The worldview that informs contemporary global culture was conceived during the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the 17th century. Its shortcomings have become increasingly evident today, and they are beginning to be seen as the root cause of the many seemingly intractable global problems that confront us today. This essay presents an overview of an alternative worldview.
M.G. Jackson, Ecologise.in
The system of basic assumptions, or worldview that informs contemporary global culture was conceived in its essential features during the European ‘Enlightenment’ of the 17th century. During the course of the 20th century the shortcomings of this system have become increasingly evident, and they are beginning to be seen as the root cause of the many seemingly intractable global problems that confront us today. In this essay I present an overview of an alternative system of basic assumptions.
In the past thirty years or so a number of proposals have been put forward to meet this need for an alternative system. An attentive reading of these proposals makes it clear that they all, without exception, visualise the process of creating a new system of basic assumptions as a reform movement, a movement that leaves at least one, and usually many, of the assumptions of the Enlightenment system essentially intact, or at best only attempts to fine-tune them. It is my contention that mere reform of the existing system is an inadequate and ultimately futile endeavour. The proposal outlined in this essay differs fundamentally from all the proposals made so far by rejecting this reformist approach altogether. This means that all the basic assumptions of the Enlightenment system are set aside, and entirely new assumptions formulated.
At the outset is important to be clear about what is meant by the term ‘system of basic assumptions’. It is a set of concepts about the nature of the world and ourselves in terms of which we attempt to describe and explain phenomena in meaningful and consistent ways. These concepts are definitions of such basic terms as ‘person’, ‘life’, the ‘laws of nature’, ‘time, and ‘space’. Together they form a logical and coherent system. By the term ‘logical’ I mean that the individual definitions that make up the system should not contradict one another. By the term ‘coherent’ I mean that each of the definitions presupposes all the others, so that considered in isolation from the system as a whole, it cannot be defined at all. The system of assumptions is shared by all members of a given culture and cultural era, so that there is a common understanding of given phenomena and a more-or-less common response to them.
An assumption is not a matter of fact. However, it is not created arbitrarily. It is always based on some intuitive or visionary insight. The assumption is the outcome of an attempt to interpret the insight and articulate it in a way that is meaningful, and also useful in practice.
What is the world like?
When asked this question most of us, without giving it too much thought, would probably answer somewhat as follows. ‘The world is made up of the things with which we are surrounded. We see these things, and also touch, taste and smell them, and sometimes hear sounds made by them. These sensations are received by us through our sense organs – eyes, skin, tongue, nose and ears – and then converted to exact copies in our minds of the objects out there.’ At least this is the accepted answer in contemporary global culture.
In the 18th century the German philosopher Immanuel Kant questioned this present-day answer. He argued that I cannot be certain that the picture of an object, say a stone, in my mind is like the object out there in the world. At most I can say that I receive sensations and that these lead to the formation of an image of a stone. What the source of these sensations is really like, in itself, I cannot say. In fact, I cannot even be certain that there really is a stone out there. I cannot be certain that there is really anything at all out there. There is no way I can demonstrate that there is anything out there existing independently of my sensations. No one has ever been able to refute Kant’s argument.
However, Kant himself was not comfortable with this conclusion, and so he decided to assume that there really are things out there, even if he could not say what they are like in themselves. These things send out sensory data, he said, which the mind fashions into things. The things in themselves are not very definite. And so the mind itself makes definite images of things that conform to its own ideas of what they are ‘really’ like.
If Kant had been perfectly logical he would have dropped the assumption of a world out there, and said simply ‘all I know, all I can know, is that there are experiences like “I am seeing a stone.”’ In the 14th century, the English philosopher William of Occam said that we should not make needless assumptions when we try to explain phenomena. In this matter, it is unnecessary to assume that there are any things out there; and by doing so we create problems for ourselves, as we shall see later. Kant would have been well advised to heed this advice of William of Occam.
At this point it is well to remember that in the Indian Vedic tradition it is said that we can never know whether or not there is a world out there. All I know is that a world appears to me; how it appears, and indeed, why it appears, are forever unanswerable questions. This is the concept of Maya.
