On the Nature of Being

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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 examples 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 by 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 imagine complex relationships, perhaps defining the existence of some entity, in which one can pick out additional patterns, within the defining relationships, that feed back into themselves. These loops are not necessary for defining the entity in the world; they are instead just patterns that occur by accident in any complicated structure. However, because they form a loop, by necessity, they form a chain of interaction whose existence is entirely a measure of itself, and where the subjective and objective aspects become indistinct.

Such loops can exist as temporary manifestations within a working system such as a brain, and while manifest, have an existence of their own, quite orthogonal to the underlying relationships defining the entity. 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 as far as On the Nature of Being... takes the argument. However, it would be good to see something of how these artefacts might form into the kind of conscious experience that constitutes us. The following is an outline of how this formation may occur.

Firstly, the term Artefact (above) is defined in On the Nature of Being... to mean: A temporary facet of existence, resulting when simpler entities interact, that has no direct dependence on the notional material substrate normally associated with elementary existence.

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. The nature of the association, essentially an artefact, is the subject of On the Nature of Being... and the subject of this discussion so far.

A further point to keep in mind is the idea that conscious experience, in the way it appears to us, 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, because there is nothing to say that aspects of our perception and behaviour are not performed at an automatic level. What will be constant, however, is the relationship between neural activity and any associated artefacts. Note there is nothing to indicate the artefacts exactly match the underlying neural activity, though there is bound to be some overlap. Matching is not important, it is the constancy of the association between neural activity and artefacts that is key. As an example, one may wonder how the artefact associated with seeing a rabbit eating lettuce can resemble the real world in its various aspects. Before attempting to answer this, however, first consider the following: How would one ever know what a rabbit eating lettuce really looks like? What one takes as a rabbit eating lettuce is the artefact(s) lived with and accepted as normal ever since seeing a rabbit for the first time eating lettuce.

In general, if the artefacts, detectable within the neural processing of the brain (specifically the cerebrum), naturally combine as part of a processing whole, then there exist overarching artifact layers representing the experience as a whole. This appears to be in accordance with the postulates of IIT.

IIT has it that the qualities belonging to any experience are a measure of its difference from all others. That is, an experience is unique by it being precisely this and not that or the other.... This makes sense when one considers a solitary artefact, for how can it mean anything unless it is measurably different from other experiences? If this is true, then difference must feature in some manner in the overall artefact, but how is the difference realised?

The underlying neural process, in identifying a rabbit eating lettuce, only has to match the visual pattern to that of rabbits (perhaps specifically eating lettuce), and no more, to generate behaviour. Artefacts arising from this process will consequently only have the underlying neural activity as a base, and it is difficult to see how the notion of not being anything else can play a direct role in generating the experience. In this respect I disagree with (or misunderstand) IIT. It's a rabbit because of context, the lead up to seeing the rabbit all being part of the current experience and no further questions asked. One can imagine the situation being similar to looking up the meaning of a word in the dictionary; the word is defined, but only in terms of other words. Another example: I'm looking at a door. I don't ask if it's a door, but I'm happy to know that if I do ask, then the answer will be immediate, and if I ask myself what a door is, I get a further suitable definition and so on. Clearly, though, this is not enough, because being given a definition, itself, has to make language sense. But, as mentioned earlier, a lot of this processing could be going on automatically, where artefacts are either not generated or do not contribute to the overall experience.

This latter section is something of a mishmash between the ideas of IIT and the use of context to give a sense of meaning to experience. It is likely the truth is in there somewhere. One thing does seem clear, though. That is, artefacts (subjective experience) are a natural consequence of process and as such one could argue that we conscious experiences (artefact aggregations) are merely along for the ride. On the other hand, and preferably, it could be argued that artefacts, being an unavoidable aspect of process, constitute that very process.

copyright © Geoff Collins 2016 all rights reserved