Some Observations on the Context in Which We Live and Think

by Sam Wells

The more fundamental an idea, the more careful one ought to be in ascertaining its truth. What can be known about such basic concepts as existence, identity, consciousness, and causality? I offer the following observations, originally put down as notes for my own self-clarification. I have done my best not to go beyond what I know, and since I know only a very little about these things, the following remarks are relatively short.

The Primacy of Existence

Existence exists. This (necessarily) tautological statement expresses the fundamental truth that there are things and phenomena which exist and have being outside of our minds as well as our minds themselves. Consciousness -- the awareness of existence -- is only a part of existence. If there were not things existing outside of consciousness there could be no such thing as consciousness. A "consciousness" without anything to be conscious of is a contradiction in terms. Without "existence" there could be no consciousness (awareness of what exists). A "consciousness" conscious of only itself is also a contradiction in terms.

Existence includes everything -- all that is, whether it be matter, energy, or spirit (or anything else), and whether it be entity, action, attribute, or relationship. There is no such thing as "more than everything" or "outside of existence" or "everything plus one more" . . . . Humans have freedom of the mind, so they are sometimes able to put words together which have no meaning or which embody self-contradictions. If meanings are to be taken seriously -- and any thought and communication about fundamental ideas requires that they be taken seriously -- then such notions as "outside of everything" should be dismissed as nonsense since they represent examples of the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept.

In the same way that it makes no sense for us to speak of stepping "outside of the universe (everything)", it also makes no sense to speak of there being a time "before" the universe. If the universe is everything that exists, it actually makes time possible. What we call "time" is or involves a measurement of relative motion -- something moving relative to something else (e.g., a second hand moving across the face of a clock, or a planet revolving about its sun. Since you cannot have motion without things existing to do the moving, it becomes clear that the concept of time presupposes the existence of motion and motion presupposes existence as such; therefore, time presupposes existence, not the other way around. Time exists "in" the universe; the universe (all of existence) does not exist "in" time. This means that such questions as "What started everything?" or "How did the Universe begin?" or "Who or what created the Universe out of nothing?’ or "What existed before existence?" etc. all involve internal contradictions due to the Fallacy of the Stolen Concept. Concepts such as "started" and "begin" and "created" and "before" are temporal concepts, concepts which depend for their meaning on the concept of time -- yet time has no meaning "outside of" existence. There is no such thing as "pre-existing existence"!

The Law of Identity

A thing is what it is. An action is what it is. A relationship is what it is. An apple is an apple. A tree is itself. "A=A." Again, as with all fundamental primary truths, the Law of Identity must be expressed as a tautology, and like all other fundamental truths its truth is inescapable; any attempt to refute or even question it necessarily involves its implicit use and acceptance in the very process.

The Law of Non-Contradiction

A thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. An apple cannot be both an apple and at the same time be not an apple. These alternatives are mutually exclusive. Outside of the human mind, contradictions do not exist in the real world. (And, if a logical contradiction is discovered in ones thinking, that contradiction indicates that an error has been made somewhere in the thinking process and that one should retrace ones mental steps and check ones assumptions.)

Either, Or

As with the Law of Identity and the Law of Contradictions, the Law of Excluded Middle is no mere human convention or trick of language; it is a necessary and unavoidable truth of reality, and as with the Law of Contradictions it is a corollary of the Law of Identity. Either a thing exists, or it does not exist; there is no "middle" or third alternative between existing and not existing. These alternatives are jointly exhaustive.

Every thing that exists, outside of ideas in the human mind, has its limitations.

Another corollary of the Law of Identity is that each and every thing that exists is limited by a definite nature -- its identity. If something exists, it exists as something definite and specific, not "nothing in particular" and is limited in some way or ways by its nature. There is no such thing as something having literally unlimited attributes. The concept of "infinity" exists in the human mind, but not in the external world outside of someone’s consciousness; there is no such thing in the external world -- the reality outside of a human mind -- as infinite anything. There may be zillions and trillions of grains of sand on the beach, but there is not an infinite (unlimited) number of grains of sand even in the whole world or solar system. No matter how large the number, it is still finite. Likewise, all attributes have limits on their extent. The human mind, when properly used, can gain knowledge of reality -- but there is no such thing as infinite knowledge ("omniscience") or infinite power ("omnipotence"). Such notions as "omniscience" and "omnipotence" are ideas in the mind which have no referent in the external world. No one can ever be all-powerful or all-knowing. Whether human or robot, we all have our limitations.

Causality: the Law of Identity Applied to Action

There is no such thing as "nothing"; the word "nothing" merely stands for the absence of something. A "nothing" cannot act as a cause. Only a "something" can be a cause. But not everything had a cause. The Universe (everything as a whole) could not be caused by something "prior" to it, because such a cause would have to have pre-existed existence; that is not logically possible. It is also not logically possible to have an infinite regress of cause and effect; there must be a starting point.

If the "Big Bang" Theory of astrophysics is correct, the Big Bang was an event that was caused by something before it. The thing that existed before the Big Bang and acted as its cause is sometimes referred to as a "nuclear egg" or a tightly-packed particle which neither moved nor changed. Until the Big Bang occurred, there was no motion or change in the universe -- only the motionless, changeless, oneness of this super-dense first particle. Without change or motion there can be no time. Time "began" with that first motion -- the Big Bang (assuming this theory is correct). This means that even though the Big Bang itself has an age which can be at least theoretically calculated (and is said to be the inverse of the Hubbell Constant), there is no way to know how long the original particle (i.e., the pre-Big Bang Universe) that existed before the Big Bang had been around prior to that event.

