02 June 2017

Compatibility Issues 1. A Mind-Independent World

Is the world real or an illusion? This question reverberates throughout philosophy and religion. In part one of this essay I reiterate arguments in favour of the existence of a mind-independent world. A mind-independent world exists (is real) and is neutral with respect to us. I discuss and problematise the terms objective and reality as misleading. In particular "reality" is a poorly defined and culturally loaded term. In part two, I locate human beings inside this mind-independent world and discuss the Buddhist simile that makes experience "like an illusion". This sets the scene for exploring some implications of a modern worldview for traditional Buddhism. Buddhists have staked a claim on "reality" that is not valid or plausible. Buddhist methods give us access to knowledge about the mind and perception; but they do not give us insights into a mind-independent world. Buddhists define "reality" for the same reasons that everyone does: subjectification of people and creation of (priestly) hegemonies. But as science progresses with describing a neutral mind-independent world, this creates a credibility gap for Buddhism with respect to reality. Our fall-back is to truthfully claim to have useful insights into experience. If we do not fall back, we risk being proving us wrong (and we are wrong). 

A Mind-Independent World

It's seven-thirty in the morning, I'm sitting at my desk about to set out on another literary journey. Behind me the sun is rising into a partly cloudy sky and I can feel warm sunlight on my right shoulder. A gentle breeze is wafting through the neighbourhood and out of the window I can see shrubs nodding in time. I'm getting a waft of frankincense smoke and there's classic Salmonella Dub in my headphones. There's a slightly bitter note on my tongue from my morning coffee, half of which still sits by my keyboard going cold.

Is this scene that I've just sketched real? Or is it all an illusion? Or is it something else? What do I even mean by "real"? These are philosophy questions and for some people the answer doesn't seem to matter. We can get on with our lives without ever answering these questions. I used to not care that much, but I gradually got drawn into thinking about such questions, partly because so many Buddhists seemed to have such obviously wrong answers to these questions that they were peddling as the ultimate truth. Was I completely missing the point or were they?

For me the scene is real and ongoing. Some things, such as the wall or my desk, are not perceptibly changing as I write and providing a static backdrop against which change stands out. While I write the scene is gradually shifting, the sun is moving, and the music playing out, and I'm hungry so will go down to the kitchen soon to get breakfast. I don't expect it to last and I don't expect it to be static, not even the wall over the long term. Buddhists often seem to assert that I do expect it will last, that I do expect to the world to be static. But I don't. And I doubt anyone does or ever did. "Everything changes" is just a banal truism.

The idea that there is a world that is independent of my mind seems obvious, but so is the fact that it changes (and I haven't even started on science yet). Early Buddhists seem to have thought so too, but that they were almost completely uninterested in that world, probably because they spent a lot of time doing religious exercises that mostly involved consciously withdrawing any and all attention from the sensory world until ordinary experience completely ceased (called variously yoga, bhāvana, etc). It is also true that they understood this state to have far reaching consequences - it liberated the practitioner from rebirth (punarbhava) and redeath (punarmṛtyu).

If there were not a world independent of my mind it would be very difficult to explain certain things. Without it there is no common reference point for us to refer to. So, for example, my description of my early morning experience would not resonate, because the reader would not be able to relate to my wholly individual experience. What makes such a description evocative (as I hope it is) is the way that we can relate the words to our own experience of morning, the sun, warmth, etc. The words may well be merely conventional, but the experiences the words refer to are shared.

Take a tennis match at Wimbledon - two players, a referee, various other match officials, and a few thousand spectators. If there were no ball, independent of the players and the crowd, how would a tennis match make sense? How would players track and hit the ball back and forth? How would the referee adjudicate? How would spectators know where to look? If there were no mind-independent world, some far more convoluted explanation would be required to account for the kinds of coherence or simultaneity that make tennis comprehensible to everyone involved; and, mutatis mutandis, that make our everyday experiences comprehensible (to the extent that they are).

