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Book: Philosophy of Life Instinct: Chapter 2: What if it all Just Is?

by Shashidhar Sastry 9 months ago in humanity
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Existence, knowledge and causation

(I made it as simple and concise as I could, but if you find this chapter and the next one a bit difficult, please persevere and skim through them if you can, although you may skip them too and still gain from the rest of the book. I promise you everything from chapter 4 is practical and easy reading.)

We can learn most branches of philosophy academically, but it is only through personal and private seeking that we approach the border between our mind and what lies beyond. No one but oneself can attempt to see the transcendent from within the immanent body.

By its very definition, what lies beyond our direct experience, i.e. the subject of metaphysics, should be unknowable. But that does not stop us from wondering and theorizing about it and pushing the envelope of science to penetrate the veil. We may very well be expanding a bubble in an ocean, but this drive is ingrained in us, and we obey it.

This chapter will consider three key questions of ultimate knowledge and build our provisional stance for the Philosophy of Life Instinct through each area.

We need simple and clear terms to explore this topic. Let us use these--existence, entities, matter, illusion, universals.

  1. Existence - What is; brought to our attention by our experience but can be beyond it; and independent of it. Something is, material or illusory, else I wouldn't be writing this, and you wouldn't be reading it.
  2. Entities - The discrete and persistent items that comprise existence.
  3. Universals - The concepts that distinguish and describe the entities' properties, relationships, and events. (This essentially corresponds to a language, comprising nouns, verbs, prepositions, adjectives, grammar, and so on.)
  4. Matter - A possible form of the entities that exist independently of a type of entity called 'life'.
  5. Illusion - A possible form of the entities that exist due to a type of entity called 'life'.

Here is a pictorial.

That's it. We should be able to do a lot with these five words, you'll see.

For this chapter's practical outcome, we will adopt the principle - 'in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we shall assume the alternative most aligned to our instincts and intuition'. One could call it a modified form of Occam's Razor, as it tends towards the most life-affirming possibility. We can call it Life's Razor.

1. What Exists?

Matter or illusion

Why is there a universe? And in it why is there any order and not complete chaos? Why is there what we call matter? Why are there gravity and the other three forces we have discerned? And what about change and time? Why is everything not just static?

These questions are probably not unique to our minds. In a different universe with different yet curious beings, they would perhaps ponder the same problems and encounter the same difficulties.

Philosophers are broadly divided between those who believe that matter exists (materialists) and those who hold that as there can be no independent evidence for it, the entire universe and our experience of it must be illusory, like a rich dream (idealists).

The philosopher Rene Descartes wanted to begin with something beyond doubt, to construct an entire philosophical model based on something incontrovertible. He came up with this starting point - 'I think; therefore, I am'. If we assume matter does exist, he was on point. But if one is of the school that believes existence is only an illusion, he was really saying 'I think; therefore, I think I am'.

If the universe is an illusion of our minds, it should last only as long as we continue to dream. But if we ever wake up to 'reality' (a material world), how will we know it is not another dream? Alternatively, if we die at the moment our dream ends, will it end the illusory universe? One may argue that other life forms and their minds could keep the illusion going and the universe in existence even if we die out, and as long as there is any sentient being, existence will be there. But it would be others' universes and not ours.

Meanwhile, modern science has made powerful arguments favoring materialism by providing much evidence that the universe is greatly older than humans, indeed older than all life we know. Simultaneously, despite valiant attempts, other 'dreaming' minds have not been found elsewhere, unless we take them to be the non-human life forms on our own planet. Further, we don't know of even the tiniest external entity that disappears when a living being dies with its illusions. It would therefore be hard to surmise from within science that the cosmos exists only in our minds.

For our purposes, we will take it that matter exists, independently of living entities.

Universals - properties, relationships, and events

If you think about it, we cannot interact with the sensory world or make sense of it mentally if we do not have constructs such as - shapes, locations, density, movement, above/below, ahead/behind, numbers, addition, relationships, sets, geometry, logic and such. We can term these as universal constructs or Universals that are not entities but need to 'exist' for discrete entities to exist, material, or illusory.

How uniform and widespread are these Universals? Whether existence is material or an illusion, for it to persist in any discrete and stable (although changing) form, its Universals would have to be more or less present and consistent through its extents.

