Scattered Musings on Neoplatonism

Finn McBride
14 min readOct 11, 2022

Note to the reader: I wrote this sloppily and I’m too lazy to edit it.

The belief in the world as a set of material objects is one of the prevailing features of our time, and I think it is hurting us. When we see the world as empty, dread fills us. We are built to seek after an infinitely receding horizon of meaning, not a stale, flat, static wall of deadening emptiness.

I believe that the world is not made out of dead, delimited material objects. I believe that it is made out of meaning — in fact, too much meaning; more than we can ever understand or even fathom. What do I mean by meaning in this case? There are a few different meanings of the word meaning. In this case, I mean implication. In a story, perhaps the true meaning of a card is that it implies someone was there before, because they left it on the table and it is their signature item. In this case, everything implies nearly infinite things. But not all of these implications are equally relevant to us. Or should I say equally meaningful. This is where relevance realization comes into the picture. Relevance realization is a process described by the cognitive scientist John Vervaeke. It is the process by which we narrow down the information that the world provides us with, separating relevant information from irrelevant information.

While it may seem that this is an easy problem, it is actually an extremely difficult one. You cannot simply check every piece of information in your environment for relevance, because there are too many. To do so would be cognitive suicide. To actually perform relevance realization, we have to, in Vervaeke’s words, “intelligently ignore” almost all of the information around us. We do this through a few methods, among them biases and heuristics: we only check certain parts of our environment for relevance. These heuristics are deeply evolved — a “correct” heuristic is one that identifies information relevant to survival and reproduction, as well as subsidiary concerns, such as getting a sandwich or even just watching a movie (a hijacking of our rewards systems that exploits our evolutionary architecture). This means that we don’t really know why most of our heuristics work — we just know that they work well enough to keep us from getting selected into oblivion by nature. However, they are not “correct” in any final sense, since we frequently make mistakes in identifying what is relevant: we must frequently make and break frame, reconfiguring our cognitive landscapes.

So, we narrow down the potential “meaning” of the universe — what it means to us; how relevant it is to us with regards to survival and reproduction (as we will discuss later, the question of the meaning does not just concern how the universe is relevant to you, but also how you are relevant to the universe) — through relevance realization, and we don’t do it perfectly, meaning that our cognitive frames are continually evolving. This means that we are continually narrowing down the infinite meanings of our environment into a schematic representation. This representation, I would argue, is the material world (matter is stuff to do stuff too; it is the stuff of grasping and handling and manipulating, and this is what our frames are optimized to allow us to do).

Before I continue, I would like to address a potential fear: the fear that I am playing semantic tricks. Note how I swap out the word “meaning” for a word with a different connotation: “implications.” “Yes,” you may be thinking, “everything has lots of implications, but that doesn’t mean that everything means a lot. What it really means for something to have meaning is for it to matter to us.” To this I would agree, and this is precisely why I am bringing up relevance realization. Relevance realization is how we determine what things mean the most to us, from the frame of first of all our evolutionary cognitive architecture, but also the societal and personal structures that we construct on top of this built-in architecture. I would argue that deeper senses of meaning and purpose are exaptations of baser cognitive systems that were designed to track our evolutionary success (which is more complex than just survival and reproduction, because society creates games surrounding both. These games eventually become just as much a part of the reality that we are adapting to as the survival and reproduction measures themselves.)

So: The world is full of infinite relevance? And we cloak the vision of a material world over that relevance to limit it to what we can process?

Not exactly, because most of the relevance that we block out is rightly blocked out, because it is in fact irrelevance. However, here’s the kicker: it is only irrelevant from 1) our particular frame, which is mostly evolutionary and societally based, but also based on individual experiences, and 2) from the perspective of you as a human being, rather than, say, a fruit fly, or a C02 molecule. Different things are relevant to different beings, and yet the material world that we represent the cosmos as is a view through the fisheye lens of the human being, with all of our evolutionary biases built in. Material objects are categories (as has been argued elsewhere; see Wittgenstein’s comments on family resemblance categories, such as “chair” or “baseball”), categories are tools, and tools are splices based on the specific frame of the organism perceiving them. There is no true distinction between tools and non-tools — and therefore between objects and non-objects. There is only a distinction between patterns of information that are relevant to you and patterns of information that aren’t.

“Ok,” you might be thinking. “That’s all well and good, but science tells us that matter is what the universe is made out of, and that objects are shapes that matter forms itself into. However, this simply isn’t true. Objects are not the solid material entities that we imagine them to be: they are mostly empty space, and many of the molecules within them are in multiple places at once. They are only the uniform, filled-in, static things we know them as because we staticize them for our benefit. Within the world of our experience, our Dasein, we flatten and make static some of the complex patterns around us (the useful ones — to us, at this moment, from this particular frame) and let others float around in the future as “potential.” Really, the world is a net of interlocking and rich, complex patterns. I would argue that these patterns can be optimally understood as information. (I would also argue that information, in the Shannon sense, is meaning, definitionally speaking). Patterns that exist at our spatial and temporal level of resolution are deemed objects, especially if they are relevant within our particular frame. That is: if our evolved biases make us privilege those patterns over the near-infinite number of other patterns. Privilege as “real,” that is.

