This essay explores the relationship between physics, mathematics, metaphysics psychology, mysticism and a few other things. Given its range it could hardly be an expert discussion, but it is as rigorous as the author could make it. It may seem glib at times, as if not all the issues have been considered, but it should bear close scrutiny. It is not easy to discuss all these things at the same time and not become mired in the details yet we must for a general theory.
I. A Sketch of the Territory
Metaphysics may be defined as the study of first principles or ‘world as a whole’. Its task is the construction of a systematic and comprehensible world-theory that includes everything, that is self-sufficient, that is fundamental, that reaches all the way down to the original principle on which the appearance of all other phenomena depends, the initial condition that would explain their emergence and persistence, the reason why there is space and time, hydrogen, jellyfish, unicorns, mathematics, anger, sex, suffering, photons, love, pianos and so forth, rather than nothing at all. It studies what the world is really like and what it really is. It takes the world as it appears to our physical senses not as the end point of its study, as it would be for the natural sciences, but as the starting point for a rigorous analysis of what else would have to be true in order for these appearances to appear as they do, of what these appearances would imply for the true nature of Reality. Inevitably, since a complete metaphysical theory must explain the existence of the person who is constructing it, metaphysics is the study of our own true or original nature as human beings.
A metaphysical theory need not be detailed or complicated. If it were complicated then this would count against it. Metaphysics is a study of first principles, of which, by reduction, we would expect there to be just one. Thus to be plausible a metaphysical theory must be capable of being stated briefly and simply. Regardless of the extent and complexity of its ramifications it will be capable of being encapsulated into a brief hypothesis, algorithm, statement or axiom. It will be a statement of principle first and foremost, while capable by extension, in principle at least, of providing a solution for all metaphysical problems and thus a global framework within which the more restricted theories of the natural sciences can be made fundamental and systematically related without contradiction or paradox. Ideally the theory would do all this in such a way as to improve our understanding of ourselves and our world.
The central problem for metaphysics is existence. The existence of mental and corporeal phenomena, the very idea of existence, is unexpectedly problematic. In the system of logic we use for a characteristically ‘western’ tradition of philosophical thought, as for our everyday affairs, it is quite easy to show that the existence of the world is a logically absurd idea. Existence is demonstrably impossible. Yet here we are, attempting to make sense of it. This is so odd that a common conclusion reached by metaphysicians is that at the limit any rational metaphysics would be a waste of time. The universe would not obey the laws of thought and metaphysics would be the proof.
Metaphysics has an intimate relationship with mathematics. At its best it is a systematically deductive science, requiring of its practitioners the same precision, rigour and detachment as does mathematics. The deepest problems of metaphysics are problems of logic, and once translated into the appropriate symbols and concepts they reveal themselves as equally deep problems in the foundations of mathematics. Whenever we set out to examine the foundations of our knowledge, and from wherever we start, we soon find ourselves investigating the roots of our system of categorization, the system of sets and sub-sets by which we organise our thoughts and concepts and thus the world itself, and whenever we do this the same foundational problems arise. One ancient and well-known example has recently been re-branded as ‘Russell’s Paradox’, a challenging problem in the foundations of set-theory that can seem even more intransigent in metaphysics. In psychology and scientific consciousness studies this paradox arises in connection with the problem of how to reduce the Subject-Object duality that represents the minimum condition for ‘intentional’ or ‘ordinary’ consciousness. It is easy enough to reduce the world to these two aspects, or to Mind and Matter, but the final reduction is very difficult indeed. In Christian theology the paradox arises in connection with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, for ultimately God cannot be three things, or even two things. In Ontology, the study of what exists, it appears in connection with the ‘Something-Nothing’ problem, the vexing question of which came first, creating difficulties for both theoretical physics and metaphysics. The exact nature of this paradox is not yet important. It is mentioned here to illustrate that metaphysics is not an isolated area of study, but intimately and inextricably connected with all major areas of knowledge. To some extent it is a study of how we think, regardless of what we think about.
There is a weak sense in which we all do metaphysics, for we cannot really help it. Whenever we ask ourselves whether the world around us is real, really real, or whether, for example, we are living in the Matrix, being tricked by an evil demon or fast asleep and dreaming, we are doing metaphysics. We might wonder whether time travel is possible, what was ‘before’ the Big Bang, whether God exists. Whenever we ask a question whose answer would imply that the universe is like this as opposed to like that, or has this or that absolute property, has it in all times and all places, and perhaps even when we just take it for granted, we are doing metaphysics. How big is the Universe? Does it have a purpose? Does it exist outside of my imagination? Did it have a beginning? If so, then did it begin with Something or Nothing? Was it created by God? If so, then where? What is Matter made out of? Does time pass us or do we pass time? Am I the only consciousness that exists, surrounded by zombies? Is the immortality of my soul compulsory, voluntary, a superstition, a misunderstanding? Is the world inside or outside of my mind? Is love an electro-chemical reaction in the brain or a cosmic principle deeper than gravity? Am I free to lift my finger whenever I like, or are all such movements the outcome of a chain of cause and effect stretching back to the beginning of time? How could time have a beginning? Is there a ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to behave or is this just a cultural thing? Is Matter the cause of Mind or is it the other way around? Or is it neither way around? There are dozens of these ‘metaphysical’ questions, where we ask directly or indirectly about the absolute properties of the world as a whole.
It seems likely that human beings have been pondering such questions for a hundred thousand years or more, dozing around their campfires staring up at the stars, but the name has a fairly recent origin.
The word ‘metaphysics’ … comes from the Greek Ta Meta ta Phusika, which means the works after the book of Physics. Now ‘the Physics’ was a collection of Aristotle’s writings on nature. When the editors of his works came across a bundle of lecture notes on various topics, including some remarks about a possible supreme being, they decided to put it after the book on physics: Ta Meta ta Phusika. And that is how metaphysics was invented. It was not originally a subject at all, but just a collection of lecture notes by students who might well have been asleep for much of the time. However, in the curious history of human thought, where there is a word there has to be a subject. So a subject duly came into being, and now the Shorter English Dictionary gives its first definition of the term.
metaphysics – ‘the branch of philosophy dealing with the first principles of things’, including such concepts as space, time, substance and so on.
Keith Ward, God – A Guide for the Perplexed
Human thought may not be quite as arbitrary as this would suggest. The prefix would indicate that meta-physics stands ‘before,’ ‘beyond’, ‘outside’ or ‘after’ physics, and so it does. The name is fit for purpose, or so it became when we decided to quarantine the study of absolutes and fundamentals from physics. Physics, as it came to be defined, proceeds by ignoring metaphysical problems, and at this time the study of the universe as a singular phenomenon, as a distinct datum having an ultimate or absolute nature, as reducing to some fundamental phenomenon or substance, is excluded. Its more profound theories – quantum mechanics, relativity, string theory and so forth – have nothing to say about the ultimate nature of the world. They are nonreductive, do not get to the bottom of things. Were they to do so they would become metaphysical theories. In the end the distinction between these two areas of knowledge is a convenience, a methodology, a pragmatic way of organising specialisms, and as theoretical physics delves ever deeper into the nature of reality it must become an increasingly unhelpful line in the sand. Still, they are usually practiced as professional specialisms, and for much of the time it is useful to observe the distinction.
For a fundamental theory, however, it would be necessary to ignore all man-made boundaries. The universe is not divided up like a school curriculum, and neither can our minds be if we are trying to understand it. In his book The Mind of God, a general discussion of some of the philosophical problems that prevent theoretical physicists from constructing a fundamental theory of anything, and that will continue to do so until they are solved, physicist Paul Davies pays particular attention to the seemingly naïve metaphysical question of whether the universe begins with or emerges from ‘Something’ or ‘Nothing’. Prior to analysis this would seem a straightforward question. How could the correct answer not be ‘Something’? A child could see that the opposite idea must be wrong. Yet it turns out that neither idea is satisfactory. The idea that Something has always existed is fraught with problems. As an answer it begs the question and leaves us on the horns of an assortment of other well-known dilemmas. For this reason physicists usually prefer to work on ex nihilo theories of origins rather than countenance the idea of an absolute substance or original phenomenon. Yet physics is deliberately defined so as to exclude metaphysical investigation, and while it is bound to ask the ‘Something-Nothing’ question it does not have the tools to answer it. In his search for an answer Davies must adventure beyond physics to make connections with mathematics, psychology, metaphysics, mysticism and more.
A map of knowledge marking out the territory of metaphysics might be drawn in various ways. For one way let us imagine that physics occupies a grand and well-fortified medieval castle standing at the centre of an extensive kingdom, the Arthurian kingdom of myth and legend, across which the Knights of the Court may ride freely in their search for knowledge all the way out to the remotest farms and villages lying many days ride away in all directions. But no further, for their familiar kingdom is surrounded on all sides by an ancient and mysterious forest, dark and overgrown, gloomy and mysterious, strewn with hidden dangers, narrow-pathed and seemingly never-ending, into which those who enter are often never seen again, or, if they are, it is many years later and quite insane. This, for those scholarly Knights who ride out on the quest for a fundamental theory, would be the Forest of Metaphysics. That is to say, as it currently defines itself in everyday practice, physics is unable to make claims about the ultimate nature of the world, the nature of Nature as it were, since it is encircled by metaphysics and cannot make direct contact with reality. To approach reality more closely by the use of our intellect we would have to abandon the security of the kingdom for the dangers of the forest paths.
Fanciful, perhaps, but not a random metaphor. It carries a flavour of the esoteric interpretation of the medieval tales of the Arthurian Knights, of Galahad, Percival and the others who ride out in search of the Holy Grail when a glimpse of its mystery lures them from the safety of the Castle to seek adventure in the forest and a path to the other side, where lay, so they believed, the Castle of the Grail. On such a map the land of mysticism would lie even beyond the forest, encompassing metaphysics, and just as metaphysics would lie beyond and encircle physics, so mysticism would lie beyond and encircle metaphysics. Not ‘beyond’ in the sense that one would be irrelevant to the other, that we must only do one at a time or that in some way they would contradict each other. Each must give way to the next, however, as the main focus of our attention, as we construct ever deeper explanations of ourselves and our world, just as chemistry must give way to physics in order to explain itself.
In this way our traditional mainstream European metaphysics might be thought of as being bounded on one side by physics and on the other by mysticism. Usually it would be constrained by these boundaries as a matter of definition. Where philosophers cross the outer boundary they would be judged to have abandoned the tradition, to have become too ‘mystical’ or even ‘irrational’. For this tradition there would be no outer boundary, the forest would go on forever. Mysticism would be a land existing only in superstition and legend. If we ignore tradition, however, then we can extend our definition of metaphysics to include at least the metaphysics of mysticism, the metaphysical scheme or theory that is implied by its soteriological doctrine and that provides its philosophical foundation. This requires only that we allow our definition of metaphysics to include a strip of territory lying just beyond the confines of the stereotypically ‘western’ or strictly ‘scholastic’ tradition of thought, just beyond the forest if you like, yet still within the boundaries of metaphysics as commonly defined, and not yet mysticism proper.
This wider view of metaphysics allows us to follow a little further the fate of those Knights who succeed in finding their way through the forest. With our geographical scheme extended in the spirit of the Grail mythology we can say that those who succeed in navigating the tangled labyrinth of forest paths find themselves looking out from the forest edge across a wide strand of open ground to the shores of a vast and featureless ocean. This open ground would signify a different kind of metaphysics, one more simple than the tangled metaphysics of the forest, yet which, being still metaphysics, would likewise be criss-crossed by a network of paths navigable by the same intellectual methods.
