The Limits of Literalism

These are first few pages of Self & Unself which explain the catastrophic limitations of what I define as ‘literalism’ — the root worldview which has governed our civilisation for ten millennia, and which has manifested as various branches — theism and atheism, dualism and monism, subjectivism and objectivism, idealism and realism — which appear to be antagonistic opposites, but which are, fundamentally, the same. Only when the common thread between all these lies is identified, can the truth, in radical opposition to it, be understood.

This, like the first hundred pages of the book is rather difficult; because it had to be. I have written a simpler version here.

Introduction (excerpt)

Ego made this world. Ego and world are each a metaphor for the other, with a common origin which, when consciously experienced, can free the individual self from both. This experience is neither objective nor subjective—it is what I call panjective—which means it can neither be literally described nor solipsistically moodied up, only gestured towards; by critically exploring what it is not and by metaphorically describing what it is like. This is what the present work does.

To put this another way, reality is ultimately mysterious, a mystery that is everywhere you look—because it is that which is looking. This doesn’t mean that unmysterious thought—the kind that reasons about subjective impressions and objective things—is useless, or that the facts that it handles are illusions. It means that such thought reaches a limit beyond which it cannot pass. Something else has to cross over, a something else which, obviously enough, cannot be expressed with the thought it had to leave behind. If it does think, or reason, or attempt to express itself, it has to do it in another way; through the means of expression we call metaphor. And again, this is what this book aims to do…


There is a self here reading these words, which I call me. It is a caused, three-dimensional fact existing in what I call space and passing through or changing in what I call time.
The ‘purpose’ of the self is to generate the world-for-me from the world-in-itself. The experienced world of the self is not of reality as it actually is, but is an image or reflection of reality, a representation or manifestation of something else.

This something else that representations and manifestations are “of” is inaccessible to the self. It appears to self either as an unfathomable distal context, “beyond” objective representation, or it appears as an unfathomable proximal consciousness, “behind” self experience.

Self, in other words, does not and cannot know who I really am or what anything really is. Self can only know its own medial experience. Anything else—if there is anything else—is “beyond” or “behind” a wall which self cannot surmount.


Self, by itself, can never be sure what its representations and manifestations are of. It can be sure enough that, for example, another self exists (which I call you or it) and it can be sure enough about where you or it comes from (God perhaps, or a granule of DNA), but it can never know what you really are or what anything really is. To the extent that I am a self, I am effectively imprisoned. Even though you are obviously somehow a self like me, even though the carpet is still obviously somehow a thing like me, you and it are still only actually being experienced within my self. What you and it really, finally are is, ultimately, inaccessible to the self.

This is reasonably obvious for so-called secondary properties, such as hardness or colour. It’s clear to most people that the green of the grass, for example, is not the actual green, but an interpretation in the mind; of light-frequency data that comes to the mind through the optic nerve. We do not see light frequencies, we see, or self experiences, colour. We do not hear vibrations in the air, we hear, or self experiences, sound. Frequencies and vibrations exist independently of mind, but there is no such thing as an ‘unheard sound’ or an ‘unseen colour’ because sounds and colours are functions of mind. If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to hear, it obviously makes something—but that something, equally obviously, cannot be our experience of sound.

This doesn’t mean secondary properties are completely invented by the mind. There is, quite clearly, a fundamental connection between our experience of green, in here, and the actual nature of the light, out there, ‘bouncing off’ an oak leaf, or between the crashing sound we hear when a tree falls, and the actual sound waves rocking through the air. This is how we all know, despite fanciful philosophical speculation, that we are sharing the same world of greeny greens and crashy crashes. We all know that our senses are almost completely reliable; but we also know that, somehow, they are not; that there is a personal aspect to sensory experience. Even so-called realists concede that mind somehow creates experience from sensation; that the self doesn’t just report, it also interprets. This is clear to most people, which is why it forms the basis of practically every theory of perception ever proposed. Far less clear, far more difficult to accept, is the idea that the self generates our experience of the primary property of literality.