We can think of two types of Universals-- those belonging to entities themselves - Entity Universals, and those belonging to living entities - Living Entity Universals. The latter is not a subset of the former. We will look into them further in section 2 below.

Universals are a very useful construct in our metaphysics, so please imbibe and keep it in mind as we will use it several times in this chapter.

Living beings as a subset of existence, with particular Universals

All living things, known and unknown, including humans, are a particular form of cosmic entities. They will be defined in one of the upcoming chapters of the book, in Part II.

However, here we will note that they possess different, specific, and inherent universals that enable their survival in the world they inhabit. Some of their Universal features are -they sense data from entities, create models, apply logic, evaluate probability, etc.

Living beings appear to be products of the universe. In that sense, as we have argued above, the universe they inhabit has existed before them. Science has provided evidence for these pre-life entities such as gases, nebulae, stars, galaxies, and planets. We can safely assume that Entity Universals do not depend on sensing minds and their Living Entity Universals.

For our purposes, we will take it that matter exists, independently of living entities, and has universal characteristics.


Believers in either material or illusory entities would agree that there would be no sense of their being without their continuity and consistency in time. Persistence is existence. Existence is persistence.

Material or illusory, the being of recognizable entities, whether stars or red rubber balls, is intimately tied up with the continuity of their Universal properties, relationships, and events. These Universals may be subjective in their sensation for us, but their objective existence is essential to entities' existence. Without their continuity, there could be no discrete, persisting entities or movement and interaction in space and time.

Still, how do we know it is the same red rubber ball from one moment to the next? What if another one replaced it that produced the same sensations in us? Are we ourselves continuously existing as one thing or changing every moment and being replaced with another?

Even if we assume that we persist, or that our dreaming self does, how do we know that the external entities we experience continue existing when we are not watching them? If there is a cat in a room with us and we leave the room, is the cat still there? When we come back and see the cat, does it just reappear, having vanished along with our exit? Is this a silly question, dear reader? Sure, but this is philosophy. Trust me, stick with it, it will pay off. If nothing else, it will make you feel smart.

The 'cat in the room' question has troubled philosophers for a long. However, science once again tries to help us here. By putting a camera in the room, which is obviously not a human eye and brain, we can record the cat's continued existence while there is no conscious being to experience its presence. We could even record it getting thin and dying if we left it long enough. Does this prove that the cat is material? No, for it could still be part of the all-encompassing human illusion, camera and all. Does it show us that entities persist independent of experiencing minds? Yes. (Unless we are wilfully difficult and say that the cat in the recording is only an image and does not prove it is the same as 'our' cat and therefore does not prove its persistence. Let us not be wilfully difficult.)

Science too shows us the existence of gases, stars, galaxies, viruses, and so on, invisible to humans directly. Does a star invisible to the eye come into instant existence when I see it through a telescope, in a photograph or computer display, and blink out of existence when I look away? How can it restore its previous universal features, relationships, and the changes I expect, every time it is recreated? How can a non-persistent entity be so much in tune with the sensing object, myself, if I am not something special? And how can it pull this off for multiple minds, say mine and a dog's, who undoubtedly see the same object differently, at the same instant we both see it? It is all so improbable that we must discard the idea of non-persistence.

In general, we will conclude that while the materiality and illusion of entities cannot be distinguished, their integral persistence is certain, along with the applicable Universals, within either system. The cat is still in the room.

For our purposes, we will take it that matter exists, independently of living entities, has universal characteristics, and persists.


2. Why, what and how do we know?


What is knowing? Is it only the minds of living things that really 'know'? Is consciousness required for knowing? Does a bacterium 'know' the danger of the approaching white blood cell?

Does the Moon 'know' the Earth's gravity? Do colliding stars 'know' they are colliding?

If defined as information about the existence, features, relationships, and behavior of external entities, knowledge is not an intrinsic Entity Universal as defined by us earlier in this chapter. The cosmos does not need Knowledge to exist. The material entities of the cosmos, including us, may have inherent characteristics, relationships, and undergo events, but they need not know anything about them. In a sense, they are passive subjects of existence, whether material or illusory.

Knowledge is a humanly defined term, and for the sake of this book, we will limit it to the domain of what we call living things. Let us assume that the term applies to any living thing, however self-aware, conscious, or sentient it may or may not be. So, the bacterium can seek and acquire knowledge, just as a human can.

