What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Shajan624
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What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

Post by Shajan624 »

Some physicalists believe consciousness is an illusion. This view, though contradictory to our experience of consciousness as fundamental, is based on an irresistible logic. How do we know something is real unless another person can independently verify it? Real stuff must be objectively representable. Measurability is the acid test for reality. There is no ‘consciousness’ other than electrochemical processes in the brain.

Of course the physicalist position is full of holes. Even the most mundane of experience is not the same as its brain scan representation. Some of our experiences cannot be described in words at all. Reality appears to have a component invisible to science.

The physicalist would counter: how do you prove the reality of your ‘pure subjective experience’ to an independent observer? What is this extra stuff of ‘consciousness’ apart from measurable activities in the brain?

These are deep questions indeed – Does it make any sense to claim stuff that are beyond our objective grasp as real? Is scientific method the only way to study nature?

I think there are at least four possible ways to answer this question:

1. Yes. Some aspects of nature are beyond science. One need to have faith in a supernatural power.
2. No. Science can completely explain nature, given enough time and resources.
3. We will never know. What comes to us through science is all that is knowable. It doesn’t make any sense to speculate beyond that.
4. Yes. Nature has aspects beyond objective descriptions. These are accessible to man through direct experience. There is nothing supernatural about such a possibility.

I will go with the last option. Nature has aspects that cannot be captured in objective descriptions. Let us see how this might be the answer that makes the most sense, starting from the physicalist position.

Let us accept measurable things alone are real. There is no consciousness stuff. What we call ‘mind’ is an epiphenomenon, an echo of the chemical buzz in the neurones.

Yet there is one thing undeniable- the fact that we have real knowledge as in science. How did man, entirely composed of dead matter, come to possess knowledge? Why is nature comprehensible to this illusion of consciousness?

Let us explore the mechanism of objective knowing. Knowing has something to do with consciousness. But wait…consciousness is already ruled out as unreal and hence cannot be used to explain real knowledge. We can only say ‘knowing’ has something to do with the brain. Human brain must have a unique ‘knowing mechanism’. Like the ‘seeing mechanism’ involving cornea, lens, retina, optic nerves and vision neurons producing visual images, this ‘knowing mechanism’ generates knowledge. Let us treat it as a black box to begin with. The gears and valves of this mechanism are not obvious for the time being. It is ok for our purpose because the output of this black box, objective knowledge, is real and hence the black box itself must be real.

What exactly is this ‘knowledge producing black box’ and how can it be investigated?
Remember we are attempting to (objectively) know the mechanism of objectivity. One possibility is to look into its evolutionary history (I suspect this might be the only way to avoid the trap of self-referencing). History offers another level of objectivity in this unique case of the ‘knower’ trying to unearth facts related to its own genesis.

Evolution forms the background to understand everything related to living things – including ‘knowledge’. Do we see a history of knowledge in evolution? Other bodily functions such as vision have a history. Human eyes evolved from primitive light sensitive cells. How about the knowledge producing black box?

An evolutionary worldview must have place for pre-human modes of comprehension. A series of ‘tools of comprehension’ must have evolved in the history of life on earth. Our ‘knowledge producing black box’ is the latest addition to this collection. It is arguably the most powerful of such tools but by no means the only one. Man, product of a 3.5 billion yearlong evolutionary process, cannot claim his favoured mode of comprehension, ‘objective knowing’, as the only way. It is just one of the ways to comprehend certain aspects of reality, a useful tool evolved from something more fundamental.

We find it very hard to believe reality can be effectively tackled without “getting out” and forming an objective point of view. But this is how life flourished for 3.5 billion years. Therefore, true theories of knowledge should extend all the way back to the first living cell. Direct experience and intuition should be recognised as valid modes of comprehension, supplementing science’s third person view.

The fact of biological evolution, together with the reality of objective knowledge, forces us to postulate a ‘universal mind’, the source from which our own ‘knowledge producing black box’ must have evolved. The stuff called ‘dead matter’ might still be alive and breathing
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AshvinP
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Shajan624 wrote: Mon Jun 28, 2021 2:10 pm 4. Yes. Nature has aspects beyond objective descriptions. These are accessible to man through direct experience. There is nothing supernatural about such a possibility.
...

