Experience and Existence
The present moment as we experience it is “thick” said William James. It is bursting with layers of sensation, perception, conceptualization, interpretation, feeling, intention – you name it. Everything we experience, we experience as part of the immediately available present moment. The present is all there is, and absolutely everything that we experience as real is experienced as part of it.
Right now I am sitting in an airplane writing this post. I am experiencing the start of my trip to Toronto. That experience consists of a certain set of anticipations about the days to come. It contains ideas about, and memories of the friends and places I will see. I am also experiencing the inside of the airplane. I experience the rows of seats. My perception of rows of seats is built up from my experience of the color and shapes of the seats that I see, and the feeling of the seat I am sitting on, and my knowledge of planes and seats in general. Then there are the people around me. I experience them as other beings such as myself and also as types. I see what I assume is a businessman that I recognize because of the work he is doing and his clothing. I can only recognize this because of my knowledge of society and my own work experience both of which manifest in the present in my ability to recognize a businessman when I see one.
I could of course go on and on and on. Phenomenology is the school of philosophy that takes as its aim the investigation of our immediate experience of reality. I could certainly spend hours describing my experience of this single bursting moment. Falling deeper and deeper into the layers of reality that culminate in the glorious fullness of this immediately experienced present.
I see a pattern in front of me. It consists of red shapes on a white field. They are not just shapes; they are letters. They are not just visual objects; they are objects full of meaning. One pattern I recognize to say ‘exit’ the other ‘sortie’. I recognize that both point to the way out and that one is English, the other French. The fact that the words appear in both English and French point to the reality that I am on an international flight and that leads to my understanding of what a language is and what a nation is. Yes we could go on and on. The experience of this present moment is the gateway to everything else. Ahh…the wondrous thickness of it all! One experience rests on another and points to others. If we pay attention to our experience of this moment we can follow it one thing after the next just about anywhere.
Look for the thickness of the moment available to your immediate experience right now. Can you feel the thickness of it? Do you see how everything exists in it? Nothing at all exists outside of this immediately experienced present. Our ideas of places unseen exist only as ideas experienced right here in the present. People and places that are not with us exist as memories that are with us now.
As we come closer to recognizing that there is no reality that exists outside of the experience of this present moment we may find a part of ourselves that balks at the notion. Of course people who are not here exist. And they cannot be reduced to mere ideas in my present. After all, somewhere they are having a present moment experience themselves and I may exist as an idea to them there. Of course I would not deny the reality of other beings. Still I think this present moment perspective on reality is important.
A few posts ago I wrote about how modernism isolated us from reality in some ways. That isolation appears to us as a sense or an idea that reality exists outside of us. It is like a stage that we are acting on. This is how we experience reality – as if it exists out there independent of us. We all know that on a stage if we are turned toward stage left, stage right still exists.
So we assume that reality is out there, sitting quietly, even when I am not experiencing it. It exists independent of me or anyone else. If all of the conscious being in the universe were to disappear the universe itself would continue on without us.
The fact of an independently existing universe is so obvious to us that it seems nonsensical to even write about it. Of course reality exists independent of our experience of it. But does it? Is our experience of reality separate from reality or is it part of reality? What would it mean to remove all of the experience from the universe? If you removed all self-aware beings what would that do? Would you have to remove all animals? How about plants? Do plants have experience? What about molecules and atoms, do they have experience? If you really want to go all the way down this rabbit hole you have to start looking deeply into what experience actually is and then ask if anything at all could exist without it. Can existence and experience be separated?