Towards a Real Pataphysics

Adrian Pocobelli
Aug 19 · 10 min read

“Reality is more like a novel than Newtonian three-dimensional space.”

— Terence McKenna

We live almost our entire lives in our imaginations, as most thinking is inherently a creative act, but, like fish in water, the imagination remains largely invisible to us, and so we diminish its significance. We pay lip service to it and acknowledge its virtues and importance as a wellspring of creativity, but we ultimately dismiss it as an unreal place that has no real ontological status. At best, we give it a nebulous secondary status in relation to pre-eminently important and ‘real’ material reality.

The success of science has compounded our ontological bias towards external reality. As physics, chemistry and biology delve deeper into the nature of matter and the laws that govern life and the universe, we are seduced into thinking that we are achieving a relatively comprehensive model of reality. This is further supported by the near-magical success of technology, which, like confirmation bias in a social media filter bubble, reaffirms our scientific, externally oriented worldview with each passing success, each greater than the last.

However, as many have pointed out, consciousness, or mind, remains stubbornly unaccounted for. Philosophy can provide a science-friendly, epiphenomenal explanation for consciousness — that consciousness emerges at higher levels of complexity as a novel property — yet from the scientific vantage point, the nature of consciousness — what it is — remains uncompromisingly mysterious, slippery and full of uncertainty, as the inner world of subjective experience — so far — has never been measured, and likely never will be. As a result, it seems inevitable that a scientific modelling of consciousness will remain forever incomplete.

Most philosophers and scientists concede this point, describing the inability of science to account for subjective experience as an “explanatory gap” — that the best results from the brain sciences will inevitably leave out vital information about subjective experience. This results in what is called “the hard problem of consciousness”, which refers to the difficulty in explaining why and how physical processes give rise to conscious experience. But are we correct in trying to use science to account for something that appears to exist, phenomenologically, in a separate dimension from three-dimensional space?

Prominent philosopher of consciousness David Chalmers, who gave a popular TED Talk on consciousness in 2014, and spoke on the subject at Google Talks on April 2, 2019, suggests we need to engage with ‘radical ideas’ and develop a ‘new physics’ that incorporates mind into our scientific models of the universe. In his TED Talk, Chalmers outlines three prevailing science-friendly views of consciousness: 1) That mind is a fundamental component of the physical universe alongside matter, space-time and charge. 2) Panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is a universal property of all systems, and by extension, matter, which would mean, for example, photons would have consciousness, however minutely. 3) Integrated Information Theory, originated by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, which posits that the amount of consciousness a thing contains is commensurate with the complexity of a given system and can be represented as a precise mathematical quantity, measured in ‘phi’, or Φ.

Science remains incapable of accounting for consciousness

All of these concepts, nevertheless, remain predictably unsatisfying, as they are all trapped in the old physics paradigm. In other words, these theories are trying to reduce consciousness, or subjective experience, to the corporeal world, where mind has a quantitative measure and a location in physical space, e.g. “There’s a plant. It contains a certain amount of consciousness.” Scientific materialists want to begin with matter and derive consciousness from it because this is the paradigm from which they view the world. However, this is akin to looking for lost keys in a well-lit area because it’s easier to see there.

The truly radical viewpoint is to let go of science and metaphysics as the sole credible explanatory methods to understand consciousness. The metaphysics of Neoplatonic philosopher Plotinus (205–280) would say the exact opposite of these three views: it’s not soul in body, but body in soul (V.5.9). So who is right? The scientific method doesn’t allow for the exploration of incorporeal realities, while the ratiocinations of metaphysics can be argued persuasively in each direction. But is reason enough? After 2,500 years of speculation on the nature of mind, panpsychism is basically a rehashed, scientifically-palatable term compiled of ancient Greek philosophical notions found in Thales, Anaxagoras, Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics, and has not fundamentally brought us any closer to an understanding of what consciousness is and how it is produced. Science and metaphysics have a role to play in understanding consciousness, but they are insufficient on their own. In other words, consciousness is too big of a problem for the intellectual sandboxes of science or philosophy to deal with.

