Sunday, November 24, 2013

Of Paradox - Huxley's Islet

Pencil drawing of T. H. Huxley done by his daughter Marian Collier

(last updated 28 May 2024)

Here is the place where I explore the big picture—the nature of reality itself—the soil in which the roots of human philosophy, science, and theology grow—the context that we live in and what it means.

What, in the final analysis, is it all really about?  What is at the root of our reality and existence?  I have a very simple answer. It’s not “42”, but it does boil down to one single word.

What word? Not some annoying philosophical jargon. Throughout human history the great thinkers in the tradition of Western Philosophy have coined ever-more-complicated words—and probably burned out millions of brain cells—trying to figure out what’s going on. Terms like ‘eschatology,’ ‘ontology,’ and ‘epistemology’ got invented and people agonized about ‘solipsism’ and ‘coherentism’ and ‘the anthropic principle.’ They endlessly agonize over the inherent conflict between any being or conception that is ‘necessary’ and our observed ‘contingent’ universe.

The simple answer is Paradox. Paradox with a capital “P”.

This is *not* a cop-out or a joke. I’m dead serious.

Paradox is what these deep thinkers incessantly bang their heads against in an effort to rationally explain our reality.  When will they finally realize that it is the answer to the problem, not the ‘devastating contradiction’ that prevents them from finding an answer?

Think of Paradox as a 'thing'—as a real physical object. As a place. Envision it as the ambience (the 'sanctuary') in which “the thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived” is housed.

By its very nature, Paradox plays this role perfectly. It is the something that nothing begat. It is the ultimate uncaused cause.

Paradox is the venue where all things contradictory converge and unify; and it is all around us.  Physically, it is the unstructured Chaos that we call “the vacuum,” out of which the universe appeared, and in which everything we observe remains immersed today.  Philosophically it is the Omnipotent God, who can make a mountain ('Sacred' from the point-of-view of non-Western thinkers) that is so big that He cannot ('must not') move it.

Put simply, Paradox sits in the position of unassailable primacy.  It is THE essential attribute of reality. Note that any Sacred thing can be defiled.  Paradox is no exception to that; but what makes it exceptional is that the ways of Paradox (and by reference any of us who choose to 'believe' in its primacy) simply DO NOT CARE.  See further on.

Note well that reality can have no meaning without a mind, whatever that entails—i.e., a consciousness, a sensor, an observer, an entanglement. And therein lies the ultimate philosophical paradox. It is not possible to declare whether the mind creates reality or discovers it; and it is not possible to determine whether the mind emerges from a (subjective) reality or vice versa.'  All enquiry, all discourse boils down to one fundamental question: “How do you know?” (What, exactly, is 'knowing'?)

St. Anselm of Canterbury, in 1078 appears to have been the first Western thinker to write about that “greatest thing beyond which no greater thing can be conceived.”  He used the concept to argue for the existence of the Judeo-Christian God. His faith made him insist that this biggest-picture thing should think the way humans think. The Reader’s Digest version of his argument is that if the big guy can be conceived in the mind, then there's an even bigger guy who takes on physical form too. Therefore, God exists.

Well, maybe the short version of St. Anselm’s ontological argument doesn’t do it justice. But I think my buddy Paradox can do him one better. Can Paradox be conceived as the 'creator/progenitor' of all reality?  The answer was given (somewhat inadvertently) by Thomas H. Huxley, who called himself "Darwin's Bulldog" when he wrote, in 1887:
“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, …”

As the ambience in which all things are contained, Paradox must encompass both the unknown, inexplicable sea as well as our islet of well-ordered (or at least familiar) stuff.  But here's where Huxley provides the inspiration to this perspective.  It is the inexplicable realm that is fundamental, all-encompassing.  The explainable 'islet' is little more than an overblown random fluctuation therein.  Don't think of the islet as sitting on some kind of bedrock.  It's more like a grand 'Noah's Ark'.  That illimitable ocean has no bottom.

