literature characterised by its rigour, elegance, beauty, simplicity, helpfulness, reliability, humour and honest motivation.

Such a competitor might seem a dangerous threat. Even if it is unable deliver on all its claims it is able to present itself as a very attractive product and that it maintains these claims over centuries indicates that it would be difficult to prove that it cannot deliver. Yet, as the cliché goes, every threat is an opportunity. This competitor has captured a large market share and its student numbers continue to rise. To compete for these students the company would only need to jump on the bandwagon and copy, steal or improve on its competitor’s product. The work of establishing a market has been done, the entire theoretical edifice is in place and the blueprints for the product are in the public domain.

A consultant in this situation would be bound to advise the company to examine this competitor product in great detail. A formal analysis of strengths, weakness, opportunities and threats may be anticipated to conclude that the main and urgent priority for the marketing department should be product research. Market research would be unnecessary since enough is known about what customers want. They want the same as we all want. The research focus would have to be placed on backwards-engineering this competitor product in order to steal its best features and cash-in on its appealing brand-image and global market. This research would then later inform product design and eventually, once the bugs are ironed out, the promotion and selling of a new and improved product, this last step now made cheap and easy by having a product that can openly claim to meet all customer needs and wants.

If the company’s in-house research into this competing product leads to the creation of a set of corporately-approved texts, interpretations, commentaries and other introductory teaching materials that can be trusted within the company as authoritative and which are capable of being comprehended by a strictly ‘scholastic’ philosophy student at undergraduate level then this may be a highly profitable product that could be offered by most existing philosophy departments. As a wildly different product from the traditional fare it would attract attention and it might even be popular with many of the competitor’s existing customers as a way of studying the theory behind their practice.

The marketing brochure could look too good to be true. Many people young and old may be expected to want to come to university to learn about this astonishing description of the world, how it would connect-up with physics, consciousness studies, psychology, theology and other areas of knowledge, what it would mean for their daily lives, how it would explain origins, freewill, matter, mind and so forth, what it predicts will happen to us when we die and what may have happened to our deceased loved ones, and, for the more analytical of them, what makes this philosophy unfalsifiable such that it can safely be called ‘Perennial’ not only for its ancient origins but as a hostage to fortune. There might be queues around the block.

This world-view is easy to sell for its mysteriousness and weirdness, for its magical and seemingly endless literature, for its claim that life and death are of cosmic significance while also being a misunderstanding, for its air of peace and tranquillity, for its opposition to the status quo, for its immediate connection with hearts and minds, for its encouragement of joy and happiness, for its claim that within each of us the universe is enfolded. Whatever else it is this other philosophy is not boring, unengaging or unchallenging. Whether it is true would be another matter but students should not be allowed to pass their first year exams unable to make a well-informed judgement, for this would be the USP of the course and what makes it a wildly new product. And then, the cherry on the cake, the practices normally associated with a theoretical study of this philosophy are reported to be assisted in the early stages by the ingestion of mind-altering substances. There seems to be no downside, a perfect product for a healthy student market.

At under-graduate level a ‘scholastic’ approach to teaching the Perennial philosophy may only be practical if it remains almost entirely theoretical. If so then it need not be a replacement for existing courses but an extension, an acknowledgement that there is more to philosophy than for a long time has been taught to students. Later development might extend courses into post-graduate studies but there would be a limit to the level at which a university can be relevant to advanced study. At post-graduate level one would expect students to be doing practical work guided by an expert teacher off-campus in addition to their academic studies and scholarly research. If an undergraduate course covers the theory properly then subsequent courses would have to be almost entirely practical in order to be worth taking.

Driven by a new and resolute marketing focus there would get underway a natural and ongoing process of improving the explanation of the Perennial Philosophy taught to undergraduates and this didactic goal could provide a focus for post-graduate research. Hesse’s evolutionary ‘Glass Bead Game’ might provide a model for this communal enterprise. At present there is much confusion and nothing like a consensus on how to translate the teachings of even one authentic Master or Sage into the language and concepts used by the Academy, or even on whether it would be a good idea to do so, but the Academy itself has all the skills and resources required to change this situation. It has the motivation of growing criticism, falling sales and a measurably increasing rate of professional redundancies.

University philosophy has no global marketing department or ability to act in a directed way so a list of marketing recommendations would be useless to it. There will be as many opinions on this initial report as there are readers of it. One practical and probably uncontentious approach, and perhaps as much as would be necessary in the long-term to turn the situation around, would be the establishment of a grant-awarding body charged with encouraging and promoting the study of the philosophy of the Upanishads and its equivalents with a strong emphasis on the clarification and reliable communication of this doctrine within an academic context. This might be likened to a testing process for the introduction of a new drug and should be just as rigorous. It would be a process of getting to know the enemy and its product, the first step towards designing a new product that can be expected to attract punters at little cost for a long time to come. This would not be a duplication of existing work but a shot in the arm for an area of research and literature that is under-motivated and under-populated at this time and that could be much improved by some targeted encouragement. The competitor’s product is so poorly known at present most professionals would be pushed to say what is wrong with it. This alone would seem to be sufficient justification for the investment and it would be doing a service for philosophers everywhere.

