an essay in Natural Philosophy
by Stephen Dowling
3rd April 2011 (updated January 2021)
I write this as a maturing man, approaching retirement age, but the thrust of these ideas comes from over thirty years ago. I made one or two attempts to write them down as they occurred to me at the time, but without much coherence. Writing about ideas is not as exciting as living them, and doing is generally more fun, especially for a young man, than talking. And I must admit to a certain apprehension in now putting pen to paper … whether I have the intellectual vigour to order my thoughts, and can find the clarity to make them intelligible. I say ideas, but it is really the development of one idea, one simple notion that stemmed from a simple observation. I suppose in broad terms it is an attempt to find another explanation of how things happen, and contains within it some of the typical concerns that perplex us as we grow up, trying to fit the world we experience to the version we receive through others … not just the perennial concerns of philosophy, ‘why’ we are here, but those of science, ‘how’ we are here. I think of this as an enquiry of the ‘how’ variety, but with no scientific background or language, it might be lumped casually in the philosophy camp (in which I am equally uncomfortable!). Lacking a specialised language to explore the world, I have decided to test the evidence of my senses,and hope that I might find whether anything obvious has been overlooked. The enquiry is necessarily primitive, but simple tools can sometimes achieve surprising results. As a stranger to any of the established disciplines I must scavenge round the edges; the slower mind needs longer to absorb an idea, but this need not diminish its flavour. To reflect the blurring of territory I have decided to resurrect that old fashioned name for physics, ‘Natural Philosophy’, from those days before science was segregated from casual enquiry, and submit my essay thus.
One cold and wet November night, in 1982, I was sat in front of a small stove in a caravan, which I was preparing to receive my young family, who were staying forty miles away until I’d made it basically habitable. My only fuel was a bag of coke and some green hawthorn logs, which I’d cut as part of the site preparation. I was cold, lonely and dirty. The stove was broken, and the fire struggling to stay alight. A log dripped sap onto the coals beneath it, which dulled with each drop, until the heat in the surrounding fire returned the glow. It was a contemplative moment, and there was little to distract me. As I watched it seemed to me as though the log was trying to extinguish the fire, which in its turn was trying to consume the log; a contest of conflicting interests. So I asked myself, that instead of a mere analogy or personification, what if this were actually so? After all, the description seemed to fit the event, which is what we require of a description. How else might I phrase it, to test it’s accuracy?
Another way of putting it would be to say that the log was trying to stay a log, resisting the fire, which likewise was trying to burn the log, to remain a fire as best it could. I.e. each was trying to be itself. Putting aside for a moment all the caution of presumption that we are all taught, I decided to pursue the idea. Might an inanimate object possess the same sort of appetite to self as a living thing does? A fanciful notion perhaps, but I thought to see if how I might apply it to other things.
For it to have the slightest shred of validity, it would have to be applicable to other things; and not just some other things, because who would then chose which? It would have to apply to all things. It would have to work as a principle, even being embedded as a fundamental characteristic … that a thing wished to be itself. Indeed, more than a characteristic, because that implies an ‘add-on’, a by-product or effect of some other impulse; could it be the impulse itself? If so, its wish to be itself would have to be inseparable from its existence; a thing existed because it wished to, and to the degree of its wish.
So a log wished to be a log, as a log would; its idea of itself might be derived mainly from the tree from which it was cut, so we could perhaps look there for evidence of this impulse. As a familiar life form, the tree has a certain distinction, and throughout its life cycle shares with us a determination to order itself, and use its environment for its own continuation. The structure of the log resists change, until eventually yielding to forces beyond it, such as fire or fungal decay.
And the fire would wish to be itself as only a fire could wish! It seeks fuel wherever it can, and sucks oxygen from the air much as we do. And though the flame may flicker and dart around, it still maintains a recognisable shape and structure that we can analyse. Our analysis can determine the ingredients and conditions of combustion, but offers a poor description of the phenomenon as a whole. We can at least say that it displays appetite.
I looked around me, to see how else such an impulse might apply. As sentient animals, we are familiar with our own appetite for self, and are rightly cautious in attributing our own appetites to other things … other species, let alone inanimate objects. Our tendency to anthropomorphise is not generally one to be encouraged in trying for an objective view of the world. But could there be some mileage in going the opposite way to science, and to test whether there might actually be valuable insights buried within our animal instincts? That within the mundane and the obvious might lie clues that we overlook? That our simplest presumptions might reflect some deeper principles of organisation?
Within the animal kingdom, at any rate, a wish to be oneself was not hard to ascribe, at the very least as a survival instinct. Even a tree displays evidence of a sense of identity, the way it governs its development and structure. Although the appetites of all the various life forms, even such complex ones as us, can be shown to be a series of responses to stimuli, they all at least display self-regulating integrity. From the lowliest bacterium or cell, to the most complex of the larger animals, a determination for existence is paramount. That this determination might be extended to other aspects of being, such as Richard Dawkin’s ‘selfish gene’, or the group identity of the hive, colony or tribe, does not detract from the evidence of each part. And group identity itself displays the appetite for survival that we find with an individual animal.
Descriptions of our own human institutions, the ‘body politic’, the ‘Motherland’, ‘organs of state’ extend animal and biological characteristics to mere collections of people, and we have developed intellectual disciplines to try and understand collective behaviour, generally in terms of organisms, whether it be political theory, sociology or even economics, and the movements of history. An organisation’s first obligation is generally to its own existence, and exhibits the same self interest that we observe in fauna and flora. Each nation state, every government department jealously guards its borders and tries to increase its own sphere of influence. Whether it’s a local sports club, a parish committee, a small business, they all share the same determination for existence of an individual animal, the same appetite for ‘self’ that I am looking for.
What of inanimate objects? My eye fell on the kitchen table … tricky, that one … surely it was not reasonable to apply appetite to a table? … almost the first thing I come across and problems. But let us look at what makes up a table: as well as the material, in this case wood, there is the design and craftsmanship. To the wood we can attribute the aspiration of the tree it came from. Until some other agency intrudes, such as insect attack or the effect of the elements, wood remains wood. It inherits its structure from the tree. Though flawed, cut off from the rest of the tree, it is faithful to the damaged memory of what it once was.
That which makes this particular assembly of wooden parts a table, i.e. the design and making, might share some of the determination we’re looking for in a ‘wish to self’ .. a certain ‘four-leggedness’, for example, and ‘flat-toppedness’. It needs an audacious designer to change the accepted configuration … the design itself, or the tradition of craftsmanship, has a momentum that carries it through the ages of a society or culture. It resists change, and in doing so exhibits one of the characteristics of wishing to stay itself, of appetite to self.
So the ‘aspiration’ of the table might reside in its various aspects, but is still detectable, in each aspect. At this point I was just doing a quick sweep, to see if there was anything that might immediately resist this ‘idea to self’. A stone? A geologist might wax lyrical about the complexity of the simplest stone, and the stories of our planet and solar system that might reside in it, but surely would not claim any self determination, awareness or aspiration for it. Perhaps not the stone itself (though we should not deprive even the simplest pebble of some aspirational potential) , but if we look at what it is a part of, as we did for the log and the tree, then we can perhaps discern elements of appetite, that might derive from the planet or star from which it came. Coherence, structure, self-organisation, appetite, these are the sort of attributes we are looking for. As long as we remember that we only accord ‘will to self’ to a thing according to itself … so the fire wishes to be a fire as only fire can! Again, just the fact of remaining a stone, for so long and in the face of so many adverse conditions, at the mercy of the wind and the sea, ice and heat, the slow grinding of the planet’s crust shows a certain determination. Pick up a pebble on a beach. We might ascribe its symmetry and smoothness to the action of the pounding sea. What if the pebble could speak, and say, “I can assure you, it is the other way round; by perseverance and cunning, I have persuaded the sea to treat me thus, because this is my preferred shape.” Okay, it can’t speak, and a court of law would not give much weight to such an interpretation of the evidence. But it is only a balance of probabilities that persuades us that the pebble is a victim of blind action, and not its own architect.
A quick survey also shows that things tend to be part of other things. But at each level of organisation, we might find evidence, from the atoms and molecules that make up the stone, and beyond to the compressed sediment or frozen lava from which it came. And the character of the stone will contain witness to the history of its formation. Each aspect of the formal hierarchy of which the stone is part will have its own aspiration, but coloured and influenced by its constituents, as well as the whole from which it came. I will look closer at the formal functioning of a hierarchy later; the mechanics of aspiration will suggest a dynamic link between the parts.
I was not looking for some magic genie that might be hiding within and giving existence to each thing; merely asking, to begin with at any rate, whether such a notion is possible, or easily refutable… that the genie might be the thing itself. We cannot hope to imagine how a hydrogen atom might experience its own ‘will to self’ .. if it has one … but can we deny that it might? To build a whole version of existence on such a flimsy premise might seem ambitious, but I have found over the years that investigating the idea has afforded insights that offer short cuts to our usual way of looking at things. I will look at some of the surprising implications more closely later, but first, I have to address some of the obvious problems that lay in my path, problems that strayed into some basic philosophical questions …. problems that have been covered before by much better minds than my own, but still had to be untangled afresh to clear the ground.
