Updated 24 Apr 2019
The nature of existence and of our own being are profound mysteries. Much nonsense has been peddled over the millennia, none more so than today. In this essay I try to get back to basics, turning my back on neither the wisdom of the ancients nor that of modern science but not ashamed to learn from both.
My approach aims to be essentially scientific – that is, both empirical and rational; the empirical tells us what is there to be understood and the rational tells us how to understand it. If the mystical turns out to be something we observe directly or indirectly through the scientific method, well and good. But it cannot in itself be a means to understanding, rather it would appear to us as a part of what we might come to understand.
The idea that I offer here is that we and our world are built up in three layers, or levels, of being:
Order, structure or form: The underlying nature of complexity is the logic of what can and cannot sustain being. It is the province of the philosophical logician and the mathematician.
Physics: The physical world is all that we see around us, including semantic meaning. It is the province of the scientist.
Sentience: Conscious experience is what the most sophisticated mode of semantic processing feels like to itself. It is the province of the philosopher of mind and the metaphysician.
These levels form an apparent hierarchy. There can be no physical world without form, no experience without a brain to experience it. At least, that is the approach that I adopt here.
Given the previous level, if any, each of these levels springs from nowhere without the slightest warning. Nothing in the nature of form requires a physical world to embody that form, and indeed most logically distinct forms have never been seen and remain wholly abstract. Nothing in the nature of physical existence requires a sentient inhabitant, indeed most of the human brain functions quite unconsciously. This is how I have distinguished one level from another.
It is tempting to think that abstract, semantic meaning appears only at the third level, of sentient consciousness. But that would be a mistake, for it is deeply embedded in the nature of almost all biological processes. Such an understanding of semantics in the physical world is lucidly put forward by the eminent scientist Paul Davies in "What is Life?", New Scientist, 2 February 2019, pp. 28-31. When I read his essay, I was bowled over by the similarities between our ideas and it has given me much greater confidence in mine.
I will look briefly at each of the three levels outlined, before exploring their relationships a little more, and then perhaps looking ahead. Those last two sections have been changing quite a bit lately, please think of this current post as a typical Blocki moment before I most likely reorganise them. I also need to think through the relationship between semantic context and meaning at a physical level on the one hand and symbolic meaning at a mental level on the other.
Order is the rule book which tells us what complicated structures can exist an what cannot. Any attempt to break a rule leads to the collapse of order, and the breakage cannot be sustained.
If there were no order, amazingly there could be no chaos either. Chaos implies something there to be chaotic, and if there is no order at all then that something cannot have any identifiable character. And if there is nothing identifiable then it cannot be said to exist. Order is the foundational imperative for any other kind of existence.
The nature of order is the nature of logic, which encompasses all of pure mathematics among other things.
We can think of order as comprising every possible logical, rational structure or form. These forms need have no physical existence, indeed most are purely abstract: each stands on its own merits and remains valid whether or not there is anything to which one might attach it.
Creating, or rather discovering, these logical structures has to start somewhere.
Fundamental starting points might be:
– Nothing: This is a foundational point, in that it can stand on its own without any deeper idea behind it. But it cannot be expanded, it just sits there – or rather, it doesn't sit there. As such, on its own it is not very helpful.
– Existence: there is something. Another foundation, we could instead perhaps just have this, a kind of primeval egg, without form but not quite void. Even so, on its own it cannot be expanded either, for to expand it would be to introduce something else. Still, it seems like a start.
Stepping cautiously beyond either of these two possibilities is difficult because every new idea we introduce seems to be built on others we haven't got round to yet. For example we might try to accept both existence and nonexistence, in fact I think this is the best way to go. But it immediately introduces ideas such as distinguishing the two, that one of these is different from the other, that each will still be itself next time I think about it, that if they are different now then they will also still be different next time I think about them, that we have not only two things but a relationship between them, that this relationship constitutes a third thing, and so on in a relentless avalanche of ideas. These ideas all seem inseparable – we do not seem able to make sense of any of them without also invoking the others. The whole set seem to arrive as a done deal, we cannot ease our way into them and stop half way. These ideas, and others like them, are the foundational laws of logic, they are the foundation upon which order is built. This is the first sub-level, of Order.
