What if Descartes' dictum: “I think, therefore I am” was not sufficiently rigorous? What if “I thought, therefore I was” is all skepticism allows?
In the following, I argue that this is indeed our circumstance and suggest why not understanding this has cost a great deal. I also sketch benefits awaiting those pondering what lies behind the appearance of things.
Many have had such intuitions:
Yet do thy worse old Time; despite thy wrong
My love shall in my verse ever live young.
Within its deep infinity I saw
In gathered and bound by love in
one volume the scattered leaves
of all the universe.
Dante Alighieri, 1265 - 1321
But war's a game, which, were their subjects wise,
Kings would not play at.
William Cowper, 1731-1800
Unhappily, not many are capable of such poetic expression. I know this from personal experience and also because, almost one hundred years ago, Alfred North Whitehead, author of Process and Reality, gave the `philosophy of organism' a systematic, but unfortunately almost impenetrable, articulation. Whitehead was clear, however, when he warned that “there are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”
Whitehead's metaphysics is not widely known and this flows, at least in part, from not taking his own advice. Instead of `talking process' and nothing but, Whitehead retained vestigial objects in the guise of, for example, `stages of concrescence' and `prehensions'. This made it difficult to articulate the thesis that things constantly change and therefore can only exist as figures of speech.
In Whitehead's account, becoming precedes - but does not exclude - being. In the world of common sense and materialism, being comes first, in the guise of things and thunderstorms; which then, somehow, become other things.
In the following, I argue that becoming is all we need to talk about.
Whitehead's ambiguity on this issue - and the trivial fact that all of my friends have been vigorously ignoring my reports of the delights awaiting process metaphysicians - demonstrate the seductiveness of the view that the universe is an actual material entity situated in time and space.
In spite of these discouragements, the following is my attempt to sketch a process-centered model of what is going on. This proposal characterizes objects, entities and causal relationships (the artifacts and elements comprising the standard view) as a collage of images, hallucinations and gestalt-driven reifications … patched together with magic thinking, ad hoc explanations, scientific hypotheses and, of course, Divine Revelations.
The advantage of replacing the resulting chaos with process thinking is straightforward. To the extent that reality is thought of in terms of events rather than objects and entities, `success' and `failure', even `birth' and `death', become antiquated notions. Such terms only make sense when we regard ourselves as set apart in ways that have irreducible meaning. In political and economic terms, the perceived boundaries delineating persons and the arrangements of persons termed communities, corporations and nations ... imply that influences must `breach walls' to be successful.
The resulting sense of insularity is dangerous. The fruits of commercial and political projects (and criminal acts in general) seem containable within individuals, teams, corporations and nations. We imagine that toxic by-products and inflammatory political consequences can be deflected with Star Wars devices, military preparedness and institutions. Such conceits cause persons to underestimate the way all consequences necessarily permeate everything going on. They certainly cause persons to overestimate their invulnerability to these consequence.
Most importantly, the capacity of persons to take and act upon moral and rational decisions is not nearly as robust as imagined.
These difficulties are rooted in the events that made life possible.
According to the logic of `bench seat advertising' - if you saw the sign, you know the strategy works - biological precursors of consciousness must have had beneficial features every step along the way. An analogy is the way fire causes heated air to rise. This leads to low-pressure regions,`outside air' rushes in and, as long as combustibles are available, fires become larger and hotter.
The point is all events have consequences and consequences always generate new possibilities, which combine as further consequences and so on. In the case of organic evolution, eons of selection achieved many 'things', but the one that I want to focus on involves cellular walls, skins, shells, and carapaces ....
In every subsequent achievement, cell walls have been important. Cell walls meant that `bad stuff' could be excluded, `good stuff' and successful strategies retained.
Such advantages certainly figured in the evolution of complex eukaryotes from primitive prokaryotes. Initially, large prokaryotes engulfed smaller prokaryotes - as food and, occasionally, as incorporated functions.
The following is from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prokaryote
The current model of the evolution of the first living organisms is that these were some form of prokaryotes, which may have evolved out of protobionts. The eukaryotes are generally thought to have evolved later in the history of life.
In the theory known as endosymbiosis, scientists propose that eukaryotes emerged when prokaryotes engulfed other prokaryotes. According to this theory, some of these ingested prokaryotes remained active, underwent changes over time to become, for example, the mitochondria (energy-producing organelles) of protozoa, or animal-like protists, from which animals evolved.
In similar fashion, when photosynthetic bacteria were engulfed, they continued to photosynthesize. This led to the chloroplasts of photosynthetic protists, the ancestors of plants.
No matter how impressive such achievements may be - and you and I have much to be thankful for - they do not warrant the conclusion we have been drawing. Cell walls and symbiotic relationships notwithstanding, the universe is not a time + space or space/time container stuffed with walled-off objects experiencing change.
What we can speak about is the event referred to as `the world' or `the universe', apparently initiated 14 billion years ago when a `Big Bang' or an `Act of Creation' occurred.
For our purposes, the question is irrelevant. Neither origin would have yielded an actual, material universe. Both would have initiated an ongoing event. This event includes the sub-events understood as stellar evolution, the periodic table, solar systems, the biosphere, you and I ... the things we dream up, the things we dream of possessing.
Shakespeare was right. Human beings are a sound and fury signifying nothing or, more usefully, no thing. He could have also pointed out that being is not becoming (the expression “human becoming” is more useful than “human being”), but the sense of being is still livelier than that of thinghood.
Moreover, without naming recurring events as objects and entities and a history of talking about them, objects, entities and substances would not have even imaginary existence. Discussions of causal relationships - what causes phenomenal objects to come in and out of existence - are attempts to fill in the `the spaces' among images. Gossiping about which came first - chicken or egg (events), analyzing the sequences creating, changing and destroying objects, pondering the panoply of causal relationships … is entertaining and useful. These investigations retrieve some of what is ignored as experiences are parceled into phenomenal entities.
Causal explanations are evidence that conscious beings have been carving objects and entities out of events - and must now deal with the resulting gaps of understanding and continuity.
Creatures that do not enjoy consciousness and self consciousness do not worry about which event causes which event.
In the alternative proposed here, objects, causal events, things and other local processes not yet dreamed of … collapse into the present state of the Big Bang or Act of Creation. This is the underlying reality from which selves and other phenomena emerge, substances are deduced, and sequences appear to bring artifacts and entities into and out of existence.
In other words, trees, hurricanes, persons … are densely packaged, recurring events promoted into thinghood by subjects of experience.