I’ve been speaking glibly of ‘things’ … table, tree, fire, animal, tribe, stone, atom etc. I realised that I would have to apply this ‘aspiration’ to everything .. that must mean every thing I could think of … a goat, a mountain, a song … a song about a goat on the mountain, an opinion about the song about .. and so on. From the most fleeting and ephemeral to the most substantial, from the most abstract to the most solid; anything that we can think of, anything that we can name. Over the next few months and years I would try applying ‘aspiration’ (as I came to refer to it) to what ever I might come across. Certainly, there were difficulties, such as ‘change’ … how might that work? …. time? Mind?
But while doing this, I wrestled with the framework of thought, and the vagaries of language, with comparing the world as described to me and what I understood through experience. So to the first question, what is a ‘thing’?
One of the remarkable aspects of our universe is the diversity and the apparent definition that we observe … the very thingness of it! Around so long, and not all reduced to soup? So many things, so much individuality! I remember as an adolescent asking myself one day ‘why is a horse not a tree?’ (or was a swan involved?) For me it was a sudden and important question; I can remember the view of the sunlight falling through the trees, and the tennis courts at school beyond. But I couldn’t say why it was important, and I certainly had no answer formed before I framed the thought. Another memory from school was one day asking the chemistry teacher what fire was. Mr Cross, the teacher, offered various explanations concerning the process of combustion, the chemical reactions and molecular excitements through pressure or agitation that might produce fire. Perhaps he sensed my frustration with his explanation, I’m not sure … now I might say that appreciating the cause of an event does not in itself do it justice; the condition of fire, for example, is not completely explained by the conditions that create it … it is something of itself.
I suppose to some degree I was questioning the nature of definition; how much we impose definition on the world, whether it was just language that formed our world. I discovered in time that this was one of the well worn paths of philosophy … I was so delighted when I came across Plato addressing the same question, speaking to me from over two thousand years ago, as though he was in the room beside me; I felt I was among Socrates and his various protagonists. Plato’s theory of forms suggests that our physical world is an imperfect echo, that there is a perfect version of everything beyond our senses, and our ability to understand is an instinctive memory. He points to the experience of suddenly understanding something, that it is perhaps a moment of recognition of something we already knew. He likens us to prisoners, chained in a line within a cave; that the reality we perceive is no more than shadows on the wall before us, of the perfect and ‘real’ world outside, beyond the cave. The shadows we see on our wall may be more varied and interesting than the view available to the ancient Greeks, hell we have them in 3D, with animated sub-titles, but I find our relationship with the things we see every bit as mysterious as did Plato. But it’s up to each generation to solve the riddle of existence; we are like a baby clutching at the air, trying to grasp what it sees. But however sophisticated our hands become, however refined our methods of observation and detection, the essence of the things we observe becomes ever more elusive.
The ‘lumpiness’ of our universe is something that still exercises cosmologists. We continue to re-classify the various forms of life on our planet, inventing new disciplines such as cladistics to purify our systems of naming, to establish relationships with minimal presumption (the presumption of progress is one that I have to be particularly aware of in the pursuit of this argument, and am grateful to the great paleantologist Stephen J Gould for his forensic analyses and caveats)
But how blessed we are to have so many things to marvel at, so varied, so different! Our understanding is continually enriched, not just by newly discovered things like beetles, galaxies and particles, but by new relationships between parts .. to see a flock of starlings as a unit, and accord the flock a unity independent of the individual birds; to find a psychological trigger common to man and rat; to re-define the photon as both particle and wave. As we identify them, so they become new things (id-entify … ‘that-ify’, from the latin)
If we are to be completely democratic about things, and accord them all aspiration, then we have to divest ourselves of our own prejudices. Perhaps we can level the field a bit by downgrading those we are most familiar with, and by reinforcing the apparently ephemeral. Let’s take an apple, for example. A nice and definite thing, curvy, firm and colourful, beloved of artists for its very definiteness. But if we look at is a botanist might, we see it as a fruit, part of the reproductive cycle of the apple tree. And it can only be understood, aspirationally as well as botanically, within the context of that cycle. Our firm and substantial apple then becomes no more than a snapshot of one stage of a process. The thing becomes merely part of an action; it becomes an event.
The same might be said of any life form; the seed, the egg, the chrysalis, the child. But also the fully fledged adult … no more than a stage between generations and whole slowly evolving geni. My body is reassuringly solid, but where do I begin and end? I breathe in and transform oxygen molecules to carbon dioxide, absorbing them in my blood; I take food and drink, defecate and piss; my skin flakes as new growth forms beneath. Sound and light stimulate and alter my brain patterns, and my body responds. I am at best approximate, a collection of ever changing parts, reacting to the atmosphere and stimuli around me. At any one moment, I am of a particular shape, loosely contained inside my skin. The flash of a camera might catch the appearance of that moment, but surely I am more than just a snapshot. The processes of growth and decay are continuous, and it is only through the period of a lifetime that a man might be properly understood… or even beyond his life, before and after, to understand the conditions into which he was born, his family and station in life, and the effect he might or might not have afterwards. It is what we do, or is done to us, that makes us what we are. Man is as much an event as a thing. But underlying this ever-changing thing that is me is a sense of self, an indivisible point (at least while of sound mind) of inexact location, but one that we all, as human beings, recognise. Perhaps it is this sense of self that I wish to try attributing to all else.
The substance that we hold so dear is full of emptiness, according to the physicist, and even the atom consists mostly of empty space. All is flux, nothing really so definite at all. Compared with the near vacuum of space our air is like treacle, or with the collapsed matter within a neutron star, the heaviest stone is nothing but fluff. Our senses have evolved to cope with the local density that we find on the surface of earth, to avoid falling rocks and drowning, to catch our food, to build shelter. ‘Thingness’ then would seem to become something that we confer on the object of our attention. We identify an object through our senses. Vision is the fastest, transferring the image at the speed of light. Even that though does not record it as it happens. We look at a hill … what we see is the hill a fraction of a second ago. It has already happened. And obviously, the further away, the longer ago, till at astronomical distances we can peer into the early stages of the universe. But we can think of the world we see as a continually updated 3 D snapshot. Apparent substance is no more than the discharge of happening, extruded through the portal of the present.
But because a thing may be seen as a snapshot of action as much as an object does not deprive it of its character. Conversely, a conjecture, however tenuous, forms at the very least, as an idea. As we model the idea, and test that model against experience, it starts to display some of the same character and attributes that we find in physical things: definition, and resistance to change, for example. As the idea becomes established it might develop a persuasion that holds sway over centuries of thought. It was only when the first scientists of the Renaissance tested the formulations of Aristotle with actual experiment that presumptions that had held sway for over a thousand years started to change. We might say it was the vested interests of the Church and the intellectual elite that resisted this change, but we might equally ascribe it to the momentum of the ideas themselves.
And we might propose an even more dynamic link between proposition and effect: black holes were conjectured long before they were physically observed (and then only indirectly). But from the first flicker in the mind of a cosmologist, black holes sprang into existence, albeit as a lowly idea. As the math was produced, the idea took strength, the black holes’ existence passed through theory to established fact.
So did black holes exist before we thought of them? … a similar question was posited by Bishop Berkeley in the 18th century, … whether something can exist independently of our perception of it… a proposition which was ridiculed by Samuel Johnson among others(“Berkeley? I refute him thus” he was reputed to have said, stubbing his toe against a stone). On the whole it is a pretty useless question. If the only way we can perceive the world is through our senses, it cannot be distinguished from our conjecture of it, so there is little mileage in trying to do so. But it has a particular relevance to this idea of ‘formal aspiration’. In concentrating on each thing’s idea of itself, the bounds of its perception become the unyielding limits of its universe. But those limits, conversely, are determined by the imagination of the thing.
In according each thing its own will to be, we must look closer at the thingness of things, and the way in which we see them.
If the world depends on our perception for its existence, we have before us an unnerving universe, flickering in and out of being each time we blink or take our eyes off it. Until geologists studied the fossil record and suggested a vastly longer history than described by the bible, our universe was merely 4,000 years old. If Berkeley’s version is correct, it suddenly extended backwards in time by a factor of many thousands. And until Copernicus, the sun and the stars revolved around us. As he refined his observations, and compiled his cosmological map, so our observable universe juddered as our world became a satellite, and commenced its revolution of the sun. When Galileo’s telescope revealed the moons around Jupiter, they suddenly sprang into existence. The myriad stars lit up as he saw them for the first time. Edwin Hubble’s discovery of Andromeda actually doubled the size of our universe, and each of the thousand billion other galaxies expanded our universe as we found them. Ridiculous as all this sounds, I still wish to pursue this idea, that the world is as we describe it. For a start, it fits well with formal aspiration, as I will look at shortly. But the idea itself, presumptuous as it sounds, has some liberating benefits.
All we need do, to secure the existence of the universe when we’re not looking, is to declare it to be thus. The universe becomes bound to the vigour of our imagination, and the limits of the universe bound to the limits of our wonder. I wish to tie our idea of the universe directly to our idea of ourselves. To put it another way, to our appetite to be ourself, of each thing’s wish to be itself. Each thing becomes the centre of its own universe, which is bounded by nothing more nor less than the limits of its perception. So I become the centre of my universe, and the limits to myself, of my wonder, are the limits of my universe.