The Indian Hinayana Buddhist philosophers of the third century AD said that here are no things out there at all, but only momentary appearances of things in awareness. They termed these ‘Dharmas’. They follow each other rapidly, each one as brief as the ‘wink of an eye’. One experience no sooner appears than it is superseded by another. The flame of an oil lamp at this moment is not the same as the one that appeared a moment ago, though it is similar. These separate experiences follow one another so rapidly that is seems to us that it is one continuous, though continually changing, thing. And so it is with all things. The person that experiences the flame is not the same person who experienced a flame a moment ago.
Similarly, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus in the 5th century BC said ‘you cannot step twice into the same river,’ meaning that it is not the same river moment to moment, and not a river changing its form over time.
The 20th century British mathematician and philosopher, A. N. Whitehead, developed this concept more fully from a consideration of several minor strands in the thoughts of Descartes, Newton, Locke and Hume, as well of Kant. He went on to develop an alternative system of basic assumptions, and to show its implications for science and for everyday life.
Finally, at the beginning of the 21st century I have developed this same concept of momentary experiences into a system of basic assumptions in what I consider to be a more comprehensive and consistent manner than Whitehead did. I did this on the basis of a personal insight and my own interpretation of Buddhist thought and the thought of Heraclitus. It is this system that is being briefly described in this essay.
Two conclusions follow from this brief survey of the answers that have been given to this question ‘what is the world like’. In the first place it does not seem possible ever to answer it finally. There may be an actual world ‘out there’ which I come to know through sense perceptions. Or, the world may be an appearance, built up of myriad discrete momentary experiences.
The second conclusion is that each person can choose, indeed must choose, to assume one or the other of these answers to the question, ‘what is the world like’. Neither of these answers, or any other answer, is ‘true’; all are assumptions only, and we can decide which one to assume on the basis of which one works best in practice. In one of the earliest philosophical treatises ever written, the Timaeus, Plato reaches this same conclusion. He says that with all our reasoning we can never arrive at a true explanation of what the world is like. The best we can do he says is to construct a ‘likely story’. How likely it is depends upon how well it works in practice. Some stories are better than others.
More and more people today are concluding that our present ‘story’ of an actual world out there (the ‘actualist’ view) which informs contemporary global culture is becoming more and more problematic, less and less likely, and are suggesting, in effect, the alternative story of a world of appearances (the ‘appearances’ view). It is this latter view, suitably elaborated, which forms the alternative system of basic assumptions which this essay describes.
One of the most important advantages of the appearances view is the possibility of explaining simply and believably all so-called ‘subjective’ experiences (thoughts, emotions and sensations) that is so difficult with the actualist view which assumes that the only actual entities are physical.
Parts and wholes
When we contemplate any object, or more accurately, the appearance of an object or thing, we become aware that we may regard it as a single entity, or as a collection of smaller things. These smaller things or parts may be of the same type or of different types. In some cases the parts may all be of the same type as the whole. We can choose to consider one aspect or another, the parts or the whole, though not both at the same time. Thus when we look at a flower, for example, we can see it as a whole, or we can see, or focus on, one of its petals. In a series of experiences we may focus on each of the petals and the central part separately. The experiences of the petals and central part are bare facts; we do not really understand them, however, until we see that they are part of the entire flower. Further, we do not understand the flower in isolation, but only when we see that it is itself a part of a larger whole, a plant. At the same time, each petal, considered as a whole itself, can be seen to be made up of parts – the part attached to the centre, or the opposite end, or the elongated sides. Every thing is a system of parts. A whole can be described in terms of its parts, but can be explained only in terms of the context of the whole of which it is a part. This rule applies to all four types of things – physical things, thought things, emotion things and feeling things.
In terms of this view, things are, to repeat, explained or understood, in terms of their place and function in the whole of which they are parts. This is termed the integrationist rule; only when a thing is integrated into a larger whole is it understandable. Or, we may say that a thing must be seen in a larger context to be understood. In the actualist view, the opposite view, known as the reductionist rule, is applied. That is, it is said that a thing may be explained in terms of its constituent parts. Logically, this rule is flawed as we shall now see. This flawed reasoning is the cause of the endless, and needless, violence of human interventions in natural and human systems which is so evident on all sides today.