An evolutionary worldview must have place for pre-human modes of comprehension. A series of ‘tools of comprehension’ must have evolved in the history of life on earth. Our ‘knowledge producing black box’ is the latest addition to this collection. It is arguably the most powerful of such tools but by no means the only one. Man, product of a 3.5 billion yearlong evolutionary process, cannot claim his favoured mode of comprehension, ‘objective knowing’, as the only way. It is just one of the ways to comprehend certain aspects of reality, a useful tool evolved from something more fundamental.

...

The fact of biological evolution, together with the reality of objective knowledge, forces us to postulate a ‘universal mind’, the source from which our own ‘knowledge producing black box’ must have evolved. The stuff called ‘dead matter’ might still be alive and breathing
I think you are generally on the right track here, especially with the bolded assertion. The problem occurs when we try to separate "objective" knowing from some other type of knowing, presumably "subjective". That is an artifact of the modern age, what you are calling our "favoured mode of comprehension" (abstract rational intellect), and is therefore one of the first layers of skin on the human soul-spirit of we must shed off. One way of doing that is to reconcile all major disciplines of knowing with each other - philosophy, science, art, and spirituality - to see how objective knowledge permeates all of them and is accessible to higher modes of cognition which naturally flow forth from within us. The latter two (spirituality and art) are my focus in recent essay series on Spiritual Aesthetics. The first two installments discuss poetry, the next will discuss music.
Ashvin wrote:In the telling of this monumental epic, man also finds his means of redemption. It is not told only once, but recited and performed many times, in every different way. Every individual experiences this myth unfolding from within the course of their own existence, although most remain unaware of the roles they must play. In the medieval era, the most exquisite Western art is commemorated for our primal myth. Not only do we see it in the music, poetry, paintings and sculptures, but also in the very design of the villages and cities where people worked and lived. The fields, the homes, the schools, the marketplace, the castles, the churches - all of these found their place in the medieval city as metered words and rhythmic verses find their place in great poems. Meister Eckhart peers in and rejoices, "in making a work of art the very inmost of a man comes into outwardness... [it] prepares all creatures to return to God." The Good aesthetic receives its Beauty from the Truth of its expression.

In the industrial age, however, the city fossilizes into an expression of rigid mechanical forces - all revolves about the mills and the storehouses; the factories and the warehouses. The German poet Holderlin looks out and dismays, "there are laborers in this world, but no men...". Modern man is splintered into mechanistic shards in his daily existence, without so much as a clue in his collective memory as to why or when. Beginning in the 18th century, the aesthetic traditions of the Western world are turned completely inside-out and are treated as mere "subjective" matters of preference and taste. This reversal is borne in the West from two equally powerful directions - the mechanization of nature by modern philosophy and science, and the narrowing of the individual personality who aims only for economic and political freedom.

The former reveals its force in thinkers such as Rene Descartes, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton, while the latter finds its greatest expression in Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The philosophy of Rousseau is a revolutionary protest against all that came before from the spirit of religious tradition and civic life. It is a protest which senses that, "everywhere [man] is in chains", but also falls for the deception that man was "born free" in the first instance. In falling for that farce, Rousseau's philosophy fails to see that the human epic was only beginning when our ancestors were chained. He failed to see the inner law of human civilization which pushes unceasingly forward, and only saw the outer forms which confine it within a prison where it has since remained. And it is through this myopic and microscopic vision that Western man loses sight of his inner aesthetic world altogether.

"There is a story about Kant, who was a great pedant, and took his daily walk so punctually that the inhabitants of Königsberg could set their clocks by him. But there was one occasion when to the astonishment of the inhabitants the philosopher did not appear for some days: he had been reading Rousseau, whose writings had gripped him so hard that he had forgotten his daily walk."