Given the promises that it would allow the department to make to prospective students it can be expected that demand will be high if the ‘nondual’ philosophy of the mystical traditions were to be offered as an area of undergraduate study but prior to research it should not be assumed that it is perfect and cannot be improved. Perhaps it will be found that it cannot deliver on its marketing claims. Until this is determined there is also the risk of introducing a new product only to see it immediately made redundant by an even better one. It would be important, therefore, that throughout any product design process the mission statement for the company remains the same as ever.  The pursuit of a rational intellectual understanding of the universe, consciousness, time, origins, knowledge, God, ethics and so forth that can confidently and effectively be communicated to students will not be over until there is a professional consensus that it is over. Perhaps the answers and explanations given in the Upanishadic tradition can be shown to be incorrect and the company’s research process eventually destroys the credibility of its competitor. In marketing terms this would be a fabulous outcome and well worth the time and effort, although not as profitable as seeing it survive the testing and so allow the creation of a more attractive product to sell.

A necessary first step would be to reach a corporate consensus on what this other philosophy actually is, what it claims, how it explains things. This must be presented in an accessible language appropriate for use within the Academy. This would require the creation of an officially approved and trustworthy body of literature and its dissemination internally. This will take time. A philosophical view can be taught without making a commitment to its truth or falsity but if front-line staff are going to be able to tell customers about a great new product then they will have to know that it is one and must be able to explain what makes it so.

Curriculum changes need not be considered. If these come about they should be self-motivating, evolutionary, something individual departments or philosophers may choose to do if given the opportunity. The corporate-wide issue would be a scholastic one, the lack of any sort of consensus as to what the competitor is actually selling, how to interpret its ambiguous and self-contradictory language, how it solves metaphysical problems and so forth. Within the Academy at this time there is no agreement on how to interpret or translate the ‘nondual’ or neutral philosophy of the ‘enlightened’ ones, the countless prophets, sages and other less exalted practitioners who endorse it, and barely even a recognition that it is an identifiable doctrine open to analysis and comparable with the alternatives. To many Academy members it must appear that this other philosophical tradition is a myriad of different voices and nothing at all like a choir. This uncertainty about the competitor’s product would have to be cleared up before it can be offered as a new attraction. The Academy has spent many years - Heidegger would say twenty centuries for he blamed the early Greeks after Socrates for abandoning the idea of Unity necessary to the Perennial philosophy - trying to undermine the credibility of its competitor and internally seems to have been entirely successful. Western religion and philosophy have ever since Plato worked hand in hand in this endeavour and the layman never stood a chance. If the Academy is to now to endorse this product as worthy of serious study as a complement or extension to its traditional product then for the sake of its own credibility it will have to be able to show that there are very good reasons for this change of tune.

Such an approach might seem to prioritise sales over philosophical progress but the two goals are mutually self-supporting, just as they must be for an effective marketing approach. As long as the company retains a marketing focus it will be an honest search for the best possible product to offer to its customers and thus an honest search for Wisdom, Knowledge and Truth.  It cannot be predicted how or whether the competing product can be improved or whether it needs to be and so a new field of research and teaching practice will be opened up. If it turns to have terminal flaw then nothing has been lost and much gained. The Academy will then be able to offer courses explaining what is wrong with the Perennial philosophy. Such a course ought to be popular and is surely long overdue. If no such flaw is discovered then it would not be a business decision to offer courses to students but a professional duty.

The recommendation of this report, a little tongue-in-cheek and for discussion only, is the establishment of a grant-awarding body supporting work that fosters a better theoretical understanding of Metaphysics and the philosophy of the Upanishads within the profession, with the long-term goal of creating an internally-approved canon of explanatory literature that can be trusted by undergraduate students and their teachers to be well-informed and safe to include on their reading-lists, one that is comprehensive and that deals with all the necessary philosophical issues whilst also making the appropriate connections to scientific consciousness studies, physics, evolutionary biology, psychology and so forth and is informed by them and which, crucially, is designed for students who have not yet chosen to undertake experimental work in the mountains of Tibet but want to study philosophy as a theoretical problem.

This will not be a reproduction of the existing literature, which for the most part is targeted at practitioners and already more extensive than it needs to be. Rather, it will be a reliable and clear translation and interpretation of that literature into an appropriate language that does not depend on non-ordinary experience (or mind altering substances!) for comprehension at the required level. Much authoritative and useful literature already exists but identifying it requires expertise and there are significant gaps.

