Everything changes. This is the core truth of fields of study as diverse as physics and Buddhism. If you observe the contents of your experience, you will realize that everything changes. Arguably, the only thing that does not change is the fact of awareness itself from the perspective of the awareness.
Humans have a tendency to classify things into boxes. They will identify a phenomenon and then place that phenomenon in a container. They lasso in a phenomenon from the realm of reality outside of their skulls by using words. They will say “aging,” upon having seen sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), forgetfulness, completion of a certain amount of revolutions around the sun, etc. They will then place this word in a box that describes what kind of change occurred. In the case of aging, they might place it in the box titled, “biological.”
If they identify sugar dissolving in tea, they will place the phrase in the “chemical” change container. If they are dealing with the term “running,” they might place it the “physical” change container.
However, we must remember that just because some population of modern humans chooses to view the world this way doesn’t mean that reality is actually being carved at the joints in an optimal or faithful way. Reality isn’t divided into factors: reality 1 = physical, reality 2 = chemical, reality 3 = biological.
When we study change, we study a monistic whole that only seems to us as composed of fundamentally separate constituents and rules because of quirks in the functioning of our evolved brains. It is useful from the gene’s-eye-view to model reality as composed of objects that go in boxes.
To study the One, the Real, the monist whole, we can take two main approaches. One is to describe motion through the use of measurement so that we may analyze it mathematically. Upon mathematical analysis, we can suggest and repeatedly confirm to ourselves the laws of nature that predict the motion.
The other approach is to directly apprehend the change by attuning to it, without conceptual deliberation. This is known as mindfulness meditation. While mindfulness meditation will not yield predictive insights that can be harnessed to develop new technologies or insight into the mathematical structure of nature, it is argued to be beneficial in its own right by its proponents.
Here, I will mostly deal with the physics approach of measurement and mathematics. The reason for this is that the study of change through mindfulness meditation is a performance that must be engaged in by the subject. Reading thoughts about focused, direct perceptual analysis doesn’t actually build the said focus. On the other hand, more benefit can be gleamed from writing about something that does need to be held still and digested with thought and pause such as the geometry of reality.
However, unlike much physics dialogue which implicitly assumes or leniently tolerates a naive realist view (the view that we are ontologically subjects behind our eyes interacting with an external world), I will here make it repeatedly clear that all experience is happening within a brain’s simulation. Everything from the toes, to other people, to imaginations, to mood, to sounds, is all happening in the same place. These collectively compose the sensorium, or the field of consciousness. This doesn’t necessarily imply that consciousness is extra-physical or that the world outside must be an illusion. However, it does imply that we are inside our brains, the external world we believe to see and touch and feel and measure, is only inferred about through the simulation of it we get from inside the brain.
A famous allegory for this is Plato’s cave, in which people could only see the flickering shadows of the outside world as cast by a flame against the wall. They never saw the real world outside the cave, only an approximate simulation containing darkened figures.
When we look down at our body and feel ourselves to be in it, this is actually a multi-sensorial homunculus model inside the real brain in the real body which we can never see. When we touch each other, we are still inside our brains – one simulation pinching another. When we think of anything, say, think of a lamb, the lamb is appearing in the same place where we are seeing sights of “real” objects.
Knowing this allows us to be less biased about which objects in consciousness are following physical laws that can be measured. Most assume that a sphere rolling along a plane can be analyzed mathematically but that the ephemeral blips of energy we call thoughts cannot be analyzed in any precise way. This confusion leads to real-world negative consequences, such as the idea that positive experience and suffering are not really measurable scientifically but electrons and z-bosons are.
Notice that the confusion is not merely about the technical difficulty of quantifying and discovering laws about the valences of experience, but sometimes a genuine disbelief that anything at all exists which can be considered physical in this domain which often includes things like affect, aesthetic, hedonic tone, taste, vibrancy, speed of experience, thoughts, level of awareness.
Concepts that physicists are widely comfortable with include force and acceleration. These are used to explain and explore a wide range of problems, with the range ending at the boundary of what is judged to be internal by naive realism. But as we will see, in the same way that we can discover useful handles f and a for the classical world problems, we can also discover useful handles for problems dealing with the motion of thoughts or the pressures and tingling sensations that arise and diffuse as we sit in a chair.
Reality must be simplified because its workings are extremely complicated. If we were to toss a ball and predict its trajectory, the more minute details we know, the better the prediction we can make. However, physicists tend to use a simple models that ignore most details but are nonetheless useful.
They also do not often invoke other models that could be predictive such as those used by biochemists. Translating the action of a tossed ball from reality to the context of biochemical models and tools would be too difficult for any one human. But treating the ball as a round solid and our hand as another solid that exerts a force on the ball is far easier to do.
Just like we can make a simplified model of a ball as a round solid, we can make a simplified model of a sensation as a quale with properties such as hedonic tone, speed of vanishing, and subjective temperature. By reducing the complexity of the actual sensation, we can better analyze and come to understand something about it.
Building models is a major part of the strategy that we will develop for solving problems in the uncharted territories of reality. There will necessarily be simplifying assumptions, but they will be recognized and explained. Learning how to simplify a situation is the essence of successful modeling – and is the method to increase our problem-solving capabilities.
Take a look at this picture:
Here are some obvious properties that can be assigned non-ambiguous, numerical values. The direction of its motion. The distance between one position and the next.
Can you do the same with a sensation in your hand?
Hold your hand out in front of you. Identify the most notable sensation. In your palm, in one of your fingers, in the back of your hand, wherever. Is it moving? If we pay close attention we can measure how far it moves, its radius, or how long it takes to reappear.
We can also set a timer to go off every 10 seconds and record the the hedonic tone of the sensation. Is that particular location of feeling more pleasurable than in the snapshot that occurred 10 seconds previously?
Now we have a graph to plot. This is a localized valence vs. time graph.
As we can see, for most people, a region of experience tends to remain pretty neutral and doesn’t change much.
But perhaps someone has arthritis or a cut. When attention is brought to a negative quale, the negativity tends to be reduced, as in the following graph:
It is also possible to construct a non-local valence vs. time graph which records the feeling tone of the general experiential field.