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The Nature of Existence

IN the last chapter we were largely concerned with the world of manifestation as the domain of physical forces and natural evolution. It seemed necessary to emphasise the realities of matter and force in order to avoid the misapprehensions which arise when idealistic arguments are introduced. Moreover, only by specifically considering these realities may one adequately understand the conception of God as immanent. From one point of view, no interpretation of the divine nature is more convincing than the one which regards every detail of the physical world as immediately grounded in the life and character of God. The objectivity of God’s manifestation clearly conceived, one is free to give unreserved attention to the mental world. Whatever the ultimate character of the universe, it is clear that the final system has room for nature as well as for mind. If in one sense the dualism of mind and matter is overcome in the ultimate system of relations, their union can only be intelligibly found by complete loyalty from first to last to their contrasted qualities. Hence it is well to bear in mind the magnitude of the problem. Any purely subjective theory must prove as one-sided as are all merely objective doctrines. The wisest course seems to be to consider now this phase of the world, now that, all the while endeavouring to be faithful to facts, laws, distinctions. With this purpose in mind, let us begin an entirely fresh study of the phenomena of experience.

When we look abroad in the world of life in quest of a clue to the nature of existence, we are at first inclined to describe life in material terms. So large a portion of our time is spent in providing the wherewithal to live, that occupation is naturally synonymous with philosophy.* Most of our customs and modes of speech are based on the assumption that man is a physical being. We speak of a person’s face as if we really saw the individual. We even regard our bodies as ourselves. And it requires searching thought to dissociate the self from its outer garment. Of course, when we pause to think, we know that this body is not the real man. Accident may disfigure the body, but the soul is not disfigured. Endless experiences may come, in varying environments, yet it is always the same individual who perceives them. We may present many aspects or selves to different individuals, yet the same being resides behind these personalities, or masks. A man may deceive others, but he cannot be other than himself. He may be “beside himself,” as the saying is, or “out of his head” in a fever. But he comes to himself again. Consciousness subsides in sleep, but that is no argument to show that it is gone, or that it is a product of the body. Man becomes insane, but it is in pursuit
of an idea. Insanity does not prove a man less but more mental. And although the body ceases to be an animated whole at death, many of us expect to live in a finer world where a material body will not be needed.

*That is, we do not discriminate between the appearances of things and the reality which analytical thinking would reveal. To judge by our behaviour, would no doubt be to conclude that we are materialists.

There are many lines of thought, then, which lead from the physical world to the mental. They are lines of thought,—note that. One cannot even raise the question concerning the existence of matter without turning from the body to the mind. The grossest materialist must use mental facts to argue for materialism. But, you say, he may contend that thought is a function of the brain. So it would seem. This is a common supposition, based on the presupposition that we know more about matter than about mind. This assumption lies at the basis of our habit of regarding ourselves as physical beings. The truth is that, despite our ignorance of many mental functions, we know far more about mind than about matter.

The first fact pointed out by the materialist as evidence of the existence of matter by itself is physical sensation, for example, the sensation of heat or cold. If we touch a hot stove, the hand is burned; whereas a stove without fire gives an entirely different sensation. Surely, the materialist contends, there is nothing mental about this experience. Again, the materialist might argue: I look out of the window and see yonder house, well knowing that it is at a distance from me. I can descend the stairs and walk to that house, thus proving that there is real external space, apart from the mind. Moreover, I am compelled to put my body through many successive movements, thus showing that there is time. I can touch the house, note its colour, run against it and thereby meet resistance; I cannot think it away.

Yes, I reply, the existence of temporal and spatial experience is unquestioned. The existence of sensation is equally certain, no one denies that there are differing sensations and that they are in some sense real. But the kind of reality is the point at issue. How do I happen to know that there are hot and cold substances? What makes me aware of motor experiences? How do I know that there is space? It is by comparison of mental experiences. All things were apparently spread before me as if on an immediately tangible plane surface or wall, until I began as an infant to test their relations. The simplest interpretation of space is the result of much mental experience, and it is impossible to dissociate space from the idea of it.