Whether we go by intuition, Occam's razor, or Bayesian inference, or some other method, the existence of a world independent of our minds is the best way to make sense of our experience. All the other options force us to adopt absurd positions. This doesn't mean they are false, only that extraordinary evidence would be required to make them plausible and until that turns up we have a clear outright winner in the explanation stakes. The mind-independent world wins by a country mile.

What should we call this mind-independent world?


We tend to think of the world in terms of objects and actions. And because we can all agree on the general characteristics of objects we sometimes call this the objective world in contrast to our mind which is our private subjective world. I'm not entirely happy with this terminology. After all if I am experiencing something that is real, then my experience is not entirely subjective, since it rests on an object and everyone who sees the object sees the same object. Similarly, all animals with brains make inferences about perception that mean that experience is never wholly objective either. 

Benjamin Lee Whorf, in a still popular but controversial theory, proposed in the mid-20th Century that this way of dividing the world up was based in our language, i.e. it derived from the linguistic structures of nouns and verbs. He proposed that grammatical relations precede and define how we perceive the world. His evidence for this came from indigenous North American languages, particularly Hopi. Whorf claimed that at least one language community only conversed in verbs, suggesting that the noun/verb distinction was arbitrary. The details of Whorf's ideas would take us too far afield, but I highly recommend his essays on language - they are stimulating, and like many very bright people, even when he is wrong, he is wrong in interesting ways (to paraphrase Feynman). I think the consensus is that Whorf was wrong, though in a very interesting way. Language does have an impact on how we understand our world, but not to the extent he suggested. Grammar does not precede the world, but emerges from it, especially from the way that we physically interact with it. Objects are still objects and actions are still actions; they exist and happen without our being aware of them.

So the world is objective, in the sense that it's made up from structured objects, but it's not objective in the usual sense of the world. And calling the mind-independent world, "the objective world" doesn't seem right to me. In any case objective is defined relative to our minds, and the world we are talking about is independent of our minds. 


Another thing that we sometimes call this mind-independent world is "reality". Reality must be something like the sum total of all the real things and actions. But it's not a neutral term. Anyone who is "out of touch with reality" is either mad, ignorant, or in some other way defective. How we treat them varies from bad to worse. However, "real" turns out to be quite a difficult concept to define.

We have a number of synonyms: real, true, exist; or abstractly reality, truth, and existence. They are all equally difficult to define. So a definition on one in terms of the others is no help. If the only access the individual has to knowledge is their senses then reality is more or less impossible to define. Scholars are often guilty of solipsism in that they do try to define reality this way. In my way of thinking, something may be considered real if two or more people can perceive it and generally agree on its characteristics. But of course numerous examples show that even multiple people can be deceived - like the sunset illusion. Determining what is real requires sustained and persistent inquiry involving collecting empirical data, identifying and testing assumptions, and cross-referencing with other data. We undercut the sunset illusion by observing the motions of the other planets and concluding that they cannot be in orbit around the earth, and so on.

In reductive approaches to ontology, to be real something has to be independently existent, not simply independent of our minds, but independent of anything else as well. Following Patricia Churchland's discussion of freewill, we can call this "contra-causal independence". In this reductive approach,only the fundamental, unstructured (atomic) layer, at the bottom of the layers of structure is ultimately real. However, degrees may be admitted, because it is also implicit that parts are more real than wholes. When you analyse (i.e. break apart) everything down to the smallest units and cannot go any further, anything that is left is considered real. Atoms were so-named because they were thought to be indivisible (Greek: a-tomos). It's possible, if Fay Dowker and her colleagues exploring causal set theory are right, that spacetime is made up from Planck scale "atoms" as well. Time will tell whether this granular view of spacetime replaces the smooth image we get from relativity, but they did accurately predict the universe expanding at an accelerating rate.

This reductive view is flawed. Parts are not a priori more real than wholes. Reductionism is an ideology, not a philosophy. For example, structures are routinely as stable as (or in some cases more stable than) their parts, have unique properties not possessed by their parts, and, importantly, have causal potential. By most definitions this makes structures real also. As I have argued at length, following Richard H. Jones (see A Layered Approach to Reality), the only viable ontology is reductionist with respect to substance and antireductionist (or emergentist) with respect to structure. And this means that "real" extends over the whole of the layer stack - from the Planck scale to the universe as a whole. It's all real. 

