This post is the third of a four-part series. Please read The veil of perception and Concepts first.
How can we know what is behind the veil of perception? To know the accuracy of a copy we need to compare it to the original, but in this case we have no access to the original, for when it is observed it becomes a copy. There’s no way to access reality other than through the lens of representation – we can only access the copy alone. And it is from this copy that we get the idea of the original in the first place. No one has seen the world directly, yet we are convinced that it is there. This assumption of an external world (a world beyond our perceptions) permeates our language, thinking and way of living at the deepest level. We think of ourselves as part of this external world and thus is the belief of its existence the belief that our own human body of flesh and bones is real – that it exist out there in the world among the rest. But it is also the belief of a forever changing world, and in such a world, nothing lasts. Someday my body must die and that will be the day that marks the end of my existence. That is the bad news – although, it is hardly news to anyone. The good news is that the external world is only an assumption. It is a baseless belief and it can be refuted as follows.
When we think about how things are in themselves, unobserved, we imagine them in subjective terms. We think about an unperceived apple out there using terms like red, round and juicy. These are not objective qualities, they are concepts derived from experience. In other words, we imagine things in themselves in terms of how we would experience them if they were observed. And thus, we erroneously use the terms that describe the copy when we are referring to the original.
If we want to accurately describe how something is independent of experience, we can’t use terms of experience – that would be in total opposition to what we want to accomplish. In order to describe or imagine an independent reality we would have to use terms whose content is independent of experience. But as we have seen, the substance of all concepts and imagery is perception, and thus we lack any such terms. We cannot think about how independent reality is and be right, because we can only think in terms of experience. Anytime we try to describe independent reality in concepts we are immediately failing, because we are trying to describe what is not phenomena in terms of phenomena. And we are not failing by slightly missing the mark – we are actually shooting in the opposite direction. By trying to describe an independent reality in concepts, we are effectively stating exactly what independent reality is not, namely something phenomenal. To describe an independent reality is to attempt to describe reality as it is when it is not experienced and therefore we already know by context that reality as it is in itself is necessarily non-phenomenal. This means that we can’t say, know or imagine anything at all about things in themselves or the features of independent reality and be right about it.
While we cannot know what independent reality is, we can know what it is not. Our experience is conditioned by our apparatus for experiencing. In our consciousness, the representation of the world is rendered in terms of the senses. Colors, sounds, touch, taste and smell are the faculties that are combined into the sensory imagery that constitute our experience – they are the paint with which we paint the picture of the world. But the paint is in our consciousness. Independent of that, the paint has no existence. Therefore, we can know that reality as it is in itself, is exactly not as it appears to us.
Questioner: I agree that the way we perceive the world, the world of colors, sounds and forms, is not how reality is in itself. That is a product of our consciousness. Reality in itself is rather something of time and space in which subatomic particles exists, and these particles are interacting with our body, giving rise to the processes in our brain that makes experience possible. And the nature of these particles is determined by the laws of quantum mechanics.
The atom, its constituent parts and quantum mechanics are just theoretical models. The experiments and the empirical data from which these models were derived all rest on a foundation of observable phenomena. In other words, we came up with these ideas by observing the world. It is a theory that fits. The world appears in such a way that theoretical physics seems like a plausible explanation for it. But all the theories of physics relies on the premise that there is an external independent physical reality of time and space in which these laws of physics can govern, and in which subatomic particles can exist.
From where did we get the idea there is a physical space out there? A space extended infinitely in all directions, whose existence is self-sustained, and is there whether we look or not? From our experience, of course. We have the idea of an external independent physical space because that is the way it appears to us in our experience. We see space every day. It is there in almost every moment of our lives. Most people never reflect about the existence of this physical space because they are convinced that they are looking at it all the time. But then again, most people don’t realize that what they are really looking at is the content of their own consciousness. What is beyond that, what is out there independent of experience, is unreachable. And thus is the idea of a physical space out there only an assumption. Before we refute it thought, we will determine what the space in our experience really is.
What space is
In order to have experience, we must have it presented to us in some way, and space is the medium in which objects are presented. Space itself isn’t empirically perceived – there isn’t a physical space that starts out there and somehow makes its way in here – rather it is that in which objects of experience are structured and rendered in our consciousness. The space of our experience is already in place in us. It is the blank canvas onto which we paint the picture of the world.
Questioner: So the space I see every day is in my head?
Our everyday experience of space is the exposure to the way our consciousness structure and render objects. Space is the underlying form of how they appear to us.