Consider our solar system: it consists of a sun, planets and their moons and some asteroids. Following the reductionist rule, it is said that the solar system can be understood in terms of the attributes of the individual planets. These attributes are size, mass, movement. A moment’s reflection will, however, make it clear that, in itself a planet has no attributes. If it is considered in complete isolation from the solar system of which it is a part it has no attributes at all. What are thought of as attributes are really descriptions of relationships with the other members of the system. In itself, a planet cannot be described at all. During the first three decades of the 20th century physicists, with their commitment to the reductionist rule, probed deeper and deeper into the material atom in an attempt to find the ultimate, unchanging unit of matter. They did not succeed. Instead they discovered that there is nothing left that corresponds to their original concept of a material particle. What they discovered instead, in the words of physicist Fritjof Capra, are only ‘…inter-connections between things, and these, in turn, are inter-connections between other things, and so on…we never end up with any things.’
It will be evident from the foregoing discussion that things and systems of things, parts and wholes, occur in continuous hierarchies of ever larger and more complex things. Can we expect to find a final ultimate thing and the lower end of a hierarchy, or a final ultimate system at the upper end of a hierarchy? In respect of physical things and systems, for example, can we reasonably expect to find the ‘ultimate particle’ or the outer limits of the universe? The conclusion based upon many millennia of human efforts in these directions clearly suggest that the answer is ‘no’. However, we can very well get on with our lives and our various activities without finding definite answers to these two questions.
A further consideration is: how do we describe systems of things? One way is to describe the relationships between the individual parts of the system, taking them two at a time. This approach is a corollary of the reductionist rule. The clearest and probably the most influential example of this approach is Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. This relationship is simple and can be expressed mathematically with considerable precision. It became the paradigm for all scientific research in all fields of enquiry. But it is impossible to describe in this way the relationships among more than two parts at the same time. Needless to say most systems have more than two parts. In practice scientists discount all the parts of a system except the two of immediate interest to them. This yields descriptions of very limited value, especially when we are dealing with complex systems.
The other way to describe systems, a corollary of the integrationist rule, is to eschew mathematical descriptions and use geometrical or, more specifically, topological methods such as suggested by Pythagoras and developed more fully by the Italian Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci. These take the forms of two or three dimensional drawings or models, and with the development of computer graphics, animated models. The attempt is then made to discern reasonably stable patterns of relationship among all the various parts. With complex systems with numerous parts, it may be difficult or impossible to depict every part, and so, as an approximation only the most prominent parts, called ‘markers’, are selected. With this rule it is accepted that complete description, or a final description, is unlikely. This will be appreciated more fully when we consider that systems are not static, but dynamic, with parts continually moving in relation to each other.
Mention of Newton’s law of universal gravitation raises one final issue that we must consider. This law was intended not only as a means of describing systems. It is also purports to be an explanation. Two bodies move in relation to each other owing to the force of gravity. He did not say what force is in itself (he privately said that it is impossible to do so), but defined it in mathematical terms as the product of mass and acceleration. However, as we have seen physical objects do not possess attributes of mass and do not move, except in relation to other parts of the system. And so, the law of gravitation is saying, in effect, that force causes the relative movements of the parts of a system, and the masses and relative movements of the parts causes them to exert force – a clear-cut instance of circular reasoning which explains nothing.
All things are living beings
All things/systems are living beings, irrespective of their type or complexity. Thus an atom of oxygen and a stone are living beings no less than a microbe, a tree, a horse, an ecosystem, or a planet. Thought things, emotional things and feeling things are also living beings. It is necessary to state this unequivocally because the accepted assumption in contemporary global culture is that only certain types of things/systems are alive while others are dead. And further, this categorisation applies only to physical things. It would never occur to anyone that a scientific theory, or a neurosis, or a backache, are also living beings. This contemporary way of thinking about things and systems of things has enormous negative consequences in our world today. The first of these is that, given the assumption that the basic building blocks of all things are dead particles of matter, it is impossible to say what life is and how it can, seemingly, emerge in certain complex systems of such particles. This is the source of endless, inconclusive and ultimately useless debate among scientists.
What then is life? It is the sensitivity, the intelligence and the tendency to spontaneous activity inherent in all things/systems. They are able to sense the presence of other things, and align themselves with them in definite ways. They possess unambiguous knowledge of these ways, however complex these ways may be, however many other things may be involved, and they possess the ability to act on this knowledge. With this concept we have an alternative and more adequate explanation of why things behave as they do to that of Newtonian mechanics.