-Rudolf Steiner, Schiller and Our Times (Lectures, 1933)

Kant, under the hypnotic spell of Rousseau, delivered a devastating blow to the inner world of man with his epistemology separating the world of appearances from the world of "things-in-themselves". All claims to an objective Reality behind the inspiration of Art were then rendered hopelessly anachronistic. Kant himself made such claims, but they were merely abstract and therefore made hollow by way of his own philosophy. The aesthetic commemoration we see in the medieval era, which permeated all aspects of its culture just a few centuries before, was felt to be a distant, fuzzy and cold oration; a mere muttering echo of the place it once occupied in our collective human imagination. By the time of Steiner who was lecturing in the 1930s, "Tolstoy, who has created masterpieces in the sphere of art, deserts his art and looks for other means of speaking to the sensibility of his contemporaries".

The seeds sown by figures like Descartes and Bacon, Rousseau and Kant, reap humanity's rebellion against the Gods in such a measure that their pantheon is fatally wounded. When the fog of war is lifted, their activity is nowhere to be found in Nature. The monotheistic Church which brought forth the aesthetic splendor of medieval artwork and Gothic architecture also suffers a mortal wound during this modern age. Spiritual participation expressed through rituals, rites and sacraments was deemed to be the work of old pagan idols acting out their childish fantasies on the earthly stage. The deep harmony between inward religious tradition and outward spiritual faith was abruptly cleaved into the disharmony of creeds and dogmas of the day - "sola scriptura!" and "sola fide!" became the new revolutionary slogans which one and all must obey.

What is most important for man today, however, is to avoid making the same mistake Rousseau made when formulating the narrative he would tell - to keep close to heart Dante's vision that, "the path to paradise begins in hell". We must bear witness to the inner impulses which weave our differentiated personal and cultural histories into the exquisite tapestry of a Cosmic story. There is no epoch, no philosophy, no science, and no personality who does not fit into this Cosmic puzzle. So we will not dwell on our mistakes a moment too long, because they mark only the end of the not-so-humble beginning to our poetic song. We will only recover from those mistakes the tools needed to remember our Promethean proclamation, and begin our inward journey on a path to Self-determination.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
Shajan624
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

Post by Shajan624 »

Ashvin:
"The problem occurs when we try to separate "objective" knowing from some other type of knowing, presumably "subjective". That is an artifact of the modern age"
Any discussion on the nature of knowledge is tricky because we do not know what exactly are the “minds” that enable us to know. I think the only way to discuss knowledge is to begin by limiting ourselves to knowledge as in science, because even though we have no idea how “minds” acquire scientific knowledge, such knowledge is real, independently verifiable. This is not the case with other kinds of knowledge, for example, knowledge about one’s own consciousness (I don’t think physicalists are crazy, they might be truly baffled by claims of knowledge about consciousness).
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AshvinP
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Shajan624 wrote: Fri Jul 02, 2021 2:15 pm Ashvin:
"The problem occurs when we try to separate "objective" knowing from some other type of knowing, presumably "subjective". That is an artifact of the modern age"
Any discussion on the nature of knowledge is tricky because we do not know what exactly are the “minds” that enable us to know. I think the only way to discuss knowledge is to begin by limiting ourselves to knowledge as in science, because even though we have no idea how “minds” acquire scientific knowledge, such knowledge is real, independently verifiable. This is not the case with other kinds of knowledge, for example, knowledge about one’s own consciousness (I don’t think physicalists are crazy, they might be truly baffled by claims of knowledge about consciousness).
Shajan,