Literalism is the belief or experience (the former arising from the latter) that representations are analogous or abbreviated expressions of knowable things. For the literalist, the conceptual tree (the idea, word or symbol that represents tree) and the physical tree (that big, beautiful brown and green thing over there) are fundamentally the same as the actual tree; as the ‘tree-in-itself’. Literalist definitions can be flexible and literalist logics can be ‘fuzzy’, but all forms of literalist thought and expression are completely or essentially knowable (describable as an idea, or thinkable in symbolic thought, or graspable as an emotion) and founded on the assumption—and it only ever can be an assumption—that reality is also, in the same way, knowable. There is, in other words, nothing elusive, ineffable or mysterious about the literalist tree; the eye can see it, the mind can know it, the heart can like or want it.

Self-generated objective literality can be said to comprise two equally unmysterious, comprehensible laws; the law of facticity and the law of causality. Facticity means that every thing must either be a literal thing or a literal non-thing (x is either x or not-x) and causality means that every literal thing must have been literally caused by some other thing (If x then y), all these things known, and only quantitatively known, in their relation to one other, which is to say relatively.

The whole ordinary world, what the self calls ‘the real world’, is a massive collection of caused facts existing within, and related to each other by, the self. Self, in other words, generates space and time. As with secondary properties of sound and colour, the fact that this experience is ‘generated’ doesn’t mean that it’s invented, that there isn’t something literally ‘spacetimey’ out there, that the tree my mind thinks of and the tree my mind sees are illusions, or that factual and causal relations are a battery of ad hoc assumptions and arbitrary inventions, or that mathematics and logic are entirely subjective, or that the word ‘literally’ is literally meaningless. Only an abstract philosopher or postmodern artist or complete madman could seriously believe that an unperceived tree, or planet, or Pharaoh, does not exist at all, or that language and logic are literally meaningless, or that there is no difference between dreams and waking reality. The fact that you are reading these words and that you even approximately understand them is almost indisputable evidence that something mind-graspable exists beyond your self. All manifest communication would be impossible—including communication with completely new cultures—if there weren’t something in reality which was literal, that we unquestionably share. What the self-made nature of literality means is that ultimately self doesn’t, and cannot, take literal, factual, causal experience from the world: it brings literal experience to the world.


Self does not learn objective literality like it learns the individual facts and causes that comprise it, for self is itself a literal thing. The spatial position of my subjective self, its experience of your objective self, the causal relation of that experience to who you actually are, the relation of you to him, to her, to them, to it… all of these relations somehow exist out there, but their literalness, their ‘graspableness’, is a function of the inherent, fundamental nature of self, not ultimately learnt from anything external to self. It is clearly the case that self can be said to somehow learn facticity and causality. A developing baby does learn to separate thing from thing, object from subject, babself from mumself; but it evidently does not, and cannot, learn this from facts and causes, the existence of which are presupposed by the very self that is grasping them. How can self learn facticity and causality from experience of the world, when facticity and causality are the essential prerequisites for that experience? How can you learn that objects are separate from each other in space, without first being able to separate objects from one another? How can we ever be sure that perception and conception provide us with an accurate picture of the world, without relying on perception and conception?

What self does learn from experience are secondary properties; the causal facts, or factual causes, that make up the world. Because these are acquired, they can be lost by self or, in the case of impaired selves, not acquired at all. You can be born blind to light and colour, but you cannot be born blind to time and space. Likewise, secondary properties can be experimentally ‘thought away’; self can imagine an object without position, colour, form, substance and state, but, as Immanuel Kant pointed out,† it can never think away the primary properties of facticity and causality. It can neither perceive nor conceive of a factless, causeless object because it is born with this understanding ‘hardwired’ into perception and conception. Our experience of space and what we call ‘time’ would be impossible unless we brought facticity and causality to our experience. There is no way even to imagine how it could be otherwise.


What then is the nature of reality, “behind” the literal, objective representation of self? What, that is to say, is the nature of the thing-in-itself*? Self alone only has two options. Either it can concede that self cannot experience the thing-in-itself (or deny that it exists at all); in which case anything goes. This is the position of the solipsist, or subjectivist, for whom everything is self. The other option is to assume that although the thing-in-itself, the universe “beyond” me, is fundamentally unreachable, it is still essentially and entirely literal. This is the position of the physicalist, or objectivist.

