first: December 8, 2019, last: January 5, 2020
The World is ONE, one big Whole. It exists, independent of whether or not any being is aware of it, recognizes and observes it. I am part of this ONE, a minuscule one, and I can observe a somewhat larger part beyond myself. Most of it is unbeknownst to me, however. ONE is fundamentally unfathomable for me, for humankind as a whole, for all existences together, and it will remain so for all times.
Starting from that premiss, I want to explore how I can know of the World in the first place, what we can know about it, and why it will remain unfathomable for all times. I will follow the naive rational path as far as ever possible to see where it leads to, where it becomes narrow and dangerous, where it ends at an abyss, and where it disappears in the Cloud of the Unknowing.
Me, the Cognitive Being
The first step for pondering the World is to look at myself, at the being who does the exploration. I thereby stick to just the physical sphere of my being, of my world. This is convenient because everything here is objective, often touchable, and we all can agree readily on perceptions. Furthermore, this limited segment of the World already turns out as exceedingly involved, complicated, and eternally unfathomable. And then, I comprehend it as the basis from which everything else emerges.
Naively, I perceive myself as an individual, separated from my environment. Such self-consciousness comes naturally as a being starts to recognize that it has exquisite control over some parts of the perceived world but next to none over some other part: I can lift my arm at will, know where my hand is in space without actually looking at it, but I can do nothing for lifting the branch of a nearby tree short of touching and moving it with my hand. Hence, a cognitive and self-aware being, I move autonomously and to a fair degree self-determined through an external world that is at times quite complicated.
However, things are not as simple as “me here, world out there”. Indeed, while I may operationally separate my being from its environment by my outer hull, I still breath air with my lungs, I eat, process, and excrete diverse foods, and there are further deep exchanges through bacteria and viruses. More importantly, however, every other self-aware being recognizes me as part of its environment.
“Me here, world out there” is just the initial egocentric perspective of any self-aware existence.
Further scrutiny reveals yet more complications in that the “individual” is not really a single being. This is true for humans as well as for many other multicellular lifeforms. Such an individual is a much more complicated existence, a so-called holobiont, an aggregate of a host and of the many other species that live within and on it. The prime example for “those other species” are the bacteria that form a most complicated ecosystem in a host’s gut and are crucial for its survival. There are further ecosystems on each host, however, importantly on its skin. Complications do not end there, however, as the host organism itself is of a multi-layered nature, all the way down to its cells with their complicated inner structure and still further down to the biomolecular machinery. Indeed, this multi-layered, multi-species nature of all animals is a direct consequence of life’s autonomous emergence and unfolding.
Understanding – My Inner Model World
Understanding is the bridge between beings, and between beings and their environment. It is also the bridge between my physical body and my mind.
what does it mean?
We all have an intuition about what it is, understanding. That intuition alludes to knowledge of the inner workings and states of the something we understand, possibly of just past events, knowledge that eventually aims at predicting, in time, to other locations, and to other situations. Examples where I want to understand range from the weather, my physical environment in general, through the meaning of words and tokens when communicating with a friend, or across time, and all the way to my very being. I may want to predict if it rains tomorrow, if the rock I am going to step on is slippery. I may want to transfer my friend’s words into my world to see, to predict for me, what she is seeing. I may want to transfer those holy scripture’s enigmas into my world to capture what they are pointing at. And I do want to see the World through my perceptions.
what is the machinery?
Understanding means to construct an inner model world that shadows what is to be understood, that follows it as closely as ever possible. It means to eventually build my reality that shadows the part of the one Reality that is accessible to me. “Shadow” thereby signals that my reality is necessarily lower dimensional and simpler than the Reality, very much simpler actually.
Understanding builds my inner reality that shadows a part of the one Reality.
The inner model world is expressed by elementary building blocks of my being, blocks that are linked to aspects of my perceptions and thereby carry meaning. In the process of understanding, such blocks are linked into hierarchical structures and new blocks are created when required. Many of them are already available, however, from my innate understanding. I envisage these elementary blocks as molecular structures that are built and maintained by our biomolecular machinery, with my conscious perception and mind operating at the topmost layers, many levels away from the base.
