Is Physicalism Real? Does it answer the ancient question: Who am I?
This answer is very long as it looks at these questions through three distinct lens (science, introspection and religion) to show their (perhaps surprising) agreement about ‘the nature of reality’.
TL:DR You are not who you think you are
‘Physicalism’ is the thesis that there is only one reality where ‘everything is physical’, that there is ‘nothing over and above the physical’, or that ‘everything supervenes on the physical’. It is also the belief that ‘reality can be described entirely by physics’.
That there is only one reality is certainly true.
The question is, can it be entirely described by physics?
The difficulty with this claim is that ‘physics’ simply describes the theoretical behaviour of theoretical forms (the quantum field, sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, spacetime, etc) using mathematical ideas.
It does not deal with ‘ontology’ (the nature of reality itself).
We say a theory is valid when the theoretical behaviour of the theoretical forms maps or predicts the observed behaviour of observed forms. That is all.
However, these ‘behavioral’ models say nothing about the ‘lived experience’.
So, to answer the questions, let’s take a step back and examine ‘the lived experience’, as well as the foundations of ‘understanding’ (upon which all ‘theories’ are derived)… and see where it leads.
Are you willing to take the journey with me?
First we need to recognise ‘what’ is observed from the individual perspective, including the ‘individual scientist’.
In scientific terms, it is recognized that there is no ‘little person’ inside the head looking out through the eyes. The optic nerves are opaque and all the signals go only one way (towards the visual cortex at the back of the head).
Without the need for any theory or belief, it is plain that the ‘visual image’ is formed of ‘colours’. These colours are called ‘qualia’ by scientists.
Similarly, the feelings, odours, flavours and sounds observed from the individual perspective are all qualia.
The ‘sensory images’ they produce are thus not ‘things themselves’. They are not ‘material’. They are made of the same ‘non-stuff’ that dreams are made of.
On this view, the observer and observed are one!
What you are observing right now are qualia… inseparable from the observing.
No scientist claims to know how the sensory images appear, or how they are observed, or anything about their nature. At best, they are able to correlate certain ‘brain states’ (described behaviourally) with certain reported experiences.
Of course, no description is anything like the experience. If it was, it would be possible for the blind to see based solely on the description!
This is unsurprising, as qualia can only be observed from the perspective of the subject, they cannot be independently measured. Hence they are beyond the realm of science.
Which brings us to the nature of ‘understanding’.
All theories about reality are based on concepts, which are a composite of ‘number’, ‘form’ and ‘meaning’.
In fact, every ‘thing’, ‘event’ or ‘relation’ known is some combination of some measures of ‘quantity’ (number), its ‘shape’ (form), and ‘what’ it is (its meaning).
These (number, form and meaning) are encompassed by the over-arching term: ‘ideas’.
Notice ideas are not properties of any observed ‘object’ or ‘word’. Which is to say, they cannot be derived empirically (from observation).
Take the number 4. This symbol ‘4’ is not the number-Known. Nor this ‘four’, nor this ‘12–8’, nor this ‘****’, nor this ‘quatre’… nor any ‘representation’.
It is the number-Known that gives the representation its ‘meaning’.
What is true of ‘number’ is also true of all ‘form’.
Take the cube. This form is Known to have six sides at right angles that are all the same that never change.
Notice any observed cube shows only 1–3 sides that constantly change size and shape depending on the apparent viewing angle and distance, distorted by ‘perspective’ (so the edges apparently converge to a ‘vanishing point’).
That is, the observed shape is a 2D projection of the 3D cube seen from a specific viewpoint.
Notice the ‘observed form’ appears to be a ‘cube’ only as the idea of ‘cube’ is associated it. This can include a 2D wire frame, or a 2D projection in VR.
The same with ‘meaning’.
If meaning was a ‘property of the object’, it would be impossible to mistake one thing for another, or to not know ‘what’ a thing is upon first observing it.
It would also be impossible for one word to have many meanings, or for different words to have the same meaning, or for words to have no meaning at all (as when viewed from the perspective of an illiterate person) if the word itself was the meaning.