Once we have this foundation, we can start to build systems of logic of arbitrary complexity. Such systems may be found in the rules of reasoned argument, digital circuitry, geometry, algebra, number theory, the laws of physics, and so on. These systems comprise the second sub-level of Order.
It seems hard to deny that the existence of the first level allows the full flowering of the second. That is to say, once we have acknowledged the first, foundational level, the existence of the second level cannot be denied. The ancient Taoist sage Lao Tzu believed that even Nothing and Existence were inseparable and one could have neither without the other: "from the One came Two, from the two came Three and from the Three came the many". That is perhaps as advanced a view as any we have today.
The physical world depends on order. Our universe naturally lends itself to mathematical equations and neat, organised textbooks. If we strip away all order and seek instead some primeval chaos having physical existence but no form then we have nothing to get a handle on, for the handle slips away into chaos and the idea stands vacant and self-contradictory. Without form there is only Nothing, and we have moved beyond that.
The laws of physics comprise a particular set of logical systems and the mathematical theorems derived from them, plucked seemingly at random from the realm of order. We do not know why this particular set of laws - relativity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics – are the lucky ones. What they describe are the kinds of form that do physically exist, as opposed to those that might. For example a three-dimensional box can and does exist in the real world, but a four-dimensional box can only be dreamed up as a piece of mathematics because its reality is perfectly logical but would break the laws of physics. This is the first sub-level of the physical world.
The world around us embodies these physical laws. Dependent on them and never breaking them, it comprises endless instances of the permissible forms, which we may classify, catalogue and predict to our hearts' content: quarks and electrons, seas, apes and aeroplanes. It comprises the things that physically do exist. This is the second sub-level of the world.
A curiosity of physical laws is the way in which one thing may carry information about another – a cosmic ray carries the characteristic energy of its source, and so on. Indeed, the idea that the laws of physics are laws of information is so powerful that some physicists, such as Max Tegmark, suggest this to be the nature of physical reality. Others, such as David Deutsch, suggest exactly the reverse, that information is just another manifestation of the laws of physics. But for most scientists, the two are distinct. The old-fashioned view is that this kind of information represents a distinct level from the things it carries information about, and most physicists are still happy to go along with that. The truth is, we don't know yet.
One thing we do know is that physical information does not lie. It always carries the truth about its origin. The laws of physics are universal truths and physical information is so tightly bound to them that it cannot lie. Physical information carries outward a description of some property of another physical object. This information cannot help but be true to its source, the laws of physics see to that. Much science is based on this fact, including every experimental observation ever made. Information can get garbled down the line of course, and there is a lot of clever technology around to detect and correct such errors. But that garbling arises from the addition of new information from somewhere else. It is not misinforming about the original message, merely adding a new one on top. If we knew about all the information present, the garbled result would make perfect sense. We are only misled when we misread what the information is actually telling us, when we are unaware of its wider context.
It seems that none of these three things, the choice of logical systems to embody, their actual embodiment in a real world, and the information contained in it all, can exist without the others. None of these ideas makes sense on its own. This is why I bundle the three together as a single level of being.
Within this level, all kinds of complexity arise – galaxies, solar systems, life, intelligence. And intelligent thought has highlighted another kind of information, which is called semantic or symbolic.
As living organisms evolved they slowly acquired the ability to sense and "remember" things, to be permanently affected by something that happened to them. The evolution of simple nervous systems brought with it a kind of abstraction: what stimulated the sense organ got turned into a pattern of nerve impulses. The rest or the organism could then react to that as if it were the original stimulus itself. This was a fundamental watershed in the use of information. Instead of blindly responding to whatever it encountered, an organism could encode information about it and use that information pattern for all sorts of other things – even after the stimulus had stopped. The pattern was in effect a symbol for the stimulus.