The first benefit of this hard work is cautionary. Rethinking things as events illuminates why it is so difficult to estimate failure or success. Events which seems neutral or even toxic can turn out to have excellent consequences long after their apparent authors are out of sight.
Perhaps the best example is Darwinian evolution, whose modus operandi involves sorting populations into winners and losers. Sooner or later, all creatures fail on the win/lose scoreboard. In the interim, countless millions come to premature ends because of predators or, in our case, because they have been transmogrified into assets for the benefit entrepreneurs and corporations. Human beings might also ponder the thousands of vanished species they have been responsible for.
However, the energy and aptitudes constituting `losers' lives participate in subsequent events the way eukaryotes employ prokaryotes as organelles. Thus, the quality of yours and my subjective experiences can be understood as manifestation of the events and entities generating our being. Similarly, the quality of yours and my subjective experiences will participate in subsequent events.
We would be more sanguine about these relationships if we had not fallen into the trap of regarding ourselves as discrete, material entities able to make decisions and possessing the traction needed to put these choices into play.
On the alternative proposed, birth and death become figures of speech. Each object, each entity are local (but not localizable) events. Each emerges from and, sooner or later, collapses into the Big Event. The processes responsible for phenomenal entities move on to other manifestations the same way the water constituting wave forms sustain a pattern for a time and then participate in new waves. These manifestations echo and amplify local events and, as we shall see, the unexpected conduct persons sometimes get up to.
How is it that I can talk about events as falsely promoted into persons on the one hand and then talk about persons as sources of creativity?
As a first step towards answering this, the question: “How can magnificent (human) creatures die?” is based on a fallacy about the nature of objects, entities and persons. In a model of being that speaks of emerging and subsiding rather than birth and death, that speaks of local events but not the localizability involved in saying "There you are!" when what is meant is that everything that is you exists at a location in time and space (or space/time) and can therefore, among other things, move around with respect to objects and entities and travel across the world. These intuitions and common sense observations are useful approximations. They do not capture the flowing nature of what is occurring.
Although sobering, the fact that so few recognize the hazards of understanding reality in terms of objects, entities and selves should not dismay us. Every day, we learn more about the wisdom of cartoon Maxine's admonition: “Try not to believe everything you think!”
Speculative cosmologies and research into the antecedents of wishes, desires, anxieties ... pose increasingly awkward questions. How can persons and objects be hard-edged in the face of quantum uncertainty? Do we really believe that particles distilled from probability distributions represent more than `observation events'? Does quantum uncertainty rebound as soon as attention turns elsewhere? Is calculus not regarded as mankind's finest intellectual accomplishments because it is able to characterize events using static equations?
Finally, Einstein's failed quest for a unified field theory gained a new lease on life when John Schwarz and Michael Green introduced string theory in the 1980's.
String theory offers a new way to think about reality. Once viewed as point-like dots of virtually no size, particles in string theory are minuscule, vibrating filaments. Just as different string vibrations produce different musical notes, different vibrations in String Theory produce different particles. An electron is a string vibrating in one pattern; a quark is a string vibrating in another. Particles like photons (that convey forces in the quantum realm) are strings vibrating in yet other patterns.
As well, string theory vibrations could be responsible for gravity, opening up the possibility that gravity and quantum mechanics would have a common explanation.
In contrast to proposals that bolt gravity and quantum mechanics together, this unity emerges from the theory itself.
Other questions could be asked:
- Why do patterns of vibration require talk of strings at all? (Is this not another version of the ether hypothesis contradicted by the Michelson-Morley experiment and dissolved by Einsteinian Relativity?)
- Could the strings in String Theory be another example of the seductive dream of material existence?
- Does the speed of light represent the velocity of the Big Bang explosion?
- Is this why nothing can 'go faster'?
- Does the `arrow of time' manifest the `direction' of this primal event?
These are interesting questions, but more pedestrian issues seem likely to determine Homo sapiens' fate.
- How much longer can human beings survive if we continue to regard ourselves as moral and rational agents able to interdict events from magisterial standpoints?
- How much longer can human beings afford to waste `attention bandwidth' blaming and praising apparitions for what is going on?
To be fair, naming things and entities, praising and blaming one another ... has contributed a great deal to cultural and technological accomplishments. These practices would not have become universal without pay-offs. The satisfactions associated with naming persons and places, the usefulness of identifying recurring associations, are powerful inducements. The question is whether we can now move beyond these rough estimations and divisive partitions into nuanced, event-based understandings.
Persons are complex local events within the overarching Big Event. We only seem to be singular, separate and discrete because the human beings have been evolving capacious cognitive resources rather than speed, strength or wonderful eyesight. Notions of actual objects, entities and moral and rational agency are fantasies arising out of the subjective experiences human beings are capable of.
Even without consulting research papers, it just makes sense that whatever is going on must have occurred before awareness is possible. When we survey the universe, events we become aware of must have already occurred as a precondition of awareness. Any separation whatsoever, in the context of Einstein's discovery that there is a fastest velocity, establishes that awarenesses are not simultaneous with their apparent content. Like the light from stars that takes thousands or millions of years to arrive upon retinas, further awarenesses may be en route, but this can only be a prediction. This simple account also explains why phenomena seem to have causal significance. The events causing consciousness usually have non-conscious consequences as well, some of which may participate in subsequent conscious events. If the resulting phenomenal or apparent associations are repetitive enough and important enough, images, expectations, causal formulations, even axiomatic claims, arise.
These cultural resources become active local regions of the Big Event (to use a more useful expression than Big Bang).
The important point is that awareness is always historical. The `states of affairs' generating and constituting consciousnesses are snapshots of events. The events represented have already changed, if only to include the fact that they have spawned awareness. These changes may or may not participate in further awarenesses. What is immediately important is that ignoring intervals between `awareness-generating' and `awareness' events invites false claims about persons, wills, volitions and agency.
Moreover, since subjects of experience seem always to be 'in the thick of things', images fished from the `stream of being' encourage the notion that consciousness is, at least sometimes, actively involved in what is going on rather, than the arena wherein events with a conscious component play out.
Even without a `reality is an event' vantage point, we recognize the importance of cultural activities. Unfortunately, this recognition is far too promiscuous to be wholesome. In the 1st world, sports and mass-media entertainments have become as important- if not more - than families, friends and community life. The development of three dimensional television (and computers!) following the success of Avatar in 2010 not only gives the technology industry a 'new lease on life', it promises to obliterate what remains of self-awareness and community.
