In its grandest conception the world is simply the whole of the physical universe. If this sounds about right, then you have probably accepted the scientific/materialistic paradigm that saturates the modern intellectual atmosphere without realising there are any alternatives aside from crackpot religious or new age ones. This article will challenge this prevailing scientific/materialistic notion of world, specifically arguing that it is neither (1) fundamental nor (2) complete, and is, in fact, both (3) meaningless and (4) misleading.
Of course, there is nothing incoherent about defining ‘world’ as the totality of physical matter in the universe. The problem isn’t one of coherence, but of scope and relevance. Given its limitations, my argument is that despite being coherent in an insular kind of way, it isn’t the best definition of the word, and doesn’t even reflect what we typically mean when we use it.
Current dominant opinion defines ‘world’ as the objective physical universe and this is grounded in the idea that matter is fundamental. Physical matter (electrons and quarks) is fundamental because the ‘macro’ world of tables, chairs, and human beings is dependent on it in a way that physical matter isn’t dependent on the ‘macro’ world. There would be no such things as tables and chairs without electrons and quarks but this doesn’t hold the other way around. This is unquestionably true.
However, we must ask what exactly this ‘world’ the scientist/materialist is defining as objective physical matter really is. Is it tables and chairs and human beings? No, it isn’t. It’s electrons and quarks. Aren’t they the same thing? No, they aren’t. A universe full of nothing but electrons and quarks arranged in configurations indistinguishable from that of the tables and chairs we are all familiar with would still not have a single table or chair in it. This is not for the trivial reason that there is no one around to call a particular configuration of electrons and quarks a chair, but for the deeper one that there would be no reason, out of all the possible perspectives that could be adopted, to privilege this particular perspective over any other. In other words, remove the specific, narrow human perspective from the equation, which is to say, reduce the world to an objective accounting of electrons and quarks, and that is exactly what you are left with, a meaningless jumble of electrons and quarks, everywhere! Your table is electrons and quarks, so is the chair, so is the air in between them! It’s all just electrons and quarks. In my opinion this tangle of particles can’t seriously be called a ‘world’ and it is certainly not what anyone means when they use the word.
At this point, you might choose to take a stand and reasonably argue that ‘world’ is just electrons and quarks, not tables and chairs. As I said, there is nothing incoherent about taking this position but it is one that, while on the one hand contains everything, on the other it contains nothing because its contents are all the same thing, an undifferentiated jumble of particles! It also doesn’t do justice to the way we use, or think about, the word ‘world’. The human ‘world’ is a much richer concept than merely referring to all the electrons and quarks in the universe. So when we talk about the ‘world of —’, where ‘—‘ can mean any sphere of interest; ‘fine wine’, ‘boxing’, etc, we aren’t wanting to discuss the electrons and quarks that make up fine wine. Likewise, having a pessimistic world-view doesn’t mean you have negative thoughts about electrons and quarks.
So, that was the first step in my argument but it was a negative one in that all it does is shed light on the inadequacy of ‘world’ as conceived in scientific/materialistic terms; i.e. as just brute, un-interpreted, unobserved, objective, physical matter. We must now search for the positive step which will reveal the fundamental conception of ‘world’. Along the way, we will hopefully dispose of any lingering doubts you might have concerning my dismissal of the scientific/materialistic ‘world’.
Even granting my thesis that electrons and quarks don’t make a ‘world’, you might still insist that these electrons and quarks are fundamental in the sense that they are ontologically prior; i.e. they exist first then we come along and perceive them through our specific sensory and cognitive lenses in such a way that things like tables and chairs are disclosed. This is once again, true. The problem is that ‘physical matter’ (electrons and quarks) is not our original, fundamental reality. These electrons and quarks are originally and fundamentally disclosed to us as ‘world’, in my richer sense of the term. No human being detects electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of 680nm and then sees the colour red. Nor does any human being detect the compression and rarefaction of molecules propagating through the air and then hear a friend talking. The physical universe around us is originally, primordially, fundamentally disclosed in full technicolour and jam-packed with shapes, textures, smells, functional relations, meaning, and a hundred other subjective qualities.
You are probably still tempted to argue that even though this is true, these are secondary qualities; qualities we overlay on an already existing, therefore fundamental, physical world. To which I would reply, seeing these things as secondary qualities is to already have smuggled in a perspective; i.e. it presupposes a ‘world’ complete with measuring equipment, theories, table, and chairs. And that is precisely my point. The first thing we perceive is a ‘world’ of tables and chairs, not a mass of electrons and quarks. The electrons and quarks are derived only after we apprehend the ‘world’.
But, you will be thinking now, that is only because of the senses we have and the way our brains and bodies have evolved. Of course. Again, this is my whole point. Without senses, brains, and bodies, there wouldn’t be anything; it would all just be a chaotic mass of electrons and quarks. ‘World’ arises at the intersection of a conscious subject and physical matter and it is fundamental because prior to ‘world’, there is no experience (all experience is necessarily experience of a ‘world’) and nothing (without a subjective perspective physical reality is just a jumble of undifferentiated particles).
