This purpose of this website is to describe the rules of subjective reality. Subjective reality is the continuous stream of experiences that occur in the mind. While there is nearly infinite variety in specific experiences, the stream itself has momentum and characteristics that are generally knowable.
I claim that these rules are based on science, yet science is typically associated with objective facts. How can there be science on a subjective field, since there can be no objective observation or measurement? This is indeed a formidable challenge. Experiences are fundamentally non-verbal (words are a secondary abstraction). But even to the degree that they can be described, they can never be truly known by another. Furthermore, the recall of a past experience is itself a type of experience in the present. These facts have caused many to conclude that there can be no real science about the subjective nature of experience.
Science is also about determining cause and effect. The better your understanding of causes, the more you can predict the effects. If it’s raining, you know the ground will be wet. When it comes to any particular subjective experience, there are so many specific causes interacting with each other that it seems unknowable.
There is, however, a unique phenomenon that offers a special window into how the mind functions and creates subjective reality. This phenomenon is focusing the mind on a single object. Normally, the mind is busily engaged in many activities simultaneously, including thinking, talking, eating, digesting, moving, and feeling. Some of this activity is intentionally directed, but most of it is automatic (or at least unintentional).
Humans have the ability to direct their attention. Like running or shooting hoops, this ability gets better with practice. But focusing the mind on a single object without thinking about or noticing anything else is incredibly difficult for lots of good reasons.
Primarily, the mind has way too much momentum to stop on a single object. This is true for everyone. The mind is the activity of experiencing life. And while this activity varies dramatically from person to person in normal life, all momentum must be removed if the mind is to settle on a single object.
This is why one-pointed focus is such a revealing phenomenon. The only way it can be achieved is by arresting any and all movement toward anything other than the single object, at least temporarily. Any type of conceivable experience other than this focus is an obstacle, so every type of thought, feeling, sensation must be removed.
The theories and explanations offered here can be tested against this phenomenon. Meriam-Webster defines science as knowledge about or study of the natural world based on facts learned through experiments and observation. For our purposes, we should modify this to read: knowledge about or study of subjective reality based on observations and experiences learned through experiments and reasoning.
Let’s go back to what happens when you try to focus on a single, simple object. Of course, looking at the object at first is easy. But holding off other thoughts is really difficult. The cause of the momentum in the mind is a complex blend of identity and will, awareness and volition. The qualities of identity and will determine the qualities of the experiences. We’re going down the rabbit hole of philosophy to explain them all, but remember, it always comes back to this impossibly simple proposition: Focus.
Science is also about uncovering the principles of cause and effect such that predictions are possible. We know when the next eclipse is going to happen because we understand the causes and can calculate the effects based on observable data.
For us, knowledge of the causes of momentum in the mind (mental activity) can allow us to remove or modify the cause to remove or modify the effect (experience). For the mind to arrest all activity and settle on a single object without interruption, all momentum must be removed or controlled. This is our science.
You may not be interested in focusing your mind on a single object. Even if you are, you might not be willing to alter your behaviors and your life sufficiently to disable all the causes of momentum. This is, however, the ultimate evidence and test of the theories. If you can’t sustain uninterrupted focus on a single object in your mind, it’s because other thoughts have too much momentum. Any theory on the cause of that momentum should provide a means to remove it. And that means can be tested by the depth and stability of focus.
As true as the above is, we are left with a thorny problem. How does this get proved? No one can observe another’s focus. We can only know our own experiences, and even that can be deceiving. We can observe the behaviors of others and we can listen to their descriptions of their experiences, which can support or conflict with our theories. But none of these are facts like we have when studying objective reality.
Because of this, many have chosen to dismiss the study of subjective reality as unscientific because science requires objective, observable, measurable facts. In my opinion, this is like the old joke: A couple sees a young man carefully scouring the sidewalk so they start looking also. They ask what they’re looking for. “My apartment key. There’s a hole in my pocket and it fell out.” After a few minutes of looking, the woman asks, “Are you sure it fell out here?” The young man stops, “Oh no. It fell out in the dark alley over there. This is just where the light is.”
