A Large Rock
Here I am sitting on a seat in the sun in a warm conservatory on a large rock hurtling through space at a good few thousand miles per hour and spinning round the heat of the sun at an equally unimaginable speed and there are chaffinches conversing across the gardens ─ you hear one stop and another over the road make some kind of answer. It seems pretty clear that there really is all that going on out there ─ no room for any kind of philosophical doubt ─ but it’s not at all clear how or why. You could call it ‘reality’ and imagine your very own self to be at the dead centre of it all; whatever it is that you are the pivot of stretches out into regions beyond distant galaxies and back ─ right down to the earth you dug ready for sowing & planting yesterday ─ Spring Equinox 2014.
I know that when I move, everything else changes location; the very act of talking about it changes whatever it might have been before I started talking; when I speak with another person I find, as if surprised, that their perspective is different from mine, tangential to it or by-passing it completely. Embark upon a paragraph and pressurised by words it all changes from what I first thought of writing. Heisenberg behind the arras. Things emerge.
But there certainly are real things out there ─ galaxies, sun, moon, clouds, chaffinches, hedge-shadows, daffodils, sleeping cat, green sward… There is a lazy habit of bundling all this up together with relationships and socio-economic systems to call it ‘reality’, mine, yours, somebody else’s. All that’s, without doubt, out there in its complex kind of way ─ interrelated systemic cycles of Being ─ it impinges ─ my cycle overlaps yours somehow is overlapped by the latest news of an airliner that’s mysteriously disappeared to gum up the ‘news’ bulletins, interfused with a report on the most up-to-date bit of brain-washing from some politico indifferent to the systemic nature of… huh, ‘reality’, relying on virus words to spread contagion ─ something about ‘having to make difficult choices/difficult decisions…’ when anybody with a square inch of intelligence knows very well that a millionaire chancellor has no qualms whatsoever about putting people out of work and dismantling the Welfare State ─ the easiest thing in the world when the quality of your own living space is not affected in the least. Well, until the riots arrive at your gates – then they might start hopping around…
There are realities out there: multiple thinginesses in structural relationships. In a single moment of time it may be that one can bundle it all up and call it ‘reality’ and make a pretence of ‘meaning’. But then, attitudes to language being what they are, it’s so easy in the process of thinking for the abstraction ‘reality’ and the abstraction ‘meaning’ to come to assume some significance quite apart from the complexity one might have been fishing around for in the first place.
‘In the first place…’ For the neonate it’s all one huge Undifferentiated Unity; it doesn’t think at all in terms of ‘reality’ or ‘meaning’: there are just sights and sounds & feelings in contemporaneity ─ not even a bundling up which is a reductionist activity for later on, after First Education differentiation.
Education is fragmentation ─ choose your own favourite bundling mode.
Language, attaching words to what happens, is fragmentation & categorisation. In fact, things just happen, as Gurdjieff says.
The Infinite Unclassifiable
There is no central organising principle to fundamental ‘reality’. Even the idea that it might conceivably have had such a principle is part of the categorising process. You can call it Thereness, maybe, but it has no core. Human-beings, faced with the infinite flexibility of just-thereness, have sought to tie things down by inventing words, producing models, schemes of thinking, in order to contrive a core or at least a way of categorising the just-thereness that seems to suit them.
All manner of linguistic conjuring tricks have been contrived. As with all such tricks the effect, if not the aim, is to prevent us from recognising reality when it’s staring us in the face; words get in the way of what’s actually there: the word ‘tree’ gets in the way of the actual perception of the object in itself ─ it enforces the conventional perception of ‘treeness’, the Form of Tree, rather than, say, ‘bug-home’ or ‘bird-hideaway’; in metaphysical systems, the notion of the permanence of substance with God at the top of the hierarchy was offered as the ground of ‘reality’ from the pre-Socratics onward. Now, substance has fragmented into atoms, particles, energy, force-fields, quanta, laws of nature…
Descartes offered us subjectivism: mind is the primary substance of which things are merely extension or projection; the ultimate was Berkeley’s idealism which had it that mind was what kept things in their place, ultimately the Mind of God; without human mind or the Mind of God nothing would exist. This led to the dichotomy of science v philosophy, science claiming to deal in sticks & stones, their independent and certain existence, while philosophy was about fairyland.
Another linguistic conjuring trick, one designed to bridge the conceptual dichotomy brought into being by those who made the substantialism/ subjectivism distinction, was that which suggested that everything is part of an absolute and mysterious One ─ Parmenides’ metaphysical invention to be compared with the neonate’s pre-conceptual Undifferentiated Unity but one deriving from intellectual rummaging rather than a natural state.