Consider the following: how could we experience anything unless we did not already have the ability to present experience to us in some manner? We need some kind of internal screen onto which objects can appear – and space is that in which objects appear to us. Space is not part of our representation of the world. It is that in which the representation is shown.
Questioner: Isn’t space just that which is in between objects?
Neither can space simply be the emptiness that is in between objects. Space is not the spatial relations between objects of our experience, because the objects themselves need something to appear in before we can see any relations between them. There would not be any objects at all if our intuition of space weren’t in place to begin with.
If you somehow doubt all of this, just look around. What you are experiencing is the content of your consciousness. Can you deny that space is that in which objects are structured and ordered? Or that space is that which without there would not be any objects at all?
Now put your finger six inches in front of your nose, right in between your eyes. Look beyond the finger. The finger split into two. What are these two fingers appearing in? Did a actual new finger materialize in a independent physical space out there? No, the two fingers are in the same space as everything else – the space of your consciousness.
Space is a faculty of our consciousness, prior to perception and a necessary condition for the possibility of experience. It is part of the perceptual framework in which the experience of the world is presented. It is this mode of presentation – and the ability to re-present it in thought – that we know as “space”. It is the form of experience.
What space is not
Questioner: Besides the space in our experience, the space of consciousness, could there also be a physical space that exists independent of us?
Since the space of our experience is all that we ever encounter, the idea of a physical space out there is just a theory. This idea is the basis for our entire world view – the view of a reality explained by physics. However, it is flawed.
Our idea of physical space is the idea of an objective space – a space that exists independent of our experience. But to describe something that is independent of experience in terms of how it would be to experience it is fallacious, simply because we are describing something that isn’t an experience in terms of how it appears to us – and how it appears is determined by our apparatus for experiencing, making our descriptions entirely subject-dependent. The way we conceive of an independent physical space is therefore fallacious, since we conceive of it, not as it really is, but in ways of how we would experience it.
To illustrate the error of thought, here is an example. It is impossible to envision an apple as it is in itself. We can only think in terms of how it appears to us. Now, trying to think how the apple is in itself in terms of how it is for us, and then try to think away ourselves from the picture, is basically the way in which we arrived at our conception of a physical space. All you end up with is the red, juicy apple – how it appears to us. We may envision it from many different perspectives, fooling ourselves that we are accurately modeling how the apple really is – but the very fact that the apple is envisioned from perspectives at all gives us a clue to the fallacy. A true objective view surely must be from no perspective at all.
We cannot fit reality as it is in itself into our mind – and that is why the contents of a thought can never be what reality is – it can only be what reality is like. The physical space we envision is thus not objective at all. It is mere imagery of how such a thing would appear to us in experience. It is a model not in terms of how a physical space is, but in terms of how such a space is like – it can only describe how a physical space is when we are there. But the purpose of having an objective model is to describe state of affairs when we are not there, and thus the model we have is the opposite of that intended. A model of reality as it is in itself cannot be expressed in subject-dependent terms, yet every way we can think of space entails this subjectivity. Our idea of an independent physical space is indeed in such terms and thus contradictory. It is an error of thought. Without that error, the idea of it is inconceivable.
Questioner: Just because I can’t imagine it doesn’t mean that it can’t be out there.
Yes it does.
What exactly are you claiming to be out there? If we cannot imagine a physical space, then the term doesn’t refer to anything. With no conception of such a thing, the words “physical space” doesn’t have a meaning. If we do not even know what we mean, what are we then claiming to possibly be out there?
A term without meaning refers to nothing at all. To claim that the “nothing at all” to which the term refer to, can exist out there is contradictory because nothing is the very opposite of existence. Suggesting that a physical space could be out there is therefore effectively saying that “non-existence could exists out there” – a contradiction and thus an impossibility.
To further illustrate the point: Let’s make up a word that doesn’t mean anything – “Chapokrafiliate” will do. This word has no meaning. To now claim that a “chapokrafiliate” could be out there is contradictory in the sense just mentioned. The claim that a physical space could be out there has therefore the same nonsensical meaning as saying that “chapokrafiliates” could. If we can’t conceive of an idea, then it is illogical to assert its possibility.
Questioner: Maybe we cannot conceive of it, but something out there could still be like space.
First let’s determine what we mean by “space”. What is it that we suggest could be out there? When we realize that we cannot conceive of a independent physical space – that the very thought of it is fallacious – we are left with that which is in our experience. The form of our experience, or the spaciousness of our experience, is now the only intelligible meaning “space” can have for us.
