[LUCID LIVING #10] The Nature of Reality: Matter, Experience, Appearance, Presence
By Piet Hut
A few days ago I gave a short talk, followed by a much longer discussion, in the Consciousness Club series at YHouse. The topic was the nature of reality, with the full title Matter, Experience, and Reality. Actually, I wound up talking about two more aspects of reality that we consciously partake in: what I like to call appearance and presence.
It is so interesting that we have an enormously precise vocabulary to describe the structure and the many processes of our body, from the molecular level to that of cells and tissues and organs, to the way our body functions as a whole -- yet we tend to be far less aware of the layout and functioning of our minds.
Thinking a thought, feeling an emotion, being caught by a sudden memory popping up, our everyday life plays out within the conscious experiences that we encounter in our mind; it is all that we have. All that we see and hear and encounter and reflect on, it plays out in our mind, a vague summary term that is far less well defined than our body. Given that our mind is like a telescope without which we could not observe reality, it is not a bad idea to give some thought to what is presenting all of our thoughts.
Let us try to start from scratch. We find ourselves in a world structured by matter and energy in space and time, and in that world each of us inhabits a body, one among many. At least, that is how we interpret our experiences. But when we analyze our conviction of the reality of the material world, we find that it is all based on experiences, nothing else, nothing more real than that.
When we touch wood, we are convinced that we are touching a real piece of wood, a material object, something others can touch as well. But the feeling of touch, the thoughts we think while analyzing, and also the firm conviction that matter is real, all those are experiences. Seeing someone else touch the same piece of wood, hearing that person agree that it is wood, all those are experiences too: the seeing and hearing, as well as the drawing of the conclusion: "you see, it must be really real". There is no way to get out of the bubble of experience, which seems more restrictive even than a bubble, because it has no outside to escape into.
And yes, any reactions you may experience to what I just wrote, those too are experiences. Philosophers have written many books about what it may mean that our experiences can still point to something real over and beyond experience. But let us try to think for ourselves, without opening any of those books. And let us suspend judgment about whether our world exists, and if so, in what way, as a material reality and/or as something else.
Instead, let us see if we can go further. Starting with the conviction that we live in a world of matter in space and time, we reach the conclusion that in fact the only thing we directly experience is a world of experience, in which matter and space and time appear as experiences. Given that this first step, from matter to experience, is easy to make, once you know what to look for, can we make a subsequent step?
In other words, even though we feel so sure that we live in a world of matter, still, it is possible to check and see that actually we find ourselves to live inside a world given in experience, which we interpret as a world of matter, setting aside for now the question of whether the interpretation is correct. Is that the endpoint, or can we check again and find something even closer to what is directly given, even closer than experience?
We can. At any given moment, our experience appears. Within that field of appearance, our own body appears, other bodies and things appear, memories, hopes, fears, thoughts and emotions, anything that we can experience appears. It first of all appears, and then we immediately label it as our experience. Even the sense of self and other appears. In fact, new-born babies have to learn to distinguish between self and other. So this is an indication that appearance comes first, and that after some training we can assign all that appears as our experience, something that we decide we are the proud owner of, as a subject.
It is remarkable that in ordinary language we talk about "my experience". When we look carefully, what comes first is appearance, which we then appropriate for our own purposes by calling it experience. But notice that the sense of me and mine appear within appearance. There is the appearance of a double sense of meaning of all appearances: that they are all experiences, and that they are all mine. However, this double move is a form of colonizing appearance, a questionable move, as has been pointed out by a number of philosophers, mostly Asian.
So here we are: each moment, there is a field of appearance, which includes, and is made up by, all that appears. Very simple. Nothing deeply philosophical about it, and something you can verify for yourself. In fact, in order to follow this train of thought, it is essential to feel it, not just to argue or speculate or think about what it could be. Right here and now you can look around and sense the presence of a field of appearance that is immediately given.
Based on what is given, we have learned to label it experience, more precisely, my experience. And then within experience, we label some part of it matter, out of which we construct something we call objective reality -- which is twice removed from the original field of appearance. Can we go further? Well, let's see. Could there be anything on which appearance is based, something that is in turn more fundamental, in some sense, than appearance?
The most immediately direct, in-your-face, aspect of appearance is the sense of presence of appearance. We always think and talk about the past and the future, but it is only in the present, in the now, that we feel this unique and very special sense of presence. There is no room reserved for this in current day physics. The physics model of linear past-present-future time does not single out any particular lived now as special. Physics offers us a map without a "you are here!" on it.
When we start with appearance, what can we say about what appears? Pretty much the only thing is "appearance appears"; anything else we can say about ourselves and others, and about our experience, are latecomer elements that we have learned to construct and label within our field of appearance. But there is one more thing we can appreciate about appearance, namely the presence of appearance.
In this sense, presence is what offers appearance, which we can then interpret as our present experience, which we then read as giving proof to the presence of matter in space and time.
To let this sink in, as an actually sensed conclusion, it would be fun to spend a fun minutes to relax, sit still, or walk around if you prefer, and tell yourself: "appreciate the presence of appearance", without immediately buying into your habitual belief of appearance presenting something more fundamental than itself, namely experience, let alone a world out there, more fundamental than experience.
When you do this, notice what you have left behind, or better, what you have refused to buy into, at each step. Not that you denied anything: it is not a matter of belief or disbelief; it is only a matter of suspending judgment -- refusing to believe or disbelieve, since either move would be premature. T.S. Eliot, in East Coker writes:
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
It is in this spirit that we can tell our soul: be still, and wait without believing, for belief would be belief in the wrong thing, a belief or disbelief in a not yet well understood cartoon version of the real thing, given that we are underway, and haven't found anything approaching any final truth.
So what did you leave behind at each step? In the first step, the firm and unquestioned belief in the existence of matter. In the second step, the firm and unquestioned sense of self as the ruler in the center of the world of experience. And in the third step, a firm and unquestioned belief in the reality of a linear past-present-future time, stringing your experiences together like beads on a string.
After the third step, we are left with a deeply felt sense of presence, a living and fully alive sense that presents the field of appearance. And in that field there is the appearance of the flow of time. However, no matter where we look, we cannot directly convince ourself that the flow of time is real. We can consult our memories, but any memory we have is a present memory, allegedly referring to a past time. The presence of any memory is located in the present, in the presence of appearance, not in any hypothetical past or present.
In a direct sense, phenomenologically speaking, presence presents a timeless and self-less field of appearance, in which there is the option to label some appearances as self and other, and subsequently label some of those as material objects located within a stage of space and time.
We can conclude that our brief journey, something you can do in just a few minutes by yourself, from matter to experience to appearance to presence, allows you to temporarily call into question both self and time, both your own existence and a time in which to exist. All you are left with is presence.
And notice that nothing is lost after making those moves: there is still the sense of an embodied self, moving around in a world of objects, just like before. Like becoming lucid while dreaming, or looking up from a novel you were engrossed in, the stories are still there; only your identification with the story has been temporarily weakened.
It is my sense that something like this underlies most forms of deep contemplation. And I see no reason that science, when continuing its so-far four centuries long adventure, could not stumble upon a similar set of steps as we have explored here, during the next few centuries. Explorations of what all this may mean, and how we can investigate it, are one of our core concerns in our research programs at YHouse, together with more conventional inquiries into the origins and nature of nature, culture, and technology.
Piet Hut is President of YHouse, Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and one of the founders of YHouse.