In Support of a Triadic Conception of Reality

Essay Three: Wholistic Existential Anthropology: A Theory of Everything

In Essay One proposing a theory of reality which suggests conceiving of reality as unified and wholistic as well as triadically differentiated, I conceived of three worlds of reality within the totality of everything that is. A simplified diagram representing this way of conceiving reality appears below as Figure One. In this essay I will attempt to provide some support for the conceived triadic structure of reality within my theory of the nature of reality.

Figure One: Simplified Diagram representing Reality as a Triadic Unity.

In the second essay (“Is There a ‘Natural World’ Independent of Human Knowing about it?”) I went to great lengths to explicate the distinction between Physical World of Reality and a natural world independent of Human knowing. I discussed evidence which can be used to plausibly and compellingly support the extancy of such a natural world. The distinction between Physical World and the natural world itself has implications for the conceiving of two other Worlds of Reality within the theory I call Wholistic Existential Anthropology.

In the theory, it is conceived that all three “worlds of reality” are conceptual, abstract, ideational, and constructed on the basis of analytic and other forms of thinking, theorizing, imagining, logic, observation, measurement, and mathematics. Therefore, within the theory, the extancy of three worlds, including Physical World, require a thinker, a theorizer, an imaginer, a logician, an observer, a measurer and a mathematician. In this way of conceiving reality, there is a distinction made between Physical World and Phenomenological World and different characteristics are attributed to each world, but they are both (equally) real.

As indicated in previous essays, there has often been proposed or implicitly acknowledged in various philosophical systems that there is a place for the Human knower, but frequently this Human thinker is the one who “knows about” reality and is somehow outside of the reality that is “known”. In this view, Human Beings know about the physical world, but their knowing function is not part of reality. Alternatively, in other philosophical writings, there is proposed a reductionism which suggests that thinking is just another aspect of the physical world, a set of biochemical processes, something that eventually will be reduced to the physical processes in the brain. This reductionism and its limitations was discussed in the previous two essays.

We can’t prove that the mind is not equivalent to the brain. We can and do empirically study the relationship between the mind and the brain. Someday we might accumulate enough evidence to persuade the overwhelming majority of people who think about it (including even skeptics such as myself) to accept the hypothesis that every mental activity, has a distinct physical correlate that can be observed and measured, biochemically and electromagnetically. Then it might be scientifically persuasive to accept the hypothesis that it is likely that there are always these reductionist relationships. Or one might just accept the idea that the words “brain” and “mind” are equivalent and mean the same thing.

One aspect of my skepticism in relation to the above possibility is based upon my conviction that such empirical evidence, such research, could never be compelling without a “proper” specification of the dependent variable — that is, a specification of the “activities” of the mind. Appropriate in the sense that it is commensurate with the full complexity and range of what Humans experience and conceive. In this view, the study of the mind using a distinct and rich and complex set of concepts which match the richness and complexity of Human Experience, will always likely be distinct from and equal to the value of the endeavor of physical science methods used to study the brain. In that case there can never be a full reductionism. Brain/mind science now mostly produces results by reducing what is studied as mind to processes which are measurable in a way that already reduces mind to fit some scientific understanding of materiality. Sometimes, even that scientific understanding is itself over-simplified, or too concrete in relation to views of modern physics.

Thus, I am personally doubtful that a one-to-one correspondence of physical reality (of the brain) and mental or experiential reality will be shown to be extant, but I am open to being persuaded by appropriate evidence (which doesn’t begin by distorting what Minding is through impoverishing and distorting simplification). I think that entertaining the hypothesis (as I have done in Wholistic Existential Anthropology) that the Minding (in Phenomenological World) and the biochemical activities of the brain (in Physical World) are distinctive aspects of reality — unified in the wholeness of all that is real, but not reducible to one another — offers an especially useful way of conceiving reality and might lead to the resolution of some long-standing theoretical problems (for example in physics and philosophy) which also might lead to solutions to very practical real world problems, (for example how to create a better political or health care system).