The light of science’s approach to the objective reality simply can’t shine on the subjective reality. We have to find another way.
The Hard Problem
Objective reality exists. We have a solid understanding of how it works within “normal” parameters. Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry explain the rules of observable phenomena well. Beyond these “normal” parameters, we need theories of relativity and quantum mechanics to better explain observable phenomena, and even then there are plenty of gaps in our knowledge.
Subjective reality exists. Humans are aware of their own existence. This awareness is associated with feelings and sensations. This awareness is also associated with meaning. These all fall in the general category of knowledge. Knowledge is key to science, but studying knowledge itself has been particularly problematic because of the subjective nature of thought and experience.
The term “consciousness” has been used in a variety of ways to speak to this subjective, experiential awareness of feelings and meanings. What is this “consciousness” and where does it come from?
Answering these questions requires a careful approach because you can’t explain subjective reality using objective phenomena (and vice versa), and subjective phenomena defy observation and measurement.
This has been called the “hard problem of consciousness.” We have these phenomena that are primary characteristics of life, yet there has been no adequate explanation of where they come from or how they operate. The purpose of this website is to explain them, but it requires a paradigm shift in thinking.
I propose a definition of pure consciousness as a fundamental (self-existing) principle that is the undifferentiated potential for knowledge. All the awareness and feelings and meanings found in the human experience are not consciousness itself, but rather the various manifestations that result from the union of pure consciousness and nature. We don’t have adequate language for all this (yet), but I hope this website pushes us in the right direction.
I believe there are two key problems in the current discussions about awareness and qualia and consciousness. They are either trying to explain these phenomena objectively, which is impossible, or exclusively within the active functioning of the mind. The activity of the mind is a complex layering of multiple phenomena. Trying to identify the source of the conscious mind in its activity is like trying to explain oxygen by studying water. Oxygen is there, but not in its true form. It’s also like trying to use Newtonian physics to explain quantum phenomena.
Untangling Mental Activity
Mind is the term we give for the constant, subjective activity of experiencing life. Everything we know about ourselves and the world, our identity, our will or volition, our perceptions and our feelings occur in the mind. Technically, they occur as activity of the mind.
If we truly want to understand the source and cause of awareness and experience, we have to untangle the morass of mental activity to see causal principles in action. This is a tricky concept for science because you can’t do it objectively. It can be done methodically, but by definition, we’re working with subjective reality.
It’s important to note that the term subjective does not mean random, unreal, or unknowable. The mind, in fact, does operate by predictable, knowable rules. This website is primarily about describing those rules.
If we use artistic painting as an analogy, examples of rules would be about how different kinds of paint interact with each other and the canvas, how different brushes or other implements affect the look, and how layering paint affects color. These rules are true for all painters, but they say nothing of the quality or subject of the art created. In the same way, these rules of the mind are true for everyone, but in no way limit the variety and diversity of human experience or potential.
The activity of the mind is layered, and it is possible to remove the causes of each layer. Removing each cause removes the activity of that layer. Like peeling away the layers of an onion, each layer looks a lot like the previous until you get to the core.
The core itself is also layered, but these layers are not the same as the outer layers. This is similar to the shift between Newtonian and quantum physics. The two are not incompatible, they just explain different aspects of the same realities.
The outer shell of the core is the foundation of normal functioning (our version of Newtonian physics). This is the root identity, which is the linking of the sense of existence (self) with a particular living organism (human in this case). All normal functioning is based on this linking. This linking, though, is also a form of mental activity that can be removed.
The next layer in is the sense of individualized existence alone without any further qualification, or pure agency. This is not a philosophical opinion. It is the nature of the activity of the mind when all other activity has been removed. It’s very difficult for the active mind to understand the still mind, but this layering is universal. All the differences in human experience occur in the outer layers. The core functioning is the same for everyone because these are the primary causes of mental activity.
Now, as relatively still as the mind has to be to isolate pure agency, this is also a form of activity. When the activity of pure individualized existence is abandoned, what remains is a universal or undifferentiated sense of existence. There is awareness, but not of anything. There is no experience or recognition of being alive, just undifferentiated awareness.
