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HOW PHILOSOPHY COULD SAVE THE WORLD Cultural and Economic Diaspora, Self-sufficiency, Person-hood

The Situation

verncovecropMy name is Vernon Molloy.

If you are reading this, you also have a name. Reading and writing are impossible unless newborns are named and lots of other cultural stuff occurs.

This is a wonderful, perilous circumstance.Trillions of creatures pass through existence every second without noticing that they are alive.

Ten, twenty, thirty thousand years ago, our ancestors started naming objects, animals and children. They started making sure children understood that those sounds were their names. Because of this, languages, music, mathematics ... rooted up. Arts, economies and populations flourished.

These successes spawned dangerous conceits. Human beings started talking about God incarnating persons for Divine purposes. We started talking about evolution, with human beings at the top of the ladder. No matter which fantasy is indulged - some of us manage both - notions of supremacy and entitlement remain insatiable.

This arrogance may be short-lived. Convinced that God or evolution fashioned persons - and not creatures capable of becoming persons - we think we deserve everything we see. We speak of leaving something for future generations, but insist upon getting our hands on it so it can be properly directed.

Ironically, since such God-like creatures should only have to wish for horses to ride, we have been outsourcing many of the responsibilities transforming human beings into persons.

Before the human beings to persons ratio gets worse, we might want to take a second look at what is going on.

  • The processes generating conscious episodes are  more complicated and interesting than the imaginary worlds we compile and promote into commonsense claims.
  • We think these imaginary worlds are perched in a vanishingly small interval called the present situated between past and future.
  • We think there must be a present because we need somewhere to store belongings and catch our breath.

This cannot be true. There are two other useful questions:

  • Does it makes sense that God carved human beings out of creation for some special purpose?
  • Does it make sense that human beings were distilled out of atoms and molecules in ways setting us apart from other creatures?

If the  answer to both is no,where does this leave us?

I propose that everything going on is a 'local event' within the 'Big Bang Event'. You and I are not things born into an actual world. We are events in an ocean of events. We emerge,  endure for a while, then subside. We distill glimpses of events into talk about objects, entities, persons and a world containing them.


Notions of objects, entities and persons are akin to taking derivatives in calculus.  They involve vanishingly-small instants wherein pasts become futures and chickens and eggs take turns being first. (The Irish philosopher Bishop Berkeley referred to derivatives as the 'ghosts of departed quantities'.)

There are other challenges to realism and commonsense:

  • We  are only aware of a few of the events constituting our lives.
  •  Unless we talk to one another, we have no idea what is going on in one another's lives - and a correspondingly impoverished sense of an actual world.
  • Even if an actual world existed, we could not have real-time relationships with its objects and entities. Although they seem real, objects and entities are images of historical events. Some intervals involved can be expressed in picoseconds, some are incomprehensibly long. Sunshine comes  into existence 8 minutes and 20 seconds before your and my enjoyment is possible. Light from Alpha Centauri - the closest star in the Milky Way galaxy - started our way 4.5 years ago.

Since human beings remember experiences, but not intervals separating them, awarenesses and memories hang together seamlessly. Every morning my life seems to pick up from where it left off the night before.

This sets the stage for realism - the idea of an actual, external world -  and narratives we think of as our lives. (I owe this understanding to Derek Parfit: Reasons and Persons, Oxford Paperbacks, 1984.)

Because we talk about experiences and organize projects based on these conversations, we conclude that an actual world exists.

Immanuel Kant referred to this as the noumenal world. Plato thought the world human beings experienced consisted of poor copies of perfect entities populating the Realm of the Forms.

I hope to persuade you that such claims cannot be true.

The conscious episodes we think of as our lives integrate memories and experiencdes  with a view to predicting what will happen if we do or fail to do stuff. Such  proceedings can be understood as elongated Stimulus-Response networks. Conscious episodes occur during the hyphens separating Stimuli and Responses.

As far as we know, interposing conscious episodes between stimuli and responses distinguishes human beings.  However, there is no reason to assume that this capacity does not occur in other creatures on Earth or elsewhere. Consciousness is not a faculty human beings have and other creatures lack.  Consciousness is a straightforward evolution of stimulus-response capabilities.The fact that conscious episodes look and feel like something is an efficient way to embody 'organic significances' so that optimal responses occur.

The arguments I offer  are simple. Sophisticated individuals might wish to consider the reality described by quantum physicists. The following is from:

According to one interpretation, as the result of a measurement the wave function containing the probability information for a system collapses from a given initial state to a particular eigenstate. ... The basic idea is that when a quantum system interacts with a measuring apparatus, their respective wave-functions become entangled, so that the original quantum system ceases to exist as an independent entity.

