Reality — what art thou?

If the mind knows only what it encounters in the worlds that surround it, or does it know more than that

Aneela Shahzad August 27, 2021
The writer is a geopolitical analyst. She also writes at and tweets @AneelaShahzad

Ontology, the philosophical concept that deals with existence and reality of all things, is in conflict with another basic philosophical concept, epistemology, which deals with the nature of knowledge. This conflict arises when we question the ontology of epistemology i.e. when we question wherefrom knowledge originates in the first place — where is its seat?

Does knowledge reside in the vastness of the Universe, in the grand laws of astrophysics; in the chemical laws that bind things in the shapes they are of; in the quantum realm that acts at multiple stretches deeper than the chemical bindings; or does it reside in the biological level of miraculous life itself? Does knowledge consist of all the phenomena found in our worlds and the laws that govern their mechanisms; or is knowledge only what we understand of all that surrounds us, ‘in our minds’? Is knowledge all the layers peeled off with every discovery, yet we know that we might be just scratching at the vast and deep unknown; or is knowledge the structures that the mind keeps on formulating in its never-ending urge for knowing everything — from the slightest scratch on the surface, and from the slightest hint, the mind, without waiting for further complete details, hastes to make a big picture — like you get a feather and make the whole hen out of it — like, as if you knew the hen all along and you just needed the feather to remind you or to help reconstruct the picture of the hen that was already embedded in the framework of your mind.

So, is knowledge the answers that we are always questing to find all around us — or is knowledge the constant yearning for investigation, the perpetual appetite for information, and the questions that keep sparking in the minds of seekers; questions that have the power to set those seekers on the laborious paths of exploration.

One could ask: if the mind knows only what it encounters in the worlds that surround it, or does it know more than that! The ‘question’, and the fact that it arises from the human mind, tells us that there is something more that the mind knows, something it has to discover, something that it urges one to come out and explore; and urges its beholders to venture into the vast Universe, finding itself to be a tiny particle in the midst of a 93 billion light-years vast space; and urges them to delve into a quantum world wherein the radius of an electron (if it exists at all) may be 10-18 meters or less. The mind creates the space, or is the space, as we find that so many multiple dimensions fit in, yet there is space for so many multiples more!

One also reckons, if there was no such thing as the human mind in the Universe; if all systems that work on precise laws, all the structures that are construct and function upon those laws, would cease to exist. Surely not! And if not, then how does the existence of the human mind or its discovery of those systems make the human scientific endeavour, a solution to problems — rather the scientific endeavour is only an expedition into the mysteries of what already exists — until we slip into the path of exploitation of what we find around us, often throwing off the intricate balance of all things in nature, which is a dangerous path.

We might ask: is reality bigger than the mind or is human thought bigger than reality? Does the human mind have the capability to know-it-all in the Universe, or is it capable only to find what its embedded frameworks allow, in which case there would be huge bulks of knowledge that will remain forever alienated from its knowing! Or, do the frameworks of the mind exceed even the limits of the Universe?

And does this extended framework, which allows it to construct from the flickering of the pointer of an ammeter a whole theory of electrodynamics; and from the mere photoelectric effect a whole Quantum Physics — which eventually after rigorous experimentations, we have started to believe as true — not give reason to believe that the possibilities identified by the embedded frameworks of the mind, are the actual basis of knowledge and determine its extent. Which means that mind and matter are not only connected intricately and define each other, they are two strands of the DNA helix that creates the couch wherein sublime things like life, information, memory etc. can survive.

So, in answering wherefrom knowledge originates in the first place and where its seat is and does it have a material component, we are again bounded by our faculty of mind and its reliance on embedded frameworks, which are in a habit of extrapolating answers from meagre hints, eventually creating such large loopholes that we are essentially confronted with ‘choices’ in many essential questions. And the choice we confront in this case is weather ‘knowledge’ is a sublime reality that is generated by a sublime ‘mind’ and has the power to bring change in its surroundings, or if it is an electric impulse generated by synapses of a neuronic brain, all caused by the evolutionary history of change — redefining ‘change’ as the cause of ‘knowledge’ rather than having ‘knowledge’ as the master of ‘change’.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2021.

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