As still as the mind must be in this state of undifferentiated awareness, this is also a subtle form of activity. As even this undifferentiated awareness becomes stabilized, it becomes clear that the source of awareness is a reflection. The mind is not the source of awareness. Instead, it “reflects” or “borrows” it from “outside” itself (I’m using quotes because language is inadequate to describe it properly). The term I’m using for that “outside” source is pure consciousness.
This description may seem like philosophy or imagination or even spiritual mumbo-jumbo. It is none of these. It is instead a description of the causal layers of all activity in the mind. These realizations and observations are available to anyone and everyone who is willing to still their mind completely. This is not easy, and very few people seem to make it into the core layers, which is the metaphorical shift from Newtonian to quantum physics. Outside the core, all experiences are unique. Inside the core, the layers of causation are the same.
Looking at this process in reverse becomes a description of the cause and effect of all activity of the mind, which another way of saying all experiences, all “qualia,” all sensations and all feelings. They stack, with each layer requiring the existence of the previous layer. It should be noted that this is not a temporal cause and effect, meaning these layers don’t happen one at a time in sequence. Instead, they are foundational. We know these layers exist because they are identified as activity in the mind is eliminated.
The primary (original) aspect is a fundamental (uncaused) principle we’re calling pure consciousness. This is “reflected” in the mind in the form of awareness. This awareness is qualified by the activity of the mind in layers as it gets linked to increasingly complex phenomena. In humans, the agency is enveloped in a rich, complex, and layered identity. This identity is the filter for all acts of will, which is also known as life force. The will and identity work together to create all experiences.
The primary characteristic differentiating living organisms from inanimate objects is that they act. No matter how simplistic, all life forms exert effort to stay alive. This effort is for its own sake, meaning living organisms work to keep themselves alive (altruism is a unique characteristic of more complex organisms in which the identity is capable of incorporating others). Therefore, the primary differentiating characteristic of living organisms is agency and will since self-directed action requires a “self” and volition.
I have used the term pure consciousness as the undifferentiated potential for knowledge (to know and be known in the most rudimentary sense). Without this pure consciousness, there could be no awareness, no sense of existence, no effort or volition. These are the sources of our ability to know, feel and sense. Without them, there is no possibility for subjective reality to exist.
Logical Justification for an Uncaused Cause
The relationship between the brain and the mind is perplexing. The human mind functions with the activity of the human brain. This is well established. The brain can be observed, measured and tested. Mind is the term we give to the activity of experiencing life. The reason we do anything and everything in life is because we feel alive. Yet, nothing in the brain alone can explain how the feeling of being alive arises.
The first section above explained how a fundamental principle (pure consciousness) is the source of the ability for awareness. There has been an objection to this as “unscientific” because it can’t be observed or measured. There are, however, intractable problems with this. If we categorically dismiss any alternative to measurable, observable phenomena (like the brain) being the sole source of subjective experience, we simply can’t answer the “hard” questions:
- How does subjective experience arise?
- Where does awareness come from?
- What is volition?
Second, if awareness and volition are byproducts of brain activity, there is no explanation for how they arise in simpler organisms:
- All life forms exert effort to stay alive.
- Effort is another term for volition.
- This effort is directed toward an end (staying alive), which requires some sense of being alive, which is another description for awareness.
In fact, these intractable problems remain with any approach suggesting that awareness or subjective reality is caused solely by objective phenomena. Instead, I am proposing a definition of pure consciousness as an uncaused, fundamental principle. This brings up the philosophical question, how can something be uncaused?
Science, in many ways, is the unending process of finding the causes to increasingly complex observable and measurable phenomena. And it works. We have collectively discovered causes for innumerable phenomena that had originally been deemed “unknowable.” So, it seems reasonable to assume that the causes of this “hard problem of consciousness” will be discovered in due time via standard scientific means. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this is true.
To evaluate the assumption, let us turn our attention to the nature of cause and effect itself. There is a widespread philosophical assumption that all effects are caused (whether or not we can determine the cause(s) of an effect is a separate question). Another way of saying this is something cannot come from nothing. Unfortunately, this philosophical assumption cannot be proved as inviolable.