Once the knights have crossed this final stretch of ground we can follow them no further. At the shoreline metaphysics of any kind must come to an end. Even if it is possible for our intellect to find a way through the forest and onwards from there to water’s edge any effort of the discriminating intellect to understand reality as an abstract entity would be useless beyond this point. Mysticism proper would begin here, the art and practice of it, the pursuit of an immediate, profound and non-sensory knowledge of what is real and true and not just more conceptual abstractions and conjectural theories, however logically sound they may be. The Grail is said to beckon from beyond the limits of the intellect. One medieval account now has the Knights boarding a mysterious and crewless ship and sailing off into the sunset with no certainty of their destination and only the winds and currents to guide them. It would be here, on the shores of this great ocean, that Zen students famously make bonfires of their books.
II Navigating the Forest
The mathematics of metaphysics has to do with the logical structure of first-order metaphysical problems. These take the form of dilemmas, or more properly ‘anti-dilemmas’. The question, ‘Did the universe begin with Something or Nothing,’ would be typical. Phrased in its simplest form a metaphysical question will have two contradictory and complementary answers – Something/Nothing, Mind/Matter, eternal/timeless, subjective/objective, good/evil, yes/no, true/false, on/off, 0/1 and so forth – both of which, as in this example, are demonstrably wrong according to logical analysis. That is, they take the form of the undecidable question, ‘Does two plus two equal three or five?’ The task for the metaphysician, then, once having verified that metaphysical problems can always be phrased in this form and are undecidable in all cases, is to explain why this is so. Why are all these questions not perfectly easy to decide? If they are badly-formed then how else can we form them? Why are both answers unsatisfactory in every case? What is the cause of all these dilemmas? What can it mean that so many philosophers conclude from close analysis that all such questions are meaningless, that metaphysics is useless? We certainly cannot dismiss it as a coincidence that all questions about the world as a whole are undecidable. There must be a reason and it must be very deep. Clearly it is well hidden, but if we are ever to reach the far side of the forest we must discover it.
The first task, that of verifying that all these questions are undecidable, is not difficult. Most philosophers over the centuries whose views are on record have succeeded in it. Kant puts it as, ‘All selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable’. His ‘selective conclusions’ would be extreme philosophical views or positive metaphysical positions, the two counterposed horns of any metaphysical dilemma. This single sentence may encapsulate the complete result of our traditional European metaphysics. The entire problem for this metaphysics, the metaphysics of the forest, the reason why it is so difficult to do in the first place, is that neither of the expected answers to our simple binary ‘yes/no’ questions about the world as a whole ever work. Their obvious answers are, without a single exception, logically indefensible. So it is the second task, that of explaining why this is the case and what it means, that is the real challenge for the metaphysician.
It may seem at first that there is no way to make progress. We become trapped in the Forest of Metaphysics, lost in an intricate maze of criss-crossing pathways of logical consequences leading nowhere, almost as soon as we begin to explore it. The metaphysics of the forest has been likened to a game of chess with the Devil for its power to confuse us, the time we waste by playing it and the endless series of stalemates it produces. Kant calls it an ‘arena for mock fights’, where all of the combatants know that they can defeat all of their opponent’s views, while knowing equally well that all of their opponents are in just the same position. There is a lot of hand-waiving but no damage. Whenever we set out to decide a metaphysical question we arrive sooner or later, usually almost immediately, at what appears to be an impossible choice, an intellectual brick wall, a dilemma, a paradox, an ignoramibus, an explanatory gap or barrier to knowledge. We find ourselves iterating back and forth between two equally impossible views muttering this is not right, so that must be right, but that is not right, so this must be right and so on ad infinitum, driven by our instinctively dualistic logic to oscillate back and forth like the clapper on an old-fashioned electric bell. Inevitably, it seems, if we go back to the chess analogy, we find that either our king or that of our opponent has become pinned into a corner of the board, and it is only by hopping back and forth between two equally indefensible squares that it can fend off a fatal blow. It may, however, do this for all eternity. For one possible endgame these indefensible squares would be marked ‘Something’ and ‘Nothing’.
In case there should be any doubt, the problem for metaphysics is not that it is difficult to prove which of the extreme answers to this or that metaphysical question is correct. Nor is it that we must wait for more data to be collected, or spend the next few million years treading water while the human intellect evolves to the point that it can compute the correct solutions. The problem is that we can quite easily demonstrate the logical absurdity of the extreme solutions for these questions, all the 0/1, on/off, yes/no answers for questions about the world as a whole, and are on record as having been able to do so for two millennia or more. There is no reason to think that we will lose this ability at any time in the future. If we see this as a problem it can only be because we have not yet found a comprehensible interpretation. The result is too well-established to be doubted.
When we approach the forest we see that there are many paths leading away into its depths, one for each question we might ask. To enter and start exploring all we would need to do is ask one. As we traverse its paths, following logic wherever it leads in our search for an answer, we find that they regularly fork, and in such a way that neither of the two paths on offer leads us to where we want to go, as often as not leading us straight back to where we started. These forks in the path would be the dilemmas of metaphysics, the points on the trail where we must decide which of two answers to a metaphysical question would be most consistent with our reason. In order to make progress we must regularly stop to decide which of two paths to take even where we know that the choice is impossible, the decision is undecidable, for neither path leads in the right direction. There seems to be no path that leads to the other side.
This is all so weird and strange that metaphysicians regularly propose that the universe is unreasonable, paradoxical, contains true contradictions, disobeys the laws of thought in such a way that any true description of it would contradict human reason and be beyond our comprehension. A wide-ranging plurality of views has existed for the two millennia or so since metaphysics was christened, and even today it is a confusion of conflicting theories. Not many people would expect it to make any progress from one century to the next. Its problems are simple to state, its methods easy to understand, and yet it may be a minority of the western world’s better known metaphysicians that have made significant headway with its central problems.
Nevertheless, to understand metaphysics we must do some, and so let us ask a question and see where it takes us. First we would need a means of transport and a method of navigation. The principle method by which metaphysicians propel and steer themselves through the forest is that of dialectic refutation. The method is not complicated. We use it all the time in everyday life. It is the use of a particular form of logic to successively eliminate absurd theories and ideas from our thinking in order that we can identify those that are worth giving serious consideration. Its key characteristic is that it proceeds by falsifying theories. It is only indirectly concerned with proving what is true. It may be called ‘abduction,’ defined by C.S. Peirce as ‘inference to the best explanation’. It comes highly recommended by Sherlock Holmes. To identify the guilty party from a list of suspects we would set about eliminating them one by one, establishing by logical analysis and empirical investigation of the facts – alibis and so forth – those who could not have committed it. Eventually, hopefully, there will be just one suspect remaining on the list. This would not be a proof of their guilt, for we cannot prove a person’s guilt by establishing the innocence of someone else, but at least we would now know where to focus our attention. We would now have a best theory of who is guilty. Our investigation is now a lot more simple. If we find that only one suspect remains on our list after a process of elimination, then all that would be left for us to do is to discover a motive and some evidence of guilt – footprints in the rose-bed, an eye-witness, a thread from a sleeve caught in a door-handle – and the case is closed. It would now be for the court and the jury to do their work. It is a method that works well for crime detection and countless other things, and we depend on it for most of our decision-making. It would work well for metaphysics were it not that here, strangely, when we eliminate all the suspects whose innocence we can establish, cross-off from our list all those world-theories that are logically indefensible, then there seem to be none left over. It is almost as if we are not allowed to work out the truth.
There are only two way in which this curious situation can be reasonably explained. For a typically ‘Western’ metaphysics it must be explained by assuming either that the world is paradoxical, or, if it is not, that human beings are not yet sufficiently intelligent to work out the answer to even the simplest question about it. For a typically ‘Eastern’ metaphysics the problem would not arise. If to us there seems to be a missing theory, namely the one that describes reality correctly, then this would be explained by its absence from our list of suspects,. For a typically ‘Western’ kind of philosophy it would be a strict necessity that the metaphysical theory underpinning the ‘Eastern’ kind must be missing from the official list of suspects, since to include it would be to make the two philosophies formally indistinguishable.
We refute propositions in the dialectic by showing that their truth would give rise to logical contradictions. If the year is 1880 and we are very certain that the butler was a thousand miles away when the crime was committed, then, miracles aside, this would contradict the proposition that he committed it. We cannot be sure that he committed the crime and at the same time be sure that he was a thousand miles away. We usually call such an application of dialectic logic ‘common sense’. It is the avoidance of cognitive dissonance. In the same way, if our thesis states that the universe begins with Nothing, and then a little later in our analysis we find ourselves having to concede that in this case Nothing must, after all, be Something, a common train of thought among philosophers, then this contradiction would render our thesis logically absurd. If it is true then it is false. Our thesis can be refuted in the dialectic. It is ‘logically indefensible’, leads to a self-contradiction.
It was Aristotle who gave us the formal rules for the dialectic. The game is not of his invention but he formalised and described the method by which we normally play, the procedures by which we reach logical conclusions using our reason. He encapsulates these in an idealised form into three laws. These are the laws of identity, non-contradiction and excluded-middle. The first of these can be surprisingly troublesome but we need not examine it here. Only the second and third need concern us. The second law, the law of non-contradiction, states that for any A it is impossible for both A and ~A to be true. That is to say, if the assertion ‘x is square’ is true then the assertion ‘x is-not square’ cannot also be true. To the extent that this is a ‘law of thought’, a rule for rational thinking and common sense, then to argue otherwise would be to abandon our reason. The third law, the law of the excluded middle, states that for any A it is necessary for one of A and ~A to be true. Either x is square or not-square, there can be no third alternative. It would be ‘unreasonable’ or ‘perverse’ to think that there might be another alternative. If, in some particular case, there is a third alternative, then what we are calling ‘A’ and ‘~A’ are mismatched and are not, after all, a legitimate dialectical pair of propositions but are, rather, an error of thinking, specifically a category-error. ‘Is x square or round?’, would be an example of such a category-error. The questioner is not playing by the rules. The question assumes that ‘square’ and ‘round’ are the only two categories to which x can belong, while x might be a grand piano. Briefly put, Aristotle’s rules state that for a dialectical question to which we can demand and expect a reasonable answer from another player, there must be just two answers to it, one true and one false. This rule is of paramount importance in metaphysics. Questions that do not obey it cannot and should not be decided. Without a good grasp of these simple navigational rules we would be very foolish to enter the forest, for we would have no defence against its devilish mind-games and trickery and may be led around in circles forever.
To begin the dialectic game one player would state a proposition or thesis. The other players would not attempt to show that some opposing thesis is true, only to defeat this one by showing that it would give rise to contradictions such as to render itself absurd. The other players have no responsibility to propose a better thesis in its place. The only task would be to knock propositions down, to eliminate false theories from the list. In metaphysics our thesis might be ‘The universe had a beginning.’ In ordinary life it might be ‘Democracy is the best form of government’ or ‘This car is better than that one’. The task for the other players is not to argue, but to devise a question or series of questions that will lead the proposer to contradict his or her own thesis and thus to willingly concede that it is indefensible. We might say that the game is to help the first player to see the error of their ways. This will be a rigorous and trustworthy process just as long as our questions are phrased in such a way as to have only ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. There can be no evasive or ambiguous questions or answers allowed to muddy the waters. Dialectic questions must provide a choice of complementary and contradictory answers such that if one is true the other must be false, and if one is false the other must be true, and one must be chosen and one rejected.