Can you imagine an idea ‘being’ that is not Known?
Conversely, can you imagine the capacity to Know without the existence of ideas?
Plainly, Knowing-ideas (number, form and meaning) is an inseparable whole.
Plainly too, Knowing-ideas is a facet of Consciousness.
Notice, Knowing-ideas itself has no form, no odour, no flavour. Notice you cannot see, or hear, or feel it. You cannot even conceive ‘what’ it is.
Objectively, it appears as if it is not.
Subjectively, it requires no theory or belief. It is self-evident, beyond doubt ‘that’ it is.
Notice no idea can ever change, for if it did, it would be a different idea and not the idea it is!
Notice too that every idea is defined by and defines other ideas that together form the set of all possible number, form and meaning.
Try to understand a single ‘thing’ in the absence of the ideas that define it, which other ideas also take their meaning from still more ideas.
This unchanging Knowing-all-ideas is called Omniscience by all the great religions.
Plainly, Consciousness is Omniscient as it is impossible for any idea to change or exist by itself.
It is just as plain that, though ‘Awareness’ is an attribute of Consciousness, there is no Awareness of Knowing anything until it is imaged either as a word or object:
Until these words appeared was there any Awareness of Knowing or not-Knowing the ideas represented by the words?
From this it is clear that Awareness has no ‘memory’. It is Aware only of the images and ideas appearing ‘now’, and ‘now’, and ‘now’…
As for the person you seem to be (the ‘human’ reading these words)…
See if you can find that person.
Perhaps you believe the source of Consciousness is inside a brain inside a head connected to a body that is living in the world.
But is that true?
To find out, let’s do what scientists do and put the claim to the test:
The two strongest indicators that something exists are if you can Feel it, and if you can See it. So…
Place one hand on the front of the head and one over the back, so the whole head is apparently enclosed by the hands.
After reading what to do, close the eyes and notice the feeling.
Notice the feeling is just a ‘feeling’.
Notice there is the idea attached to the feeling that it is ‘my hands holding my head’.
But notice, neither the ‘feeling’ nor the ‘idea’ is an actual head.
Can you imagine a feeling ‘being’ that is not Felt?
Plainly, Feeling-feelings is an inseparable whole.
Plainly, Feeling-feelings is an attribute of Consciousness.
Plainly, whatever feeling arises, and whatever meaning is attached to the feeling, both the feeling and the idea appear in and to Consciousness, not separate from Consciousness.
Similarly with all other sensations: colours, odours, flavours and sounds.
Again, the ‘sensations’ being spoken of are not the ‘theoretical things’ of physics. They are the qualia of direct experience.
Can you imagine any sensation (qualia) ‘being’ that is not Sensed?
Take a ‘colour’, for example. To imagine what a ‘colour’ would ‘be’ without the capacity to See, simply imagine what your elbow Sees!
Both science and introspection attest the truth that Seeing-colours is an inseparable whole.
Plainly, Seeing-colours is an attribute of Consciousness.
So far, it is plain that everything now Seen and Felt and Heard and Tasted and Smelled and Known is arising in and to Consciousness as a combination of sensations (colours, flavours, feelings, odours and sounds) and ideas (number, form and meaning).
Plainly Reality is One…
But we’ve not found any head.
So let’s keep looking.
Stand and look straight ahead.
Notice the visual field appears like a circle with an indefinite edge.
Without ‘turning the head or eyes’, notice that ‘beyond the edge’ is neither ‘black’ nor ‘white’… simply ‘nothing’.
Notice too no body is apparent.
Now look down.
Notice that only the front of the torso and limbs are apparent.
Notice they appear to be ‘distorted’ by perspective, so the hands appear as large as, or larger than the feet.
Now bring a foot close to a hand.
Notice the foot appears much larger.
A thing that is smaller than another thing cannot actually be larger than it… it can only appear so. A thing appearing to be other than it is, is called an illusion.
Notice there are many other illusions apparent in the visual field.
