The nature of reality and of consciousness (my new metaphysics)

The problem

What is reality, at its most basic, fundamental, irreducible level? This was once one of the biggest questions of philosophy, with different schools answering that all things are made of fire, or of water, or of numbers (somehow), or of atoms, or of various combinations of these. These days many would give the answer provided by physics, that everything is made up of matter/energy, or perhaps of quantum fields. This is a good answer for physics, but it does not go quite far enough, for the simple reason that we don’t really have any concept of what these things actually are, in and of themselves. Physics has given us great explanations and equations for how one thing (waves, particles, mass, etc) interacts with another, but cannot give any information on what anything is in itself, separate from its actions upon others.

And we could not ask physics (or any other empirical science) to provide such an answer, because there is no conceivable experiment to see what a thing simply is, as opposed to how it might act. The thing as it is in itself can never be directly seen, only its effects on another. We can observe particles through their effects upon our scientific instruments, and we can observe these instruments through their effects upon our senses, but we cannot observe anything without recourse to their effects. We can ultimately only observe effects upon ourselves, but what is behind these effects cannot itself be observed.

The one noteworthy exception to this is consciousness itself, which we experience directly since it is in fact experience itself (although we might equally consider that we can never even conceivably observe consciousness, since consciousness simply is observation, and to observe consciousness/qualia would create an infinite regress).

Bertrand Russell identified this shortcoming of physics, and proposed that the “stuff” of our consciousness (often termed “qualia”) which alone we experience immediately, is the fundamental “stuff” of the physical world, underlying all of the relations studied so thoroughly by physics. Our consciousness is our direct experience of the matter in the brain, and we must suppose that matter outside the brain is of the same nature, despite us having no direct experience of it. This position is known as neutral monism, since it claims that mind and matter ultimately share one nature, which is neutral between being mental and being physical. I believe he was largely correct, but he missed something crucial.

Besides the issue that we cannot observe anything except through its effects, there is the larger issue of what it would even mean to consider a thing in itself, apart from its effects. If I told you that each electron is fundamentally 2 dimensional and square, but that this fact has absolutely no implications for the behaviour of the electron in relation to itself or to anything else, you would do well to ask in what meaningful way this is true at all. It is a statement that does not state anything. If it is meant as saying that if we were to zoom in close enough we would see little squares, or that they behave in a manner that is analogous to a square, it has some meaning, but then we are back to its effects and not the thing itself beneath all its effects. It is simply not possible to speak meaningfully of a thing apart from how it affects something.

My proposed new metaphysics, and explanation of consciousness

So then, what do I propose to be the answer? I say that we need to dispose of the idea that there is any basic nature to things, separate from their effects and relations. All that we are then left with, is the effects and relations themselves, and it is these, I’d argue, that are the fundamental, basic nature of all things. That is, each thing is its relations and nothing more, both within itself and within the wider context of the universe. The universe then, is a great network of relations forming a grand superstructure of structures of relations, with each structure made up of relations and relating to other structures of relations. There is simply no need to imagine any underlying stuff that itself makes no difference to anything.

And what of consciousness, that strange part of reality that simply is direct experience itself? Our conscious experience is the reality of structures within the brain (perhaps of neurons or neural events), which represent the things they are experiences of by having structures that are analogous to the structure of the thing represented.

A simple example is a man thinking of a triangle: within his brain there are neural pathways or events, or whatever it might be, that exist in relationships analogous to the relationships that define a triangle. But since a triangle is nothing more or less than these relationships, and these same relationships are present within the brain, the reality of the triangle truly exists within the brain, even if we cannot zoom in and see a physical representation of a triangle.

Why is an analogous relationship sufficient? Because since there is no fundamental nature underlying reality beneath the relations, all that really matters is how A interacts with B and C, and this is what defines A, B and C. But suppose we also have a, b, and c, and their interactions perfectly match those of A, B, and C. In that case, since the sets {a, b, c}, and {A, B, C} are both defined solely by their relations, the two sets work the same: each letter has the same meaning, considered within the context of their set. This sort of relationship between sets is more thoroughly described by the mathematics of group theory and particularly homomorphisms. We could also consider how we might swap each letter of the alphabet with some completely different symbol, and so encrypt a piece of text, and yet since each letter of our new alphabet is positioned relative to the other letters of the new alphabet in the same way that the letters of the old alphabet were arranged, the meaning and information of the text is preserved entirely intact, and the only issue that remains is for us to learn the new alphabet.

The “stuff” of being and the “stuff” of consciousness is one: the structures of relationships between things. In this way, the phenomena of consciousness is as explicable as the phenomena of existence in general (which is to say, we have resolved two hard problems into one, which I think is a big win!). Returning to Russell’s neutral monism, we can say that consciousness and material reality are both composed of the same “stuff”, and add that that “stuff” is structures of relations.

The other sort of “consciousness”

There is another aspect or sense of consciousness that this does not really touch upon, which is that of awareness, self-awareness, and thought. Many things have representations of other things, eg a photograph has a picture of a person, yet we wouldn’t say that it is conscious of that person. Still, I’d argue that something of the person is truly present within the photo, or else we wouldn’t say that it’s an image of the person, nor that we could see them when we look at their image, and by extension we’d have to say that we never see anything at all, since everything we see is received through the images formed upon our eyes.

Still, what to make of awareness, self-awareness, thought, intentionality, understanding, and all the rest? I think these basically concern the relationships of our representations with each other and with ourselves, and the creation of new relationships between them. There is of course a lot more to go into here, but I hope this basic answer will suffice for the moment.

That’s all I’ll say for now. I hope I’ve explained the idea well enough. Let my know any questions or objections you have, or if none of this is new and it’s all been said (and perhaps debunked) before by someone much smarter than me. I’ve been mulling this idea for some years now, and needed to share it with the world at long last.

I’m hoping to write some follow up posts going into more depth and exploring things like how this intersects with the ideas of thinkers such as Aristotle, Daniel Dennett, and Plato, and ideas like the correspondence theory of truth, the theory of evolution, “artificial intelligence”, and “qualia”. And also follow ups clarifying and expanding upon this, especially in response to any questions or objections I receive.

Let me know what you think in the comments :)



  1. I have been fascinated in the last couple of years by watching my now 3 year old grandson acquire language, both heard and spoken. Humans have been naming stuff since Adam. There is a lot of babbling for a baby before he can reliably say what he wants to say. Our 3 month old enjoys babbling, taking turns in conversation, establishing relationships with parents, grandparents, cousins, dogs. His older cousin surprised himself one day when, in the midst of babbling, out came the sound ‘row’, which I repeated back to him, singing, row, row, row your boat.

    Perhaps a theory of knowledge as divine revelation is what I would argue for, and for the realities that are unseen that Sister Johanna has been exploring this week in the Agnellus Mirror blog. But that’s theology rather than philosophy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Language is actually a really good example of the sort of thing I’m talking about. All our words and ideas exist in their relationships to one another, and are mapped out neatly in dictionaries, each word existing as a point in a network, with its meaning determined by its relationships to the other words.

      It sounds fascinating (and very cute) watching them develop language. This year I’ve been trying to learn a couple of languages, and learn to drive as well, and it’s really fascinating watching my own learning process, and how it seems the world itself transforms and becomes intelligible and filled with meaning I’d been blind to until I learned how to read it.

      Which dovetails very nicely into what you said about knowledge and revelation and Sister Johanna’s reflections on faith. Faith illuminates life because it comes from receiving a word, and the word allows reality to be understood in its light, much like how I am growing to understand the world of driving or Spanish speech because I have received the concepts to make sense of them.


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