The essence of Paradox is unrestricted random Chaos.  Our connection to the Chaos is through the vacuum—a restless frothing 'field' of conflicting properties of practically infinite variety which constantly create and destroy themselves and each other.  As a simple example, it is the 'I am/I am not' declared by the pairs of virtual particles that zip in and out of being in the reference frame in which we exist.
Two electrons, both negatively charged, will repel each other.  They are depicted here, in what's called a Feynman diagram, by the two solid lines marked 'e(minus)' moving from the bottom of the picture toward the top.  From our macroscopic point of view, we might imagine two little balls that come together and don't quite hit each other before 'magically' changing course and bouncing away from each other.  Think of the way magnets can repel each other without touching. What's actually happening deep down at the finest scale is that the two electrons zap each other with light rays (the squiggly lines), and sometimes those light rays can actually create two more virtual charged particles, shown in the circle in the center. So, for a little while, we can have four particles and two light rays where only two simple electrons actually 'exist'.

Physics theory and experiment have shown that what we call a 'vacuum' is far from empty. It is actually a seething, restless, yet entirely random and indifferent field full of dynamic events and processes.  From what I understand, the energy density of the tiny bit of this Chaos that can be detected within our limited reference frame is only one part in 10 to the 120th power of all that's out there.  The Chaos is a potent force indeed.

A key property of this random indifferent Chaos is that localized, temporary self-organization can occur within it (such as the circle in the diagram above), and that self-organization is not prevented from becoming self-replicating and self-sustaining.

Paradox has no law but the law that there is no law.  Indifference has no reason or desire to prevent a self-organizing 'tumor' from forming, growing, and expanding within its belly.

As a simple example, let's go from 10 to the 120th possible entities to just ten.  Imagine a random number generator that is pumping out an endless string of Arabic numerals, 0 through 9. Somewhere in that field there exists an arbitrarily long string of nothing but the number 5, as far as the eye can see.  (It's very unlikely, but it is possible; and anything that is possible will eventually happen, if you wait long enough.)

If we lived in that particular patch of 'space' where, even with our best telescopes, we could see nothing but 5's around us, then we would have to believe that there is an exquisite, mysterious order to the universe—an inexplicable 'fine tuning'.  This patch of 'all fives' is Huxley's Islet.

I could elaborate, but I think you get the idea: We are dependent on the realm of 'all fives'—the Islet—within which the completely indifferent, UNCARING Chaos has allowed meaning (the perfect 'five-ness' of our world) to emerge for us.  Furthermore, since we cannot tolerate the encroachment or appearance of 'fours' or 'sixes', which would corrupt our reality, it is in our best interest to do anything in our power to preserve and propagate the 'all fives.'  Thus, not only does (localized, temporary) meaning emerge from nothing (the primordial vacuum made of pure Paradox), but so does purpose.

Here's where I suggest a few extensions to Huxley's statement, quoted above.  If our goal is just to survive, we need to build a bulkhead around our island to make sure it doesn't erode.  The battering waves on the ocean of Chaos are always trying to reclaim the land.  If our goal is to thrive and improve our life for ourselves and future generations, then it makes sense to follow Huxley's advice to try to claim new territory.

But here's something far more visionary: We ought to be learning to swim.

The ocean of inexplicability is the ultimate source of everything we know.  Logic isn't always the best tool to make progress there.  It's a place where open-hearted patience, humility, and, yes, possibly even rote faith in the experience of those who have swum before, can avail us.  Sacred traditions/knowledge may ultimately be decoded by reductionist Western thinking; but waiting for that 'aha' moment is like standing on the shoreline of the Islet studying the waves.  Do not be afraid of the water.  Embrace the 'fours' and 'sixes'.  As Bruce Lee once said, “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water.  On dry land no frame of mind is ever going to help you.

Why seek to swim this ocean of the unexplained?  The human psyche craves it.  Our restless curiosity drives us to endlessly probe such mysteries.  We do not exist on reason alone.  If we immerse ourselves in the Chaos and learn something of the ways of the battering waves, we may better preserve our shores.