Once proto-brains learned both to remember these symbols and to recall them on demand, intelligence was well on its way. It is worth noting that a current sensation and its short- and long-term memories all carry the same semantic information but encoded in different physical symbols. Brains soon learned to manipulate their symbols and to brew up new ones that proved useful. These new symbols didn't have to relate to the senses, or even to anything real. An emergent property of symbols presently became apparent: they can be untrue. Consider a butterfly which evolves eye spots. When threatened by a predator it spreads its wings, flashing its eye spots so it looks like a bigger predator. The real predator, lied to by the spots, beats a hasty retreat. They eye spots are symbolic, carrying the semantic information that they are the eyes of a predator, but that information is false. Falsehoods proved powerful tools for manipulating other minds, but also the bane of every careless thinker. (Eye spots are mimicry and it is a fine philosophical point as to whether such an imitation is necessarily symbolic of the real thing. Here, for the sake of simplicity, I include simple mimicry. This does not affect my argument, for example the distinct forms of memory are certainly not mimicry).
The key property of semantic information, which separates it from the overtly physical, is that its meaning does not arise directly from the substrate vehicle but from the context in which it appears. For example the word "plane" means very different things to a pilot, a botanist and a woodworker.
As a consequence of this, even though thoughts arise within the physical world, they need not obey the laws which govern their substrate, they need not obey physical laws. I can cheerfully discuss a perpetual motion machine, even though no such thing can exist. This is pretty much where modern science has arrived today, although relatively few scientists seem aware of the distinction between base physical brain activity and the semantic information carried by that activity, never mind the implications of that distinction (for example, as I mentioned at the beginning, it is still a common mistake to associate the idea of meaning with the next level up, with sentience).
Indeed, the outlandish behaviour of semantics might initially suggest a new level of existence or being, since its laws are wholly independent of physics. But this would be an enthusiastic step too far, for the laws of semantics are nothing more nor less than the laws of logic or form which govern the first level of being. The appearance of symbolic meaning in the physical world is as direct a manifestation, of the first level at the second, as it is possible to achieve.
The laws of physics govern the activity of the human brain and the laws of semantic information govern the meaning of that activity. We as we know ourselves cannot exist without our physical brains. But those laws of physics and of information do not quite seem adequate to explain everything about the human mind: there is one thing still missing.
It is a remarkable discovery of modern neuroscience that at least some of our higher brain functions operate at an entirely unconscious level. We only become aware of our intentions a few moments after they have formed, for example making a decision to press a buzzer shortly before becoming aware that we have made it. The conscious experience of deciding a moment before we begin to move our finger is a carefully-crafted self-delusion aimed at building for ourselves a causal narrative about our world. Our brains seem able to function and think at a high level without us. Much of this processing never reaches our conscious mind, only a limited amount manages to filter through to the still-unidentified but apparently restricted brain area where consciousness arises. The things we actually experience come through as a kind of literal "afterthought". It is as if the "self", insofar as we perceive its machinations, beavers away unconsciously, while our consciousness sits watching its edited highlights.
This rather begs the question, why should a particular part of the brain experience consciousness at all? What is experiencing the brain's edited script? I once came acros a Hindu writer who described it as the "enjoyer of the Self". Buddhists ascribe to each of us a dharma or "Buddha-nature". The nature of any such enjoyer or dharma is wholly mysterious.
Modern Western philosophers focus the issue on the individual qualities – the qualia – of subjective experience. How does the quality of our experience arise, what makes redness "feel" red, compared say to the exeprience of green? What colours does a red-green colour-blind person experience? Why is the sound of say a bell so qualititively different from a burning feeling of heat or the taste of a lemon? The humble octopus is thought to be sentient like ourselves. Its brain structures have evolved entirely separately from ours – much of it is wrapped round the digestive tract. Yet under close examonatiion it found to have a thinking cortex – an area known to be linked to consciousness – that comprises exatly the same network of cross-linked nerve columns as does our own. What sensations does an octopus experience?
Whatever we call it and however it works, since ancient times the wise have agreed that the perceived conscious self is an illusion concocted by the brain. In terms of neurophysics this property of conscious, subjective experience is wholly unnecessary. Divining its origin and nature is known simply as "the hard problem". Whatever we call consciousness, it seems to spring up out of nowhere, a third level of being.
