Toward a Definition of the First Principle

Our Abyss

Customarily, we think of a crisis as a period of limited duration, an obstacle heroically overcome, “bad times” endured with poise and tenacity and then recalled with pride. Man is a hopeful creature, constitutionally bound to imagine, even in the face of imminent death, that salvation is always near at hand. The oxymoronic prospect of an “endless crisis,” a congenital defect in the DNA of creation, is unthinkable, implying as it does a challenge to which man, with all his ingenuity, optimism, and elbow grease, is incapable of rising. Yet there is every reason to believe we are in the midst of an endless crisis right now and have been for a very long time.

Crisis; n, a situation or period in which things are very uncertain, difficult, or painful, especially a time when action must be taken to avoid complete disaster or breakdown.

A crisis without end invariably becomes invisible, insidiously weaving its diseased threads throughout the fabric of our culture and camouflaging itself as normal, inevitable, even foundational. Abetting the spread of this plague, man has proven capable of accommodating himself to truly horrendous conditions, particularly if he is habituated to them slowly, in stages, over many years. As the good times recede into history they gradually lose their luster, begin to look like a fluke wrought by an impossibly lucky confluence of factors, or are reinterpreted as the product of reckless and unsustainable behaviors wisely abandoned. In the final analysis, the intellectuals will report, those times were never so good at all, but are nothing but the fanciful nostalgias of emotional old women; nothing ever changes, the new normal is the same as the old.

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. – Albert Camus

I will not burden you here with even as much as a synopsis of the current doleful state of Western thought. Such a survey would merely recount a surfeit of recipes for stewing in one’s existential juices over the futility of reason, the impossibility of truth, and the resultant absurdity of the human condition. The proverbial dead horse, long ago beaten into subatomic particles on this score, does not begin to reflect the soul-crushing, mind-numbing tedium of this ongoing enterprise. What more needs to be said when—no fewer than twenty-five centuries into this experiment with reason—a respected and essentially good-natured intellectual like Albert Camus can say, with little fear of dissent, that philosophy has nothing more important to do than prevent us from slashing our wrists? Details be damned; it is well past time to turn the page on this chapter.

The most thought provoking thing about this thought provoking age is that we still are not thinking. – Martin Heidegger

The aim of my book, The Substance of Spacetime, is to do nothing less than put an end to this endless crisis. Quixotic as such a venture may appear on its face, the opportunity cost of tilting at this particular windmill is extremely low, certainly if suicide is now a mainstay of the dialectic. We have hit rock bottom; our support group has packed up the coffee maker and disbanded. To put it prosaically: Why the hell not give it another try? You got anything better to do?


The following pair of concepts captures the classical, Platonic understanding of Truth:

Subjective Reason: This is the faculty in man that allows us to produce logic, math, ethical and legal arguments, computer algorithms, and philosophical dialectic. It is among our defining characteristics and is largely responsible for most of our greatest achievements as a species. It is summed up by the idea that man is a rational animal.

Objective Reason: This is the belief that reality, outside of man’s mind, behaves according to the same rules and structures that govern subjective reason. It is supported primarily by the observation, argued forcefully by Plato and reinforced ever since by the success of science, that mathematics appears to be the language of nature. It is summed up by the idea that man is created in God’s image.

Operating within this classical paradigm, Isaac Newton derived the laws of physics and, in so doing, believed fervently that he was reading the mind of God. Reason, truth, faith, and purpose all coalesce in this model to unveil the universe and lend meaning to the life of man. Insofar as this is the argument in favor of the classical model, it is understandable that many do not care to hear a counterargument. Indeed, if this cheerful narrative were universally affirmed, man could spend his time on Earth, without any hint of irony or guilt, crying heartfelt Hosannas into the clear, sunny skies of creation. Tragically, there is a counterargument—and it’s a good one.

A glimpse down into the maw of our cultural abyss reveals countless variations on the nihilistic theme, and it is not my intention to review any of them here. They range from logical (Kant’s prohibition of synthetic a priori judgments) to mystical (Kierkegaard’s leap of faith) to stoical (Camus’ life without appeal) to hermeneutical (Derrida’s nothing outside the text) to brutal (Nietzsche’s will to power) and everything in between. Indeed, most of the variants deal less with the futility of reason, per se—that has been accepted for centuries now—and more with the devastating existential, religious, and political consequences of the void left in reason’s wake. But though they differ in certain more or less superficial respects, they all have one critical element in common: they proceed from the acknowledgement that there is not now, nor will there ever be, a first principle. They are all anti-foundationalist, often (e.g., the Frankfurt School) militantly so.