A rigorous corporate approach to the creation of teaching material would capitalise on the existing analytical and communication strengths of the company and create a well-defined new subject for study. If the marketing claims of its competitor prove to be genuine or at least cannot be falsified such that its product can be honestly promoted and sold, then its introduction into the curriculum will make possible a discipline that cannot be criticised by physicists, university administrators, students or anyone else for its irrelevance, ineffectiveness or, one would anticipate, its unprofitability.

Copyright © 2017 by Peter G. Jones. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: Does God have an Agenda?

By Ben Iscatus

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

"God blessing the seventh day," by William Blake.

Don't say this isn't an ambitious subject!

Idealism takes many forms, but in what follows, I am assuming that monistic Idealism is true. This means that God (or Consciousness) is all there is. What we call 'matter' is just how ideas or thoughts in God's mind appear and register to the senses of avatars (humans and animals) in God's dream of Planet Earth. I will use the terms "God" and "Consciousness" interchangeably here. (Conventionally, I refer to God as "He", but the "She" and "It" pronouns are implied). The essay is an informal and sometimes avant-garde exploration of some of the issues, and I hope you find it entertaining.

OK, that's the premise. So what is God dreaming and why?

First, there doesn't actually have to be a "why." God could be dreaming the World (the Universe) just because that's what He naturally does. No reason is intrinsically necessary. This is the view that Ancient Chinese philosophy takes. However, if human beings are delimited aspects or sub-personalities of God, then we might be expected to share some of God's mental attributes. Curiosity about our origin may therefore be something that derives from God Himself.

Now, it may be that only humans have this need to search for a "why" because (to borrow Bernardo's analogy), being little whirlpools cut off from the sight of the great river makes us self-reflective (I can't see the river or feel its flow, so how on Earth did I get here and why do I exist?). In this analogy, animals would be swirls and eddies rather than full whirlpools, not cut off from the natural flow of the world, and God, being the whole river itself, would instinctively know who and what He was. Nevertheless, He might like to see how He appears from multiple different, limited perspectives, which is why he creates or permits the human whirlpools...

In spite of this possibility, if you can accept the idea that a Creator God may not be utterly ineffable and may indeed have reasons that humans might understand for His thinking and dreaming, then we can speculate what these reasons might be.

The most obvious religious idea about what God is to us in the West, is the Christian one of 'Love', though many polytheistic gods have not been loving, so we might wonder where that monotheistic idea comes from. God as Love may simply derive from the way that parents behave towards children. Right across Nature, parents of many animals show care and nurture of their offspring, particularly mammals. Even alligators carry their newly hatched young gently in their mouths down to the river. Without Love, the young more easily die and the whole species is put at risk.

Yes, Religion extends this Love beyond death, due to a faith in having an immortal soul or a belief in our connection to God, but the whole concept may originally derive from a powerful strategy for survival which is found throughout the natural world.

Love is also our name for sexual attraction, of course, another powerful evolutionary strategy. Freud showed how sex can be sublimated, and it is easy to imagine with the Christian Church's distrust of sex, how enforced celibacy has affected monks, priests and the faithful. In nuns, the added complication of a frustrated maternal drive might well be expected to lead, on occasion, to ecstatic visions of God.

Going against this pragmatic explanation are (ahem, celibate!) mystics who say that Heaven is indeed a realm of blissful Love. Those who have Near Death Experiences often concur (though not always). But who is to say that any mystical experience of loving ecstasy is a final truth, any more than what religious seers and prophets have said about the future is the truth? Here's a poem I wrote in sonnet form that expresses this idea in terms of near death experiences:


What is this 'Light' the near-dead rave about
Which sucks them up into its shining sphere—
The atheists as well as the devout—
Kiss-blisses them, then spits them back down here?
In a hypnotic haze of love and awe,
The ravished claim this White Light is divine,
But how can all the rest of us be sure
Its ministrations are, in fact, benign?
We know it exercises mind control
And avidly observes each life review.
Perhaps it licks the loosh from human souls
As ants milk aphids of their honeydew.
'Above is as below', the mystics say:
Are we too proud to think that we're its prey?

"Loosh" is a term first coined by Out-of-Body researcher Bob Monroe. You get the idea; we're being duped, love-drugged and cunningly harvested, our life-energies are being fed upon by higher-dimensional beings.

This recalls the old Gnostic notion of a false god in charge of Creation, a Demiurge. It's not a silly idea. Look at life as we know it on Earth: there is a food chain, Life is obliged to eat other life or its products. There's a lot of killing as well as loving going on in this Dream/Nightmare we're in. (As I write, a great tit is foraging gracefully in the ivy outside my window. Do I say, "Shoo! Leave those poor insects alone!", or do I say, "Charming!"? The latter, of course. Where is my compassion?) Ironically, the most benign sort of life to eat is a fruit, like an apple, which is 'purposefully' produced by the tree so that its seeds can be spread far and wide. Yet the apple is, according to the Biblical parable, what got us into trouble in the first place!