Of course, every conscious sensation must arise from a specific pattern of brain activity, a specific signal. We say that the particular objective brain signal and the particular subjective experience are "correlates" of one another. Yet no matter how subtly the neurologist captures and analyses that signal, no matter how the neuropsychologist hums and haws about its semantic meaning, the signal itself betrays not the slightest hint as to the quality of the accompanying conscious experience. If the signal "looks like" the sound of a bell or the colour red, what are the precise qualia experienced by that mind? The trouble is, that no matter how fully any scientist might describe that pattern of visual information, nowhere does the quality of say redness appear in that description. Nor does asking the experimental subject help you very much. They will just say, "Yes, it was red", which merely confirms the neuropsychologist's interpretation of the signal. They cannot communicate what that quality of redness feels like.
For the scientist can only look inside themself, trust to a common signal, and where they demonstrably have nothing in common (as with the colour-blind or the octopus) flounder helplessly. The qualia of experience arise "out of nothing" on top of the physical memory traces and accompanying thought processes. They cannot be described by anything arising from the laws of physics.
Understanding this gulf, between the physical neural phenomenon and the internal "quale" of each different person's experience, is the provice of the hard problem. For more about qualia and sentience, see Towards a Theory of Qualia.
Then too there is the moment we call "now". Your now when you read this is different from my now as I write it, and each of us finds our now moving relentlessly forward through time at a steady pace throughout our lives. The trouble is, none of the laws of physics has any idea of now. In relativity, every moment is like every other. In quantum mechanics there is just a steady flow of time, backwards or forwards to choice. In thermodynamics the steady flow moves relentlessly forward. The best that any of these can manage is things happening at the same time, or a set distance apart in time. But the moment of now is alien to all of them, there is no law of physics for now. it is something that only a sentient mind possesses. Worse still, it is all that a sentient mind possesses. Sentience dwells in a continuing now, which moves forwards with the steamroller of thermodynamics, Older nows are called memories while future nows are as yet beyond reach.
Some people deny that there is any problem. They see a complete, logical identity between the brain signals and the inner experience: there is no gap because they are just the one thing. Now is just an emergent property of a suitably complex system. And indeed, any good logician will tell you that if two things are, by any applicable yardstick, identical in character, then they must be the same thing. This is in essence a flat denial that there is any kind of distinction between a pattern of signals in the brain and the feeling of redness that correlates with it, or that "now" is of any significance. It is hard to argue with a flat denial, one can only disagree. But if you are one of those who see no hard problem, then you may yet still puzzle over how you can verify the inner experiences of an intelligent mind which is not your own – an octopus, say. It is valid enough to say that science has nothing to say on the subject because such things of course can never be verified. Nevertheless, it is obvious to any sentient being that other sentient beings have experiences too. This is why I say that the Hard Problem is a problem not of science but of philosophy.
Unless you are one of those "Science fundamentalists" who believe that if the physical sciences can have nothing to say about something then that thing genuinely does not exist, then you will be able to accept that the world of sentient – comprises a third level of reality.
It seems hard to deny that the universal truths of pure logic would still hold if the Universe had never existed: they were there before the Big Bang, whether we take "before" in a literal temporal sense or merely a logically causal one. There might have been a different universe with different physical laws, but the laws of logic would be just the same. Once we accept any kind of anything, the first level of being seems to bootstrap its own existence.
We have seen how each of the next two levels builds on the previous one and appears to be wholly dependent on it. And we have seen how each level provides a stopping point, able to take consistent form independently of any level which might follow it. But there is more to the relationships between the levels than that.
Some people have suggested that forms – the first level – only come into existence as and when reality or thoughts create them, and that without a physical or sentient reality there would be no logic or mathematics. But this does not explain why only certain forms can be discovered: if we created new logical forms just by thinking about them, we could create whatever we liked. But in practice we are bound by the immutable laws of logic to discover only what they allow. And of course, the laws of physics arose without anybody to invent them. Might a primal God have invented reason and physics? That just poses the self-contradiction of a primal god, a First Cause, taking Divine form without any rules for such form yet having been devised. No, there is no sense in the idea of physically calling something into the abstract world of Order.
There is no obvious reason why nature did not stop at the first level. There is no logical imperative to concretise or realise Order or any part of it in a substantial way. Anyway, which forms would be realised as laws of physics and which left behind in the abstract realm? Put this way, the proposition seems absurd. And yet the absurd happened. There is a second level of being, its rigidly universal laws cherry-picked from the first. There are many consistent rule sets in logic, why pick this particular set? We have no idea, although some recent research on arbitrary number strings has suggested that properties analogous to those of quantum mechanics might emerge in any attempt to build a rational understanding of the ongoing chaos, or possibly even as an emergent property of the ongoing chaos itself. Perhaps the universe is the way it is because it formed as some primal chaos and there is only one way that chaos can go from there.