In addition to my own deeply experienced doubt in relation to reductionism (which I also call naïve materialism- see essays one or two) there is a more explicit basis for proposing a theory which includes Phenomenological World of Reality. It is the fact of Human Experience, that has both conscious and self conscious extancy. Psychology as an intellectual discipline began with a heavy reliance on what was called introspection — psychologically (and philosophically) minded people observing and analyzing and writing about their own experience. Various views of the history of psychology (for example see E. G. Boring) have indicated that this kind of psychology was prescientific and that scientific psychology displaced it as a much more powerful and useful way of studying Human Beings. As Sigmund Koch documented in his “Psychology a study of a science” eventually “psyche” became almost entirely eliminated from psych-ology, leaving an “ology’ of behavior”. It is my opinion that scientific (academic) psychology has contributed only very little to a useful understanding of Human Beings and Human Existence — more about that later — in part because it has denied the importance or “reality” of Human Experience (in all its rich Human complexity). What is called Humanistic/Existential psychology and Constructivist psychology still preserve Minding or the psyche as integral to a valid study of Human Beings, but it appears to me that they are not intellectually “mainstream”.

I find strong support in the philosophical world for conceiving that Phenomenological World has a place in a comprehensive theory of reality in the writings of Emanuel Kant and Edmund Husserl, but especially in the philosopher who is not considered a phenomenologist — Renee Descartes. Descartes, quite consciously and self-consciously searched for a starting point from which to explore and define the “nature of reality”.

His statement, “I think, therefore I am” (“Je pense, donc Je suis”; “Cogito, Ergo Sum”) has endured as seminal in philosophy, even by those who have rejected the larger Cartesian view of “reality”. His beginning strikes me as profound and worthy of being kept central in philosophical inquiry. I also find it worthy of being extended somewhat — while still recognized as seminal and profound — because for me it reverberates and invites enlargement as a part of my theorizing within the context of Wholistic Existential Anthropology.

I propose these alternatives or extensions: “I experience, therefore I am”; and, then, “We (Human Beings) experience and therefore we Exist”; and “Because we have conscious (and even self-conscious) experience, there is Human Existence”. These restatements emphasize the fact that experience is broader than thinking, and that there is a definitional relationship between having experience and awareness and actually being Human.

It is highly significant that Descartes (and I) do not say, “There is Thinking (Experience) and therefore there is Being (Existence)”. Stated in that way, the proposition implies the existence of thinking without reference to the thinker. This was not be the starting point that Descartes appears to have been seeking and it cannot be mine. The objectivity that is implied by the “there is” seems impossible to support or establish, independent of an “I” — an individual who has Experience, who is conscious (and/or perhaps even self-conscious). The statements above which I do propose as relevant to the structure of Wholistic Existential Anthropology represent for me a cogent way of supporting the proposal to include Phenomenological World as a distinct and essential aspect in conceiving a theory of reality.

I also hold the opinion that there can be no question-asking, no philosophy, without an individual who has the capacity to ask questions and who experiences the need or impulse to ask questions. I propose and believe that the capability and need to ask questions arises out of the nature of Human Experience and Human Existence (and is also is dependent on the extancy of the extancy of Human language). Therefore, I am also willing to consider and endorse another statement related to Descartes’ formulation: “Human Existence can be said to be extant when there are beings who ask questions”. This paragraph expands upon the starting point of my Essay Number One.

I experience myself as an “I” (Harris Stern) who is “thinking” about the question: “What is the “nature of reality” just as Rene Descartes was the “I” who found the starting point for an exploration of reality in the awareness of his own thinking. For me the starting point for exploring the “nature of reality” is within my own individual phenomenological “world”, my own experience.

Since I am proposing that Human Experience is my starting point for conceiving “reality” within Wholistic Existential Anthropology, someone might think I would also conceive that only Human Experience is “real”. It is tempting to imagine that since my experience and judgment, my own conscious awareness, is a primary “reality” for me, that I believe that individual experience is the most important or only “reality”, or even that I am proposing that experienced “reality” causes all of “reality” or comes prior, in time, to other aspects of “reality”. I deny the intention to support any of these imaginings in my way of conceiving the “nature of reality”.

On the contrary, I cannot conceive of a useful theory of reality that is solipsistic and maintains that only human experience is real. In part, this is because I experience a physical world. Although philosophically or theoretically, I have good reasons to believe that the physical world I experience is not objectively given, (not extant independent of my knowing about or experiencing it), I do experience a world or reality external to myself. That experience of a distinction between inner and outer reality, and the differences I experience between them, is as compellingly real as my inner experience itself and its reality.