Such hierarchical construction is the general way along which beings and functionalities emerge autonomously through evolution, also exceedingly complicated ones. Thus, the machinery that allows understanding is clearly not particular to humankind. It is the hierarchical height to which it evolved that is distinctive between species.
how does it work?
My inner model world is part of my physical being, from the biomolecular building blocks all the way up to my central nervous system. Through the meaning these elements gain from their link to perceptions, my inner model world is also part of my mind. There is nothing magical about belonging to both, body and mind, even though it continues to be debated as the “body-mind problem”.
Analogy of the book – A more accessible albeit only partial example for the association between a physical manifestation and meaning is a book. Its elementary building blocks are the letters, physical objects that consist of ink particles that stick to the paper matrix and that are ordered such that they form a small set of distinguishable entities. These can then be linked, eventually in a deep hierarchy from the individual letter through words, sentences, paragraphs, and higher structures, all the way up to books and on to libraries. On none of these levels is there any meaning. There is just an increasing capability to store ever more precise information. This comes from the fact that the probability for finding anywhere in the world a shape that looks like, say, the question mark “?” is small. For “Hello World”, the probability is yet smaller, and the exact paragraph you are reading right now occurs just once, here.
The lack of meaning in books, and the body-mind analogy ends here, becomes obvious for anyone who cannot read Chinese but stands in a library with Chinese books, fascinated, marveling. All these books just provide the physical means to store meaning. Meaning that emerges once those physical tokens are linked with perceived phenomena through learning, exploring, and recognizing. Meaning that obviously depends on a cognitive being.
Meaning depends on a cognitive being.
While there indeed is nothing magic about my inner model world, its unimaginable complexity across many hierarchical levels is still mind-boggling. This deepens further when I realize that my inner world is also a part of the World, of course, that my thinking about the World is as much a part of it as the billowing clouds in the sky.
what can it do?
First and foremost, understanding, with its underlying model world, allows me to predict the aspects of the World it shadows. It allows me to hit a moving buddy with a snowball, to decipher my friend’s reaction to me asking “how are you?”, or to access a particular emotional state of mine during a religious ritual.
The inner model is guided by perception, which continuously compares predictions and expectations with the perceived reality. It updates my inner states, eventually my inner model itself. I can experience this entire process by closing my eyes, right here, thereby replacing an important information channel with my inner model. I may then decide to walk to some other place, and start walking. As I progress, I will update my inner state – my knowledge where I am – by occasional touches, by sounds and smells, eventually by asking nearby persons.
Guidance by perceived reality is an omnipresent aspect. It occurs when I move around, as just seen, when I interact with people, or when I explore my very existence and its embedding in the World. Such continuous adjustment is mandatory because neither is my model accurate, in general not even correct, nor does the World always develop along predictable paths over usefully long times.
Causes for inaccurate, even incorrect inner models include incomplete information, an underlying reality that is too complicated for my capabilities, and interventions by processes that are outside of my current focus. Science with its observational, data handling, and computing capabilities helps greatly to push back such model uncertainties. Alas, this applies to only a rather narrow range of our physical world, and even there only up to a certain point.
The second limitation – the unpredictable path of our World’s unfolding – is referred to as deterministic chaos. This is a property of many, if not all aspects of our known world that prevents their prediction beyond the deterministic time horizon. In the words of Edward Lorenz, who recognized this aspect, deterministic chaos is when the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. This means that even if we could perfectly predict a development of some aspect of our world, the slightest difference between two paths would eventually lead them down completely different tracks. Lorenz discovered this in the context of weather prediction, but we know this already from our daily life where chance encounters and near misses have completely changed our track.
inklings, intuitions, dreams, and immediate understanding
My inner model world is indeed a world. It does not just represent and develop individual aspects but the entirety of my world, it is my complete reality. Still, at any one time, only some of these aspects reach into my awareness with the range of aspects depending on the sharpness of my current focus. On a difficult part of a mountain trail, for instance, these aspects are narrowly concerned with the assessment of the immediate environment, with fine details of my body’s state and motion, and with the solid control of my emotions. Returned to the valley, laying between flowers in the grass, and blinking into the mountains, my mind widens and a multitude of aspects emerge, float for some time, sink back again, and I may choose to just enjoy the moment, to drift into a dreaming state, or to go into meditation.