A fourth great conjuring trick is the suggestion that all we can do is think in terms of models of reality: it’s not that any of them depict things as they really are ─ that idea in itself might well be the result of the application of a model or indeed form the basis of one ─ but that each acts as an instrument for ordering and explaining observations and predictions in spite of themselves. Everything is a mental construct: both philosophy and science (and religion & all other systems) are models of how the mind invents ‘reality’. What’s called ‘Instrumentalism’ is not about things as they are (or might be) but about collections of statements about the nature of reality; it is a meta-position neither subjective nor objective but ratcheted up a level. The very notion of ‘reality’ is denied: the question ‘What is the nature of reality?’ ought never to have been asked since in itself it posits the existence of that which it seems to ask about – viz ‘reality’. All we can do is to think in models ─ engage with an information process that does not concern itself with metaphysical questions about ‘reality’.
So there are four fundamental bits of intellectual prestidigitation: assertions about the substantiality of things out there; surrender to a subjectivity which takes things to be merely an extension of mind; the invention of holism which takes everything to be part of a great Oneness; and instrumentalism which has it that all that’s possible is to fiddle around with a variety of models of what might constitute ‘reality’ ─ something designated thus.
With a shower of verbalising, each fortified position becomes more and more tied in to the way things are and, to confuse matters even further, the historical development of arguments between their proponents produces a variety of what are regarded as subtle alternatives. All this gets in the way of what one might call the Interface between pure mentation, the reception of Pure Impressions, and what’s out there just as it is & always has been.
Is there a way out of all this? Is it possible to produce a way of thinking that is not just a conjuring trick? Or is it all rabbits out of hats & sawing the boxed up lady in half? If anything, it would maybe have to partake of the quality of provisionality, a constant approximation to the way things really are or might be…
There are things out there, including our own body-mind system; one can shift attention so that it certainly does feel as though everything is an integral part of a whole; and we do create models of reality for ourselves. And, except for those who cannot tolerate such ambiguity, it’s all provisional in the sense that constant seeking & exploration has to take in what’s gone before and work with it into an uncertain future; ideas & concepts that once seemed stable & certain get modified and are always subject to transformation; new ways of looking at things emerge from the old ones. Stuff arises like now ─ in immediacy. Things happen as a result of other things happening. Everything is systemic.
The poem-writer looks at the world from which patterns constantly emerge: they act as metaphors for a state of being ─ objective correlatives, in TSEliot’s familiar phrase; they can be ambushed and fashioned into sequences of words; a poem is born that way.
Ted Hughes wrote a poem called The Thought Fox which is, for me, the best expression of this process that I know of:-
I imagine this moment’s midnight forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.
Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
is entering the loneliness:
Cold, delicately as the dark snow,
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now
Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come
Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Coming about its own business
Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.
The context is real and centred on self ─ this moment now, an awareness of something else alive, a forest of thinking perhaps ─ the poet’s loneliness & blankness, current emptiness. Something (which may even at this stage be the beginnings of a poem) begins to emerge from the context of real & conceptualised events ─ the fox, perceived or not, a gathering together of visual & olfactory impressions enter the dark hole of the head to be worked at. The emergent property of the whole experience is the poem itself. Once it’s done the ordinary focus returns to window and clock.
One foot in front of another along a lane results in the emergence of what’s called ‘walking’ which can be extended into stroll, hike, tour, trek… The observer and the things observed brings about the emergence of visual and feeling-reaction. There’s a Being with its reaction to the quality of being. The emergent property is artefact, gesture or simply an awareness, a thing in itself except that it runs the risk of being generalised into the abstraction ‘consciousness’.
Arisings and the conditions of arising. Events and their interactions and emergings. Everything that arises does so because of other things; there is no independence: what you see depends on where you look; what you hear depends on what you direct your attention to or stop to listen for; what you feel depends on the liveliness of your senses; what you think depends on the grasping of input; what you imagine you know depends on the athleticism of your faculties. Then there all these emergings out of each system which in turn become parts of systems. Particles or waves; waves or particles? ‘Cause’ has no meaning apart from ‘effect’.
The upshot of all this is that there is no firm core of ‘reality’, simply vast numbers of systems of systems with emergent properties. Things appear separated but all is connected – thus Ouspensky.
So one escapes from the mind/body/knowledge problem by producing a model which is meta to the problem; it depicts the way things interact in an objective kind of way; it’s a spacious mind-field.
What does it mean – to get real? What is a reality check? What could you possibly check ‘reality’ against? Some other ‘reality? Yours against somebody’s else’s?
One can certainly have a picture of ‘reality’: it can be rich or impoverished; a rich picture is complex; impoverished pictures lack detail and systemic interrelatedness – they are disentangled, often produced in a hurry.
