The Nature of Things
The dominant cultural influences of our times, Christianity, Science, and Capitalism, define a range of human identity that leaves us collectively with a vision of personhood as being separate from our deeper experience of spirituality in religious terms, being an objective material observer of experience in scientific terms, and being a private engine of material acquisition in an industrially powered social economy of monetized exchange. This leads to a sense of self as irreducibly disconnected and separate from the living natural world and the subjective world of deep experience out of which religious and spiritual systems emerge. Social and political change advocacy, and eastern spiritual thought, often focuses on opposition to the sense of self as hyper individual and argue for non-individual or collective definition and experience of self as an alternative. I do not see this competition as winnable by either side of the debate and thought it would be valuable to validate the reality of both ways of relating to self and world and integrate them in a framework of philosophical precepts. In this exercise I will start with defining objects, later working back to awareness of objects, then to shared awareness and meaning in a field of interrelated objects, and finally to an exploration of the nature of human consciousness, in a way that provides a foundation for development of a way to bridge the gap between humanity and nature.
Understanding the Nature of Object Boundaries
All objects, inanimate, biological and experiential, have boundaries. A boundary that defines the shape of an object separates what is within it from what is outside of it. What is a boundary that is fully permeable or fully non permeable? A boundary that is fully permeable is the border of an object that is indistinguishable because there is no space within it our outside of it. A boundary that is fully non-permeable is the surface of an object with which no exchange is possible, and no degradation of object form is possible. An object with this imaginary boundary would be both dead and immortal at the same time. Neither object boundary state is known to exist; therefore all object boundaries as we know them today are semi-permeable. If there is a class of objects whose boundaries are fully permeable or fully non permeable that is discovered in the future, we would have a new type of object boundary and object category. Discovery of either new class of objects would not change the semi-permeable nature of the objects boundaries we know in nature and conscious experiencing. Therefore we can safely assert that all object boundaries are semi-permeable. This semi-permeability principal is clearly true of all cells that comprise our bodies and every other living thing on earth. On the level of our biology each individual is part of a species and all species are part of a living whole that is a complex set of interrelated living and non-living systems. Each individual entity is distinct, yet while alive is participating with all the life around it through exchange and interaction via semi-permeable boundaries. On a biological level we can say that all individual entities are both separate and non-separate relative to their existence as part of a living set of systems. Even at the level of the smallest structures that make up our universe distinctions between objects don't imply separation in an absolute sense. In quantum mechanics the principal called the quantum mechanics of a proper open system states, "There is no such thing as an isolated system, and all systems are open systems that experience varying degrees of interaction through their shared zero-flux surfaces." The whole does not exist without its parts and the parts do not exist without the whole.
If all things are formed by selectively permeable boundaries then what are they permeable to? The broad categories that readily come to mind are material, energy, and information. The material permeability of boundaries across people is structurally determined with some range of variability. Information permeability is also structurally determined within a range of variability. The material and information available for contact with an individual things boundary provides the specific universe of material and information that an individual can come to know via boundary exchange. Looking at what is known or knowable from the perspective of object interrelations before proceeding to the question of what constitutes human knowledge may seem strange at first because this approach violates the implicit assumption that knowledge is an exclusively human topic. Knowledge, defined as contact with other objects where exchange and exclusion of exchange occur is a reasonable starting point for a field of objects based definition of knowledge. Exchange and exclusion of exchange would form the basis of knowledge, both are known via the relational selectivity of object boundary.
What do objects know of each other? Objects know what passes into them from other objects, what passes out of them, and what is sensed and excluded from passage into them. The scope of possible knowledge can be defined as the entire field of object boundary and exchange relations. The field of what is knowable by any object is partial due to semi-permeable object boundaries and the effect of spatial localization of objects. Several categories of knowledge arise out of this process. Knowledge of object boundaries, knowledge of excluded aspects of other objects, knowledge of included aspects of other objects, and knowledge of object interior, are created through the existence and interaction of objects in the complex field of object relationships. All object relations can be characterized as a specific combination of push and flow relationships. The aspects of an object relationship that do not exchange across semi-permeable boundaries of touch relations are knowable because a boundary to boundary contact occurs and partial information about the contact is received. These relations can be motion neutral contact or an in motion pushing relations. The aspects of an object relationship that exchange across semi-permeable touch boundary relationships are knowable as exchange flows in an object to object touch relation. The knowledge inherent in the existence of objects, from the point of view of any object, is that of entity (boundary, outer, and inner) and relationship (push and flow). Boundaries are the transition area between the inside and outside of an of an object. Some things pass all the way through, some part way, and some bounce off. All of the process is part of what makes the object what it is. The aspects of other things that bounce off constitute what the object is as much as the aspects of the object that are retained or passed back into the outer world of the object. Due to the push and flow relations between objects, and the fact that all objects exist together in a form of massive complexity, that is partially knowable, there is no 1 object. Every one, or 1, is more than it appears to be on casual examination.