Aristotle warns us against making category-errors, forming questions by combining assertions into pairs for which it is not the case that one member is true and the other false. It is quite easy to do this by accident. Where the questioner makes such a mistake then the defending player cannot be expected to provide an answer. The answerer would have to assert that one member of the pair is true and the other false while knowing that this is not the case. Category-errors are fatal to the system, as we see when we ask ‘Is the marmalade in the jar or the cupboard?’ Our reasoning process runs into trouble faced with such ill-shaped questions. Category-errors may be the most easily made and overlooked mistake that a metaphysician can make.
At first glance Aristotle’s second and third laws are simple and clear. We use them with hardly a thought from almost the day we are born, regardless of whether we know anything about the dialectic or Aristotle. When we look for the marmalade in the cupboard, eliminating possible hiding places starting with the most likely, we do not expect it to be both in the cupboard and not-in the cupboard. This would confuse our intellect and seem paradoxical. It would break the rules by which we think. In everyday life we depend on these simple and basic principles of reasoning for our moment to moment survival. Simple and familiar as they are, however, it is quite easy to inadvertently abuse them. As we have seen, where we apply these laws to a pair of assertions it is vital to ensure that A and ~A really are two precisely contradictory assertions. If they are not then it would not be legitimate to apply either law and we cannot be forced to choose between the two options. Logic would allow for both assertions to be true or false. The two assertions ‘It is raining,’ and ‘It is foggy’ would not form a contradictory pair of the form A and ~A, and in the real world both assertions could be true or false at the same time. Accordingly, we would not ask someone ‘Is it rainy or foggy?’ and insist that they choose one or the other answer. It would only be when we accidently assume, while formulating our question, that the weather must always be in one of these two states, that a rainy foggy day or a sunny summer day would become a climatological paradox appearing to break the laws of thought.
Nobody would make this mistake, of course, and as a consequence the idea that it can be raining and foggy at the same time, or neither, would not seem paradoxical to anyone. In philosophy, however, the endless complexities may sometimes allow this kind of mistake to occur and to very quickly cover it over. Constant vigilance is required. Only where A and ~A are a true contradictory pair would the LNC and LEM be the laws of thought, the laws by which we must progress through the forest. If we make a category-error right at the start, while formulating our question, then any subsequent application of the laws will only compound the problem. We will soon be lost in the trees and may not even be able find a path. In order to avoid getting lost it would be vital, even at the risk of labouring the point, to be quite clear as to what, according to Aristotle, would constitute a true contradictory pair of assertions.
Aristotle deals at length with contradictory pairs in De Interpretatione. Here, for the dialectic, he gives the rule for true contradictory pairs, the formal condition under which it would be legitimate to apply his three rules.
Of every contradictory pair, one member is true and the other false.
This simple rule is crucial for rational decision-making. The laws of thought apply to a pair of assertions only if they are a true contradictory pair. If we are the proposer of a dialectical thesis, therefore, and we are asked to state in its defence which of two seemingly contradictory assertions is true and which false, where either answer would contradict our thesis and lose us the game, then either we must gracefully concede defeat or show that these two answers would not meet the criteria for a true contradictory pair. These are our only two options. If we remember this then we will have a useful weapon in our armoury for our journey through the forest, an enchanted sword almost or subtle knife, ready for action whenever we are confronted by a metaphysical dilemma, those forks in the forest paths that seem to force us one way or the other against our will. We will be aware that a metaphysical question is a dilemma only when it asks us to choose one of a true contradictory pair of assertions. Where it does not it is a category-error and we cannot be forced down either path. In such a situation we are entitled to cry foul, for the questioner has broken the laws of thought in forming the question.
Aristotle gives some examples of exceptions to his rules, instances where it would not be legitimate to apply them. If we avoid such illegitimate applications then we can say that his LNC and LEM would be inviolable for any rational philosophy, a safe and secure method for investigating metaphysics, and that wherever it would be legitimate to apply these laws we need allow of no exceptions, transgressions or modifications whatsoever. Modern physics sometimes assumes that the wave-particle duality requires a different approach to logic, that Aristotle’s rules would have to be modified for a description of the quantum world and thus cannot be entirely trusted. This seems to have been Heisenberg’s view. It is not justifiable, however, if we apply the rules rigorously. For this particular duality it is clearly not the case that one member of the pair is true and the other false. In addition, the contradictory partner for ‘particle’ would be ‘not-particle’, while for a wave it would be ‘not-wave’. Logic cannot show that ‘particle-wave’ is a true or fundamental contradiction, and so no modification to the laws of thought can be justified by physics, nor as yet any reason given for not continuing to obey them in metaphysics.
We now have a trustworthy method of navigation to guide us through the forest and are ready to start exploring. We have said that there are many paths leading away into its depths, one for each question we might ask of it. Suppose we ask whether the universe had a beginning. We find ourselves at the start of a path signposted ‘Beginning/no-Beginning?’ At the first fork we take the path marked ‘Beginning’ and follow it, exploring the logical consequences of this idea. Almost immediately we come to another fork. Here the signpost points one way to ‘Something’ and the other to ‘Nothing’. For further progress we must decide whether ‘prior’ to this hypothetical beginning there existed Something or Nothing. This question arises because it is a direct implication of our thesis that it has an answer. We are straightaway in some trouble. If we choose ‘Something’ then we have contradicted ourselves and stated that the universe did not, after all, have a beginning. Yet if we answer ‘Nothing’ we will be forced to defend the idea of ex nihilo creation, and this cannot be done on logical grounds. We have come to a dead end. The idea that the world as whole had a beginning is logically indefensible. We must retrace our steps.
Metaphysicians commonly find themselves spending as much time retracing their steps as tracing them. Every path into the forest seems to lead to a dead end. For the layman it would be tempting to give up even before setting out, and to leave it to the professionals. But there is hope. Some philosophers, Martin Heidegger for example, have concluded that if we study metaphysical questions carefully we find that despite their apparent multiplicity there is actually only one. It would be just that there are many ways of asking and answering it. If this is the case then metaphysics may be a lot easier to do than it looks. There would be just one question beyond or prior to physics, just one problem we would need to solve in order to construct a successful metaphysical theory, a single principle that would allow us to find a way through the forest to whatever lies beyond. This would be consistent with the idea that a successful metaphysical theory must be profoundly simple.
III. Beyond the Categories of Thought
We began by saying that metaphysics is the study of the ‘world as a whole’ and rather skipped over this definition. What do we actually mean by the phrase ‘the world as a whole’? This concept would have to contain at least all the phenomena that we can observe and measure in the world. All of these are ideas in our mind, and so for his investigation into metaphysics Paul Davies finds it useful here to consider Rucker’s ‘Mindscape’, which is the set of all possible ideas. Clearly, it would be impossible to imagine a more inclusive set then this. Can we call this the ‘world as a whole’? In metaphysics things are never this simple. The Mindscape is not everything, not the whole world. It is not complete and never can be. The Mindscape is an idea, and so cannot at the same time be the container for all ideas. It cannot be one of the contents of itself. If there is an overarching category that contains every possible idea, then it must be additional to the Mindscape, a phenomenon that is not an idea.
So, while the ‘world as a whole’ may seem a simple enough idea at first glance, it cannot be the same thing as ‘all that we can observe or measure’, or even ‘all that we can imagine’, and this makes it problematic. If there are ideas, then logic dictates that there must be at least one phenomenon that is not an idea, that can never be an idea. Physics is not concerned with fundamentals and can say that the test for the reality of a phenomena is that we can conceive of it and that it is observable and measurable. In metaphysics this idea must be rejected as superficial and paradoxical. When used as a restriction on a fundamental theory it gives rise to problems of self-reference, internal contradictions which render the theory either absurd or incurably nonreductive. Theories so restricted cannot include the observing, measuring, imagining entity, without which they cannot be completed. This would be Russell’s paradox as it appears in ontology. We cannot define the ‘world as a whole’ in such a way as to make it equivalent with the ‘set-of-all-sets’, the ‘set-of-all-observable-phenomena’, the ‘set-of-all-ideas’ or any other such categorisation, since to suppose that there is a overarching logical category within which all other sets or categories may be contained is to suppose the reality of a phenomenon that is not a member of the supposedly overarching category. This problem is manageable in mathematics where it is a quite abstract and specialist issue, but in metaphysics it is the central problem. It prevents us from being able to define the ‘world as a whole’ as a collection of sets or categories. When we do so we imply the reality of a phenomenon that is logically prior to sets and categories that we have entirely left out of our definition.
So how are we to make sense of the phrase ‘world as a whole’ if it must include an unimaginable and uncategorizeable phenomenon? In mathematics we can imagine and define all kinds of sets but not the set-of-all-sets. It is an unthinkable phenomenon. In naïve set theory there would be no such thing. In mathematics there are work-arounds for most practical purposes, and since the problem arises only at a fundamental level it can usually be ignored. In physics the problem may be called ‘metaphysical’ and again largely ignored. In metaphysics it must be solved for any success at all. It can always be argued, as we earlier conceded, that this problem arises in metaphysics because the world is paradoxical. This is a pessimistic view, but if we cannot solve the problem then it may be the only defensible position left open to us. There is an alternative solution, however, even if it is not immediately obvious that it would be a useful or comprehensible one, and so we are not forced to be pessimistic. Russell concluded, with Kant and Hegel before him, that a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category would allow a complete set-theoretic description for ‘world as a whole’ that would not fall foul of his paradox. He may not have explored this metaphysical implication himself, being concerned as he was only with the mathematical aspect of his famous paradox, but this is the metaphysical solution proposed by G. S. Brown in his book Laws of Form (1967), and it was enthusiastically endorsed by Russell.
Brown’s solution is presented as a simple mathematical calculus but it works across all the various disciplines once translated into the appropriate language. We have reasoned that if the world is the set-of-all-imaginable-phenomena then there must be an unimaginable phenomenon that is not in the world, and that in this case the ‘world as a whole’ cannot be merely the set-of-all-imaginable-phenomena. We cannot imagine the imaginer, the container of the Mindscape, since in order to imagine it we must turn it into an idea and then it is no longer the container but the contents, no longer the imaginer but the imagined. Then we find that we need another container to hold this, and so on absurdly ad infinitum. The Mindscape is a reasonable idea only if we do not equate it with the world as a whole or the mind as a whole. If we equate the world as a whole with the set-of-all-sets then the world will not compute and metaphysics will become impossible. We will become lost in the forest. There will be a paradox at the heart of our world-view. It is by this kind of analysis that Kant is led to the conclusion that the final phenomena for a fully reductive or holistic world-theory, and thus whatever it is that underpins the subject-object distinction upon which intentional consciousness depends, cannot be an instance of a category and must remain (other than this) an undefined term for a fundamental theory.
Accordingly, the first axiom for Spencer Brown’s ‘calculus of indications’, which is a formal model of ‘creation’, is an undifferentiated state, a state free of all distinctions or categories. He likens this to a blank piece of paper. This is not Nothing and not Something, not one nor zero, not one nor two, not one nor many, not this nor that in any case. Wherever we meet at the heart of our system of categorisation a paradox of the kind made famous in mathematics by Cantor, Frege, Russell and others, and that are ubiquitous in metaphysics, Kant and Brown’s undefined term is usually an effective ‘in principle’ solution for it. The solution would be to say that our conceptual categories are not fundamental, and thus that a fundamental definition for the ‘world as a whole’ would have to include a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category, a phenomenon that cannot be characterised as being this or that in any case. In metaphysics this is the phenomenon that would allow the construction of a fundamental theory free of contradiction, the theory that is always missing from the list of suspects being investigated by those who find themselves trapped in the forest.