First Things First

It is notable that, though science has been a great success within its domain, it has not yet articulated its own first principle, and for that reason it is neither an authority on nor an example of whatever might be required to discover such a thing. If science is increasingly authoritative and relevant, even as philosophy slouches ignominiously toward the precipice, it is only because we ask so much less of science (technology) than we do of philosophy (the meaning of life). Its confidence notwithstanding, science should have no more faith in reason’s (i.e., math’s) capacity to ground physics than philosophy has in reason’s capacity to ground the Truth in general. And there is a very straightforward explanation for this: reason cannot give us the first principle of either philosophy or physics, simply because the first principle comes first.

All forms of reasoning require inputs of one sort or another: axioms (geometry), start values (computer algorithms), premises (logic, dialectic), evidence (law), empirical observations (scientific formulas), etc. None of these is itself logical, at least not by reference to the expression in which it appears as an input. What makes something reasonable or logical is that it is the conclusion of a valid argument; it is logically necessary by reference to the evidence, assumptions, or start values. Logic can never pass a definitive judgment on the truth of a premise. In essence, the premises act as the anchor to which the conclusion must remain tethered, but nothing anchors the anchor; the premise is always merely given to, never proven by the argument. All reason can tell us is whether or not a premise renders some other statement or fact necessary. But the logical necessity inherent to this internal consistency—a hallmark of all tautologies—has nothing to do with its Truth by reference to something outside of itself, to something in the objective world. Philosophers learned this dismal lesson long ago, much of it from the musings of Descartes, but their findings are equally applicable to physics.

Abandoning Truth

Truth is a sacred term to philosophers, and while some have tried desperately to retain it in the face of reason’s failures—usually by dumbing it down (e.g., coherence theories of truth, cultural narratives)—most have simply abandoned it altogether as a relic of naïve realism and Platonism. The rationale for this abandonment is as follows:

  1. Reason is the only faculty in man’s possession that can render a conclusion necessary.
  2. The Truth must be necessary in order to be genuinely known to be true, to be indubitable.
  3. The premises used in an argument designed to yield a first principle (or in any other argument) are not themselves necessary by virtue of that same argument. They are contingent, empirical, hypothetical, axiomatic—merely given.
  4. The first principle, therefore, cannot be proven logically; there can be no necessary first principle.
  5. Inasmuch as all conclusions must trace their origins back to true premises in order to be true themselves, all conclusions purported to be true have reference, however circuitously, to a first principle.
  6. Hence, there is no Truth.

Note 1: In the above argument, Truth and First Principle are used interchangeably. Absolute Truth or Foundation, among other similar terms (e.g., Essence, Origin), could have been used instead. It is not my intention that the argument hinge on semantic niceties.

Note 2: In line 1, “necessary” is defined as: could not possibly be otherwise. By tradition, this is understood, due primarily to Descartes’ Evil Genius argument, to exclude even the most rigorously and repeatedly taken empirical observations. In effect, “necessary” is limited, by definition, to logical conclusions, rendering the term largely circular and tautological. Nevertheless, it is widely accepted, again by tradition, that this uncompromising definition of necessity is a meaningful, if unattainable, criterion of truth even outside of pure reason.

Note 3: This argument is meant only to present the reasoning behind the current dominant philosophical attitude toward Truth. It is not “my” argument in the sense that I would be inclined to defend it. Indeed, I believe it contains fundamental flaws that my book is designed to expose. I present it here as starkly as possible simply to establish the context of the book and to forestall criticisms that I have erected a straw man.

Laying the argument out in such simple terms enables us to more easily examine some of the curious aspects of the hole we have dug for ourselves. The first two lines constitute what could be called the Classical Dogma of Western Epistemology. In effect, the ideal of necessity, explicit in logic but nowhere else, has been grafted on to every sphere of human enquiry and adopted as the default standard of Truth. While math, especially, provides powerful circumstantial evidence for the propriety of this assumption, somewhat shrouded by this sleight of hand is another assumption that is not included in the list above, namely:

1.5 Reality is intrinsically, wholly, and ontologically rational. (Objective Reason)

I do not mean to suggest that this is, exactly, a hidden assumption; Plato stated it explicitly and scientists up to and including those working today have embraced it as, at the very least, a working hypothesis (a pragmatic career decision known as instrumentalism). Yet this is exactly the assumption that philosophy has emphatically denied, resulting in the protracted dissolution of philosophy as a relevant discipline outside of academia. But there is something even stranger to notice about this assumption. Even if we were to accept assumption 1.5 as true, the argument above still results in the conclusion that there is no Truth. How can that possibly be? How is it that we could accept the truth of the highly contentious, unproven, and universally ridiculed notion of Objective Reason and still end up with no Truth?