A new approach: Pataphysics and its definitions

I propose a different framework to understand consciousness — and to model knowledge — using pataphysics. French playwright Alfred Jarry (1873–1907) coined the term pataphysics, for which he gave several definitions in his novels and plays, most prominently in Exploits and Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician (1911). Here are the four main definitions:

1. Pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions.

2. Pataphysics is the science of that which is superinduced upon metaphysics, whether within or beyond the latter’s limitations, extending as far beyond metaphysics as the latter extends beyond physics.

3. Pataphysics will examine the laws governing exceptions, and will explain the universe supplementary to this one.

4. Pataphysics will be, above all, the science of the particular, despite the common opinion that the only science is that of the general.

As a pioneer of absurd theatre, Jarry may have been half-joking when he used the term, yet the concept resonates, and there is nothing stopping us from taking it seriously and even pataphysically redefining it to suit our purposes, as there is a need for a larger umbrella term that incorporates metaphysics, science, as well as the qualitative knowledge that comes through fiction in literature and the arts.

Why pataphysics does what metaphysics can’t do

The reason we need pataphysics and not simply metaphysics is because metaphysics is preoccupied with true and false, real and unreal, and this causes it to ignore the significance of anything which it deems unreal. Metaphysics and philosophy are trying to know and understand reality. Pataphysics isn’t metaphysics; rather, pataphysics is a science (episteme) of story. Pataphysics isn’t as preoccupied with the distinction between fact and fiction. Everything is narrative, and, as such, has its own validity. The existence of narrative is ontological evidence in itself. We may decide that some stories are not very valuable, but not simply because they’re ‘anecdotal’.

Story is the prime matter of consciousness

Consciousness is built-in with a narrative producing power (dynamis), i.e. the imagination, which may be more widespread across nature than we might realize. This story-building function is what illuminates our understanding of the world and gives it significance. Without story there is no meaning, no reason, and no understanding. The nervous system processes and understands reality through narrative; therefore, we should consider narrative itself as our primary tool for modelling reality. Because of story, we can have knowledge, and in the context of consciousness, there is no simpler element. Story is the eldest form of knowledge. Every conceptual system, real, fake or otherwise, requires narrative to exist. Even mathematics equations are narratives, whether they’re correctly solved or not.

Ultimately, narrative, or story, is the prime matter of consciousness. Without story there is only raw sense perception. Everything begins and everything ends with story. It is inescapable and it permeates all living things. Our very DNA is a story that gets transmitted through genes and bloodlines. The nature of consciousness, nature and reality, insofar as we understand it, is storytelling. We are stories embodied.

Natural science would have a more accurate place in the system of knowledge

This would not dismiss science — it would simply rearrange our hierarchy of knowledge in a way that would position science in a more accurate place within our knowledge systems — as our best tool, or storytelling method, for modelling and manipulating material reality — rather than trying to force it to provide answers on subjects, such as consciousness, which it can’t answer. We should return to thinking of science as ‘natural science’ and not use it as the sole determiner of knowledge about reality, which is where we seem to have arrived.

We have to understand consciousness on its own terms, which is that it exists in a story-generating medium. Just like the stuff of the physical universe is matter, the stuff of consciousness is story. If you want to understand what something is, you have to understand how it works, so the most natural way to understand consciousness is to try to come to a deeper understanding of the core nature (physis) of story — what ideas are, and how they bind themselves together. This is the path to understanding consciousness.

What is narrative? What bonds ideas together? Do each of the senses create their own consciousness?

I propose that any two ideas, no matter how disparate, when placed in association, form narrative. An idea can be defined as a unit of information that can be conceptualized; in other words, anything that can be defined. Each definition is a story, and, in that respect, story should be recognized as a self-referential system.

Two units of meaning, or ideas, bonded together produce narrative. For example, on their own, ‘red’ and ‘table’ are ideas. Together, ‘red table’ is the beginning of a narrative. Narrative begins even before verbs are introduced. As the Surrealists demonstrated, any two ideas, when juxtaposed, are enough to produce narrative.

Ideas can be joined using different types of bonding:

1. Logic — most stories, fiction and non-fiction, are created using logical associations of one kind or another. These chains of reason help give stories coherence.