Kant and Brown’s idea, which dates back at least as far as the earliest of human writings – the Tao Te Ching, the later Hindu Vedas, the Buddhist sutras and so forth – has yet to have much impact in large areas of metaphysics and, despite its immediate relevance to the Mind-Matter matter problem, little that is discernable in scientific consciousness studies. In part this may be because it would have significant implications for religion. It is blatantly ‘mystical’. It would state that in ontology, if we adopt an ultimate view, all categories would be errors. This would be the reason why none of the forest paths lead anywhere. This idea leads us straight out of the forest and all the way across the open ground beyond to the very shores of the vast and featureless ocean of ancient legend in a single step, deep in the land of religion, for only in religion do we regularly find the proposal that a phenomenon ‘beyond the coincidence of contradictories’ would be necessary for a complete cosmological theory. Hegel, following on from Kant, calls this phenomenon a ‘spiritual unity’, defined as the reduction or ‘sublation’ of all intellectual categories to reveal an undifferentiated whole. This state or phenomenon would be prior to the categories of thought thus entirely invisible to the intellect except as a gap or void, a realm to which the intellect has no access. It cannot be imagined or thought. It cannot even be said to exist, for ‘existence’ is a selective category directly opposed to ‘non-existence’, while this phenomenon would be transcendent to all such limiting distinctions. Even to call it ‘it’ would be misleading. Our intellect finds it difficult to countenance the reality of an unimaginable phenomenon that cannot properly be said to exist or not-exist. Nevertheless, we have yet to show that physics can do without it, and metaphysics seems to demand it.
We can now almost complete our mythological map of knowledge by giving the ocean a meaning. Its shoreline would mark the limit of the intellect, the end of its ability to engage with reality, for the intellect cannot gain any purchase on a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category. This is easily verified. When we set out to reduce the world for a general theory, logic and analysis can take us no further than this. Here is where Russell’s attempt to axiomatise mathematics comes to grief, where Kant and Hegel finally end their process of conceptual reductionism and sublation, where Brown’s calculus of distinctions begins and ends. To pursue the truth further would mean abandoning the map-making, the studying and theorising, and turning instead to empiricism and practice. The intellect can lead us to where the water ought to be, and can tell us that it ought to be there, but it cannot prove that it is there or make us drink. Mysticism encompasses metaphysics but extends beyond its boundaries. It is an experimental discipline and cannot be fully investigated in theory. Logic can tell us what ought to be true, and this is no small thing, but it cannot prove that the world does not break the rules.
IV The Dangers of the Forest
For anyone new to metaphysics the forest may seem a frightening place. This is not because it is easy to become lost in its tortuous network of criss-crossing paths leading nowhere. If ever we ever feel completely lost we can easily return to the safety of the fields and villages, even to the comforts of our castle if we wish, simply by giving up asking awkward questions. But getting lost is half the fun of metaphysics, and only if the study of it becomes an addiction is there any danger of becoming actually trapped. The danger is more real and present than this. Bradley speaks of it when he characterises metaphysics as ‘the only certain way of protecting ourselves against dogmatic superstition’. This is the purpose of metaphysics, to rid us of our wrong views, and this is why we do it. So it is possible, and more or less certain if we do not fully understand the world already, that by the study of metaphysics we will find ourselves being forced to conclusions that would require important modifications to our current system of beliefs. This will be a difficult prospect to face if these beliefs are strongly held. Yet we must face it constantly when we attempt by the use of our reason to discover the truth about ourselves and our world. We are examining whether our system of beliefs about ourselves and our world is, in fact, a system, or whether it is a hodge-podge of dogmatic superstitions plagued by contradictions. We are bound to worry that our reason, were we to apply it fully to metaphysical problems, might lead us to conclusions so damaging to our world-view that we will feel forced to change it. At its worst this worry might reasonably be called fear. If we strongly believe, but do not know, that there is a God, and especially if we believe that He is more or less isomorphic with some image we have created of Him in our heads, then metaphysics is surely an act of courage. Perhaps it is a little less so for the devout atheist, but even so we do not see many who argue dogmatically against religion doing much metaphysics. In the end it is the same for all of us if we understand the extent to which our commonplace beliefs are threatened by logical analysis. Before analysis it seems obvious, for example, that we have freewill, yet we may find it uncomfortable actually doing the sums. Logic does not endorse Freewill, or not of a kind that can be placed in direct opposition with Determinism, and so it is not even clear to our intellect whether we really do have a choice of paths to take as we explore the forest, or even whether we can choose to explore it or not. Perhaps we are acting out a script and interpreting ‘our actions’ after the event. The idea that our actions are pre-ordained would worry most people. Yet for metaphysics every belief we hold must be tested in logic, even the most seemingly secure of them, and even our belief in logic. It is for this reason that an adventure into metaphysics may require courage if it is undertaken whole-heartedly, and why it is not an exaggeration to say that the forest may be a frightening place.
There is a certain irrationality in this nervous response to metaphysics, of course, since if we are very sure that our world-view is correct then we can have nothing to worry about, and if we are not so sure then we would have no reason to be apprehensive about how our investigation will turn out. The world will not be changed by our investigation of it, and at worst we can only discover the truth or fail. The facts are whatever they are and always will be, whether we know them or not and whether we like them or not. The world might turn out to be a far better place than we have imagined in our wildest dreams. Then again, we may discover, too late, that ignorance was bliss, or at least a lot more comfortable than knowledge. We cannot know in advance what scandals we will unearth as we investigate the basis for our more profound beliefs about ourselves and our world. Despite our bravado we usually know that they are not often grounded in knowledge. It is not only the complexity of metaphysics that makes it difficult to find a way through the forest and it is even possible that dogmatism is a more common reason. To stop clinging to our views, as the Buddha advises, might be one way to render metaphysics an unthreatening and friendly place, but even for aspiring Buddhists this can be easier said than done.
Let us return to the fork in the path that defeated us earlier when we set out to explore the idea that the universe has a beginning, the secondary question of whether the universe originates with, emerges from or simply is, right now, ‘Something’ or ‘Nothing’. Are we really forced to choose just one of these two paths? We know that both are dead ends, that both of these propositions give rise to contradictions, but where is the alternative? This is one of the numerous dilemmas that may lead philosophers to the conclusion that metaphysics is intractable, that there is no end to the forest. We have seen, however, that we may not need not reach this pessimistic conclusion if we refer to the rules. We can defend a different choice. For a rigorous dialectic process we cannot be forced to answer the question ‘Does the universe arise from Something or Nothing? unless one of these answers is true and the other false. Is this the case? Is it really an established fact that what we think of as ‘Nothing’ and ‘Something’ are anything more than concepts? Perhaps the world is such that these concepts are inadequate and inappropriate for describing its ultimate condition or state. Indeed, given the undecidability of the question is this not almost a certainty? Perhaps the problem is only that where we intend these categorical words to describe metaphysical absolutes the contradiction we assume between ‘Something’ and ‘Nothing’ is an error.
Because the possibility exists that this distinction is a category-error, and because this possibility can never be ruled out by the sciences or philosophical analysis, we cannot be forced to take either of the paths on offer here, and nor can we be forced to retrace our steps. We can stand our ground. All we need do for any metaphysical question is to assume that it embodies a category-error. To do this we need only adopt ‘compatabilism’ in each case, the view that both of the extreme answers to such questions are, on their own, inadequate to the truth. If Kant is correct, then this universe originates in or simply is a phenomenon that cannot in any instance be called this or that. If, as a layman, we need to defend our position, we can say that Kant and Hegel came to this conclusion and have not yet been forced to alter it. We can say that where both of the forest paths we are being offered lead to a dead-end then this is the evidence that we are being presented not with a true contradictory pair but with a devilishly-disguised false choice. Does the universe reduce to Something or Nothing? Perhaps the answer is no. A story goes that Abraham Lincoln once asked one of his secretaries, “If you call a tail a leg, how many legs does a horse have?”. “Five,” replied the secretary. “No,” said the President, “The answer is four. Calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.”
Metaphysics is not solved this easily, of course, and we are still standing in the same place with only two ways to go forward. On either side of the paths the undergrowth is dense and tangled, hopelessly unnavigable except by trusting to luck and abandoning the methods of logical inference that creates the well-worn paths in the first place, the sequences of ‘ifs’ and ‘thens’ that lead our intellects from one fork to the next. We are then rudderless in an environment calling for careful navigation. Off the paths it is all brambles and bushes, difficult to fight a way through, where every prickly creeper and branch is an argument trying to force us back onto the path. We have abandoned reason by straying from the path and can have no defence against this sea of thorns. Once we are in the forest the only rational course of action would be to stick closely to Aristotle’s rules and thus to the well-worn paths, created by centuries of explorers on the same mission as ourselves. So, although we now have an explanation for the endless dilemmas of metaphysics and a strategy for avoiding them, we still seem to have no option for the moment other than to retrace our steps. There is no path on our metaphorical map that would represent our solution, no path we want to take. All we have is an incomprehensible idea of a phenomenon lying beyond the categories of thought.
We can, nevertheless, make good use of this idea. It is a common practice in the sciences to make use of incomprehensible theoretical entities and to be more concerned with how they would work than with understanding what they actually are. We can take a similar approach as a means of exploring the value and plausibility of Kant’s idea. We can make his uncategorizeable phenomenon an axiom from which to derive an extended metaphysical theory and then see whether it would work. By doing this we would be reversing our journey, setting out from the shores of the ocean to find a way back through the forest to the land of the natural sciences, and thence onwards to the castle and our quarters. First we would explore how such a theory would unfold in religion, then metaphysics, then theoretical physics, then psychology and so forth, and finally whether it would be consistent with our own experience. We would be exploring the implications of an axiom stating that the universe is a unity, where ‘unity’ has a very specific meaning. This would be the simple and unfalsifiable axiom spoken of earlier, our basis for an extended global theory.
Steven Spielberg’s treatment of the Grail mythology in the film ‘The Temple of Doom’ has the hero interpreting maps, solving riddles, crossing deserts, fighting off attackers, falling in love, overcoming all sorts of obstacles and dangers, to finally find himself standing on narrow ledge above a sheer-sided and seemingly bottomless chasm, knowing that the only way forward would be to have faith in an ancient legend telling of a miraculous safety-net or bridge, and having to trust that he will not fall to his death despite all appearances to the contrary. This might be something like the seashore for our map of knowledge, the place where reality, the truth about reality, about ourselves and who or what we really are, finally extends beyond our ability to think about it. This is not a bridge we can cross in metaphysics, but only by abandoning it. Nevertheless, despite the inability of logic to bring us all the way to such knowledge, there would be nothing ‘illogical’ in the idea that the indefensibility of all extreme, positive or selective metaphysical positions implies that the universe, when seen as a whole, is a phenomenon that cannot be categorised. Our intellect is easily capable of allowing us to investigate whether the theory that emerges from this idea, once it is made an axiom for an extended theory, would make sense in philosophy, withstand the usual scientific tests and have any explanatory power. If the theory is formally derived then this axiom, which is no more or less than an interpretation of the well-established negative result of metaphysics, then this axiom would be the nearest thing to an ‘appeal to mysticism’ the theory needs to make. If the axiom is true then the emergent theory should follow from it as naturally as would the space-time universe from the original phenomenon it asserts. If it does not, then we have exhausted our options. If the implications of this axiom are such as to reduce it to absurdity then the universe must be paradoxical in just the way that Melhuish proposes in his Paradoxical Nature of the Universe. There would be true contradictions and Priest and Routley’s paradoxical Dialethism would be a better metaphysical theory than that which underpins the worldview of Buddhism, Taoism and advaita Vedanta.
