View From Nowhere
How the universe really is, apart from anyone’s looking, is presumably how it looked before any observers had evolved to observe it. We may rightly assume that the world was in a different state three or four billion years ago. But the question here is not change over time, but the meaning of “appearance” in a universe without observers. In trying to picture the unpicturable face of the world-in-itself, we have little recourse but to mistake it for its appearance to us. One is forced either to take the map as the territory or to remain silent—a dilemma that frequently results in the circular reasoning of what I call the “problem of cognitive domains.” The external world appears to subjective consciousness as an image constructed by the mind to reflect the external world, which means the latter then appears recursively to be an image constructed by the mind. The endpoint of the causal chain is recycled as the beginning, so that something in the human cognitive domain is unavoidably taken for the world-in-itself. There may well be a definite way the world is when no one is looking. Quantum physics has cast some doubt on this most basic premise of realism; but the question is too deep to be decided by a generation or two of physicists. We can be certain, however, that there is something wrong with the notion that objective reality is simply how it happens to appear in our cognition—or in that of any particular creature or generation. In any case, science has created a modern myth of origins, a history of life and consciousness arising within matter and culminating in Western civilization’s scientific worldview. This mythological creature chases its own tail. The scientific description of reality presumes to disrobe nature and raw experience to reveal the objective structure underlying appearances. But from the point of view of common sense and everyday life, it appears rather that science dresses the flesh of the world in its own abstractions. According to the story, we are the product of the history it tells; but the story—which reaches back long before our existence—is the product of our modern imagination and telling. Humans were not there to witness the origins of the world, and their latest, most cherished accounts are but a few decades old, out of the billions of years in which the drama itself may have unfolded. Storytelling is an ancient, entertaining, and essential human interest. It is central to the search for meaning and truth. But no cosmological account should ever be confused with reality itself, or with the ideal of truth.
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