It's impressively easy to misunderstand the point made in last week’s post here on The Archdruid Report. To say that the world we experience is made up of representations of reality, constructed in our minds by taking the trickle of data we get from the senses and fitting those into patterns that are there already, doesn’t mean that nothing exists outside of our minds. Quite the contrary, in fact; there are two very good reasons to think that there really is something “out there,” a reality outside our minds that produces the trickle of data we’ve discussed.
The first of those reasons seems almost absurdly simple at first glance: the world doesn’t always make sense to us. Consider, as one example out of godzillions, the way that light seems to behave like a particle on some occasions and like a wave on others. That’s been described, inaccurately, as a paradox, but it’s actually a reflection of the limitations of the human mind.
What, after all, does it mean to call something a particle? Poke around the concept for a while and you’ll find that at root, this concept “particle” is an abstract metaphor, extracted from the common human experience of dealing with little round objects such as pebbles and marbles. What, in turn, is a wave? Another abstract metaphor, extracted from the common human experience of watching water in motion. When a physicist says that light sometimes acts like a particle and sometimes like a wave, what she’s saying is that neither of these two metaphors fits more than a part of the way that light behaves, and we don’t have any better metaphor available.
If the world was nothing but a hallucination projected by our minds, then it would contain nothing that wasn’t already present in our minds—for what other source could there be? That implies in turn that there would be a perfect match between the contents of the world and the contents of our minds, and we wouldn’t get the kind of mismatch between mind and world that leaves physicists flailing. More generally, the fact that the world so often baffles us offers good evidence that behind the world we experience, the world as representation, there’s some “thing in itself” that’s the source of the sense data we assemble into representations.
The other reason to think that there’s a reality distinct from our representations is that, in a certain sense, we experience such a reality at every moment.
Raise one of your hands to a position where you can see it, and wiggle the fingers. You see the fingers wiggling—or, more precisely, you see a representation of the wiggling fingers, and that representation is constructed in your mind out of bits of visual data, a great deal of memory, and certain patterns that seem to be hardwired into your mind. You also feel the fingers wiggling—or, here again, you feel a representation of the wiggling fingers, which is constructed in your mind out of bits of tactile and kinesthetic data, plus the usual inputs from memory and hardwired patterns. Pay close attention and you might be able to sense the way your mind assembles the visual representation and the tactile one into a single pattern; that happens close enough to the surface of consciousness that a good many people can catch themselves doing it.
So you’ve got a representation of wiggling fingers, part of the world as representation we experience. Now ask yourself this: the action of the will that makes the fingers wiggle—is that a representation?
This is where things get interesting, because the only reasonable answer is no, it’s not. You don’t experience the action of the will as a representation; you don’t experience it at all. You simply wiggle your fingers. Sure, you experience the results of the will’s action in the form of representations—the visual and tactile experiences we’ve just been considering—but not the will itself. If it were true that you could expect to see or hear or feel or smell or taste the impulse of the will rolling down your arm to the fingers, say, it would be reasonable to treat the will as just one more representation. Since that isn’t the case, it’s worth exploring the possibility that in the will, we encounter something that isn’t just a representation of reality—it’s a reality we encounter directly.
That’s the insight at the foundation of Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy. Schopenhauer’s one of the two principal guides who are going to show us around the giddy funhouse that philosophy has turned into of late, and guide us to the well-marked exits, so you’ll want to know a little about him. He lived in the ramshackle assortment of little countries that later became the nation of Germany; he was born in 1788 and died in 1860; he got his doctorate in philosophy in 1813; he wrote his most important work, The World as Will and Representation, before he turned thirty; and he spent all but the last ten years of his life in complete obscurity, ignored by the universities and almost everyone else. A small inheritance, carefully managed, kept him from having to work for a living, and so he spent his time reading, writing, playing the flute for an hour a day before dinner, and grumbling under his breath as philosophy went its merry way into metaphysical fantasy. He grumbled a lot, and not always under his breath. Fans of Sesame Street can think of him as philosophy’s answer to Oscar the Grouch.
Schopenhauer came of age intellectually in the wake of Immanuel Kant, whose work we discussed briefly last week, and so the question he faced was how philosophy could respond to the immense challenge Kant threw at the discipline’s feet. Before you go back to chattering about what’s true and what’s real, Kant said in effect, show me that these labels mean something and relate to something, and that you’re not just chasing phantoms manufactured by your own minds.
Most of the philosophers who followed in Kant’s footsteps responded to his challenge by ignoring it, or using various modes of handwaving to pretend that it didn’t matter. One common gambit at the time was to claim that the human mind has a special superpower of intellectual intuition that enables it to leap tall representations in a single bound, and get to a direct experience of reality that way. What that meant in practice, of course, is that philosophers could claim to have intellectually intuited this, that, and the other thing, and then build a great tottering system on top of them. What that meant in practice, of course, that a philosopher could simply treat whatever abstractions he fancied as truths that didn’t have to be proved; after all, he’d intellectually intuited them—prove that he hadn’t!
