On the Nature of Being

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In Brief


The phenomenon of conscious experience has, in one way or another, been at the heart of religious and existential philosophic argument since the dawning realisation that this is the state of our being. Historic attempts to understand consciousness, though, have failed to enlighten, and appeal to the supernatural as a means of explanation has only served to defer a satisfactory solution. With a general improvement in the levels of education around the world, there is a growing need for a rational argument, available to the general public, for how it is that the conscious experience can exist as a natural aspect of the world we inhabit. Presenting one such argument is the aim of this document.

The question of how the mind, an apparently non-physical phenomenon, can be related to the (physical) body is generally known as the Mind-Body Problem. Historically, most considerations of the mind-body problem that the general population recognise have employed the rationale of Cartesian Dualism, in which there is considered to be a distinction between mind and body. However, despite various reasoning, this approach invariably fails to explain the mind-body connection and one is left to wonder at an alternative in which mind and body are inseparable. This alternative approach is known as Dual-Aspect Monism or the Dual-Aspect Theory. Its rationale is (probably) as old as Cartesian dualism; the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677) being its best known proponent in the history of philosophy. For reasons of human nature, though, this approach does not feel superficially intuitive to us in the same way that arguments involving Cartesian dualism do.

The dual-aspect theory, though it is established in philosophical circles, does not share a place of prominence in the public eye. This is unfortunate because it can provide a reasonable explanation for consciousness that is lacking in the modern world. Perhaps because the theory remains largely esoteric, or possibly because it forces a substantial change to the way we imagine the world, it gains scant attention. This document attempts to rectify those reasons by forming an explanation that is (hopefully) more attune with everyday language. Clarity will be a key issue, since there are some difficult concepts central to the following arguments that a reader must be able to grasp. Like many arguments that are undergoing development, as this one invariably is, there are some weak points that must be admitted, and these will be highlighted as the document proceeds.

The Argument for Dual-Aspect Monism

In describing an entity as existing in some way, we are, of necessity, using the entity's relationship with the rest of the world to measure its existence; there is no way to know of an entity's existence other than empirically. If the existence of an entity is only measurable via its interaction with the rest of the world, then all of existence is restricted to the measurement of relationships. Two things can be said about this state of affairs. First, no conclusion can be drawn regarding the base nature of matter since the study of relationships is not connected directly with material absolutes. Second, that all relationships can be considered from at least two sides or points of view. Those least points of view are subjective positions within the relationship that experience the remainder of the relationship, or, if you prefer, positions within a relationship can be imagined looking objectively at the remainder of the relationship. Other points of view are possible, vis a vis those of a third-party looking objectively at the relationship as a whole.

This opening paragraph may seem unpalatable, but as relationships of this kind are all the empirical evidence there is for something existing, then the subjective point of view has to be just as valid as the objects it measures; there is no reason, or room within the assertion, to think otherwise. The general population, though, does think otherwise. The prevailing perception is that the subjective viewpoint (consciousness in our case) carries no weight in reality; it is only the objects we perceive to which we imbue the weight of physical presence. This common perception is probably due to the familiar philosophies and belief systems that involve Cartesian dualism, in which the notion of absolutes, both physical and mind-media, tend to be allowed.

By allowing the absolute nature of an entity, though, the entity is necessarily absolved of any subjective viewpoint on the rest of the world; no such relationship is required for entities possessed of existence-absolute. Since dual-aspect monism equates to there being both the subjective and objective sides to an existential relationship, such absolutes cannot be admitted. Therefore, for dual-aspect monism to work, the notion of absolute-value must be discarded and the perceived value of the subjective experience made to rise so that it is at par with our notion of the objective (real) world.

If existence is to be understood entirely as a measure of interaction between notional entities, then both objective and subjective aspects of a defining relationship must be on an equal footing; any relationship must be between partners, each of which defines a point of view. This is where the first difficulty arises, because if existence is purely a measure of interaction, then what is the nature of the perceived partners in the interactive relationship, if not of some kind of base reality. A possible answer to this is that the partners are each instances of other relationships; the whole of existence being a measure of relationships built on other relationships.

Although this answer may seem absurd, we should look at reasons for why the natural instinct for a base reality might be considered equally preposterous, thereby adding weight to the motion for it being reduced to a notional status, at least for the purpose of this document. For this, an inductive argument can be formed, employing the following points to make the inference:

1) In physics today, talk of particles takes on quite a different meaning to the common image of a particle as a tiny marble-like object. In fact the term particle is rather vague and could apply to an object of any size, but I refer here to sub-atomic particles, whether it is an electron or Higgs Boson. Particles at this scale have no description in ordinary language. They can only be defined in terms of field equations that describe their mass and interaction with neighbouring objects. The smaller the particle is, the more the emphasis shifts in the particle's equation from its mass towards its field effects. Thus for the physicist, there is no clear distinction between matter and the way it interacts with its surroundings.

2) The idea of absolute existence reduces to an absurdity. Suppose an atomic (indivisible) entity were theoretically to exist in total isolation, that is in a world of its own. By this definition there can be no external observer, so it cannot have any external relationship by which it meaningfully exists. Thus, in this supposition, the validity of the term absolute is rendered worthless. Further, being atomic, neither can it have a relationship within itself, and so cannot exist from its own point of view.