Each 1 has a boundary that allows passage of specific material and information across its boundary, from out to in, and from in to out. Many other things exist in the local environment of the 1 thing and these things touch and are touched by the 1. Some of the touching is very direct, some less direct; some relations pass a lot of material or information across boundaries while others pass less. The local area where the 1 has a milieu of touching relations also touches and is touched by the 1?s that comprise the larger environment that surrounds the local environment of the 1. Therefore 1 is always more than one to the degree that it has interchange through its boundary with the other 1?s that comprise its sphere of relations. All of those relations then have their sphere of relations that are effected by the exchange with the one. This process fades in relevance and effect as the chain of touch and exchange relations with the 1 become less local and more spatially distant. 1 never represents the reality of the object but a significant reduction in the stature, extent, and function of the 1. This is where mathematics falls down as a means of representing a condensed vision of the reality of a group of things, 1 + 1 = 2 simply adds the reduction distortion of 1 together with another reduced 1 and the distortion continues to get larger.
Awareness of Objects from Human Point of View
Now that the nature of the boundaries of things and their interrelationships has been evaluated we can explore the nature of human experience with object boundary semi-permeability in mind. Leaving aside Merrell-Wolff's description of Consciousness without an Object, human experience can be characterized as being composed of consciousness and objects. Are the boundaries that form experienced objects, with or without an immediate associated sensory contact, semi-permeable? Experience of an object boundary without immediate sensory references is easy to test for permeability using imagination. Think of a tomato plant. Can you imagine the size and color of the tomatoes changing, or the taste of a tomato changing? When there is no immediate sensory information associated with an experienced mental object, whether it is a word, image, idea, or feeling, qualities attributed to the object can change, they must pass across the mental object boundary, it is permeable. When objects are perceived sensually, their boundaries are permeated by our history of thoughts about and experiences with that object. This affects our sense of boundary and our understanding of the object space within the boundary. If you touch, smell, see, or hear, a tree knowing that a tree breathes and circulates water through its roots, trunk, branches and leaves, you might view the tree boundary, what passes through it and what is contained within it, differently than if you had not known those facts. Knowing that tree respiration is complementary to your own respiration could also affect your sense of boundary between tree and self. Because different attributes can pass across the experienced tree boundary and be included or excluded we can say that the experienced object boundary is permeable.
Sensory awareness without words is still meaningful, filled by more than sensation alone, to the perceiver even at the extreme limits of experience. A newborn baby first cries and experiences breathing, air touches the respiratory system and the exchange of gasses across the semi-permeable boundary between lung and blood. This means life outside the mother?s womb. When the baby nurses for the first time there are no words for breast or nursing. The baby finds meaning in the nursing because something the mother object has, milk, the tactile sensation of skin to skin contact, and smell of the mother and breast milk, passes across semi-permeable boundaries and there is an awareness of self that experiences the receiving. Meaning is in the conscious subject related to the object through complex flows across semi-permeable sensory and cellular boundaries. What can pass across the boundary and what functions it fills in the perceiver is the primary determinant of the range of meaning that can be imagined from the subject’s perspective. The baby is not isolated as a passive receiver of sensory perceptions that are allowed by the nature of the baby’s senses and what is available in the babies’ environment that can be sensually perceived. Babies are also involved in selecting what they focus on receiving, mothers voice and smell get more of the babies’ attention because they mean more to the baby than other sensory input the baby is receiving. The senses don’t turn on and off, but the baby can focus within the world of their sensory impressions on what is more and less important.
The baby is also an active transmitter of sensory information that affects the world. When the baby cries and the mother or father responds by talking to, looking at, or touching the baby, the nature of sensory consciousness becomes apparent, it is a two-way street, there is exchange both ways across the boundaries of objects through touch. The baby also responds to sensory input from the non-human environment of objects and as time passes interacts with them and learns develops an understanding, assigns meaning to, the larger world of relations. The baby touches a blanket, or mothers’ shirt, it moves. The senses are an aspect of a larger relational structure that human consciousness participates in according to the permeability of the sensory organs of the human individual.