Although physicalists and solipsists are constantly at odds, and although both positions are superficially distinct, they are fundamentally the same. The reality of the solipsist is subjectively literal—there is nothing “prior” to the subjectivities of the self—just as the reality of the literalist is objectively so—there is nothing “beyond” the objects of the self. Thus we can speak of solipsism and physicalism as distinct, but they are, ultimately, both self-located, or egoic worldviews; which is why each, two poles on the same continuum, ultimately entails the other. Objectivity at its subjectless extreme collapses into complete, solipsistic, subjectivity—for all I can actually find in the objects of self’s experience is self, or self-generated representation—while subjectivity in turn, at its limits, reveals total objectivity—for if I am the world in toto, there can be no [objectively] validated I to be found in that world, no true consciousness; just a chaos of objective bits.

Egoism—solipsistic / physicalist literalism—began at some point towards the end of the Palaeolithic era, with what we call idealism and dualism, the semi-literal / semi-solipsist idea that reality (for the idealist) literally is, or (for the dualist) is somehow caused or magically animated by, mind (or by ‘soul’ or ‘God’). The normal word for idealism-dualism today is superstition or, in its most extreme form, religion. Around five hundred years ago the useless magical element was ditched in favour of what we now call ‘physicalism’ (also known as ‘materialism’ or, more absurdly, ‘realism’), the idea that reality is a fully literal thing, which self—specifically the rational mind—can indirectly access. Today, we usually call physicalism science or, in its most extreme form, scientism.


Scientism is an extreme form of literalism, but some form of literalism has been the assumed foundation of all institutional thought since institutions began, around 6,000 years ago. There are, however, four catastrophic problems with literalism and all the scientific-religious philosophies built upon it;

i. Self can never know what lies beyond its reach in space, if anything does, because self creates space. It cannot judge its own reliability without first presupposing it. Self just proceeds as if the thing-in-itself out there matches the literal representation it experiences in here. For the literalist, an essentially comprehensible universe walks into the self where it is literally doubled as my experience of it. Self then assumes that what it generates as space and time reflects a universe that fundamentally is spatio-temporal. The literalist can never be sure if this is so—if there isn’t something else, beyond its grasp—so he has to assume it. Not because, as he declares, this modus operandi ‘works’ (indeed and of course it does) but because he has to assume it. He has no choice; the literal self can only experience meter readings (its own, or those of the tools it builds), which means that the literalist must posit a miraculous ghost world beyond experience to explain what those readings are of; if, that is, he seriously reflects on such matters, which is rare. Vague gestures towards ‘God’, ignoring the question of what anything actually is, or pretending it is meaningless to ask such questions are more common, all of which allow the modern assumption that the objective universe is as it appears to rest without question.

The physicalist in particular is forced to cling to the ‘meter reading’ view of the universe—to assume that the meter readings of the self accurately reflect objective reality—even when they inform him that he is in error. Physicalist philosophers believe that philosophy should limit its claims to what the natural sciences can discover—that philosophy is really just a preliminary stage, or ‘handmaiden’, to the ‘real’ work of the physicalist scientist. But when, in the first half of the twentieth century, those same scientists discovered that ultimately [quantum] reality cannot be literally grasped by the self, their discoveries were effectively ignored. The problems that physicalist thinkers endeavour to solve, such as the relation between mental and physical phenomena, are implicitly founded on a literal logic that has been discovered, by the same science they uphold, to be incompatible with ‘objective’ reality.

ii. Just as the literal self cannot know what lies beyond spatial representation, so it is incapable of grasping the cause of its experience in what it calls time. It has no idea of how facticity and causality—a.k.a. the universe—could have causally emerged from non-facticity and non-causality; because it can have no idea. This is not a question of ‘not knowing’ something, of not yet having the right theory or enough data. There is no way to think about how time and space could ‘emerge’ from non-time and space; and so literalists just ignore the matter, or focus on the measurable effects of this ‘emergence’ or, again, they posit miracles to explain it. While theist literalists are quite open about this, informing us that [an equally literal] ‘God’ created the universe, atheist literalists, embarrassed by magic, prefer either to wave the problem away with ‘well it must have happened’ and pretend that this happening can’t have been miraculous, or they sneak causality into their assumptions, using words like ‘happen’, ‘came to be’ and ‘emerge’ to describe the source of causality itself. But however the miracle is framed, a miracle remains the only way for literalists to explain or accept the incoherent absurdity—at the heart of both standard modern theism and standard modern atheism—that causelessness caused causality.

