A question

I walk down the street seeing things all around me. I see cars, the road, people, power poles, the sun, houses and the bricks of which these are made... I'll stop the list here because I sense the reader is already bored. Question: is the first sentence of this paragraph true? Sounds obvious, but it could be a trick question.

Is a car, say, a thing, ie a separate entity? Surely a car is a separate entity, distinct from the length of road on which it stands, as well as from the person slouching behind the steering wheel?

My thesis, poached from Ken Wilber (who found it in William James, though it goes back to Berkeley in 1713) is that we don't see things, but that things are created by our minds. To put it simply, there is no such thing as a thing. Only thinking makes things. To paraphrase Descartes, I think about myself, therefore I am a thing. Those who think my articles are too cerebral are warned to read no further - this one gets worser.

Please note that I am not doubting the existence of an external reality, only whether it is composed of separate entities. An interesting aside that a professional philosopher told me is that, although the problem of things is a valid philosophical question in English, this is not the case in Polish, where the word for 'thing' (rzecz) does not have the same meaning as in English. This shows that language is primary and that philosophy is a secondary activity that depends on language.

Let there be things

The largely unconscious and therefore deceptively natural process of thing-creation is actually quite involved. I managed to distinguish eleven perceptions of the world that cause our minds to separate one part of reality from the rest, and in so doing create a thing. The first six of these aspects relate more directly to what we experience; the others require a greater exercise of the mind, hence are more indirect.

Primary distinctions

(1) By difference. A difference of colour, shading, texture, or brightness causes us to distinguish a thing from its environment. A bright towel lying in the distance on the sand looks like a thing because it is different from the sand. Difference is the primary stimulus causing thing creation, as without it, no distinction of the visual field would be possible.

(2) By separation. If there is sufficient intervening space between two parts of our visual field, then we see two separate things. Although a heap of pebbles is a thing, and remains one if the pebbles are laid out so that they are all adjoining, it ceases to be a single thing if they are widely scattered. (Note that we are only aware of intervening space due to differences.)

(3) By closure. We tend to divide the visual field into closed shapes. Thus the interior of a circle drawn on a page is identified as a two-dimensional disc. Yet there is no disc, just a line which our mind interprets as dividing the page into figure and ground. We rarely see the negative space or ground around a "shape" as being itself a shape or thing. Yet this unconscious focus on positive shape is an arbitrary one. The same is true in three-dimensions: a chair is a closed shape because it 'hangs together' visually. The space around it does not. It is important to realise that shape itself is not a direct perception but a creation of mind. In fact shape and thing are almost synonymous.

(4) By physical boundary lines. A rail-road track divides a town into two separate parts, often called 'wrong' and 'right'. The four edges of a photograph visibly delimit it from the rest of reality.

(5) By solidity. Empty space, ie a volume of air, is not normally seen as a thing.

(6) Through movement. Things that move in unison may be seen as a single thing eg a flock of birds. Things that appear to move independently of each other, such as a group of ants, do not. A lizard is a thing because it moves as a unit. Should it lose its tail, this too becomes a separate thing.

Secondary distinctions

(7) By possibility of physical separation. Two objects that could be easily pulled apart are not generally seen as one, but as two things. My knowledge that a desk can be lifted up as a unit gives it the status of thing, distinct eg from the floor. A pair of bricks lying side by side will usually be seen as being distinct. The converse is also true, eg we take the above-ground part of a plant and its roots as being a single thing.

(8) By function. The horizontal planks of a bench must be physically joined to create a seat. We see both the planks and the metal bars joining them as forming part of a single thing. Even though the bench might be bolted to the floor, we do not see the bench plus floor as a thing.

(9) Through levels of description or abstraction. The computer on which I type this is a thing because I think of it as a unit. Yet it is composed of myriad parts (which are also things), such as the key-caps I keep hitting. Moving in the other direction, an atom becomes a thing, if following Democritus, I choose to think about the smallest part of a thing.

(10) Through interest, knowledge or memory. If I am an avid stamp collector then an envelope with a stamp affixed will look to me like two objects. To someone who has no interest in stamps it may look like one thing only. If I own an acre of land then I will see my acre as a thing. To someone else it will not appear distinct from the land surrounding it. If I know what an abstract sculpture looks like, I will recognise one even if it lies in a heap of junk (sic). This extends to the identification of shapes. If a rock in a cliff face resembles a head, it is more likely to be identified as a thing. A random-looking rock will not stand out in this way.