Putting the idea of an evil Demiurge to one side for a moment, why do animals exist at all? Why didn't Consciousness simply choose to express itself on Earth in sentient plants happily absorbing the sunlight and soil nutrients in a Botanic Paradise? Why did animals have to evolve and enter the dream? Why teeth, why claws, why stings?

The answer, presumably, is that Love is not enough. In wildlife behaviour, Consciousness expresses itself in many other ways. For instance, in Fear. Without fear of danger, a species might become easy prey, and like the flightless bird the dodo, get clubbed to extinction by sailors landing on their islands. Religions have picked up on the importance of Fear: for example, the Old Testament Jehovah is to be feared, as are the Zoroastrian god Ahriman and the Aztec goddess Coatlicue.

Evolutionary activity can be construed as Consciousness moving into species and phenotypes in order to explore its own qualities and characteristics. Clear evolutionary strategies apart from Love, Sex and Fear include Dominance (I'm the monarch of the glen, so I get the females), Cunning (the trapdoor spider), Concealment (the stick insect) and Co-operation (the wolf-pack). At any rate, through all the changing predators, prey and ecosystems (99% of all species that ever existed are extinct), creative dreaming by Consciousness through Nature remains a constant.

We humans have evolved a greater self-awareness and cultural intelligence because we are not simply immersed in the natural flow of life—we moved out of our natural habitat, out of Africa; we need clothing and complex artefacts for cooking and storing food, unlike animals. Because we are partly outside the natural flow, Consciousness has discovered many new and interesting ways to explore itself in us—artistic, scientific, technological, sporting, as well as in complex emotional bonds. And now, God's self-exploration has gone exponential in our global human civilization.

For sure, the quest for experience and self-exploration both in nature and human nature is a highly believable 'folk interpretation' of what a Manifesting God is doing.

All our complex human behaviours must be hard on God the Dreamer. It seems reasonable to suppose that such intense dreaming cannot be sustained for very long. The current dream-image of a world under strain does suggest that this is so.

But, going back to the idea of an evil Demiurge, and looking at the history of the Universe as a whole rather than just our planet Earth (which we can now do, thanks to science and technology), one can speculate about a very different, alternative agenda. This Big Picture 'shadow agenda' might be that the Original God, from whom the Demiurge sprang, actually finds manifest life complete anathema. The true Unmanifest God may not have wished to dream at all; He may only have wanted to find a way to be Unconscious.

In this scenario, The Big Bang would be seen not as an act of Creation, but as an act of Destruction—an exploding suicide bomb—God's attempt to self-destruct, emerging from Infinity and Eternity into the finite structures of space and time. It's been suggested that the Universe as a whole looks rather like a brain. So the Universe expanding out into the Big Rip can be seen as an image of its synapses stretching and its neurons flying apart, dissipating until there is no longer a Mind left to speak of. Perhaps the True God cannot bear His own lonely, ever-wakeful Consciousness, so is seeking to die to Himself.

Self-extinction or achievement of "Notself" has a perfectly respectable Buddhist tradition in the context of dissolving the human ego—a will to nihilism, Nirvana, which in one translation means "blown out": let's interpret that expression as blowing outwards like the Big Bang, as well as like a candle flame being snuffed out.

So why may God not be intending to achieve this sort of Nirvana? Presumably, because He is seen first and foremost as a Creator and Sustainer. But that's not appropriate if Creation was not a conscious intention. Looking at the cosmos as a whole, you have to wonder—where is all the life? There's not much, is there? The vast volume of the universe is at least 99.99% lifeless desert. Despite many years of searching, SETI has found no technological civilizations. In fact, so far as we know, in the dimensions available to our senses and instruments, we are it!

We and the Sun that supports us, might symbolise some of God's remaining, living Neuron-clusters. Gravity, across the universe, signifies their means of trying to get back together. This view might explain why for so long the only life on Earth that could be dreamed was simple bacteria. Traumatised by the separation, the Neuron-cluster 'Our Solar System' had to try to relearn what it was before the Big Bang 'brain damage.' Slowly, it has been healing and growing. Life on Earth forms an evolving, networked cortex.

It may even be that humanity, and the Demiurge which sustains us even as it uses us,  really represent the pro-Life Resistance! In which case, Nietzsche would be wrong—God is not dead, at least not yet. The laws of thermodynamics are against us, but let's hope we're not predestined to snuff ourselves out or blow ourselves up...

Copyright © 2017 by Ben Iscatus. Published with permission.