In his book The Nothing That Is – A Natural History of Zero, the mathematician Robert Kaplan sticks mostly to his word and does not stray into metaphysics. Towards the end, however, after exploring the origins of our mathematical concept of zero and how it works in logic and mathematics, he reminds us of its equal importance in metaphysics and the equivalence of the logical issues that arise for it there. To the questions of metaphysics, specifically that of why there is Something rather than Nothing, he answers, ‘No rational attempt on this ice-wall can succeed’. The metaphor is apt, since there would be nothing for the intellect to grasp. ‘The world’, he writes, ‘may not only be more singular than we think, it may be more singular than we can think.’ Here is Kant’s idea again, the idea that for a complete metaphysical theory there must be a reduction not only of the categories of thought but even of the thinker and the thought, thus an original phenomenon that is real but unthinkable, an ocean beyond the forest, an ice-wall for the intellect. Such a phenomenon must be a conceptual void. It would be hopeless trying to conceive of it. This is not an instance of mind or matter, subject or object, self or other, perceiver or perceived, conceiver or conceived, thinker or thought, one thing or another. To suppose otherwise would be dualism, the idea that by reduction there are two real and distinct phenomena, each limited by its need to be distinct from its opposite. There cannot be two phenomenon that are not an instance of a category. This unitary phenomenon would be prior to all distinctions, differentiations, categories or broken-symmetries, but would be what makes them possible in the first place. It would be important here to note that this is both an epistemological and ontological proposition, having implications for both psychology and physics, since it reaches beyond the Mind-Matter distinction to a unifying phenomenon. This is the reason why Kant arrives at the same solution for both physics and psychology, both matter and mind. This phenomenon may be arrived at in logic, as we have done here in a casual way, but only as a gap, the absence of a phenomenon where there ought to be one, a forest path that ought to be there but is not. We are forced down this philosophical via negativa by the very definition we have given to the phenomenon we are trying to talk about. ‘The Tao that is eternal cannot be talked’ says Lao Tsu, so we must confine our investigations to its theoretical implications. Only by trusting to the winds and waves of direct experience could we ever hope to verify its reality, or, more accurately, verify Reality. This is the logic of our situation. If a phenomenon cannot be a concept or an idea then either we share an identity with it or we cannot know it at all.
For scholars of metaphysics an exploration of an axiom of unity would, at worst, require a temporary suspension of disbelief. We can explore the idea that the indescribable phenomena it implies might be real and attempt to reduce it to absurdity without risking much. To the intellect we are facing only a difficult idea. In experiential practice, however, the featurelessness of this phenomenon becomes a challenge to our nerve, perhaps even to our faith, for on encountering it our intellect may feel itself close to annihilation. We may feel that we are about to acquire a knowledge of our own mortality by putting it to the test. In metaphysics, fortunately, we are investigating only whether it is plausible to our intellect that we are immortal, not actually trying to find out, and we need do no more than hypothesise that perhaps there is a land beyond the forest, and perhaps there is a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category lying beyond even that, and then turn back, as we must in metaphysics, to explore the ramifications of this hypothesis.
The result, as we have seen, would be a theory for which the forks in the forest path offer us a false choice, equally absurd extreme views presented as our only options. That we get lost in the forest would be due to a subtle misunderstanding of our own process of dialectical thinking, specifically the precise definition Aristotle gives for a true contradictory pair of propositions. Forgetting this, we ask undecidable questions and then cannot understand why we cannot decide them. The care with which Aristotle treats this issue indicates his awareness of the danger to our reasoning system of inadvertent category-errors, the profound consequences for our intellect if we assume that there are only two answers to a question when there are more. If we reach logical conclusions in this manner then our reasoning system will malfunction. We will never arrive at the truth by the use of it and our beliefs about the world will not be systematic.
Let us go back to the beginning and try a different path into the forest, ask a different question. There is one marked ‘Freewill-Determinism’ that looks well-travelled, heading off in two directions to disappear into the darkness under the trees. Which way shall we go? It does not matter. To establish the weaknesses and strengths of these two ideas we would have to explore both paths. This is because metaphysics is not about proving what is true. To follow the path marked ‘Freewill’ we would not attempt to show that Freewill is ‘true’, which would be impossible, but to show that the opposite view is logically indefensible, can be logically refuted, breaks the laws of thought, and in this way lend some credibility to the idea that we have Freewill. But this can never turn into a proof that we actually do have Freewill. We have not yet investigated whether Determinism is any more defensible than Freewill. We are looking for the best theory, so must explore both paths and compare the results.
The entire secret of the forest is that both of these paths lead nowhere. Or, rather, they lead us round and around the forest from one paradoxical ramification to the next. Neither seems satisfactory to most philosophers, who on this particular question commonly choose the hidden path and endorse compatibilism, which is the idea that the Freewill-Determinism dilemma embodies a category-error such that it is not the case that one of these positions is true and the other false. The problem for compatibilism here, when adopted on a piecemeal basis, is that it is very difficult to see what it means. In the case of the ‘Something-Nothing’ problem compatibilism clearly implies an additional ingredient, an undifferentiated or unmanifest state prior to this distinction. But compatibilism in respect of Freewill-Determinism does not seem to have such a clear implication. Nevertheless, it is at least clear that there would be no point in taking either of the two extreme forest paths on offer and that our only hope is compatibilism. If we concede even this much then we are immediately transported through the forest to its farthest edge, where the metaphysics of mysticism begins, without having to follow any paths. There is simply no need to enter the forest to battle with its riddles and dangers in the first place if we concede with Kant that all selective conclusions about the world as a whole are undecidable, as long we take this to imply a global form of compatibilism and not a global failure of our intellect. If we say that all such conclusions are undecidable for a reason, this reason being that both horns of all these faux-dilemmas are false or inadequate, then we have conquered the forest and have already started to explore the territory beyond.
V. Beyond the Forest
Beyond the forest lies a quite different metaphysics from that which brought us here. The kind of metaphysical thinking that creates the forest begins by assuming that the world is this or that in some respect and then attempts to prove which it is by proving which it is not. It produces the unexpected result that the world cannot be this or that in any respect whatsoever. This is its most famous and most secure result. In order to make more of this result than a barrier to knowledge, we need only accept it and move on. To explore beyond the forest we would assume that this result is important and proves that for an ultimate view the world as a whole is not this or that in any respect. Now a very different approach to metaphysics becomes both possible and necessary. Metaphysics becomes an exploration of the idea that the world as whole is a ‘unity’, a perfect symmetry, a phenomenon prior to the complementary and contradictory pairs of properties by which we measure and describe it as an object apart from ourselves, beyond even the intellectual and conceptual categories by which we, as the falsely counter-posed subject, vainly attempt to think about it. Logic forces us to make this exploration since all alternative ideas lead us straight back into the trees to face the impossible task of trying to make sense of their paradoxical ramifications. For a characteristically ‘western’ metaphysics, and thus for orthodox physics and scientific consciousness studies, we can legitimately go as far as conceding that the indefensibility of all extreme or partial metaphysical theories would imply that the world is either a unity or a paradox, but we can go no further than this. To go further would require crossing the border into a different tradition of thought, a different cosmological paradigm, and a shift to a new and more rigorous dialectic logic, one for which it would be the case that extreme metaphysical positions are indefensible in logic because they do not describe the world correctly. This is where Francis Bradley stops in his formal metaphysical essay Appearance and Reality, in which he attempts to prove the indefensibility of all such positions, with the conclusion that metaphysics does not endorse an extreme answer to any metaphysical question, for he was concerned not to stray beyond the forest edge, where many of his peers would have considered metaphysics to end. But metaphysics is capable of more than this. Bradley does not suggest that his readers should stop here. We cannot say that the world is a unity and leave it at that, for we would have no better an understanding of it than we ever did. It would seem as mysterious as ever and perhaps even more so.
The literature of the metaphysics beyond the forest is vast but it is not usually complicated. Where it seems at its most difficult it is usually at its simplest. For the most part its profundity is the problem rather than complexity. Its simplicity derives from its axiom. This establishes a phenomenon that is incapable of being analysed into parts and is thus as simple as it possibly could be. Plotinus, a useful guide to the territory we are beginning to explore, calls this a ‘Simplex’. It would be too simple to think, a reduction of thinker and thought. It would be simple also in the sense that the extended world-view and metaphysical theory that emerges from this axiom is systematic and may be extended without contradiction to form a coherent world-view and defensible metaphysical position. Being free of contradiction, it may be so highly integrated that any true metaphysical statement can almost immediately be derived from any other. In this sense it is holographic. Its contradictory axiom allows it to be more nearly complete and consistent than any other. One can carry it around as an axiom, and unfurl it as the need arises.
Consider the statement: ‘True words seem paradoxical’. This seemingly paradoxical statement was made by Lao Tsu in the Tao Te Ching more than three thousand years ago, and it may be considered typical of the obscurity of the whole text. Yet there is nothing about this statement that would be difficult to understand for anyone who knows the common meaning of the words. Lao Tsu, or whoever it was, adds no provisos. The statement covers all times and places and nothing need be added to it. Yet the implications of these words for metaphysics, physics and psychology are vast and unmistakeable. The systematic integrity and essential simplicity of Lao Tsu’s worldview allows it to be enfolded into a single brief statement from which all the rest would follow ineluctably. His statement could only be true if our axiom of unity is true, and so it would be functionally interchangeable as an axiom, having exactly the same implications for the nature of reality. We must try to understand his brief statement, for if we cannot roughly understand it then we will be unable to reach quite to the edge of the ocean on foot, as it were, which is to say by logical analysis, and will be unable to make sense of the literature of mysticism and its philosophical position.
Lao Tsu’s statement immediately implies that the world is a unity. To see how this is so we must leave behind the essentially dualistic approach to metaphysics that comes naturally to us yet which somehow traps us in the forest plagued by problems of self-reference associated with Cantor, Frege, Russell and Godel, and by all the dilemmas, paradoxes, barriers to knowledge, infinite regressions, paradoxes, ignoramibuses, undecidable questions and impossible choices that make the Forest of Metaphysics seem an insurmountable limit on what we can know about the world. From here on we must assume that dualism of any kind is false. We are now leaving the safety of the forest, for it is safe in a way, and entering a very different land. For progress here we must continue to obey the laws of thought, but we must now be guided by the principle of ‘nonduality’ when we interpret the results of our analysis. From now on words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical.
In order to escape from the forest we have conceded the unity of the universe, and while to our intellect the undifferentiated phenomenon this concession implies will be a gap, a void, an impossible idea, we must now say that this is entirely to be expected and would have no bearing on its reality. This allows us to entirely transcend the metaphysical problems represented by the forks in the forest paths, all those undecidable decisions that may prevent us from making any progress. We are now in a land where natural language has to be modified in such a way that we need never again commit ourselves to any of the metaphysical positions represented by the forest paths. Here we must speak in a language of contradictory complementarity, the same language that is required for quantum theory, a language for which rigorously true words will appear to be paradoxical. Lao Tsu does not explain much, just makes statements, but we find a full explanation of his maxim concerning true words in the Buddhist literature concerned with Nagarjuna’s doctrine of ‘Two Truths’ or ‘Two Worlds’. If there are always two ways of looking at a situation which are equal and opposite, and if neither is ever quite correct, then our language must reflect this in order that we can speak truly. In logic this is not a difficult idea, and speaking such a language can be learnt as a simple trick. We need only seem to contradict ourselves all the time, and the unerring constancy of these contradictions would ensure that our statements are systematic.