Now you are probably ready to object that this is relativism on steroids. ‘World’ as I have described it here is completely different to creatures differently physically constituted. Bees, who see in ultraviolet, live in a different ‘world’ from us. Dolphins, using echolocation, live in yet another ‘world’. Even colour blind humans live in different ‘worlds’ from those of us who aren’t colour blind. Surely, this is nonsense. How can all of these different ‘worlds’ be fundamental?
This objection contains the implicit assumption that a ‘world’ we can call fundamental must be the same for everyone. This is precisely the assumption this article is challenging. Indeed, why should ‘world’ be the same for everyone given the fact that everyone’s senses and experiences differ slightly, not to mention the greater differences across species? Sure, the underlying physical matter is the same for everyone, but as I’m arguing here, clumps of electrons and quarks are inadequate for, and greatly impoverish, any reasonable definition of the word ‘world’.
If we start to think of ‘world’ as electrons and quarks, it’s a short hop from there to thinking of humans as computers and consciousness as software, which is only a stone’s throw away from thinking of conscious life as the purely mechanical processing of data (because how could one clump of electrons and quarks ‘care’ or ‘value’ another clump of electrons and quarks?), by which time our thoughts about conscious life no longer correspond with our actual lives and we’ve probably gone so far down the rabbit hole that we can’t even see light anymore.
At first blush, it might appear that a material description of the physical matter in the universe would be the most complete description of that universe possible. This is not quite right. What it is, is a complete description of what that universe is composed of (electrons and quarks), but as should be clear to anyone currently perceiving this article as more than a jumble of electrons and quarks, something is missing from such a description.
Let me begin with a question. What is water? The materialist answer is as automatic as it is uninteresting; electrons and quarks. This response is automatic because it’s true, but uninteresting because everything is electrons and quarks. And yet, despite the fact that water is electrons and quarks (like everything else in the universe), it is also somehow different from everything else in the universe that isn’t water. What accounts for this difference?
That’s easy, says the materialist. The difference turns on the way those electrons and quarks are arranged; what could be called the ‘informational content’ of the electrons and quarks. Again, this is true. It is a complete physical description of water, but is it a complete description? If you were describing water to someone who had never seen it before, would you feel as if you had done an adequate job by specifying that water is a certain configuration of electrons and quarks? No matter how much detail you went into, such a description would be forever inadequate, indeed, it would be laughably so.
The truth is you could never properly describe water (or anything, for that matter) without going beyond its physical characteristics. Any adequate description would have to include the way water appears to our senses (colour: clear; shape: free, it moulds to the shape of its container; feel: wet; etc.) and it would also have to give some indication of what it is for; water is for swimming in, for washing things, for drinking, etc.
But hold on. This prompts an immediate objection. These things don’t describe what water is; they more appropriately describe the human beings perceiving and using the water. This objection is partially true. They don’t describe humans but neither do they describe water; rather, they describe the point at which the two intersect. And this takes us back to the key point already made in the first section, it is only at this intersection that water, as we know it, as it means anything to us, exists.
There is a famous thought experiment that perfectly illustrates this point. Imagine a woman, Mary, who has lived in a black and white room her whole life. She has never seen colour. However, she has been given a thorough scientific explanation of what colour is; how the different wavelengths of light are reflected and absorbed differently by different substances, how the light perceived in the eyes is translated to electrical and chemical signals, relayed through the optic nerve to the brain, etc. The question is, is Mary’s understanding of colour complete? Does she know everything there is to know about colour? You might think she does but what if Mary leaves the room and suddenly sees colour for the first time. Does she learn anything new?
We can do the same thing for water. Imagine Mary has never seen or touched water but she has been given a thorough explanation of the physical composition of water. Perhaps she even knows more than we do. Maybe she has learned how tiny strings vibrating in ten dimensions produce the specific electrons and quarks that make the atoms that make the molecules that comprise H2O. And yet having never seen or touched any of it, how could anyone claim she has a complete understanding of water?
There is a tendency here to make the same objection as we saw in the first section; the ‘complete’ understanding you are talking about is relative to particular life forms (beings with different physical/sensory attributes would give different ‘complete’ descriptions of water) and contingent (there is no reason why water has the qualities in your ‘complete’ description).
Yes to both and no to the objection. Why must a complete description be one that is the same for different life forms with different bodies/senses? Why can’t it be contingent? The only reason you are insisting on this fixed, objective, true at all times and places for all beings description is because that is how science sees the world and scientists have convinced you that is the way the world really is. This is exactly what I am challenging here. Science deliberately removes all traces of subjectivity precisely so its measurements are valid at all times and places for all beings. And that is as it should be. It’s what we want of science! If science wasn’t like that it would be useless. But don’t make the mistake of thinking this approach to the ‘world’ is more valid, or somehow truer, or more complete than one that acknowledges and adopts a specific perspective.