The knowledge we seek is about all aspects of the entities that concern us directly or indirectly. We want to know if they are near or far, big or small, hot or cold, acidic or basic, hard or soft, stationary or moving, alone or in a group, known or unknown, changed or not, and a thousand other things that are relevant to us. These are properties associated with the entities 'out there', that we have the ability to detect

The limits of our knowledge

There are at least two limits to our knowing perfectly- distortion and incompleteness. Both come from our nature and needs, which are particular and bounded.

Other life forms may know entities and universals we don't. Their knowledge may be different; or more in some areas. This applies even to the less intelligent life forms on Earth, not only life forms more advanced than us.

We cannot know the knowledge we do not seek. We can't know anything we cannot conceive of and wonder about. We don't even know if we need to know it. If it becomes relevant to us, we will undoubtedly start seeking knowledge about it. Until then, it remains outside the sphere of our existence, survival, and interest. Here we are not talking about ideas we can imagine. For example, - there could be more than three spatial dimensions. The moment we have thought of this, it has come into the realms of our minds and is subject to our curiosity and investigation. Instead, we are talking about things we have not imagined at all, whether as entities or universals, because we just can't.


The primary reason we seek knowledge is that we observe that knowledge is invariably aligned with preserving life. A star that is about to collide with another and get annihilated does not try to get away by gathering early warning. But a tree does need knowledge of gravity to drop its apple on the ground so it will be eaten and the seeds spread. How it acquires this knowledge is a whole other question, so let us look into that.


A newborn's mind is not really a tabula rasa (clean slate) as asserted by some philosophers.

We are born with the ability to convert sensory data carrying information about the universal properties, relationships, and events of external entities into corresponding constructs and attributes in the mind. We are also born with innate capabilities to analyze the mental constructs and deliver knowledge of different sorts.

These capabilities not accidental. The mind has developed in step with the external world. Its capabilities are just what the living being needs.

The mind applies these capabilities to acquire information and make useful sense of it.

The knowledge is about external entities, material or illusory, that have Universal properties, relationships, and events that need to be consistent, persistent, and uniform in time and space. The entities' Universals can be subject to change, i.e. the entities can undergo events while they exist in their original type and individual instance. If the event destroys them beyond recognition, the entity no longer exists.

So, knowledge requires both - external entities with Universals that provide sensory data, and the inherent capabilities of the living mind.

(We will assume here that the 'knowledge' of a computer or automaton is not of interest for us in the context of this book and the Philosophy of Life Instinct.)

Some Entity Universals - position, size, density, radiation, velocity, nearness to other entities, changes.

Some Living Entity Universals - knowledge, imagination, separation, categorization, association, memory, enumeration, collection, logic, prediction.

Science has helped us to discover and define more of both - Entity Universals and Living Entity Universals.

The process of acquiring knowledge

Empiricists are a school of philosophers (Berkeley, Hume, et al.) who maintained that all knowledge is acquired through sensory experience, and nothing is there in our minds before experience.

Rationalists as a school (Descartes, Spinoza, et al.) believed that humans (and other living beings) possessed the ability and reason to grasp nature's inherent truths directly and acquire knowledge intellectually, largely or wholly independently of sense experience.

Immanuel Kant unified the two schools with his contention that knowledge is acquired as a combination of sensory experience and rational thought.

My thinking on how we acquire knowledge is very similar to the latter. A summary is below. It should agree more or less with the Kantian model. Not that the correspondence is important. For this is my book, my model, and my reader.

  1. How we acquire knowledge is a three-step process in our minds:
  2. Acquire sense data about the universals associated with entities.
  3. Apply our inbuilt capabilities to recognize and model entities with their Universal properties, relationships, and events (changes).

Apply our inbuilt capabilities of separation, classification, association, recall, relation, enumeration, and logic to predict the most probable conclusion.


Scene: Cave. Two logs of wood, one alight on fire. I am a caveman standing next to them. The weather is freezing, and I am not warm enough. The knowledge I need is on how to get warmer.

Here is what happens, as per the preceding steps.

  1. My eyes, ears, and skin receive sensory data carrying the Universals.
  2. My brain creates a copy of the objects in the scene with information about the log sizes, positions, extent to which the first log is burnt, how cold I am feeling, etc.
  3. My brain uses its memory of earlier fireplaces, associates wood with the ability to be set on fire and provide heat, that two logs are present, that logically two can be burning simultaneously, that it will probably make me warmer, logically.