Only when we attempt to understand what this language would imply for the nature of reality would the difficulties really begin. What traps us in the forest is not a failure of calculative thinking. Most philosophers, and very possibly most people who do the calculations, reach the same result. Rather, it is the unwillingness of our intellect to concede that the extreme answers to metaphysical questions are inadequate, even though this is what it repeatedly discovers. This result is just too mind-boggling. We cannot imagine what it means. This is not a calculation failure. It is an immediate implication of the falsity of extreme metaphysical views that the final truth about ourselves and our world cannot be grasped by the intellect. There is no failure here, just a question of selecting the right tools for the job. We do not learn what an experience is ‘like’ by thinking about it, we need to have the experience. Nevertheless, for a reasonable and rational metaphysics it would be possible to make use of the idea of an intellectually ungraspable phenomenon. We can employ it as theoretical primitive even if it remains largely incomprehensible, and we can even talk about it, just so long as we talk in a seemingly paradoxical manner.
What is a ‘unity’? Is this ‘the world as a whole’? It would seem to be something very like it. This would not be two things or one, even if it has these values as appearances or aspects. We are forced to think and speak about it as two things or one, but ex hypothesis what it actually is we would be unable to think or speak. It may be explained to a considerable extent as two things, perhaps as Bradley’s ‘Appearance’ and ‘Reality’, or as ‘Samsara’ and ‘Nirvana’, or as the ‘conventional’ and ‘ultimate’ of Buddhism’s doctrine of ‘Two Worlds’ or ‘Two Truths’, but any such explanation must end when these two worlds or truths have finally to be reduced or sublated. Here we are forced into silence by the limits of language and logic, the impossibility of the final act of self-reference. All we can say of a unity is what it is not. It would be an identity, not a concept. In metaphysics we cannot and need not try to define this phenomenon, other than to say that in no case is it this or that. In this way it would be both a well-defined and undefined term depending on which way we look at it. This would be a very general and entirely negative description, and yet it would be a very close description of a unique phenomenon, the only member of the category ‘uncategorised’. There could be no possibility of confusing a phenomenon so defined with any other, and so this definition would easily be sufficient for theoretical purposes. And in any case, the unity of the world is not a complex idea. Lao Tsu’s inability to talk the Tao forces him to speak in a language that seems self-contradictory and paradoxical, but this does not make his philosophy complex or incapable of clear expression. The brevity of the Tao Te Ching suggest quite the opposite. It may appear at first to be a collection of riddles beyond the reach of mere mortals to understand, and perhaps it is, for if he is right in what he says about the universe then none of us are merely this, but it may seem less daunting if we consider that he was able to rigorously define an entire cosmological scheme and found a major new religion while chatting about politics and social responsibilities in a text that translates into approximately five thousand English words, four of which on their own, five or six in some translations, rigorously define his metaphysical position. What he says about the universe can be said briefly because the central idea is profoundly simple. It is so simple it cannot be said.
We are now venturing into a metaphysics that has become distinctly strange in just the way that allows us to characterise it as ‘Eastern’ or ‘mystical’, and with only our intellects to guide us. But this is still metaphysics. Appeals to anything other than logic continue to be disallowed. We have been led by analysis to an axiom stating that the world is not two things, that dualism if false, such that the ocean on our map would be a reality and no mere superstition. This brings us to the forest edge. Now we must find our way from the treeline to the beach, and this means trying to make some sense of the literature of mysticism.
VI. The Ground Beyond the Forest
The ground beyond the forest is no less illusory as an obstacle to our quest than the forest itself. When we assume that the solution for metaphysics is a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category we concede the possibility of the ocean beyond this ground and stand with its waves lapping at our feet, so to speak, needing only to dip a toe in the water to verify empirically the soundness of our calculations. Philosophical analysis can do no more. In principle the whole of metaphysics may be transcended with this single concession. For the details, however, we must explore the ground between the forest and not simply step over it. The mistrust of metaphysics often found in mysticism, the regular insistence that we should step immediately over this ground and not let its complexities distract us on the spiritual path, is justified on soteriological grounds. For the true mystic, exploring this ground would be like reading the label on a bottle of medicine instead of taking it. To the objection that this ground is not worth exploring, which may arise for practitioners, we can only say that if we have no idea what the medicine contains, what it is for, or even that it is a medicine, then it cannot be a bad idea to read the label on the bottle.
For an investigation of this new territory the rules for the dialectic will be as vital to our navigational decision-making as they were in the forest. Aristotle’s definition for a true contradictory pair of statements would have to be rigorously applied at all times, so that whenever we say that the world is this we must immediately contradict ourselves and state it is equally that, in case there should be any misunderstanding. This seemingly paradoxical characteristic of the language of the perennial philosophy, caused by its rejection of partial metaphysical theories, is often interpreted as a violation of Aristotle’s rules, or at least a modification of them, but in fact it is their strict enforcement. We cannot describe a phenomenon that is not an instance of a category by placing it in one, and so are forced to use a language of affirmation and contradiction. It is the best that can be done with language. We are now exploring a philosophical scheme that allows Heraclitus to state ‘We are and are not’ while avoiding any contradiction, and that is systematic and integrated to such a high degree that Lao Tsu can state without proviso that words that are strictly true will seem to be paradoxical. Aristotle’s rules would still apply here, but an extra principle becomes available to us that is in a sense transcendental to those rules, a principle that allows us to use his rules in much the same way that they are used for quantum mechanics, and in exactly the way that Aristotle suggests we should use them. This principle may be called ‘nonduality’. This would be the principle that explains the ubiquitous use of a language of contradictory complementarity in the literature of mysticism. It is possible to speculate that it might also explain the necessity for the use of such a language in the literature of physics.
The principle of nonduality would be ‘transcendental’ to logic. By the use of the laws of thought alone we cannot decide whether it is true or false, necessary or unnecessary, and the operation of the rules will be entirely unaffected by which it is, or even which we assume it is. For intellectual progress philosophers everywhere must use the rules for the dialectic, but this extra principle would be optional. It would be an interpretation of the results of metaphysics, a theory of why its results are as they are and what they mean, not a conclusion that the study of metaphysics can force us to reach. Regardless of how convinced we may be on grounds of logic that metaphysics does not produce a positive result, for as long as nonduality remains an untested conjecture as a solution for this problem it will be possible to interpret the results of metaphysics as evidence that the world is paradoxical. We cannot be forced by logic to conclude that nonduality is a necessary principle for a fundamental world-theory while we are still not sure whether the universe obeys the laws of thought. If it does not obey them then all bets are off. When we make the unity of the universe an axiom for an extended philosophical theory we convert a reliable and demonstrable result of formal metaphysics into an undemonstrable hypothesis about the nature of Reality. It would be impossible to demonstrate that ‘Tao’ is a real phenomenon, only that it might be. We may be able to calculate that the ocean ought to be there, perhaps even that it might be worthwhile exploring the ground beyond the forest just in case, but this is all we can do. We cannot know that it is there without getting wet, and cannot even work out beforehand what ‘wet’ or ‘ocean’ might mean in this context. All we can do is explore whether its reality would make intellectual sense to us.
Nonduality would be a fundamental principle for Middle Way Buddhism, Taoism and advaita Vedanta. It is arguable, and often difficult to tell, whether all of mysticism subscribes to it in its purest form, but it would be the majority view and alternative views are rarely much different. These three religious traditions are chosen as safe examples because their language is unmistakably ambiguous on metaphysical issues. Sufism, Kabbalism, Alchemy, Jainism, Theosophy, Essenism and many other cults and traditions, even some forms of Shamanism, may be interpreted as endorsing this founding principle, but it may be less obvious that such an interpretation would be correct. Nonduality is the principle that allows Spencer Brown to solve Russell’s paradox and allows his ‘calculus of indications’ to represent a formal and fundamental description of the emergence of form from formlessness. His description can be completed, unlike any other, because it is axiomatised on a phenomenon that completely defies description and which can be expressed logically only as a contradiction. Brown speaks of this solution as the introduction of complex values into ordinary logic, or imaginary numbers into mathematics. The logic stays essentially the same, but a new kind of value is allowed. This allows a ‘middle way’ solution for what appear to be categorical dilemmas. For this philosophical view, there could be no true contradictions because there would be no true distinctions. Whatever is truly real, the phenomenon without which nothing else could even appear to exist, the seemingly elusive phenomenon to which all other phenomena would reduce, would not be a member of a set nor an instance of a category. The Real would not be a member of the Mindscape and never could be. Rather, it would be that which makes the Mindscape possible in the first place, its origin and its environment in every moment. .
For the Hinduism of the late Vedas, nonduality is generally explained as the relationship of our mind and the Universe, of our ‘soul’ or core being and the Absolute or ‘Brahman’. According to the principle of nonduality we can conceive of this relationship in two contradictory ways. By one way of looking it is not a relationship at all, since by reduction there would not be two things. And yet, at the same time, there would be two things, for the conventional world requires that they appear as a broken symmetry, as self and non-self, subject and object, observer and observed, ‘me’ and ‘my world’, ‘my’ soul and ‘the’ world-soul and so on. The term advaita translates as ‘not-two’, however, and this is the rejection of the idea that there are two ultimately real phenomena. This simple negative term may be used effectively to closely define a very particular worldview because it manages to state the falsity of dualism while not endorsing a simple numerical monism. The world would not be two or one. This leaves just one possibility. The universe would be a unity, a far subtler phenomenon than a numerical ‘One’ or ‘Two’. The term advaita makes the same philosophical claim as Lao Tsu’s brief maxim about true words. A unity seems to be paradoxical, and so as a cosmological or metaphysical claim advaita not only passes Lao Tsu’s test but also explains why his famous maxim is true in the first place. It would be because the world is advaita that true words seem to be paradoxical.
For a nondual view of the world all diversity would be superficial. Nothing would really exist. This would be what is discovered in practice. When seen from an ultimate perspective, as it really is, all separation would be some kind of an illusion, a multiplication of conceptual imputations and void epiphenomena. Whatever is truly real would remain hidden in and amongst all these phenomenal objects and subjects. As well as the contents of consciousness there would be, as Schrödinger put it, ‘the canvas on which they are painted’. Such a realisation would not be possible for the intellect, however, for it would be trivially impossible to imagine the backdrop for our imaginings. And even this might not be a fundamental view, for we have not yet reduced the painting and the canvas.
Our imagination fails when faced with such ideas but this need not matter here. In metaphysics we do not need to have much understanding of what it is that we are talking about. We are not doing mysticism, just exploring its metaphysical claims. We need deal only with axioms, principles, terms, theorems and so forth. The reality of the ocean is a theoretical axiom here, with nonduality as the principle arising from it, and it can be no more than this. This axiom need not be examined closely unless, by some chance, the explanatory theory to which it gives rise turns out to work, to make sense to us, to solve problems and make the world more comprehensible. If it turns out not to work, or if it can be reduced to absurdity, then the axiom can be discarded more or less unexamined, regardless of what we can and cannot imagine. It may seem already that an axiom of unity would have some absurd consequences, but they are not so strange when examined closely. Nonduality would not deny the variety of phenomena in the world, but states only that they do not exist in the way we usually think they do. This would apply generally, so that the writers of the Upanishads can state that when we see the voidness of one phenomenon we will see the voidness of them all. But to say that a phenomenon is void is to say that it is a phenomenon.