(11) By arbitrarily focusing our attention on any part of the visual field, we isolate that part as being of interest. Hence it becomes a thing simply because it is the object of our thought. Thus I can focus on a small area of featureless wall and hence turn it into a thing.

Note that most of the above criteria are visually based. What if we were all blind? Presumably we would develop differences based on density, texture, odour and other sensory cues, rather than the existing situation, where visual data usually provide the framework within which the other senses operate. I think the result would be much the same, though the process of thing-creation would be slower, since the other senses cannot take in an entire scene in one sweep.

Even when a part of reality has been granted the status of thing based on the principles outlined above, there is nothing to stop our minds from subdividing it into smaller things. We can divide it into left and right parts, ugly and attractive parts, shiny and dull parts, and so on ad nauseam. So by thinking about any thing we can subdivide it. This process is called analysis.

We can go the other way with equal facility, by performing the reverse process, collecting 'separate' things into a single thing, eg a herd, a nation, a chess set. This mental procedure is called synthesis.

Intrinsic or imagined?

Now what about the above criteria, are they in some sense intrinsic to reality, or are they purely a matter of how we think about the world? The most basic one, on which the others depend, is difference. Yet do we ever see a difference? Say that within my visual field there is an area I call a coin and another area I call a pen. Do I actually see the difference between these two putative things? If so, where do I see the difference?

Faced with this question for the first time, I thought, "Of course I see a difference; they look different." However, a little reflection showed me that the difference between a coin and a pen - for example the difference between roundness and straightness - is not something that I can see. I see a round coin and I see a straight pen, but nowhere do I see a thing called a difference between them. A difference is a relation between two things, not a property I can perceive directly. In other words, a difference is a derived property, not a perception.

But wait...

If there were no differences in my visual field then I would not see anything at all. The same applies to hearing and the other senses, so that there can be no sense perception whatever without differences. Yet we have seen that differences are created by the mind. Therefore it is only the action of the mind that makes sense perception possible. If our minds didn't operate on the information provided by the senses then we wouldn't have any awareness of the external world. So the external world is a creation of thought. This leads directly to solipsism, the belief that there is no reality external to our minds.

Personally, I feel committed to the idea that there is a world out there, independent of my mind. So I agonised about how to escape the above conundrum. At long last, I discovered that the logical slip occurs right at the beginning, as usual. The initial argument was that the statement, "I see a difference," expresses a thought rather than a sense perception, whereas, "I see black," expresses a direct sense perception. This argument is false: "I see black," is no more a description of a direct sense perception than is, "I see a difference." For to say, "I see a dark area," is meaningless without the complementary concept of 'light'. When I say 'black' I am implicitly saying 'not-white'. The word 'dark' has no meaning by itself, without its pared opposite, 'light'. This is not just a statement about language but about the nature of perception itself. The relation of difference is built into the way our senses operate because all we ever see are differences. The conclusion is that 'blackness' and 'difference' are perceptions on the same base level.

Creation by mind

I'll leave it as an exercise for the reader to show that the remaining criteria of thingdom listed above are all creations of our minds, and so do not inhere in objective reality.

In addition, none of the rules of thing-creation can be rigidly applied. Thus a flag, such as the French or Italian one, is a single thing, though it is made up of strongly contrasting bands of colour. A radio telescope composed of numerous dishes set far apart, yet constituting a single instrument, furnishes a counter-example to the criterion of separation. Those drawn to mental callisthenics may want to devise a 'thing' that simultaneously contradicts all the eleven principles I have described.

It is important to note that the application of even the most basic criterion, difference, is selective, inconsistent and often arbitrary. There is a subjective threshold at which a difference of degree becomes a difference of kind. This is seen in the difference between blue and green: some people will call a hue mid-way between blue and green 'blue', others 'green'. What is more, I have seen a painting in which one end was red, the other yellow, where the transition between these two primary colours was so gradual that it was impossible to say at what point one colour turned into the other. So even though difference itself is an objective criterion, our application of it in the process of thing-creation is not.

