Chapter 1

The Problem of "Things"

Last revised: 14th April 2005

My concern is with "knowledge", with what "knowledge" is like.
There is something about the way we think which prevents us from getting at it.

One possible source of error is that we tend to think of knowledge as a "something", as if knowledge could have an independent existence; independent in the same sense as that in which my experience of self leads me to think of this collection of cells, bits of bone that is me, to be distinct from other things, from those which do not seem to be a part of me. Things one can hit without my feeling any pain.

There are real difficulties in drawing the exact boundaries between that which is and is not me.
Is the air I draw into my lungs a part of me?
But the carbon dioxide I expel from my lungs was a part of me.
At some point, the oxygen I absorb through my lungs becomes a part of me, like the food I eat and convert into flesh, fat, and bone.
At what point did it cease to be a part of the "out there" and become a part of me?
At what point does something cease to be a part of me?
The arm that is severed. I can no longer control it, no longer feel it.
Sew it back on and again it becomes a part, a something which I feel.
At my surface, the open wound, the molecules become detached, blown away in the air and others, accidentally present, maybe take their place.
At what point are they a part of me?
Is it really sensible to think of this me as a something having a precise boundary?
It is certainly convenient to think of it in that way.
The stone hit me not you.
But if we wish to be precise, to talk precisely of that thing which is me, of that thing which is you, then the matter might be less than clear cut.
Physics tells us that everything is inextricably related to everything else; that nothing is truly independent; that everything interacts with everything else.
Remove the air and I cease to exist as a thing which feels.
So is it the air in my lungs which feels?

Clearly the notion is ludicrous or seems to be.
I certainly need the air in order to feel. I cannot feel much for long without it.
It is something which combines with me so that I can feel.
It is something which fuels my ability to feel,
but not all of it is spent as fuel.
All that which is me, is the direct product of the out there, the food I eat, the air I breathe.
A part of the "out there" which combines to make this me which feels.
This me is then a part of the out there which feels.
If it is a part of the "out there" then surely that "out there" feels also?
The "out there" is a part of that thing which feels.
The "me", and the "out there" are all one: inextricable intertwinings, the distinctions artificial.
It is mainly useful to think of "us" and "them" but not always. Not when we would like to be precise, to state exactly the point at which things cease to be.

You might like to say that in this case we should not be thinking of clear boundaries but rather as a gradual diminishing, like the cream poured into the coffee, dissolving at the edges.
True, but from where do we measure?
With the cream and the coffee we start by having them in separate containers.
It is easy to see which is which.
We can trace the path of the stream, observe the mixing at its edges.
But where does the mixing take place if we're speaking of an arm?
The difficulty is that all the bits and pieces of the "me" are all the time being replaced by bits and pieces of the "out there".
So any boundary might be purely arbitrary.
If it is arbitrary, if we cannot say, even in principle, that there exists a precise boundary to be discovered, that it is necessarily the case that a boundary should exist, then just what is this "thing" that feels?
How am I to define precisely that subset of the universe that is ME?

If there can be no clear boundary, then perhaps the best we can say is that if "things", states of affairs, are such and such, i.e. that a particular state of affairs entails, then there will be a "thing" which feels as I feel.
This region of space contains a state of affairs which feels.
Maybe it is best thought of that way as a matter of convenience.

We think of stones as things with clear boundaries.
But these are only that way to us. It is the way we think.
If we could pass through them unhindered as the neutrino is supposed to do, then we might not notice them at all.
That is, the stone and the ground it lies on would be part of the same thing.

The block of marble contains a sculpture.
The sculptor does no more than remove the wrapping.
But there is an infinity of different sculptures in that block.
The wrapping of one sculpture can be part of the substance of another.
The matter and the form.
I am thinking of Aristotle. Matter without form was like the primal chaos. Form was what gave order, made things tangible, like a delimiting boundary.
But the form observed does not have a necessary existence! Is that a true statement?
It is just that way to us! Is that a true statement?

We see a man sitting on the riverbank. What is he doing? Fishing.
He sits very still. Is he there?
The animals come out of their hiding places.
We spy a cat sitting. It gazes vacantly into space.
A jumping spider runs across the paws looking for something to pounce on.

So what we think of as one thing might not be a "thing" at all - to something else!
The bird sits on the branch.
The branch is part of the tree, the legs are part of the bird.
But why should this be necessarily the case?
The bird flies off leaving the legs behind.