3) Suppose we assume a dualistic standpoint of some kind, and that what is seen around and about are objects with an absolute material existence. Then how can this supposition be validated if everything being observed is experienced in a different realm; that of the mind. It has never been possible to argue a connection between mind and body using Cartesian dualism, so given that conscious experience is synonymous with the mind-realm, there is no position from which to say anything about material absolutes.

Employing these points, it might reasonably be asserted that the nature of existence does not involve physical absolutes, but for now, realising there is not yet a strong alternative to describe the partners in a relationship, any reference to the underlying physical quality of a relationship should be described as notional.

This world in which existence is measured purely in terms of interaction between entities, that are themselves no more than the interactivity between other entities, may be as far as the argument needs to proceed in order to offer a naturally subjective aspect to existence. Grasping this concept, though, is probably the main stumbling block in understanding the dual-aspect theory. Accepting everything in existence as being subjective as well as an object with respect to the rest of the world seems counter-intuitive, but in accepting that there is no absolute measure of existence, what alternative is there? It may help understanding to realise that the subjective aspect of an existential relationship is simply a primitive for something that, in more complex circumstances, might be considered a subjective experience, and as such is not something with which one can empathise. Instead, the subjective aspect should be thought of as what happens to the partner in a relationship in contrast to what is seen to happen to it.

Extending the Argument

Clearly, the subjective aspect of an existential relationship does not in any way measure against the conscious experience we all share. This is where the next difficulty is encountered, because the conscious experience seems to require more than just the subjective aspect of individual relationships to be the way it is. How can the natural subjectivity, implicit in any set of existential relationships, build to the levels of consciousness we experience?

Just imagining a world created entirely of relationships seems odd to say the least. However, if one can stretch so far as to imagine this, then one can stretch a little further to realise that any processing going on within a complex entity is itself a form of existence due to the interactive nature of a process. Further to this, among these processing patterns of the entity, it should be possible to identify those that feed back into themselves. These closed patterns of interaction have nothing directly to do with the kind of interactions that define the host entity within the world; they are instead just patterns that occur, incidentally in some cases, as part of the functionality of any complicated structure. However, and this is the important bit, because these patterns form a loop, by necessity they form a chain of interaction whose existence (existence by this argument) is entirely a measure of itself, its subjective and objective aspects in this case being indistinct.

Functional loops of this kind will exist as temporary manifestations within any suitable working system, a particular example being the brain, and while manifest take on a measure of existence of their own, quite orthogonal to the underlying relationships defining the host entity's existence in reality. It is this kind of temporary artefact of existence that, in the right combination, could hold the answer to how a conscious experience might arise.

As a brief summary itself, this document, an interpretation of the dual-aspect theory, is restricted to just the key arguments. There is no magic bullet for understanding the nature of consciousness, it is a matter of adjusting our sensibilities on the grounds that, if there is only one world out there, then objectivity absolutely must be reflected in the subjective; neither one is possible without the other.

Further Discussion

This is about as far as On the Nature of Being... takes the argument. However, it would be good to see something of how these temporary artefacts of existence, referred to in On the Nature of Being... as meta-existence, might form into the kind of conscious experience that constitutes us. The following points of discussion relate to this aim.

Firstly, Integrated Information Theory (IIT, proposed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi) is an attempt to describe a tight association between the phenomenology of conscious experience and the neural process in the brain occurring at the same time. IIT says nothing of the nature of the association, just that there is a strong association. Explaining the nature of the association, essentially an artefact of meta-existence, is the subject of On the Nature of Being... and the subject of this discussion so far.

In general, if the patterns of processing that are detectable within the neural processing of the brain, specifically the cerebrum, naturally combine as part of a processing whole, then there will be corresponding artifact layers representing the experience as a whole. This appears to be in accordance with the postulates of IIT and it is feasible that this kind of mega-artefact of meta-existences is the conscious experience.

Does that sound reasonable; a conglomeration of all the processing going on at one time coming together as the conscious phenomenon? How can such a thing be responsible for, say, a rational deduction or a feeling of euphoria? The answer is it isn’t responsible. It doesn’t have to be! The real processing going on in the brain is what is doing the work; the conscious experience is just incidental to, or a side effect of, that processing. The meta-existences constituting this side effect include many, though not necessarily all, aspects of the real processing such as understanding, measure of achievement, failure and moodiness to name a few. In this way the conscious experience, rich with aspects of the real processing, feels to itself like it is the thing in charge. In the context of the conscious experience, then, the impression is that it really is doing all the thinking, even though this is actually an illusion. By contrast, in the context of the brain’s functional processing, things are as complete and as real as it gets, though, from this aspect there can be no experience at all.

A further point to keep in mind is the idea that conscious experience need have no resemblance to the real world. Even the idea that each conscious experience must be, at least, isomorphic to the real world is questionable. What will be constant, however, is the correlation between the processing along neural pathways and any associated artefacts of meta-existence. There is nothing to indicate the artefacts will exactly match the underlying neural activity, though there may well be instances, but that is not important, it is the constancy of the association between neural activity and artefacts that is key.

copyright © Geoff Collins 2016 all rights reserved