The topos of this article is ontology. The attempt herein is a journey of discovery into the nature of reality while avoiding the limitations of substance dualism, monist reductionism, phenomenological ontology (Heidegger), and the self-satisfying illusion of objectivity. The goal is to take an element or two from all of these and to forge a new theory of being. To understand the nature of being beyond the subjective knowledge as itself. Rest assured that I don’t intend to suggest answers, but merely to refine the question. I am dissatisfied with Kant’s abandonment of the question entirely. I believe the numena can be known in and of itself and in fact, is known by each and every one of is. And that is as good a place as any to start.
Kant’s view that things in and of themselves can’t be known suffers the fatal flaw that it presumes “things” to be something other than the self. What Kant really means to say is that Other things can’t be known in and of themselves. One might go so far as to suggest that this is the metaphysical root of the Self/Other divide. But for our purposes in this essay, Kant really can’t say that the experiencer is unknowing of its own experience. For proof, I might offer Descartes, whose Cogito argument unquestionably suggests that the experiencer knows they are experiencing. The thinker knows they are thinking, even if they know not what they are thinking. To be able to deduce one’s existence from the fact that one experiences, regardless of whether or not that experience is a delusion, requires a silent premise that one has some experience of experiencing. For if one is not aware that one is aware, the Cogito becomes unconvincing.
So, if we agree with Descartes that we do indeed have a sense of our experiencing, then we must also have an experience of experiencing. There is little radical in this so far, but one implication of this is that we must have an experience of ourselves, that is of our experiences as from a thing, a place of being, an existence. Thus, we know what it is like to exist as ourselves. Assuming then, perhaps contra Kant, that we too are things, then we have the experience of one thing in and of itself, namely ourselves.
That doesn’t seem to get us very far, and if it does anything at all it seems to lock us into a phenomenology of everything that is Other to our subjectivity. But I don’t think that sort of absolutist abandon is quite right. I grant that our direct knowledge of Other things is filtered through our phenomenological experiences in a wholly subjective manner. However, it is not by direct observation alone that we come to know the world around us, and reasonable deductions of the invisible can nevertheless become knowledge. So, armed with the knowledge of numena as ourselves, and our knowledge of others as we phenomenologically perceive them, what, if anything, can we know?
Let’s make one simple assumption. That there is nothing special or different about an atom that is a constituent of ourselves and those that are not ourselves. To make this more concrete, I’m simply claiming that a sodium atom in table salt is not essentially different from a sodium atom in a neuron of your brain, in fact, the former may be ingested by you for the sole purpose of becoming one of the latter. If you’ll grant me this consistency of the elemental universe, then it is reasonable to assume that my experiences of being a solution of atoms are a trait of atoms. The experience of the sodium atoms in your brain is not wholly different from that of the sodium atom in the table salt and that your experience of the world is then at least similar to the experience of the whole world, all its things, organic or inorganic.
Now, that certainly sounds absurd. Of course, my experiences are different from those of table salt, is what you’re probably thinking. But you’re wrong on a fundamental level. And yet, you’re right on a level of higher complexity. The danger here is one of equivocation regarding the word “experience”. So, let’s clear that up. When I say your experience of yourself is the same as the experience of the table salt, I do not mean to suggest that the table salt has conscious and phenomenal experiences like you do. What I do mean is that it experiences things that happen in the universe. Salt dropped in water has an experience of dissolution. Much like you dropped in water has an experience of floating. Perhaps a better example would be a rock dropped from a height toward the Earth experiences gravity in a nearly identical way you would experience gravity in the same situation. The experience I mean here is that of interaction with the other things and forces of the universe.
Before you get all disappointed with the essay and say, well so what? Everyone knows that things can have forces applied to them, but what we really want to know is if they have conscious and phenomenological experiences like us, and if not, then why do we? Good question, let me attempt to answer it by saying that while all matter experiences the things that happen to it, only complex organic matter remembers those experiences for any amount of time longer than the experience takes to occur. Memory is what makes our experiences stick. Experiences can be recalled, set against one another, compared and synthesized. This is consciousness. This is a phenomenal experience. A phenomenon is more than photons hitting the atoms in the rods and cones of your retina, which is simply an experience. Phenomenal experience requires a secondary process, one that is complex and involves memory, pattern recognition, and ultimately gives rise to the experience of what we call consciousness.
Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting any kind of reductionist physical explanation for consciousness. It’s not that we have more complex structures that give rise to things like biology and psychology, but it is that these structures can repeat experiences. The sodium atoms in our brain and those in the table salt both experience the world, but the physical and chemical structure of our brains allow us to repeat our experiences again (remembering) and to mimic them without the stimuli reoccurring (recalling). I am not suggesting any sort of determinism. The atoms themselves function with quantum mechanical indeterminacies the likes of which make any reductionist determinism a dubious prospect at best. I am instead saying that consciousness and phenomenal experience can be understood through a monist material worldview.
In sum, conscious experience is a result of phenomenological experience, which itself is a result of physical experience. The last is shared by all matter, living or not. Thus, consciousness is understandable in a monist materialistic picture of the universe, without the need for substance dualism, and limited by neither phenomenology, subjectivism, naive objectivity, or hampered by a reductionist regress into determinism. All matter experiences, but only living things re-experience. Thus only living things remember, recall, and know that they have experienced anything other than what they are experiencing now.