If the assertion of this assumption is startling to us participants in contemporary global culture, we need to remind ourselves that a vast majority of people throughout human history have held this assumption. In European culture it was shared by everyone until 17th century AD, and in all non-European cultures, where these have not been over-ridden by European Enlightenment culture, it is still assumed. In Europe it was the basis for explaining the movements of the sun, moon, planets and the stars until the German astronomer Johannes Kepler decisively rejected it in favour of a mechanical explanation. He said that these bodies move because they are pushed along by forces. His first formulation was that the sun ‘sweeps’ them around itself, as if wielding a huge broom. Later he tentatively suggested that the sun and the planets attract one another. This was all very vague. Newton’s concept of gravitational forces gave the concept mathematical precision. The concept of force also figures in his three laws of motion. He said that these laws apply to all bodies in the universe.
In evaluating this development it is necessary to reflect on the fact that Newton’s formulations were possible only because he accepted Galileo’s assumption of perpetual motion of physical bodies (refer to Newton’s first law of motion); forces only act to change that motion. Why bodies should be in perpetual motion neither he nor Galileo said; it was simply convenient to do so, however difficult to understand. It seems, then, that in explaining motion, it is not possible entirely to abandon the assumption of self-motion. The assumption that all bodies are living beings, could not be entirely banished from human thought. And today this assumption is returning to Western (and global) culture in the Gaia theory. Or, at least one group of scientists maintains that the Gaia theory, to be logical and coherent, must assume that the earth as a whole is a living entity. The theory is also understood in this way by many environmentalists. These two groups of people herald the Gaia theory as marking the beginning of a definite break with the Enlightenment dead universe assumption. And, in looking at the history of western thought during the last three centuries, it is obvious that the ‘animist’ assumption (as it is termed in most contemporary writing) never completely disappeared. There continued to be advocates of it among scientists (biologists and geologists in particular) and the writers of the romantic movement of the 19th century.
The Gaia theory was formulated by the free-lance British scientist James Lovelock. It pictures a vast and complex whole-earth system in which the atmosphere, the oceans, the totality of plant, animal and micro-biotic metabolic activities, the earth’s crust and even the earth’s core all participate. This whole-earth system displays all the features of life as enumerated above. Lovelock does not say so explicitly, but logically this assumes that each of the parts is also a living being – rocks, water, gasses, no less than plants, animals and micro-organisms. It implies that Lovelock, and those who agree with him, have abandoned the dead-universe assumption of modern science and culture in favour of the ancient living-universe assumption. Most scientists, however, are unwilling to abandon their assumption of an ultimately dead universe, and concede only that the earth’s ‘biota’ (that is, the sum total of plants, animals and micro-organisms), in interaction with the earth’s atmosphere, oceans crust and core, though vast, complex and dynamic, is finally only a mechanical entity composed ultimately of dead material particles in motion. In the field of Gaian studies today there is a continuing debate, not to say controversy, between these two groups. This is another example of a waste of time and effort; an example of a debate that is not really about facts, and the interpretation of facts, but about basic assumptions.
Why things behave as they do
One whole governs the moving and the stable, that which
walks and flies, the variegated creation. (Rigveda, 3, 54, 8)
It is necessary to remind ourselves that things are of four types, and that their behaviour can be explained only in terms of their place and function in the larger things (systems) of which they are a part. Furthermore, we must remember that all things are inherently active so that they are in constant motion relative to the other parts of the system in which they participate. Of course, in saying that they are ‘in motion’ is literally the case only with respect of physical things and systems of physical things. In respect of thought things, emotions and feelings, the term ‘in motion’ is used metaphorically. These motions are regular in that they can be seen as conforming to recognisable patterns of movement over time. These patterns are not rigid, but flexible in the way an absolutely circular figure can be deformed by pressing it from opposite sides to give an ellipse. An ellipse is still a circular structure, even if not an absolutely circular one. And its shape constantly varies. Thus, the shape of the earth’s orbit around the sun is an ellipse, but varies slightly from one revolution to another.