So we create things by selectively noting and interpreting differences in the ways described above. In other words, we distinguish separate entities by applying our minds to the data provided by our senses. The key point I want to stress is the arbitrariness of this process.


It is interesting to explore how conditioning (aspect 10 above) determines the way we interpret what we see to be particular things. There is a cleverly constructed drawing which can, with equal ease, be interpreted as depicting a grotesque old woman or an attractive young woman. (See page 45 of "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by S Covey.) It is used as a training exercise, in which half the participants are shown an unambiguous drawing of an ugly old woman that closely resembles the ambiguous drawing. The other half are shown a drawing of a young woman which is also very similar to the ambiguous drawing. When they afterwards see the composite drawing, those who were first shown the old woman are convinced this is the only possible interpretation of the ambiguous drawing. Those who were first shown the young woman are equally convinced that the composite drawing is that of a young woman.

The point is that our experience conditions us to interpret what we see, and that this is a process we are unconscious of. When they gaze at the same piece of paper, one group of people see the lines and shading on the page as constituting the thing called a young woman. Others look at these same areas of light and dark and 'see' the quite dissimilar shape of another thing, an ugly old woman. Yet the ambiguous drawing is neither a depiction of an old hag nor of a young woman, because it contains both. (Analogously, light consists of neither waves nor particles.) In truth, the composite drawing is simply a collection of light and dark areas, though these have been cleverly arranged to allow divergent interpretations. The image on the page is what it is; the image is not a representation of something else.

This is equally true of every other image on a page, even a photograph. Our minds interpret images as depicting one thing or another based on our experience. The visual illusion of the ambiguous drawing illustrates a fundamental point: that there are no shapes out there, outside our minds. Shapes only arise when boundary lines are identified and interpreted. These boundaries exist only in our minds, hence we unconsciously impose shapes onto what we see. In so doing we divide the visual field into things.

With surreal eloquence, Rene Magritte made a similar point when he painted a picture of a pipe with the legend, "This is not a pipe." He meant that an image is not the thing it is intended to represent. When a viewer looks at a painting, they are mentally associating parts of the canvas with parts of reality, based on their prior experience. It is only this process of association in the viewer's mind that causes a thing called a pipe to be identified in Magritte's picture. The pipe is not intrinsically there.

Magritte's point can be expressed in another way: not only is the image of a pipe not a pipe: the image of a pipe is the image of a pipe solely because we think it is. A person who had never seen a pipe would not see one in Magritte's painting. This becomes more apparent if we consider a hypothetical world in which pipes did not exist.

Studies of perception in babies have shown that certain perceptions, such as those of basic shapes, are inborn, while others, like that of depth, are learnt. Darryl Reanney describes what happens to a person who was born blind, whose sight is restored in adolescence:

In fact, what he experiences is chaos, a jumbled confusion of shapes and impressions which makes absolutely no sense. His brain has absolutely no preformed picture of anything (a car, a beach, even his mother's face) and thus cannot relate the images falling on the retina of his newly functional eye with any prior models drawn from experience. Moreover, his brain cannot integrate the images into patterns... Slowly and painfully he has to learn to construct a model of the world inside his head.

In a similar vein, the neurologist Oliver Sacks describes the plight of a woman who had never used her hands, even though these were physically sound: "This then was the challenge that faced us: a patient with perfect elementary sensations in the hands, but, apparently, no power to integrate these sensations to the level of perceptions that were related to the world and to herself."

Likewise, anthropologists report that indigenous people shown photographs of themselves usually can't see anything but a swirl of abstract colours and shapes. Unlike us, they don't know how to read a photograph.


The framework within which we position things is that of space and time. Relativity theory tells us that this framework is not as rigid as we normally think it to be. Space and time become rubbery at speeds approaching that of light (300,000 kilometres per second). The answers to questions such as, "What is that length?" and "How much time has passed?" depend on relative velocities. However, due to their smallness relativistic effects can be ignored at normal speeds.

The view from chaos theory

James Gleick, in his mind-enriching book, "Chaos: Making a New Science" points out that even without Einsteinian relativity, the most basic measurement of all, that of length, is problematic. Take Australia, a well-defined entity, you'd think. How long is its coastline? It turns out that the correct answer to this elementary question takes one of two equally absurd forms: "It depends on your measuring rod," or "Arbitrarily long". The mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot arrived at this startling result as follows.