Now the question is, could this spaciousness of my experience also exist independent of my experience? Do you remember the two fingers in the example I gave? Could the space in which these fingers appear also be out there? Could the form of my experience exist independently of my consciousness? Could my spatial thinking somehow be how reality is?
No, something independent of experience cannot be like experience. Allow me to digress.
The illusion of separation
Our language implies that there is a separation between the object perceived and the act of perceiving it. We say “see a color” or “hear a sound”, and this gives the impression that the object of perception is what is, and the act of perceiving is the subjective observing of that. This is a major reason for believing that objects of experience can exist independently of the act of perceiving. However, this is a misconception.
I will give an example using colors, because such an example is easier to comprehend, but the exact same principles apply to space and everything else in our experience.
We derived the notion of color from our experience. We saw redness and made a word for it. And thus what we mean by “red” is the redness in our experience. Now, the reason why one would believe colors could possibly exist outside of experience is because we believe the perceived object is separate from the act of perception. We believe that colors are different from seeing, that sounds are different from hearing and so on. However, while the redness in our experience is what we mean by “red”, the redness in our experience is also what we mean by “seeing”. You can of course see different colors at different times and in that sense “seeing” is different from a particular color – but seeing is always seeing of color, and in each and every instance the ‘seeing of the color’ and the ‘color seen’ refers to the same thing: the presence of that color in our experience. For example, we see green. The ‘seeing of green’ and ‘green’ are the same. Now we see blue. The ‘seeing of blue’ and ‘blue’ are the same. We now say, “I saw green, then blue” and this gives the impression that the act of seeing is separate from what is seen. But ‘seeing red’ and ‘red’ both refer to the redness in our experience. A color and the seeing of it are the exact same thing.
To claim that an idea is possible, we must be able to conceive of it. And thus if we are to claim that red could exist separate from the act of perception we must be able to conceive of it as being unperceived. If we cannot imagine it, we are merely claiming a contradiction: Since ‘red’ and ‘seeing of red’ means the same thing, ‘unperceived red’ therefore means the unseen ‘seeing of red’, which is contradictory and nonsensical.
To form a conception of an unperceived color we must somehow abstract the color from the seeing of it. But if we try to think away the seeing from the color, we think away the very same thing that the color is, namely the redness in our experience.
We cannot conceive of an unseen color because the color and the seeing of it are the same thing.
The perceived object and the act of perception are the same. In fact, the object is the act of perception. Its existence in our consciousness is what perceiving is. It is only language and thinking that fools us into believing otherwise.
What does all of this intend to show? It demonstrates that the experience of space and space are the same thing. Both terms refer to the presence of space in our consciousness. Both refer to the experiencing of space. And we can never abstract space from the experiencing of it, because they are the exact same thing.
Back to space
Space is the experiencing of this spaciousness around us. Whatever is out there, independent of experience, cannot possibly be space, because what we mean by space is the experiencing of it. This is the only logically possible definition of the word – any other meaning we can ascribe involves a contradiction. Anyone claiming that space could be out there is therefore effectively claiming that the experiencing of space is out there, which is contradictory, nonsensical and not what one means when they assert the possibility of a independent physical space. Once this is realized, the claim collapses.
Questioner: I don’t get it. Why can’t a physical space be out there and be just like I think it is?
What reality is and what we imagine it to be are categorically different. One is reality and the other is a thought – and reality can never be what is in the contents of a thought. And this is of course true the other way around – the contents of a thought can never be what reality is.
Thinking can only be in terms of what reality is to us.
We usually believe that our thinking can depict reality, but from the discrepancy between thought and reality follows that whatever we imagine reality to be, reality is exactly not that. For how could reality be like a thought? A thought is a momentary flash of experience – reality is the totality of the whole. Equating them would be a category mistake.
But we must not make the mistake of thinking that just because we cannot know independent reality, there is no limit to what possible things can exist out there. We already know that precisely because it is independent reality, it cannot have properties that are experiences. For example, can joy exist independent of experience? No – if it is not experienced then it is simply not joy. The exact same point can be made in regards to space. Since space is the form of experience – in fact, the very nature of experiencing – we can be sure that whatever is out there is exactly not space.
And this principle applies to everything we can think of. Since all concepts, language and knowledge – all possible content of thought – is derived from experience, what follows is that whatever we can imagine it to be like, independent reality is exactly not that.
Questioner: Something inconceivable could be out there that is the cause for our experience of space – and that is what I mean by space.
If it is out there then it is not space because what we mean by space is the experiencing of it. If we assign the word “space” to something that is inconceivable then we are prohibited from claiming that it could be out there, because such thinking leads to a contradiction. We can of course circumvent logic and base our entire world view on a premise that is inconceivable – but that sounds more like something religion would do.