Yes, the materialist admits, but this is merely the training of the organism, and of course that is essential. Varied spatial experiences awaken varied ideas concerning the relationship of objects. Thus the ideas are produced by physical phenomena.

That is half of the truth, I reply, but do the varied experiences compare themselves? Do they fall into an adjustment such that I always know how to judge the connection of objects in space? What are the sensations by which I judge, and how are they known? What is the ego that feels, knows, and judges? Is that a mere automaton? The materialist is compelled to admit that the nature of the ego is unknown to him. He must admit that to touch different objects would not suffice to show that they are unequally distant from the tactual organism. This mental discovery is unlike anything the materialist can point to in the physical world. The existence of space is a discovery made by the mind. Likewise with the perception of time. A new moment does not rise up and inform me that time has elapsed since the last. Meditation on the fact of change leads to the discovery of time. So with colours, sounds, tastes, and odours. These gradually differentiate amidst the general mass of impressions which is brought in from the outside world. The colours might, it is true, have been present in some unknown form before the first wondering glance of the infant, but all that we know about them is in terms of conscious experience. They are non-existent for the infant. The material world means nothing to us without thought. Our real progress is growth in thought; without it we should never be aught more than infants. The training of the body is insignificant when compared with the training which we give the mind. This is not to say that the body does not exist, but that it is not primary in the sense ordinarily believed. Mind and body have been co-operative from the start.

The materialist talks about sensation as if there could be such a thing apart from the mind that is conscious of it. This term is as much a figure of speech as our reference to the sun as “rising” and “setting.” A sensation is an impression made upon the body by a physical object or force. As hypothetically physical it is an action from outside. But how can an action from outside be felt without something to meet it from within? A sense organ meets it, in the first place, but as soon as consciousness knows it, it ceases to be a sensation, and becomes a perception, that is, a mental product. That is why sensation is in reality hypothetical; it conceivably exists, but we do not know what it is, because we have never felt one. As felt by the mind, perception is twice removed from matter regarded as external to the body. The infant is conceivably in the immediate presence of sensation, in its first moments of blurred contact with the world. But the moment the first distinction in consciousness arises the inner or mental contribution begins, and the mind is so much farther removed from matter. What the mind really contemplates is not sensation, but its own states, its consciousness of what we for convenience call “sensation.” The appeal to sensation is therefore futile; for we know sensation only through consciousness.

Do you realise the full significance of this fundamental statement ? If so, and if you have hitherto looked at things from the outside, it means that you must now view them from within, that you can never again wholly view them in any other way. For note this, there is one fact from which you can never sunder your life, your experience, namely, you are conscious. Whatever else you are, whatever else life is, you are ever a conscious being; all your philosophising should begin with this fact. Whatever you know, is known in terms of consciousness. All that you feel, is consciously felt. All that you see, is perceived by the eye of the mind. For, as already noted, you do not see the retinal image; you mentally contemplate the object after it has been translated into an idea. All that you hear is a mental somewhat in some way corresponding to aural vibration. The experiences of hardness, softness, colour, temperature, light, taste, are mental. What these might be apart from your consciousness you are entirely unable to say. You might as well try to state the day and hour when time began.

There is no reason to doubt that objective activities which give rise to what we denote as sound,” “sight” and the other perceptions exist, but it is pure matter of convenience to call these experiences “physical.” What we mean to say, when we use words accurately, is that some of our experiences arise objectively, while others have a subjective origin. The experience which we call consciousness is awareness of relations existing between objective states and subjective states. This statement does not necessarily mean that, because I know things through mind, therefore what my mind translates for me was mind before it was translated. Nor am I, the perceiver, necessarily my own mental states, and nothing more. For as a soul, or spiritual being, my mode of contact with the world of nature may be but one type of spiritual experience.

Largely apart from the perceptual relationship with nature, I may have consciousness of a purer sort,* which may tell me more directly what the nature of existence is. It is of no avail, however, for the materialist to insist that because I cannot transcend mind I know nothing about it. I cannot define mind except in terms of consciousness; I can say no more than this: that mental states are states of the soul. But when it is a question of the contrast between mind and matter, I am able to answer the materialist’s last argument by referring to the fundamental fact that, although I know but little about mind by itself, what little I do know is known in terms of consciousness.