Suppose you walk around Australia and measure its coastline using a ruler of length one metre. This will give you a measurement. But suppose you repeated the process using a ruler only 10 centimetres long. The result would be larger because the smaller ruler would more closely follow the ins and outs of jagged rocks. If you used a ruler one millimetre long you would get a still larger result, and so on. Common sense tells us that though these estimates would get larger, they would converge on a finite size, the correct length of Australia's coast. Not so! The length measured increases without limit, except - perhaps - when one reaches sub-atomic scales.

Using a flexible tape-measure would not help either, since the thickness of the tape would determine which corrugations you measured and which you ignored. So we are left with the conclusion that there is no sensible, unique answer to our simple, schoolbook-style question.

Nor does it stop there. The same argument applies to the measurement of any real object, as opposed to one that is ideally smooth and regular. The conclusion is that the measurement of length inescapably depends on an arbitrary choice of scale to measure it on. If a thing can't be sensibly measured then how real is our conception of it?

If all that seems too abstract, take a VW beetle. What does such a thing look like? Easy, you say, a roughly semicircular outline with various protuberances. True, that's how a VW looks from 20 metres away, but what about from a distance of one millimetre, or one micron? As we approach more closely the car becomes smoother, for features like bumper bars disappear. Closer still, it becomes pitted and uneven in a random way. Going in the other direction, from 50 kilometres away the VW is just a speck. Which of these differing views of the one object is the 'correct' one? As with the coastline of an island, the answer is that all are equally valid. Each distance gives us a different idea of what an object looks like. In other words, the way we choose to see something determines what we see.

Sub-atomic physics

Does modern physics recognise separate things? Sub-atomic physics tells us we can't decompose matter into independently existing smallest units. The properties of an 'elementary' particle can only be understood in terms of its effects on other particles and quanta. Fritjof Capra writes: "At the subatomic level the interrelations and interactions between the parts of the whole are more fundamental than the particles themselves". Worse yet, the attraction or repulsion forces between two elementary particles are seen as involving the interchange of other particles. So the sub-atomic realm is composed of a system of inseparable, interacting and ever-changing components.

Moreover, physicists have been forced to acknowledge that the act of observation changes the object being observed. Fritjof Capra sums up that modern physics sees the universe as a "dynamic, inseparable whole which always includes the observer in an essential way." This denies the possibility of isolated objects.

Bell's Theorem in quantum physics states that when two particles have interacted and then flown off in opposite directions, interference with one particle will instantly affect the other particle, regardless of the distance between them. This phenomenon has led to considerable consternation among physicists, some of whom try to explain it in terms of a faster than light interaction. My interpretation of this is simply that though the two particles are separated by space they are not actually separate entities. After all, a thing is just an object of thought. Why not think of these two particles as being one object, in the same way as we think of a house composed of many bricks as a single thing.

If a thing is no more and no less than an object of thought, it follows that separation and its opposite, wholeness, are present only in our thinking. The universe is neither made up of separate entities nor is it one inseparable whole. It just is. Only our thinking pictures it as one or the other scenario.


Yet another approach to perceiving the dubious reality of things is provided by the holographic paradigm, which is gaining ground in physics. A hologram is a kind of photograph made using lasers that has the property that any small part of it contains an image of the whole object being pictured. This is reminiscent of Indra's net, a picture of reality we have from Hinduism, in which every part of reality is a spherical mirror reflecting every other part. Charles Birch sums up: "So the concept of an individual, from protons to people, involves the notion that each is what it is by virtue of its relationships with its environment." In other words, a thing owes its identity to all other things.

David Bohm applied this insight to causality. J Briggs and F Peat explain his view:

The cause for any one thing is everything else. To understand completely the cause of malaria in humans, for example, requires understanding not only the life cycle of the anopheles mosquito, but also evolution, ecology, chemistry, and eventually everything in the universe.

The notion of relations defining objects is clearly seen in mathematics. The mathematical abstraction called a group is such that its members have meaning only through their interaction with each other. This means that a*b = c is the relationship that (among others) defines the meaning of the entities a, b and c. They do not have a meaning or nature within themselves, as it were.