The quote at the head of this section says that all things are ‘governed’ as to their behaviour. This governing can be thought of as of two types: external and internal. Newton assumed the former. There are numerous individual laws, each governing a specific relationship. The collectivity of these laws, so Newton said, is held in the ‘mind of god’ who deploys them as required. (Many present-day scientists no longer assume there is a god, at least a god who is concerned about the laws of nature. This disappearance of god from the scene leaves the question of where these laws of nature reside, a question that is conveniently ignored.) In the new system we assume the governing is internal; that is that each thing knows its place and function in the pattern in which it is participating, moves to that position and strives to remain there. Moreover, there is only one law, termed the unitary, cosmic, causal agency which functions within each thing. In this way the activities of all things are co-ordinated. The most highly-developed formulation of this causal agency is the Vedic concept of Rta. It is also a feature of the Chinese Taoist thought, where it is termed Li. A less adequately developed version of this concept is found in Western thought in the shape of the Anima Mundi, the world soul, which was current until about the 17th century AD.
The causal agency is a living process, self-defining, self organising and self maintaining (refer back to the topic on life). Its function is the production of a coherent stream of experiences. As agency, it resides within each thing – and nowhere else. An analogy here is a hologram in which the whole can be seen within each of its parts. We may, for convenience, consider it to have three functions. The first is that it acts as a cosmic archives. Every appearance, that is, every experience of a thing, when it is superseded by the next experience, is stored in the archives. From there a copy can be retrieved according to need and brought forward to participate in a new experience, contribute to the formation of a new thing. The new thing is never exactly the same as the former one, because the context (larger thing in which it appears) has changed since it appeared earlier. But it is similar; that is, it has the same general form as it did earlier. Thus, a meteorite as it streaks across the night sky is, as was said earlier, is a composite experience of a time series of similar things; each one is similar to the last one, but differs in terms of its position in each in relation to its comparatively staple context (the distant stars).
A second function is to integrate each new experience into the totality of all previous experiences which is the system of the agency as a whole. Each new entry subtly changes the configuration, or form, of the whole. This explains why the context of each new experience of a similar thing is different, and hence why the new thing experienced is not exactly like any previous one. The configuration of the causal agency never returns to a previous state.
The third function is that of a repository of what may be termed abstract archetypal patterns or themes. These are actively deployed as needed in the creation of new things that appear. These patterns or themes are: 1) numbers, conceived in the Pythagorean sense of geometrical units, as used in an abstract sense of duality, four-foldness and so on, and also as used in a symbolic sense, and in ratios of numbers, as for example in the golden spiral and the golden rectangle; 2) colours sounds, tastes; 3) pairs of opposites like ‘above’ and below, ‘male’, and ‘female’, ‘introverted’ and ‘extroverted in literal and symbolic forms; 4) psychological themes of the sort C. G. Jung identified and termed ‘archetypes of the collective unconscious”; and 5) abstract themes like ‘beauty’, ‘freedom’, ‘justice’, and ‘fate’. Each thing that appears is informed by one or more of these themes. Scientific research in the science paradigm based on the new system of basic assumptions consists of identifying and mapping, to the extent possible, these themes; from these maps the scientist formulates explanations of why things are as they are. He/she then proceeds to develop predictions about the future appearances of things on the basis of these explanations. If the explanations are adequate, his/her predictions will be borne out in practice. Of course, all of us use this same procedure every moment in our everyday lives.
Time and space
What do we understand by the terms ‘time’ and ‘space’? That is, what are they in themselves? When we attempt to answer these questions we will inevitably find that we cannot really define time and space in abstraction or isolation from things, or, for that matter, from each other. To put the matter differently, we can say that any definition we offer of time or space presupposes the existence of things, and presupposes the existence of the other. For example, if there were no things, it would be impossible to conceive of space, not to mention defining it. This presupposition is mutual, for we could not conceive of things in the absence of space. This mutual dependence of the definitions of the basic concepts that make up any well-constructed system of basic assumptions is what has been termed coherence.
As we proceed, it is necessary to keep in mind that space is a concept that is required in order to describe and explain the nature of physical things, but not other types of things. Time, on the other hand, is needed to describe and explain all types of things.
With respect to space, a physical thing is known only because it is separated from other things by an interval where there are no things. In the absence of such intervals, we could not say whether there is one thing or many, or anything at all. Furthermore, a thing itself occupies space, or encloses a definite volume of space.