We think of there being "things", discrete entities, but perhaps these are just convenient ways of saying what is and is not important to us.
They need not have a necessary existence outside of our perception of them.
So why is not the current arrangement, with the bird sitting on the branch, just a momentary illusion?

One might like to argue that the problem is precisely one of discovering the ways in which things are of significance to us - a psychological question.
But what are these "things" that are of significance to us?
Our interactions with the world are not just through our sensory inputs.
The radiation from radioactive fallout cannot be "sensed" but affects us nevertheless.
What is to count as "sensation" in such a case?
Everything interacts with everything else.

When Physics tries to say what it is that interacts, the "things" just vapourise and only come back together again when the experiments are performed.
There are great difficulties in describing the nature of these interacting "things".
Perturbations in "space-time"; mass = energy times a constant; waves, fluctuations.
Every "particle" vapourises into a myriad sub-components, each having the barest of fleeting "existences", that is, there was a "something" which left a trace in the observation chamber 01.1.

Think of the universe as a soup composed of atoms, molecules, neutrinos, quarks, energies of all sorts, wave functions. Imagine each of these to be interacting with every other and changing as a result. Imagine them as points spread out in a picture, with double headed arrows linking every point to every other. These arrows represent the interactions.
The points look hard but do not think of them in this way. Think of them like mushy peas, soft and falling apart.
Even then the picture is much more rigid than the real thing. It fails to capture the non-localised probabilistic nature of the material described by the wave function of quantum theory 01.2.
And everything is moving in a continual buzz like a TV screen at end of transmission.
Everything is changing with respect to form, identity and inter-relationships.
A change in one place means a change in another - like one of those chests of drawers where if one drawer gets pushed in, another pops out.

Draw boundaries so as to define subsets of this soup. Since everything interacts with everything else any boundary we draw will be equally valid to any other. It has no necessary physical reality. We could have drawn another but it would not have changed what was going on by one iota.
The interactions cross the boundaries.
We cannot stop them.

There is no one organisational form by which the universe may be described which has any logical priority over any other 01.3. That we, as humans, perceive certain organisations instead of others is a consequence of our structure and not of logical necessity. It is our description of how we think that which is, is.
The same things can be drawn in different ways 01.4.

But what if forms actually do exist !???? Necessarily exist, as in the theory of formative causation 01.5 If true, this rebuts everything I have to say here.

The universe is independent of our perceptions of it?
Impossible.
We are a part of the universe. Not cut off from it in any way. Inexorably part and parcel of it.
If we are physical beings and our thoughts are physical processes, then the interactions which are those thoughts must propagate through the universe. But so also with every other interaction in the universe. It must have a reciprocal influence on us too.
A bubbling vat of chemicals in massive interaction.

If the boundaries in the soup have no necessary existence outside of our imaginings, then there is no world of objects out there, waiting to be recognised by us or the soft machines we construct.
Machines made out of mushy pea soup.
No device that learns solely through the repeated presentation of examples can determine the identity of the entities we perceive in the world.
This follows from the non-existence of necessarily existent objects.
The ultimate basis of our interpretation of the world is firmly rooted in our physical structure.
What we perceive and what the mechanisms we construct will perceive, are just those organisational forms that we are designed to perceive and that we design those machines to perceive.

If our structure were different, we would perceive a world composed of objects different in type and quality to those we perceive now. Nevertheless the reality of those objects might be as forcefully felt as is the reality of those we perceive now.
It hurts when you stub your toe on the stone.

We can employ the ability to effect changes in our perceptions to perform experiments. Will the world change as we predict it will when we lift an arm? Perform the experiment. Lift the arm. What is the result? You were wrong. Why?
Your explanation is a description of what you think to be the underlying reality.

Footnotes

01.1

"At least we all heard somebody who purred", T.S. Eliot, Mr. Mistoffeles, in Old Possum's Book of practical Cats, Faber & Faber, 1965, p. 39

01.2

e.g. see E. Squires "The mystery of the quantum world", Adam Hilger Ltd., Bristol 1986

01.3

Other arguments that arrive at this conclusion are to be found in Putnam "Reason, truth and history", Cambridge University Press, 1985

01.4

e.g. see Gombrich, Art & Illusion, Phaidon,1968

01.5

R. Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, Paladin, 1985



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