The answer, as I have intimated, is related to the nature of reason itself. The certainty (necessity) of a logical conclusion is related to the formalism of the argument, not the truth of the assumptions; those are always hypothetical and/or contingent. From this observation we can say that the first principle, from which all subsequent reasoning would derive its necessity is, by definition, merely contingent and hypothetical, not necessary. The very structure of reason guarantees that the first principle is logically incapable, simply because it comes first, of exhibiting the necessity that reason itself promises. Or, looked at from the opposite perspective, if we insist on the notion that reality is rational in its essence, then the first principle will necessarily be hypothetical because that is what reason demands of its premises.

With these considerations in mind, this is what we can now say about the two domains of reason with respect to a first principle:

Subjective Reason: The [epistemological] first principle, because it is first, cannot logically follow from anything else, hence there can be no rational description or derivation of this principle. The principle, if it exists, is non-rational, merely given.

Objective Reason:  In order for any phenomenon to be considered objectively reasonable it must unfold according to the same structures and processes that can, at least in principle, be characterized by subjective reason. But since subjective reason is not up to the task, the [ontological] first principle (e.g., first cause), though it may well exist, is not rational. However, and very notably, since reason is not the correct method for the job, its failure to discover this principle should not be construed as conclusive of anything.

Reason is simply not the right tool to use for the first principle. It is like asking gymnastics judges to score a football game, and then using their blank scorecards, not as evidence the wrong methodology was employed, but as evidence the game itself never took place. And that, even as 75,000 fans, stuffed with hotdogs and beer, are still filing out to the parking lot. As ridiculous as that sounds, it is exactly what we have done. We insist that the first principle be rational, even though reason’s own structure forbids it, and then we stubbornly conclude that there is no first principle when reason, inevitably, fails to discover it. And that, even as the whole cosmos continues swirling around us, providing ample evidence that there is something there to explain.

Leaving aside for the moment whether or not it exists at all, there are no fewer than four (and possibly more) ways in which the first principle must be first:

Logical: As discussed above, the first principle cannot itself be rational or logical. But unfortunately, it must be necessary in some other respect in order for any subsequent logical conclusion to also be necessary. In essence, we need a non-rational, but nonetheless coherent and indubitable, axiom in order to claim logical necessity (i.e., Truth) for any rational conclusions derived therefrom.

Chronological: It is conceivable that the first principle is, in every important respect, exhausted in the act of creation (e.g., the Big Bang, Deism) and that all subsequent physical and natural phenomena unfold according to strict mathematical laws. If that were true, we could perhaps reconcile ourselves to the incomprehensibility of the first principle, but not thereby assume it does not exist. That is, we could acknowledge the contradiction implied by our insistence that it be rational, assume it exists simply because the universe exists, and then embrace reason as ontologically determinative of all non-first principle phenomena.

Ontological: Of course it is also possible that the first principle is not exhausted in the act of creation but is, in addition, the ongoing and pervasive governing principle of reality and everything in it. In that case, it is constitutive of all existence (Being) and must be understood before any particular phenomenon can be fully characterized. In this incarnation it is the basis of matter and energy and, by extension, all of the sciences.

Epistemological: As mentioned, Subjective Reason currently provides the gold standard (i.e., necessity) of human knowledge. This, even as Western philosophy has thoroughly debunked it with respect to the first principle. That we continue clinging to reason as the only (if defunct) option underscores the extreme difficulty we have had formulating, or even conceiving the possibility of, an alternative. And it is easy to understand why. What is needed here sounds preposterous, even magical, on its face: we need a method that is irrational but nonetheless profoundly coherent and at least as compelling and necessary as reason.

Non-Computational Thought

I am by no means the first to recognize the need for this seemingly magical, irrational power of intellection. At least three thinkers have named this power, and it is implicit in the work of many others (e.g., Descartes’ clear and distinct ideas). Though he vehemently denied its existence, Kant’s synthetic a priori judgment would, were it possible, qualify as the transcendental, irrational (perhaps meta-rational) method required to divine the first principle. Similarly, Henri Bergson’s notion of intuition is also designed to circumvent our rational cul-de-sac. It is meant to pull together, synthetically and into one coherent thought, the totality of a phenomenon such that the resulting insight rivals the necessity of reason. But more compelling than any of these is Martin Heidegger’s idea, described in his What is Called Thinking?, of non-computational thought.