* For example, the intellectual and volitional states, the processes of rational insight.

Even so far as mind is conditioned by the brain, I am aware of those conditions only through mind. Those conditions may cease to be effective after death, but that does not imply that the mind will cease to exist, for I do not know enough about matter to affirm that it can destroy mind, and I do know enough about mind to declare that it is more fundamental, more intimately a part of me. For there is not the slightest evidence that consciousness is solely a product of the brain.

Without a brain, it is true, I probably should not have such experiences as we call “sound,” “taste,” ‘’ light,” ‘’ heat,” and the rest. But physical perception is only the lowest grade of conscious experience. Even that experience must have a percipient background. Whatever is brought forward from the physical side, it is met by a stronger fact on the mental side, in the shape of that which interprets it. There are no purely “physical” experiences without mental correspondencies; whereas there are many mental states which have no exact physical counterpart, such, for example, as our logical and mathematical processes of thought.

The sense of resistance is sometimes pointed out as purely physical, as the most fundamental evidence that the physical world exists. But all that we know about this experience is that force meets force. The materialist is unable to tell us what that force is. Moreover, resistance is not physical alone. Whose mental world is so poor that the soul has never encountered the resistance offered by fears, doubts, states of despondency and the like? What is more stubborn than one’s own lower self? Again, the fact of motion is said to be primarily physical. But motion is not confined to the physical world; no moment of consciousness stands still. Consciousness is like a river where there is always a perceptible current.

You may doubt the existence of nature, but you cannot logically doubt the existence of mind. Our natural life may be a dream, but if it be “of such stuff as dreams are made of,” it is all the more emphatically mental. If we shall sometime awaken to know things as they more truly are, it will probably be an awakening into a more distinct form of consciousness, where the soul is made more directly aware of what it now knows mediately. The flesh may be and doubtless is a constant source of illusion, but that is an argument for the idealist, not for the materialist. For if the mind would be freer without the body, it is all the more real; the conditions which are supposed to produce consciousness really hamper it.

Another effective argument is found in the fact that, whereas the body tends to condition the mind and man would be largely an animal if he succumbed, it is possible to triumph over the animal characteristics of the flesh and be less and less hindered by them. As powerful as are out fleshly conditions, the soul has a power whereby it can progressively transcend and transmute many of them. No analysis of physical life is capable of accounting for these progressive triumphs,
this superior power. The mind tends to be unlike the flesh. It is more than the flesh. As an effect cannot be greater than its cause, we must look elsewhere than to the physical world to find the sufficient ground of all that the mind displays. That the mind awakens and displays its powers only when changing conditions furnish opportunity, is no argument in favour of matter as a cause. Matter may indeed furnish the occasion, at the outset, but there is evidence that later the soul compels the occasion.

If, now, we have really found our way into the subjective world, let us look about and take our bearings. Our argument thus far has emphasised the fact that primarily life is an affair of consciousness. We found it possible to listen to the last word of the materialist, then reply that as ponderable and real as his world is it is nevertheless known only through mind. Wherever we go, whatever our argument, from consciousness we cannot escape. This is the primary condition of life, and life is always as large for us and no larger than our consciousness. Yet to argue that consciousness is primary and, so far as we know, universal, is far from contending that it is just our consciousness and no other. The helpless babe lives in a conscious world, yet that world is brought in upon its little self through no effort of will or self-consciousness. In the early years, especially, consciousness is produced in us; it is not we who produce consciousness. Later, the soul awakens to awareness of self, discovers desires, and the power of action. These factors, as we have already said, are instrumental in bringing about changes in the flesh. Yet it is well to remember that, all through life, the changes in our consciousness are largely changes produced in us by a reality objective to our wills. We are compelled to be conscious; consciousness is given; it is not created from within. There is no mere unrelated consciousness. We build upon and modify consciousness, but it is the “stream of thought” which supplies the wherewithal. Much of the time we are little more than reflective observers.