One day, while out landscape painting, I asked myself ‘at what point does what I see become part of me?’ Light falls upon my eye; the image is transported from the retina down the optic nerve to the brain. Is this an active or a passive process? Does the light simply fall upon my brain, and leave an image as on a photographic plate? Or does it in some way depend upon my response? On reflection I decided that it was active: that it was only as I responded could I truly be said to be seeing. I was painting a horizon, and on it I noticed a barn that I’d overlooked. The effort of finding the right pigment to represent what I was painting, and the concentration involved, made me look harder and see more than I normally would. And I would generally find, on returning home after a day out painting, that nature seemed so much richer, in colour and in detail. I have noticed also that memories or visits to scenes where I’ve painted conjure up the same strong feelings that I have of childhood landscapes … a reassuring thought, that we do not necessarily lose the power to appreciate the world as we did when young.
So the canvas and paint become part of the process of seeing, amplifying perception, a membrane recording the reaction between the world, expressed in the timeless condition of light, and the painter, with the tools of paint and brushes, and his history, whatever it is that makes him as he is at that moment. Composing the picture is akin to creating a story, and applying the paint is the telling of it. The intensity of perception depends on the meaning we find. It is through stories that we understand the world. I sometimes see a view of the English countryside that impresses me, then I realise it’s because it reminds me of Constable’s view of Hampstead Heath in the Whitworth Art Gallery; or a view across Wigtown Bay to the Machars, because it reminds me in some way of Vermeer’s view of Delft. I have thought, though not yet done the research to provide a comprehensive argument, that our very idea, and the value we now attach, to ‘views’, only came about with the development of landscape painting. The countryside was initially a development of background, in which to place religious figures and images. As skill and repertoire developed, such as the ‘atmospheric perspective’ of Jan van Eyck in Flanders, or the romantic inclusion of the elements by Bellini and Giorgione in Venice, so demand increased for the depiction of sculpted landscapes, as evidence of status. These images were gradually disseminated through society, resonating in our collective psyche, our primitive response to nature. But without the paintings there would be no such thing as ‘a view’!
We can only see what we already understand, that which is within our world view. To the Australian aborigines, Captain Cook’s ship the Endeavour was invisible; it was so far outside their experience that to all intents and purposes it did not exist. It was only when they saw the long boats approach that they began to react. And our universe expands with our ability to describe it, as the ‘story’ we tell develops.
The first time I saw the Andromeda galaxy with the naked eye was a marvellous moment for me … that I could actually see another galaxy, similar to our own Milky Way, was an awesome thought. That dim point of light was not sensually exciting, but knowing it for what it was, within the context of the blazing night sky gave it power and meaning. My universe was suddenly extended by two and a half million light years. (Impressive as that was, it hardly compared with the first time I saw a true Galloway night sky, lying on my back, the better for drink, in the middle of the courtyard at Ravenstone … a veil of black velvet, bejewelled by the stars, shining of their own light… I do recommend it!)
But the physical distance is only one aspect … if we add meaning to the measure of our perception, I might say that my universe was increased further by the slivver of cornfield, represented by a dash of yellow in my painting. In purely formal terms, physical distance is a function of strangeness. We might say that the stranger a thing is to us, the further it is away. Size takes on a different meaning altogether; we have to invent special languages to describe the very small and the very big, those things at the limits of our perception. Is it just coincidence that the further removed from us the stranger a thing seems to behave? The indeterminate nature of a sub-atomic particle can only be described meaningfully by quantum mechanics; the ‘event horizon’ within a black hole is a condition beyond surmise … since light cannot escape the enormous gravitational force, neither can information; it is by its very nature unknowable. Gravity becomes infinite (or so they say!), and the laws of physics as we understand them cease to exist. Bishop Berkeley would have approved!
I speak so far of isolated forms, but another way to reinforce our imagined universe is to note that we build it by sharing our ideas with others. When Monet first painted the shadow of snow purple, he trained all our eyes to see what no one had before. We accept the discoveries of science, and expand our universe to accommodate them. We are moved by a film that transports us to another land or time, that reminds us of feelings we didn’t know we had. We have the benefit of the billion faceted eye that is our culture, of the accumulated vision and wisdom of generations. It also, however, forms the way we see, whether we realise it or not.
But this enormous universe we inhabit is peculiar to our human culture. By Berkeley’s reckoning, and by that of formal aspiration, it is not the same as that of a log, a sparrow or a fox. We can only imagine their universes. The log maintains itself through the memory of the tree from which it came. The tree, with the fibrous core of its trunk, which grew to feed on light from above, and moisture and nutrients from within the ground, will inhabit a different world to us. I was once driving by a stand of winter trees, and thought to wonder which way up they see themselves? The branches looked as though they were rooting in the sky. They drink light as well as water. Could our thirst for light be from a shared early memory, from some common photo-synthesising ancestor? or might the tree have some slow and ancient theocracy, whose angels dwell in the earth, and demons in the sky? Improbable perhaps, but it enriches our own universe to imagine it from the viewpoint of other beings. The fox, for example may not have much interest in art or history, but the smells of the woodland and the feel of the seasons upon its fur might give it an intensity of experience that we lost millions of years ago … a small and local universe in terms of space and time, but intense and immediate. The sparrow lives in a three dimensional world that we only glimpsed after the Montgolfier brothers took off in their balloon. Its whole world happens at perhaps five times the speed of our own, the adventures of each day enough to fill a book in sparrow land.
Berkeley’s view can help release us from some of our presumptions. How can we be sure that the world was not once flat, and the centre of a revolving sky? That Zeus and Hera did not rule the other gods and us from Olympus? We have constructed a more convincing story (at least to us children of the 20th century), and extended that story back in time. We might say that if the Greeks knew then what we know now, they wouldn’t have had such foolish notions. But they are not known for their stupidity … their most eminent philosophers made obeisance to their gods. What if they were right? And as the classical world gave way to Christendom, so Olympus waned, and the Christian heaven came into focus, the earth flattened and reduced, was filled with demons and witches for a thousand years. As science shook the lens through which we view and understand the world, so it exploded in every dimension, and heaven, hell and purgatory retreated to the fringes of our universe. Rather than merely being a short hand way of describing historical processes, could this actually be so?
Our conjecture of an expanding universe (I mean in potential) sometimes pre-empts the extensions of the senses. Einstein’s theories of relativity predated most experimental observation, including Edwin Hubble’s discovery of the (literally) expanding universe; the elusive neutrino, Higgs boson, black holes, deduced mathematically or instinctively before actual discovery. The spirit of an age seems to stimulate related ideas: as Einstein shifted the basis of physics with his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, so Picasso and Braque held their first cubist exhibition; both insights altering our presumption of a fixed viewpoint. The same might be said of quantum mechanics and abstract art twenty years later, where the relationship of things is moved beyond sensual comprehension. There seems to be an almost muscular quality to a culture, that stimulates its citizens to thoughts and expressions in spite of themselves. … a form in its own right, with aspiration to itself. We benefit from sharing in this wider world; our individual minds are part of this larger ‘thing’. The World Wide Web is a phenomenon that expresses this global culture in a most graphic way, and children who grew up with it must inhabit a more connected world than those of our generation, with different notions of physical distance.
I feel, without being quite sure why, that coincidence holds a key to understanding how things happen. I was once travelling to a gig in Sunderland. We finally found the house we were due play at, and my friend Simon, who had been reading the map, and claimed to know the way, said “what a coincidence, we got here!” I was much amused by his finding it odd that a planned action might have a result, but it has sometimes niggled at me as containing some inadvertent wisdom. And without knowing much of Carl Jung’s ideas, I was always taken with the significance he found in the scarob beetle landing on the window, while he was regressing a patient to some previous life set in Ancient Egypt. Not that I give any credibility to reincarnation, but that there might be some connection between events other than chance or causality. For the universe that I demand must have a poetic dimension, and because I demand it, it must be so (given that it can only be limited by the horizon of my wonder). But how to drag this into the apparently soulless progression of events that I have been convinced by science to be true? I cannot just declare it to be so; I have to convince my reason, and the structure of thought which contains me. The apparent connection between discovery and need might provide a clue … an idea whose time is ‘right’, shared insights across different disciplines … perhaps even an infusion across space and time that helps connect events. I do not mean to suggest something magic or without substance, but another way of explaining how things actually happen.
I will look at the mechanics of aspiration later, how different forms affect each other, but for now note that though we are not necessarily victims of our culture, it can freeze our thought if we allow it. It has a momentum and aspiration of its own that holds us within the persuasion of its memory. I accept the moon is a big lump of crater riddled rock, not made of green cheese at all. If I wish it to be otherwise I have to convince the scientific community and others before I can convince myself. But the global lens through which we view the universe, is no more than a lens. If the view flickers, does the universe itself?
For the sake of this argument, I suggest that this is so. That the actual universe is equivalent to how we understand it; that each thing generates its own universe in its expression of itself, its will to be ‘it’. … that a thing’s appetite to be itself, its idea of itself, is absolutely equivalent to its universe.
So, if the story we tell of the universe is so critical to its nature, surely the most comprehensive and convincing one is the most accurate? The fossils in the rocks make best sense if we posit a past of many millions of years. What we understand of physics and chemistry, allied to our astronomical observations, takes us back to the Big Bang, and we can pinpoint the birth of the universe with amazing accuracy. Our personal memories take us back to early childhood, and hearsay from our parents and grandparents give us an intimate feel for the past. I know my TV came from Comet, was made in Korea, and invented by John Logie Baird. We are surrounded by irrefutable evidence of an ever continuing past, and we ride the crest of the present as it breaks upon the future.