iii. Literalism cannot explain the cause of experience, or what it calls ‘consciousness’. For the literalist, consciousness somehow emerged from non-consciousness; conscious human beings somehow emerged from unconscious rocks and amoebae (‘phylogenetically’), and conscious adults somehow emerged from unconscious chromosomes and embryos (‘ontogenetically’). But again, there is no way even to think about how this could happen; how something non-experiential can possibly generate experience (or, alternatively, how quantity can generate quality) without reducing the latter to the former. We can imagine, and so predict, how sand-dunes can ‘emerge’ from sand, or ice from water, or ecological breakdown from human activity. There is something quantitatively detectable in the latter which conceivably, or scientifically, leads to the former. But there is nothing in non-experience that can conceivably lead to experience or predict its emergence. Qualitative consciousness ‘emerging’ from quantitative matter is as feasible as language emerging from biscuits. It’s not merely amazing that it happened (the so-called ‘argument from incredulity’ which physicalists are very eager to dismiss) but impossible to imagine that it could happen, at least causally; so the literalist just says ‘God did it’ or, these days, ‘emergentism did it’, which amounts to the same thing.

This leaves two further puzzles for the literalist. One is how the material mind can cause immaterial consciousness, and the other is how non-physical consciousness can influence physical matter. These, the so-called ‘mind-body problem’ and ‘problem of mental causation’, are insoluble mysteries for literalists. They come up with plenty of theories (or souls or gods) that they think can explain them, but none addresses the inherent absurdity of the problems, which is why nobody has come anywhere near answering them. Those answers which are offered all beg not one but two questions; the first is what the matter is that mind is supposed to influence or emerge from, which remains impregnable to, and untouched by, any kind of literalism, and the second is what the consciousness is that experiences that matter, which is either declared to be a quantitative, literal thing like any other literal thing or to be an ‘epiphenomenal illusion’, which is to say, to not exist at all.

iv. The fourth literalist enigma is literal, objective knowledge itself, or rational thought, which is assumed, from the beginning of the literal, objective world, to have a fundamentally one-to-one correspondence with reality. But how is the literalist to know? How can literal thought determine whether literal thought is literally representing reality? Just as there can be nothing within an android that can validate whether it is conscious, so there can be nothing within rational thought that can validate thinking itself. One can only judge the accuracy of thought, meaning the fundamental thinkableness of reality, by experiencing from a standpoint “external” to rationality, but this is something the literalist cannot do.

This problem (called the ‘no independent access’ problem*) cripples the progress of physicalist understanding that modern literalists appeal to. How is one to further knowledge, or discover a more elementary law than those which currently obtain, unless one steps out of the known and introduces a new hypothesis which is ultimately unrelated to the interconnected network of perceptions and conceptions that physicalism is based on? This, one of the great mysteries of science, is unsolvable by science, because you have to make a non-literal leap over the factual-causal fence in order to do so. Immanuel Kant, Henri Poincaré, Albert Einstein and Max Planck all made this point, as did, in a different way, David Hume†, who argued that experience can never lead to reliable general principles, because such principles rest on a dependable regularity which can never be found in experience. We can never be completely sure that the next swan we come across won’t be bright red. While we remain within the coordinates of the knowable we can never be sure that the laws of nature don’t change or evolve, or that an untested hypothesis (of which there are an infinite number) doesn’t more accurately fit the facts. Hume himself was driven to despair by his famous ‘problem of induction’, because it invalidates scientific certainty; which is, once again, why physicalists pretend that it doesn’t exist or is of no importance.


Extreme literalists—physicalists—consider the universe to be entirely composed of separate comprehensible parts, particles or granules relating to each other in predictable ways in order to produce a measurable outcome; that the universe, or reality, is, like the self, a kind of machine. They are unable to view reality as something non-mechanical, something which, despite clearly having a literal machine-like component, is also ultimately, unpredictable, immeasurable, spontaneous and uncaused; the state of experience we call alive.