GUEST ESSAY: Aristotle, Nagarjuna and the Law of Non-Contradiction in Buddhist Philosophy

By Peter G. Jones

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum, reviewed, commented on and approved for publication by forum members. The opinions expressed in the essay are those of its author.)

Nagarjuna and Agatsaya. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Life, they urge, would be intolerable if men were to be guided in all they did by reason and reason only. Reason betrays men into the drawing of hard and fast lines, and to the defining by language—language being like the sun, which rears and then scorches. Extremes are alone logical, but they are always absurd; the mean is illogical, but an illogical mean is better than the sheer absurdity of an extreme.
Samuel Butler, Erewhon

This quotation from Butler’s topsy-turvy land of Erewhon describes the view of the professors of the Colleges of Unreason. His satire of academia is an odd mix of good sense and madness but by the way it questions so many of our intellectual habits and assumptions it provides much food for thought. The professors of Unreason argue that reason forces us to draw lines and make divisions and that it enslaves us to language. This is usually considered a conclusion of rational thought and not at all an unreasonable idea. ‘Unreason’ enters with the idea that the ‘illogical’ mean is better than the absurdity of the extreme views into which language forces us.

The professors of Unreason teach their students that in order to endorse a middle way or ‘doctrine of the mean’ as the solution for metaphysical dilemmas we must embrace unreason and illogic. This seems a reasonable idea to them for it is, after all, their reason that allows them to see the absurdity of the extremes in the first place. In this case their endorsement of ‘illogic’ is an outcome of sound reasoning. Yet it is questionable whether we should ever abandon the ‘laws of thought’ in this way even where logic can find no other way forward. Butler’s professors would answer that we should, but real professors generally say we should not on the grounds that metaphysical questions must be decidable even if nobody can actually decide one. What is not questionable, for it would be a matter of logic and definition, is whether endorsing the middle way would in fact require that we modify or abandon Aristotle’s logic and embrace Unreason and Illogic. Butler’s students are taught that the mean is ‘illogical,’ that this solution breaks or modifies the rules by which we prove it is the best solution, and so are most students everywhere. Yet it is not possible to prove it, and the consequence of assuming it is an incomprehensible metaphysics.

A great many philosophers share the view of logic held by the professors of Unreason and perhaps almost all those who would call themselves ‘Western’ thinkers. It is endorsed in a recent article for Aeon on Buddhist philosophy by Graham Priest under the title ‘Beyond True and False,’ in which he proposes that while the extremes are logically absurd the mean would require a major modification to classical logic. He discusses various complex ideas that would make Buddhist philosophy very difficult to understand. The implication is that one would have to be extremely clever to understand Buddhist philosophy and perhaps even a mental contortionist able to believe two opposite things at once.

It must be conceded that many people who read Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher who most clearly describes the logical scheme of Buddhism and more generally ‘nondualism,’ conclude that he did not fully understand the nature of Reality. Some even read him as proving that a full understanding would be impossible. It must also be conceded that this view may only arise when we are failing to understand him. Nobody can tell us who is right about this and we must make up our own mind. Priest’s view is that Nagarjuna "thought that certain things might be simultaneously true and false." This implies that nobody would be capable of understanding Buddhist philosophy for it seems unlikely that anyone could perform this intellectual feat. In fact his philosophy is much simpler than it may appear. Indeed, its simplicity is what makes it so difficult to understand.

Nagarjuna is completely intolerant of contradictions and demonstrates this in his Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. In this text he proves that all extreme metaphysical positions are logically absurd. This is just as professors everywhere conclude. He does not prove that his own view is logically absurd. He clearly intends to prove that the mean is the only logically defensible view. In metaphysics the phrase ‘Middle Way’ indicates neutrality in respect of all extreme views and so it is an explicit denial of the reality of the divisions and distinctions on which metaphysical contradictions depend. There would be no such thing as a metaphysical dilemma. His proof is a classic demonstration of logic-chopping that follows Aristotle’s rules to the letter and entirely depends on them for its success. He shows that there is no such thing as a true contradiction and that no contradictions would arise for a true description of the Universe.

That is to say, Nagarjuna painstakingly proves that there are no contradictions in Buddhist philosophy. And yet, highlighted at the top of Priest’s article is the statement "Buddhist philosophy is full of contradictions." It is not clear who makes this statement and it may be an editorial addition but that it can be made so boldly suggests that it expresses a common view. So what is going on here? Is the Buddhist universe paradoxical or is it a model of logical soundness?

Let us examine two oft-quoted statements that encapsulate Buddhist philosophy and follow their logical implications. The first is the statement of Heraclitus "We are and are-not." For Buddhist philosophy this would not be exactly a true statement (as Nagarjuna proves), but it would be rigorous in that it would point accurately towards the truth and not mislead. Does it embody a contradiction?

Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction (LNC) states that for any A it is impossible for both A and ~A to be true. That is to say, if the assertion ‘x is square’ is true, then the assertion ‘x is-not square’ cannot also be true. The law of the excluded middle (LEM) states that for any A it is necessary for one of A and ~A to be true. Either x is square or it is not and there is no third alternative. Where there is a third alternative then what we are calling A and ~A are not legitimate dialectical propositions. Given these rules, should we agree with the professors of Unreason that this statement of Heraclitus is an example of ‘illogic’? Must we reject it for embodying a contradiction and breaking Aristotle’s rules?

The second statement is Lao Tsu’s famous aphorism, "True words seem paradoxical." Is this statement true? If so, it should seem paradoxical. Nagarjuna proves that it is true. The whole of ‘nondualism,’ ‘Mysticism’ or the ‘Perennial’ philosophy proposes that it is true. This is the explanation for the use of a language of seeming paradox and contradiction in the Perennial philosophy. This language is required precisely in order to avoid the paradoxes and contradictions that we are led into by our everyday language and that may become conceptual errors where we allow ordinary language to restrict our reason, the very problem identified by the professors of Unreason.

The idea that the view of Heraclitus, Lao Tsu and Nagarjuna requires that we abandon or modify the LNC or LEM depends on one crucial assumption, which is that for complementary and contradictory pairs of extreme metaphysical positions one member is true and the other false.

Would either of these statements imply a rejection of Aristotle’s LNC or LEM? Despite appearances they would not. Lao Tsu tells us that true words seem paradoxical not that they actually are, and Aristotle was a rigorous thinker who would not have written a set of rules for rational thinking that did not cover all situations, even that described by Heraclitus and Lao Tsu.

The idea that the view of Heraclitus, Lao Tsu and Nagarjuna requires that we abandon or modify the LNC or LEM depends on one crucial assumption, which is that for complementary and contradictory pairs of extreme metaphysical positions one member is true and the other false. How many of us do not make this assumption? We ask ‘Does the world begin with Something or Nothing?’ or ‘Do we have Freewill?’ and expect a straight answer, and when we do not get one the same assumption prevents us from understanding why not. When we make this assumption we must insist that Heraclitus make up his mind for now he cannot endorse compatibilism without appearing to break the rules. He must say either we exist or we do not. But Heraclitus knows that such words would not be true. By his juxtaposition of opposites he tells us that for his view it would not be metaphysically rigorous to state either that we exist or we do not. When we use language we are forced into stating two half-truths just as Nagarjuna proves and explains with his ‘Doctrine of Two Truths,’ and this would be why a statement that is rigorously (thus metaphysically) true must be complex and is bound to seem paradoxical.

The reason why such statements are not actually paradoxical would be that Aristotle carefully defines what he means by a contradiction. He saw that it was vital to closely define the pair of opposites ‘A/not-A’ in order that his rules for the dialectic would not be misapplied and produce incorrect results. For any system of computation the rule is ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ His Rule of Contradictory Pairs (RCP) is clear and simple:

Of every contradictory pair, one member is true and the other false.

Aristotle’s system is tautological in the sense that the LNC and the LEM would apply to pairs of statements only where we already know that they apply. If we do not know that they apply then we may be making a mistake by applying them and our reasoning will be unsafe. Members of a true dichotomy are jointly exhaustive and mutually exclusive, but not all seemingly contradictory pairs will meet this criterion. If we know that a switch has only two positions and that no other position is possible then the statements ‘the switch is on’ and ‘the switch is off’ would form a contradictory pair such that one is true and other false. We can then use the dialectic method to decide which position it is most likely to be in given what else we know about it. For instance, if the room is dark we might use this fact to reduce to absurdity the idea that the switch is on. However, if we are not certain that no other position is possible then the LNC and LEM cannot decide this for us. We would have to go and look. Aristotle ensured that there was no possibility of the world breaking his laws by formulating them so that wherever they might be broken they would not apply. His definition for contradictory pairs protects his system from any tricks that Reality might pull on him. Perhaps more importantly, it requires us to closely examine our assumptions before building them into our questions and our reasoning and by so doing rendering both more a hindrance than a help. The system is sophisticated and reliable but only when used with rigour. This would be the danger of category-errors in philosophy, where they can run so deep that even one can undermine the integrity of the entire system.

Heraclitus ... was not suggesting that the atomic statements ‘We exist’ and ‘We exist-not’ form a contradictory pair but precisely the opposite, that they would not form a contradictory pair for there is another alternative. ... Heraclitus and Nagarjuna tell us, Existence and non-Existence are seen not to form a contradiction but two ways of describing a situation that defies description in language because of the very nature of language.