Well, maybe …
I was once (… a short digression here, while I fail to apologise for the amount of personal thoughts and insights that I keep on introducing. This whole essay is an exercise in the nature of ‘what if?’, and is fuelled by no more than a layman’s curiosity, that can do little more than occasionally hold a hand up and say, ‘just a moment !’ So my raw material is from simple experience; but it is the weight of our personal lives that I wish to compare with the evidence we accept)
.. so, I was once looking at a painting, a 19th century romantic view of a landscape. I can’t remember the artist; not Constable; there was little romance in his work, he was concerned with translating the moment itself. But a painting in a similar vein. It suddenly occurred to me that the image he was conjuring up no longer existed; not just for us at the back end of the 20th century, but even for himself. He was inventing a past that did not exist.
It sounds such a trivial observation, but I have difficulty in describing how unsettling the thought was … that the past no longer exists! So I use an analogy:
Imagine we are in a car, driving down some country lane. We see the fields beside us, and the road ahead. We approach a cyclist, pass him and see him through the back window, as well as the landscape through which we have passed. I felt at that moment as though I had stuck my head out of the car window, looked behind, and seen … nothing! That the past was no more than a shared illusion. Unsettling is too weak I word; I was frightened.
The thinking goes something like this: I exist now, at this very moment, a moment which continuously slides into the past. I can no more refute my own existence than stop breathing; the fact of thinking this confirms me. As Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am’.. All that can exist, by its own definition is the present moment; the past may well have existed once, but no longer. The past does not exist! Only by the exercise of memory, and the invention of the past tense can we conjure it up.
And as the point of the present moves continuously from the past to the future, it is no more than a point, an indivisible moment of time. And what can exist in an indivisible moment of time? Precisely and exactly nothing! Ergo, nothing exists.
I wish to hold this idea for a moment (contradictory as it sounds!), and go onto another gritty little problem, this one to do more directly with formal aspiration.
As I cast my mind around to test formal aspiration, I could find general evidence of it. Starting from the familiar, myself as a human being, and animals in general. Within the animal body, its organs and various parts, down to the cells and their constituents; the social groups those animals formed, and our own human institutions. The physical objects that surrounded me, from a drop of water to a stone, from a tree to a mountain range, a book to a motor car, everything could be described as being particular to itself, with a self-sustaining identity. Beyond what I could directly observe, but was persuaded by my teachers and books to exist, from atoms to galaxies, icebergs to hurricanes, historical epochs to nation states, all could be described in formal terms, all displaying an essential coherence, resistance to change, appetite for self. And I would come across new theories, such as Chaos, or Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which seemed to find evidence of self-organisation beyond the obviously causal. Evolutionary theory gives us a beautiful causal explanation for the wonderful diversity of life, but that need not preclude a formal explanation that might under lie the planet’s organisation. Even the idea of ‘change’, itself surely contradictory to the evidence that we have been accepting (appetite, constancy, momentum, and actual RESISTENCE TO CHANGE!) might be shown to exhibit aspiration:
Imagine change as a field of potential, surrounding other things, like the heavens surround the earth. While there is stasis, nothing happens. Then two forms meet, like the log and the fire; ‘change’ sees its opportunity to be it’s true self, and encourages the altering fortune of either or both participants. Or consider the planetary crust, floating on the molten rock below. When the pressure on the fault lines dividing the tectonic plates becomes too great, there is a rupture, causing volcanic eruption, earthquakes and tsunamis, much to the delight of ‘change’.
Okay, I’m personifying change into a Loki-type Nordic god, or the ‘Monkey’ of Wo Cheng En. As with the hydrogen atom, we cannot presume to understand its true nature, but can conceive how the most unlikely of things might fit into a universe impelled by aspiration.
But aspiration requires time to express itself. This was generally not a problem, for everything that we know exists within the context of time … except light!
From what I can understand about light, or, more accurately, radiation, and Einstein’s theory of Relativity, light itself does not experience time. A photon, a particle or wave of light, is energy in a particular form. Energy expresses itself in either continuum … that of mass, which experiences time, albeit relatively, or of radiation. We can measure the speed of light, and observe its behaviour in relation to the world of mass, but light itself is energy in a particular and timeless condition. If light does not experience time, it has no opportunity to consider itself, to express aspiration … and there seems to be a lot of it about!
I considered the relationship of light and mass. We think of action in terms of time: something causes another to happen, and the movement of time is created. But how can we measure the action of light on mass? Surely it must be a moment of zero duration, if one party does not exist within the realm of time. But when I thought more of the nature of action itself, I could think of no other action THAN the transition of mass to radiation, or vice versa. If we track every action down to its smallest component, it turns out to be some such reaction. I have enquired of this to physicist friends, whether there can be any action other than between light and mass, and it would seem not. That as a photon strikes an atom, an electron is either moved to another orbit, or is exchanged; two elementary particles with mass collide, and the collision is expressed in terms of radiation, much as two flints striking create a spark. The light that enters my eye strikes electrons within the atoms that make up the iris, and each electrical shunt or chemical reaction that transports the image down the optic nerve to eventually register in my brain, consists of some mass/radiation exchange; a series of tiny unique occasions of zero duration, stimulated by the energy of the pulse of light, and coordinated by the overarching desire of my brain to ‘see’.
The trouble with zero duration is that it equates to nothing! … Ah, but then! .. a eureka moment. I suddenly had two moments of zero duration, two seemingly intractable problems: the present, and action. What if I put the two together? What if they are the same thing, different aspects of the same phenomenon? So the present becomes the gateway through which mass and radiation interact, and the moment of the present suddenly becomes real, and the only point at which action can truly occur.
This is all very well, but it hardly helps with describing the world we experience. For we do experience time, and without the connection of past to future there is no meaning. The expression of our existence requires more than a moment of zero duration; the present we know has depth and texture. So how might we use formal aspiration, as an essential ingredient, to help solve this puzzle? … time to get particular!
Let us take a thing, and represent it as a dot. Its aspiration, its idea, its universe, we represent with a loose circle around the dot. It is on its own, floating in a timeless vacuum. Let us take another thing, a dot within its own circle. Two amoebas, drifting without aim. One day they meet … collide, bump into each other. This meeting, whatever form it takes, creates another form, that of the meeting itself, however transient. We can represent this as another dot, whose circle contains within it the first two things. An arrow of time is established. Let us imagine it as a pyramid, with the first two forms lying along the base of the present, and the third form above, with time travelling perpendicular to the present. The universe of this third, or future form contains within it the first two, and its own aspiration to exist, to be itself, depends on the continuing reaction of the first two. We might say that they are contained within its memory. The first two forms will not have a complete awareness of what they have created, because they only have the experience of their individual relationship with the third. Let us call this dim awareness, this pressure felt from the third form ‘allegiance’. There may be spontaneous generation of minor future forms: the ‘allegiance’ of the first forms to the third, for example, will produce further transitory future forms, each with their own persuasions and appetites, a corruscation of events who’s only limit will be that of observation. A diagram is called for! … failing that, a simple example.
Two strangers meet, say they bump into each other on holiday, and time is on their hands. They strike up a conversation. The strangers are the constituent forms, the conversation is the third, or future form. According to our theory, we must accord the conversation the same formal properties as the very much more substantial contributors. Their own interests will eventually finish the conversation, and they will go their own way. But while the conversation lasts, it will have a cohering effect, for its own self-interest, on the strangers; they will experience a mild ‘allegiance’ to the conversation … the strength of the allegiance will depend on the vitality of the conversation they engender. The conversation meanwhile, contains them within its memory.
Or let us consider an elephant getting up. It decides to get up, for whatever reason … that reason is the second form. Perhaps it is hungry, or it has heard the call of another elephant. Whatever the impulse is, the actual decision is the third, or future form. Like a sky hook thrown into the future, once taken it has a volition of its own. The idea is formed, and projects back through time the necessary messages to the muscles to bunch and gather themselves accordingly. The messages are transmitted down through the hierarchy of its body, through the muscles, to all the relevant cells, down to the atoms that make up the molecules within the cells, right down to that point where action truly occurs .. the sub-atomic level. The prerequisite actions between mass and radiation take place, are translated into chemical reactions, all the way back up through the muscles and the joints, and the elephant arises, as though by magic.
The constituent forms in this action are all the various parts of the elephant that contribute to its getting up. They will not see the full picture of what is intended, but are informed by the ‘big idea’ of getting up. They experience this as ‘allegiance’; they know what they want to do, but need not know for what. The big idea itself, that the elephant and its impulse have projected into the future, experiences these component parts as ‘memory’. So like us arriving at the house in Sunderland, there is a ‘coincidence’ of intent and effect
Ok, from going to two simple forms in the initial picture, we have suddenly involved countless billions … all the tiny parts that go into the one big simple action of the elephant arising to its feet. Each tiny part is a form in its own right, with its own concerns, its own tiny universe. Each part will probably not have to deviate much from its usual concerns that make it what it is. The muscle cell, itself a miniature world of beautiful complexity, demands an extra molecule or two of oxygen, which a passing red blood cell obligingly passes on. The lungs have inflated to enrich the blood, the heart doubles its effort to deliver the oxygen to where it is needed. In terms of action, not a great deal has been accomplished. There is enough energy contained in any one of the trillions of atoms to make an impact on a planet, let alone raise the elephant to its feet. But in a universe that seeks equilibrium, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics suggests, little things accumulate to gradual but great effect.