Of course, the action I take is a different matter. We are concerned here is the acquisition of useful, actionable knowledge, for immediate or later use.

The picture below represents the above process.

A similar illustration can be provided for a bacterial cell releasing molecules to avoid destruction by a white blood cell. It is left to the reader to imagine the sequence, all the way from the entity, i.e. the white blood cell, into the rudimentary 'mind' of the bacterium.

Extending our capability for knowledge through science

And we have gone beyond the limitations of the human body in both areas--Entity Universals and Human Universals. We can directly experience and know a lot through our senses and minds, and we are designed for it. But we have not rested content with our bodily powers. To expand our knowledge, we have developed science. It has multiplied the inbuilt capabilities of our sense organs and brains, by allowing us to see into the farthest reaches of the cosmos and down to the tiniest particles of matter, detecting the radiation from every object in all wavelengths, astronomical accuracy, fundamental forces of nature, waves and particles, advanced mathematics, computers more powerful than brains to analyze associations, patterns and predictions, and a lot more.

For our purposes, we will take it that matter exists, independently of living entities, has universal characteristics, persists, and living entities innately combine sense-data and universals to gain knowledge.


3. Causation

Causation of matter or illusions

Where does all matter come from, if it is not illusory? For that matter, even if it is an illusion, what gave rise to this elaborate phantasm, this maya? Believers in God readily answer this question. However, the atheistic philosopher does not blithely dismiss the question as frivolous or declare the universe a random occurrence. She ponders it deeply.

Until science came along, agnostic philosophers went through a few centuries of agony about the source of it all. Science has provided some relief by coming up with ideas of Big Bangs, Wormholes, and such. However, it does not matter whether our reply is God or Big Bang. The problem is one of infinite regress. If God created everything, who created God? If a Big Bang created our universe, what caused the Big Bang? When the questions are not coloured by religious and scientific pettiness, they converge philosophically.

(We will consider the purely human aspects of belief in a creator God in a later chapter, in Part II of the book.)

Causation of Universals - properties, relationships, and events

Why are things exactly as they are? Why are the fundamental forces of gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces the only ones that exist? Or are they? Why do they work as they do? Where did they come from? How do gravity and the other forces act at a distance? What are force fields? Why are entities not something different in their features, sizes, relationships? What made them like this?

That's a heap of questions. The reader can study the answers given by Science to understand them better. Still, he will not find all the answers.

Ultimately, the only conclusion we will reach is that this is what the universe is, and this is what we are. Without this, we would not be us, in every aspect, from the most basic to the most advanced, from the moment we are born till we die. Our existence is the cause of how we are. If we find the cause of our existence, we will find the cause of our Universal mental constructs. In fact, it will not even be the cause; it will simply be the explanation.

For our purposes, we will take it that matter exists, independently of living entities, has universal characteristics, persists, living entities innately combine sense-data and universals to gain knowledge, there need be no original cause, fundamental forces are a part of the existence of matter, they act at a distance in space and time. It all just is.

Keep this position in mind as we go through the rest of the book. It will inform and illuminate everything we consider.



Philosophy is not idle curiosity. If it exists in humans, there is likely a good reason, even if it is not obvious. But, we cannot allow ourselves to become so caught up in the intricacies of philosophical analysis that we stop still and become fruitless. We need to put our heads out of the water regularly and see where we are. This is essential to philosophical wisdom or any other wisdom.

While the lack of definitive answers to the ultimate mysteries of the universe may trouble us intellectually, the discomfort is most likely a by-product of our needs as a life form. That we are as we are may not preclude us from final knowledge, but it hardly gives us a right to it. Finding some partial answers may keep us alive, but there is no proof of a grand design of which we are subject actors, an intentional cosmic plan to make us find the truth, for reasons we cannot comprehend. For us, everything is coloured by what we are. Try as we may, how can we become something other than we are and discover the ultimate reality?

In the final reckoning, we need to accept that our universe could have an objective existence, with no origin or reason, random yet internally stable. Other universes could have come and gone, in a flash of our time or lasting a while, then imploding or fading away.

The simplest reality could have been 'nothing'. Or 'void'. That law has already been broken. Nothing else can shock us. Everything else can only be acceptance and learning.


© 2020 Shashidhar Sastry. All rights reserved.


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