I do not accept the assertion that we "do not know what exactly are the minds that enable us to know", at least not in the sense that I think you are employing it here. Rather, I say the only thing we know is that it is our own thinking activity which enables us to know how we gain knowledge. Everything else presents to our perception-cognition as a sort of riddle and mystery that we need to solve by making various connections with our thinking, but the means of gaining knowledge itself, i.e. our thinking activity, presents to us as immanently explicable when we choose to observe it. And there is no reason why we cannot leverage that certainty in thinking activity to penetrate the realms of philosophy, art, and spirituality in the same manner as we can for various sciences. I have written about this in various different essays, but perhaps most relevant is Metamorphoses of the Spirit: Transfiguring our Thinking (Part II).
Ashvin wrote:We briefly discussed, in Transfiguring our Thinking (Part I), that our spiritual (thinking) activity is the only activity where the phenomenal appearances and the noumenal 'thing-in-itself' are unified. This equivalence is known because it is our activity which produces the phenomena. For all other perceptions we can ask, "what is the meaning of this object? why do I perceive this object? what stands behind this perception?" For our thought-forms, these questions are answered by the very nature of thinking. I know what they mean because it is my idea projected into the thought-forms. I know why I perceive them because I will the thought-forms into existence. I know that it is my own ideating activity which stands behind the thought-forms!
...
Imagine you are looking at an object shaped with a circular form, without any clear thought about the form (percept). The percept observed without thought arrives to your senses in a 'mysterious' way. Now imagine you look away from the object and retain the picture in memory without thought. Still the picture remains a mystery. While perceiving the inner image of the percept, you say to yourself, "a circle is a figure in which all points are equidistant from the center". Only now have you added the proper concept to the percept and can understand what you are seeing.

There are many different forms of circles one can perceive - small, large, red, blue, etc. - but there is only one concept of "circle" shared by all. For most percepts, their mysteriousness remains until they are linked with other percepts and the proper concepts. They point us towards something external to us for their explanation. With pure thought-forms, however, the percept arrives with its proper concept at the same time. One can think of a "circle" and the thought of the circle is the circle itself. It does not point us towards anything external for its explanation. If you are still confused, don't worry, because we will explore this unique essence of thinking much more.
...
If Kant had realized from the beginning that the world of percepts does not arrive as completely formed to our sense organs, then his entire endeavor would have been rendered moot. He would have noticed that the nature of our organization after birth (more specifically, after "object permanence" develops) has split the noumenal world into two phenomenal parts, the subject and the object. That split happens at the level of each individual person as we discussed in the first part of the essay when considering Piaget's developmental psychology. Therefore, the objects we perceive are only partially complete and it is our thinking activity which reunifies what we originally tore asunder.
Since in natural perception there must be two things, namely the object or counterpart, which is to be perceived and seen by the eye, and the eye, or the perceiver, which sees and perceives the object, therefore, consider the question, Does the perception come from the object into the eye, or does the judgment, and the perception, flow from the eye into the object.
- Valentin Weigel
Valentin Weigel was a 16th century German mystic who realized the true import of what Kant only realized later in a superficial manner. Our sensory organs are indeed adding ideal content to the bare percepts, but only if our thinking capacity is considered a sensory organ for the reasons we have discussed throughout this series. It does not add ideal content according to arbitrary or superficial rules. Rather, it matches the percepts with their appropriate concepts and, moreover, all beings who share in the Spirit which makes us human appear to perform this operation in a similar (but not exactly the same) manner. Our thought-forms, perceived by thinking, belong to the phenomenal world just as much as sights, sounds, tastes, and smells.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
Shajan624
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Ashvin,
only thing we know is that it is our own thinking activity which enables us to know how we gain knowledge
I agree with this.
the means of gaining knowledge itself, i.e. our thinking activity, presents to us as immanently explicable when we choose to observe it
How do we observe our own thinking activity? Who/what is the observer?
Imagine you are looking at an object shaped with a circular form, without any clear thought about the form (percept). The percept observed without thought arrives to your senses in a 'mysterious' way
‘percept observed without thought’ is not clear to me. I think any attempt to analyse the structure of knowing is susceptible to the perils of self-referencing.

IMO, it will be much more straightforward if we stop with the fact of “thinking activity enabling us to gain knowledge” and take a different approach.

Why not consider ‘knowing’ as a spectrum of capabilities emerging in biological evolution? At the farthest end is ‘pure subjective knowing’ with no separation between knower and known, and the nearest end is ‘pure objective knowing’ where knowledge is completely independent of the knower.