"Paradox - The Essence of the Universe"
This is the first trucker cap I ever owned, embroidered by hand with my long-standing message back in the early 1970's.  This was a time when these caps were just beginning to get popular as every-day headwear (if those links go bad, I've saved screen shots and will post).


* * *

In a series of supplementary posts, I've taken some dives into the enigmatic waters.  Below are links to discussion of specific aspects of the philosophical and physical 'truths' that I perceive from my outpost on a wind-swept, rocky promontory that juts far out into the Sea of Paradox.

1.  Just as our coherent, seemingly rock-solid reality emerges naturally from the Chaos, so does the abstract concept of morality, and all its basic tenets, as espoused by the great messengers such as Jesus and Buddha.  I've devoted a separate exploration of this subject here—Morality, as it emerges even in an uncaring universe.

2.  For more discussion of the physical steps that led to our particular 'tumor in the belly of the Chaos'— 'Creation' as a physical process, which physicists now believe originated from the [spontaneous?] expansion of an unbelievably hot and absurdly tiny thing (the 'Big Bang')—see the Firestorm in the Wilderness post.

3.  For a speculative discussion of how our particular universe fits into a MUCH bigger and broader picture, including exploring humanity's potential active role in shaping the universe, see The Great Stream post.

4.  And for a better understanding of the deepest, most fundamental instruction book that we have available to us to guide us through life, see the Nature's Code post.

May we all ...


  1. Pete -

    I am reading David Brooks's tome The Social Animal, and a lot of what he says resonates with your insights. He argues that to claim the job of the mind is to make emotion subject to reason is to get it nearly backwards.

    I was also struck by your comment that as you developed the religion for your fictional land you began to see the wisdom in it. There are some--myself included, that believe that God is so large that creating our own conception of Her, or Him, and trying to forge some kind of relationship with it, is all that is necessary.

    Of course, I am reminded of the distinction and the concreteness of belief versus faith. My first lesson in the difference occurred when I was 18 and on the verge of joining the Children of God. A woman said, "Don't tell me what you believe. Tell me what you do all day and I'[LL tell you what you believe.

    I am glad you demanded I read this. It was worth my time.

    1. Great comments, Jack - some very quotable and thought provoking ideas. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Interesting! When I became disillusioned with my born into religion in my mid 30's, I decided to make researching religion mine...all the way back as far as it is written about. I'm still doing research going on 40 years.

    I had some early childhood "spiritual" experiences and several though out my life and I still have no idea what they were all about. All they did were make me positive there is another realm "out there" somewhere. I've also become certain that no one on earth knows or has ever known who or what created humanity. That unknown has always compelled men to seek and create ideology's, most based on the culture and location they lived in. The problem with that becomes when they start trying to force others to believe them...then we get Crusades and Jihads that reek havoc on earth. Agnostic pretty well fits where I'm at also...I simply don't know... but I'm not willing to say some kind of creative God isn't. Looking forward to reading your book.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Anna. The way I see it, when we stop questioning and growing we might as well be dead, because the world around us is not going to stop evolving. Any religion worth its salt ought to be constantly adapting and amending its practice if not its canon. The religion in 'Ice King' does just that.

      Regarding the problem of Crusades, forced conversions, Jihads and the like, I prefer to believe these are not rooted in the teachings of the 'parent religion' but are racism-nationalism-based perversions thereof.

      Thanks so much for your interest and your comment.

    2. I agree with your last comment re pperversions of teachings. They are the cobblestones of the road to hell. In my experience crewing cargo ships, a very diverse work environment, I have found that if you put observant believers of any faith together with agnostics and atheists, and give them a vital and necessary job like lowering the lifeboats, they work together to get the job done. I wish the rest of the world could do the same. I believe wars and hatred are part of this Chaos thing.

  3. Very interesting and clearly articulated understanding of part of the challenge of human existence. I look very forward to reading your book.

    A couple of things, to play devil's advocate. First, what if it is the very nature of the "number 5," to use your example, that is seen by some as fundamentally flawed? For example, one would prefer the universe to exist as all 4's. Second, what guarantees that everyone is "seeing" the same number? I think the first is a problem of conception, while the second is a problem of perception.