A Buddhist, who is meditating and bypassing the effect of the conceptual object defining power of words when participating in daily life, is still aware of sensually perceived objects because they touch the senses. Light reflected off the surface of, or emitted from, an object touches the eye. It passes through the iris and touches the retina. Only the wavelengths of light that stimulate the retina cause the optic nerve to fire and send a nerve impulse to the visual cortex. When an object boundary reflects or emits a sound the vibration moves the air creating a wave that touches the body and the eardrum. The vibration propagates through the body like the impact of a hand on a drum propagates through the drum skin and it reverberates in the space of the drum cavity and a sound is known. A breeze touches the cheek; a smell from a pot of soup touches the inside of the nose, something is known. Free from the words, the Buddhist is embedded in stream of the sensual world, contemplating the wordless presence of being.
When a person is afflicted with Alzheimer’s dementia, we see the importance of memory in the formation of the linkage between the experience of objects and meaning. This dementia is a progressive disease where all memory becomes profoundly impaired. As words for objects become impossible to remember, the sense of the meaning, or purpose, of an object persists for a while without a word association. A spoon, once its name has been forgotten, may continue to be understood as a something that is used to put food in your mouth, but eventually that awareness of spoon purpose or function disappears. Eventually the ability to chew and swallow food disappears and death approaches. The process of deconstructing a human central nervous system that occurs in profound dementia eventually reduces a person to being less functional than a healthy animal, or a newborn baby. The newborn baby is intensely connected to their relational life with wordless objects outside the womb, mother and food, and the meaning of these things is apparent in the babies knowing exchange with the world and sensing of self within the boundary of the skin.
The person in the final stages of Alzheimer’s dementia is progressively lost to conscious meaning. We do not know when the sense of self, other, and object disappears, or if it does, but touch remains. The person remains connected to the world in the basic way of all life, touch, and exchange through the semi permeable boundaries of the cells. The lungs and digestive organs continue to pass life from world into the blood of the person that is then distributed to the cells through the circulatory system. The cells within the body take part of what has been ingested through their boundaries and use it in their internal living processes. Each cell then provides a function that is useful for other parts of the inner working of the body. It is a two-way street within the body as well as between the body and the world. The grand symphony of the living whole continues to be played, note by note, by the individual cells, knowing local others through touch, and exchange, and knowing themselves through the workings of their inner processes. Their meaning, whether known to the person with end stage Alzheimer’s dementia, is life.
We live in a world of touch, embedded in partial awareness of the parts, and the whole, touching and exchanging through semi-permeable boundaries of all kinds. Through touch, boundary permeability, and exchange, we know and are known. Individual consciousness arises in this context. Things touch therefore we are. We touch therefore I am. Living in a world of partial boundary permeability, touch, and exchange of material and information, provides a strong basis for being able to approximate the range of experience of other parts of our natural system although not the exact nature of their experience. Added to that foundation are several other factors, shared physical environments, and in the case of human experience we have shared language, shared cultural assumptions, and mirroring neurons, and memory, that allow humans to approximate the experience of another human and to a lesser extent the experience of other living things.
Shared Awareness and Meaning Across Object Boundaries
Understanding another persons experience is always partial in nature because the shared partial experience of external physical realities, culture, language. Intentional efforts of one person attempting to communicate their experience to another person start from a large base of shared material and information that is not individually possessed, but is individually participated in and experienced by others. So, specific non-verbal and verbal communication play the role of bringing the subjective specifics of the individuals experience into the realm of inter-person communication. All of this is partial, but when it is added together a relatively full representation of the probable experience of another person can be formed. If two people have a desire to know each other better they can communicate until they both sense that the other understands them. The experience of being known deeply by another person, commonly called intimacy, is one of the most compelling relational experiences a person can have. Humans and other animals share a variety of permeable boundaries in common. Water and food pass into and out of humans and other animals in similar ways and play similar roles in energizing and sustaining individual life. All species of animal seem to value areas where water and food are plentiful and available for consumption. Reproduction occurs in similar ways. So there is a relatively large foundation for mutual understanding of animal experience from a human point of view based on commonality of boundary permeability between the species of animals.
Human and non-human animal senses, demonstrate a range of difference between species in acuity, which senses are more dominant, and the range and focus of the senses, the types of senses, visual, tactile, auditory, and olfactory are identical. Verbal language, cultural assumptions, and participation in human social structures, aren't shared across the human non-human animal boundary to bridge the communication gap between specific human and animal states of consciousness, but this observation does not obviate the range of boundary permeability that all animals have in common. Animals and plants share a commonality of physical and climatic environment, fluid circulation and respiration but don't have a cultural, verbal, or non-verbal form of exchange in common. However, there is a very direct way in which animals know plants generally and specifically in very intimate ways, animals eat plants, and or they eat other animals that eat plants. In this way all animals know plants through the communication of material across their semi-permeable boundaries of injection, digestion, and elimination.