Anyway, once the physical world is formed, there is no obvious reason why nature did not stop there. Indeed, until relatively recently in the great scheme of things, it seems to have done exactly that. The physical world spent aeons as the ultimate level of being. Only very recently did it spawn ourselves and our higher animal kin, denizens of a third and hitherto unrealised level. It seems trite to say that the world of sentience exists only in the minds of sentient beings. It is bound to these minds, to the brain activity beneath, as firmly as physical law is bound to order. And it is bound too directly to order, for the world of meaning and semantics is nothing if not ordered in its own way. But information is bound to a greater order than the grossly physical world is. It can discover many rules and other aspects of order which are not manifest in physical laws, or anywhere in the physical universe. We call all this mathematics. And it can also give rise to falsehoods. It can make mistakes, fantasise, even lie, and these falsehoods need not be consistent with anything else or even within themselves.
There is one other significant difference in the way the third level relates to the second: it can make direct changes to the physical world. Neither higher level can affect the realm of Order, that is primal and unchanging, it stands outside of time and time itself must be its first servant. A remark in this text about say the quality of redness is part of the objective physical world of semantic information, yet it is talking about a subjective, conscious experience – the far side of the hard problem. In this way, the qualia of experience can affect the physical world. While the qualia themselves are inexpressible, thinking about redness creates a particular neural signal – a recollection of the physical correlate of the quale. The information content of that signal then finds its way into these words. We can go on, as this sentence is now illustrating, to have complex ideas about these qualia.
This ability of the third level, to reach back down and tinker with the second, creates a curious paradox. How can a mere subjective correlate of a brain signal trigger a novel brain signal relating not to the previous signal but to its non-physical correlate?
Some people think that these qualia of our inner experience cannot affect the physical world because having something non-physical affect it would break the laws of physics. They think of the conscious mind as a kind of projection screen across which the qualia play like a film show in a story where we the audience cannot intervene. Others, calling themselves positivists, go a step further and say that, since the self can have no action through physical law, it effectively does not exist. But in such theories, how the qualia of experience arise from their physical correlates on the one hand, and how we can talk about them on the other, is never quite made clear.
Indeed, at present we do not know how this can work, only that it must. Quantum uncertainty and chaos theory provide two well-known physical principles through which arbitrary physical things can happen without a rigorous causal chain of events, although there may well be more such mechanisms to be discovered for all we know.
Various ingenious theories of brain function have been proposed, such as weird quantum effects in specific areas of brain chemistry, but until we can understand more about how the brain works such theories have no real foundation. Information science is making slow progress in its attempts to describe semantic or mental information in physical terms. This is the classic motivation for denying the hard problem. More recently theorists have forward all kinds of fancy ideas about quantum superpositions of possibilities in the brain and suchlike. But, as we have seen, the hard problem is not about information. The plain truth is, neither quanta nor chaos engines can perceive redness any more than any other brain mechanism can. The physical world can only ever bring forth the neural signals, it has absolutely nothing to say about how we experience those signals.
Perhaps the biggest insight comes in the relationship between the first and third levels. In Towards a Theory of Qualia I put forward the idea of "qualia space", a mathematical construct which contains any and every quale that can conceivably exist. I say a little more about it below. Every one of those qualia must have a counterpart in the realm of Order, or it could have no corresponding thought pattern. In fact, are there any aspects of Order which cannot, even in principle, be thought of? Might there similarly be a quale for every identifiable construct on the realm of Order? That would create a one-to-one relationship between the realm of Order and qualia space. This then begs the qestion, how do we logically distinguish these two realms?
The answer may be that we should not, that qualia are not so much the way in which ordered constructs assert their existence as the constructs themselves. The third level of being is in fact nothing more than the first level seen from within rather than from without. It is a very elegant solution, but I need to explore the consequences of that idea for some of the other issues raised here, before I can say whether it is useful.