2. Juxtaposition — Any two ideas, no matter how different, when placed side by side, will begin to create narrative. The imagination can’t help but associate meaning between ideas. The Surrealists understood this on a profound level, which is why their central axiom was the joining of two disparate realities in a new context. This was the ultimate conceptual response to the Age of Reason.

3. Overlapping — this requires a visual or an aural medium, such as painting or music, to perform. Overlapping ideas on top of each other is an advanced form of juxtaposition: instead of simply placing things beside each other they are placed on top of each other.

It’s possible that each of the senses creates its own consciousness. We think of thinking itself as consciousness, but visual consciousness may have a different set of principles from aural consciousness (likely the source where our thinking came from) and smell, taste and touch. It’s possible that nature’s creative element, i.e. the imagination, works through the sensory apparatus, which may grow consciousness neurogenically as the senses receive more diverse information from external stimuli. Synaesthesia is a kind of consciousness that is created when these modes of awareness bleed into each other.

Everything is narrative; time to give up notion that true is real and relevant, and false is untrue and insignificant

If the goal of knowledge systems, such a science and metaphysics, is to provide accurate models of reality, who has given us a clearer, more detailed picture of consciousness, James Joyce or David Chalmers? Our current scientific paradigm doesn’t provide for qualitative forms of knowledge, such as those found in the arts, while metaphysics is locked in a rationalistic paradigm in its quest to determine the nature of reality and to distinguish fact from fiction.

Science or philosophy could argue that Christianity is full of falsehoods, and that it can be easily dismissed epistemologically, but should there really be no place for Christianity in our knowledge systems? Doesn’t it say something about reality? What about literature? Don’t we learn about ourselves, human nature and the world by reading great works of literature? Where does this currently fit in our system of knowledge? Does metaphysics provide an adequate framework to formally integrate literature and the arts into our knowledge systems? Do we simply ignore astrology and alchemy? These are pataphysical systems. Religions are pataphysical systems — metaphysics are pataphysical systems — pataphysics really is that which is superinduced on metaphysics.

Science would no longer be the sole arbiter of reality; how do we ascribe value to stories?

But what makes some stories more valuable than others? Science uses material reality, and deservedly holds a special privileged status among knowledge systems, but it’s also limited by its materialistic focus. Religions, on the other hand, may lack scientific credibility, but their influence on large populations over long periods of time have given them status as stories of importance. One could argue ‘distribution’ and ‘duration’ are variables that ‘measure’ the influence, and hence the value, of a story. However, this doesn’t say anything about whether a story is true or not.

The work of Sigmund Freud, for instance, has only been around 125 years (duration), but his thinking is almost wholly integrated into the lexicon of the Western mind (distribution). So even if Freud is wrong about basic principles (or even everything), like Christianity, his system still has value as a useful, provisional model and a story of historical importance, even if it isn’t believed. These are modes of understanding the world, and, again, even if they’re ‘wrong’, it doesn’t mean that they have no use. They are grandiose imaginative structures — paradigms — that interpret the world from a specific and developed viewpoint.

Pataphysics is a qualitative science

The real solution to consciousness lies in consciousness itself, just like the real solution to physics lies in three-dimensional physical reality. Phenomenologically, we are stories first and physical human beings second. The production of story by the imagination may be a widespread, elementary characteristic of nature and perhaps even the key to free will (another seemingly unsolvable riddle for science and philosophy). Nature is creative, and the imagination is our direct line to nature’s creative energy. So pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, needs to turn its eye on the inner theatre of our minds, using all of the techniques that the human imagination has to offer, science, metaphysics, fiction, math, statistics, art and whatever other storytelling method makes sense.

Pataphysics is also a way to recognize the value of non-rational, non-empirical knowledge. A science of speculation, a qualitative science, might model the irrational knowledge one would find in reading histories, literature and looking at artworks and juxtapose them with science, statistical analysis and philosophical reasoning. The one quality all knowledge systems have is that they are all made of story. Pataphysics, the science of imaginary solutions, is the only term with a large enough scope to incorporate and group all knowledge systems. Jarry cryptically wrote, “Pataphysics is the science.” And it seems Jarry, once again, was weirdly right, knowing what we should have known all along: The ultimate science is story.

Adrian Pocobelli

Written by

Italian-Canadian artist in Berlin. www.pocobelli.net

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