The fragile nature of consciousness follows also from Derek Parfit's arguments in Reasons and Persons. To become a subject of experience ( a conscious person) both superlative neurological resources and cultural events nurturing self-referential experiences are necessary. Such experiences create the possibility of an awareness that recognizes the self as the self of previous awarenesses. Although no person has ever seen herself (mirrors and photographs notwithstanding), this sense of centrality encourages us to believe that we are persons traveling through and in the world. This impression is further encouraged as we discover such tricks as naming one another, using phones and computers to `stay in touch' and employing MP3 players to deflect unwanted overtures.
The point is, we are all agreed that this self-awareness is the sine qua non of agency and responsibility. We are equally certain that only human beings are so constituted. The consensus is that computers are not conscious - no matter how many interlocutors are tricked (cf. Turing Tests) or chess games won. Animals do not meet the criterion either; and diminished, dehumanized or obstructed human beings can be enslaved, murdered or disconnected from life-support systems without scruple.
In the proposal I am advancing, these claims are all fallacious. Each awareness can only say how the world is (was) from an irreducibly private point of view. L. Wittgenstein thought that no one could have more than hearsay knowledge of what the world is like for another being. Belief in others and in the existence of a material world only occurs when subjects of experience compare awarenesses and give names to enduring or recurring events. When populations and cultural resources passed a density and sophistication threshold (anthropological evidence suggests that this happened 50,000 years ago), proto-persons began perceiving and conversing with one another in ways made possible by cognitive endowments that had evolved for other adaptive reasons.
We began to see one another as entities that sleep and wake and perhaps survive death. Talk of souls, deities, shamans, bigotries and fanaticism … followed.
While we ponder the nature and origin of imaginary objects and events, the Big Event continues, always slightly and sometimes greatly ahead of awarenesses .
This is not to denigrate the significance of what human beings get up to. With between one hundred billion and two hundred billion neurons, our brains are said to be the most sophisticated structure in the universe.
However, even this is not sufficient to cause fully fledged persons to come into being. Languages and other cultural proceedings are also required.
Many thinkers: Julian Jaynes, Stephen Pinker and Daniel Dennet ..., have offered descriptions of consciousness and how it occurs. In philosophy departments everywhere consciousness is referred to as The Hard Problem.
The difficulty of sorting out what seems at first like common sense is underscored by another thinker. Linguistic philosopher, and `most important intellectual alive', Dr. Noam Chomsky began his extraordinary career arguing that human beings possess a language ability as autonomic in operation as a fledgling bird's ability to fly. Every child effortlessly acquires the mother tongue of its clan, ethnic group or nation. Even profoundly handicapped human beings possess language skills far in excess of those demonstrated by any other form of life.
Dr. Chomsky believes that all human beings come equipped with a 'Universal Grammar', and has demonstrated that every language can be parsed down to the same underlying semantic structures.
What is interesting is that Dr. Chomsky has fashioned a second career as a social and political activist. In this capacity, Dr. Chomsky has been denouncing corporations and government for engaging in manipulation and chicanery.
There is a tension between the two poles of Dr. Chomsky's career. Chomsky's human beings appear to possess a miraculous cognitive capacity on one hand, and an equally remarkable gullibility on the other.
As generation after generation fall under the sway of leaders, politicians and megalomaniacs, the tension between claims of innate personhood and disappointment that so many come to so little continues to torment us. The only explanation that does not involves dismissing innate personhood is to claim that all these millions have been deceived by malevolent corporations and megalomaniacs. Dr. Chomsky's The Manufacture of Consent and other polemics make this point and are based on this premise.
I suggest that proselytizers, moralists and cognoscenti are all in the grip of the same confusion, and that this confusion continues to obstruct wellbeing. Jesus Christ, Noam Chomsky, David Suzuki, Stephen Lewis, Al Gore … believe that the solution to malevolent leaders and corporations involves urging victimized populations to make better decisions. They believe this because they regard themselves as persons talking to other persons. Surely, they think, these persons, each empowered with an innate grammar and wonderful cognitive capacity, are positioned to make better choices and put them into play.
Unfortunately, since none of this is true, importunities always fail - in favour of projects that do not depend upon moral or rational activism. Armies are convened, resources are exhumed, lives are co-opted ... while lamentations, expostulations and denunciations occupy and distract victims.
Understanding human beings as regions of the Big Event would prevent such confusions and disappointments.
Some of what we need to understand has already been accomplished. When you and I partake of the works of Nietzsche, Einstein, Mozart, Shakespeare, Hank Snow and Gordon Lightfoot … we understand that we are experiencing a (small) portion of the consciousness these beings enjoyed. This is why cultural resources migrate through communities and across generations. This is why artistic activities are applauded.
If cultural resources are the sine qua non of reflexive self-awareness (i.e., that which distinguishes human beings from other forms of life), then they are the sine qua non of persons. The logic is that of the bench sign that says: “You just proved that `Bench Advertising' works!” If you saw the advertisement, the proof is in your mind. If you did not, the challenge never arises!
By parallel argument, if a cultural resource participated in some awareness, that awareness event would not have occurred in its absence. Since every awareness is traceable to antecedents, the derivative nature of self-awareness and personhood is inescapable.
The picture is complicated because no single cultural or physiological asset is both necessary and sufficient for subjective awareness. To the extent that consciousness is understood as result and not endowment, birthright or faculty, we are more likely to understand that culturally rich societies embody consciousness-capable events that may have run their course, but whose influences fell upon fertile ground. Such resources and other consequences of historical events can participate in awarenesses. Like the sign exclaiming "You Just Proved Bench Seat Advertising Works!", if you are reading this know from experience what I am talking about - and enjoying what is sometimes referred to as a 'transcendental route to a conclusion'!
What prevents us from taking comfort is this understanding is that the persons responsible for present awarenesses may no longer exist as phenomenal entities. Friends and families may have `passed on'. The pantheon of famous persons that helped defined our culture, community, nation, era ... no longer make phenomenal appearances.
This difficulty would become smaller (although it would never vanish) if we understood that these objects, entities and persons never had actual existence. They were always phantasmagoria. Birth and death do not signify entities coming into and going out of existence. They reflect the emergence and disappearance of nodes of complexity, as just the way identifiable waves appear to roll across bodies of water.
This `selfless possibility' follows from understanding objects and entities as regions of the `Big Event'. Creationists, Big Bangers and street-level common sense share the same confusion. Objects, entities, materials and substances … are hallucinations within events referred to as persons.
