There is the world we share: culture, language, symbols and communication, material artefacts, consensus reality. There is also the world between our ears – memory, thought, experience, emotion, belief, personality. The world we share possesses no independent existence and for this reason is nothing in itself – were you to remove all the people from this world all that would remain would be meaningless symbols, empty buildings and so much decaying infrastructure and material artefacts. Simultaneously, though – everything within your brain which in any sense can be considered as being more than just the raw fact of experience has all been absorbed and adopted, it has all been aggregated and learnt from the external, shared cultural world of communication and information. We live, in this way, through a shared medium of consensus self-definition, a psychological reality which is simultaneously “writ large” upon the world as culture and communications and is reflexively reabsorbed and adopted as the primary means of self-expression and the construction of a participatory self-identity. The shared world has no independent existence and neither does the accumulated and sedimented sense of self and psychological subjectivity; the central nexus around which all of this pivots is the bare naked fact of sentient personal experience.
The raw fact of experience is itself so deeply mediated by the assumptions and expectations we have absorbed from our consensus reality that it is only through an unremitting effort of meditation or similar aspiration-to-catharsis that any notional freedom from the turbulent emotional and symbolic chaos and white noise of the world is possible. There exists a certain potential attainment of psychological freedom from the various bonds and chains of desires and attachments to possessions and the problematic self-representations within which we find ourselves so deeply embedded. The arrival at any state of mind such as this clears the thick fog of self-deception to reveal that there is really nothing much at all beyond pure, naked experience going on here. This may never be a widely celebrated state of mind to seek as it largely invalidates the value systems and shared sense of identity that are valourised and celebrated within commercial culture and its very many lowest common denominators.
It is possible to live a full, creative and fundamentally fulfilling life within the boundaries and constraints which are in some sense defined by the facts of our personal identity as being itself little more than the creative aggregation of culturally sourced, historically-sited ideas and concepts. There always exists a certain amount of freedom of choice within this symbolic matrix of possibility. A non-trivial amount of those decisions we believe to be rational demonstrations of the primacy of personal subjectivity and free will are actually preconditioned (instinctual or enculturated) responses. Our personal aggregation and construction of the specific configurations, assemblages and constellations of concepts we then retrospectively identify as “ourselves” is itself a relatively free. This creative reassembly and directed assimilation becomes the driving force of change and historical progression in its collective expression as culture and the shared world of communication.
The recombination of ideas and concepts into new and novel forms and patterns is how biological evolution progresses through an extended process of trial and error. The peculiarly human (caveat: is it only the humans on this planet who possess culture ?) knack for internalising ideas and recombining them in creative ways is what has led us from the discovery of fire to global communications systems and the rich spectrum of cultural, linguistic, symbolic and technological diversity and self-expression along that path. Our minds have the capacity and, arguably – innate tendency, towards this kind of recombinatory conceptual activity. It is a genuine consideration for deep reflection that we may never actually be smart enough to fully understand and explain ourselves; little surprise that theoretical physics throws up such profoundly unsettling realities and complexities as to embody paradox and logical discontinuity when we are ourselves reflecting the mirror of consciousness back upon the grounds of its own possibility – one mirror reflected into another and finding nothing other than expansive emptiness.
That the world of our shared self-expression is itself nothing beyond our own participatory consciousness and this subjective experience is similarly (almost) nothing beyond the symbolic and conceptual internalisation of this notionally external world creates a conundrum: If there is an empty or symbolic “nothingness” at either end of this spectrum from self to world, how are we to understand the world or ourselves to any significant depth ? This is to say – what the world actually is, as opposed to what it appears to be, can quite concretely be entirely different from we think it is.
There are many places where we can observe that belief and opinion about the nature of the world are merely relatively free-floating interpretations above (but encapsulated by) the actual reality of those things: this is being discovered in neurophysiological mappings of our brain’s navigational systems; in the ways the brain fabricates the half-seen realities in our visual peripheries; and the eminent unreliability of memory in cases of eyewitness reconstruction. If the world and ourselves in it should turn out to be something other than what we expected, would we really need to be so surprised ?
Personal experience (i.e. sentience) may be in some sense an irreducible reality and for that reason remains mysterious but it is likely that what we think is going on between our ears is not actually what is going on. The bare and unprocessed, uninterrupted state of pre-symbolic or pre-linguistic thought is forever lost to us now that we have adopted symbolic and linguistic conceptual frameworks from the world beyond us. We should not assume that our symbolic processing and intellect will ever be able to grasp the truth and the reality of our own self.
I am quite fond of Zen Buddhism as a psychological heuristic – it grasps the discontinuity at the heart of self-reflection and foregrounds it in such a way as to shock us out of the almost hypnotic state in which our shared cultural experience has entrained us. I find the idea that the world may be other than what it seems at some fundamental level to be fascinating and to add excitement and intrigue to the experience of life. Our experience of the world finds itself located on a spectrum between two nothings (the mutually interdependent self and shared, cultural world), the primary essence of it all being the experience we clearly undergo; this experience has itself been displaced or projected upon the world and then procedurally reabsorbed and postulated as some primary truth of subjectivity. It is a strange enigma to untangle the knot which the self represents; it will take profound courage to take that leap into the void.