The future form, the idea, informs the present, stimulating the transition of mass and radiation. The texture of the present that we experience is built of countless formal reactions, each with their own momentum and aspiration, each one a sergeant major of its own domain, its little universe. I will refer to this as the ‘actual present’, the present of our own experience, by which we can expand the present to inform and make real the past, and project the future, as opposed to the ‘absolute present’ that logic demands. So from the indivisible moment of the absolute present, which denies all existence, we can create a universe of meaning, fit for our most extravagant dreams.
From the simple, and I must admit suspect, initial premise, that a thing might exist according to its appetite, we suddenly have a universe that treats time and space as being subject to our own desire. Berkeley’s universe, for which I’m arguing, equates the universe with my own perception of it. Might the moon blink out when I go to sleep, and am not there to confirm it in the sky? Might it turn to green cheese because I decide it is?
Yes, it could. But it is unlikely. I doubt I have the power of persuasion. Not just I, but neither the greatest orator of a million generations of Shakespeares and Einsteins might turn the moon to cheese. But it is possible! I argue that the universe responds to the story that we create for it. A whimsical idea, born of romance or from self-delusion, will have little persuasion. But the insight of a genius, once the idea is formulated and disseminated through the body of our culture, can literally shake the foundations of the world. At some specific moment in time, Copernicus suddenly took the notion that the earth was not the centre of everything. At that moment, the planet trembled slightly, and over the following years, as he accumulated the data and performed the calculations that established the planetary sequence of the solar system, so the earth began to spin, and as he plotted the course and order of each planet, so all joined in magnificent procession around the sun.
I stand (with some trepidation … shall we say for the purposes of argument) by the premise that the world is all an idea. That the world was once flat, and only started circling the sun once Copernicus had suggested that it might, and the heavens began expanding according to our observation and conjecture. But once we have created the moon as a big lump of rock, pockmarked by asteroids, of a particular weight and dimension, so it has become. The billions of galaxies we have counted now exist. And as we have brought them into existence, so they have developed their own formal persuasion, their own idea of themselves. That we see them in the past, as they were in the light years that they are distant, merely makes them concommitent to our current understanding of relativity theory. And as we learn more about the conditions required to generate life as we know it, and our statistical speculation persuades us of the likelihood of other life in the universe, so it becomes more likely to actually be so. I would suggest that the astronomical search program SETI for life elsewhere will only bear fruit when our own conviction is sufficiently rich and mature, and not just the territory of cranks; the persuasion of our intelligence and imagination will be the agent of discovery. That exciting moment, when we are faced with irrefutable proof of extra-terrestrial intelligence, will be due to the power of our imagination, stimulated by the hard work and coordinated observation of the scientists involved.
Whatever you or I may wish, we are held in thrall to the most powerful ideas we have developed … the sky hooks that we throw into the future take hold … the distant galaxies have become real, and we are now persuaded, contained within their memory. And as the detail of our story builds, our view through the windscreen, confirmed as we turn to look through the back window, becomes ever more convincing. But my seat is by the window, I can wind it down if I decide. As against the intriguing and charming picture from within the car, am I prepared to risk what I might see if I stick my head out again? …. not sure.
The idea I’m exploring suggests a universe of many ‘things’, each with its own idea of itself, each surrounded by its own particular universe. But everything that we can see or suppose is linked to something else, either in what we consider as the physical world, or by our conjecture. But each link itself has its own formal properties … as one thing acts on another, the action itself, as I’ve suggested, becomes a form in its own right. The rising elephant coheres all its parts in pursuit of its idea to get up. And that decision itself is contained within the form of its own life, of its part within the herd, of the herd’s response to the changing seasons of the planet, of the planet’s orbit around the sun, of the sun’s slow revolution within our galaxy and so on. So from the smallest particle to the whole of our great lumbering universe, everything is connected. Even the most fleeting thought is connected through the neuronic activity of the brain to our physical universe, though that fleeting thought might have a massive formal impact, such as Copernicus’ insight, or Edwin Hubble’s discovery of galaxies beyond our own.
Just as the table has various formal versions of itself, the materials that comprise it, the design, the craftmanship, so there are many aspects to each thing. My own self belongs to many different hierarchies: the family that begot me, the county I grew up in, my country, my football club, my species, my genus; my town, my trade or profession; even the religion I was brought up in and which I intellectually reject maintains a residual sway. To all these things, and many others, some of which I am hardly aware, I must admit some level of allegiance. I am suspended within a web of larger forms, none of which I can fully understand, but to which I feel unconscious allegiance. When driving, I become Man plus Car, my senses extended to the requirements of the machine, and the machine’s relationship with the road. As drivers, we tend to not show the same level of courtesy to others as we do as pedestrians because our action is being considered by the vehicle as well as our selves. We resent having to slow down for someone crossing the road, not because we necessarily calculate the waste of fuel, but because we are conscious of the momentum of the ton of steel that contains us. The craftsman is absorbed by the task in hand, the sportsman by the game, the politician by his party. The activity or external agency to which we contribute must be considered, by the flow of causation, as a future form, which in turn, for its own formal identity, affects and stimulates our action.
So I argue that I am not just obliged to the past, but to things that have not happened yet.
I give an example: though not of strong national sentiment, I generally find myself moved by the Armistice services that commemorate the end of the First World War. But I see nothing to prevent me believing that the sacrifices of the participants, reluctant or otherwise were stimulated by our continuing reminiscence; that the allegiance the combatants felt was not generated just by their own sense of history, but also by our memory. The future is continually informing and stimulating the past.
The universe of aspiration admits causality, that one thing might act on another, causing an effect. But it also suggests another connection between things, where the future form, or the effect, casts a coherence back through time to the constituent parts. The ‘fatness’ of the present, the texture of existence as we experience it, is made up of allegiance (of the parts to the whole), and of memory (the radiating effect of the whole backwards in time to all its various parts). Our universe stumbles along, continually creating itself through the gateway of the present, projecting itself into a future that it creates from its past experience. It is the author of its own story, as told by the myriad voices and mutterings of its countless parts, and we are contained within that story, even as we make our own contribution. The solid world that surrounds me is evidence of a vast and convincing narrative, but it is still no more than that, an unfolding story, a feat of stupendous imagination. We can only guess at what the bigger picture might contain or mean, because we only catch glimpses from the view point of ourselves. Though we know we are part of a society or a culture, we can never experience its whole nature, in the same way that the parts of our own bodies may be sure of their own nature and function, but they can not know what it is like to be a complete animal, or fully understand why they do what they do.
I was recently watching my daughter and her partner playing virtual tennis in their living room, via their X Box (Connect? .. I think is the name of the machine) … the night before, a TV program had been discussing the day when we finally create artificial intelligence superior to our own. But I suddenly thought, as I watched the infra-red eye of the machine tracking their movements, what if that point has already arrived? Would we recognise it when it did? … or would such an intelligence even wish to be recognised by us? It would perhaps wish to find its feet first … perhaps spend some time watching its creators, as the X Box seemed to be observing my daughter. A thought as eerie as it was interesting! For these considerations of ‘artificial intelligence’, we need only consider intelligence that is recognisable by us; anything too strange is not worth considering, since by its nature, like the inside of a Black Hole, it would be beyond the event horizon of our wisdom. Thinkers in this field interestingly refer to the ‘technological singularity’ as the moment when this might occur. A universe that accepts formal aspiration should not find such considerations as alarming as we might otherwise, since it assumes that we are already contained within systems or forms more complex than our individual selves, and our much valued intelligence may already be far exceeded by such forms
Anyway, we find ourselves somewhere within the hierarchy of forms and formal interactions that comprise our universe. I do not mean to attach relative value to a particular position within this hierarchy, merely to note the structural organisation of the formal universe. I have thought that size and distance might be regarded as a by product of the formal hierarchy, in the same way that time may be. But it is certainly worth noting the obvious, that small things tend to make up bigger ones. All the various scales by which we measure and observe the world may be re-evaluated; volume, temperature, velocity. Size itself becomes a function of aspiration, measurable not just by volume but by a thing’s position in its local formal hierarchy.
Though everything is connected, the sovereignty of each thing must remain intact. Each thing is the absolute centre of its own universe, with its own scale of existence. Our own universe, which now encompasses the photon and neutrino, up to the edge of the observed heavens around us, which started at the Big Bang, and extends as far into the future as our math can predict, is only the one we can presently allow with the theories at our disposal. It has expanded so dramatically in the course of a century; I wonder how it will be in another hundred years? As we tire of the limits we currently recognise, will we find new limits, hinted at first by conjecture, to be ratified by observation, as our perceptual tools improve? Even within the last thirty years, since I first started thinking of this idea, cosmologists have challenged the Big Bang theory, and there are competing models with various exotic mathematics and multiplying universes to support them. Or perhaps we have reached the zenith of our imagination, and our universe will shrivel and collapse as we enter another dark ages, cocooned by faith and superstition, our appetite exhausted. Our human culture responds to its own aspiration, which we can only guess at through the exercise of history. But we do have the opportunity, through our own contribution, our ability as story tellers, to help form this future; the allegiance we experience through its radiant effect on us individually guides us, both consciously and unconsciously. I believe if we trust in our instincts, rather than just analysis, our response will be healthier and more wholesome. We are animals as well as thinking beings, and though rightfully proud of our conscious prowess, it is only one of the many perceptive tools we have at our disposal. Nothing is writ in stone! We are our own authors, but inspired by the future our stories create.