With the actualist assumption about the nature of the world, space is said to exist ‘out there’ even if there are no things to be seen. This assumption was articulated by Isaac Newton (in his book The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy). He termed it ‘absolute’ space. A. N. Whitehead later termed this the ‘receptacle’ theory of space. It is indispensible to Newton’s formulation of his three laws of motion. When we discard these three laws in explaining the nature of phenomena, we at the same time discard the concept of absolute space. The alternative is the conception of relative or dependent space outlined here.
With the appearances assumption about the nature of the world, space occurs only within experiences. Outside experiences there is no space, as indeed there are no things.
Before leaving the topic of space, it is necessary to refer to another problem created for subsequent generations of scientists by Newton’s concept of force. Our ordinary concept of force involves pushing and pulling, and this requires physical contact between the body exerting the force and the one on which it is exerted. Newton’s force, however, is said to act without physical contact, that is, across empty space. The problem is that neither Newton nor anyone after him could really conceive of action at a distance. For a couple of centuries after Newton it was assumed that what appears as empty space is not actually empty, but is filled with ‘ether’, an imperceptible indefinable, and yet physical substance that transmits force. Of course, no one was happy with this concept of ether. In the 19th century it was replaced by the concept of fields – gravitational, magnetic and electro-magnetic – which are said to be subtle, but none-the-less physical extensions of physical bodies. These fields transmit forces. In effect, this assumption denies the existence of empty space; there are only objects with their fields, the fields meeting and interacting with the fields of other objects. In theory, fields can be extended infinitely. In the science based on the new system of assumptions, we do not require the concept of force and thus avoid this problem.
The dimensions of one part of a thing can be used as a metric to measure the sizes of other parts and the distances from one another within the whole. Thus the circumference of the earth is used as a metric for measurements within the solar system, and also beyond. For measuring distances/lengths on the surface of the earth, this circumference is divided into suitable smaller units.
A series of consecutive appearances of similar things, when experienced as a series, is termed a temporal community. An example is the meteorite streaking across the night sky that was mentioned earlier. The slightly different positions of ‘the’ meteorite in relation to the background stars in each successive experience describe a smooth curve, a readily comprehensible pattern. The experience of this temporal community gives rise to the concept of time. One event, that is, the ‘movement’ of the meteorite from one position to the next marks a unit of time. Thus it can be said that the passage of time is defined by the movement of ‘a’ thing. Conversely, the movement of ‘the’ thing in a regular manner is perceptible only because the passage of time. Here again we encounter in our new system the mutual dependence of two concepts on each other for their definitions.
A notion of time, and the forgoing conceptualisation of it, that is generated with the experience of a temporal community is termed ‘experienced’ or ‘manifest’ time. It is obvious that it is a derivative of a more fundamental conception that orders the flow of experiences, one after another. The operation of this time is outside of, prior to, experiencing. It is termed ‘unmanifest ‘time. It is an integral feature of the causal agency.
The metric of time is taken as one arbitrarily chosen event in experience. An ‘event’ is the interval between one experience and the one that immediately follows it, or multiples thereof. Thus the daily movement of the sun, from one dawn until the next, for example, is used as a standard unit of time.
Who am I?
The usual answer to this question, the almost certain answer to be given by participants in contemporary global culture, is that I am such and such a person. The term person refers to a body of a particular homo sapiens. It is distinguished from all other persons by its name, description, situation and life experience. This is inevitable, given the actualist system of basic assumptions, and in particular the assumption that what is ‘out there’, all that is ‘out there’, is material particles in motion, acted upon by forces. However, this answer is profoundly illogical and leads confusion, violence and suffering in all areas of human life, not to mention the violence, suffering and destruction of other species of beings. Our first task is to become aware of this.
The illogicality of the person-as-a-body assumption becomes evident as a result of the following line of reasoning. I see this body, and experience it in other ways also. This body is one of many physical objects that make up the world. It is, like all other objects, subject to the Newtonian laws of motion, in all its parts and in its relations to other objects. Even the act of seeing objects is subject to these laws. At the same time, the person says that he or she can observe himself or herself, that it is possible for an object to see itself. Of course, a person can experience bits and parts of himself or herself, a hand here, an emotion of hurt feelings there, and a toothache in the mouth. But he or she can never stand completely outside himself or herself, so to speak, and see the whole of himself or herself. Therefore, the assumption that ‘I am a person’ is logically defective.