The rest of the story is that being a person or subject of experience is not the only mode of human being possible; although maximizing the richness of inner lives is clearly important.
Subjective and pragmatic benefits depend upon such lives. The failure to become fully fledged means that human beings are correspondingly available to be wrought into other forms of life. We have alread seen what this can mean. Communities, corporations, armies, mobs, nations … are forms of life. They are not, of course, organic in any auspicious or interesting sense. Such amalgams cannot evolve, although they can become very large and enjoy 'limited immortality' - i.e., they are no more likely to perish next year than this year. These quasi-life forms have become important players in world affairs, and the significance of this is almost completely overlooked because we are in the grip of the "We are persons, by God! We are in control, and so imagine ourselves controlling corporations and governments though combinations of invisible hands, sovereign will and democratic enfranchisement. Of course, a moments reflection upon world history and the tribulations of global economies should give us pause. At the same time, collective undertakings can achieve much, and it may be possible achieve wholesome equilibriums between large and small, local and global. Perhaps all we have to do is get to a better understanding of what being means and what it consists of.
An analogy may be useful. A field rich in the elements needed for plant growth can flush out increasingly luxuriant and vigorous crops, as generation after generation flourish and collapse back into the underlying process.
Such fields can be wholesome and fruitful. They can also become toxic. Some fields yield poisoned fruits, gnarled beings and maleficent machinations. We need to understand that such outcomes are not the result of individual choices or dysfunctional circumstances that can be countermanded by the acts of a few good men. Good and evil emerge from below. They are not due to the phantom beings conscripted as scapegoats. They cannot be repaired by the belated awarenesses of a few good men.
Understanding entities (and, a fortiori, human beings) in these ways depends upon identifying and then challenging claims that awarenesses are attributes or possessions of organisms. Whitehead's Process and Reality did much of the heavy lifting, but work remains. Gossiping about the comings and goings of persons as incarnated souls and the excellence or sinfulness of agents dominates far too much of conscious life. We live in an era of phantom persons imagining themselves and one another as real, chattering, texting and tweeting back and forth while moments of opportunity pass unheeded.
The engine responsible for self-consciousness and personhood is the presence of sophisticated backward-looking and forward-oriented expectations. This creates a logical space wherein consciousness serves as a clearing house resolving experiences, contemporary information and sometimes far-reaching agendas into sophisticated responses.
The fact that persons agree that phenomena are occurring does not mean that there are corresponding beings and objects coming into and going out of existence. The experiences of simultaneity that gives phenomenal objects and entities the illusion of existing in the present separating past and future are also illusory - in just the way occupants of vehicles traveling at the same speed in the same direction on multi-lane highways appear stationary to one another.
Indeed, the Big Event can be so characterized. The furniture of the universe is moving in the same direction at the same rate - as might be expected, given their common origin. Perceived movements are events against this backdrop, noticeable because they are at variance with central tendencies. The Earth event, orbiting the sun event at 67000 MPH and rotating at 1000 MPH, constitutes a backdrop against which local events can be apprehended, identified, named and traced.
A thing-filled, energy-driven universe has no place in this account. The phenomenal world is the fruit of expectations and conversations within communities of persons. Each phenomenal world contributing to this conversation is irreducibly private and unknowable to other subjects of experience. All they can do is talk about recurring features of the Big Event. Such discussions underwrite cultural resources. Such conversations are entertaining and useful. However, just as phenomenal appearances led to indefensible claims about objects and substances, naming, blaming and praising have been spawning indefensible claims of rational and moral agenthood.
Such talk ignores the Principle of Parsimony: when faced with a number of explanations for the same phenomenon, choose the simplest one that does the job.
Fourteen billion years ago, the universe began, either as a `Big Bang' or an `Act of Creation'. Although common sense has it that we are part of the physical universe, that this cannot be true. Whitehead's description is worth recalling:
I give the name 'event' to a spatio-temporal happening. An event does not in any way imply rapid change: the endurance of a block of marble is an event. Nature presents itself to us as essentially a becoming, and any limited portion of nature which preserves most completely such concreteness as attaches to nature itself is also a becoming and what I call an event.
This is well said. Even so, Whitehead seems to feel that slow moving events are substantial enough that faster events (you and I, cats and dogs) are able to clamber aboard and enjoy something very like corporeal existence.
This cannot be so. We cannot clamber upon the event that we are part of.
If a process account means that objects, thing and processes have only phenomenal existence, if causal accounts, physical laws and the periodic table are efforts to explain imaginary entities, then moral and rational capacities are not what they seem either.
The reason is simple. Awareness events involve imagined objects and entities. Associations among images are interpreted as causal connections. The notion of moral and rational agency follows because awareness is always involved when associations (and responses) occur.
This encourages the extraordinary, further claim that awareness is a source of wishes, desires, choices and, especially, 'acts of will' or volitions. Further, since it is 'our awareness' and we appear to `conduct our own affairs', we deduce that we are persons with the capacity to initiate moral and rational decisions ex nihlo (out of nothing).
Even when we are not imagining ourselves as `active agents', these complementary - and completely unfounded - claims encourage us to regard ourselves as more important than other creatures. Because we are so endowed, even non-willful human behaviour transcends the otherwise identical reflex arcs, conditioned responses … observed in lesser forms of life. Since we could interrupt what we are getting up to, we get to take credit (and blame) for every event that can be tracked back to us.
This is why Flying Saucer reports and SETI projects are fascinating. We love the idea that consciousnesses might be occurring in other life forms because we have a grand idea about what consciousness entails.
This is also why we are able to treat non-sentient species with cavalier indifference - to harvest, farm and slaughter at will, to not worry about their well-being or even their extinction.
At the same time, most of us would be dismayed if some equally sentient beings turned up. Discovering (or being discovered by) extraterrestrials would unseat us from our perch atop the evolutionary ladder.
Ironically, this also explains why we do not trust or care much for one another. Competition is problematic for individuals whose sense of identity and well-being depends upon being the best of the best.
These are a few of the reasons replacing being with becoming would diminish divisiveness and insularity. Unfortunately, this will not be easy. Partitions are the sine qua non of organic life. As discussed above, the first move along the path - the evolution of eukaryotes - became possible when cell walls allowed simple life forms to amalgamate into complex functions.
Cell walls set the stage in another way. In simple creatures, sensory events trigger responses that have been modified or mediated by events within cells or organizations of cells. As organisms became more complex, these events came to include the representations of experience referred to as conditioned responses and memories. The interval between stimulus and response established the meaning of inner and outer. Proceedings masked from outside view became the internal attributes or possessions … of entities demarcated by cell walls or skins.