Breathing animals have another form of intimate knowledge of plants, complimentary respiration. Because we can identify a commonality of object boundary permeability across the animal and plant categories of living things we can look at the meaning of what passes across these common boundaries. While the attribution of meaning is, by definition, a process in human consciousness there is no reason to look for analogous meanings across categories of living things where common meanings can be proposed and justified logically. Permeability to water, sunlight, and atmosphere are common to all plant and animal boundaries. The meaning of water and air become apparent when you remove them from any plant or animal. If you put a person, a tree, and a cat in an enclosure and eliminated water, sunlight, or atmosphere from the environment, over time all three living things would die. The presence of water, sunlight, and atmosphere mean life to living objects, their absence means death. So meaning and value don’t arise exclusively from a human subject but have some foundation in the processes of life shared by all living things. If we were not present to witness the value of water, sunlight, and atmosphere to living things, that value still would exist. In fact as far as we can tell the value and meaning of these substances to living things has persisted throughout the history of life on our planet without any human witnessing at all.
The formation of human meaning is vastly more complex than the shared meaning, partially identified above, that exists across the community of all living things, but it does not follow that this complexity nullifies the simple shared meaning of sunlight, water, and atmosphere. Therefore, human meaning is not exclusively an internal subjective construction based on the complexity of memory and our ability to relate one piece of remembered information to another in the exclusive service of human objectives. That a part of meaning is held in common by the living things that comprise the web of life and is not exclusively a product of the human subject, helps to establish a foundation for the development of human meaning that can be legitimately enlarged beyond the confines of the human subject.
This mutual understanding between different living things can also help to establish a moral framework that includes plants and non-human animals without having to attribute human social concepts, like rights, to non-human living things. Flow Media In the context, or from the perspective, of object touch relations and transfer of substance and information across semi-permeable boundaries we can look at soil, air, water, and light, as the great flow mediums that are essential to the flow relationships and exchange between objects. If we add consciousness as a flow medium that is enfolded by objects and becomes self-reflective thereby enabling flow relations and self-awareness then you have a picture of life that physicalizes consciousness, just as a cell boundary gives water particularity, and is unified between body, mind, and environment. Particularization of consciousness as subject of a living form then is partially shareable through the flow of information across unified subject-object semi permeable boundaries.
Consciousness We human beings are aware of ourselves, our own inner experience, living and non-living objects outside of ourselves, and aware that we are aware. We call this consciousness. One of the issues that come up when we begin to acknowledge our awareness and name it is that we can’t point directly to an object, a thing, when we try to in some way to understand it. A cat, a chair, a tree, a baby, an old man are all things we can identify because they have a discernable boundary we can partially comprehend through the push and flow of our touch relationship with it. If the content of awareness is always changing, we can say that awareness, or consciousness, has an ever-changing boundary defined by the content of awareness but this description does not account for some of the non-object like characteristics of awareness. In some ways awareness appears to be a stationary non-bounded something that contrasts with objects that exist as boundary defined processes in space and time. The ability to notice space, time, and motion implies a process of making a contrast between a something that is not a discernable event in space-time and discernibly bounded objects in motion or at rest in space-time.
When I examine my own experience, I see objects and motion in space as if I were stationary and everything else was moving. The perception of events internal to my own skin, thinking, emotion, heartbeat, breathing, muscle tension and movement, seem to be discernible from a position that is different, or differentiated from, the events themselves but not observable as a partially knowable object. Even the movement of focal awareness from one object to another doesn’t affect the sense of contrast by limiting my awareness exclusively to the object I am focusing on, so awareness isn’t just the focal foreground object of attention but also includes the awareness of the background as well. I think that this stationary object discerning character of awareness combined with the inability of awareness to be present as an object leads to the experiential sense that the subject transcends the object. But this unusual property of consciousness is being known within the existence of my experience as an embodied creature and perhaps it is simply that I always see things from my point of view and that does not change, that point of view is a constant amidst the changing flow of which I am aware.
