Quite the big picture

Consider this:

According to the Big Bang theory, the entire universe was contained in a single spot with infinite density and heat.

That would contain every particle of matter currently in your body, as well as every particle in the food you will eat next week, and every atom that leaves your body by whichever means.

And here you are, thinking about the singularity, which contained everything – including all the matter and energy that you now consider to be ‘you’.

What is going on here?

If you find that odd, it’s because you ran into an unusual aspect of ‘you’.

‘You’ is a word, and you use it for thinking and for communicating with others. You use the word according to how people around you use it, just like everyone else.

Reality and experience of reality

Alan Watts, a highly significant influence in opening these philosophies up to Western thought in the 1960s and 70s, gave wonderfully illuminating lectures on the words we use to refer to ourselves. Modern scientific cosmology and the metaphysics of Eastern religions – Daoism, Hinduism or Buddhism – are interestingly compatible.

Words or ideas refer to something outside themselves, but in our minds we treat the words as reality itself and don’t even notice it. The way we’re socialized, thoughts – knowledge, opinions – about the real world are emphasized over direct experience.

Eastern philosophies on the other hand place direct experience as the starting point of thinking, not its formal content or meaning. As the Buddhist teaching goes, when you see a finger pointing at the moon, you’re supposed to look at the moon and not the finger.

We also experience the words that appear in our mind. We experience them by hearing or seeing them in printed form as we learn them, and they are stored in our brain and experienced again in the form of memories. When we use language, part of its meaning comes from the situation at hand, which comes to us as part sense-experience, part memory. Like everything else, we can only experience language as our sensory organs can receive it and as our brain processes it.

In this sense the reality, the ‘moon’ that the metaphor guides us to pay focus on, is subjective. We cannot know ‘reality itself’, since we will always only experience it in the form our body can give to it. When we talk about reality, we necessarily talk about our experience of reality. ‘Objective reality’ essentially means that our individual, limited perceptions and any other kinds of measurements we make agree.


Language is a physical phenomenon. In communication language is transmitted between people as sound waves in the air or as readable words on a surface. Language is also stored in our memories, which reflect the structure of our brains. In our thinking and its representation in the brain, conceptual thinking is connected with non-conceptual mental contents such as sensory memories or emotions. That is how we are able to recognize a word when we hear or read it and connect it with, for example, memories not in linguistic form.

Expressing non-linguistic objects in language also gives form to their relationships with other ideas, as then they are able to form logical relationships. These are a property of the formal content of language, but not reality itself, as it requires splitting reality that is fundamentally continuous into separate objects according to the ideas in our heads.

When we think or communicate in logical terms, the words contain those aspects of experience that can be sufficiently put to words. However, words alone cannot contain the experience that we want to share. In person we supplement words with gestures and non-verbal communication. We also experience emotions, we simply sense some things, and we have vague intuitions that we may not be able to put into words at all. We don’t need to have words for everything; only that part of our experience that we communicate to others.

What is it that we experience?

As mentioned before, sense-experience only comes to our awareness as our bodies are able to receive it and present it to our minds. What we are aware of is experience of our bodies from the inside. There are aspects of the external world that we cannot be aware of, but other animal species can. Animals experience a completely different world than human beings, having very different sensory systems, but we don’t live our lives feeling like we’re missing out on something. (The animals likely don’t feel that way either.)

More than that, animals with echolocation or lateral line sense, for example, have entire dimensions of experience that human beings cannot really imagine. This is similar to how we cannot access another person’s experiences, memories or feelings. We can talk about what is happening in the world and seemingly agree on it, but we can never know for sure if what another person means by the colour red really looks the same as what we call red.

Seen this way, we realize that our bodies is inseparable from the events we experience. This contrasts with the everyday conception of reality as we experience it. Reality is not at all what we think it is. No matter what we think reality itself is, it isn’t. When you think about ‘reality itself’ that is there when you do not experience it, you are imagining it based on past sense-experience.

This is similar to how really is no way to know just by looking if the light in the refrigerator goes off when the door is closed. The question is meaningless if you only accept direct sense-experience as an answer, since it is impossible to get it. However, once you learn there is a mechanism that turns the light off, you can accept that the situation as a whole makes sense.

The experience of thoughts

What we experience is our bodies being acted on by outside forces, such as light on the receptors in your eye. These forces appear in our minds as we have deduced them of based on regularities in our experience about the world, and as we have described them using words or other kinds of symbols, such as mathematical ones. However, our awareness of these experiences is separate from what we are experiencing. Even when there is a world full of sense-experience right in front of us, we can exlude it and focus on our thoughts instead.

We can lose ourselves in our experiences, thoughts and memories, but we can also detach them and notice that we were lost in them. There is a psychological concept called cognitive fusion, which means losing awareness that our thoughts are thoughts and not reality. This is not different from being absorbed in sense-experience, or in other words, taking in events in the outer world just like we usually do and forget that we are observing them – where we don’t feel like we’re being absorbed in anything. Since both the sensory stimulation and the thought happen within the body, in both of these cases our awareness is lost in something taking place in the body itself.

Thoughts about experience

Our bodies are continuous with the rest of the world. Like the rest of the universe, we are the matter and energy from the singularity that was thrown into expansion in the big bang. Our bodies are in constant flux as they rebuild themselves from matter from the environment, and shed used or worn material. For a large part of our adult lives the change is so slow that we are not aware of it, but there is not a single cell in your body now that was there ten years ago. Our bodies are also inhabited by a vast cadre of micro-organisms which are separate from our bodies themselves.

The distinction between ‘me’ and ‘not me’ is conceptual. It is there only when we think about it. Alan Watts explained human existence as a pattern in the whole of the universe using the analogy that human beings are an integral part in a universe that produces human beings in the same manner as apple trees produce apples. There is no definite way to pin ‘you’ down in words because you are not a definite thing, and you do not keep a definite form over time.

Thinking of ourselves using words means being aborbed in the pattern of concepts used in communication between people and stored in our brain structures and patterns of social interaction. This is part of being ourselves. Making mental and linguistic pictures is something human beings do, but we are not those pictures. What we are is simply what is right here right now, regardless of whether we think about it or not.

When you use a concept to make sense of something in the world, what your thinking is “making sense of” is the concept. That is, the neural, linguistic, social representation – that is where your awareness is focused on when you think conceptually – and not the thing itself.

No matter how clever a conceptual definition that we suppose is about reality itself we come up with, this will always only lead to more thoughts about thoughts, and more words about words. The only way out in the conceptual sense is to realize this is the case. However, that will only change your conceptual system, and what it refers to is no different than it was before. So the pragmatic solution is not to bother yourself thinking about it too much and simply live your life.

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