Let's look at something simpler than a mathematical abstraction. What is a chess piece, such as the queen? At first sight an adequate answer seems to be to explain how the queen moves in chess. Yet the queen has no meaning by herself, outside of the context of the goals and strategies of chess. Her moves are meaningless except in the context of chess. She has no value except as a tool to protect one king and to attack the other. The power of the queen can only be understood by comparing it with the other pieces. So to explain the nature of this piece you need, at the least, to describe the rules of chess and the point of the game. Even this is not enough explanation, for it would give someone new to chess only a vague idea of the power, value and tactical possibilities of the queen. Only someone who has played a fair few games of chess can have that sort of knowledge. It seems that a complete explanation of the nature of the queen requires at least some sample chess games with explanatory commentaries. Ultimately, the full meaning of the queen in chess is given by all the possible chess games that can be played. This gets us into the realm of impenetrable complexity and astronomical numbers.


The conclusion from all this enjoyable cerebration is that each thing owes its existence to thought. This is because only the ways we have learned to structure our experience of reality cause us to divide it into separate things. We can choose to make a thing out of any part of our perceptual field. This leads me to define a thing as simply "an object of thought".

I am not saying that things are unreal in the sense of not corresponding to areas of reality, only that they are not actually separate from their surroundings in any objective sense. In other words, it is only the action of our minds that separates an entity from its environment. It is the mental process of separation that creates things.

So all physical 'things' are actually non-distinct, not separate, not bounded, not apart, undivided, not independent, not individual.

Our minds use virtually the same eleven criteria to determine shape, which is equally a mental construct. Ultimately, shape is an illusion because there is no such thing as an isolated shape - it is always seen against a background, from which we arbitrarily distinguish it. Reality is not composed of things, shapes or chunks, but is single, undivided and without boundaries. Please note I am not saying reality is homogeneous, only that it is not composed of discrete things.

Interpreting clouds

When watching clouds I find I instinctively assign them shapes. If a cloud resembles a horse's head or a battleship then my mind 'sees' it as having that shape. Yet the shape is not really there. I am reading it in, for the cloud is actually almost formless. A little later, the outline of the cloud changes and I give it a new designation, or I may fail to find a shape in it altogether. For that matter, are two clouds with a connecting projection actually one cloud or two? I think the question is meaningless. The same indeterminacy can arise when the trunks of two trees grow out of the one root or when two trees grow into each other.

The physical world is like a procession of clouds across the open sky of our senses. Our minds insist on turning these clouds into identifiable and stable forms. When we identify something we see as being a dog we are typecasting. We are assessing a particular sample of reality as being sufficiently similar to the template of what a dog looks like that we call this example a dog. Similarly, all bodies of water having certain common properties are labelled as a 'lake', no matter how different they look. Not only do we typecast, we also freeze things in time. Trees, cars, people and cities slowly change, but so slowly that we have no trouble maintaining a stable identification in our minds. The point to remember is that reality is actually fluid and formless, though temporary areas of it approximate certain patterns our minds identify as particular forms.

Before things

What is the world before things, before our minds divide the universe into disjoint parts? Answer: it consists of myriad local differences across time and space that impinge on our senses. Visually there are areas of different colour, there is light and dark, there is change. Much the same applies to the other senses. Put another way, the world before things consists of unconnected and unidentified individual sensations. Because there is no ordering principle provided by mind, the world before things is complete chaos in flux.

Before things are identified, no shapes are recognised. The world is a meaningless jumble of sensations. It is like being inside a 3-dimensional environment designed to be totally random, having no identifiable features such as walls or floors, akin to living inside a Jackson Pollock painting, or looking into a kaleidoscope without mirrors (ie without symmetry).

Here is what Sacks writes about a man whose sight was restored after 45 years of blindness,

Virgil told me later that in this first moment he had no idea what he was seeing. There was light, there was movement, there was colour, all mixed up, all meaningless, a blur. Then out of the blur came a voice that said, 'Well?' Then and only then, he said, did he finally realize that this chaos of light and shadow was a face - and, indeed, the face of his surgeon.