Objective knowing (the view from nowhere) could be seen as a way of eliminating the fuzzy ‘knower’ from knowledge, thereby making it more reliable for practical purposes. This is not to suggest that subjective knowing is less important, rather its importance can be established only by beginning with the more ‘reliable’ type of knowledge and working backward, through evolutionary history, towards the other end of the spectrum where knower and the object of knowledge merges into one.
..only if our thinking capacity is considered a sensory organ for the reasons we have discussed throughout this series..
Exactly! I would propose an added simplification, focus on the kind of thinking process that generate scientific knowledge as a first step, then proceed to study the evolutionary history of this new kind of "sense organ” responsible for generating such knowledge.
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Shajan624 wrote: Sat Jul 03, 2021 7:07 am
Ashvin wrote:the means of gaining knowledge itself, i.e. our thinking activity, presents to us as immanently explicable when we choose to observe it
How do we observe our own thinking activity? Who/what is the observer?
We just start reflecting on the process of thinking. When you are thinking about an object in your visual field, take a 'step back' and try to start Thinking about what you were just thinking about the object. The latter then becomes the new object of your Thinking. This process reveals to us a situation in which our own activity is both the observer and the observed - the noumenon and the phenomenon are united in our Thinking activity.
Shajan624 wrote:IMO, it will be much more straightforward if we stop with the fact of “thinking activity enabling us to gain knowledge” and take a different approach.

Why not consider ‘knowing’ as a spectrum of capabilities emerging in biological evolution? At the farthest end is ‘pure subjective knowing’ with no separation between knower and known, and the nearest end is ‘pure objective knowing’ where knowledge is completely independent of the knower.

Objective knowing (the view from nowhere) could be seen as a way of eliminating the fuzzy ‘knower’ from knowledge, thereby making it more reliable for practical purposes. This is not to suggest that subjective knowing is less important, rather its importance can be established only by beginning with the more ‘reliable’ type of knowledge and working backward, through evolutionary history, towards the other end of the spectrum where knower and the object of knowledge merges into one.
Ashvin wrote:..only if our thinking capacity is considered a sensory organ for the reasons we have discussed throughout this series..
Exactly! I would propose an added simplification, focus on the kind of thinking process that generate scientific knowledge as a first step, then proceed to study the evolutionary history of this new kind of "sense organ” responsible for generating such knowledge.
I don't disagree with the conclusions you state above, but what are we gaining from simply asserting those conclusions? To me, it is like saying "let's just stop looking at the painting to figure out its meaning and start describing it from our memories of looking at the painting". We also should not be under the assumption we can discover its meaning without factoring in its relationship with our perception-cognition. Other than that, I agree with the phenomenology of going from nearest end to farthest end and integrating the entire spectrum in between, but we don't gain anything from simply positing the concept of "evolution" without trying to experience its living transformations as well. The "purely objective knowledge" approach adopted my mainstream modern science is not actually knowledge... that is why it never leads anywhere deeper into the essence of things.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
Shajan624
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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I don't disagree with the conclusions you state above, but what are we gaining from simply asserting those conclusions?
I believe we need invent new ways to talk about consciousness. Science has progressed from phlogiston to space travel in less than 400 years but philosophers are quibbling over the nature of consciousness even after debating for ages. Mystics in India came to the stunning realization of material reality’s deceptive nature more than 2500 years ago, yet India remains as materialistic as any other country on earth.

Three centuries of lopsided progress in human knowledge has severely distorted our concept of reality. Humanity has reached a stage where lack of clarity in the concepts used to interpret the world of experience is threatening the continuation of life itself. Mystical insights can no more be the driving force for civilizational changes. I think the only way is to re-frame the big questions using the language of materialistic science.

For example, consider the word consciousness. We don’t find any ‘consciousness stuff’ by probing into the brain of a thinking person. Physicalists might be truly baffled by claims about ‘reality of consciousness’. So forget consciousness, instead ask ‘what exactly is scientific knowledge?’. No one can claim knowledge as in science is an illusion. This was my point in the original post.
...but we don't gain anything from simply positing the concept of "evolution"...
The question of knowledge can only be answered in terms of evolution. After all, there was very little scientific knowledge a couple of hundred years ago, and there was none a million years ago. How did man come to possess all these knowledge? I think the simplest way to explain ‘knowledge’ is to postulate a ‘knowledge organ’ with a long evolutionary history.
The "purely objective knowledge" approach adopted my mainstream modern science is not actually knowledge... that is why it never leads anywhere deeper into the essence of things.
I would say the word 'knowledge’ should be used exclusively for ‘pure objective knowledge’. Experience of the deeper essence of things should not be called knowledge because such experiences are beyond all knowledge (including language, which could be thought of as the most primitive form of ‘pure objective knowledge’).
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Re: What is this 'Consciousness' stuff?