Strictly speaking, then, the Big Bang did not cause the Universe. The Big Bang was an event which occurred in an already-existing Universe, a Universe of one particle, and that particle was the cause of the Big Bang, not the other way around. It makes sense to ask how old the event known as the Big Bang is because that event can be dated (at least in theory); but to ask how old everything is -- the literal age of the Universe -- is a question which can never be answered. Whatever its form, the Universe has always already existed before any and all events occurring in it, and that includes the Big Bang.

[I am not an astrophysicist.  I do not know enough about the actual "Big Bang" theory to give an informed opinion of whether it is true or false.  I only know its (most likely over-simplifed and distorted) description by journalists.  But physics is not more fundamental than ontology, and if there is truth in the Big Bang theory, it would have to be consistent with the fundamental truths of reality. When some reporter or wire service writer says that the Universe was "created" by the Big Bang, that makes no sense; either that staement is sloppy journalism or, if it were an accurate statement of the scientific theory, then the theory is incorrect. Either the Big Bang is part of the Universe or it is not (in which case it does not exist and the theory is wrong). There is no such thing as pre-existing everything that exists. The universe is all one existence.  It is not merely a part of existence; it is all of it (all entities, all actions, all energies, all thoughts, all relationships, and all anything else).  There is no such thing as "before" or "outside of" the Universe.  Anything that invovles motion or time exists within the Universe, not the other way around.  The Universe cannot exist within time.]

Existence, Identity; consciousness, identification

Consciousness, like all other existing things, has a definite nature and is limited by its nature. No mind, human or otherwise, can be either omniscient or infallible; yet, knowledge and certainty are possible to man. The source of human knowledge comes from the fact that reality is objective -- independent of our subjective minds -- and that humans possess the faculty and capacity of reason -- the ability to use the evidence of reality provided by our senses as a basis for founding our concepts and principles by means of a process of non-contradictory identification of what exists in reality. (The limitations which nature places on our minds and senses do not invalidate or delegitimize human knowledge.)

Everything that exists has an identity. It is the purpose of consciousness to identify that which exists and discover how things behave according to their natures. It is important to observe that the essential function of consciousness is to properly identify facts and discover the laws of reality; it does not invent those laws. Reality is not magically created by a pure act of consciousness. If external reality -- the reality "outside of" our minds -- was merely a creation of our consciousness, we would never make mistakes and never bump into things or trip over anything; there would be nothing unexpected in our path as we go through life since we would create everything as we go. But, wishing doesn’t make it so. The fact that we do make mistakes, and that we sometimes do trip over objects (if we are not careful in watching where we’re going), shows that external reality is not a creation of our personal wishes. If you hypnotize someone and totally convince him under hypnosis that a nearby brick wall doesn’t exist, he will nonetheless bump into it if he attempts to walk through it as if it didn’t exist.

The Objective Nature of External Reality

Reality serves as an independent reference (for those who rely on sense perception and logical reasoning). We can know that the French word "chien" means the same thing as the English word "dog" because there is something "out there" in objective reality that is independent of all perceivers -- something that (for example) barks and wags its tail, which both Frenchmen and Englishmen can refer to. If there were no objective reality, communication and even consciousness itself would not be possible. Consciousness is dependent on something to be conscious of for its own existence. A consciousness conscious of nothing except itself would be a contradiction in terms and an impossibility. Consciousness is a subcategory of existence, not the other way around.

Natural Order Pre-exists Human Design

Order pre-existed any awareness of the natural order. Consciousness (awareness of existence) is ontologically passive, not active. Consciousness is only one form of existence -- the form of existence which has the capacity to be aware of other forms of existence, including itself. One of the greatest fallacies of all time is the assumption that all order, especially including natural order, can come only from previously existing consciousness. But the natural order of the universe existed long before there were any humans with designing minds.

For humans, reason is the faculty of our peculiar form of consciousness that allows us to cope with the external world so we can overcome the problems of life in order to survive, prosper, and possibly achieve happiness.

Humans can use their faculty of reason to first understand the already-existing rules of reality -- and then go on to use those rules to reshape the already-existing materials of the natural universe to manufacture tables, houses, computers, and other man-made products. But, this sort of design is based on -- and would be impossible without -- the already existing laws of nature. Natural order makes human design possible.

Those who wish to argue that the Universe and its laws were magically created by a previously existing Consciousness ("Creator God") ex nihilo (out of nothing at all) sometimes claim that "order implies design" (and therefore a Designer), and that the First Engineer designed and created the Universe in a manner analogous to the way a human engineer would design and build a car or computer. The analogy quickly breaks down, however, when one realizes that the human engineer does not start with nothing, but on the contrary relies on already existing materials and natural laws as the basis for his technological manipulations; he does not create the various parts of a computer by an act of pure consciousness as God is supposed to have done with the Universe. Again, natural order does not imply or require any antecedent design or Designer to "explain" the existence of that natural order. It is the primacy of existence, the already-existing natures of things, that makes human awareness of that natural order and human design possible.

Reason and Science versus Skepticism and Faith

It can be demonstrated that the attempts by the advocates of Skepticism to attack the validity of sensory evidence and logical reasoning are untenable since they are all examples of the Stolen Concept Fallacy -- that is, in each and every case their own arguments necessarily use and implicitly acknowledge the truth of that which they seek to refute. Furthermore, Mysticism (faith, revelation, superstition, oija boards, tarot cards, etc.) is a false answer to Skepticism when it comes to being a source of human knowledge. Humans can reliably gain knowledge of reality only through careful reasoning based on the evidence provided by our sense organs. It is on the basis of an objective reality and a rational (sensory-conceptual) epistemology that a sound science of ethics can be built. But these are epistemological and ethical issues dealt with in a separate essay.