To be conscious, then, is to live in a world. What that world might be apart from our consciousness we do not know, for we have not had the experience. Our consciousness is the translating medium through which the world is put before us in the form of ideas. It is the prime condition of existence—that is the most we can say. Wisdom obviously consists in learning as much as we can about the condition, that we may more fully reap the benefits of an existence that is given to, not chosen by, us.

I emphasise the fact that life is given, because the tendency of many who in some measure understand the power of thought is to speak as if its conditions were of our own making. If existence were merely an affair of personal thought, if thought were “omnipotent,” the mind could of course create or destroy at will. There would then be in reality only this particular self; there would be no world, only this one person’s subjective states; for there could not be two omnipotent powers.

To transfer the centre of power from the physical world to the mental is not by any means to try to prove it to be any less real or less the gift of the Spirit. We must continually guard against confusion between the term “thought,” used in a finite, personal sense; and the term “consciousness,” employed to designate the condition of life in general. Consciousness is our total experience from infancy onwards, the connection between the self, the world, and the Supreme Spirit. It is at once the world as made known and the reactions of the soul on the world, including perception, emotion, will, the rational process, desire, and the like. It is the general whole, known in childhood as a confused mass, in which various related parts are gradually noted, considered, and classified.

Thought, regarded as meditation upon this general whole, which is progressively discovered, is of course dependent, limited. It represents, symbolises, imitates, understands by contrast, comparison, and seizes upon certain phases of consciousness which it chooses to be concerned with for a time, while all else is permitted to fall into the background. It thus abstracts, it is indirect, mediate. To some of its abstractions, worshipped as truth, we owe our ages of departure from the reality of life. The concrete consciousness, on the other hand, from which these small sections of life were abstracted, was direct, immediate, and would have been a far safer guide to knowledge of reality. Thought is in a sense thrice removed from the world of reality, since it deals with remembered perceptions, or feelings, which were originally translated sense-experiences. There is every reason, then, for holding to the concrete, the first-hand experiences; and avoiding the artificial constructions of thought whereby we theoretically sunder ourselves from the world.

Moreover, as the self or soul which abides in us is more real than the thought which passes, if we were really concerned to develop a theory which should centre about the individual, we ought to put our doctrine in terms of the self, not in terms of its thoughts. The self is at once the thinker, the perceiver, and the centre of will, or attention. Although we know the soul only through what it does, through observation of ourselves as self-conscious, yet thought must take the soul into account as the prime factor. The soul and the reality whence springs the world— these are the two fundamental facts, and all our philosophising is an attempt to understand their relationships. We may then dismiss as inadequate the doctrine which undertakes to describe life in terms of thought. It is in its way as inadequate as materialism. Even consciousness, as we know it, may not be a large enough term; for both the world and the soul may be more substantial than any analysis of present consciousness reveals; and thought, at best, is only a part of consciousness.

But in dismissing the theory that thought is all-complete, we do not so readily escape from our subjectivity. One may still contend that this consciousness which I contemplate is just my consciousness, and no other. For what do I know about an alleged world existing beyond me except in terms of my own states? What do I know about you other than that which my consciousness of your relationships with me reveals? To me, the world is what I am conscious of concerning it. To me, you are what I know or think you to be. What you may be in and for yourself I do not and cannot know, for I cannot transcend my consciousness of you to acquire your consciousness of you.

Thus one might continue to accumulate arguments until, in the end, one would feel hopelessly subjective. But we may as well pause here, for if the escape from subjectivity be once made there is no going back. First let us admit, however, that there is a deep truth in these considerations. What we think and know is indeed thought and known as we apprehend it. But the fact that I know the world only as I know it does not signify that there is no world objective to myself; and the fact that I know you only as I am impressed by you does not signify that there is no self to make the impression, no “you” to know yourself intimately. I might even throw light upon your life for you, know you in part better than you know yourself, despite the fact that what I know would be known as I perceive it. The fact that I know only in an individual way is of far less consequence than that I am compelled to be conscious.