This provides a way of thinking about consciousness not as an attribute or endowment but as a function. The hyphen space separating stimulus and response (S-R) signifies the presence of complex events referred to as creatures or entities. In every case, the sense we have of this or that 'organic entity' refers to the cloaked events occurring between stimuli and responses. We have expectations of what these cloaked events portend acquired by direct experience or through the collated experiences known as cultural resources. Reflex arcs, conditioned responses, subjective awareness … can be understood as progressive elongations of the hyphen separating stimulus and response. As organic life evolved, larger and larger hyphen-spaces - virtual arenas integrating broader contexts, experiences and cultural resources - became possible.
Among many benefits, this development meant that delayed responses became possible. There are always delays between stimuli and responses of course. Neural functions take their cue from stimuli to 'retrieve' relevant conditioned responses and other dispositional resources, including memories. This takes time, although most delays are minuscule. However, in human affairs, events that look like proper stimuli sometimes elicit no response for months or years. When they do occur, they may seem inexplicable to contemporary viewers because of this delay and, of course, because some of the underlying events are hidden from view.
Notions of persons, agents, souls … are ways of referring to these interruptions, delays and opaque proceedings.
What is going on within hyphen spaces has many elements:
- Activities involving `internal states' combine with stimuli in ways reflecting `inherent dispositions' - some organisms fight, some flee, some hide.
- Stimuli elicit stored experiences, probably by internal replications of primitive conditioned-response strategies; so that recollection and integration of experiences and cultural assets occur spontaneously.
- Internal events sometimes reverberate within well-endowed, culturally rich entities. They 'catch fire' in self-sustaining, robustly conscious ways.
- This contributes to the possibility that such subjects of experience will become autonomous beings.
- Whether organisms achieve or fail to achieve `subjects of experience' status, responses appear to emerge from within.
- In human beings, hyphen spaces can become so elongated that worlds of experience can be accommodated. These representations are, of course, active because they are representations of events, and so these internal worlds proceed apace, often generating realizations that would not have occurred otherwise.
- When these realizations are reported, such human beings are sometimes applauded for creativity, for being creative moral and rational agents. They are nothing of the sort. They just happened to be the arena wherein these resolutions and conceptions occurred.
- What we should do with such experiences is attempt to figure out what went right. We should waste no time congratulating creative awareness for being its own author. Light bulbs are not the cause of light. Light bulbs are events that occur at the confluence of the events necessary for illumination.
I will conclude with a few thoughts about the benefits of regarding persons as complexes of events interposed between stimuli and responses; an interposing that, indeed, gives meaning to stimuli and response by establishing the sense of inner and outer.
What counts as a stimulus reflects what is occurring outside and within. As occasionally happens with Homo sapiens, internal proceedings sometimes cross a threshold of cognitive and cultural richness and become self-sustaining and self-reflecting. When this happens, they become persons, in the only interesting sense of the word.
It is important to recognize that persons rarely occur out of internal resources alone. (The exceptions are geniuses bootstrapping into awareness because unusual endowments require little from the `outer world' to get going.)
Personhood's fragility is also reflected in anthropological evidence that human beings physiologically and neurologically identical to you and I existed for 50,000 years before noticing themselves and one another in ways significantly different from other primates. Hard-won cultural resources (oral tradition stories and music) eventually combined with neurological capacities. The results included episodes of self-awareness, the naming of phenomenal objects and, finally, stories about materialism and investigations into causal relationships.
Perhaps the most provocative implication of this model is that the present population of richly conscious human beings could collapse over a few generations. Nothing prevents Homo Sapiens' hard-won S - R hyphen space, the sine qua non of personhood, from significantly changing. One obvious risk is that `outer proceedings' could become so competent and information-laden that person-centered self-sufficiency becomes redundant or is overwhelmed by expert systems', software or technology.
'Outsourcing' competencies previously accomplished locally or internally should be seen as a cancerous threat - as undermining the inner vitality awareness depends upon. If the knowledge required to construct, operate and repair production machineries is vested in software programs, call centers and automated devices, there is correspondingly little need for self-aware persons.
Since we are considering that persons exist only to the extent that they are called upon, diminishing consciousness may be an ironic corollary of the `knowledge economy' - which, for most human beings, looks like a `no-knowledge required' economy.
The confusion encouraging this danger is the idea that persons are inherently self-aware, autonomous agents. We regard ourselves as at least somewhat impregnable to external erosion because we believe that we are able to veto whatever we choose whenever we choose. This conceit makes us blithely indifferent to influences and factors that constitute and adjust the content of conscious lives. Self-awareness sets the stage for remarkable accomplishments. It has proven to be a source of grave danger and enormous harm.
Even in individual courses of experience, a 'self-limiting' factor can be discerned. The more accomplished the person, the more elongated the hyphen-space generating internal awareness, the greater the likelihood that arrogance will arise and obstruct further growth. This is why human beings rarely achieve all that they might. Occasionally, persons are not handicapped in this way, perhaps because they naturally enjoy low self-esteem or struggle with some impediment. The example that comes to mind involves cosmologist Stephen Hawking, who continues to achieve much in the face of - or perhaps because of - his grave illness. Biographies of the rich and famous are frequently tales of difficulty. Their lives are advertised as demonstrating the importance of character building experiences. An equal case could be made that they demonstrate what persons liberated from arrogance and hubris are capable of.
On a larger scale, the recent experiences of North American populations demonstrate the importance getting the inner-outer equilibrium right.
For at least sixteen thousand years, aboriginals in North America had pursued hunting/gathering and small-scale agriculture. Small populations and the oral tradition restricted their conscious engagements to nearby communities and three generations - parents, grandparents and children. The results included innocuous ecological footprints. This is not because aboriginals valued the natural world more than urban populations. They did not have the wherewithal to do much harm. As soon as options became available, aboriginals became as profligate as everyone else.
All of this changed after the Americas were `discovered' by Christopher Columbus 500 years ago. Colonization began, a trickle that became a torrent that shows no sign of abating. Although drawn from marginalized European populations, the cultural resources and life-style expectations of early immigrants were profoundly different from those of aboriginals. These differences were central in what would follow. Immigrants found themselves adrift in an untamed, perilous world, with few institutions and a political vacuum. During this period, as best they could given the diseases and dangers posed by colonists, North America's aboriginals continued on with their hunting/gathering culture. The difference was that immigrants understand the potent advantages of formally constituted, technologically-abetted activities. They also knew what they were missing. The resulting sense of angst, purpose and possibility gave them an enormous advantage over the aboriginals, whose `subject of experience' quotient was less robust.