To get a rich picture chunk down for detail and up for entanglement & interrelationships; particles & waves, waves & particles. This is called ‘complementarity’ in the Quantum World. What with that movement up and down and the fact that the very isolation & measurement of what you’re considering changes it, the fundamental ‘reality’ becomes one of constant interaction. The forces of interaction are what glue things together – there are forces of attraction & repulsion.
It’s all Greek to me really, but I can grasp the idea that quantum physics is a new physical concept of reality that overturned dichotomous notions and replaced them with a systemic approach, substance & force and interchange. Heisenberg called elementary particles just the idea of matter – fields of force are the ultimate reality.
The mind requires something a bit more solid than this: it is content to opt for an escape into the relative simplicity of holism or instrumentalism, subjectivity or substantialism; each of these is a relaxation of intellectual focus. It’s a bit of a blow to mechanical intellect but it’s just not possible to get away from the double-sided nature of quantum objects; the fundamental physical reality consists of clouds of interacting quantum objects – it requires a leap of intellect to keep the clouds floating in air. I think this is the constant dance of ideas; it’s how I understand the Quantum world as a metaphor for thinking.
Reality is a Vast System of Systems
No system can possibly consist of one single independent entity.
Out of all the things I could have been doing in the last couple of days I have chosen to keep at this essay, a trial of provisional sense-making, a little attack on the infinite, an attempt to reduce a bit of it, my corner, to a trail of things for scrutiny. I have a determination to get some temporary order out of just this small portion of the universe, centred as it is on I-myself.
It’s an entanglement for the time being. I have chosen to be entangled in a cluster of thinking concerned with entanglements, meshes that last for a concentrated period of time & space, anything from half a minute to an hour or so, requiring getting up to consult a book, engaging in sub-entanglements like turning the LP record over and adjusting my ear-phones or stopping to look at gulls flying up or down river.
Any entanglement exists only for so long as I want it to: commitment to writing an essay just a few hours; commitment to concocting a book a few months or so; commitment to composing a piece of music anything from half-an-hour to a couple of weeks; a poem might fox its way on to the page in next to no time.
Entanglements, quantum packets, categories, bracketing…
I am not now sitting in a seat in the sun. That was a couple of days ago, the day after the Spring Equinox. Space-time has changed. I am in a different pair of brackets: I am in my ‘office’ entanglement, currently with Alan Rawsthorne’s Cello & Piano Sonata entering the hole in my head, looking out on a bright morning in spring and considering the things that are beyond my immediate apprehension of reality but which I know to be constitutive of it, an extension of this here & now (of budding apple tree and silver birch), holding me in place.
It reaches… in [some] fixed order of being into the limitless beyond. What is actually perceived and what is more or less clearly co-present and determinate… is partly pervaded, partly girt about with a dimly apprehended depth or fringe of indeterminate reality…
This is Edmund Husserl (in Morton White’s Age of Analysis – ancient Mentor paperback I absorbed 55 years ago – I wonder whether all the foregoing is a result) who rather beautifully describes the Undifferentiated Unity of the neonate which can also be the uncluttered moment of ordinary being. He calls it the Natural Standpoint.
Our first outlook on life is that of natural human-beings, imaging, judging, feeling, willing, from the natural standpoint. Let us make clear to ourselves what this means in the form of simple meditations which we can best carry on in the first person.
I am aware of a world, spread out in space endlessly and in time becoming and become without end. I am aware of it which means first of all that I discover it immediately, intuitively. I experience it. Through sight, touch, hearing… sensory perception, corporeal things somehow spatially distributed are for me simply there, in verbal or figurative sense ‘present’, whether or not I pay them special attention by busying myself with them, considering, thinking, feeling, willing. Animal beings also… are immediately there for me; I look up, I see them, I hear them coming towards me, I grasp them by the hand; speaking with them, I [seem to] understand… what they are sensing and thinking, the feelings that stir them, what they wish or will. They too are present as realities in my field of intuition even when I pay them no attention. But it is not necessary that they and other objects likewise should be present precisely in my field of perception… I can let my attention wander from the writing-table. I have just seen and observed, through the unseen portions of the room behind my back to the verandah, into the garden, to the children in the summer-house, and so forth, to all the objects concerning which I precisely ‘know’ that they are there and yonder in my immediate co-perceived surroundings – a knowledge which has nothing of conceptual thinking in it; it first changes into clear intuiting with the bestowing of attention and even then only partially and for the most part very imperfectly.
