In the context of this book, the world refers to the totality of that which you experience yourself to exist within (the external, material or physical world), and that which you experience as existing within you (the internal, immaterial, mental world).
The world appears to contain objects, i.e. everything you (the subject) could interact with or that could interact with each other. This includes both physical objects (e.g. a rock you could throw), and mental objects (e.g. an unpleasant emotion you could suppress).
The existence of an object requires a background before which this object exists. Imagine someone showing you a white sheet of paper with a black spot at its center. You would immediately recognize the black spot as an object because it is surrounded by the white background. But now the person holding up the sheet reveals something new to you. They were actually holding up two sheets of paper, a black sheet that was covered by a white sheet with a hole in the middle. Observe what happens to your perception of the black spot. It stops being an object. Instead, the white sheet is now an object with a hole that allows you to see the black background. What is true for this simple object is also true for more complex objects. Any object you can think of is defined precisely by all the other objects it is not, which collectively form the background of this object.
Just like we are typically ignoring the backgrounds of objects, we are often blind to the fact that objects consist of parts and are themselves parts of larger wholes. Picture a large forest in your mind for a second. Do you see any tree in particular? Nope, it’s a forest, not a bunch of trees. Notice the difference. Now mentally zoom in on a tree. Where has the forest gone? You literally can’t see the forest for the trees. Picture the same tree shredded to dust. Where is the tree now? It’s all there, the whole tree is there, but you can no longer see it; all you can see is sawdust. The tree has lost its “treeness”, as it were, its identity as a tree. If we fail at both, to see the parts in the whole and the whole in the parts, it is safe to say that we are missing the majority of what is going on around us at any given moment.
The part-whole relationship exists not only in space, but also in time. When objects interact with each other in a particular pattern, their interaction gives rise to new objects (and their backgrounds) in the eyes of an observer. All objects, with the exception of elemental particles, can be understood as temporary configurations in the flux of underlying smaller objects. For instance, a wave in the ocean is an object and its identity of being a wave emerges from the particular spatio-temporal pattern of water molecules brought about by the wind interacting with the surface of the water. Looking closer still, you can see that a water molecule consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom that interact with each other in a covalent bond. Zooming in on a hydrogen atom, it appears as consisting of a proton and an electron and the proton further consists of two up-quarks, a down-quark and gluons. These, like electrons, are considered elemental particles and those are somehow (I’m not a physicist) both particles and waves, i.e. both objects and processes.
Our sense organs and minds typically operate at a specific level in this hierarchy of emergent identities (as I call it), that is appropriate in the sense that we perceive as objects what we can interact with. When you eat an apple, for instance, the object of your interaction is the apple and not the molecules it consists of. Your gastro-intestinal tract, on the other hand, interacts not with an apple but with molecules, and these molecules become part of the molecular pattern that gives rise to the emergent identity of your body.
There are two fundamental ways in which the objects of the world interact: They can either attract or repel, e.g. an apple falls down because of a force of attraction between the apple and the earth, like poles of two magnets repel each other, and you might find certain thoughts attractive or repulsive.
From this basic interaction, temporary stable formations or rhythms can emerge, e.g. planets move in orbits, the flu season comes once per year and people tend to get into a rut. All of these systems could be in many different states but they tend to fall into certain patterns, making their behavior predictable. These patterns are called attractors. When a system is in a state where it will eventually converge to a particular attractor if left to itself, the state it is in is part of what is called the basin of attraction of that attractor.
The most basic kind of attractor is a point attractor, that is an attractor in which all trajectories lead to the same state. As an illustration, picture a bowl on a table and a marble. Wherever you place the marble on the surface of the bowl, it rolls around for a bit, but eventually it settles in the center and remains there in equilibrium. If you placed the marble on the table next to the bowl it would not roll towards the attractor because it is outside its basin of attraction. Things get really interesting when we start interacting with the marble in the bowl by applying an external force. If you gave the marble a gentle nudge it would roll up the bowl for a bit, then oscillate back and forth and eventually settle in the center again. If you applied a steady gentle force you could move it out of the basin of attraction onto the table and it would not roll back. You could achieve a similar, but likely less precise result by giving the marble a single but powerful push.