In the literature of the Perennial philosophy, which would include Nagarjuna’s writings, it is very difficult to find pairs of statements that would meet Aristotle’s definition. This would be the reason why its language seems paradoxical, for it is difficult to avoid such statements. There would be no true contradictions and this requires that we deny them in our statements about the world. Heraclitus shows us how to do it. He was not suggesting that the atomic statements ‘We exist’ and ‘We exist-not’ form a contradictory pair but precisely the opposite, that they would not form a contradictory pair for there is another alternative. If his statement seems formally contradictory to us then this must be because we are assuming it would be true to say either ‘we exist’ or ‘we do not exist.’ Lao Tsu tells us that this language is nonsense. It embodies assumptions that have nothing to do with logic but depend on a misunderstanding of Existence and Personhood. The professors of Unreason would mark us down for allowing language to limit what our reason will allow. Once comprehended, Heraclitus and Nagarjuna tell us, Existence and non-Existence are seen not to form a contradiction but two ways of describing a situation that defies description in language because of the very nature of language. It would not be that there is no truth of the matter, as if Buddhist philosophy is not informed by truth or grounded in it. Heraclitus’ statement could hardly be more simple and clear or more packed with meaning, while on metaphysics Nagarjuna says all that he needs to say. From a logical perspective the latter’s famous proof states no more than that all positive or extreme metaphysical positions are logically absurd, an analytical result that it is difficult not to reach upon which even the professors of Unreason agree. We need not study Nagarjuna’s proof to verify that this is a perennial result of metaphysical analysis. The problem is only understanding his explanation of this result.

It is well-known that Heraclitus, Nagarjuna, Lao Tsu and the Buddha never endorse a metaphysical view that would qualify as a member of a contradictory-pair. Nagarjuna is famous for his argument that we should never do this.  How can contradictions arise? Heraclitus implies by his juxtaposition of extreme views that on their own each half of his complex statement would be unrigorous, inadequate, more false than true, and a contradiction cannot arise for two falsities. His statement is certainly not easy to understand but on what grounds can we argue that it breaks the laws of logic? If there is a third alternative then there is no contradiction. The contradiction would be in the eye of the beholder for such words only seem paradoxical.

By calling the mean ‘illogical’ the professors of Unreason fail to take into account Aristotle’s simple definition for contradictory pairs. The mean is not ‘illogical’ or even unreasonable when it is the only alternative to the absurdity of the extremes. It is only when we misapply Aristotle’s rules that the mean need seem paradoxical. Buddhism is the claim that there is no such thing as a true contradiction. The Universe would be a Unity such that all contradictions would be illusory conceptual things. Aristotle gave us a well-designed precision instrument and if we follow his instructions for using it we will find it difficult to discover violations of his LNC or LEM in Buddhism’s Middle Way philosophy.

Buddhist philosophy uses Aristotle’s rules correctly, as Nagarjuna demonstrates by using it to refute all false views. By contrast, professors generally ignore Aristotle’s definition for contradictory pairs. Metaphysics then becomes an inconclusive muddle of flawed thinking. The only known solution for metaphysics will have been ruled out for being logically incoherent. If we are serious about the LNC then when our reason concludes that Something and Nothing, Mind and Matter, Freewill and Determinism or some other pair of extreme views are absurd then we have no option but to seek a resolution in some sort of compatabilism. Logic forces us all to follow Nagarjuna and Aristotle puts up no objection. This approach disposes of all metaphysical dilemmas and antinomies. However, if we believe that this approach would break the laws of ordinary logic then we will believe that Buddhist doctrine is ‘illogical,’ unreasonable or at best incomprehensible and may reject it. Even if we withhold judgement on its truth we are likely to believe that we would be incapable of understanding it. Thus the view that Aristotle and Nagarjuna are at odds may be profoundly damaging to Buddhism and something of a PR disaster. It seems disrespectful to both and history shows that it renders metaphysics intractable.

At this time the professors of the Colleges of Unreason are in full agreement with those in our universities. The mean is illogical and Buddhism must be considered logically tortuous and perhaps even incomprehensible. This is not a charitable interpretation of Nagarjuna and even if it were it would not be plausible. It makes his doctrine seem logically devious, as if he pulled some sort of trick on us by exploiting a loophole in the rules. In fact his entire logical argument depends on the Aristotelian idea that logical contradictions are a proof of falsity. Where a theory gives rise to contradictions he assumes we will all agree that it should be considered false and will reject it accordingly. If we do not then his proof of Buddhism is rendered useless.

When we are asked whether two plus two equals three or five we do not consider this to be a case of A/not-A because we know that there is an alternative. If we do the same for metaphysical antinomies then no logical problems arise and for exactly the same reason.