One moves freely in a moment of being through a more or less specifically chosen bundling up of ‘reality’, a little entanglement. I can shift my standpoint in space and time, look this way and that, turn temporarily forwards and backwards; I can provide for myself constantly new and more or less clear and meaningful perceptions and representations, and images also more or less clear in which I make intuitable to myself whatever can possibly exist really or supposedly in the steadfast order of space & time. Choice of bundling depends on values, desires, interests, simple focus, concern, intention, accident, enthusiasm and practical considerations. There are so many shifting spontaneities of consciousness making up…
…the bringing of meaning into conceptual form through description, comparing and distinguishing, collecting & counting, presupposing and inferring, the theorising activity of consciousness… in its different forms & stages. Related to it likewise are the diverse acts and states of sentiment and will: approval & disapproval, joy & sorrow, desire & aversion, hope & fear, decision & action…
‘Thinginess’ is always there to be acted upon; other categories come into play – the structures of thinking, feeling, doing impinge constantly on the Natural Standpoint. This is the same for all of us and we all project what we take to be the only reality – our own – on to other people. Thus strife & difference, nuclear war & terrorism.
The Natural Standpoint is prior to all theories, ‘anticipatory ideas of any kind’, ‘agencies for uniting facts [in some way] together’, and it’s always worth shedding all those theories in order to return to the start.
Certain it is that there are things out there and then ideas about things: such a position ‘…endures persistently during the whole course of our life of natural endeavour…’ Descartes might have proposed systematic doubt (exempting God) but any such endeavour would not have affected what it was he might have chosen to doubt. I can contrive to doubt my current apprehension of cloudless blue but the expression of dubiety includes a reference to what I am supposed to be doubting. Blue sky just happens to be there.
Descartes chose to put God in brackets and work his system around them. At this late stage in history, we can bracket ‘systematic doubt’ as a stance – go ahead and doubt everything, especially ‘God’ but exempt my current apprehension of blue sky and the sound of Peter Racine Fricker’s Cello Sonata that not a lot of people have ever heard of…
More & More Brackets
…In relation to every thesis and wholly uncoerced we can use this peculiar ε͗ποχη, a certain refraining from judgement which is compatible with the unshaken and unshakable… The thesis is ‘put out of action’, bracketed, it passes off into the modified status of a ‘bracketed thesis’ and [any] judgement… is bracketed.
In brackets, Plato’s concept of Forms works – it’s a very neat idea. Outside the brackets it runs wild and causes philosophical, political & religious chaos. ‘God’ and his hierarchy in brackets is a pleasant model of reality but outside them it doesn’t compute. Doubting in brackets is OK but outside it’s a riot. You can put anything in brackets and delight in its stance: (any grand narrative), (any political or economic arrangement), (everything is illusion), (everything is absurd – has no meaning), (I make my own meaning – you make yours), (any theory under the sun) and so on.
…We put out of action the general thesis which belongs to the essence of the Natural Standpoint; we place in brackets whatever it includes respecting the nature of Being: the entire natural world therefore which is continually ‘there for us’, ‘present to our hand’, and will ever remain there is a ‘fact world’ of which we continue to be conscious, even though it pleases us to put it in brackets…
In brackets (the Natural Standpoint itself)…
If I do this, as I am fully free to do, I do not then deny ‘this world’, as though I were a sophist, I do not doubt that it is there, as though I were a sceptic, but I use the ‘phenomenological’ ε͗ποχη, which completely bars me from using any judgement that concerns spatio-temporal existence. (Dasein)… Thus all sciences which relate to this natural world, though they stand never so firm to me, thought they fill me with wondering admiration, though I am far from a thought of objecting to them in the least degree, I disconnect them all, I make absolutely no use of their standards… I may accept [them] only after I have placed them in the bracket. That means, only the modified consciousness… in disconnection…
Husserl’s intention was not at all to discover a science free from theory. Every theory was acceptable when bracketed off; theories about anything are acceptable in brackets as possible ways of seeing things: (assertions about the substantiality of things out there), (subjectivity which takes things to be merely an extension of mind), (holism which takes everything to be part of a great Oneness), (instrumentalism – only a model)… One must be very careful when taking things out of their brackets to multiply them together – it could result in chaos & dissension.
For 55 years I have found ‘bracketing’ to be a useful thinking process: outlandish things work when you contemplate them in brackets; behaviour is always justifiable when it’s in brackets; the positive intentions one can attribute to even negative actions take off in brackets; put any methodology in brackets and it probably makes sense, but only while it’s contained there; a relationship, no matter how lovey-dovey, is a bracket set against all that flows around it; fantasies of one kind or another always make consecutive sense inside their brackets; put some damn fool resolution of a novel plot in brackets and it’s OK; bracketed off a particular writer’s quirks are fine; put a theory in brackets, making sure it doesn’t escape, and it will remain water-tight. Then you can find out what happens when you do multiply brackets: what systems emerge, what interesting juxtapositions occur, what connections can be made, and so on?
I put this essay in whatever brackets it might deserve.
Reality is in brackets.