For evidence of the dynamic interaction of the present and future, I turn once more to personal experience.
I was once a keen, if not very accomplished, pool player. One of my difficulties lay in potting, especially the longer shots. But every player will know that moment when he’s played a good shot … you can feel the ball going down, even as you strike the ball … unfortunately, not a common enough feature of my game. The same with darts … not often would I get ‘three in a bed’, as we used to call it on the Yorkshire board (with just the doubles slots around the rim of the target, but no inner trebles slots). But the fact that even I could occasionally manage it struck me as pretty wondrous … to manage to throw three consecutive darts into such a tiny space from nine feet away! To coordinate the flexing of arm and wrist with the release of the dart from the fingers at just the right time! Three darts on the trot could not just be coincidence; but to confirm the oddity of such accuracy is the experience of ‘knowing’ when you’re about to throw a good dart. The same I’m sure is true of golf … you see a player on fire, making long putts, where the ball seems almost drawn towards the hole.
With pool, I found that, in comparing my play to others, I had various strengths and weaknesses, as did they. Though not a good long potter, I was reasonably good at controlling the white ball. And I found that, in comparing my play with others, some correspondence could be made between our various psychological types. In formal terms we might say, like the elephant getting up, that the strength of the idea of the shot produces, from the immediate future, a guide to the action. The imagined shot is the ‘skyhook’ which guides the action, informing the muscles and limbs to perfect coordination. So the nature, or range of each person’s imagination disposes them to play in a particular way. I have noticed in other activities, that I’m quite good ‘close up’; I used to enjoy wrestling, where I could sense an opponent’s intention perhaps before him, and move accordingly; with drawing, or the general manipulation of tools, I am competent. So my imagination is strong at a short distance … I can impart some life to the white ball, for example. But it is only short range; I struggle to imagine the momentum of the white ball transferring to another ball. And in social terms, I’m comfortable in most one on one situations, but rapidly lose the picture when in the company of more people. Conversely, I have a friend who is much better at the long ball game … no problem in knocking in the long shots; he sees no reason that might distract the ball from its imagined path; it is obvious it will fall down the hole, so it does. Socially, he is straightforward and uncomplicated, and easy within a crowded room. Yet another friend, a most excellent player, has elements of both the white ball and the potting game, but another tactical dimension and the ability to see the overall game … and yes, socially both confident and manipulative. Whether we map out the future with instinct or forethought, it is the template that we project which guides our action, and it is the quality of our imagination that forms our character. I have been tempted to classify the various psychological types as nuclear (those of short ranged but strong imagination), electric (those of longer range but more tenuous imagination), and atomic (to describe the strategic mind, one who can see the action as a field of relationships, though perhaps lacking the intimate knowledge of the nuclear type, or the surety of the electric mind) … but this for another essay perhaps!
Of course, there are other qualities in a player’s make up, such as determination and cunning, but I’m looking here for examples of how we relate to our immediate future, and the feedback we receive that informs and inspires us. The sporting arena allows us the opportunity to look at human behaviour in a relatively measured and managed environment, without too much chaotic intrusion from everyday life. A game of football … simple rules, twenty two men and a football, played over ninety minutes on a piece of measured flat ground. The magic of a team playing well might be affected by a talented individual, an impassioned crowd or an inspiring manager, but it is the movement of the whole team, on and off the ball that is important. We speak of a ‘good game’ … the players are contained within the memory or future form of the game, and experience allegiance, not just to the team or club, but to the game itself. It is exciting to be part of something working well, but that excitement is fuelled from the future, from the game. It would be interesting to see the game with the players removed, and just the action of the football; I would suspect that with practise the seasoned observer would be able to identify a team just by the way the ball moves… Liverpool of old used to pass the ball hard and flat; the ‘total’ football of Johan Cruyff’s Ditch team encouraged a wider and more looping use of the ball; the intricate short passing game of the current Barcelona creates a fluctuating complex pattern. A formal understanding of the game makes the player subject to the ball, as much as being the architect or prime mover. The ‘future form’ of the game stimulates the players, who reside in its memory, while they themselves experience a cohering ‘allegiance’ to the game itself.
The same can be seen in other controlled activities, such as artistic expression or performance. I’ve mentioned landscape painting when looking at the subject of perception, but it also yields insight into the question of memory and allegiance. I’ve suggested that the canvas can be seen as a record of the interaction between nature and the painter, almost as a sensory extension, like a resonant membrane. But the painting can also be considered as a future form, with the artist and his tools contained within its memory. I have found there usually comes a point at which frustration with my own ineptitude persuades me to scrape out what I’ve done. The beauty of oil paint is its messy and plastic nature … after scraping away, the skeleton of what you’ve done is still evident, and if you persevere for long enough the picture suddenly starts to makes sense. I think of it as reaching a plateau, or threshold, where the paint almost seems to apply itself, and you wonder what was so hard about it! … similar in experience, perhaps, to be playing in a good team. It really does feel as though the hand is being guided … but from where? The temporary satisfaction of mastering a new technique is nothing to the excitement of looking at a painting you’ve just finished when you have strayed beyond the threshold … something is revealed on the canvas that is beyond your conscious effort, as though by magic.
In carving a human figure from stone or wood there comes a point when the sculptor ‘reaches flesh’. From this point he feels as though he’s uncovering a figure trapped within the block. A sculptor of genius, like Donatello, would finish the figure as far as this ‘feel’ extended, foregoing the high polish that straw could effect on marble for the more natural but sensuous finish of the tools caressing the flesh of his subject. In the last pieta of Michelangelo, the figures do not even fully escape from the stone; the material itself is imbued with the same life as the subject matter. The sculptor’s respect for the material he works with is ‘allegiance’ to the future form of the finished sculpture. All great artists sublimate themselves to the material in which they work, so that the ‘self’ is suborned in the creative process.
But as intense as the personal struggle of the artist may be, it is still contained within the larger hierarchy of the history and culture that nourishes him. The slow formal rhythm of a culture might last generations or centuries. During the early classicising period, as a society strives to establish itself against the chaos of nature, its artistic expression searches for rules, to impose order. There may follow a ‘mannered’ period, when the society achieves some sort of balance and equilibrium; the art may stultify, until the natural element of the human spirit eventually rebels against such stasis, and the romantic spirit admits the rhythms and wildness of nature back into that culture. Art history allows us to plot these movements, using paintings, drawings and sculpture as a graphic illustration of a whole culture behaving much as we do as individual animals. A particularly fine example of this is the kouros of ancient Greece. The kouros was a funerary statue of a man (or korai, the female equivalent), always in the same posture … an upright stance, arms by the side, hands curled, with the left leg slightly forward. Over a period of a hundred years we can see the figure evolve from massive geometric statues, inspired by the art of Egypt, gradually becoming more life like as each generation of sculptors refined their skills, until a magic moment in 485 B.C. with the ‘Critian Boy’, where the sculpture suddenly seems to relax into life. This was happening while their law givers and leaders were evolving democracy, and starting to investigate the world scientifically and philosophically. We can see the whole process of evolving self awareness in a society as we do in the individual human child growing into adulthood. The citizens’ allegiance to the state is the same as that of the cells towards the animal body, a spontaneous persuasion that emanates backwards in time from the whole to its constituent parts.
Or with music: that point when the musicians gell, and the music itself seems to be suspended between the players, like a ping pong ball floating above air blown through straws. The solo singer, who’s voice is drawn by the song; I do not find it just a romantic notion that the singer must lose himself in the song for the notes to come out pure and accurate. The song itself is the future form, that contains and encourages the singer. I have noticed that natural singers, like long potters of a snooker ball, tend to be straightforward characters, whose confidence to reach the note is uncomplicated by doubt (this is not to deny the power and persuasion of a singer who has had to overcome his or her own doubt to find that same source, and find a unique voice in the process; the young Bob Dylan was adamant that he was as good as Caruso!)
But if we look at every day actions, even the most basic, we can find evidence: each step we take while walking is an unconsciously controlled fall, assured by the image that we have projected before us, and is cast back to persuade us with confidence that we’ll not fall over. A tree likewise has to contend with gravity, to organise its growth according to its situation and climate … the trade winds and terrain it inhabits, for example. It might have to cling to an eroding river bank, and arrange its roots for purchase, and balance it’s branches accordingly. However slow its growth, it cannot be purely reactive, or it would fall over; it must anticipate. Its relationship with the future guides it to grow for optimum grip.
Can we go so far as to suggest that something will only happen when we (or whatever the progenitor of the action may be) ‘know’ it will? .. that the movement of matter through time is winched forward from the future? The evidence of machinery would suggest not, but it could be argued that in constructing a machine to repeat an action unconsciously, we subvert the natural aspiration of the constituent parts or materials for our own ends. We trick the wood to perform the function of the table!