The various aspects of my model world have some identity of their own but they also interact with each other, merge and diverge again, and they transform. They form an organic whole rather than a set of disparate entities. Indeed, their physical manifestation is that of an organic whole, from the biomolecular building blocks all the way up to the central nervous system, and the model world “lives” on it like a hologram, a superposition of distributed information.
With the nature of my inner model world come functionalities that are very different from those of narrowly structured scientific models like those used for weather prediction or for operating a stock market. They include inklings and intuitions, for instance. These are fuzzy sets of possibilities that are evoked by often subtle perceptions and inner states, which do not yet allow for a precise representation. Related to these are dreams, which I perceive as fragments of my model world that get combined in a much looser way than during the waking state with its multitude of reality-checking feedback mechanisms. Such combinations typically are related to some situation, already experienced or anticipated, and they feel like real with some fantastic and unreal turns, however. All these functionalities explore possibilities of the World ahead of my inner reality or indeed outside of it.
Another critical functionality is immediate understanding, a key element in science as well as in spirituality. It arises from near-perfect fits of so far distant model aspects and of so far uncomprehended perceptions of the larger World. These perceptions have typically accumulated for a very long time, appear solid with no room for doubt, but have not been understood, hence could not be represented in the model world. Immediate understanding, when it comes, comes as a flash, triggered by some inconspicuous and often unrelated event that just happens to link the distant model aspects.
a final thought
The above is written from my egocentric perspective. There is nothing special about me, however. Indeed, there is nothing fundamentally special about humans, compared to other higher animals. The difference is just in the degree of development. Similarly, the principles that underlie understanding apply equally to societies as wholes, albeit in rudimentary form. It is only rudimentary, because so far no society is integrated like an organism is. In extension, they will also apply to any sufficiently complicated structure that provides the required basic functionality.
Exploring the WORLD
All life has an innate “understanding” of its world, an understanding that enables it to navigate the complicated environment, to find food, shelter, and mates. At least for humankind we know that the understanding, and certainly the quest for it, goes much deeper than that. We ask questions like “Who am I?”, “Does the world out there really exist?”, or “Are there superior beings that guide, even determine our lives although we cannot perceive them directly?” Such curiosity, together with the resulting projections and answers, may well have been the key element for the emergence of humankind on a track to its current global dominance.
at the brink
Today, it feels like we are at the brink of gaining yet a deeper and qualitatively new understanding of the World. It probably always felt like that, however, ever since humankind opened the eyes to see and recognize the world, ever longing for that what is beyond the horizon.
At the brink, we naturally have a clear view of the immediate past, of our local surroundings, and of some possible next steps. Looking further is challenging, has always been. Imaginations and concepts emerge there and they range from pantheons of gods and goddesses who direct our lives all the way to the more recent “it’s all just a simulation running in some huge machine”. Such concepts are impossible to judge as they just transpose our fundamental questions – who am I, where from, where to? – to less accessible layers. The questions remain, however: Who are those gods and goddesses? Where from, where to? If it is a simulation, who is running it? Where are they from?
Fortunately, there is no real need to approach far-away layers. We have all the stepping stones and tools to continue building our path of understanding into the World, eventually even building a part of the World. All this is right here, in our small physical world. Indeed, recognizing the purely physical basis of all existences opens the wonders, points to the Wonder of all wonders that is beyond.
We cannot access and judge the possible World beyond in our mind. Answering a deep gut feeling – or is it just a hope? –, we can still bet on the World beyond, dress those bets into imaginations, even give them form. These bets then become protecting and guiding walls, hiking sticks in rough terrain. Eventually, they also turn into veils that have to be lifted, however, into ballast that hinders the advance along the more narrow paths ahead.
The higher levels of our understanding are not innate but learned over our lifetime. A part of it is gained directly, over years of exploring the World, through flashes of immediate perception and understanding. Another and much part emerges from education and learning, from the absorption and assimilation of preprocessed, aggregated, and codified understanding.