As you can see, the same principles of attraction and repulsion are at work both at the fundamental level and at the system level, e.g. the way an apple and the earth attract each other via the force of gravitation is not unlike the way a system is attracted by a particular configuration due to the forces interacting between its components.
It is interesting to observe attraction and repulsion in daily life. Just as a demonstration that you can find examples anywhere, consider yoyo-dieting. A person with a certain initial weight quickly loses some pounds and then gains them all back over the next couple of months. If they do this only once, you could say that the original weight forms an attractor of their body’s weight-regulation system, but if they yoyo-diet once every 6 months, an oscillatory pattern emerges whose attractor is the cycle of weight-loss and weight-gain itself, and pushing the dieter out of this attractor would translate to showing them how to permanently change their eating habits (yet another attractor) as to avoid the yoyo-effect.
Among the more interesting patterns of interaction are certainly those that constitute living beings. Have you ever wondered what makes something alive? You know you are alive, and that people, animals and plants are also alive, and that a rock or a car are not. What is the difference between the living and the dead? It’s a principle called autopoiesis. An autopoietic system is a network of production that continuously produces the components it consists of, i.e. it literally produces itself.1 Autopoiesis has been defined for single-cellular life, but the concept can be extended to multicellular life. In this body of yours, cells (which are themselves autopoietic systems) regularly die and are replaced by new ones, a continuous process of self-maintenance and self-production that gives rise to your body and its background. The background of your body is everything that isn’t part of this self-producing network. When the components of an autopoietic system stop interacting in the self-producing manner, the system stops being alive.
Autopoiesis is a pretty good definition of life as it avoids the problems of the older checklist approach. For example, the checklist for whether something is alive often included the ability to procreate. By that definition, infertile animals would have to be considered dead. Autopoiesis also brings with it the possibility for artificial life. Since the definition only cares about the interaction of system components and not the actual components themselves, a living system could be realized using synthetic or even virtual components and still be alive all the same.
Just like the identity of a tree is a certain “treeness” that makes it a tree, humans have a certain “humanness” to them. But what exactly is that? A human with a prosthetic arm or leg is still a human alright, but now imagine one of your friends had all of her body parts replaced with artificial ones. One by one, all muscles are replaced with motors, all sense organs with the corresponding artificial sensors and all neurons and axons with synthetic neurons and wires, effectively turning her into an android. Depending on the available technology her body may no longer be autopoietic, so she may not technically be alive, but she would walk the same and talk the same as your friend and retain all her memories. Would you consider her to be the same person as before? Also, would you consider her to be human?
At the time of writing, this may seem a far fetched example, but even if you may not be replacing all of your body parts with artificial ones, your body is continuously changing. In fact, each and every object in this world is continuously changing. This observation may seem quite unremarkable at first, but I invite you to give it some thought and see where that leads.
When you were young, a tree probably seemed like a pretty stable thing, but as you grew older, your window of observation widened, and you could see old trees die and young ones grow from seeds, and thus learn that a tree is not as permanent as it once appeared, but rather something that is subject to birth and death. What is true for plants is also true for animals, including humans. Children are born, grow up to become adults, maybe give birth to new children and then die. But not just living things are subject to birth and death in this way. A mountain has not always been a mountain. It may have formed long ago and may persist for a long time to come, but eventually the whole mountain will have changed its shape and location. A mountain only seems solid and permanent because it changes so much more slowly than we can discern happening in the short time we spend observing it. What about immaterial things? Friendships, for example, come into being just like mountains do, and just like mountains they change and will eventually end. That is why marriage is not forever, but “’til death do us part” (or, more contemporarily, a divorce lawyer).
Take a moment to reflect on the impermanence of all things. Maybe start with the stuff you can see around you right now. Where was that stuff a thousand years ago? Will any of it still exist a thousand years hence? Whether living or dead, material or immaterial, all things, once they have come into being, can only be destroyed again. Nothing ever stays the way it is. This quickly gets very personal when you reflect on all the things you own, all the people you care about, and your own body and mind. All of that exists, and because it exists, it is subject to change and eventual destruction.
If thinking about this causes you discomfort, then that’s a good sign that you have been living a lie, in which your mind erroneously assumed that things last forever. They don’t. To remain happy in an ever-changing world, our happiness cannot depend on the objects we perceive. On the bright side, the impermanent nature of all things also means that, to quote one of my favorite movies (the first half anyway), “it can’t rain all the time”.