    I'd like to chat more about these issues.

    Matthew Peters, author of Conversations Among Ruins (forthcoming through ATTMP)

  4. Matthew, these are good points. I look forward to reading your book, as well as PJ's. I would say, as well, that the word "pure" as in "pure Chaos" and "pure Paradox" raises another question. If Chaos is pure, or absolute, it would never allow anything to be attached to another, but would always repel and disrupt. Even chance stings of numbers would quickly break up. Chaos and Paradox are best as slightly corrupted forms - just as there is no pure Energy, there's always a bit of matter involved, and no absolute mass or Matter without energy. This would give Chaos the ability to morph to some degree into Order (or organization), and Paradox into Concord.

    1. Thanks to Matthew and MC for your stimulating comments. Is the 'all fives' universe 'pure' or fundamentally flawed? Of course it is the latter. It is temporary and vulnerable and in desperate need of protection by us, the beings who have somehow emerged within it.

      But is the Chaos 'pure' or slightly corrupted? This is a deep question.

      My response is that purity is a property that requires some pro-active enforcement. I probably shouldn't have used the term 'pure'. Chaos and Paradox wield no enforcement and respond to no laws, including the laws that they must remain 'pure'. Thus they do not prohibit the localized and temporary impurity from emerging.

      Remember that time is one of these emergent properties. So the length of time that one of these impurities might persist is also unrestricted and unenforced. It might be a milli-second or a trillion-trillion years.

      So here we are, 13.7 billion years into the life of a Chaos-defying impurity. I see no conflict with this posited theory.

      Chaos surrenders to Order in a finite locality, but retains its purity in the larger frame of reference. Paradox yields to Concord where the emergent forces heroically struggle to hold it at bay. But the over-riding principal of random decay still prevails.

      On our human time-frame it might seem that we've achieved some incredible victory, because we have emerged into conscious awareness of this astounding Concord. But if we are to Sustain this, and Impel it into the future, my novel suggests that we need a higher level of support, capable of allowing us to Transcend the limitations of our current reference frame.

      And that support is forthcoming. The Strongmother who begat our universe, wants nothing more than to elevate the human experience to Her level. We must walk with the Gods.

    2. As we only know 0.1 to the 120th of what's out there, all speculation about what the rest is is just that--speculation. If it is indeed all Chaos, then it is truly a gold mine for artists, writers and musicians to mine and forge into meaning.

  5. Good answer to the purity of Chaos and Paradox, or for that matter/energy the purity of Order and Concord. I agree that our being conscious of these things gives us some possibility of creating a way to preserve and maintain our little corner of More Order Than Chaos, but I balk at the thought of Unifying Principle(s). The leap into "transcendence" is always a risky one. I've written about such an attempt recently and was reminded that I might be over-reaching. But we humans have that impetus" to over-reach. Where does it come from? So your answer is worth exploring. Mary Clark, author of ATTMP's Tally: An Intuitive Life

  6. Dear Mary,

    You are exquisitely in tune with my "message", and I thank you for these comments, which cut to the heart of my philosophical musings.

    Let the reader here be sure to note that my 'Unifying Principle', which takes a leap into 'Transcendence,' is in some measure a fictional construct. But it is also rooted in science.

    At the risk of giving away a bit of the 'punch line' of my six-volume novel, there is currently accepted Physics that describes the "transcendence" that provides the climax of my epic tale.

    Obviously I don't want to elaborate further because it would spoil the climax of my story. But this much the reader of my series can know: The Strongmother Dalle (or whatever you choose to call our universe's demiurge) craves this Transcendent process as much as us mortals do within our greatest spiritual visions.

    So we work as one to achieve it - God and man, unified, in the ultimate quest.

    Stay tuned ...


  7. Interesting comments, these. I look forward to the books. You might wish to check out Robert Axelrod's The Evolution of Cooperation, if you haven't already done so.

    1. Matthew - thanks so much for this insightful reference. I was going to reply here, but my reply grew so long that I decided to post it as a new entry.

      You can find it here: