Chapter 2

Knowledge of What Is

Before we begin this discussion, we must clarify a few important and often misunderstood points. This is rationalist philosophy, or as close to it as I can get. That is, this is the use of pure reason to understand ourselves and the universe we live in. Reason is the use of logical argumentation concerning what we know or assume to be true. That means that reason is not concerned with truth. It is concerned with validity. In a valid argument, if the premises are true the conclusion cannot be false. While the validity of the argument is determined by its form, it has nothing to do with the truth of the premises. The truth of the premises is determined outside of reasoning and therefore outside of rationalist philosophy. As a result, most successful rationalist philosophers had an independent source of truth, usually geometry, the Koran, or the Bible.

Plato, for example, drew his concept of truth from geometry. Augustine, on the other hand, who found his truth in the Bible, called his use of philosophy faith seeking understanding. Aristotle said that if you begin with a first principle, meaning something no one would doubt, and applied valid arguments, in his case valid syllogisms, the result would be demonstration. A demonstration of what is implied by what you knew to be true. The object of reasoning, therefore, is not to increase your knowledge: it is to increase your understanding.

The seventeenth-century rationalist philosopher, Rene Descartes, attempted to get around this problem. He said that we begin by doubting everything until we can find something that cannot be doubted. Something in our world that cannot be false. He arrived at the statement, "I Think therefore I Am." From this indubitable truth, he was going to prove everything that was true. However, he didn’t really do what he said he was going to do. He did not doubt his Jesuit upbringing or the laws of the land. I could go on, but  what it amounted to was that his philosophy was derived more from what he failed to doubt than it did from what he found indubitable, 

For our purposes, we will turn to a Greek who, after traveling with Alexander the Great, settled in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. His name was Pyrrho and his approach is called Pyrrhonic skepticism. He said that we cannot even know if we can know or not. We do not know things as they are, but only as they seem to us. Neither sense perception nor reason lead to truth or falsehood because what we learn from either is wholly related to the world of appearances. He said we should suspend judgment on all theories of reality or philosophical systems. But we do so to doubt what we know and not to deny the possibility of knowing.

Many philosophers have admired Pyrrho’s rejection of dogmatism, but understanding the universe through reason requires a source of truth upon which to apply our reasoning powers. If we doubt everything, then how are we to advance in our reasoning?  The answer lies in the meaning of the word doubt. If we doubt something, we are not inferring its denial, we are only suspending judgment. Nevertheless, to begin with we, if we are going to proceed entirely by pure reason, require something approaching Descartes’ indubitable truth.

Consider this. Our aim is to develop an understanding of our universe and what we find in it through the use of pure reason. This can only be done if the universe is a rational place. To the Greeks this was a given. The world, they believed, was a rational place and man was a rational animal, meaning that man had the ability to understand the world. But is it? I doubt it. Seriously, we must doubt it because we cannot prove it. Proofs only operate in a rational universe, so we would have to assume it to be rational before we could prove that it was. Therefore, in order to do rationalist philosophy, if this is what we have chosen to do, we must assume that the universe is in fact rational, even though we do not and cannot know if it is or not. To be honest with ourselves, we must never forget that this is an assumption and not a truth because if we are wrong it will turn on us eventuallyand we must always be ready for that eventuality. Keep in mind that if the universe is not a rational place, then scientific laws do not necessarily hold and only a fool would fly in a jet plane or drive on a modern highway. This does not prove us right but is does put us among good company.

How does this help us in our attempt to increase our understanding of the universe through reason? The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the statement, "the universe is a rational place."  A lot is implied by this statement, a lot that relates to our modern technology-driven world, but the basic meaning is much simpler than that. To put it in its simplest terms, I want to give you words from Parmenides, perhaps the very first rationalist philosopher, a man who was a mentor to Socrates. He lived in the city of Elea in Italy during the fifth century BC, and traveled throughout the Greek world of his time. Taken fully out of context, his words fit our purpose very well: He said “What is cannot not be.” This makes it the existential version of the basic premise of logic, that the conjunction of P and P NOT is an empty set, it is always false. Therefore, despite the objections of David Hume and the modern philosophers who follow him, we can in fact reason about things we find in the universe around us. We can, that is, if the universe is a rational place.

If we experience something in the universe then, it either exists or it does not. It cannot both be and not be if the universe is a rational place. But whether it is or it is not, the experience of it is. This is what John Dewey called immediate empiricism. The problem is in determining whether what you experience is something that exists in the real world. This is particularly apparent when you realize that everything you experience, even the experiences themselves, are constantly changing. This was the problem faced by the first Western philosopher.