Reality is a loaded term, not just because it helps us define who is mad or sane, but because whoever defines reality has a superior position and tends to exploit it to create a hegemony. When one says, rhetorically, "Look, the reality is.... ", one is asserting superiority over the interlocutor. If someone hits you with this, they are saying that whatever it is that you are on about, you are completely wrong - you are out of touch with reality. The reality is the final word on anything. Fortunately no one can agree on what reality is, at least for long. But how a society defines reality determines how some of its outliers are treated. The cultural baggage that comes with "reality" is so hefty that it makes the term unhelpful a lot of the time.

So, I tend to think in terms of a mind-independent world rather in terms of reality. A jargon term is only useful when there is an agreed definition. And reality is, ironically, not a unifying concept, but is contested with a view to owning the intellectual and moral high-ground. On the whole the word is best avoided if one doesn't want to be drawn into interminable arguments with people whose only commitment is to winning arguments. But however we define reality, it does not alter the fact that there is a world that is independent of our minds.

The Nature of the mind-independent world.

One of the big problems we have in discussing the mind-independent world is that it seems to attract all of our psychological projections. I've already explored this with respect to the term reality. One of the problems is that human beings want to live in a particular kind of universe, i.e. one that is fair and just. A fair and just universe allows us to anticipate what we need to do next and do it. It allows us to find the optimal path to navigate through life avoiding pain and suffering. And if the world is just, then it must be perfect. And since the world we see is not perfect, in the sense that it is not just, then the perfect world must be either elsewhere (usually in the sky for reasons I have explained elsewhere) or hidden. Thus, depending on who you ask, reality may be:
  • occult (Latin for "hidden")
  • esoteric (Greek for "inner-circle")
  • mystical (from Greek myein "closed off")
  • supernatural (from Latin "above nature"; i.e. in the sky)
  • transcendental (from Latin "climb beyond"... i.e. into the sky)
  • absolute (from Greek "detached from"... free of imperfection)
  • perfect (from Latin "finished, made complete")
  • numinous ("divine will" from a Latin word meaning "nod", as in "nod of approval from God")
There is pie in the sky. Though ironically, the word sky itself comes from a Germanic word meaning "cloud, covering". However, there is nothing empirical to indicate that the mind-independent world is any of these things. There is no a priori reason why a mind-independent world should fulfil any of our human longings for perfection, justice, completion, longevity, or satisfaction. Nor is reality up in the sky. In fact, everything suggests that the mind-independent world is entirely indifferent to us and our longings. There is no perfection, no cosmic justice, no completion, we all die, and satisfaction is all down to how live. The mind-independent world is neutral. 

Through careful observation and meticulous comparing of notes, scientists have begun to map out the characteristics of this neutral mind-independent world. Before the invention of the telescope and the microscope, we thought the world spanned about 7 or 8 orders of magnitude (i.e. roughly from millimeters to a few 10s of 1000s of kilometers). Now we know that the structures of the world can cover between 60 and 100 orders, depending on what we are measuring. For example length goes from the Planck scale (~10-35 m) to the universe as a whole (~1027 m) and thus covers roughly 62 orders of magnitude. My readers may well point out that the Indian imagination was more fecund and on a much grander scale than the Europeans of the same time. It is true that Indians imagined a much larger universe, but the mind-independent world we actually live in is nothing like the fantasies of Iron Age India.

We know that the neutral mind-independent world is made of certain kinds of stuff, but that the stuff combines in all sort of ways to create many layers of structure. As complex structures pile up, we find that emergent properties begin to dominate and that we have to adopt different descriptive paradigms. The stack of layers is not linear. So we can still usefully employ broad categories such as physics, chemistry, and biology (and the many sub-divisions of these), where each science has distinctive methods and theories that dominate their discourse. 