We do know that cause and effect play real and substantial roles in the universe, but this doesn’t mean that everything has to be caused. It might be true, but it might not. In fact, it’s literally impossible to prove that the rule of cause and effect is inviolable with no exceptions.
But let’s assume for now that it is true. Something cannot come from nothing, and anything that exists must have been caused by something else. We exist because we were born from our parents, who exist because of their parents, all of whom need the life-friendly environment of planet Earth. We can trace this lineage back through the evolution of species, of the planet, even all the way back to the big bang.
With our logic, since the big bang happened, it must have been caused. What was the cause of the big bang? Now we have a problem. Even if you say that time and space originate with the big bang, you’re still left with a need for time and space to be caused. If time, space and the big bang were not caused, we’re forced to abandon the absolute nature of cause and effect. (I’m using the big bang as the first cause of everything we know. If you want to postulate a knowable cause to the big bang, then just move the question back, to what caused that cause? You have to get to a first cause somewhere.)
Logically, there are two ways to resolve the question of what caused the big bang. The first is with two primordial but unmanifest causes that are themselves uncaused. The second is to conclude that the rule of cause and effect is not inviolable. I will explain.
In the first resolution, the cause of the first manifestation (something observable, measurable or knowable) has to be unmanifested. The only notion we have to describe an unmanifested cause is potential. We would thus say the cause of the big bang was the “potential for the big bang.” There is a problem of language here because our minds are literally incapable of conceiving of anything unmanifest.
Going one step further, this “potential for the big bang” has to be two primordial causes: the potential for material existence and the potential for knowledge (awareness and volition). This can also be described as the potential for objective reality and the potential for subjective reality. These two are required because neither one is capable of causing the other. Objective (material) reality cannot cause or explain subjective (experiential) reality, and vice versa. Life cannot occur without both matter and awareness/volition.
It should be made explicit that these two primordial causes do not separately co-exist within time and space. Together, they are the cause of (or at least requisites for) time and space (and everything else). In the manifest universe, they are inseparable like the illuminated forms on a traditional movie screen that result from light hitting film in the projector (see the Definition article for a full explanation).
So, to summarize, if the law of cause and effect is inviolable, then there must be two primordial causes of the universe (the totality of manifest existence). One cause must be material (or energetic since E=mc2). The other cause must be the potential for knowledge and experience, which I’m calling pure consciousness. But, as discussed above, the law of cause and effect may not be inviolable.
If it is not inviolable, and there can be uncaused effects, then everything we think we know about science has to be qualified. Now, this doesn’t assume that the principle of cause and effect isn’t real, because science has already proven it is. The question is can there be exceptions? And if so, are there limitations to those exceptions or could they appear spontaneously? From our standpoint, though, if there are any exceptions to the law of cause and effect, then there can be no outright philosophical rejection of the theory that pure consciousness is uncaused.
The “hard problem” results from the fact that objective or material realities cannot give rise to subjective or experiential realities (or vice versa). So, something has to create the possibility of awareness and volition since they are present in all life forms. I’m using the term pure consciousness for it.
Objective reality exists. Subjective reality exists. Neither one can be explained by the other. The human mind is incapable of conceiving of unmanifested causes, so we use the word potential. Whether you take the philosophical stance that cause and effect are inviolable or not, the theory that the unmanifested potential for knowledge is an uncaused, fundamental principle cannot be eliminated as a possibility. I happen to be using the term pure consciousness for that potential.
Since this concept of pure consciousness as a fundamental principle cannot be rejected outright, it should be evaluated on the same terms as all theories: how well does it explain known phenomena, and how effectively does it predict changes in effects via changes in causes?
At present, I believe this definition is unmatched in its ability to explain how subjective experience arises, how the mind creates the experiences of life, what the primary drivers of activity in the mind are, and what the tools are to make substantive changes in the nature of subjective experiences.
Originally published: 9/17/15
Last copy edit: 3/13/16
List of content edits:
9/18/15 Added analogy of painting
3/13/16 Added new introduction