What is not often noticed is that such resolutions only benefit observers in the room.  Others must make observations resolving quantum probabilities into imaginary objects, entities, events and - if they live in robust communities - notions of an actual world.

These resulting images, gestalts, reifications... are what realism and common sense have in mind.

To consider the same issue from another vantage point, the 2013 Nobel committee  recognized that the Higgs Boson and associated Higgs field were  responsible for  massive particles.  Because of  the resistance imposed by Higgs fields some events no longer proceed at the speed of light. Without this differentiation you and I would not  exist because nothing would clump together enough to evolve into events capable of noticing anything.

In other words,  conscious episodes and private worlds are not more or less accurate renderings of an independently existing world.  They are tips on an iceberg of unfathomable events.


In the meantime, in the here and now of common sense and realism, seeing is believing. Even though we  acknowledge that appearances can be deceptive, we have not grasped that images, sensations and conscious episodes are not renderings of actual objects but more or less robust predictions of what the future will consist of.

Notions of dogs, cats, trees and people are guesses or expectations of  what would happen if we touched the images crossing our minds. The common sense idea of a world full of things, entities and events is a wonderfully useful and enormously dangerous distillation of what is going on.

The most important danger involves the ways objects and notions always seem complete and perfect.  They seem complete because image-generating processes kindly include just enough consciousness to contain them!

Like mythical Cadillacs, images, concepts and thoughts come 'factory-equipped' with parking spaces.  This is why empty, bored, unfulfilled... consciousness is rarely an issue.  Experiences of unease, anxiety, inadequacy... can almost always be tracked back to some hormonal event, failed project or commercial blandishment.

  • Recommendations that life-styles could do with a bit of improving occur every day.
  • According to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, undigested beef is sometimes involved.

The point is, human beings' factory setting is  that  every idea,  every image, every conclusion...  is perfect.  How could it be otherwise? The function of ideas, images, conclusions... is to improve responses. The notion that ideas, images, conclusions... could do with a bit of improvement never crosses our minds. Indeed, until communities and languages emerged, such worries would have been impossible.

This is why we prefer gossiping  about the weather, the antics of public figures or the prospects of drug-addled athletes to discussing substantive issues. Only the inebriated or ideologically-driven attempt to persuade bystanders of the brilliance of their understanding.

Unfortunately, such  individuals find converts more often than might be expected. I think the reason is that we are uncomfortable with deferred responses and unresolved tensions. Tucking in behind anyone with a plan dissolves the need for conscious episodes and the tensions they represent.

The resulting platoons of shoppers and soldiers can be easily deputized to seek out bargains, kill infidels and, in general, hand over the value of their lives and work.

I propose a more survivable  way of thinking about what is going on:

  • Each person dreams a world into existence and then imagines herself inhabiting it.
  • You have your world.  I have mine. There are as many imaginary worlds as there are people.
  • There is no corresponding actual world.

Why do these imaginary worlds seem so real?

The most important reason is that they are distilled out of experiences and make successful responses possible.

The second reason is that they embody features of community lives.

  • As far as we know, only human beings have the capacity to retain and reflect upon memories. Other creatures depend upon reflexes, conditioned responses, speed, strength, vision... to survive.
  • As far as we know, whenever memories and reflections occur in communities, they spawn languages, cultures, hunting trips, ball games and notions of an actual world.
  • As far as we know, only human beings have the cognitive resources necessary to organize experiences into notions of selves, events and a container world.

Since other creatures do not seem unable to regard themselves the way we do, we reassure ourselves that they do not know that they exist.  This is convenient because we then conclude that they lack moral standing and can be farmed or slaughtered at will.

We treat humans this way too if  ways to dehumanize them cross our minds.

What we overlook in these proceedings is that we notice and name animals and objects if and only if some hunting, farming, petting, manufacturing... project would be advantaged by sorting what is going on into manageable clumps of information.

The point is, whenever you or I see birds flying or squirrels making impossible leaps, we are glimpsing tiny portions of an unknowable reality.

Worlds conjured up based on such glimpses, worlds populated with similarly truncated notions of persons and objects..., are useful the way it is useful to throw dust in the air to see which way the wind is blowing.

The results should not be confused with what is going on.duckrabbit

This is worth thinking for another reason. Our lives are constantly changing. Consciousness has nothing to do with these changes. Awarenesses are always the result of events that have already occurred. They cannot cause themselves.

In addition, human beings have no way of knowing whether or to what extent changes are occurring. No matter how sophisticated we become, we will never be able to measure ourselves for the same reason yardsticks cannot say what they signify. Yardsticks compare things.  They cannot say what the marks along their length signify.

This does not mean that human beings need to feel lonely. Along with shared dependence upon processes spawning notions of  persons and the world, local possibilities and immediate problems bind us into complicated relationships. For example, every creature on the planet inherits the consequences of pollution, resource depletion and political unrest.