VII. Exploring the Seashore
Physicists, from their study of the behaviour of matter on large and small scales, notably its seemingly undeniable but clearly impossible, inexplicable and almost magical ability to interact, or at least correlate with our immaterial minds, must understand better than most people just how strange and remarkable a theory would have to be in order for it to be able explain the world. It must explain nonlocal correlations, the two-slits experiment, superposition, dark matter, gravity, relativity, the Higgs field, the Big Bang, the origin of the laws of physics and so forth. The problem for physics is the creation of a theory strange enough to be taken seriously. Philosophers of mind, who must struggle with the problem of consciousness in its various guises, face what may be an even greater test of imagination, for the difficulty we have in explaining the relationship between mind and matter points to a theory even more strange than does physics alone. It is even becoming unclear in the sciences whether physics does, after all, encompass consciousness studies, or whether it is the other way around. It is not an insignificant geographical feature of the philosophical territory beyond the Forest of Metaphysics, therefore, that it is strange beyond our wildest dreams. Here the world would be strange beyond our wildest dreams ex hypothesis. This need not, however, put an end to rational philosophy. Our axiom of unity demands that we adopt compatibilism in respect of all metaphysical extremes, and this may not be an irrational position to take up. We must examine cases.
One of the more complex problems compatibilism must be able to solve is the Freewill-Determinism dilemma. If true words seem paradoxical then we cannot state rigorously that freewill is true or false, that we either do or do not have freewill. We cannot force a person to make up their mind on this question, since it is possible that these extreme metaphysical views can be reduced or sublated for the truth. Perhaps Freewill-Determinism is not a true contradictory pair but a category-error. According to our axiom this is exactly what it is, and to assume otherwise would be to ride straight back into the forest and give up on mysticism and logic. We cannot simply assume that if Freewill is false then Determinism is true, or the reverse. We must first define these terms so that they would form a true contradictory pair, where if one proposition is true then the other must be false, with no third possibility. This would not be an easy thing to do. Yet if we cannot do this we will have no method for deciding between them, and the possibility that both views are inadequate and wrong cannot be ruled out.
When we examine the literature of the mystical philosophy we find a subtle view regarding freewill that considerably changes the terms of the debate. In the forest we are presented with a choice between two extreme views neither of which work. In mysticism we find a view that transcends this dichotomy for compatibilism. It would not be necessary to understand this view to see at least that the approach to the problem is wildly different. Here is Ramesh Balsekar, writing in The Ultimate Understanding, giving the meaning of ‘Wu Wei’, or non-volitional living.
Living volitionally, with volition, with a sense of personal doership, is the bondage. Would, therefore, living non-volitionally be the way in which the sage lives? But the doing and the not-doing – the positive doing and the negative not-doing – are both aspects of ‘doing’. How then can the sage be said to be living non-volitionally? Perhaps the more accurate description would be that the sage is totally aware that he does not live his life (either volitionally or non-volitionally) but that his life – and everyone else’s life – is being lived.
What this means is that no one can live volitionally or otherwise; that, indeed, ‘volition’ is the essence of the ‘ego’, an expression of the ‘me’ concept, created by ‘divine hypnosis’ so that the ‘lila’ of life can happen. It is this ‘volition’ or sense of personal doership in the subjective chain of cause-and-effect which produces satisfaction or frustration in the conceptual individual.
Again, what this means is that it is a joke to believe that you are supposed to give up volition as an act of volition! ‘Let go’ – who is to let go? The ‘letting-go’ can only happen as a result of the clear understanding of the difference between what-we-are and what-we-appear-to-be. And then, non-volitional life or being-lived naturally becomes wu wei, spontaneous living, living without the unnecessary burden of volition. Why carry your luggage when you are being transported in a vehicle?
To be enlightened is to be able to accept with equanimity anything in life at any moment as God’s will.
Gurdjieff gives another expression of this view in an exchange with his student Ouspensky, as recorded in the latter’s book Conversation with Gurdjieff: In Search of the Miraculous – Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (1949). The two passages bear close comparison.
“I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.
“What to do?” asked G. as though surprised. “It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.”
““How can one get rid of false ideas?” I asked. “We depend on the form of our perceptions. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.”
G shook his head.
“Again you speak of something different,” he said. “You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood. Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him – all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.
Everyone finds that nothing is being done in the way it ought to be done. Actually everything is being done in the only way that it can be done. If one thing could be different everything could be different. … Try to understand what I am saying. Everything is dependent on everything else, everything is connected, nothing is separate. Therefore everything is going in the only way it can go. If people were different everything would be different. They are what they are, so everything is as it is.”
This was very difficult to swallow.
“Is there nothing, absolutely nothing, that can be done?” I asked.
“And can nobody do anything?”
“That is another question. In order to do it is necessary to be. And it is necessary first to understand what to be means.”
The physicist Erwin Schrödinger, a founding father of quantum mechanics and active advocate of the advaitan philosophy for forty years, reasoned as follows. Our bodies function as a pure mechanisms according to the laws of nature. Yet we know, by immediate experience, that we are directing its motions, of which we forsee the effects. He finds only one way to avoid this contradiction, proposing ‘the only possible inference from these two facts is, I think, that I – I in the widest meaning of the word, that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt “I” – am the person, if any, who controls the “motion of the atoms” according to the laws of nature.’ Thus he is forced by analysis to the conclusion, ‘Hence I am God almighty’.
Two of these writers mention God and this might seem to imply theism, but we are in the land of mysticism now and cannot be sure that this word means what we think it means. Rather, we can be completely sure that it does not, since it would be unthinkable. Plotinus, in his Enneads, advises us that when we read the words of the sages it is usually best to preface them with the phrase, ‘it is as if’. Language cannot do justice to the topic, and metaphors and images, whatever usefulness they may have in some restricted context, would be certain to mislead if pushed too far.
We have already travelled a long way from the idea that Freewill and Determinism can be opposed as exclusive possibilities, and may even seem to have gone beyond logic to replace it with religious conjecture. Yet all this is a consequence of logic, not the dismissal of it.
Most philosophers, whether they believe in God or not, think that everything in the universe is caused. So if we knew the laws of physics or the will of God completely, we would see that things just have to be the way they are. There are no alternatives. But they also think that human beings are properly held responsible for their actions, at least sometimes, and therefore that they are somehow free to do otherwise. So they have the problem of seeing how somebody can be free to do otherwise, when there is no alternative to what he or she does.
Most philosophers … have thought that you have to believe both of these things, that there are no alternatives to what happens, and that people are sometimes free to do otherwise This is called compatibilism. Augustine believed it. Aquinas believed it. Calvin believed it. Kant believed it. Spinoza believed it. Almost everyone believes it.
Keith Ward, God – A Guide for the Perplexed
One way to conceive of the situation Balsekar describes earlier would be to imagine that we are God. Let us suppose that we have perfect freewill and power. We can do whatever we want and whenever we want, from creating universes to parting the waters of the Red Sea. But then, if we were God, why would we ever want to do anything? Why would we want to build a universe in which we will need to do anything? If we need to interfere in the minor affairs of the Cosmos on just one planet once in every 1027 years then we will have to interfere an infinite number of times, and this would be a chore. And then. even if we do act, we could only ever act in accordance with Our own immaculate nature and in full and complete knowledge of the facts. If so, then in what sense would we have any choice about what we do or how we do it? We can have no degrees of freedom if we are a perfect and omniscient Being. So, if we were God, would we have freewill or not? From a God-like perspective there seem to be two ways of looking at this, neither of which is quite right, and it is not clear that the distinction which gives rise to the problem any longer makes sense. This is why the problem of freewill does not arise for Schrödinger’s view. It can be transcended by reference to the identity of all sentient beings in or with God. Or, at least, with some ultimate phenomenon for which ‘God’ is a common placeholder.
How about the use of the term ‘God’ by Schrödinger? Our axiom makes a clear prediction for God. It allows the true and independent reality of just one phenomenon, and this would be unlike any God we can imagine. Yet there is still room to wonder whether it might be appropriate to call this phenomenon God. Kabbalism would say not, for this phenomenon would be prior to God. The Sufis, self-styled the ‘true followers of Mohammed’, will sometimes question the association of ‘God’ and ‘Al-Lah’ for the way it can mislead us. Neither are we told by Lao Tsu that Tao is God. For the Buddhism of Nagarjuna, even where God seems present to us in our practice He would be a misinterpreted meditative experience. Not a false experience, for there could be no such thing, but a false explanatory theory. Christian mysticism is often prudently ambiguous, but when the fifteenth century sage Nicolas de Cusa says that ‘He’ lies beyond the ‘coincidence of opposites’, this would entail that to say ‘He’ acts or does not act, or even that ‘He’ exists or does not exist, would be incorrect. These would be merely contradictory and complementary aspects of the conceptual categories ‘action’ and ‘existence’. The truth would be better expressed in more seemingly paradoxical words. Clearly, then, the Upanishadic God endorsed by Schrödinger is not the God of a great many theists. Yet God remains a useful word, and Schrödinger conveys his meaning by the use of it.
A central claim of mysticism, however, would be that when we go looking for God we will find only ourself. This would follow ineluctably from the unity of the universe. We might still wonder whether this unified phenomenon is something very like God, so much so that we might as well call it God, but if we do not know this then it hardly matters what we call it. God is not such a major issue in mysticism as elsewhere, since the universe would be such that in many respects theism might as well be true, or would be a useful approximation to the truth, or at the very least would be more likely to bring us to enlightenment than the idea that it does not matter how we direct our thoughts and live our lives. As a consequence, mysticism may seem to be a strange synthesis of theism and atheism, and it may be practiced as either, at least up to the point of finding out which it is. A subtle doctrine arises from our axiom of unity, for this is the idea that whatever God might appear to have created is not truly real, and it would be only what is not created that would be real. Or this would be a theistic and rather Gnostic way of putting it. Plotinus speaks not of God but of the ‘Authentic’, for this would be all that is authentically real. All else would be created, dependently-arisen or epiphenomenal. (For the mystical cosmology ‘created’ would mean ‘produced’, as it would when we say that a fire ‘created’ smoke). The world of space and time would arise as a natural, inevitable and law-governed process of symmetry-breaking. Mysterious perhaps, but for the most part this would be a lack of knowledge. Lao Tsu writes that the laws of our human realm, which would include the laws of ethics and physics, follow naturally from the laws of Heaven, and these would be as they are ‘Tao being what it is’. The behaviour of the world, in other words, would be explained by reference to its identity. Given this identity, all else would follow. Thus we would have to refer to the identity of the individual with God, the Absolute, the Authentic, the Real, the One, with whatever phenomenon simply is the world as a whole, in order to solve the freewill problem. We would have to adopt the same strategy for the solution to any metaphysical problem.
Thus while the term ‘God’ would be optional for Schrödinger and should not imply an unambiguous theism, our identity with his ‘God’ would not be optional. It would be necessary for a solution to the problem of freewill. When we imagine that we are God, as he proposes we are, we see that at the limit the freewill-determinism dualism can be sublated, the distinction annihilated. In the land of mysticism every distinction can be reduced in this way. Speaking theistically, to act freely would be to act as would God, who would have no choice but to act as God would, and who would therefore not act freely, nor even act or not-act. but would simply be, while to act other than as God would be to be driven by causal forces and ignorance and thus not to act as a free agent, not acting but reacting. In this way the freewill problem may be solved without the need to decide between theism and atheism. There can be no fundamental distinction between free and determined action if the world can be reduced to a unity. This dilemma breaks down at the limit, exposed by analysis to be not a true contradiction but two paths to nowhere. There are some subtle issues here to which we are not doing justice, but we can say at least that for mysticism all contradictory and complementary categories may be sublated by reference to identity, whether in formal logic or in our own experience. From our earlier observation that for Aristotle metaphysical problems of this kind would not be true contradictions but undecidable category-errors, an observation that we likened to a subtle knife or magic sword, we are able to solve the problem of freewill with no modification to the laws of thought.
Let us move on without attempting to tidy up all the details. If it is not possible to solve one problem in metaphysics except by solving them all, then we might as well work on them all at the same time. A problem that follows on immediately from the problem of freewill is that of Mind-Brain causation.