We can restate this argument in more general terms also. An experience of any kind is the outcome of a process, the interaction of a subject who experiences and an object that is experienced. Without both, there can be no experiencing. The subject is what experiences an object, while an object is what is experienced by a subject. A corollary of these two premises is that an object cannot experience itself, nor can a subject experience itself.
A consequence of the I-am-a-person assumption is that I can be a ‘detached observer’ of objects, I am not a part of what is observed. I can manipulate, mutilate and destroy other objects, without myself being manipulated, mutilated or destroyed. I can spray poisons on my crops to kill insects without killing myself. What a surprise to discover that this is not true.
Another consequence is that I, as a person, have free will. About this Whitehead has said:
… Western peoples exhibit…two attitudes [that] are really inconsistent….A scientific realism, based upon mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms. This radical inconsistency at the base of modern thought accounts for much that is half-hearted and wavering in our civilisation.’
In the new system an experience of a person is determined in every detail by the strict operation of the common, cosmic causal agency. There is no free will.
The I, therefore, is not the person, and to assume that it is, against all logic, is a profound error. What then is the I? If the subject of experiencing, the I, can never be experienced, there seems to be no alternative to saying that the I is nothing at all.
A person knows that there is no logical answer to the question ‘who am I’. Nevertheless, he or she continues to ask. He or she continues to ask because he or she knows, or choose to believe, that there is, finally, an answer. He or she believes in the testimony of those who say that they have found an answer – and, in any case, because he or she cannot do otherwise. And so he or she continues to ask. If he or she does so with one-pointed attention to the question itself, experiencing may cease altogether. Or, he or she may become aware that it is not himself or herself who experiences, but some power or being greater than himself or herself acting through him or her. Having found one of these answers, he or she is able to detach himself or herself from, while at the same time participating in, phenomena. He or she no longer fancies himself or herself a detached observer of phenomena, but knows that he or she can be a detached participant in it. The difference this change in outlook makes in practice is immense. It brings a feeling of oneness with all the things that appear in experience and lifts one’s focus of attention from oneself as an autonomous individual to oneself as a part of various larger things/ systems, physical and social. It results in ones acting with greater understanding, greater compassion and greater circumspection. Only by acting as detached participants is there any hope of successfully confronting our present problems, personal, local and global.
Thereis a subtle contradiction in what has just been said. If it is possible for a person to act as a detached participant, perhaps he or she is exercising some measure of freewill. That is, he or she can choose whether to act as a detached participant or as a detached observer. Admittedly, this is a logical inconsistency in the fabric of our story, but then perhaps it is too much to expect that any story will be completely consistent. After all, our story, any story, is only likely, not perfect or valid for all time to come.
Learning the ways of things
In no area of human experience is the conceptual framework offered by the realist system of basic assumptions more problematic than in that dealing with the question ‘how do I come to know’. In terms of this system we are constrained to answer somewhat as follows: there are real physical objects ‘out there’; there are movements of other (tiny) physical objects from these to sense preceptors in the human body; the receipt of these tiny particles in the receptors initiates another stream of particles in various nerves; these latter are received by the brain which then manufactures a non-physical image or thought or emotion or feeling. The logical discontinuity in this chain of cause and effect between the last two stages renders the entire sequence meaningless. Rather than admit this, however, realists posit the existence of an immaterial entity termed the ‘mind’ which is said to manufacture images, thoughts, emotions and feelings from the physical inputs to the brain. In terms of the appearances system of basic assumptions a simpler and logically coherent explanation is possible. There is no need for all the cumbersome machinery of perception of the realist system, or for the concept of a mind.
With the appearances system of basic concepts I come to know that a thing exists because it appears in my experience. It is a fact. It is as it appears to me. There is no possibility of confusion, doubt or misapprehension. There is only room for doubt if I do not experience the thing myself, but am told by someone else that that he or she has experienced it. In that case, the only certain knowledge I acquire is that so and so told me that he or she experienced it. Also, inferences can be doubtful. If B appears it is a fact, but if I infer it appearance from the fact that in the past the appearance of B has been found to follow the appearance of A and I experienced A, it is not certain that B will appear this time also. I could be mistaken because I cannot be certain from my necessarily limited experience that B always does appear after A.
