9. Self-reference and Subjectivity

     The board-game reality, in which the only things that exist are those defined for the game and allowed by its rules, is like a complete formal system. All possible outcomes derive purely and simply from the rules and initial starting positions. What can be experienced within this system is coextensive with the game-world it defines. The question of a real world beyond its limit is undecidable.

     The impossibility of transcending this game-world from within is what closes it upon itself. The meta-viewpoint of a player, in contrast to that of the playing piece, is able to represent the game in the larger context of the real world. This is not simply a matter of physical perspective, but of a more inclusive set of definitions, embracing a larger and more complex reality within which the game-world is situated as a subset. Not so for the playing piece, whose reality is simply the world of the game. We could likewise imagine entering the world defined by a piece of machinery.

     Consider now a mind as a system, a game. From a point of view within the game-world of this mind, the question of a real world independent of it could be as undecidable as it would be from the point of view of a piece in a board game such as Monopoly. If such a mind were closed, allowing no input from the real world, it would, like a complete formal system, derive all its conclusions from a fixed group of already existing assumptions. Unable to sidestep a given mental set, it would ruminate over its certainties, taking refuge in the self-evident clarity of its perceptions and feelings, however unpleasant they might be. Images would be nightmarishly recycled, tapes endlessly replayed. In a closed mind-- a complete system-- there is no way out. There is only making the right moves (or failing to make them) in the mechanics of the game as already defined. There are no broader perspectives accessible, from which to view the issues with relative detachment. The game is disengaged from any larger context, and so the limit of the game is the limit of the world.

     Pre-subjective consciousness is analogous to a complete formal system. The world from the pre-subjective point of view is fixed and final. Only the world exists. In its grandeur it is no more than what is prescribed by the unconscious rules of the game. Nothing beyond this world can exist, since the system lacks the ability to self-refer. There is no subjective self to harbor thought, feeling, perception or doubt.

     In contrast, consider a system capable of self-reference-- a game in which the game itself is a defined element. Subjective consciousness constructs a meta-perspective or meta-language in a system that self-refers, pushing the mind over a threshold of complexity into Godellian "essential incompleteness". In theory we can transcend any model, value system or world, however complete and reliable it may seem. For the self-conscious mind, there is no final resting place of certainty.

     Godel's proof regarding formal systems is a formal counterpart of subjective consciousness. It works by representing within itself statements about itself, just as subjective consciousness contains an image of itself. The "theorem" of subjective consciousness is limitative in the way that Godel's is: there are thinkable thoughts, and haveable experiences, the truth or reality of which are undecidable in any particular mind or state of mind. There is always more than meets the mind's eye.

     Subjective consciousness is a reserve against the hubris of thought, a foil for the reifying tendency of mind. But it also plays a positive role. The world can only be objectively appreciated (real-ized) by a mind that is conscious of its own role in creating experience of it, just as truth can only be distinguished from provability in a system with essential incompleteness.

     For the naively realist pre-subjective mind, the reality of the world is self-evident, unquestionable, given. For the subjectively conscious mind, by contrast, the identifying quality of the real is that it is always larger than thought and experience. Yet this fact remains indistinguishable from the effect of the self-reference. Subjective ideas and perceptions, as formalizable systems, can always transcend themselves just because they self-refer: a self-expanding system. How then can one say for certain that the transcendental quality of reality is any more than some sort of projection of the mind's self-referring capabilities? The realness of reality is, after all, its transcendent quality-- the fact that it is not an artifact of mind, nor capturable by mind. But if "transcendence" were a quality that mind itself generates, then how can it be the hallmark of reality?

     There are three relevant cases: (a) The universe is finitely large and finitely detailed. Its complexity can be exhausted in human descriptions; eventually we will come to know everything. (b) The universe is infinitely large or infinitely detailed, or both. No finite system of thought can encompass its totality, and reality will always remain a mystery. (c) Quite independent of the nature of the world-in-itself, the nature of the mind as an open system implies that understanding of the cosmos can never be complete. Cognition is troubled by the equivalent of Godel's essential incompleteness, so that even if (a) is true we will nevertheless always surprise ourselves and knowledge will always be unfinished. And if (c) is true, how to decide between (a) and (b)? The apparent depth of reality could as well be a product of our perception.

     While the Mind-Body Problem is a dilemma of self-reference, for pre-subjective consciousness there is no dilemma, since there is only one category of existence: the world. But the subjective mind faces reconciling the existence of things in the world with that of things that are mental. The problem is finding a metaphor to express its position as an epistemic system-- while the metaphor remains inevitably an element of the system itself.

     Classical physics, in keeping with the definitions of scientific method, eliminates the subject from its discourse. For it, as for the pre-subjective mind, only the world (that we call physical) exists. Even when the processes under study are mental processes, they may be treated strictly as events in the physical world. In this way the domain described, like a complete formal system, is sealed off from the (larger) domain of description. Science, as an expression of the Reality Principle, simply skirts the paradoxes of self-reference. Classical physics is a formal counterpart of the pre-subjective attitude, while the scientific revolutions of the early part of this century parallel the rise of subjective consciousness.