The first education is invariably rooted in our local social environment. It eventually develops into an active exploration that reaches ever deeper into various aspects of all of humankind’s cultural heritage. Our physical world and our culture are indeed two enigmatic realms of our World and we follow much the same way to explore them, from naive perception to abstract recognition and on to the larger whole, to the underlying reality. Of these two realms, culture with its rapid development and its ever changing faces is the more interesting and more challenging one.
Our cultural heritage is handed down through the generations, transforms slowly in the process, and becomes ever more compact, more codified, and thus easier to transmit. Conversely, it also becomes more detached from the underlying reality, making it ever more difficult to unravel. This is most obvious for natural sciences with their highly formalized languages like mathematics or biochemical structure. Here, no one would mistake the equation that describes the motion of an apple falling from a tree for the falling apple, would misunderstand the structure image of the DNA molecule as the molecule. The situation is more grave outside of natural sciences where access to the underlying aspects of the World is more demanding. Also here, however, the word, or any other symbol, is not the experience, not the existence.
The symbol, the word, is not the experience, is not the existence.
For instance, the holy scriptures of all religions are highly simplified and abstracted representations of something beyond, something untouchable.
a hierarchical patchwork…
In their quest, individuals follow their own specific lines in a high-dimensional universe of accessible understanding and of being. One person may become a farmer, gain a deep understanding of diverse plants with their needs and capabilities, for soils and the weather, for the machines available and required to facilitate the operation, and for many other aspects of this realm. Another person may turn scientist and dive ever deeper into ever more narrow details of our physical world, far beyond our common perception and understanding. Yet another person may be drawn towards the invisible spiritual world, ascending to ever more sublime levels, attempting to cast the unfathomable into poems, pictures, and stories. Innumerable further lines pop to mind, all of them starting from some common perspective – the one accessible to our nature as human beings –, all of them with some common needs, each of them accessing but a minute part of our world. Thus, each individual’s quest necessarily produces very small patches of understanding that are low-dimensional with respect to the themes they touch, to the depth these are covered, and to their connection with other themes.
Through communication, individual lines merge into threads, schools, and eventually large realms like science, art, and spirituality. Mergers occur naturally along similarities and lead to patches of essentially consistent understanding. Science is an instance of a large such patch. Their commonality is that they are all objective, reproducible, and make verifiable predictions for our physical world. There are other patches of comparable size, economy, for instance, or art and spirituality. They too are essentially consistent within, with common characteristics. Between those patches, however, there often is a break due to contradictory characteristics. These are no-go zones with necessarily weak and foggy concepts, often with a complete lack of comprehension.
We learned to de-emphasize the breaks in the patchwork of our understanding by “switching perspectives”
Our understanding of the World thus is a patchwork of quite disparate pieces. This leads to occasional irritations in our daily life, but we learned to de-emphasize the breaks by “switching perspectives”. As a scientist, for instance, I can easily dig deeper into diverse details of our physical world with an excruciating drive for certainty, while at the same time happily floating in the uncertainty of life, thriving in that inexplicable and incomprehensible love I experience.
Looking closer at the patchwork by asking for ever higher degrees of consistency reveals that it is not just a few large and uniform pieces flimsily sewn together. Each of the patches indeed again consists of smaller patches, again with a few flimsy threads holding them together. For instance, fundamental physics, as an example of an already pretty small patch of science, contains two quite rigid sub-patches, general relativity and quantum chromodynamics, that merger of which is one of the big open issues in the field. Further examples abound, within science with its plethora of disciplines and all the way to our daily life.
Humankind’s understanding is an exceedingly complicated filigree that pervades the World, with the Unknown and the Unknowable spreading between and beyond.
Contemplating all of humankind’s understanding of the World, an exceedingly complicated filigrees emerges, a hierarchy of extended apparent patches with flimsy threads between them. This thin filigree pervades the World, with the Unknown and the Unknowable spreading between and beyond it.
That filigree is the base of humankind’s diverse cultures. Each of them, whether Western versus African culture or cultures in different artistic realms, each of them focuses on different patches, different sets of patches, with spin-offs that range from technologies to religions.
…and its evolution
The filigrees of awareness, knowledge, and eventually of understanding are not static, neither for an individual nor for humankind as a whole. This is an immediate reality for an individual, both from direct experience and from observing the immediate environment, and it is readily deduced from the record, historic and beyond, for groups all the way to humankind.