From studying the brains of patients with various mental symptoms, we have learned that mind and brain are intricately connected. Although we are still unclear about a great many details, the evidence seems to support the general notion that minds are what brains do.
I like to begin explaining the workings of the brain using the metaphor of Newton’s cradle, the famous desk toy. In case you have never heard of it, it’s a series of swings connected to a single frame. Each swing consists of two strings suspending a metal ball. The swings are positioned closely together, so that there is no space between the balls. When you lift the first ball on one side and let go of it, the ball connects to the second and stops dead. The impulse travels unseen from ball to ball until it reaches the last ball, which swings back and forth, connecting to the series of balls again, sending the impulse back through the chain of balls, until it reaches the first one, which then swings back to your hand. It’s really entertaining for about 5 seconds but tends to become rather annoying shortly thereafter.
Newton’s cradle is a bad metaphor for just about all aspects of brain function, with one exception: Like Newton’s cradle, the brain receives impulses, usually from within the body or one of the external senses, which travel in an electromagnetic form along axons from neuron to neuron and eventually may “turn around” and travel “back out” through the motor system, where they may leave the brain and affect the body, e.g. by contracting muscles or releasing hormones. It is of course a lot more complex than that, as the electromagnetic impulses are buffered, aggregated, differentiated etc. along the way, but I find that this metaphor helps facilitate a naturalistic understanding of the brain for people without a scientific background. The brain is a part of the physical world and it works in accordance with the laws of physics, there’s nothing magical or inherently inexplicable about it, it’s just rather complex.
The mind can be roughly divided into three parts: Cognition deals with knowing what is happening, affect with what it means to us (relevance, valence) and conation is the mind’s reaction. Impulses from the senses are integrated by the brain and form the basis of cognition. The bodily subset of those impulses are also processed by affect. When the impulses “turn around” they become part of conation. They may stay within the mind/brain, causing mental activity (e.g. planning), or they may leave the mind, causing behavior or various changes within the body (that can feed back into the brain as cognition and affect).
Not all that is experienced can also interact. For instance, you are currently perceiving these words regardless of whether or not you are aware of the words as mental objects you could interact with. You probably cannot do that anyway, can you? Try to interact with this sentence as you are reading it. You could rewrite the words while they are out there, but as soon as they enter your mind by the act of reading, they just pop up in consciousness, perhaps spoken by your inner voice. Can you feel/hear that inner voice while reading? Or perhaps they pop up as images only, can you see them do that? There is no interaction between words or anything, is there? They simply pop up and vanish again.
It would seem the word “object” is not applicable in such instances because objects can be interacted with. That is why I often use the more general term “phenomenon”. A phenomenon is a unit of experience. Put simply: if it’s experienced, it’s a phenomenon. A phenomenon exists before a background that consists of everything it is not, e.g. a cube is a cube because it is not a sphere, pyramid or any other shape but cubical. Phenomena can merge into new phenomena, e.g. the color red and the shape cube can combine to red cube. Phenomena are facts, i.e. they are intrinsically true. If there’s a phenomenon of “red cube”, that phenomenon just is, and it could not be anything else because then it would be a different phenomenon to begin with. Objects are a superset of phenomena, i.e. all objects are phenomena, although we usually don’t think of them like that because we are so focused on their interactive aspect.
Consciousness, as understood here, is synonymous to awareness. It is the quality of being conscious/aware that arises when we wake up and that appears to be lost in deep, dreamless sleep or coma.
Speaking of sleep and dreams, you may not remember a lot of dreams in the morning, but if you set an alarm to wake you up a couple of times during the night, I’m sure you would be able to recall your current dream at the time. This could mean that you were dreaming unconsciously, until, in the moment of waking up, consciousness arose and allowed you to experience the dream, but it could also mean that all dreams are consciously experienced as they happen, and then simply forgotten again. We know from scientific experiments that not all of the mind, i.e. not all brain activity, is also consciously experienced, or rather, not reported as being consciously experienced by the test subjects of those experiments. Given the fact that we are unaware of the conscious contents of the minds of other people, it could very well be the case that this presumed unconscious activity is merely forming a separate conscious mind within the same brain. We currently have no way of knowing for sure.