There were other such gimmicks. What set Schopenhauer apart was that he took Kant’s challenge seriously enough to go looking for something that wasn’t simply a representation. What he found—why, that brings us back to the wiggling fingers.
As discussed in last week’s post, every one of the world’s great philosophical traditions has ended up having to face the same challenge Kant flung in the face of the philosophers of his time. Schopenhauer knew this, since a fair amount of philosophy from India had been translated into European languages by his time, and he read extensively on the subject. This was helpful because Indian philosophy hit its own epistemological crisis around the tenth century BCE, a good twenty-nine centuries before Western philosophy got there, and so had a pretty impressive head start. There’s a rich diversity of responses to that crisis in the classical Indian philosophical schools, but most of them came to see consciousness as a (or the) thing-in-itself, as reality rather than representation.
It’s a plausible claim. Look at your hand again, with or without wiggling fingers. Now be aware of yourself looking at the hand—many people find this difficult, so be willing to work at it, and remember to feel as well as see. There’s your hand; there’s the space between your hand and your eyes; there’s whatever of your face you can see, with or without eyeglasses attached; pay close attention and you can also feel your face and your eyes from within; and then there’s—
There’s the thing we call consciousness, the whatever-it-is that watches through your eyes. Like the act of will that wiggled your fingers, it’s not a representation; you don’t experience it. In fact, it’s very like the act of will that wiggled your fingers, and that’s where Schopenhauer went his own way.
What, after all, does it mean to be conscious of something? Some simple examples will help clarify this. Move your hand until it bumps into something; it’s when something stops the movement that you feel it. Look at anything; you can see it if and only if you can’t see through it. You are conscious of something when, and only when, it resists your will.
That suggested to Schopenhauer that consciousness derives from will, not the other way around. There were other lines of reasoning that point in the same direction, and all of them derive from common human experiences. For example, each of us stops being conscious for some hours out of every day, whenever we go to sleep. During part of the time we’re sleeping, we experience nothing at all; during another part, we experience the weirdly disconnected representations we call “dreams.” Even in dreamless sleep, though, it’s common for a sleeper to shift a limb away from an unpleasant stimulus. Thus the will is active even when consciousness is absent.
Schopenhauer proposed that there are different forms or, as he put it, grades of the will. Consciousness, which we can define for present purposes as the ability to experience representations, is one grade of the will—one way that the will can adapt to existence in a world that often resists it. Life is another, more basic grade. Consider the way that plants orient themselves toward sunlight, bending and twisting like snakes in slow motion, and seek out concentrations of nutrients with probing, hungry roots. As far as anyone knows, plants aren’t conscious—that is, they don’t experience a world of representations the way that animals do—but they display the kind of goal-seeking behavior that shows the action of will.
Animals also show goal-seeking behavior, and they do it in a much more complex and flexible way than plants do. There’s good reason to think that many animals are conscious, and experience a world of representations in something of the same way we do; certainly students of animal behavior have found that animals let incidents from the past shape their actions in the present, mistake one person for another, and otherwise behave in ways that suggest that their actions are guided, as ours are, by representations rather than direct reaction to stimuli. In animals, the will has developed the ability to represent its environment to itself.
Animals, at least the more complex ones, also have that distinctive mode of consciousness we call emotion. They can be happy, sad, lonely, furious, and so on; they feel affection for some beings and aversion toward others. Pay attention to your own emotions and you’ll soon notice how closely they relate to the will. Some emotions—love and hate are among them—are motives for action, and thus expressions of will; others—happiness and sadness are among them—are responses to the success or failure of the will to achieve its goals. While emotions are tangled up with representations in our minds, and presumably in those of animals as well, they stand apart; they’re best understood as conditions of the will, expressions of its state as it copes with the world through its own representations.
And humans? We’ve got another grade of the will, which we can call intellect: the ability to add up representations into abstract concepts, which we do, ahem, at will. Here’s one representation, which is brown and furry and barks; here’s another like it; here’s a whole kennel of them—and we lump them all together in a single abstract category, to which we assign a sound such as “dog.” We can then add these categories together, creating broader categories such as “quadruped” and “pet;” we can subdivide the categories to create narrower ones such as “puppy” and “Corgi;” we can extract qualities from the whole and treat them as separate concepts, such as “furry” and “loud;” we can take certain very general qualities and conjure up the entire realm of abstract number, by noticing how many paws most dogs have and using that, and a great many other things, to come up with the concept of “four.”