Every city in the ancient world had its own list of the ten "Sages."  Most of these were tyrants who happened to be leaders of their city during a period of peace or prosperity, but one name that appeared on many such lists was Thales of Miletus. Thales was not a tyrant. He was an advisor to tyrants. He designed harbors and fortifications; he helped to introduced geometry to the Greeks. He developed the first rational cosmology. Without question, however, the greatest feat of Thales was introducing into the Greek world the application of generalizations on the practical mathematical methods developed by the Egyptians. One example is when he adapted the procedure that the Egyptians used to measure the height of pyramids to the problem of measuring the distance to ships at sea.

It is when he adapted these generalizations to the explanation of change in the world that Thales once and for all placed his own stamp on western culture. In Ancient Greek thought, nothing that changes can be known because as soon as it is known, it changes into something else. As a result, that which is real, that can be known, is that which never changes. Even change itself cannot be known. However, in a rational world, in order for there to be change there must exist some thing that is changing, some thing that must exist in order to change but cannot be known because it is constantly changing. Since what is real is what can be known, what is real cannot be changing. It must be that which lies beneath change itself. In other words, everything is changing from one thing to another while the common element out of which all things are made at all times remains constant. Thus this common element, the substrata of the universe, called the Arche by the Milesians, is real, eternal, divine, and the source of all change.

These things cannot be known directly through experience because experience is rooted in change. But they are nonetheless undeniable because we do experience. That everything changes seems obvious to anyone. So either this change is the result of irrational gods or through a rational nature. Which you choose is up to you, neither can be proven. Once Thales and his followers had chosen the route of rationality, the conclusion of the constant substrata became a necessary truth. Thales called it water, Einstein called it the unified field. It is the ultimate conclusion of the rational thinker. Consider that both Thales' Arche and Einstein's unified field contain within themselves the source of all motion and change and that both are the formal unchanging source of the universe.

Two conclusions of pre-Socratic philosophy that remain with us till today are, everything we are aware of is constantly changing, and everything we find in our universe is made up of something else. Are these conclusions true? I doubt it. I want to follow this thread but we need to find some facts in which we can have at least some faith. Certainly, within our own limited knowledge, just about anything that we examine seems to be made up of something else. Materials are made of molecules, which are made up of atoms, which are made up of electrons, protons, and other elementary particles. Since most of us are not trained investigators concerning these subjects we turn to others who are, scientists.

It would simplify our task if we could think of scientific facts as being truths, but since we are skeptics we will avoid that route. As a matter of fact, most scientists will agree with us. In Science as Paradigmatic Complexity, I examined this problem in depth. As I explained there, science searches for a model in the world of human interactions that approximates the reality in the autonomous world of pure relationships. It does this by developing theories, methods, and attitudes that are both pragmatically acceptable and empirically testable. It is a special kind of social system that strives for empirical corroboration of purely theoretical ideas. Or, to put it simply, the facts developed by science have been tested, at least to the extent that we have some faith that they approach what is real.

As we look at what we find around us, we discover something else. Each item we find is made of something else to be sure, but what it is may have little or nothing to do with what it is made of. There is nothing about the particles that make up a molecule of lead that is different from the particles that make up a molecule of gold or of argon gas, just as there is no difference between the paints applied by a master painter and a novice, but there is a very great difference in the outcomes. We feel that we know these things from our experience of them but how can rationalist philosophy add to our understanding of them?

Since everything we experience is made of, but not determined by, something we may not experience, what something is (what we can identify it as) must be determined in some way by its structure, by the way it is made up. If we examine the structure of what we experience, we find that it is hierarchical: everything being made up of something else which in turn is made up of something else and so on. But no matter how far down the hierarchy we go, we have yet to arrive at some elementary particle or particles that make up everything. We just run into the limits of our equipment.

Herbert Simon explained that these "hierarchies" are a variant of what we think of as Chinese boxes. “Opening any given box," he said, “discloses not just one new box within, but a whole small set of boxes; and opening any of those component boxes discloses a new set in turn. While the ordinary set of Chinese boxes is a sequence, or complete ordering, of the component boxes, a hierarchy is a partial orderingspecifically, a tree.” He used a parable of two watchmakers to show how, using this structure, the universe could have developed to the level it has in the period since its inception in what has come to be called the “Big Bang.”

There once was two watchmakers, named Hora and Tempus, who manufactured very fine watches. Both of them were highly regarded, and the phones in their workshops rang frequently. New customers were constantly calling them.


However, Hora prospered while Tempus became poorer and poorer and finally lost his shop. What was the reason?


The watches the men made consisted of about 1000 parts each. Tempus had so constructed his that if he had one partially assembled and had to put it down—to answer the phone, say―it immediately fell to pieces and had to be reassembled from the elements. The better the customers liked his watches the more they phoned him and the more difficult it became for him to find enough uninterrupted time to finish a watch.