Sacks writes that later,
Further problems became apparent as we spent the day with Virgil. He would pick up details incessantly - an angle, an edge, a colour, a movement, - but would not be able to synthesize them, to form a complex perception at a glance... We are not given the world: we make our world through incessant experience, categorization, memory, reconnection.

The world before things is probably a world without qualities, ie lacking simple distinctions such as red vs not-red, and small vs big. Once a quality such as 'red' is clearly defined as a stable criterion of difference, it is a big step towards thing-creation, for an area of red is clearly demarcated from its background. Thus a squirrel is already half-identified if it is seen as being consistently fast.

Note that the world before things is no different from our familiar world except that it is the world of bare phenomena without the interpretation that our minds give it.

Do animals create things in their minds? Yes, if only because they must identify predators as stable, well-defined entities with known habits and attributes. Animals could not survive in a meaningless chaos of perceptions any more than people could. So the creation of things is not a high intellectual process but a basic function of mind.

Some say that in the beginning was the Word. Yet things must have preceded words, as an object must be identified by a mind before it can be named. Thus an object that can be eaten must have been firmly identified as a stable entity (eg a duck) long before terms like 'animal', 'food' or 'confit de canard' could arise.

As for returning to a world before things, this does not seem possible, other than by losing one's mind, or perhaps in a state of deep meditation.



Then there are abstract things such as love, hate, justice, injustice, death, life, self, not-self. Could it be that these are not distinct from each other, but that only thinking makes them so?

An abstraction is something separated out or created by the operation of the mind. An example is the formation of a general concept from consideration of particular instances. If all physical things owe to thought their existence as separate entities, then this is also true of abstractions, because an abstraction is an idea extracted or derived from concrete things. Since the specific, physical things on which the abstraction is based are themselves products of thought and have no individual existence outside thought, this is equally (if not 'more') true of all abstractions. In other words, if physical things are primary creations of mind, then abstractions are secondary creations of mind.

Who do you think you are?

Let's take a look at a key abstraction and its complement: self and not-self. Is there any justification for this partitioning of reality by each of us into two parts, one called the 'I', the other called 'the world'? (Let's put aside the fact that we sometimes see the world as including ourselves.) In other words, is the 'I' - which we also call the 'me', the self, the ego - a thing? Descartes' famous aphorism is, "I think, therefore I am". He meant that his ability to think proved that he existed. I agree with him, but in a way that goes directly counter to his intentions. I interpret his statement to mean that the act of thinking gives the illusion that there is a thinker. In other words, thought and thought only, gives rise to things, including that curiously abstract thing called 'I'.

Criteria of self

If there is such a thing as the individual self, then there must be a criterion for deciding what belongs on the inside of the boundary between self and not-self, ie there needs to be a rule to say what is 'me' and what is not. If no such criterion exists then we are obliged to conclude that self and not-self are one and the same.

What criteria might be candidates for this role? One possibility is the contents of the skin boundary of the body. When I touch a part of my body I normally feel a sensation in two places, the part that touches and the part that is touched. Note, however, that my senses never directly tell me whether what I perceive (through touch, sight etc) is part of the thing called my body or not. Reflection shows that the physical body cannot be an adequate criterion of what the self is. Firstly, most of us identify with our minds rather than with our bodies. Thus when the mind departs from a body at death no-one sees the resulting cadaver as being a person any more. Secondly, if the body were the boundary of the self then cutting one's hair or the amputation of a limb would cut at the self. So would the daily death and replacement of individual cells in the body. Finally, any physical criterion of selfhood, such as that the brain is the locus of self, is not going to work, if only because the separateness of physical things depends on thought, as shown above.

Let's look at a second criterion of self. I have direct knowledge of my sensations, thoughts, beliefs, feelings, intentions and memories, but at best only indirect access to the corresponding phenomena of others. There are also my internal senses, specific to my own body, giving sensations such as feelings of dizziness, hunger, thirst, sleepiness, and pain. Another crucial sense that most people are not even aware of is proprioception, the sense that tells me about the relative motion and position of parts of my body.

All this means I feel I experience my mind and my body from the 'inside', other people from the 'outside'. I can be pretty sure that everyone else is in the same situation, ie each conscious being has their own, private experience, which is similar in nature to mine but separate from it. I am the thinker of my private thoughts, which control my actions. I can directly (if only partially) control my body and my thoughts by using my will. Thus I can choose to clench my fist (the familiar miracle of mind moving matter) or to think about the weekend, but I can't make another person do so.

I witness my own sensory and mental experience, but not anyone else's. Another person has their private experience and is its sole witness. This gives us a reliable criterion of selfhood as the realm of private experience. The privateness of experience is the cause of the basic aloneness of each of us, an aloneness that can at best be partially bridged by various forms of communication.

A third criterion of self, related to the last but distinct from it, is that my self is the witness and controller of my private experiences described above. This means identifying my self as an awareness and a will.

A person's mind is their castle

Where does the argument in favour of the self's existence based on the privacy of experience lead us? It says that whatever is available to me from the inside as thought or feeling is my self. The rest - the world available to me through my senses (except for my own body, the only object under my direct control) - is not-self. This is analogous to my dividing the world into what I personally experience and what I see on television. Another analogue is the inhabitant of a remote African settlement. He might divide the world into his village - which he knows and is real to him - and everywhere else, where he has not been and hence is hardly real to him. In other words, the distinction between private and external experience is just another way of arbitrarily partitioning the universe according to categories of perception. So the notion of self results from the way we structure reality into parts.

The status of self

Another way to approach the question of the self is to continue the line of reasoning that disposed of material things. Thus if the self is derived from the physical thing called a body, then its status as a separate entity is as much a creation of thought as is the body's separateness from its environment. If the self is identified as internal experience plus the matter we directly control (our bodies), then it results from yet another mind-chosen demarcation that we impose on reality. In other words, it owes its existence to thought. Finally, if we adopt the criterion of self as comprising awareness and will, then it has the status of an entity created by our minds out of these two abstractions.

The conclusion is that 'I' have no separate existence except as the object of thought. "Whose thought?" you ask. This returns us to the Cartesian illusion, for why is there a need to posit a 'who' to do the thinking? Descartes might as well have dropped an 'r' and said, "Cogito ego sum," - I think I am an ego. The mystics tell us that the ego is an illusion, that self and world are in fact one.

So what?

Does all this cogitation have any practical consequences? Apart from giving encouragement to those disposed to pursue mystical experience, ie direct experience, as opposed to experience through the senses,

What does 'real' really mean?

We have seen that both physical things and all ideas, including that of the 'I', are mental constructs. This does not mean they are 'unreal' except in the narrow sense of not being directly perceptible to the senses as separate entities. What does 'real' mean? It can't just mean "perceptible to the senses". Every feeling and thought I experience is as real as a sensation. Nor is something too small to see, or for some other reason imperceptible to humans, unreal for that reason. Since things arise through the subjective process called thought, they are themselves subjective, and so agreement among people as to their objective existence proves nothing. It amounts to finding a common base of conditioning.


Things in general are rather like the neutrinos, gravity waves and black holes created by the minds of scientists. In a sense it is futile to ask whether these theoretical constructs really exist or not. What matters is their degree of usefulness in helping us to make predictions about, and to control the world we live in. To question whether a scientific theory gives us a 'true understanding' of the physical world is the wrong way to look at science.

Einstein wrote, "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." He saw the scientist as a person who devises theories to explain how a clock functions, but without the power to open the clock to see how it actually works. To put it simply, abstract thought is at best a doubtful path to truth.

Ideas are things, and in common with all physical and abstract things, ideas are maps that we use to guide us. Just as a road map is useful when we are in unfamiliar territory, so our ideas are useful in that ultimate unfamiliar territory called reality. Wilber points out that ideas have as much or as little reality as meridians of longitude. The point is not to confuse the map composed of our ideas with the territory, to not take the products of our minds, however seductive they may be, for reality. No-one would confuse Victoria with a map of that state; yet this is equivalent to what we do all the time. For we are heartily convinced that things exist, in particular we are sure of being separate entities, each of which calls itself "I".



All the above is the verbal expression of thought. In a sense, what I have written is one big tautology: merely pointing out that we think about things by choosing them as objects of thought. This is especially obvious with abstractions, which by definition owe their existence to thought. So this article is just thought thinking about thought, trying to catch itself with its pants down. If it uncovers a few hidden assumptions and loosens up the reader's thinking a little, then it has done its job.

Tad Boniecki

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