I’m assuming you are reading this text with your eyes. If you are listening to it, please substitute “hearing” for “seeing” in the following couple of sentences. Just like you may not be aware of every word of this text as a word, you may see these sentences and remain unaware of the fact that you are seeing. Try and appreciate the fact that you are seeing for a second. If you can do it (which might take some training), you’ll find that it’s a somewhat profound experience. You can now experience visual phenomena pop out of seeing and vanish again, i.e. you can witness the arising and passing away of visual phenomena. You can also realize that seeing is a phenomenon in and of itself, its background being all of the other senses.
So if that’s possible, then maybe it’s also possible to become aware of consciousness/awareness itself. All other phenomena would then be perceived as “popping out” from consciousness, making it the source/ground from which all phenomena arise.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the notion of minds being brain activity puts us in a strange place epistemologically. If minds are the activity of brains, and brains are concepts of the mind, then we have created a circular explanation. How is that supposed to explain anything? It’s not. It’s meant to point out that neither the physical nor the mental is the whole story, but that instead these two depend on each other like two sides of the same coin, and it’s supposed to make you wonder about the nature of that coin.
Each phenomenon has a background consisting of everything it is not. That means that each phenomenon is a split of one into two, the creation of another “coin”, as it were. The difference between subject and object, seeing and hearing, good and bad, all of that is yet another coin. The greatest coin of all is indubitably the separation of the conscious from the unconscious.
So what is the nature of “the coin”? I’ve used the image of a coin as an illustration of the principle of information as formalized in the field of study called information theory. Essentially, information means difference. The coin represents the difference between two sides (I’m not counting the rim of the coin as a side of its own here), which is quantified as 1 bit of information. So when nothing/void splits into consciousness and unconsciousness, that’s 1 bit of information. If we keep splitting consciousness often enough, we arrive at our current experience. As each split generates more information, it would seem the totality of our phenomenal world can be expressed as a number of bits. In a way, that is not surprising at all, since our brains are basically a form of computer, making our minds basically a form of computation.
It is, by definition, impossible at any given moment to experience that which is not conscious. What can be experienced, however, is reducing the amount of experienced information to 1 bit (i.e. pure consciousness/awareness), then going through the non-experience of 0 bit, and coming back, i.e. a sort of dying and being reborn as the same person (that is reportedly more profound than waking up in the morning). We’ll explore the practical aspects in a later chapter.
The Universal Process
Let’s think this through. Your mental experience consists entirely of phenomena. Phenomena are information which (in case you are a human being) is generated by the activity of your brain. Your brain is an organ of your body. As your body is a living thing, i.e. it’s an autopoietic system, it’s not really a thing at all, but rather a process of transformation (transforming food and oxygen into warmth, movement and plant fertilizer). When did this process start? It didn’t start when you were born, because it was already ongoing in the womb of your mother before your birth. It didn’t start at your conception either, because that conception involved two cells, one from each of your parents, and since all cells of a parent are part of their life process, your life process and that of your parents are actually one and the same. There is no point in time where one life process ends and another begins. Bodies are born and die, but the life process continues without interruption. Tracing back this process through a long and unbroken line of ancestry, we arrive at the beginning of life (the root of the tree of life). At that point we find that early life was basically a chemical reaction. It becomes clear that the process of biological evolution is part of a much larger chemical evolution. Tracing back this larger process, we arrive at the formation of elements, and the realm of physics, where we find our investigation ending with the Big Bang, i.e. the beginning of the process that is the universe. So if you ever find yourself wondering who you really are, you are really the universal process.2
This universal process is neither mental nor physical, neither conscious nor unconscious, and even though I like to call it “the universal process” to underline the fact that something is obviously happening, its nature is by definition beyond what can be understood or experienced. This is probably the end of what can be known.3
- For an excellent and accessible account of autopoiesis and the nature of life, see the book The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, the researchers who coined the term autopoiesis.
- If you would like that explained with different words, I can recommend Alan Watts’ book The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are.
- It can be fun to imagine the possibilities: Maybe it’s the dream of a supernatural being? Maybe it’s a computer simulation? But ultimately, it seems to me, these speculations reveal more about the nature of our minds than the nature of an underlying reality.