The good news is that many of these  problems can be fixed.

The most important repair is that neither the world nor you or I exist the way we  think.  This confusion has been causing us to behave foolishly.

We think we really are something because we think we are some thing. We think we are tourists passing through a world populated with objects, creatures and other persons. We see ourselves as insulated from the consequences of what we get up to.

None of this is true. Geometries locating objects, entities and persons within imagined worlds depend first upon how 'far away' underwriting events happen to be, and then how 'far away' predictions project themselves. An anticipated event a year away will illuminate all the days, weeks and months between in ways that would not have occurred in the absence of this prediction and its associated planning.

In similar ways, the idea of an independently-existing actual world depends upon you and I discussing mutual events for practical reasons - building houses, organizing hunting trips, going to war... .

Finally, it is reasonable to suppose that only an infinitesimal proportion of what is going on has been generating such conversations.  It is reasonable to suppose that this capacity evolved because it helps creatures like you and I prosper. Knowing that sunlight occurred 8 minutes before enjoyment is possible is part of a body of knowledge that makes satellites and GPS systems possible .

These benefits encourage us  to overlook a homely truth.  Awarenesses necessarily involve awareness of objects, entities, events... that have already occurred.  Awareness is always awareness of... !

This means that conclusions, decisions, choices... cannot be conscious achievements.  Consciousness  is the fruit of events that have already occurred. The fact that these intervals are usually small does not matter.

All we can do is make predictions and compare notes.


From time to time I am aware not only of being alive but of myself being alive.

Whenever this happens I like to think of myself enjoying magisterial relationships with events responsible for these episodes.  Candidates include my body, but my house, car, job, family, religion and nation are on the list. Rendered this way, everything and everyone else  becomes the backdrop against which my life proceeds - and a potential resource to be harvested.

I am told that the being having these experiences and claiming these resources became identifiable August 22, 1942. This is usually referred to as being born.

My fortune is that 'my life' was judiciously encouraged.  My family and community had enough resources that they could afford children, but not so much that children were prevented from prospering.

Armed with images of fetuses floating in amniotic sacs, pro-lifers insist that human beings commence nine months earlier than birthdays suggest.

This is an excellent observation but pro-lifers give up too soon.  The question to ask is: why stop at conception?  Why is every person not foreshadowed when their parents met?  … or were  imagined and conceived a generation earlier?  … and so on, ad infinitum?

Conversations about ‘conception days’, ‘birthdays’, ‘death days’ …  attempt to parcel up proceedings that have neither beginnings nor endings.


After a few decades of immortality fantasies, I started  doing stuff to retain my status: bicycle, run, eat well, drink more than I should, bicycle, do push ups ....  So far, so good ... although the equilibrium between catabolism and  anabolism - between building up and tearing down - feels increasingly precarious.

When not muttering to myself or importuning strangers, I operate a tree farm near Belleville, Ontario.   This has something to do with having  been raised on the same farm when the principal crop involved children; and with having read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essays  and Henry Thoreau's Walden in high school.

(For an audio rendering of Walden chapter 1:

If this whets your interest: )

For such reasons, and curiosity about what is going on, my life has been seized with philosophical issues.  As well, the need to survive has led me to question claims underpinning political and economic proceedings. I eventually realized that the most dangerous is the notion that free will is a human birthright - that we are souls or persons inhabiting bodies.

Ironically,  the secular version is equally worrisome. The idea that human beings represent an extraordinary evolutionary achievement appears to sanction equally facile claims of entitlement. In other words, whether ' Divinely Ordained' or 'ordained divinely', the notion that human beings are  special helps explain why we are now convening the biggest destruction of life since a comet eliminated the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Since there are no safe places on sinking ships, this conceit also threatens human well-being.  Global warming, environmental contamination, resource-depletion issues ... are already causing misery and turmoil.  In most discussions these issues are traced to population growth, industrialization or moral decay.  The truth is:

  1. Modern economies require endless growth to avoid collapse.
  2. Endless growth is impossible in a small world.
  3. If a proportion of human needs were met by way of self-reliant communities, spontaneous efficiencies would reduce environmental burdens.
  4. In such communities 'progress and development' would focus upon preserving rather than exploiting resources.
  5. The resulting durable devices and small, beautiful systems would assist  'emerging populations' far better than the antics of multinationals and the  politics of globalization.

In the meantime, the only 'good news' is bad news for most of us.  Increasingly intelligent machines and systems mean that wealth flows to fewer and fewer owners,  to military and corporate adventures, and to entertainments designed to distract the rest of us from our predicament. Every new technology, every improvement in institutional and manufacturing efficiency, means products and services can be produced with fewer people earning a living wage. The resulting collapse of the supply:demand equation is already destabilizing economies.