The knowledge I acquire from the appearance of a thing will, in itself, be neither intelligible nor useful. It is only when I experience it in a context , that is, as a part of a larger thing, that the knowledge of its existence becomes intelligible and potentially useful. In other words, seeing a thing in a context brings understanding in as well as knowledge. I come to know the reason for its appearance and the reason why it behaves as it does. I will then be able to predict its future appearance and behaviour with some degree of certainty. Whenever this same, or similar, context appears in the future, this thing will also appear and behave as I expect it to. However, I cannot be certain that my prediction will be realised; my explanation, however, carefully constructed, might be faulty. The reasons for faulty explanations are that the configuration of the causal agency, though remarkably stable, is by no means absolutely so. Further, my ability to describe adequately a thing’s context is limited owing to the complexity of systems; there is not only the immediate system to consider, but the larger system of which it is a part and which affects its behaviour, and so on. Finally, there are limits to the techniques of observation I can deploy, and to the skill with which I deploy them.
Thus, most of my understanding is not certain, but, at best, only probable. In devising strategies and tactical manoeuvres for future action I must take this into account. To put the matter somewhat differently: there is no true knowledge, except for immediate matters of fact, and there is no false knowledge. There is only better and worse understanding of what is experienced, or more accurately, more or less useful understanding. The usefulness of knowledge is determined by putting predictions based on it to the test of practice. In testing predictions, our testing procedures and our skill may also be wanting, so we can also never be completely certain that the result of a particular test has confirmed our prediction or not. The practice of science, not to mention the business of getting on with our daily lives, is forever tentative.
An understanding or context is an experience, and once formed it is stored in the archives of the causal agency and can be accessed as needed to help me understand further experiences. Occasionally, however, I experience a thing which I have never experienced before, and hence no ready-made context appears to help me understand it. Subsequent experiences are of puzzlement and discomfort. These may be repeated, but still no context appears – because I have never before experienced a thing which could act as a context for it. Usually, after this puzzlement and discontent is repeated a number of times, a new (for me) context appears. This appearance is sudden, spontaneous, and is not preceded by any series of logical thoughts; it is what is termed an insight, that is, a suggestion of a possible context to meet my need. Insights come as intuitions and as visions during the waking state or in dreams, or in the state between waking and sleep.
Take the case of Dimitri Mendeleev who worked for years to find a way of classifying the chemical elements, but with no success. One night he fell into and exhausted sleep after devoting long hours to this problem. Later that night, he saw in a dream a table in which each of the elements then known fell into place to form a logical, coherent whole. When he awoke he immediately drew the table as he had seen it in the dream. He said afterwards that, in the case of only one element, was a correction later necessary. And we know that elements subsequently discovered also fell readily into an appropriate place in this same table. The history of creative advances like this in all fields of human interest is replete with documented accounts such as this. Once created in the private experience of one person, they become the common heritage of the species.
An intuition is a formless insight. The person receiving it must struggle to make it explicit in the form of discursive language, a mathematical expression or a geometrical model. Visions are formed insights; they appear as physical things. These must invariably be interpreted symbolically as representations of abstract organisational patterns – the archetypal themes mentioned earlier – rather than literally. The chemist Friedrich von Kekule’s dream vision of a snake grasping its tail in its mouth was interpreted by him as an answer to the question he had been struggling with, namely, the structure of the benzene molecule. Even Mendeleev’s vision is ultimately to be understood as a symbolic representation of a system of mathematical relationships among the chemical elements
The coming of the Enlightenment system of basic assumptions in the 17th century marked a drastic change in the way in which it is permissible to think about and attempt to understand phenomena. Insight, which as we have seen, is crucial to gaining understanding, was delegitimized. The ideal procedure was a strictly logical process of linear thinking. At least this was the official line. Fortunately, insight cannot be banished; scientists, for example, since that time have tried to make it appear that in the case of their discoveries they strictly conformed to this protocol; truly great scientists like Mendeleev, Kekule, Albert Einstein, Henri Poincare, and Niels Bohr, and Sir Fredrick Banting, however, have readily related their insights and the role these played in their discoveries.
 For a full exposition of the system see: Jackson, M. G. (2008). Transformative Learning for a New Worldview: Learning to Think Differently, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan; Jackson, M. G. (2013). A Return to the Perennial Questions: Fresh Answers for Our Times. Secunderabad: Permanent Green. Jackson, M. G. (2013). Learning the Ways of Things: a New Protocol for Science. Secunderabad: Permanent Green.