As David Riesman described in The Lonely Crowd (1950),immigrants had no alternative save giving up the `outer directed' lives experienced in countries of origin. At the same time, they had expectations of what life should consist of, and a clear sense of what would be necessary to achieve them. This contributed to becoming `inner directed' , as they struggled to 'civilize' the new world. The resulting energy and creativity spawned North America's dominance in 20th century politics and economics, and contributed to the United States' position as `the only remaining super power' in the first decade of the 21st.
In short, immigrants to North America became de facto process metaphysicians. The result was an uncommon incidence of 'elongated hyphen spaces' and rich conscious experiences. Such beings became Riesman's inner-directed persons.
When this occurs, persons often conduct themselves in ways that cannot be predicted, no matter how sophisticated data mining resources or psychometrics become.
As we also see in the convulsions now wracking the United State - indeed most western nations - when seminal circumstances are diminished, inner-directed populations often collapse into other-directed forms of life - especially when there enough inner-directed recidivists in the mix to take up opportunities and advantages.
In such circumstances, census figures can no longer can be trusted to return the number of persons alive.
We should have seen this coming. In the middle of the 20th century, Riesman observed Americans moving from inner-directed to other-directed forms of life. Values, priorities and strategies were no longer springing up from life on the ground, they were flowing from political institutions and commercial blandishments. Cowboy entrepreneurs, industrialists and politicians found themselves enjoying unexpected resources - consumers and workers eager to trade the sinewy, difficult pleasures of self reliance for the good life. Commercial interests rushed in to translate dreams of paradise into secular terms. In this New World individuals were no longer willing to wait for death to experience heaven (although the difference between bomb belts and beer bellies is smaller than meets the eye).
The irony is that consumers and religious fundamentalists are equally hedonistic. The difference involves their respective capacities to delay gratification. The religious earn paradise through self-sacrifice and patience. They earn `air miles' by enduring abuse - credits dutifully recorded by God in the Book of Life. Consumers clip coupons and watch for bargains.
Both stratagems have proven useful. Aristocrats harvested what they could from agricultural activities, cottage industries, and war games. In post Industrial Revolution nations, the wealthy herd people into cities, divide them into producers and consumers and organize the results into profitable commercial ventures.
This has been so successful that everything individuals need or want has become grist for corporate mills. The annoying habit poor populations once had - of rolling their own cigarettes, baking their own bread and growing their own tomatoes - has vanished in western nations.
It is being obliterated in developing nations in favor of slums and flying toilets.
The Industrial Revolution spawned commercial possibilities and changed attitudes about the meaning of rich and poor. The useful but always worrisome willingness to defer living the good life until one made it to heaven all but disappeared. From the point of view of the rich, this was good news for at least two reasons. First, if the Industrial Revolution's capacity to produce goods and services was to be profitable, markets had to be found.
The second reason is that tnew technologies always pose a threat to hierarchical arrangements. If the chattering classes were prepared to endure privation until they made it to heaven, the same discipline could have allowed them to harness discoveries and inventions to achieve personal and community self-sufficiency.
'Heaven on earth' commercialism saved the day, distracting the poor from embracing economic and political possibilities that did not involve generating wealth but avoiding poverty and drudgery.
Amazingly, such an outcome seems to have never been considered. Even with a core of inner-directeds as a resource, North Americans did not opt for sustainable freedom and security. They rushed into cities and factories to earn as much as possible so they could rush to shopping centres to purchase as much as possible.
The world we are now experiencing - full of violence, pollution and resource depletion - can be traced to this failure to embrace a neither rich nor poor future.
The S-R model is instructive in other ways. As neurological and cultural resources enlarged the hyphen space between stimulus and response, consciousness and self-consciousness became important in the integration and co-ordination of associations and implications. This requirement - and capacity to meet this requirement - is the essential difference between human beings and forms of life wherein responses occur immediately and do not have this potential capaciousness. Dogs and cats are always at the center of dog and cat events and so there is no need to have internal avatars as a locus orienting neurological proceedings. Although they often enjoy extraordinary resources (sight, smell, strength, speed…), these capacities do not involve self-perpetrating internal events. Dogs and cats do not require reflexive self-awareness to be all they can be.
In the case of Homo sapiens, cognitive endowments, communication options and cultural resources set the stage for emergent possibilities - some obvious and beneficial, some subtle and dangerous. An example is that not all human beings are created equal. In the context of cultural resources, naturally occurring physiological and cognitive differences set the stage for cumulative inequities. Two elements are involved: cultural repositories are more available to well endowed individuals; and wealth and power tends to be retained within families and across `like-minded' communities.
This has meant that an increasingly small proportion of human beings becoming increasingly wealthy.
Such inequities also meant the end of `level playing fields' vis-à-vis other forms of life. Tens of thousands of species are already extinct because of urbanization, environmental toxins and climate change.
In short, cultural achievements have unintended consequences. To take a less obvious example, in every species, including human beings until recently, there is a direct correlation between fitness and reproductive success. However, as cultures catalyzed economic and political inequities, this relationship has been compromised.
- In the world today, the poor do most of the reproducing.
- For thousands of years, the best and brightest have been exterminating one another at the behest of Great Leaders.
Another unexpected danger seems to be occurring. The loss of diversity caused by political and economic inequities means that the incidence of rich consciousness may have passed its zenith. We should not be distracted by the number of dissertations in university libraries, the number of books being published or the number of hits GOOGLE searches return. Diminishing cultural activities across populations (not their cumulative weight in museums) means a diminution of subjectivity. Watching television and 'participating vicariously' in sports activities have not distinguished themselves as seminal cultural activities. The reason is probably that they are not activities in any interesting sense of the word.
A similar caution applies to educational and occupational specialization. We have already noticed that specialists only `speak their mind' to colleagues. They have only passing interest in what previous generations thought unless it pertains to their area of competence. They have no interest in talking to other specialists about issues they have in common, either because common issues exist are not recognized - or because they know from direct experience that no specialist can have a useful opinion.
Even so, today's specialists are at least able to comprehend legacy resources in their own field. This may not be true in the future. In November 2006, it was reported that New Zealand high school students would be allowed to use `text speak' answering examination questions - i.e., LOL for “laugh out loud”, IMHO for “in my humble opinion” …. High School principal Denis Pyatt was sanguine:
"I think text messaging is one of the most exciting things that has (sic) happened in a long time. It is another development in that wonderful thing we call the English language….”