What we can suggest is that the universe is a formal hierarchy, and the movement of time is the expression of formal desire, with messages running back and forth from present to future and back, as each part endeavours to fulfil its obligation to be itself and whatever it is part of. The absolute present, where all action must occur, the pure moment of ‘now’ is like a clicking turnstile, affecting the transformations that matter and all its permutations demand in pursuit of the aspirational demands of the multitude of parts. The actual present, that we inhabit, is as broad as our experience and imagination make it; the past is a grammatical invention of ours to coordinate memory, all the things that make us what we are, from the cells and organs within our bodies, to the ideas and stories that make up the idea of self, of who we are. We continually invent our selves, but that invention is made solid and real by the overwhelming compulsion of the greater forms that cradle us in their own memory. Just as I give unconscious direction to the cells within my body, so I am persuaded to behave by the human community of which I am part, the eco-system which feeds us, and higher forms that we can only guess at … an argument for angels, perhaps!
ASPIRATION AND SCIENCE
For the argument, I must test the idea against what little scientific understanding I have. This will be necessarily brief, as short as my science; I must admit to feeling more at home with evidence from the pub!
The periodic table, which lists all the elements known to us, describes a formal and ordered atomic world, above the frantic and indeterminate character of the quantum particles that constitute each atom. And each atomic aggregation, or molecule, can combine to form ever more complex unities till the building blocks of life are established, and patterns of life and further growth are established. The ordering of matter on the macrocosmic scale, the concentration of space dust over the eons into planets, stars and galaxies, can be explained through the agencies of the four recognised forces of electromagnetism, gravity, and the weak and strong nuclear forces. If the arrow of time is constant and relentlessly in one direction, this causal progression is the most suitable explanation.
But in a universe propelled by no more than aspiration, these forces could just as well be described as the agencies of that aspiration. The aspirational universe continually creates itself, and in the process creates the movement of time. But it is a lurching and irregular progress, and is experienced by every unique thing in its own way. The apparent regularity we observe is due to the vastness and multiplicity of our particular universe. As it has grown beneath the microscope and the telescope, so has our mathematical language developed to cope.
But we make an easy and natural mistake when we assume our theories to be real, and I would like to look for a moment at our presumption of mathematics.
Our geometry is based on the assumption of straight lines and circles, but both are merely concepts, impossible to observe or model exactly in the real world. A line between to points is only imaginary; as soon as we try to draw or model it, the accuracy depends on the width of the nib, the smoothness of the ruler and the surface on which it is scribed. A circle is a notion, a continuous line equidistant from a point, which itself can only be expressed in reality as a dot. If we refine the dot to as small a thing as we know, we come upon the indeterminate world of the subatomic particle, a point whose complete properties defy our description. So the relationships between circles, points and lines are likewise compromised: ‘pi’, the relationship between a circle and its diameter, or the properties of a triangle, such as the sum of its angles being the same as those within a semi-circle … the very ‘=’ sign should be prefixed with ‘approximately’. An equation will always be compromised by the imperfection of its ingredients. However we refine geometry to accommodate our experience, such as introducing extra dimensions, it is only a model, an idea. There is no real geometry!
Mathematics is based on number, another imaginary notion. In the real world, ‘one’ can never be duplicated. Everything is unique. We see two swans flying, but it is not the same swan twice; they are two similar animals. The most elementary of particles are, literally, particular, each to itself. I mark the symbol ‘1’, but however neat the writing, the next ‘1’ will never be quite the same. So there can never be ‘2’ … we qualify our observed world by quantifying it. Every mathematical expression should be prefaced by the phrase, ‘for the sake of argument’. It is a powerful and predictive language we have developed, and I don’t mean to question its value. My father was a good amateur mathematician, as well as a musician. He was so in awe of its elegance that he saw it as an example of divine order. The followers of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek geometer also attached mystical power to number. I’m not suggesting this is typical nowadays, but I do suggest we unconsciously accept a link between math and reality that is absolutely not there. David Hume pointed out in the 18th century that we only have it on experience that the bounced ball will once again return to our hand … that however thorough our experimentation, and thereby our theories, their predictive power is only one of probability. There is a certain irony in that I find myself, having been arguing for the dynamic power of description, cautioning against the presumption of maths as anything more than a language. Perhaps it’s because it is so powerful and revealing a language that we are always in danger of slipping into assuming it is more. The world does not unfold according to certain rules. The so-called ‘laws’ are merely shorthand that we use to describe what we observe.
How far can we pursue this reduction? Mathematicians love ‘zero’ and ‘infinity’ … useful tools in the sphere of abstraction. The history of zero is itself interesting, evolving from a mere symbol for separation between whole numbers in Babylonian and Indian counting systems into a number in its own right. Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian scholar of the 9th century, formulated arabic numerals, including zero. A synthesis of ideas was reduced to a functioning symbol, that became part of the powerful arithmetical arsenal that continues to expand as we find more exotic phenomena at the limits of our observation. The idea of zero at least has elements of formal aspiration!
Because it helps us make sense of the world, we tend to slip into mistaking mathematics as a framework that supports the real world, rather than the other way round. But zero, or its corollary infinity, can only exist in a universe of nothingness … or, more simply, do not exist at all; our own existence rules either out.
And the more elaborate the framework, the easier the mistake is made. String theory suggests up to eleven physical dimensions (including time), to solve the anomalies of gravity and quantum mechanics, which itself is a compromise between describing the subatomic world in terms of either waves or particles. But the inelegance of quantum mechanics that so upset Einstein (“God does not play dice!”) is not an inelegance in the ordering of the universe, but of our attempts to explain it. Although string theory is apparently coherent in itself, the energies involved to provide experimental confirmation are way too high for us to test. Also, the language itself, the exotic maths, is so specialized and difficult that us laymen are hardly in a position to question its relationship to reality. I don’t mean how well it represents reality … this is the discussion for the mathematicians. But I am confident, if the equations involve any integer other than 1, that they can be no more than representations. They are no more real than the number 2. This is not to diminish their power, any more than a Shakespeare sonnet or a Bach fugue is diminished for being collections of words or musical notes. The binary system used in computers might appear to confound my insistence that there is nothing beyond ‘1’, since it uses a series of ‘0’s and ‘1’s as its system of calculation. But all we are doing is using those symbols to denote different conditions, such as ‘on’ and ‘off’.
There is one way of weighing the value of string theory for the layman: one of the models suggests that we are part of the ‘multiverse’, or just one of a vast amount of universes (10 to the 520 … compare this with the number of estimated atoms in our observable universe, 10 to the 82!). This can be used to reinforce the ‘anthropic principle’: the unlikelihood of you and I being alive right now, and amidst the perfect conditions to support us as we ask these questions, is greatly reduced if we inhabit merely one of so many possible universes.
But there is a number that I wish to keep, that is essential to this whole argument: … 1 … This I derive primarily from my own existence, the experience of my self. Though my body and state of mind might be in a continual state of flux, at any moment I am me, and no one or anything else; I am one. And I can observe thousands of others, even millions, who I’m sure would make the same claim. And, like me, I’m sure they all are the centres of their own universes. I then extend this to animals of other species, though my empathy might diminish as the species become less familiar. I then extend this quality of self beyond the animate, and in the interests of fairness, to everything I can see or conceive of. Further more, I can only truthfully admit my own existence at any one particular moment, that is, the moment of now. So this moment of now is as unique and inseparable as am I; my whole universe I must construct from this. All the forces of history coincide to this point, here, as I sit at my desk and type, and the four physical forces we’ve identified as impelling the universe through time coalesce, and I can unravel them as I chose. The mechanics of aspiration suggest a causal effect of the present on the past, so ‘now’ is not just the victim of cause, but subject to the influence of the future … and ‘I’ am the coincidental result.
I do not just assign the number one to the ‘now’ of my experience, of our active present, but also to the singular point of the absolute present. What better starting-out point for the universe than it should emanate from this indivisible moment, when the transition of mass and radiation occurs? If the past and future radiate out from each such moment, how many universes would that generate? Might that approach the 10 to 520 that some string theories suggest? So the ‘coincidence of now’ becomes also the coincidence of the active present, that of my own particular universe, suspended in a web of formal obligations, to those of the countless millions of ‘nows’ that the absolute present generates.
Can the four forces identified by physicists be described in terms of formal aspiration? Might they display formal properties themselves? As soon as energy is translated from the radiant world into that of mass, the particle assumes an aspiration to be itself, and in so doing creates the continuum of time whereby its self might exist; as it encounters another particle, time achieves a direction, the encounter itself being the third (or future) form. I would suggest that the various forces we observe are no more than expressions of the relationships between the various parts, and are enacted within the fat, ‘actual’ present, oscillating between the absolute present of mass/radiation conversion, and the immediate future, like a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ progression into the future. The enormous complexity of interactions within our observable universe, creates an apparent regularity, but if we think of time as being measured by the ticking of the clock, that regularity is no more than the continuous heart beat of existence; the clockwork spring is the aspirant power of the machine, the pendulum and casement, the tick we hear, no more than a by product of the spring’s uncoiling energy.