So life, consciousness, and intellect are three grades of the will. One interesting thing about them is that the more basic ones are more enduring and stable than the more complex ones. Humans, again, are good examples. Humans remain alive all the way from birth to death; they’re conscious only when awake; they’re intelligent only when actively engaged in thinking—which is a lot less often than we generally like to admit. A certain degree of tiredness, a strong emotion, or a good stiff drink are usually enough to shut off the intellect and leave us dealing with the world on the same mental basis as an ordinarily bright dog; it takes quite a bit more to reduce us to the vegetative level, and serious physical trauma to go one more level down.
Let’s take a look at that final level, though. The conventional wisdom of our age holds that everything that exists is made up of something called “matter,” which is configured in various ways; further, that matter is what really exists, and everything else is somehow a function of matter if it exists at all. For most of us, this is the default setting, the philosophical opinion we start from and come back to, and anyone who tries to question it can count on massive pushback.
The difficulty here is that philosophers and scientists have both proved, in their own ways, that the usual conception of matter is quite simply nonsense. Any physical scientist worth his or her sodium chloride, to begin with, will tell you that what we habitually call “solid matter” is nearly as empty as the vacuum of deep space—a bit of four-dimensional curved spacetime that happens to have certain tiny probability waves spinning dizzily in it, and it’s the interaction between those probability waves and those composing that other patch of curved spacetime we each call “my body” that creates the illusions of solidity, color, and the other properties we attribute to matter.
The philosophers got to the same destination a couple of centuries earlier, and by a different route. The epistemologists I mentioned in last week’s post—Locke, Berkeley, and Hobbes—took the common conception of matter apart layer by layer and showed, to use the formulation we’ve already discussed, that all the things we attribute to matter are simply representations in the mind. Is there something out there that causes those representations? As already mentioned, yes, there’s very good reason to think so—but that doesn’t mean that the “something out there” has to consist of matter in any sense of the word that means anything.
That’s where Schopenhauer got to work, and once again, he proceeded by calling attention to certain very basic and common human experiences. Each of us has direct access, in a certain sense, to one portion of the “something out there,” the portion each of us calls “my body.” When we experience our bodies, we experience them as representations, just like anything else—but we also act with them, and as the experiment with the wiggling fingers demonstrated, the will that acts isn’t a representation.
Thus there’s a boundary between the part of the universe we encounter as will and representation, and the part we encounter only as representation. The exact location of that boundary is more complex than it seems at first sight. It’s a commonplace in the martial arts, for example, that a capable martial artist can learn to feel with a weapon as though it were a part of the body. Many kinds of swordsmanship, for example, rely on what fencers call sentiment de fer, the “sense of the steel;” the competent fencer can feel the lightest touch of the other blade against his own, just as though it brushed his hand.
There are also certain circumstances—lovemaking, dancing, ecstatic religious experience, and mob violence are among them—in which under certain hard-to-replicate conditions, two or more people seem to become, at least briefly, a single entity that moves and acts with a will of its own. All of those involve a shift from the intellect to a more basic grade of the will, and they lead in directions that will deserve a good deal more examination later on; for now, the point at issue is that the boundary line between self and other can be a little more fluid than we normally tend to assume.
For our present purposes, though, we can set that aside and focus on the body as the part of the world each of us encounters in a twofold way: as a representation among representations, and as a means of expression for the will. Everything we perceive about our bodies is a representation, but by noticing these representations, we observe the action of something that isn’t a representation, something we call the will, manifesting in its various grades. That’s all there is. Go looking as long as you want, says Schopenhauer, and you won’t find anything but will and representations. What if that’s all there is—if the thing we call "matter" is simpy the most basic grade of the will, and everything in the world thus amounts to will on the one hand, and representations experienced by that mode of will we call consciousness on the other, and the thing that representations are representing are various expressions of this one energy that, by way of its distinctive manifestations in our own experience, we call the will?
That’s Schopenhauer’s vision. The remarkable thing is how close it is to the vision that comes out of modern science. A century before quantum mechanics, he’d already grasped that behind the facade of sensory representations that you and I call matter lies an incomprehensible and insubstantial reality, a realm of complex forces dancing in the void. Follow his arguments out to their logical conclusion and you get a close enough equivalent of the universe of modern physics that it’s not at all implausible that they’re one and the same. Of course plausibility isn’t proof—but given the fragile, dependent, and derivative nature of the human intellect, it may be as close as we can get.
And of course that latter point is a core reason why Arthur Schopenhauer spent most of his life in complete obscurity and why, after a brief period of mostly posthumous superstardom in the late nineteenth century, his work dropped out of sight and has rarely been noticed since. (To be precise, it’s one of two core reasons; we’ll get to the other one later.) If he’s right, then the universe is not rational. Reason—the disciplined use of the grade of will I’ve called the intellect—isn’t a key to the truth of things. It’s simply the systematic exploitation of a set of habits of mind that turned out to be convenient for our ancestors as they struggled with the hard but intellectually undemanding tasks of staying fed, attracting mates, chasing off predators, and the like, and later on got pulled out of context and put to work coming up with complicated stories about what causes the representations we experience.