I wish here to express, for the purpose of clarification, a strand of thought that has been submerged under murky waters while faintly apprehended for some time now. This thought concerns the irrefutability of idealism that I feel and yet cannot concretely express and the relation that this has to the feeling of oneness that I have on rare and blessed occasions. First, let us consider the objective existence of things.
The metaphysical doctrine of realism asserts that things have an objective existence of their own which is independent of their being perceived by, or presented to, a subject. In other words, the external world that we all see is claimed to persist in its existence, maintaining its form as apprehended by us, even if every last conscious being were annihilated. The subtle point here, which philosophers might object to but which I insist upon nevertheless, is that the objective existence of the world maintains the form which we apprehend it to have. This assumption arises out of the fact that if anyone, in testing this assertion, were to take an account of the forms in the visual world before her eyes which she then closes and opens, she would find the very same world stretching out before her after the test as was there before the test. This leads on to the assumption, thought to be the simplest interpretation, that the world simply looks the way it does regardless of whether it is being looked at or not. But this interpretation postulates two spatiotemporal worlds – one of which objectively exists independently of subjects, and the other of which is produced by the subject’s mind and which matches up entirely with this postulated objective world. Thus, if there were some theory that postulated just one spatiotemporal world, then the implicitly assumed realist account would fail Occam’s requirement for simplicity and would have to be abandoned in favour of the former, if simplicity were taken to be the mark of truth, which I don’t take it to be but some might.
Idealism, as a metaphysical doctrine, asserts that whatever exists does so only insofar as it is apprehended by some conscious being. This is, in effect, the abolition of an external objective world which exists and looks the way it does independently of whether it is being looked at. All that is left after this abolition is the world as created by the subject’s mind. The first objection which anyone who hears of such a doctrine always makes is: but surely the subject’s mind is representing something which must exist outside of the subject, unless a solipsistic theory is being preached here. I assure the reader of no such intentions however, and am fully convinced of the consciousness of other humans, animals, and possibly even undiscovered sentient aliens. But, how can I claim that the world is created in my mind, while it is simultaneously being created in other conscious beings’ minds? This question is perhaps better, or more formally, formulated as: how does my subjective world achieve the objectivity required for other minds to exist? Here, I refer the reader to Kant’s discovery of, and Schopenhauer’s elaboration upon, the a priori conditions of all empirical experience which serve to ‘lock down’, so to speak, the representation in a law-like internal organisation which allows this world to be mutual and not purely subjective. In other words, the world that my mind creates is not a mere dream, completely made up by my mind, but must conform to the a priori forms of space, time, and causality in order to constitute a real experience, and it is precisely this conformation of every subject’s representation with these a priori forms that allows for an objective world, albeit one which only ever appears in minds, each of which apprehends the world from the particular point in spacetime it finds itself to occupy. Now, that there must be something existing outside my mind is undeniable, and is not what I am here denying. I am simply arguing against the claim that what exists outside me maintains the same form, its appearance, which I apprehend when I look at it. That is to say, it is only upon looking out at the world that it differentiates into spacetime to take up the form that it does for me as I see it. When I do not look (and if no other being looks), it returns to this undifferentiated state, of which I cannot say a single thing, however, because it is outside the realm of my knowledge, which is restricted to my representations. To use the analogy afforded us by the Wachowski brothers in their film “The Matrix”, when nobody is plugged in, the world is mere code, and it only when a mind enters the matrix that a visualized, or simulated, world appears. So, our world is a co-simulation created and inhabited by many minds, who nonetheless share the simulation because of its necessary conformation to the laws of space, time, and causality. This is what I take to be the correct expression of the position which is called transcendental idealism.
Now, I want to offer a hypothesis as to why the realist proposition appeals to so many people, and why it is so natural for us to believe in the existence of the objective world of appearances independently of our representation. Schopenhauer calls spacetime the individuating principle, since in it, there are only multiplicities, which are individuated out of the infinite whole. It is precisely as a result of our being too absorbed in this individuation that we fail to see the inherent unity of all existence; this to say that we take spacetime to be objectively real and not just a form of our representation. This is because we are attached to the notion of ourselves as separately existing beings, which have no necessary affiliation with the rest of existence, at best a merely accidental one. It is due to carrying this assumption around with us that in apprehending the world, we see foreign things and quite naturally assume these to exist independently of us. There is a very general way of thinking which attributes ‘self’ to every thing, and sees this self as an independent entity, set up by its own power and inherent to the thing. This arises from the fixation on the spatiotemporal realm and its myriad multiplicities, each agglomeration of which we give a name and a label, and thus acquires an identity. In this way, when we seek to complete this labelling exercise by turning to ourselves, that ineffable ‘I’, we automatically generate a notion of selfhood. This ‘small self’ comes in the way of a genuine insight into reality because it forces us to accept a realist dogma, whether materialist or otherwise, which leaves one feeling metaphysically uncomfortable. In the materialist case, it may lead to nihilist meaninglessness and a deeply unsettling conception of oneself as hopelessly stranded in an alien world, striving vainly and to no final purpose. Contrarily, if one sees through this individuating principle and realises the underlying unity of All, only then will the release of all the innumerable tensions and struggles and strivings be achieved, for now life is seen as intimate to oneself and no longer alien. No longer is identification sought only in this fathom-long body, but one comes to see oneself as a mirror of the entire cosmos, and truly connected to everything that is. In this way does the ‘small self’ that we all cling to transform itself into the Giant Self that is God Almighty.
Apart from all this theological talk, however, there is something in the doctrine of idealism which arises from the same realisation. In essence, it is that feeling that everything I see is a creation of my own mind, admittedly a rare occurrence, but undeniable when it happens. It is a feeling of intimate connection with every percept, no matter how far. I remember on one occasion when this happened, I was looking at the stars and felt as though they were spots of light illuminating the inside of my skull, rather than being things in essence different from me and very very far away from me. On another occasion, I was having a conversation with someone who was having this very same realisation while we were sat on a bench contemplating the woods from across a clearing and he said to me (pointing to the furthest point we could see from where we sat): beyond those trees is the edge of my skull. Whenever I have had an experience of this sort, I have called it a feeling of ‘oneness’ and it is these events which have made me understand the axiomatic status of a correctly understood theory of idealism. Schopenhauer’s slogan ‘no object without subject’ makes sense precisely because of this feeling that the objects which we experience can only ever exist in experience, i.e. as being some subject’s representation. As to the question, ‘representation of what?’, I can only offer speculations that are shared by all the genuine mystics and sages of all the ages, that the underlying Godhead is a Unity in an undifferentiated state, a pure potential, timeless, eternal and infinite.