What the 'scopes told us was that there are domains of the world beyond what our senses can register. Quantum physics hints that there are domains that our minds cannot register also. Our minds are tuned to navigate and survive in the macroscopic world. So most of us struggle with the extremes: time-frames in femto-seconds or millions of years; or lengths nanometers or parsecs. As well as an observable universe, we might also need the idea of a comprehensible universe. What lies beyond is the domain of specialists. But this we do know, in order for some entity or force to interact with our world, it too has to be observable. Either something interacts with matter and energy, in which case we can see and measure it; or it does not, in which case we can ignore it. And in the case of the mass, length, energy scales relevant to ordinary human lives (that narrow range of 7-8 orders of magnitude that we easily comprehend) we don't need anything extra to explain it. Physics is complete within these parameters (see There is No Life After Death, Sorry, especially links to Sean Carroll's arguments for this on his blog). There are new discoveries to be made at the extremes, but not in the middle where we live. The supernatural is an answer for which there is no longer any question.

One of the key functions of our mind is to recognise agentive behaviour in our environment. Julian Barrett has pointed out we are evolved to find agency in the world because it has survival value. It is better to avoid 100 imagined tigers, than to fail to avoid one real tiger. But this error in favour of seeing agency makes us animists, we see agency where it is not. Many animals are also animists in this sense (Guthrie) And some experiences—classically the so-called "out-of-body experience"—convince us that our own minds are not tied to bodies. This leads to mind-body dualism, which despite the alterations of science is still by far the most popular view in the general population. Body is physical, heavy, matter, bound, opaque, etc. Mind is the opposite immaterial, light, luminous, free, transparent etc. Freed of body at death, mind naturally rises up to the sky which it is like. The idea that our minds are just motes of sky/heaven/absolute, embodied for a time, and will return to the sky at death, is probably the most powerful idea humans have ever had. This is also why reality is so strongly associated with the sky also. It is both compelling and also completely wrong.

To some extent I'm repeating myself here from previous essays. The repetition is for emphasis, but also because I am refining this argument as I go along. And it leads on to the second half of this essay which considers our place in the mind-independent world and the implications of this for Buddhism.


Part Two will follow on 9 June.

Background Reading

Substance and Structure

Substance & Structure. (5 Jun 2016)
Buddhism and Existence (17 Jun 2016)
A Layered Approach to Reality.
Experience and Reality. (17 Feb 2017)

Searle on Consciousness and Social Reality

Searle on Consciousness & Implications for Buddhism. (2 Sep 2016)
Components of Social Reality: Social Reality (I) (30 Sep 2016)
Institutional Facts & Language: Social Reality (II) (7 Oct 2016)
Deontology: Social Reality (III) (14 Oct 2016)
Power: Social Reality (IV) (21 Oct 2016)
Norms without Conscious Rule Following. Social reality (V) (28 Oct 2016)

Evolution of Morality

The Evolution of Morality. Introduction and Deontology. (18 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Reciprocity. (25 Nov 2016)
The Evolution of Morality. Two Pillars of Morality - Empathy. (2 Dec 2016)


Carroll, Sean. (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.

Dunbar, Robin. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. Pelican.

Jones, Richard H. (2013). Analysis & the Fullness of Reality: An Introduction to Reductionism & Emergence. Jackson Square Books.

Lakoff, George (1995). Metaphor, Morality, and Politics, Or, Why Conservatives Have Left Liberals In the Dust. [Essay] http://www.wwcd.org/issues/Lakoff.html

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Searle, John R. (1992). The Rediscovery of the Mind. MIT Press.

Searle, John R. (1995). The Construction of Social reality. Penguin.

Waal, Frans de. (2013). The bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Amongst the Primates. W.W. Norton & Co.


Searle, John R. (2012). The Normative Structure of Human Civilization [lecture]. Max-Weber-Vortragsraum des Käte Hamburger Kollegs „Recht als Kultur". https://youtu.be/edn8R7ojXFg

Waal, Frans de. (2011) Moral behavior in animals. TEDx Peachtree. [Filmed Nov 2011; 16:52]. https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals
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