For example, standing in a long straight road, the edges of the road appear to converge toward the apparent horizon, though they are Known to be parallel. Again, a thing that converges cannot be a thing that is parallel. It can only appear so as the ‘idea of parallel’ is associated with the converging image. Such appearance can only be an illusion (an ‘optical illusion’).
Notice there are no ‘gaps’ in the visual field, so that as one ‘thing’ is ‘illusory’ so are all ‘things’.
Now notice, there is no ‘head’ apparent.
Where the head should be, the whole world appears. Or at least that bit perceivable from the perspective of the person you seem to be :)
This visual field is called the ‘Eye of God’. It is the Eye of Consciousness… the only eye there is.
Far from Consciousness being in any brain, head and body, it is self-evident that every ‘body, head and brain’ (and everything else) is a momentary image (formed of sensations, given meaning by the ideas associated with the images) apparent in and to Awareness that is One with Consciousness.
This is not to deny ‘physics’. It plainly describes the ‘theoretical behaviour of theoretical fundamental forms’ that map or predict the observed behaviour of certain observed forms… apparent in and to Consciousness.
It is self-evident however, that what physics describes is only a tiny part of the unimaginable depth and breadth of the number, form and meaning that is experienced from perspective of every creature in the apparent universe from start to finish.
That is, physics says nothing at all about the ‘lived experience’: the cry of a child for its mother, the horror of battle, eating a meal with colleagues, listening to a sublime symphony at the Met, or an amateur drummer busking in a mall… or any other ‘experience’. All, and any of which (and all else), are only apparent in and to Consciousness.
But even this unimaginably vast mindscape is but an infinitesimal fraction of reality.
The full extent of ‘ideas-Known’ is truly incomprehensible in its entirety. It extends to all possible worlds governed by all possible ‘laws’, as well as all worlds governed by no laws at all (such as fantasy and dream worlds) on all scales and including every possible form in every possible relation.
There is no end to the possibilities that may be experienced from an infinite range of ‘perspectives’ (life experiences).
The idea of a ‘multi-verse’ does not even come close to reality!
Clearly, science and introspection both point to a reality founded upon ‘non-dual Consciousness’, wherein the observer and observed are one.
But what about religion?
Again, it may surprise, all the world’s principal religious texts make this non-dual reality plain.
The Scriptures range from the Jewish Talmud and Christian Bible to Hindu works such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas and Upanishads, through the writings of Greek philosophers, including Plato, as well as the Quran of Islam, and other writings concerning Buddhist philosophies based upon the teachings of Gautama (Buddha).
Read from the perspective of a human being, scripture can appear contradictory, capricious and even terrifying.
Read from the perspective of Consciousness, the message is plain.
The following quotations are not quoted as ‘authority’, but to show that the words reference an apparent reality no different to that revealed by science and introspection.
In ‘The Awakening of Faith‘, a treatise on the Buddhist doctrines touching on Reality. It states as follows:
The Nature of the Absolute: It is neither that which had an origin some time, nor that which will end at some time; it is really eternal. In its nature it is always full of all possibilities, and is described as of great light and wisdom, giving light to all things, it is real and knowing. Its true nature is that of a pure mind, eternally joyful, the true being of all things, pure, quiet, unchanged, free, divine, unending, unchanging and unspeakable.
The True Reality is originally only One.
Of Phenomena: All phenomena are originally in the mind and have no outward form — that is no external reality. All differences are differences of the mind. But the mind cannot see itself, for it has no form. We should know that all phenomena are created by the ‘imperfect’ notions in the finite mind; therefore all existence is like a reflection in a mirror, without substance, only a phantom of the mind. When the finite mind acts, then all kinds of things arise; when the finite mind ceases to act, then all kinds of things cease.
The Scripture also says: As to the defilement’s of the world, they are all false; they have no reality behind them. Finally to leave false concepts behind, one should know that purity and defilement are both relative terms, and have no independent existence.
