What Really Exists? Or, “Here Comes the Sun”

Painting by Tara Richelle

I would like to try to make a strange point. Namely, that if we were not here, nor would be The Sun! Surely I must be joking. The sun predates humanity by billions of years; we all know that or should. But I will try to convince you that in a way the sun does not exist in itself and independently of our observing it, or at least someone observing it.

Here comes the sun. Doo, doo, doo, doo. Here comes the sun. and I say, Its all right...Sun, sun, sun, here it comes!

The Beatles

I will call this, The Philosopher’s Point, though it may be better to call it, The Holist’s Point. Choose the former designation because if ”philosophy” is to make an independent and substantial contribution to human understanding, this is it: The Sun and Ourselves are inextricably connected. Calling it The Holist’s Point, acknowledges that all philosophers are not Holists, and in my opinion those who are not are satisfied with philosophy holding a minor role in our discussions of our life and its meaning, an adjunct to science. But back to the main point!

In this presentation I will follow the work of psychologist and philosopher, Nicholas Humphrey, in his award winning 1992 book, A History of Mind. The key is to understand that both the phenomena of the ”mind” and the phenomena of “matter” are of the same rank, so to speak, both are observations. Humphrey tells us that he is ”not making a particularly deep point here,” and we can certainly agree that mental events —like a twinge of pain or the sensation of red— are observed. So are physical events; physical events are measured and recorded, timed and weighed, seen by humans and especially scientists. Humphrey argues that both are ”an event as it appears to an observer, as distinguished from what it might consist of in itself.” It is there that he begins to get a little more subtle.

What is a thing or an event in itself ,” a thing or an event out of all relation to anything else? Could such a thing exist? What qualities would it have? Such an idea does not make sense, yet it plays a prominent role in our current thinking. What I am going to try to do is not question the findings of science, but place them in the best philosophic perspective.

But surely, you will say, long before there were minds to know it and eyes to see it, the sun existed; “it rose in the east and set in the west,” and ”dust storms” existed and so did ”volcanos.” But alas, before minds like ours existed, with eyes and feelings and sounds similar to ours, who would in this ancient time be there to distinguish such things? “If you had been there, that is indeed the way the phenomena would have appeared to you,” says Humphrey, ”But you were not there: no one was.” No one was there to distinguish any particular thing from all the rest. There was no standard scale to distinguish any particular size, nor a duration to establish some particular time frame, nor a color, nor significance in general to set apart one thing, or any collection of things, from all the others that could possibly exist.

Kind of like the old TV set with no reception of a particular channel, Material Things without a mind or consciousness to connect all the dots and fill in a lot of Qualities is basically a washout, simply fuzziness, or really less.

So Mind is essentially a perspective. It is a set of standards and distinctions placed upon a rather formless backdrop. Humphrey calls this backdrop ”world-stuff,” but only for the purpose of it playing a lone and bland metaphysical role. Nothing else comes from it, and Humphrey absolutely does not want us to regard “world-stuff” as “The Real.” It is all the cogs and gears we and Mother Nature have made from this abstract stuff that are real. It is they — the network of distinctions — that do all the work.

Currently, what does a huge amount of work for us is the distinction between material things and mind things. Historically, most of us have learned to think of the material as “primary,” the “primary qualities,” and the mental as “secondary” or “subjective qualities.” A significant group of philosophers have always resisted this ‘truth,’ but so have many religious believers. To this resistance, “material things” have never been enough in themselves to exist.

For the traditionally religious, the other extreme of this dilemma was chosen; mind and consciousness were initial and primary and existed alone as God. But neither of these horns of this dilemma work. It makes as little sense to think of Mind without Matter, as it does Matter without Mind. This, once again, is The Holist’s Point.

Genesis 21 “And God created great whales, and every living creature that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after his kind: and God saw that it was good.” The Creation of Animals, by Jacopo “Il Tintoretto” Robusti (circa 1590)

The solution to this Mind/Matter Dilemma is not easy to imagine. Some philosophers seek a “Middle Term.” Early in his career John Dewey described both mind and matter as based in ”Experience,” as if such a thing made sense outside of particular ”mental and physical experiences.” Phenomenological Philosophers such as the European Edmund Husserl, believed this kind of raw or undistinguished experience could be described as long as normal experience was ”bracketed.” Later Dewey became more historical, and contended that what we believe is true is our best beliefs (most reasonable) at any one time. That to think of “The Truth” as existing outside of particular times and places and cultures is to seek a chimera, a myth. He argued we must give up this kind of Quest for Certainty, the title of one of Dewey’s final books.

Now of course, this leaves us open to the charge of Relativism, that anything goes. But Our Beliefs About Ultimate Truth should not exist outside of the actual and practical lives we live. For example, today if you are not going to believe in evolution or highly value the directives of medical science (as in vaccination) and other such basic scientific standards, then to be consistent you should move out to some of the counties in eastern Ohio farm country and join the Amish. Please, do not use your cell phone, fly in jets, and use appliances engineered and made all over the world. If you are going to live by science, you ought to believe in it. After all, our lives are a whole, a single thing!

The Chimera of Arezzo, Greek bronze statue, artist unknown. The mythical “fire-breathing” monster was a combination of lion, goat and snake. To seek “The True” as existing outside of the context of any particular observer is chimerical.

So, the strange point to be made in this post isAll the ways we think of and see and feel “The Sun,” even its size and mass and the heat it generates, are from our human perspective. If some alien travelers make it to earth some day, they may have some very different perspective on “The Sun,” but a perspective with some similarities to our own, for after all they will be here, visible, and in communication “with us.” A new “objective” standard for “The Sun” will then have been established for this new and broader sense of “us.”

You can’t escape A Perspective, even if it just gets larger and more inclusive of a wider range of Observers!

Our emotional reactions, our evaluations, are a Natural Part of the things that exist around us. The Sun is “alright” and definitely a welcome occurrence after a long cold winter or the darkness of many a night.
Amish in Ohio: Hey, at least they are consistent.

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