The Middle Way doctrine appears to be paradoxical only when we assume that the ‘mean’ represents a violation of reason and dialectical logic, an assumption that is not supported by Aristotle. There is a conceptual challenge here but no logical problem. Whether there is a third alternative for a pair of statements may sometimes be a matter of logic or definition, but where they are statements about the world it would be an empirical matter. Only where we know there is no third alternative would the LNC and LEM apply. If we ignore this proviso and use the system without rigour then Buddhist philosophy will seem to be full of contradictions and the whole of the Perennial philosophy along with it, while metaphysics will become incomprehensible.

When we are asked whether two plus two equals three or five we do not consider this to be a case of A/not-A because we know that there is an alternative. If we do the same for metaphysical antinomies then no logical problems arise and for exactly the same reason.  This creates difficulties for our intellect but not for logic. We cannot assume two statements meet Aristotle’s definition for a contradictory pairs but must know that they do, otherwise in our reasoning we will ask improper questions and reach unreliable results. Nagarjuna’s logical demolition of all metaphysical positions except his own proves that there is a third alternative for all metaphysical extremes and it would follow that no modification of Aristotle’s rules would be required for his view. As Kant notes, and as we all discover, selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable. Both extremes are absurd. The reason would be, as Nagarjuna proves, that there are no true contradictions. The extremes would be conceptual mistakes. Metaphysical dilemmas would be misunderstandings.

In his Metaphysics the ninth-century Persian thinker Avicenna writes, “Anyone who denies the law of non-contradiction should be beaten and burned until he admits that to be beaten is not the same as not to be beaten, and to be burned is not the same as not to be burned.”

Buddhist philosophy would not disagree on the importance of the LNC. Nagarjuna and Lao Tsu claim that the metaphysical truth is not this or that in any case. If we assume this and that are the only available options then their claim will seem to break the laws of ordinary reason and logic. Should they be burned? Clearly not, for they argue that in metaphysics there is no case for which this and that exhaust the possibilities. Many philosophers and theologians endorse Compatibilism in respect of the Freewill-Determinism dualism for they see the possibility that this contradictory and complementary pair might be transcended for a reconciliation. Are they being unreasonable? Aristotle would say not. Compatibilism endorses neither extreme view and denies that they form a contradictory pair for the dialectic.

This statement on the LNC would seem muddled to Heraclitus because Avicenna forgets that it is not just the burning that matters but the identity of the victim. If ‘we are and are-not’ then it would never be rigorously true to say that we are being burned or not being burned. This is the subtlety of the Buddha’s teachings on suffering, that for an ultimate analysis there would be no such thing. Nagarjuna explains this. He shows that Avicenna is right to value the law of non-contradiction highly and he uses it to eliminate all extreme metaphysical positions. He denies the truth of either/or and both/neither for every pair of metaphysical opposites, showing that in no case and on neither axis would they meet Aristotle’s definition for a contradictory pair. The idea that he asks us to abandon the LNC or LEM is incredible. He asks us to enforce the rules with complete rigour and to make no exceptions. For metaphysical antinomies such as Mind-Matter or Something-Nothing there would be a third option and it would be that the words and concepts we are using inevitably misrepresent the true situation in just the way the professors of Unreason fear. If we hang on to these linguistic and conceptual distinctions then metaphysics cannot be solved. No fundamental theory would be possible. As Kant concludes, all concepts would have to be reduced for a complete theory. Both Matter and Mind must be reduced.

There are too many issues here to summarise. Although the discussion is an attempt to simplify it may yet give the impression that Buddhist philosophy is hopelessly complicated.  Yet the logical issue we are discussing is basic, a high-school level philosophical issue. For a contradictory pair of statements one of them must be true and the other false. If this holds for a pair of statements then we can use the dialectic method of refutation to decide which is true and which false. Where it does not hold then the dialectic is an inappropriate method for deciding and it will lead us to unreliable conclusions.

The difficulty of understanding Buddhist philosophy and the world it describes is intense precisely because there would be no true contradictions. This idea challenges our intellect, which depends on contradictions for its functioning. What Nagarjuna proves and Kant later concludes is that the only reasonable world-theory would be one for which our conceptual world-of-opposites is reduced to Unity, a phenomenon Nicolas de Cusa famously places "beyond the coincidence of contradictories." In this case it is not plausible that there are contradictions in Buddhist philosophy. If they seem to be all over the place it would be because true words seem paradoxical. They may seem less so if we take note of Aristotle’s rule for contradictory pairs and allow ourselves to abandon the absurd extremes for an exploration of the mean.  

(This discussion is heavily reliant on two texts and they are recommended to anyone wishing to pursue these matters: Whitaker C. W. A., Aristotle’s De Interpretatione: Contradiction and Dialectic, Oxford, 1996; and Gyamtso, Khenpo Tsütrim, The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, Shambala, 2003.)

Copyright © 2017 by Peter G. Jones. Published with permission.