The problem is that such students are being insidiously partitioned off from the cultural events responsible for their own self-consciousness. Apologists like Mr. Pyatt observes that languages evolve because this seems to be a way to dismiss 'reactionary purists'. In the sense that language changes involve vocabularies expanding to encompass discoveries and inventions, this is well and good. There are excellent reasons, however, for keeping core language changes to a minimum, and for doing everything possible to ensure that this core is assimilated by next generations.
The function of all cultural activities (including language) involves the generation of consciousness by allowing persons to experience one another. Text speak is a step down a slippery slope leading to balkanized populations and primitive lives.
In terms of the events are us hypothesis, Mr. Pyatt's cheerfulness can be traced to his confusion that things and entities enjoy actual existence. Standing on such solid-seeming ground, it is easy to feel secure that 'a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'. In the obliviousness of text-speak acronyms, roses by any name whatsoever may well vanish.
In other words, the integrating function of consciousness has achieved much, but has also spawned great confusion. These include: persons, souls, Divine Revelation, free will vs. determinism arguments, interminable debates among lawyers, theologians and politicians as to who merits blame and praise, great wealth and enormous poverty, great power and terrible subjugation.
I will conclude with a few suggestions as to how the materialistic cosmology undermines well being. First, a fairly obvious question: what does it matter if the things we seem to be aware of are not actual entities but belated imaginings - so long as the lag is not problematic?
- Light from the sun arrives on earth after traveling for eight minutes. This makes no practical difference.
- If imaginary renderings are all we can know of what is going on, what is the harm? What is the alternative?
Part of the answer is that any lag between events and awareness of events challenges the notion that entities, objects and substances are discretely situated in time and space.
Another issue is that any awareness lag (and the contents of awareness much have existed prior to awareness of!) means that notions of moral and rational agency must be revisited. Even if you and I are the entities proposed by common sense, Einsteinian relativity means that we cannot be simultaneously present to one another.
To be discrete means to be separated. If we are separated, we cannot lay hands upon one another. We can, of course, make excellent predictions and use snowballs to good effect. However, this is not what moral and rational agent talk has in mind.
Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity bundles such issues under local simultaneity. Nevertheless, all of science - The General Theory of Relativity, quantum physics, String theory, the Dark Force behind the accelerating universe - attempt to predict the behavior of large and small entities, atoms and sub-atomic particles. Correct predictions demonstrate the adequacy of hypotheses, but they can never demonstrate correctness once and for all.
Predictions serve this function because we recognize a deeper truth: the phenomenal world, the contents of consciousness, reflect what is going on in regions of the Big Event.
Correlation is another word for 'doing science' because the ability to make sophisticated predictions distinguishes human beings from other forms of life. Correlation is not causality however. Dawn may very well mean that it is time to get up, but dawn is not the reason getting up is a good idea, and dawn is not the cause of getting up. As argued above, persons (aka persons' conscious choices) are not the cause of getting up either. We have been conflating conscious choice with consciousness of choice.
This confusion, this on-again, off-again determinism, is implicit in many difficulties. The media and the justice system are seized with issues of responsibility and exculpation. Scientists spend their lives analyzing the antecedent trajectories of objects and entities in `conscious cloud chambers'. All such deliberations and explanations are best understood as retrieving previously ignored regions of the Big Event and associating these regions with imaginary objects previously fished out and promoted into actuality.
The Big Event model sheds light upon other 'standard view' puzzles. The inexorable, unidirectional nature of phenomenal interactions has been referred to as the arrow of time; the intrinsic energetic nature as élan vital. Both characterizations are what should be expected of an explosive event that has been underway long enough to have a history and identifiable regions.
Accordingly, a fully articulated account of what is going, which had successfully retrieved all of the regions not already bundled into phenomenal objects and entities, would dissolve you and I, objects and entities, into a seamless explanation.
The common sense model of reality encourages persons to regard objects and entities as actual. Understanding that this is a crude approximation requires recognizing that awareness is a concatenating series of snapshots, coming profusely enough that entities and objects appear satisfactorily solid.
Moreover, if persons can only know how things were, it is no longer self-evident that imagined objects or entities share a simultaneous, substantial existence.
More importantly, this belatedness means that `making a difference' depends upon person events, not mythical persons talking to one another in their self-prescribed, idolatrous capacity as moral and rational agents.
Since experiences lag the events being experienced, the existence of neurological precursors establish that there must be adaptive benefits in functions generating conscious events, whether or not conscious events occur. That is to say, episodic, occasional consciousness could not have been a factor in the developments making consciousness possible. We saw this in the above discussion of the role of culture in the emergence of persons and self-awareness.
What is of particular interest is that Homo sapiens' neurological endowments funneled information into the hyphen-space separating Stimuli and Response. Over generations, these proceedings catalyzed and compounded cultural resources into consciousness and reflexive self-awareness. This virtual space constituted an arena wherein biological imperatives, experiences and cultural acquisitions could combine with contemporary stimuli and improve the capaciousness and sophistication of responses. In most casts, this occurred without delay and with little or no conscious involvement. This can be readily glimpsed by introspection. One needs only observe the automatic way verbal responses occur during conversations.
Replacing the common sense model of being with a becoming account simplifies a number of scientific and philosophical issues. The notorious problem of Cartesian dualism - making sense of mental and physical interactions - vanishes as soon as only bodies are deemed to have only phenomenal existence. Minds have stronger claims, so long as their derivative, belated status is acknowledged. A non-magisterial understanding translates notions of agency, responsibility and freedom from automatically occurring endowment to precarious achievement.
This is no small irony. A becoming account of consciousness would improve the likelihood persons would enjoy creative, autonomous lives, since arrogance and indifference would no longer interfere with acquiring the precursors of such events.
Finally, a few political and economic observations. Since `acts of will' are even more belated than awarenesses calling for them, there is no way they can engage the Big Event in `real time'. Rather than `providing data to agents' or serving as a `work space', consciousness is the hyphen in S-R events. During these intervals, internalized experiences (conditionings, memories, skill sets transferred from conscious to non-conscious repositories) combine with cultural and physiological resources so that sophisticated, responses occur. The sense of self enjoyed during these interruptions signify that internal resolutions are occurring. During these resolutions the vivacity of consciousness represents the `personal import' of possible responses. The prospect of pleasure or pain eliminates candidate until only one remains. In the subjectivity of phenomenal beings, these proceedings feel like deliberation and choice. What is also important to understand is that these resolutions add to cognitive resources just as much as `real experiences'. The purpose is the same:
- Avoid the need to repeat resolutions that have already demonstrated negative outcomes;
- Position positive conclusions so that future responses occur immediately the next time opportunity knocks.