This only makes sense if  the wealthy are moving to a different economic model. (See

This should not come as a surprise.  Since the world's wealthy already own everything, they have no need to make more money to buy more stuff. Instead, common sense and self-interest recommends expanding the proportion of human beings   on $2.00 a day lifestyles from fifty per cent to something like eighty per cent.


To glimpse an alternative we need to think about themselves in a new way.  We need to recognize that  persons do not exist because Divine Creation, evolution - or, a recent hypothesis, harnessing fire to cook food - yielded creatures with big brains.

In The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral mind, (1976,2000: Houghton Mifflin/Mariner Books) Julian Jaynes proposed that self-awareness emerged when genetic endowments combined with cultural resources - something he thinks first occurred roughly 3000 years ago, between the times the Greek poet Homer penned The Iliad and The Odyssey.

However and whenever it happened, a threshold  was crossed very recently in human history.  Although beings just like you and I have existed for at least 250,000 years,  self-aware persons only recently became reliable possibilities.

Rather than assume that self-awareness and person-hood are birthrights, we need to figure out how they happened. We need to keep on doing it.

Backlander projects are my contribution.  They are based on thinking introduced by the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (circa 500 B.C.) and developed in Alfred North Whitehead's 1927 Gifford Lectures.

Briefly, the world is an event, not a container stuffed with things undergoing change. Within this context, consciousness ebbs and flows within 'local events' sometimes known as persons.

Linking rich consciousness with a fragile balance of cultural activities, community life and self-sufficiency underscores the importance of getting 'things' right.


In 1729, two years after Gulliver's Travels was published, Irish writer Jonathan Swift published A Modest Proposal. The essay featured a suggestion for families seeking to improve their bleak prospect: "a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...”.

In the 18th century, relentless poverty in Ireland made the idea of raising and selling children as culinary delicacies for wealthy tables satirically plausible. After all, such children would be well fed for a year or more, rather than doomed to starve upon birth.  Even so,  Swift's suggestion was so outrageous that he  did not anticipate being attacked for being in earnest.  He was however - which must have both delighted and horrified him.  Such delight would have been understandable and such horror not misplaced. Swift's send up continues to be an excellent description of the way human beings treat one another. The wealthy continue to exploit human beings, so long as they can be identified as other, alien or inferior.

More often than not, the rest of us are willing to sell our souls - and anything else we can get our hands on - in attempts to join them on at the top.

To be sure, some things have changed.  Three hundred years of progress and development since Mr. Swift ruffled aristocratic feathers means that today's movers and shakers can reach out and touch people on the other side of the world. They have, indeed, contrived to include future generations in their terrifying embrace.

There is  a  way to avoid this prospect.  Unfortunately, the solution will not be easy because it involves ridding ourselves of our favourite fantasy - the notion  that human beings automatically become persons a few months or  years after birth.  This conceit has been  nursing greed and arrogance on one hand, and apathy and despair on the other.

How could this be accomplished?   We must come to understand that we are not little Gods wandering the  world in bodies we magically possess and control. We must recognize that human beings are neither more nor less than sustained events. Like thunderstorms, cats, trees and stones ... most remain identifiable for years - and a few for centuries.  Shakespeare, Darwin, Christ, Newton, Einstein ... continue to inform events even though they no longer have identifiable centres,  even though they are no longer alive.

The issue that should most concern us is that talk about persons, animals, objects and 'current events' requires something that is in no way guaranteed: communities of self-conscious, mutually-aware human beings.  Squirrels and earthworms do not - and cannot - have such conversations.  They do not suffer anxieties, endure dreads or savour moments because they are not, and cannot become, self-aware the way human beings often do.

When self-aware communities emerged -  as far as we know they have always been human communities -  some events began to be understood as persons and others as lesser creatures.  Everything left over became stones, houses, atoms and, eventually, Higgs Bosons.

The point is just that, no matter how many worlds exist, no matter how many conscious beings inhabit these worlds, talk about entities and objects will only occur if awarenesses are communicated in beneficial ways. If I shout: "Watch out for the car!", and this prevents you from being run over, you are likely to conclude that you and I share an actual world.

This admittedly useful fiction has been leveraged into talk of not not only an actual world but of a world populated with moral and rational agents. The resulting arrogance has been spawning sophisticated technologies, shallow relationships and devastated communities. This matters because, without local well-being, we will not be able to sustain our sense of The World as a fragile, exquisitely balanced event.  We will not be able to imagine and care about one another.

If so,  the inequities that have been writhing into existence should give us pause.  After thousands of years of awareness and understanding, 'progress and development' could  be setting the stage for moral and rational collapse