That experience of the outer world has a range of immediacy which at one extreme includes the fact that if I keep walking when I see a wall in front of me, I bump into it and can go no further, to the other extreme that includes my experience that if I forget to deposit my check into my bank account, my debit card will be refused when I offer it to pay for my dinner. I have an experience of an inner reality (I dreamed last night that I was fighting with my mother about the length of my hair) which no one else experiences, has no physical reality, is not real for anyone else, unless I share it. I experience my bank account as having a reality outside of myself, and consequences that accrue to me according to some external principles which I cannot change by my own inner thinking or willing. This is part of the nature of what I experience as an external world, part of which I attribute to Physical World.

Having provided some explication of why I propose a theory that includes Physical World of Reality and Phenomenological World of Reality, as both real and equally real, what leads me to propose a third world of reality — Theoretical World?

One line of reasoning for including another dimension or world of reality to the theory of reality I call Wholistic Existential Anthropology comes from a well established tradition that opines that human existence is best understood as including a polarity of individual vs. collective (social, relational, or group) reality. I do not doubt that Human Beings are social creatures and that what we become and what we are is influenced mightily by our participation in the collective (family, neighborhood, nation, humanity, and the historical time of each). Thus, it seems intuitively compelling to include some dimension of reality that is social and collective in a comprehensive theory of all there is. This intuition is fed by the inclusion within Wholistic Existential Anthropology of Human experience as a fundamental aspect of reality, since our experience of reality as having a dimension external to us includes not only what we imagine belongs to Physical World, but also aspects which belong to the world of other people and their (our) culture.

However, the inclusion of the third world of reality within the theory of Wholistic Existential Anthropology has a justification beyond the extremely important need to highlight and admit that there is a social dimension to Human Existence. I make the proposal for a triadic theory of everything there is on the basis of a judgment that Human Civilization represents a set of processes and products that are essential to the understanding of the nature of reality. I also think that it is possible to describe how these processes and products are distinct from the other two proposed worlds of reality as well as to support the idea that Theoretical World can be consonant with the conceived unity of all of reality.

I propose that the constitutive element of Theoretical World be conceived as Meaning. Some elaboration of the conceived connection between Theoretical World of Reality and Meaning will be presented below. An extensive discussion of Meaning will be provided at another time. For now, I will say that the sub-elements, processes, and realms conceived as structures within Theoretical World (for a tentative representation of these see diagram One in Essay One) include: Ideals, language, logic, mathematics, philosophy, science, political theory, religion, medicine and others. Each of these items are related to a system of rules and conventions which can be thought of as defining meaning within that element or process or realm.

Another characteristic which I am proposing in the conceiving of Theoretical World is that the elements and processes and procedures must be recordable in some system of more or less permanent representation. Theoretical World encompasses ideas and concepts which are written down. This includes written language, written logical notation, written mathematical symbols. This specification may seem arbitrary or odd, in part because it is not the writings or other symbolic recorded representations that constitute Theoretical World. It is the ideas, concepts, systems of meaning — all abstract and non-material — which are conceived to constitute Theoretical World. However, it is the physical representation of these ideas and concepts which gives them the quality of distinct extancy in a form that makes them available to collective Humanity — over large expanses of time and space. This is what makes them available for development and use outside of the individual thinking and imagining of one Human Being. It is that availability which allows individual Human wisdom and creativity to be shared and and to cumulate. The written forms (including digital representations) also allow for complexities and refinements that are not possible when all creation is internal to the phenomenological experience of individuals and the oral sharing of them. Mathematics has developed over centuries and across far reaches of the Human habitations on Earth. Science processes and products, scientific knowledge has also developed and continues to, because in its written and published forms, it is open to review, refinement, correction and change. Music has also been deeply affected by its system of written musical notation. The recording of musical sound supports the sharing and develop of musical experience, but music as a theoretical reality depends upon written musical notation and the understandings and developments that are enabled by that notation.