Questioner: How can you say that we can’t know anything about independent reality and then claim that space cannot exist independent of experience?
I am merely refuting the claim that it can. But in our terms of thinking that is equivalent to saying “space cannot be out there”. We started out with the assumption of the existence of a independent physical space but that assumption has now been shown to be incoherent. The status of independent reality is untouched, I’ve merely pointed out an error in our thinking about it.
Anyone claiming that space could be out there is under the obligation to at least be able to conceive of such an idea. But I have now demonstrated that to be impossible – not due to the limitations of thinking, but because of what space is. It is the underlying form of experience.
Now, before we move on to explaining the implications of all of this, we will touch briefly on the subject of time.
We can only experience the present moment. And in our experience, is the memory of the past. And somehow, we intuitively feel that the past happened before the now. This intuition, this sense of a temporal relationship between experiences, is what time is. Time is a relationship between the memory of the past, and the perceptions of the present moment. Thus, time cannot exist independent of experience.
Even if time was objectively real we would still only be aware of the present moment. So even in this case, our conception of time would still be as the relationship between the present moment and our memory of the past. Thus, regardless of state of affairs, the only thing time could ever mean for us, is a relationship between experiences. And since experiences are subject-dependent then so must time.
We can envision time as objectively real only because we can envision an objective reality. But this image we represent to ourselves is not an actual objective reality, but an experiential representation, and only to that can we apply the concept of time. Reality as it is in itself is inconceivable – and since time is a relationship between conceivable representations, it cannot apply. And thus, experience doesn’t happen in time, but time happens in experience.
Questioner: But we can describe space and time in mathematics. Mathematics must be real right?
Mathematics is based on concepts that depend on space and time and can therefore not have any independent existence. For example, geometry and arithmetics presuppose space and time, and while natural numbers do not in themselves exists in time and space, their meaning is derived from the concept of succession, which involves spatial or temporal concepts.
The subjective nature of time and space means that independent reality must be timeless and spaceless. Time and space are experiences and since independent reality means independent of experience, they simply do not apply. And for anything to be different from anything else, space and/or time has to be presupposed, which means that independent reality is undifferentiated. With no space or time, there can’t be two different things. You could call independent reality “One”, but that isn’t entirely true when you consider that “One” is only significant in relation to “Two” or “Many”, which are concepts precluded by the space- and timeless nature of reality.
Thus, Independent reality is an immaterial, undifferentiated, spaceless, timeless something that through our consciousness appear as ourselves and the world around us. But having no extension in time or space, independent reality is indistinguishable from nothing at all. How this nothing-like reality gives rise to something like the world we cannot know, because knowledge is limited to the realm of experience. But neither can we say that independent reality is causing our experience, because the notion of causality relies on premise that time and space are objectively real.
Though there is one thing that we can know about reality. We know that somehow, our consciousness exists. It is a self-evident truth. It cannot be doubted, for the very act of doubting is proof of consciousness’ existence.
Consciousness itself is not an experience. Experience is unreal in the sense that it does not exist objectively but merely subjectively. Consciousness on the other hand, is the apparatus of perception, the underlying substratum and thus the reality of experience, and its existence is objectively real. Unlike perceptions and experiences, in an objective independent reality, consciousness exists.
But since independent reality is undifferentiated, there cannot be more than one consciousness – for in a undifferentiated reality, plurality does not exist. And neither can one say that consciousness is a “part” of reality, for “part” presupposes spatial concepts which do not apply to an objective reality. Consciousness is rather a function of reality and it is this function that gives rise to the experience of the world and ourselves.
But if all we know about objective reality is that consciousness is a function of it, on what ground can we say it exists at all other than as consciousness itself? Even if we choose to believe in its existence, it is indistinguishable from nothing at all, which is to say that we believe in something that is like nothing. And to say that objective reality exists separately from consciousness isn’t logically sound either, when you think about what “separately” means – it involves spatial concepts which, again, have no purchase in objective reality. If both consciousness and an objective reality exists, they exist together as “One”. In fact, the question is whether or not the concept of existence can even by applied to an objective reality. After all, the concept of existence is derived from the realm of experience and thus, it must be inapplicable. And yet paradoxically, we are here – and the existence of consciousness is undeniable.
The inevitable conclusion is that consciousness must be all there is to objective existence as such, and thus is consciousness not just the substratum of experience, but the ultimate reality of all.This is the third article of a four part series. Please read the last part here.