Why do I begin with Order, might there be an even more primal level of being?
Earlier, I said that Nothing was a foundational idea. Why did reality not stop there, why did it go on to create Something? In a sense, Nothing represents a "zeroth" level of being – the level of non-being, perhaps analogous to the number zero or to the mathematician's empty set.
The division of being into three levels does not resolve the "hard problem", merely acknowledges it. The emergence of the third level remains as mysterious as ever. In fact, it formalises another hard problem, recognised by most physicists but seldom expressed in such terms. Why and how did a certain bucket of logical systems come to be manifest in a physical universe? One might say that the emergence of the physical universe is the hard problem of cosmology.
One problem with the third level is that, if we evolved from mindless rocks and later microbes, how could a whole new level of being suddenly spring into existence when the first quale appeared? Or might it perhaps have been there all the time as a kind of blank canvas awaiting its first artist? can it exist in any sense without a physical substrate to carry its symbolic correlates?
This suggests that the aspects of the third level with which we are familiar, bound to the physical brain as they are, may prove to be only the tip of the iceberg, mere hints of a broader level which exists beyond the reach of physical space and time. What might it be like there? Can we experience it properly once we have discarded our bodies, or does it discard us at the same moment? Might there be say a Divine level which not only overlies our level of sentience but, going full-circle, also underpins Order and all its forms? Perhaps there are even infinitely many levels, to be ultimately developed in either or both directions. At our present level of understanding, all one can say is, who knows.
Delusion plays a deep role in our experiences. Since the days of Lao Tzu and the Buddha it has been understood by the wise that there is no "me" as one experiences oneself or thinks of oneself but just the ever-flowing river of one's experiences. Introspection, an exercise that some Buddhists call "turning the light around", only ever reveals one's inner experiences, never the "me", the self, experiencing them. Each of us is nothing more nor less than the flow of our experiences. It is sometimes said that experiences, filtered through the senses and the arbitrary networks of the brain, are therefor nothing in themselves but illusions which help us survive. The information we imagine we experience is just delusions and it follows that the experience of oneself is a delusion.
But this is not quite right. There is an absurdity in this conclusion, since it is from the character of this stream that we deduce the existence of a physical world, the Second level. It is absurd to then go on and deduce that the very evidence on which we base our reasoning is an illusion: by definition you cannot define the nature of the reality from the nature of the illusion. It is more accurate to say that our interpretation of the stream, what we think it means, is all delusion. For example the self does not appear in the stream of experiences but arises only as an interpretation of it. The stream itself is the only thing in our life which is guaranteed not to be illusion. The problem is to interpret its ultimate meaning.
And here we hit a more well-worn conundrum. What then is experiencing this stream of experience, these apparent delusions of self? Western traditions might call it the soul. The current Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism is among those aware of this problem but he does not know the answer. It seems related to one's "dharma" or Buddha-nature but that too is an impenetrable mystery. I know of no better description than that Hindu's "enjoyer of the self". It may simply be the stream itself, perhaps billion upon billion of disparate streams or a universal flow embracing all such streams. Perhaps it is some realm beyond human experience, into which they all flow. Whatever it is, it is surely there and it lies at the highest accessible level of being.
For my part I am content to take the sum of all that I can both grasp and cannot grasp and give it a convenient label. I can think of none more succinct and descriptive than the Divine. A careless commentatot might mistake me for a dualist, one who regards body and spirit as independent worlds, but that is far too shallow. At a trivial level, to add the realm of Order and label me a Triplist would at least be less absurd. But really, I do not see dualism (or triplism) as a very rigorous concept. There is a sense in which the head and tails of a coin are dual to each other, and another sense in which there is one unified, monistic coin. Neither head nor tail can exist without the other. Dualism and monism are just different ways of considering the same coin. A person of theological turn of mind might see the three levels as aspects of the Divine: order as the spirit of God, the physical world as the body of God and the sum of all experience as the mind of God. Or, if you cannot abide the metaphysical echoes that such words bring, there is no harm done.
The "science vs religion" debate must surely be one of the most sterile of modern times. They are two sides of the one coin and only the fanatics and glory-hunters on either side find reason to assault each other. Let neither forget that foundational level which underpins them both, the domain of the logician.