The inclusion of Theoretical World in Wholistic Existential Anthropology is certainly also supported by my awareness that, as I have imaged and conceived the theory, my processes and my products are highly influenced by experiences I have had in relation to that proposed world of reality — the ideas of other people’s written down so that I can read them. The triadic view that I have proposed certainly does not grow out of nothing. Although arising within me in my individual imagining and thinking, that thinking and imagining is not independent of the collective, cultural “reality” to which my personal Phenomenological World is inextricably bound. As I indicated above, theoretical creativity, not only depends on language (and culture) which is collective, but also upon the specifics of a presumed Theoretical World and especially its branch called philosophy. I think it fitting to mention some of the antecedents of this triadic tradition, and to acknowledge general and specific influences upon my thinking and conceiving.

The conceptual trinity of Body, Mind and Spirit as basic aspects of Human Existence is ancient (and appears in early Greek writing as well as in Lao Tzu.) Although it is fairly easy to see the ideational correspondence between Physical World of the current theory and “body” and between Phenomenological World of the current theory and “mind”, it is perhaps not so obvious that there is a correspondence between what has historically been called “spirit” and my proposed Theoretical World. I understand the connection between them in more than one way. The constituent of Theoretical World of Wholistic Existential Anthropology is conceived as MEANING. The understanding of this term is proposed to include that dimension of “reality” that transcends individual Human experience and allows and requires that individual Human existence is dependent upon or always involves a connection to something outside of and beyond the individual self and can provide connection to more enduring and more widespread aspects of “reality”. At a later point, I will discuss the relationship between existential (universal) challenges and the presumed Human need for for MEANING (and purpose). This apparent (universal) Human search for connections to ideas and beliefs that transcend the individual and create a sense of purpose that goes beyond our own immediate time and space and perhaps even to what is eternal and infinite is what is usually referred to as spirituality. In this way spirituality or spirit is represented in Theoretical World most specifically in myth/religion.

The conceptual trinity of epistemology, ethics and aesthetics is the triad proposed as the branches of classical Greek philosophy. This trinity also underlies the triadic view of “IDEALS” as “TRUTH” “GOODNESS” and “BEAUTY” which also are conceived as elements of Theoretical World in Wholistic Existential Anthropology.

The conceptual trinity of “Thinking”, “Feeling”, and “Willing” also originate in Greek philosophy (as cognition, affection and conation — see Ernest Hilgard). These are incorporated in the current theory as basic elements in Phenomenological World and are basic to the structure of my own theory of psychology which I call (not surprisingly) “Wholistic Existential Psychology”. My education as a psychologist was influenced early on by my encounter with the writings of Jean Piaget. Piaget is generally regarded as a developmental psychologist, although he called himself a genetic epistemologist. His thinking has its roots in his biological training and he formulated a triadic theory of organismic functioning which included the principles of accommodation, assimilation and adaptation. These became the mainstay of his work in developmental psychology. My doctoral dissertation was based on Piaget’s writings and the research into children’s development which he stimulated. It is likely that my proclivity for or sensitivity to triadic ideas came originally from my study of his work.

My inclination toward triadic thinking was also influenced by the theoretical work of my college professor and long time intellectual stimulator, Robert Barnes, who generated a theory of meaning out of the trinity of “Object”, “Attitude” and “Interest”. More about that later.

At the end of Essay Two I suggested that an exploration of the structure of the theory of reality proposed for Wholistic Existential Anthropology would be explored in this essay. I indicated that the intent would be to try to support the proposed triadic conception of reality, as well as the unified, integrated, systemic conception of reality and how these two apparently opposing points of view might fit together. As I began writing, I saw the wisdom of providing support and elaboration of the triadic nature of the theory in one essay, leaving the unified, integrated, systemic view of reality and how the two fit together for the another, separate writing. I hope that the current essay has provided some clarification and support for the proposal that reality be thought of as triadic. I am hopeful that Essay Four, which already has a rough, written form, will provide an exciting elucidation and support for the my proposal for conceiving the nature of reality as wholistic — largely expressed through the concept of “co-creation”.


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A non-technical philosopher and a practicing licensed psychologist/psychotherapist. I have a developing theory which I call Wholistic Existential Anthropology.

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Harris W Stern, Ph. D.

A non-technical philosopher and a practicing licensed psychologist/psychotherapist. I have a developing theory which I call Wholistic Existential Anthropology.