Many mystics claim that the pure subject of consciousness is transcendental relative to the objects, experiential content, of consciousness. Franklin Merrell-Wolff, the American mystic philosopher, has explored the existence of consciousness in a particularly deep and thoughtful way and developed a philosophical system that posits consciousness without an object as the ground of all reality. In his aphorisms on consciousness-without-an-object, number 9, 10, and 11, Merrell-Wolff declares that; "Consciousness of objects is the Universe.", "Consciousness of absence of objects is Nirvana.", and "Within Consciousness-without-an-object lie both the Universe and Nirvana, yet to Consciousness-without-an-object these two are the same." The three foundational ideas of Merrell-Wolff’s Philosophy of Consciousness-without-an-object are Consciousness is original, self-existent, and constitutive of all things, The Subject to Consciousness transcends the object of Consciousness, and There are three, not two, organs of knowledge: perception, conception, and introception. Introception is the term Merrell-Wolff uses to indicate the way in which Consciousness knows its self-existence, he sometimes refers to this as knowledge through identity. I am using Merrell-Wolff’s writing as an illustrative example of a profound appreciation of Consciousness as transcendental relative to experience because I think the experience of being he lays out well in conceptual terms is, to one degree or another, part of the way all people experience being alive. The knowing as a subject seems to be different than the known of the things, including body and thought.
The long history of the idea of a soul, or aspect of an individual that has an existence transcending the flesh, must have an experiential basis as well as the obvious force of cultural history and being a way of compensating for the knowledge of individual mortality. In my view this experiential base needs to find a home in the world of nature in order that we become able to deal with managing industrial technology within the confines of nature.
Here is my attempt to root the transcendental quality of consciousness in an ecological framework. If we were to conceive of the biosphere of our earth as an objective living thing with semi-permeable boundaries, we would then place that living thing in context by looking at it's most obvious touch relationships. The biosphere touches and is part of, a planet, that planet is part of a solar system. The orbit of this planet is far enough away from the sun, the habitable zone, to allow/facilitate the existence of liquid water and other factors necessary for the development of life. It is as if the solar system were a range of musical octaves, and the planets orbit the sun in keys within those octaves. Planet earth is in the middle of the habitable octave of the solar systems musical range. Everything that exists on planet earth is then sung or played in the key of our planets relationship to the sun and the other planets. Perhaps when the individual notes of a living thing are played the inner most intimate and summary note, that closest to our total sense of being, our awareness, is the place where we are most likely to recognize, not just our and all the other notes, but the key in which they are all playing.
What if the key in which all earth objects are being played is also harmonically resonant with all the octaves of our solar system and allows us to intuit our collective unity outside the need for our own particularity? Perhaps our semi-permeable boundaries, everything that flows across them and everything that is excluded by them, play our note in a way that is harmonically related by this key that is never heard, but the key can be known directly in intuition as the within which and out of which our individual notes and local songs are played and sung.
Describing consciousness this way as the key in which all experience of life is played accounts for it not existing as an object and never being directly seen, but is the transcendental constant against which our experience is know as the particulars of our song. Our individual awareness is then intuitively known as both intimate and local via a subject that does not exclude the particular body of inner and outer life. That subject then knows the transcendental relative to the individual notes and local songs that form the content of our lives because it inheres in the key of life which it intuits as its fundamental underlying nature or being.
Moving beyond the particular key in which consciousness is played the potential of self-consciousness could be viewed as a undifferentiated universal substrate that is enfolded by the formation of objects. Another idea was then to look at soil, air, water, and light, as the great flow mediums that support, enable, are essential to the flow relationships and exchange between objects, add consciousness as a flow medium that is enfolded by objects and becomes self reflective so it enables flow relations and self-awareness then you have a picture of life that physicalizes consciousness and is unified between body, mind, and environment. Particularization of consciousness as subject of a living form then is partially shareable through the flow of information across unified subject-object semi permeable boundaries.
Or maybe Consciousness is more like a universal substrate of reality that is concentrated and focused through things, particularly complex living things. Through this process individuals, become intensely aware of their immediate self and surroundings and also aware of their inherence in the universal substrate of consciousness, or being. The image that comes to mind for me is that of an individual swimming in a sea of consciousness that is equally part of his/her own being and seeing only the part visible through the lens of the face-mask he/she is wearing to protect the eyes from direct contact with the water. While swimming in this sea it is natural to feel the immediate surroundings and to imagine the full extent of the ocean because you know that the full extent of the sea extends well beyond your ability to directly see it. You also know that the inner sea, the water/consciousness of your own existence as an individual is never seen in total through the lens of your inner mask, yet in many ways you can come to know the inner beyondness as an inherent contextual element of all experience. I think I like this construction best because it matches my own experience in a pleasing way.