Perhaps, you might think, the physicalist considers the mechanistic universe to be just a metaphor? But if that’s the case, why is it preferred over an organic metaphor? Or maybe it is literally true; but then how are we to know? What kind of test could be devised to confirm such a theory? How could it ever be refuted? Of course it could not. There is no way, ever, to test whether the world is mechanical with mechanical tests, any more than rationality can determine whether rationality can, ultimately, know the world.

Literalism is founded on facticity and causality, but is unable to explain how non-facticity and non-causality could have created facticity and causality—how the universe, consciousness, experience or knowledge came to be—for the transparent reason that it is impossible; and so all literalists, of whatever stripe, have to posit miracles to explain it, or redefine the problem out of existence, or knock up a smokescreen of philosophical-technical jargon to hide their ignorance, or, the most common approach, just pretend it doesn’t exist (management never addresses consciousness, politicians never mention the universe and the word ‘ineffable’ is never heard in the lab), proceeding as if consciousness is either an illusion, or a literal material object inhabiting an essentially comprehensible clockwork universe that just happened.

This bizarre reality, a conscious universe spontaneously springing from the head of Zeus, mirroring in some equally fantastic way a reality that can never be directly experienced, is the one that most people in the world inhabit today. Nobody seriously explores the nature or the limits of this make-believe ideology, our ‘worldview’, at least not at work. It is assumed to be the only explanation of the universe, although that assumption cannot itself be literally justified without getting sucked into a tautologous mindwarp—you can’t literally prove that literal proof is the only method of discovering truth without automatically ruling out non-literal methods. Thus, all non-literal accounts of reality are not reasoned away, but reflexively dismissed—as insane forms of subjectivist solipsism.


Solipsism is the only way to reject physicalism within the confines of the self. The solipsist denies objective facticity and causality, either rationally concluding (as Hume, one of the godfathers of modern solipsism, did) that neither can be found in the world, or irrationally dismissing them as forms of control by external agencies (souls, gods, governments, aliens, them). Instead of the factual and the causal, the solipsist adheres to the unreal and the arbitrary; a subjective reality which has no objective counterpart, and therefore is based on random choice, personal whim or whatever association (association, based on similarity, being ‘solipsistic causality’) is at hand.

The extreme solipsist—the schizophrenic—is confined to a catatonic universe of self-generated illusion, but most solipsists can function perfectly well in the world without retreating to an inner world of concepts. The high-functioning solipsist inhabits the same egoic world as the physicalist, making the same literal distinction between the inner subject and the outer object, but solipsistic meaning is handed over to the subject in order to serve the temporary needs of ego, which frequently demands that rationality, objectivity and causal reason be abandoned so that it can justify itself and lie to others.

While orientation towards the objective-world of physicalism is favoured by businessmen, managers, scientists and men, the subjectivity of solipsism is the preferred philosophy of liars, artists, addicts and women. The former require a useful representation of the world which they can rationally defend, the latter a useless representation which they can irrationally defend. Because both are essentially egoic—essentially the same—and because life is a complex affair, self can leap from one to the other, choosing which to adhere to over the course of a life, or even a day. A man may be a rational literalist in class, a semi-rational solipsist in Church, a practical literalist in the office, an airy-fairy solipsist at the guitar or in the art-gallery, an android-like physicalist when he is arguing with his wife and a self-absorbed hyper-idealist when he has a breakdown and just can’t take it anymore.


If there is something else in reality, something in the thing-in-itself that is not physically or solipsistically self, then it can neither be represented by self nor make sense to it. If, that is to say, there is something in reality that is inaccessible to a self which is either a literal object or an unreal subject, then that something else must be both object and subject, both non-literal and real. Here, this is called panjective.

Non-literal means non-factual, or paradoxical (x is both x and non-x) and real means not self-generated; it is uncaused (x is always x). Panjective reality is, therefore, absolute, meaning that it is real but is not ‘known’ through the quantitative relations of its literal factual-causal parts. If the thing-in-itself is in any way absolute, self can create self-graspable perceptions, conceptions, affections and motions “from” it, but there is something in the thing-in-itself “beyond” both objective knowledge, or fact, and subjective knowledge, or invention.