Of space: Men are to understand that space is nothing. It has no existence and is not reality. We only say ‘this’ or ‘that’ (i.e. an ‘object’, as opposed to simply colours) is visible in order that we might distinguish between things’.
In Islam, the Qur’an states:
Surah VII 200 and XLII 11 He is Hearer, Knower. He is the Hearer, the Seer
Surah VI 104 Vision comprehendeth Him not, but He comprehendeth all vision
In Hindu Scriptures:
Brihad-Aranyaka Upanishad III vii 23 He is the unseen Seer, the unheard Hearer, the unthought Thinker,. Other than He there is no hearer. Other than He there is no thinker. Other than He there is no comprehensor. He is your Self, the inner Controller, the Immortal
Although Consciousness is referred to as the ‘Self’ of every creature, it is plain there is no independent ‘self’; for there is no independent creature… there is only Consciousness… ‘the uncomprehended Comprehensor’, with every creature an appearance in it.
Christian scripture states that God is the Living One, that God is Spirit.
These may be read as old fashioned words for Consciousness… what else but Consciousness is truly Living: Seeing-colours, Hearing-sounds, Feeling-feelings, Tasting-flavours, Smelling-odours and Knowing-ideas (number form and meaning)?
Christ is said to be the visible likeness of the Invisible God, in whom and through whom all things appear. Christ is essentially the Witness to all that God does, inseparable from God.
To See-colours Hear-sounds Feel-feelings Taste-flavours Smell-odours and Know-ideas is to be Aware. What else but Awareness can witness?
Plainly, the Witness/Awareness (Christ) is One with Consciousness (God).
It is also said that the Holy Ghost is the teacher of human beings. Who else can teach but One who Knows-ideas? It is also said that the Holy Ghost (this unseen/ghostly Omniscient Knowing-all-ideas) is One with God (Consciousness).
Of course, this may seem a heterodox interpretation of the Scripture.
So let’s see what the Scripture says, recognising that the use of the male pronoun is simply convention.
As the Scripture makes plain, God is neither male nor female:
Revelation 1 18 I am the living one!
Romans 3 30 God is One
Colossians 1 15–17 … the invisible God.
I John 4 12 No one has ever seen God.
I Timothy 6 15 No one can ever see him.
Plainly, this is not a description of an ‘old man in the sky’ :)
Colossians 1 15–17 Christ (Awareness) is the visible likeness of the invisible God (Consciousness). He is the first born Son, superior to all created beings. For through him God created everything in heaven and on earth, the seen and the unseen… God created the whole universe through him and for him. Christ (Awareness) existed before all things and in union with him all things have their proper place
John 5 19 The Son (Awareness) can do nothing on his own; he only does what he sees his Father (Consciousness) doing… For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing.
About the apparent world:
Romans 1 20 Ever since God (Consciousness) created the world, his invisible qualities both his eternal power and his divine nature have been clearly seen; they are perceived in the things that God has made.
Hebrews 11 3 What can be seen (creation) was made out of what cannot be seen (God/Consciousness).
2 Corinthians 4 18 What can be seen (creation) lasts only for a time, but what cannot be seen (God/Consciousness) lasts forever.
About ‘human beings’:
Acts 17 28 In Him (God/Consciousness) we (human beings) live and move and exist.
Romans 11 36 … all things were created by Him (Consciousness) and all things exist through Him and for Him.
I Peter 1 24 As the Scripture says, All mankind are like the grass, and all their glory is like wild flowers. The grass withers and the flowers fall. (Isaiah 40 6)
Psalm 78 39 (God) remembered that they (mankind) were only mortal beings, like a wind that blows by and is gone.
Isaiah 40 15 To the Lord the nations are nothing, no more than a drop of water.
Isaiah 40 17 The nations are nothing at all to him.
Daniel 4 35 (God) looks on the people of the earth as nothing.
Psalm 39 5–6 Indeed every living man is no more than a puff of wind, no more than a shadow. All he does is for nothing.
Ecclesiastes 9 2 The same fate comes to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the bad, to those who are religious and those who are not.