My first reaction, and I suspect the reaction of most readers of Thinking, was a dumbfounded, “Huh? What on Earth is he talking about?” Heidegger ties his curious notion of non-computational thought to objective truth throughout the lecture series. Fair enough, that is the only reason to introduce such an extraordinary concept. Yet in the context of Heidegger’s overall phenomenological project—a school of thought that assiduously “brackets” all such epistemic woolgathering—it is next to impossible to believe that Truth is really what he means. My jaundiced eye immediately saw objective truth, not in its resplendent traditional garb, but clad in the dreary relativistic and postmodern mantle of deconstructionism—not “true” exactly, but merely serviceable within the prevailing and socially constructed slot available for such notions.

Before we go too far down this road, it needs to be said that Thinking does not include a definition of non-computational thought, but merely an advertisement of its importance. In that respect it is little more than another episode of wishful thinking, extending this tenuous thread that stretches as least as far back as Descartes. The giveaway comes from the fact that he named it negatively, by contrast to what it is not, computational (i.e., rational), not in terms of what it actually is. The book’s value comes from Heidegger’s juxtaposition of reason’s failure, the tantalizing notion of a non-rational thought process, and the promise of objective truth. But there is no evidence that Heidegger knew what it was or did any non-computational thinking of his own. Hence, the job remains undone. None of our august universities offers a course in non-computational thought, and we still do not know the first principle. Nonetheless, given the constitutional weaknesses of reason, and even though the very idea of non-computational thought sounds bizarre—Kant argued that any such notion was inherently metaphysical—it is difficult to disagree with Heidegger that it is the only escape from our endless crisis.

One of the many questions one might ask of non-computational thought is how it could ever be verified—to the inevitable array of skeptics, certainly, but even to the maverick, himself, who believes he might have done it. If reason is unequivocally excluded from consideration, against what standard are we to judge its veracity? After all, insanity is also an irrational thought process, but one not widely expected to yield objective truth and first principles. If non-computational thought does not differ in some very obvious and compelling way from insanity, then its promise of salvation will remain forever out of reach.

Thankfully, there is a standard of truth to which even reason must yield, namely, objectivity. We value reason exactly because it appears to be the language of nature, not because we have some other, independent, respect for it. If reason routinely failed to produce valuable insights into the world around us (e.g., if math never worked, if a bulletproof alibi were never exculpatory), we would unceremoniously discard it as nothing more than a fascinating curiosity. We most certainly would not abandon reality simply because it failed to behave according to our rational expectations (indeed, we would have no such expectations). To the limited extent that they conflict, objectivity trumps reason; quantum superposition—wave-particle dualism—is explicitly irrational, but has been embraced nonetheless because of its apparent correspondence to empirical observations. And where they do not conflict, objectivity grants reason its authority.

Nevertheless, it is undeniable that, in the form of 7+5=12 and similarly transparent expressions, reason exhibits an immediate, visceral certainty that any particular empirical observation cannot hope to match. True enough. But we are under no obligation to restrict ourselves to a particular observation, one that might legitimately fall under the spell of Descartes’ Evil Genius. We are free to consider the full weight of all observations made by all observers throughout history. And while this approach still stubbornly refuses to provide logical necessity, it can, if it is sufficiently compelling, force us to reconsider our abiding reverence of reason in the first place. That is, if a non-rational first principle can, all at once, surpass the explanatory power of reason and do so in a way that explicitly disqualifies reason as an option, we can, in a single act of cognition, throw off reason as the undisputed standard of truth exactly at the moment we embrace the non-rational first principle that replaces it. In this way, the adoption of the first principle and the rejection of reason occur simultaneously and are based on the same insight, namely, a superior illumination of objective reality, the very thing that justifies our reverence of reason.

Where’s the Math?

My rationale for providing this rather lengthy preface comes from the fact that the first principle of philosophy, viewed ontologically, is just another name for the unified law of physics. And physics is universally regarded as a perfectly rational (mathematical) enterprise. To even float the prospect that the fundamental law of physics might be other than mathematical is to recklessly court incredulity and derision. Yet that is exactly what I am suggesting. However difficult it might be to swallow, the limitations of reason are absolute, and apply as much to physics as to philosophy and everything else. Even more than that, being necessarily irrational we should expect the first law of physics to be a mathematical paradox, in blatant violation of at least one principle that is currently cherished as a sacred cornerstone of the science. The grudging acknowledgement by physicists of the unraveling of the standard models, right at the moment of creation (currently thought to be a singularity), is powerful anecdotal evidence of this uncomfortable reality.