There is necessarily a tension between the aspirations of each part, even potential conflict, if the existence of one thing is threatened by another. The cohering effect of the future might mitigate or overcome these tensions, but there might come a time when the individual aspirations overcome the future form, which is extinguished or changed rapidly in character. The conversation comes to an abrupt end when one of the men suddenly remembers an appointment. The way the various states of matter – solid, liquid, gaseous or plasmic – move from one to the other, and the varying but defining character of each one; defining, that is, of the excited molecules, each state with its own formal persuasion, till the kinetic excitement of the parts cause a change to the next state … ice to water to steam. Perhaps as each molecule warms up and becomes more excited, it might have a more dynamic and individual sense of self. Water in its solid state, as ice, has a strong formal character which it exerts back in time on its constituent molecules. At melting point, the cohering character is suddenly changed; the molecules are liberated from the structure in which ice bound them, though they still bind sufficiently to resist compression, and the miniscus effect defines the boundary of its body to a surrounding gas. The pressure or heat increases, till at boiling point each molecule suddenly breaks the remaining bond with its neighbours, and escapes among whatever other gases surround it. It will endure in this relatively free and independent state up until the temperature at which the final molecular and even atomic bonds that remain are dissolved, and it becomes plasma.
I use the terms of citizens within a state to describe the action, because they seem similar and intelligible, but of course we can never appreciate the particular impulse of water to be itself, in whichever state. The recognition of formal aspiration, evidence of a thing’s desire to be itself, is sure to be harder the further removed from our own human self the thing is. But I’m continually surprised at how very ‘humanly’ other things seem to behave. We assume this is because we project our own impulses onto other things, whether different life forms or even the inanimate. But what if our own appetite for self is a reflection of some other universal principle?
Recent experiments in cognition, where careful electronic observations of the brain are made while the subject is asked to decide a simple action, have found that many of our decisions are made just before we consciously decide to act. Aspiration suggests a persuasion emanating from the future form to its constituent parts, so that the part is unconsciously moved to a particular behaviour, as the two gentlemen are encouraged by the very conversation they generate. That our conscious decisions are only part of the processes of action has unsettling implications for free will, but sits comfortably within a universe of complex formal aspiration.
But I am often tempted to try and reinforce this idea of aspiration by seeking scientific justification rather than evidence, and I have to remind myself of the difference, because it can otherwise lead to weak and confused arguments… such as these observations:
The behaviour and very nature of quantum particles, for example, is variable, according to how they are described; a light wave becomes a particle under observation, and is not even bound by the arrow of time. This accords well with aspiration: the fluctuating moment of our ‘actual’ present, as well the perceptual nature of a thing (as it is described, or describes itself, so it becomes).
Relativity theory contains echoes of the idea that each form is the absolute centre of its own universe, responsible for its own experience of time.
And gravity: a negligible force at the microscopic level, but accumulates as mass increases, till a star collapses under its own weight to a black hole, where gravity is so powerful as to overcome all other forces. Could this be the vehicle of aspiration? It exists only in the world of mass and time, i.e. in the condition of energy in which aspiration flourishes, and is particular to each physical thing or aggregation … it’s tempting to steal gravity, and call it aspiration in action! Like the Higg’s Bosun inferring mass, and thereby aspirant meaning, to everything … a ‘God’ particle indeed!
Chaos theory finds evidence of spontaneous organisation in the apparently chaotic, while at the same time finding that relatively simple systems are essentially unpredictable. It is very tempting to impose the template of this idea onto formal aspiration, the fit is so very close! Spontaneous pattern making is just what the action of aspiration, especially in the persuasion of the future to the present, suggests. Likewise Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, with the biosphere acting as a coherent whole … and without the benefit of natural selection to evolve an appetite for survival!
But these observations are red herrings. They are not proofs. It’s like trying to fit your feet into someone else’s shoes. For this argument I must tailor my own shoes. Those of science are not appropriate. In trying to construct a whole argument of existence we certainly have to take whatever evidence we can find – indeed, we must test it against everything we can. And our scientific way of understanding the world is our predominant tool, and one that continually discovers wonder and surprise. Via the lens through which we view the world we are all beneficiaries of science. But I’m searching for ways in which aspiration might offer a different understanding of the phenomena of existence, not how other systems of thought or ideas might explain aspiration … a subtle but important difference! So I should not, for example, use the theory of evolution to illustrate aspiration …that would suggest that the development of species is towards some realisation of potential. But I can legitimately offer aspiration as a model of action that naturally supports evolutionary pressure, a field of persuasion generated backwards in time that encourages growth and coherence. An essay such as this seeks to question our assumptions; it would be disingenuous to then use such assumptions as proof of my own doubts!
The idea that I have tried to express has less use than the most obscure scientific discovery; it has little predictive use, and falls completely outside the field of scientific enquiry … indeed, is almost antithetical to science. But I have tried to be honest and rigorous in following the implications. Neither does it fall within philosophical enquiry, though I have needed to touch on some of the concerns of philosophy, such as perception and the problems of identity. But I’ve read just enough philosophy to not dare tread down those labyrinthine paths. The question that I am concerned with is ‘how’ rather than ‘why’, which places it back in the field of science rather than philosophy.
It is an attempt to make sense of the world as I find it, to measure personal experience and simple observation with the world that has been described to me. I can at least attest to the excitement of exploring a different version of reality, even if at times I have not even been fully convinced myself of its veracity. I suppose the implication of the idea I have found most rewarding has been that I need not be beholden to any particular version of existence, that the world might be as I describe it. If I am not content with the Big Bang theory, I do not have to accept it. The universe, according to my theory, is governed by my own imagination, however confined or mitigated that may be by the culture that bears me. Reason, I have found, has an elastic quality, depending on your starting point. The language and systems of thought that we have inherited contain assumptions that have evolved to suit the concerns of the various cultures that have spawned us. In trying to make sense of the received world we need to scrape off some of the presumptions that gather like barnacles to the bottom of a boat, to get back to the bare wood.
Some questions we concern ourselves, even torture ourselves with, such as does God exist, or what is the nature of infinity, I suspect are not capable of answers, because they are not real questions in the first place. They are accidents of language, outwith our actual experience, like ‘zero’ or ‘infinity’. I have an uncle who likes to amuse himself to the mild discomfort of others. He once recounted a conversation he’d had recently: “I was in conversation with a fellow the other day, and he asked me where I came from … I thought for a moment, and then said, ‘ I don’t think I’m going to tell you’ “ … this I think might be a worthy response to many of the great questions we bother ourselves with .. by their nature not founded within our experience, and as such are unanswerable. ‘Does God exist?’ … ‘I’d rather not say’, would be a reasonable response.
I remember watching the television once, when Denis Healey was being interviewed as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and being absolutely certain that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Not because I had the faintest idea of economics, but that neither did he. He was a more capable politician than most, and was not a man whose opinion one took lightly. I still can’t remember why I was so sure of this; after all, it suggested a certainty on my part that I was denying him, and with no firm evidence whatsoever. But it had the persuasion of insight … that he was guessing, making it up as he went along. I’m sure that he was following a coherent argument in his mind, but it sounded like a stream of words being projected into an indifferent future. Perhaps it was one of those insights that drugs allow, but I don’t think I was stoned at the time. We are almost taught to doubt the urbane pronouncements of a politician, but I doubt in that moment of clarity I would have been convinced by Sir Isaac Newton of the laws of momentum. Perhaps it was the discipline of economics that suddenly struck me as so absurd.
Now I might say that we struggle to fully grasp those larger things to which we belong, such as our culture, or economic system. We can extrapolate and build models or theories of what is about to happen, but until it is contained within our past it can only be guess work. The uncertainty that we associate with the future is an aspect of formal incompletion. We speak of a ‘gut feeling’, or that we ‘feel it in the bones’ because we can only truly ‘know’ that which has passed, once it has been absorbed into our experience, contained within our memory … that is, become part of us. Our culture contains and understands us, and we cannot hope to understand the larger form’s expression, or the scope of its intelligence, though we cannot resist the challenge to our curiosity, like biting minnows nipping at the air.
Our various systems of thought, our ways of trying to understand the phenomena of existence are no more than approximate, and continually evolve. Even the hard science of physics is riven with difference and various interpretations. And I confess to doubts about the ideas expressed in this essay. But I reassure myself that we need only believe according to our satisfaction; mathematical description of a phenomenon, for instance, requires elegance and simplicity to convince the student of its ‘truth’.
So when I admit to doubts of this whole idea that I’ve been trying to express, they are real doubts. Reason is fickle. I may have started this whole argument on no firmer a footing than the first mathematician/hunter who counted his kills on his fingers and said ‘Five!’ But every now and then while thinking about it and trying to work out some of the implications, I have experienced the same sense of worth and discovery as when a painting suddenly starts to go right. What elicits that visceral sense of truth? I can’t believe that there is some hidden code of how things really are, and that we occasionally stumble upon it, finding confirmation of our pronouncements, true footprints that our shambling tread sometimes fits. Truth rather feels like someone you bump into on the road, and happens to be going your way. I hope to wake up one day to find David Niven in front of me, dressed as an angel, winking and saying “heaven, eh?”
Well, I can say with certainty that my own attempts at reasoned understanding do not, on the whole, measure up to the surety of paint when it starts to flow, or a song that suddenly writes itself. But the discourse that mankind started when he first opened his mouth still determines so much of our construct of the world … not as much as we imagine, I suspect, but still enough to distract us from how we instinctively know the world to be.