In order for the problem of Freewill to arise in the first place we must believe that our minds, by way of a complex system of chemical and electrical signals, neurons, synapses and so forth, can cause our bodies to implement our mentally formed instructions. In physics this idea is preposterous. And yet, at the same time, the idea that our mind cannot do this seems obviously wrong. In the forest, while still trapped, we may be defeated by this seemingly simple dilemma. Any solution we propose will find itself in a messy battle of competing theories all of which everybody including probably ourselves finds inadequate. But we cannot be trapped ever again if we are armed with the idea that this may not be a dilemma. According to the principle of nonduality this is not a philosophical problem but a misunderstanding. We now have an extra ingredient in our philosophy. a phenomenon capable of mediating the mind-brain relationship and even of annihilating it. By reduction the mind-matter distinction would go the way of all distinctions. Schrödinger’s ‘God’ is not divided into mind and matter acting causally on each other. This distinction cannot survive outside of time and space, beyond change and decay. To reify this distinction would be to say that space and time, change and decay are fundamental. Better to say that there is an omnipresent phenomenon that cannot be defined as mind or matter but that is their origin, on which both depend for their entire operation. We need not call this ‘God’ if we do not feel so inclined, and many sages advise against it, for to give a phenomenon a name is to create an object set apart from ourselves as subject and this may have a significant and unfortunate impact on our understanding. If the universe is a unity then any such conceptual division would be a mistake. If we posit such a phenomenon then we are easily able to explain why it makes no sense that mind arises from or acts directly on matter, or vice versa, and why we cannot show that it does. The price of this solution is that we must concede a considerable uncertainty as to the existence and nature of God, but this is only the abandonment of dogmatism. Of course we are considerably uncertain, it is just that we often forget this. This is also the concession that the forest does not go on forever, that mysticism, whether there is any truth in it or not, is grounded on a legitimate metaphysical position able to hold its own against any other. Even now it is not an appeal to the supernatural or to some cosmic mystery forever beyond our knowledge. While the meta-psychophysical and rather god-like phenomenon implied by our axiom might seem impossibly mysterious and implausible, it is said not to be unfamiliar to us. One Sufi sage tells us it is ‘closer to us than our jugular’. Rather, this phenomenon would normally go unnoticed precisely because of its familiarity. Our minds must feed on the unfamiliar, a constant stream of non-redundant information, and finds it difficult to notice what is ever-present and unchanging. It does not notice who is noticing.
The problem of mind-brain causation is not really solved by such an analysis. There would still be much to understand and explain. But with a third term in the mix it ceases to be a logical dilemma, a paradox or an impassable barrier to knowledge. The solution would be to refer to our common identity, the unity of all things. A commonplace advaitan aphorism goes ‘Tat Tvam Asi’, or ‘Thou art That’. Here again we see the entire structure of the philosophical scheme of the wisdom traditions condensed into a few words. It is impossible that ‘thou’ can be ‘that’, of course, since if ‘thou’ is ‘that’ then there is no ‘thou’ and ‘that’, and so this aphorism passes Lao-tsu’s critical test for true words. It might be interpreted as monism, dualism or nondualism. It is predicated on two things but states that there are not two things. This would seem paradoxical for dualism and monism. When it is interpreted as a statement of nondualism, however, then it is not paradoxical, just the best we can do with language. We could interpret it as monism, as the reduction of two things to one, but this would be unorthodox. The Sufi sage Al-Halaj warns that it would be incorrect to say ‘God is One’, since this simple monism would posit a being apart from the whole, namely oneself as testifier. This is the Mindscape problem again, the impossibility of reducing everything to one thing, or of conceiving of a container that contains everything including itself. Such warnings are ubiquitous in mysticism. It is one of the pleasures of its literature that for the most part everyone agrees with each other on the main points, regardless of where and when they lived. One is not usually embroiled in a battle between philosophers but just trying to understand what they are saying. Because they are profound statements concerning the nature of Reality the two statements ‘Thou Art That’ and ‘True words seem paradoxical’ are immediately related. They are interchangeable, for each carries within itself the seeds of the same extended cosmological scheme. Both require that all positive metaphysical positions be abandoned, such that it would be unrigorous to say ‘God is One’ or ‘Everything is One’. For the metaphysics of unity and nonduality we are not asked to choose between the doctrine of Al-Halaj, Lao Tsu and the Upanishads, only to make sense of it.
The system of pathways we are following here, as we explore the ground beyond the forest, is both more complex and more simple than the system that brought us here, depending on how we look at it. In a way the challenge is now much more simple. As we have said, if we are not interested in metaphysics then we can simply step over this ground. Our reason has led us through the trees to the conclusion that the universe is a unity. It would follow ineluctably that in order to verify this conclusion we would have to abandon metaphysics and proceed by other means. We have done as much as can be done with dialectic logic. It has led us to the conclusion that we cannot know what is truly real or discover the final truth about our ourselves and our world except by abandoning logic for empiricism. In respect of soteriology and the spiritual path the task of logic is finished. We may as well burn our books, board the mysterious ship and set sail.
Because of this the Buddha likens the metaphysician to a man badly wounded by an arrow, who insists, before he allows himself to be treated, on being told who fired it, why they fired it, where they fired it from, what size and make of bow they used and so on and so forth. The sutras say little about metaphysics other than to warn us off it. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to establish that the Buddha’s teachings may be interpreted as a neutral metaphysical position, a ‘middle way’ solution for metaphysics, since this is made clear by Nagarjuna in his Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, written five centuries after the Buddha’s time. This text provides the Buddha’s teachings with a formal philosophical foundation and explication. Whether Nagarjuna’s proof that all positive metaphysical positions are logically indefensible is successful is hard to say, but he does at least clearly and precisely define his own philosophical position, and it is the only one that would make sense of the Buddha’s refusal to become involved in metaphysical discussions or make partial metaphysical statements. Crucially, it is the only one that would make the Buddha’s knowledge claims plausible. It might not be possible to make much sense of Nagarjuna’s worldview on the basis of analysis alone, and his terse and poetic metaphysical proof is not for the faint-hearted for almost every sentence requires a week’s thought, but it is very easy to see that all positive metaphysical views are rejected outright. These extreme views would lead us into category-errors, the reification of conceptual categories that we impose on a reality that is not so divided. If we do not reify them then we are left with his sunyata or ‘emptiness’.
To some interpreters Nagarjuna appears to dismiss all the available answers to the riddles of metaphysics only to offer no view of his own, but a more sympathetic view would say that what he proves is as much as can be proved by demonstration, and in this way makes his own world-view crystal clear, it being the only one that he does not refute. His method is abduction, a process of refutation that can eliminate all but one suspect from his list, but which can do no more than this to establish the truth of the one that remains. For a proof of what remains we would need to seek some empirical evidence, footprints in the flowerbed and so forth. The Buddha’s Nirvana cannot be reached in logic any more than we can reach Paris without going there. A Tower of Babel can never reach all the way to Heaven. Yet Nagarjuna’s proof shows that it is not beyond the ability of logic to deduce the likely presence or reality of such a phenomena, to calculate that it ought to be there, just out of our sight and just beyond our comprehension, even if we cannot actually verify this by any amount of intellectual gymnastics. Again, this is not a claim to ignorance or eternal mystery. It is quite easy to establish that our intellect cannot gain any purchase on a phenomenon that cannot be placed in a conceptual category. Thus any failure of comprehension on our part, any sense that this result is too mysterious to be rational and scientific, would not be sufficient reason to reject the reality of a phenomenon so defined. Our intellectual incomprehension would be predictable and inevitable. If we are relying on logic to decide the best approach then agnosticism would be the least enthusiastic position we can take up in respect of such a phenomenon. But we cannot conclude from logic that we can know nothing of it. To the contrary, it would follow immediately from our axiom that we can know a great deal of it. Our axiom states that we are it, and it is us. This would be Kant and Hegel’s foundation for the human intellect and we all have this. The problem would be only that we could never know it as an abstract idea. The reality of this phenomenon is often considered a ‘mystical’ and ‘unscientific’ claim, and in some ways it is, but it is not an irrational conjecture or a claim to woolly intuition. It may be an outcome of rational reasoning, even if for the sages it may be an unabashed knowledge claim. For all his love of logical analysis, or perhaps precisely because of it, Aristotle had no difficulty in concluding that true knowledge must be identical with its object, knowledge by identity, and can never be a result of logical analysis.
Nagarjuna’s argument against positive metaphysical positions makes use of the same dialectic method as that with which we navigated the forest but it is more thorough. For Buddhist logic there would be five possible answers for a metaphysical question, four of which would be incorrect and one of which cannot be clearly expressed. The four wrong answers would be the four ways in which we can try to express or conceive of the fifth and correct answer, the final truth about reality. They would be wrong, but they could be seen as approximations or aspects of the truth, partial ways of looking at it. Thus we might imagine that we either do or do not have freewill without too much trouble, and at a push we may be able to makes sense of the idea that we both do have it and do not have it, and even, with an effort, that we neither have it nor do not have it. But our intellect struggles to see a fifth alternative, let alone make sense of it.
As there would be these five answers for all metaphysical questions the network of pathways that criss-cross the ground between the forest and the seashore is more intricate than that of the forest. We have called it open ground, and so it is. This is because once we have escaped from the forest we are never more than one step away from the seashore, and there are no obstructions in our way. If we wish to dally on our journey and explore this open ground in philosophy, however, then the logical pathways must be followed, and they can be shown as forming a complex puzzle. For each question we might ask there would be a node or junction on the map, and there would be a system of criss-crossing trails connecting every node directly with every other. For this extended metaphysics we can start where we like and finish where we like, since every metaphysical question would have the same in principle solution and the solution for one would be the solution for all. So whenever we arrive at what, in the forest, would be a fork, we would find ourselves at a five-way junction. In the forest we must choose between Something and Nothing, and we find that we cannot do it. Here the idea that the universe begins with Nothing or Something is likewise rejected, as logic dictates, but also the idea that the universe begins with a state that is neither Something or Nothing or both Something and Nothing. In the same way, the idea that the universe does or does not have a beginning is rejected, together with the idea that it has both or neither. All four of these avenues are closed off, since the entire premise on which such questions are based is rejected.
Hence there are at least three maps we might make of this territory. One would show a network of interconnected paths splitting regularly into five branches, making the map highly intricate and really quite confusing. Another would be to leave out all false views and show only the middle path solution in each case, giving us a simple network of straight lines connecting up all philosophical problem in no particular order. The third and simplest of all would be of no use to us here but only to a practitioner. At all places on the map we would have the option of taking the easy and direct way to the beach by choosing the path signposted ‘Go and find out’. We can entirely ignore the details if we go this way, and so the simplest map can be left blank. A Buddhist might read this signpost to the beach as the fourth of the Buddha’s ‘Noble Truths’, as marking the path leading to the cessation of dukkha, suffering and unsatisfactoriness. This path would not require that we do any more metaphysics and may require that we do less of it than we normally would, although it would not actually require that we abandon all interest in it. The Buddha advises us not to waste time on metaphysics, but this is not to say it is always a waste of time. Its usefulness would depend on our circumstances. The direct path to the beach requires only that we do not let our determination to intellectually solve metaphysical problems distract us from the task at hand, which would be an empirical exploration of what lies beyond or prior to the conceptual distinctions on which metaphysical analysis depends. Such an exploration would not rule out all metaphysical analysis. Because there is always a direct way out we cannot be trapped in metaphysics, however, and it would be only an unhealthy obsession with intellectual questioning that might prevent us from moving on.
To be continued…