As well, replacing being with becoming emphasizes the importance of cultural resources, awareness and dialogue as essential elements of rich consciousness. At the same time, this understanding is cautionary. Cultural resources are valuable if and only if they improve the average quality of responses. Whenever responses are delayed, there should be good reason to believe that they will be improved beyond what would have occurred reflexively. When cultural activities (including internet chat lines and telephone calls) interrupt responses until they are too late or too detached to be successful, they have become toxic.
This is a danger that only human beings appear to suffer, and against which no naturally occurring defense exists. Examples of what this has already cost are not hard to find:
- On December 5, 2006, the World Institute of Development Economics Research at the UN University reported that the richest 2% of adults in the world own more than half of all household wealth, while “the poorer half of the world's population own barely 1% of global wealth”.
- In the 20th century, 160 million people died in wars or because of genocide.
Finally, replacing being with becoming characterizes objects, things and entities as `rising up and falling back' events. This means that conscious beings have `nothing to lose'. (I do not wish to exaggerate how much comfort we might derive from this.)
The becoming account illuminates an issue conscious beings would do well to think about. It is a well know fact that hyphen spaces tend to shrink because all organisms respond to new stimuli for a time and then, if the stimuli are repetitive, lose interest. Yet we now understand that these interruptions, these hyphen space intervals, are the sine qua non of consciousness and hence of personhood.
This is why music, conversations, patriotism, professional sports, mass entertainments, ideologies … can always count on receptive audiences. What we have so far failed to notice is that this promiscuous interest has been co-opted by commercial and political agendas. Urbanized, specialized, disengaged ... populations have fewer personal, family or community resources available to stave of conscious oblivion. As a consequence, such populations are more vulnerable to and national machinations.
Part of the reason this state has emerged is that subjects of experience regard themselves as invulnerable. Although we understand that persons can be killed (at least have their souls liberated from fleshy shackles), few worry about losing self-consciousness. The irony is that the same hyphen intervals that make improved responses and self-awareness possible also expose persons to grave harm. Corporations, politicians, Machiavellian manipulators … have seized upon these 'windows of opportunity'.
Equally bleak consequences can often be traced to what look like wholesome communications. Such events often feel like 'doing somethine' to participants. They can replenish hyphen-space intervals and expand consciousness. These can be important outcomes, but only if an improved response eventually occurs. Such outcomes should not be interpreted as blanket endorsements of mass media information, entertainment, advertising or even proselytizing. All of these activities can be seen as hyphen space elongations. They all risk wasting `attention bandwidth' and delaying responses past `best before' dates.
A still subtler harm occurs when engaged, articulate individuals confuse letters to editors or pleas from podium with doing something. Sooner or later, such persons will be driven to despair or cynicism. They will then conclude that their colleagues, peers and fellow citizens are morally or rationally deficient - and that their adversaries are beyond redemption.
We see now that part of the problem is they too have failed to respond. Murmurings among phenomenal beings are not responses. Planning a garden is not planting one - no matter how many interlocutors attend sessions.
Understanding persons as manifestations of events occurring between stimuli and responses provides a way of assessing wholesomeness. Ask yourself: Are the contents of your awareness predominantly about economic, patriotic and ideological associations with corporations, nations, and churches? To the extent that this is the case, there is reason to worry that one's life has been co-opted by agendas that have little to do with personal, family or community well being. There is, after all, an inverse relationship between wholesomeness and remoteness. Awarenesses seized with personal, family and community issues are far more likely to be beneficial than those suffused with images of Heaven, Hell, virgins anxiously awaiting martyred warriors or luxury automobiles.
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Henry Laycock's Words Without Objects ... contains notions relevant to the above argument. By drawing attention to the inconsistency of the grammar used to refer to 'stuff' (and noting that there are no 'distinctive objects' in their extensions: i.e., no gold object or collection of gold objects captures the meaning of 'gold stuff') Mr. Laycock illuminates something of how it would be to speak of process or event-centered being. Of course, this is not his project, and his 'world of space and time' contains 'large numbers of discrete concrete things or individuals of diverse kinds'. However, Laycock also acknowledges that much of the universe is undifferentiated stuff.
It seems to me that this invites accounting for things and entities as pragmatically useful images or reifications reflecting underlying events.
This also means that we are positioned to consider stuff as an idea distilled out of claimed objects and entities. If these 'concrete things or individuals' turn out to be nothing more than pragmatically-useful imaginary events, then the 'stuff' underwriting 'gold rings', 'ice rinks' ... is no longer required and, if only for parsimonious reasons, could be abandoned in favour of a process model of being.
Words without Objects
Semantics, Ontology, and Logic for Non-Singularity
Laycock, Henry, Queen's University, Ontario
Print publication date: 2006
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2006
Print ISBN-13: 978-0-19-928171-8
Abstract: The book seeks to resolve the so-called ‘problem of mass nouns’ — a problem which cannot be resolved on the basis of a conventional system of logic. It is not, for instance, possible to explicate assertions of the existence of air, oil, or water through the use of quantifiers and variables which take objectual values. The difficulty is attributable to the semantically distinctive status of non-count nouns — nouns which, although not plural, are nonetheless akin to plural nouns in being semantically non-singular. Such are the semantics of a non-singular noun, that there can be no such single thing or object as the thing of which the noun is true. However, standard approaches to understanding non-singular nouns tend to be reductive, construing them as singular expressions — expressions which, in the case of non-count nouns, are true of ‘parcels’ or ‘quantities’ of stuff, and in the case of plural nouns, are true of ‘plural entities’ or ‘sets’. It is argued that both approaches are equally misguided, that there are no distinctive objects in the extensions of non-singular nouns. With plural nouns, their extensions are identical with those of the corresponding singular expressions. With non-count nouns, because they are not plural, there can be no corresponding singular expressions. In consequence, there are no objects in the extensions of non-count nouns at all. In short, there are no such things as instances of stuff: the world of space and time contains not merely large numbers of discrete concrete things or individuals of diverse kinds, but also large amounts of sheer undifferentiated concrete stuff. Metaphysically, non-singular reference in general is an arbitrary modality of reference, ungrounded in the realities to which it is non-ideally or intransparently correlated.