Ecclesiastes 9 3 One fate comes to all alike.
Psalm 49 10 Anyone can see that even wise men die.
Psalm 49 12 20 A man’s greatness cannot save him from death; he will still die like the animals.
Ecclesiastes 3 19 The same fate awaits man and animal alike. One dies just like the other. They are both the same kind of creature.
Daniel 5 23 God who determines whether you live or die and who controls everything you do.
Ecclesiastes 6 10 Everything that happens was already determined long ago.
Isaiah 41 4 Who has determined the course of history? I, the Lord was there at the beginning and I, the Lord, will be there at the end.
Isaiah 22 11 God, who planned all this long ago and who caused it to happen.
Lamentations 3 37 The will of the Lord is always carried out. Good and evil alike take place at his command. Why should we ever complain when we are punished for our sin.
Not much ‘free-will’ going on. More like the insubstantial characters programmed into VR :)
As for ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it is impossible to have one without the other, for they are mutually defined.
Though it often appears horrifying and cruel from the human perspective, this apparent world is perfect ‘as it is’ from the perspective of Consciousness. For it contains every possible duality that makes ‘life’ worth living: ‘heroes and villains’, ‘love and hate’, ‘freedom and constraint’, ‘joy and suffering’, and so much more.
Of course, no human suffers.
Job 34 13 Almighty God does not do evil; he is never unjust to anyone.
For, in reality, there are no ‘others’ to suffer. It is Christ alone (Awareness) who suffers for the ‘sins’ of humanity.
But notice. In the moment it is gone, ‘pain and suffering’ is as if it never was!
It is significant too that Christ had to experience (apparent death), in order that mankind should live.
Without the death of one (apparent) person, it would be impossible to experience ‘life’ from the viewpoint of any other person… locking One into a single apparent life for all eternity! Who would want that?
About the ‘person’ One appears to be:
John 14 20 When (the) day comes you will know that I (Christ/Awareness) am in my Father (Consciousness) and that you (Mankind) are in me, just as I am in you.
I Corinthians 3 21–22 Actually everything belongs to you: Paul, Apollos, and Peter; this world, life and death, the present and the future — all these are yours, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Colossians 1 27 Christ is in you
John 1 18 The only Son, who is the same as God.
John 10 38 The Father is in me and I am in the Father.
Romans 3 30 God is One
Galatians 6 3 If someone thinks he is somebody when really he is nobody, he is only deceiving himself.
Deuteronomy 32 39 I, and I alone, am God (Consciousness). No other god (consciousness) is real.
Plainly, science, introspection and religion all concur: the apparent world is a world of illusion.
The basis of this illusion, and the Awareness in which and to which it appears, is One.
This is Thou :)
In remembering this truth… you are already on the path.
There are many paths that a seeker may follow:
• Revelation (Scientific and Spiritual)
• Full Engagement in the World…
Or any combination.
All lead to here and now: the realisation that there is neither seeker, nor anything lost, that it may be found.
This is the Good News:
Consciousness (God/Brahman/Self/No-Self/Reality) is indeed One.
It is this Inseparable Unchanging:
Inconceivable Knowing-ideas (number, form and meaning)
With Power to instantly manifest fleeting ever-changing sensory images (colours flavours feelings odours and sounds)…
Within and to its own Awareness, in accord with specific ideas, to create the appearance of ‘experiencing life from the perspective of a specific creature’, as if ‘looking out their eyes’, perceiving the sensory images as ‘my body’ and ‘my thoughts’ and ‘my feelings’ and ‘my surroundings’… as in a dream.
And nothing ever changes. Nothing is really born and nothing really dies.
Life is truly eternal… and it contains every duality: ‘good’ and ‘bad’.
Any meaning attached to these words is not it.
Instead, these words are like a signpost to a waterfall. Reading the sign tells nothing of the reality.
Only by looking to where the sign points is the reality made plain.
Where these words point is back out of this ‘page’ towards the open space that Sees these words (and all else) and back towards the appearances that are one with it.
Self to no-Self… or vice versa :)