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Shajan624 wrote: Sun Jul 04, 2021 12:12 pm
I don't disagree with the conclusions you state above, but what are we gaining from simply asserting those conclusions?
I believe we need invent new ways to talk about consciousness. Science has progressed from phlogiston to space travel in less than 400 years but philosophers are quibbling over the nature of consciousness even after debating for ages. Mystics in India came to the stunning realization of material reality’s deceptive nature more than 2500 years ago, yet India remains as materialistic as any other country on earth.

Three centuries of lopsided progress in human knowledge has severely distorted our concept of reality. Humanity has reached a stage where lack of clarity in the concepts used to interpret the world of experience is threatening the continuation of life itself. Mystical insights can no more be the driving force for civilizational changes. I think the only way is to re-frame the big questions using the language of materialistic science.

For example, consider the word consciousness. We don’t find any ‘consciousness stuff’ by probing into the brain of a thinking person. Physicalists might be truly baffled by claims about ‘reality of consciousness’. So forget consciousness, instead ask ‘what exactly is scientific knowledge?’. No one can claim knowledge as in science is an illusion. This was my point in the original post.
OK thanks for the clarification. In that case, I completely agree. Not that we need to start "using the language of materialistic science", but the language of science in general without the materialistic baggage. We should definitely focus on what it means to gain knowledge about anything. One of the reasons we can hone in on our own thinking activity is because that is something all people have ready access to, even those without any scientific acumen. We can show how we gain knowledge of the world in our daily routine of waking up, perceiving the world, going about our daily activities, going to bed, and waking up again to do it all over but with novelty as well. That is real practical knowledge everyone is familiar with and can relate to. Then we can expand it out to the domains of philosophy, science, art, and spirituality.
Shajan wrote:
Ashvin wrote:...but we don't gain anything from simply positing the concept of "evolution"...
The question of knowledge can only be answered in terms of evolution. After all, there was very little scientific knowledge a couple of hundred years ago, and there was none a million years ago. How did man come to possess all these knowledge? I think the simplest way to explain ‘knowledge’ is to postulate a ‘knowledge organ’ with a long evolutionary history.
Ashvin wrote:The "purely objective knowledge" approach adopted my mainstream modern science is not actually knowledge... that is why it never leads anywhere deeper into the essence of things.
I would say the word 'knowledge’ should be used exclusively for ‘pure objective knowledge’. Experience of the deeper essence of things should not be called knowledge because such experiences are beyond all knowledge (including language, which could be thought of as the most primitive form of ‘pure objective knowledge’).
My point is that we don't need to "postulate" it, but rather we can show how that evolutionary process is an undeniable reality. Materialist science has already posited a very detailed theory of "evolution", but people have no idea how that theory relates to their own experience of the world, especially due to the long time spans involved. Anything that takes more than a few decades (or maybe a few weeks now with modern technology) is ignored as irrelevant to the person's daily existence. That is why we want to show how evolution of this sort takes place at all scales, right down to the daily existence of each person.

I don't agree with the last part on "knowledge". The deeper essence of things is only "beyond all knowledge" if we assume that we exist in personal bubbles of consciousness separated from each other personal bubble (that assumption comes from the Cartesian-Kantian divides). Then it seems we cannot possibly investigate objectively the "subjective" experiences of man in an empirical way. Without such flawed assumption, it becomes clear that the questions surrounding deeper essence of experience are ripe for empirical investigation as well and the only thing stopping it are our own habits of mind which can be broken with some effort.
“It is your presumption that freedom is something which you already possess that ensures that you will remain in chains."
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