The absolute nature of the thing-in-itself doesn’t just mean that it is ultimately ineffable to self, but that its “relationship” to the world is also ineffable. Self can say that the thing-in-itself spatially “precedes” or temporally “causes” the experience of self—self can express itself dualistically—but if the thing-in-itself is somehow unselfish, then such dualism can only ever be non-literally, or metaphorically, true; for, ultimately, there can be no relation between reality and representation.

These are rather unusual ideas. If, ultimately, reality is absolute, there is not just ‘something else’ in the thing-in-itself, forever beyond the relative self, there must also, somehow, be nothing but something else. If there are ultimately no separate facts and no separate causes (or factual associations)—no time and space in the thing-in-itself—there can be, ultimately, no difference between anything and anything else, which means that, again, ultimately, there can be no difference between me and the rest of the universe, at any time.

This literally unbelievable idea is, you would think, easy to verify. If I look around and find that I am surrounded by separate things which are not each other and not me—things which include the entire past and future of the universe—then I can probably conclude that I am not all things at all times, that I am ‘just me’, my ordinary self. The question, however, is not what I am ‘looking around’ at, but what the ‘I’ is that is doing the looking. It may be obvious that my self is not everything else, but it is far from obvious that I am my self.


Who am I? It is such a simple question, and yet I keep getting it wrong. I get it wrong by looking for, and finding, answers. There can be no definitive self-knowable answer to the question ‘who am I?’ because self only has its own experience to judge by. If I am somehow “more” or “other” than self, self cannot know it, any more than a torch can ‘know’ darkness.

The torch of self can reason itself to the limits of its light—it can know it cannot know beyond a certain point—but it cannot experience what lies beyond what it knows, for, self-evidently, self cannot be what it is not, any more than torch-light can be dark. Self therefore, by itself, concludes that either there is nothing beyond the known, or, if there is, that there is nothing beyond the known that is not self-like.

It is night and a drunk man is looking for his keys in a pool of light under a street lamp. A friend comes along and asks him what he is doing. ‘I’m looking for my keys’, he says. ‘Where did you drop them?’ the friend asks, and the man points into the darkness. ‘Over there’, he says. ‘Over there? Then why aren’t you looking over there?’ ‘Because’, says the drunk man, ‘the light is here’.

This famous allegory more or less describes the activity of self, which looks with self for something other than self; because ‘that’s where the light is’. The difference being that ‘the light’ doesn’t just limit what self sees, but what it is—and therefore can see. Self, by itself, is identified with the ‘light’ of the self, and so it cannot say, of the object of its search, that it is in the darkness because, for the self, there is no such thing. If the story were to continue it would end with the drunkard and his friend arguing about the existence of the night.

Self does not conclude that the universe is entirely self-like by inspecting facts and causes—or ‘evidence’—because facticity and causality are, despite accurately applying to self-like aspects of the thing-in-itself, ultimately self-made. There can be no fact or cause within self that can determine whether facticity completely applies to reality “beyond” self. Because self can only inspect facts, and strings of causal (or associative) reason, it can only assume that reality beyond its representation is completely factual and causal. This assumption forms the sand-like foundation of all egoic, literalist, philosophies, whether physicalist, solipsist, dualist or idealist.


Everything that self experiences is a representation of something else which is ultimately an inaccessible mystery to it, to me. Self must therefore guess whether that mystery is actually mysterious, or if it just seems so because it is inaccessible. Self can be completely confident about that within the thing-in-itself which is knowable, but it can never know whether there is something “within” the thing-in-itself that is unknowable, because it cannot step outside of itself and experience, or be, that which its meter readings are of.

With one exception. There is one thing-in-itself in the universe, and only one, that I do not need to ‘read’ from the meter of the self to experience, one thing-in-itself in the universe that I can be, that I am, immediately and directly, that I do not have to go via my self to experience, and that is consciousness, the experience or state I call I.

I am, unquestionably, the one thing in the entire universe that I have direct, inward access to. I am the only thing in the universe which is that which representation is of. I am the consciousness which self—the entire apparent universe—only ever appears to. I, like every other thing-in-itself, appear or manifest as self, but, ultimately, I qualitatively “precede” quantitative self-perception, self-conception, self-facticity and self-causality. Ultimately, to put it simply, I am not my self.

I am unself.

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