The watches Hora handled were no less complex than those of Tempus, but he had designed them so that he could put together sub-assemblies of about ten elements each. Ten of these subassemblies, again, could be put together into a larger subassembly and a system of ten of the latter constituted the whole watch. Hence, when Hora had to put down a partly assembled watch in order to answer the phone, he lost only a small part of his work, and he assembled his watches in only a fraction of the man-hours it took Tempus.

Finally he said, “Nature is organized in levels because hierarchic structuressystems of Chinese boxesprovide the most viable form for any system of even moderate complexity.”

Each thing that we have discussed to this point has been an example of an “observation statement.”  Each person we have looked at has made a detailed description of phenomena they have observed in their experience. Any validity these observations have is determined only by your own individual corroboration. Do the statements made by Thales 2600 years ago make sense to you in the twenty-first century?  Can you identify with Simon’s watchmakers?  The philosophical question here has nothing to do with their truth, particularly for skeptics. The ultimate philosophical question here is, “What must be true of our universe if we do in fact have these experiences?”  The data we have to work with thus far is too limited. too thin, and we need to flesh it out more.

For the moment, though, we are interested only in solving a single problem. We want to understand the answer to this single question: What do we imply when we say something is?  Consider a collection of electrons and protons. Depending on the energy levels at the time they were assembled, they might become atoms of Hydrogen or Gold or Uranium. Modern science can calculate the conditions which must exist for each of these cases, but for our purpose it is necessary only to realize that at one moment in time they are random particles and at a later moment they are atoms of one kind or another. We have witnessed here a simple example of what we call “emergence,” an event in time where something becomes, when something that was not, suddenly is.

Every sudden appearance of anything in the universe is an example of emergence. The constituents that make up whatever what has come to be have already existed. Then, at some moment in time, a new thing comes into being that may not share any properties with its constituents. Once it has emerged, we can name it, identify it, and examine it, because it now is. Consider anything, an atom of gold, the tree in your front yard, the green house over on Elm Street, Becky Thatcher, a character in a Mark Twain novel, a painting by Renoir. In every case, the constituent parts existed first in time, then that which is under consideration came into being. The aberrant conditions, the creative talent, the traumatic events that bring about emergence might be infinitely varied, but the result is the same, the coming into being of something that did not exist before.

The fifth-century BC philosopher Parmenides, beginning with the assumption that what is cannot not be, went on to prove that change is not possible because what is, in order to change, would have to become what is not and what is not cannot be. Change, then, would be an illusion. But his contemporary, Heraclitas, took the opposite point of view. He said that the universe was nothing but conflict and strife. In either case, what is experienced is illusion. What there is, is a constant incessant flux, a raging fire. what is real is the logos, that which lies beneath the fire. But we have shown that anything that is came into being through emergence, by coming into being through time. In a sense, separating out of the Hericlitian flux through what we call today, complex organization.

Plato, in his attempt to reconcile these two masters of the presocratic era, said that everything in the world is “coming to be.”  His pupil Aristotle avoided these problems by beginning not with ideal reals but with the world as he found it. He blamed Plato’s confusion on the difficulty of arguing from the abstract rather than arguing from nature. This problem, combined with his practical background in medicine (He was the son of a physician), brought Aristotle around to the idea that all knowledge must begin with sensible objects. At the same time, he held the fundamental Greek and Platonic belief that scientific knowledge can never relate to sensible objects which come, go, and change in time. He said that scientific knowledge deals with general concepts extracted from our experience of sensible objects. But what are sensible objects?  They are things that have emerged through complex organization of the substances of which they are composed.

If we think about this seriously, we are led to only one conclusion. When we say something is, that it exists, we are saying that it has emerged through complex organization so that we can experience it as it is itself rather than as a collection of its component parts. However, though it has emerged, it is still undergoing change because nothing remains the same over time; the universe is not in a state of equilibrium. What we can know about it is determined by what we can abstract from its existence and from its trajectory in the universe. Therefore, knowledge of what is, is essentially knowledge of what must be true if we do experience it. Which means that it must be abstracted from our experience and not impressed upon it.

What is it that separates something that exists from a collection of its component parts that occupy the same space but we do not see as a unity?  Since the characteristics of the unifying elements are different for each existential object, it would seem presumptuous of us to give all of them a single name. However, all of them share a set of attributes that we can identify, and it is this set of shared attributes that warrants the name. Since it is what demarcates anything as a level in an hierarchical order, the term we use is "Complex Hierarchical Constraint."  This constraint has two purposes. The first purpose is to bind the constituent elements together to make a whole. It does this by a kind of limited constraint that we will get into shortly. The second is to increase the freedom available to the unified object.

When we say that something is, that it exists, we are saying that it has emerged through complex organization so that a human being can identify it, not necessarily that any one has. That its emergence is an event in time out of components that already existed. This means that they too emerged at a prior time. It means that it represents the end a trail that extends back to the Big Bang.