The truth, then, is that I do not need to make my escape from the subjective world. I never existed in such a world, alone. I have always been outside, that is, my most intimately self-conscious states are never purely my own. They are due to relations between myself and the world, between the soul and the Ground of all souls. Consciousness is from the start a co-operative product. The world comes to me and I slowly begin to recognise it. My soul is the centre of my world, to be sure, but I do not even discover my soul until I have discovered the world. Self-consciousness is a relatively late psychological development. I learn that I exist as a self by contrast with objects and selves external to me. The act of discovery is thus itself an objective thought, as it were. The subjective world is first known as a sort of development or projection of the objective realm. The discovery is made only as rapidly as it is possible to contrast the relatively objective with the relatively subjective.

This fine discrimination becomes clearer when stated in terms of activity. It is conceivable that the first sensation, if it could have been known by itself, would have been a sense of activity. The growing life of the physical organism reaches the point where it makes itself known.

Thus consciousness begins, the soul begins to awaken. On the physiological side, the first experience is activity, movement, life. On the mental side, it is the sensation which corresponds to activity, movement, life. The sensation itself is movement, life. A dead thing, if such there be, is not and could not be conscious. There may possibly be movement without consciousness, but there cannot be consciousness as we now know it without movement. Consciousness is awareness of change, and change implies movement. Consciousness is also a relating faculty, but new relations are perceived through the stream of consciousness. Consciousness flows, changes are produced in our consciousness by changes in our environment. To be sure, change may originate within; but I am speaking now of its earlier external origination.

What the infant possesses at the outset is not lost; self-consciousness adds to, it does not take away from. Motion or life is common to the mind and to the external world, whence come changing activities. There is no chasm to bridge between the soul and nature. From the first moment of the conceivable dawn of consciousness there was activity all along the line. There is and has been no separation. That which we know as the changing play of consciousness is on the physical side the motion or life of what we call “matter.” The distinctions between the natural and conscious worlds are not sufficiently marked to warrant the isolation of the mind in a realm all its own, sundered from nature. In reality, we know motion or life only in terms of mind. We agree to classify certain activities as “mental,” others as “physical,” but that does not mean that they have no interchangeable activities. Take away all motion, and you remove all basis of belief in a natural world; but you as surely rob mind.

In closing the present discussion, we must ernphasise the dual aspect of consciousness as thus far considered, (1) consciousness as brought in upon us; and (2) consciousness as emanating from within. The discovery of a world of activity, that is, the discovery through the fact of activity that there is a world, implies a corresponding or co-operative activity springing from the soul. In later chapters we shall make more use of this fact. Here we simply note its bearing on the preceding discussion, and chronicle the relationship of activity and consciousness as equally fundamental, although activity may antedate our consciousness of it. The soul, then, is an active as well as a conscious being. Activity is a phase of consciousness, and consciousness is a phase of activity. There is of course a difference between mere thought and thought in action, although all our thoughts, all our ideals tend to express themselves in action. But activity is always present in some form. The final statement about life must include both the forces of nature and the highest activities of the soul, the sentiments of love and beauty, the joys of our spiritual existence.

Our analysis of the nature of existence, therefore, has revealed two ineradicable factors, though we have not established the argument for activity on as firm a basis as that for consciousness.* (1) Existence is fundamentally conscious, and (2) existence is fundamentally active. A third characteristic has only been briefly referred to, namely, existence is also social. So far are we from being isolated or subjective beings, that life would be impossible were it not for our dependence on one another. The discovery of the self is a social discovery. We become aware that other beings are here before we know that we exist. The self is discovered by contrast with another self ministering unto us. From the first moment, we live in a social world and we can never get outside of it. There is every reason, therefore, for the development of a social rather than an individualistic system out of the fundamental facts of consciousness. All parts of life are inextricably bound together. The study of existence from the point of view of consciousness does not in any way impoverish our conception of life; it greatly enlarges it. Thus we return to the point of view of the universe of manifestation. In the profoundest sense we must understand the divine order, and the relationship of souls in that order, before we can truly evaluate either the phenomena of nature or the activities of mind.

*The question of activity will be considered in other chapters.


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