Mathematics is used in physics (and science generally) to capture the ratios between various measurable quantities; and scientific understanding means little more than the ability to explain one thing in terms of (as a ratio of) something else. The most famous equation, E=mc2, captures the ratio of matter to energy in a physical sample. Among other things, this equation summarizes Einstein’s discovery that matter and energy are equivalent, related by the factor c2. The possibility of expressing our knowledge of nature in this mathematical format depends on the uncanny regularity of physical phenomena. Saying the universe is mathematical is equivalent to saying it is extremely regular. When, therefore, we start asking questions about the first principle—the unified law of physics—we are looking for the source of the universe’s regularity, not for yet another regular relationship or mathematical ratio. Indeed, there is a very good reason to believe that the ultimate source of mathematical regularity is not itself mathematically regular. I will explain it in more detail in Chapter One, but peeking ahead a bit, the perennial bugaboos of physics—infinity and nothingness—stubbornly resist expression as ratios (i.e., are mathematically “undefined”), and yet are unavoidable (and, to-date, intractable) components of any coherent consideration of cosmogony. This alone suggests strongly that the source of regularity and mathematics is not itself regular or mathematical.

Still, no matter how convincing all of this might be, merely hammering away on the inability of reason, including mathematics, to discover or describe the first principle is only of any practical value if there is a realistic prospect of transcending reason, of actually doing some non-computational thought. Instrumentalism—the provisional and pragmatic embrace of objective reason—makes perfect sense if there is no alternative. The success science has enjoyed to-date all but depends on this benign fiction. But in the exceptional case in which we choose to launch an assault on the summit, on the first principle itself, and not on only another of the myriad derivative principles thereunder, we have no choice but to set aside instrumentalism, if only for the duration of the effort. Only in that way can we explore the possibility of a genuinely irrational concept.

It is by reference to this disclaimer that I beg the indulgence of mathematical physicists who would otherwise be inclined to scoff at a work of modern cosmology that is not laden with formulas from stem to stern. Conversely, the absence of complex mathematics may also be treated as an open invitation to philosophers and others who might not otherwise feel qualified to comprehend or assess such a work. To demystify it as much as I am able: The Substance of Spacetime is a thought experiment designed to advance the narrative. It does not pretend to be the last word on anything.

Note on Chapter One

The first chapter presents the non-rational first principle that the remainder of the book is designed to prove. Unfortunately, because it is non-rational (in fact, paradoxical), it is not possible to offer an argument for this principle—that is why ninety percent of the book is devoted to proof. As mentioned, only objective, empirical evidence can trump reason, and a great deal of such evidence is required in order to prove anything as radical as I am proposing in the book. Nor does the first chapter offer any explanation of the non-computational thought process that was used to discover the first principle. That discussion would far exceed the scope of the book, and would only be compelling if the entire thought itself could somehow be recreated in the mind of the reader. Unlike reason, which lends itself well to straightforward linear expression in language and mathematics, non-rational thought is synthetic, unifying countless disparate elements and strands simultaneously and holistically rather than logically. And though I have committed myself to attempting an explanation someday, I seriously doubt that language will ever permit the coherent expression of an actual synthetic thought, as doing so would depend at the very least on the ability to write in three dimensions.

In view of the inexplicability of the first principle, the reader has a different responsibility in Chapter One than that to which he is accustomed. The first principle is explicitly irrational and paradoxical, characteristics that a traditional counterargument would adduce against it, but which are, in the context of this theory, constitutive of its truth. Therefore, just as I cannot offer a rational argument in support of this principle, it is not possible to level a rational counterargument against it either. But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that does not imply that the principle is not falsifiable—that it runs afoul of Karl Popper’s requirement for scientific coherence—only that it is not falsifiable by way of reason. Just as the truth of the principle depends on objective, empirical observations, it can be falsified, very simply, if the predictions outlined throughout the book fail to materialize. In that respect, it is exactly the same as any other scientific hypothesis. As a result, I beg the reader’s indulgence to focus only on comprehending the first principle in Chapter One, suspend judgment until Chapter Two, and thereafter judge, on the merits of the principle’s explanatory power, whether it has earned its lofty title.

Andrew M. Ryan


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