Ultimately, that is all I am arguing for here; physical matter only deserves to be called a ‘world’ if it is disclosed from a specific perspective. Hence a complete description of a ‘world’ can only be given with reference to a specific perspective. This makes perfect sense as soon as one brings into question the, often unchallenged, assumption that an objective, scientific description of physical matter is the only one that matters.
It is also worth noting that people were talking about the ‘world’ long before science and the scientific method burst onto the scene. It obviously used to mean something more than mere collections of physical particles. Why has science hijacked this word, a rich word that implies so much more than the physical composition of the universe, and reduced it to electrons and quarks? Why is science not content with using words like ‘matter’ or ‘the physical universe’ to reference its domain? It’s because science doesn’t think it has a domain. It thinks its domain is everything. Using the phrase ‘the physical universe’ implies that this is only part of a greater whole or that there is another way of thinking about the universe, one not restricted to electrons and quarks. And this thought is anathema to it.
What is meaning? Well, for a start, it isn’t purpose. Even inanimate things have purposes, a chair’s purpose is to support my weight when I sit on it, but we wouldn’t want to ascribe any kind of meaning in being a chair. What about purpose plus consciousness? This is a little better but still doesn’t get us to meaning. A purpose, as opposed to a goal, seems to imply a reason for existing and this implies, to me at least, that it was given by some external force. If I write a computer program to perform some action A whenever I press ctrl + p on my keyboard, then it makes sense to say that that program has a purpose, a reason for existing; namely, to do A. The catch is that the purpose comes in the form of a directive given by me. The program itself has no choice in the matter. Even if the program is a conscious AI, its purpose, to do A whenever I press ctrl + p, doesn’t give it meaning. Some people think that God created them with a purpose or reason for existing, and they claim this gives them meaning. This seems clearly untrue. If there is any meaning in such a situation, it is all on God’s side, not ours. We are merely slavishly fulfilling our purpose; or rather, God’s purpose for us.
And now we have our first positive formulation. Meaning must come from the agent him or herself. It cannot be given or bestowed by someone else like a purpose can. So what do we mean when we say such and such is meaningful to us? Well, I think we basically mean it is important. This suggests that there are other things less important. And degrees of importance can only be implemented if we have something else; value. Value is the key to meaning.
In the scientist/materialist’s ‘world’ of electrons and quarks what is there to value? Remember, the insistence here is that the ‘world’ is objective physical matter; fundamental particles interacting in accordance with strict laws of causality. There is nothing of value in this ‘world’ because there is quite literally no-thing; it’s all fundamental particles. No value means no meaning, and no meaning means meaninglessness.
Moving in the opposite direction; meaningfulness indicates the presence of values, values refer to a valuer, and a valuer (alongside physical matter, of course) suggests a space in which distinct things with qualities and functions are disclosed. This space is precisely what I have been arguing for here; i.e. ‘world’.
An objection that might have occurred to you while you were reading this is that I am engaging in mere semantics, quibbling over terms. Specifically, you might think: 1) that I am trying to redefine the word ‘world’, and 2) that there is no argument here; all we have is two different definitions, each valid with regard to their concerns.
My first reaction to this objection is to note that it absolutely is semantics but it is anything but ‘mere’. To the first point; in a way it is true, I am trying to redefine the word ‘world’, although I would say I am trying to take back a word that science had already hijacked for its own hegemonic ambitions. At some point in the past two to three centuries we stopped valuing and taking seriously our subjective, lived experience and began glorifying objective, scientific measurements, despite the fact that they are woefully inadequate when it comes to describing human life and human experience. Anything not scientific and objective became a fiction, unreal. ‘Subjective’ no longer describes a situation from the perspective of a subject; it is now used almost exclusively as a synonym for ‘false’, ‘illusory’, or ‘opinion’; the opposite of true, genuine, and fact.
Likewise, the word ‘world’ is another casualty in science’s imperialistic campaign. It used to be full of meaning and relevance, and rich with subjective details; now it has been reduced to a sterile mass of particles bereft of any meaning or significance. Of course, scientists are humans as well and not one of them would describe their ‘world’ as sterile or bereft of meaning, but that is my whole point. There is a disconnect going on. They see and feel the beauty in the world just as acutely as non-scientists, if not more so, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge that this beauty doesn’t, and can’t, exist in their reductive descriptions.
The second point, that there is no real argument here, is exactly what I am rallying against with this essay. Words are important because they influence our thoughts. Forfeiting the word ‘world’ to science conditions us to think about everything (after all, that is what the world is) in scientific terms until the idea that the human brain is a computer (not like one, is one) seems plausible, or lived emotions are illusory (because how could one lump of matter care about another lump of matter). No one lives as if these things are true of course, and that is the point. A divide is opening up between the way we think about conscious experience and human life on the one hand and the way we actually live it on the other. And since the words we use significantly influence the thoughts we think, we ought to be very careful with some of our ‘mere’ semantics.