It’s not that the material objects we perceive are illusions — although in many senses they are; we imagine them as filled-in, static, etc., because, in the sense that Newtonian mechanics is true, this is true. Our view of them accounts for all of their behavior and properties, or at least relevant behavior and properties, at our spatial and temporal level of resolution, from our biological, cultural, and individual frame. — it’s just that the objects we do see are but a tiny sliver of the reality that is out there. We only take in about 1% of the information around us, and we assume that, because the other 99% is irrelevant, that we are therefore still getting enough information to deduce the truth. However, I would argue that our equation of “relevant” with “real” — think about the phrasing of “relevance realization” — is nothing but an artifact of our evolutionary past (and present, as so many people seem to forget). We define certain things as real if they are relevant to us, because why else would we even consider them in the first place, let alone consider them for “being” — for existence; for being, like those TikTok slideshows, “real”.

So, what does all of this imply? A few things. It means that there is more out there than you can dream of. “Yes, but the stuff that’s out there is only relevant to fruit flies,” you may think, scoffing. But this isn’t true. The very fact that the frames by which we do relevance realization are fallible and incomplete — which is why selection pressure has always existed and always will, and is also why we must continually evolve our frames, changing our worldviews over time — means that there is relevant information we are missing: information that is relevant to us, not just to some obscure species of aquatic snail. It also implies that the world of material objects that we perceive around us is not the whole of reality, but rather a small, hollowed-out sliver of it, extracted from the rest of reality as a surgeon extracts a liver, only because of its utility for our particular frames (which, from the cosmic perspective, are quite unimportant). Also, there is much meaning to be found in that which isn’t immediately utile. Bach’s concertos, for instance, are not immediately useful in any clear way, yet they can prove to be of supreme meaning for some people. Remember, I said that deeper senses of meaning and purpose may be rooted in exaptations of evolutionary architecture, meaning that they at least mimic usefulness or tap into the cognitive architecture of our usefulness (more accurately: relevance) circuits at a primordial level.

The information, relevant or not, that I previously posited as constitutive might be considered “potential,” because the patterns that we (correctly or incorrectly) ignore and thus label as irrelevant may be forced onto us later, proving themselves relevant (and therefore real: this is the actualization of phenomenological potential). First, they will strike as anomalies — as a less-than-object form of emotional charge, as all anomalies first manifest to us in experience. Then these anomalies will form into objects as we map out their relevance, re-framing our situation, re-mapping our environment. In this case, the pattern of a man sneaking up behind you to rob you is not yet an “object” (in the sense that an object is a human category, not an objective feature of the universe’s soup of interlocking patterns), until he puts a knife to your throat, getting your attention and shifting from a glob of anxiety to an actual object. Was he there before you noticed him (assuming no one else was looking)? In terms of being one pattern among trillions in the soup of the universe, yes. In terms of being a part of the schematic, delimited material world of noticed, relevant things (which is constructed both individually and socially), no. As a matter of experience (which I would argue is at least functionally identical to saying “as a matter of material reality,” since I am a neutral monist), the man didn’t exist, while as a matter of neither experience nor material reality, but as a matter of the universe’s original postmodern soup, he did. But in that soup he was not really a man, not because his manness was negated, but because his being so many potential things other than a man (depending on which of the potentially infinite frames you view him through) was affirmed.

From this perspective, the infamous mind-body problem can be seen in a new light. When both matter and experience — the two seemingly irreconcilable elements of the mind-body equation — are seen as two different aspects of the same soup of purely informational patterns (patterns which exist purely in the relation; patterns which exist as only form, without content; patterns which, like numbers, are neither material nor experiential), the problem becomes less perilous. We can see that we had been caught within a paradigm wherein either matter or experience must be the base of reality, and neither option seemed to make sense. When both can be seen as offshoots of a deeper base, things begin to click into place.

In order to argue that a pattern can exist as pure form, without content, I must do more than merely point to an example (numbers), at least for some people. In this case, I must argue that relations are prior to relata — the things that are related. In the human world, no object is an island. Everything is made what it is at least in part due to its relationships with other things. Part of the ineffable essence of the color red, for instance — part of its nature as a quale — is due to the fact that it feels like a warmer color than blue, perhaps because red is associated with fire and the sun, blue with water and ice. But what about outside of the realm of qualia? What about as a matter of “objective” reality? While I have already argued that such an idea doesn’t really make sense, at least not as a landscape of material objects similar to the world that we inhabit as human beings, there are physicists who argue that even the most objective of physical processes contain entities whose existence is determined by context; by the nature of the things around them. In other words: there are no parts, only wholes. To describe a part is to butcher a whole, while to describe a whole is to do far more than merely describe its parts. One could describe every dot in the image below without realizing that it is a smiley face — does that mean that the smiley face isn’t real? No. It is a pattern, a whole, that exists at a higher level than the parts which make it up (which are of course wholes themselves, when investigated.)

For example: the number threedescribes a form without content. You can have threeof anything, but you can have the concept of three without anything. I think that the patterns that the universe is composed of are the same way. They don’t ground out in some graspable, frameable substrate: the very frameability of such a substrate would mean that it was not comprehensive enough to truly be the ground of anything. Rather, they themselves are the ground. There is nothing deeper than the patterns: the patterns can be sliced into simpler chunks, but never “seen through” into their deeper substrate. In order to exist, such a substrate would need to be patterned anyway. Really the question boils down to which is prior: the forms that stuff is put into, or the stuff that is put into forms. Stuff cannot exist without form, yet form can exist without stuff (think of numbers). Therefore form is primary.

Because parts are always only what they are because of their participation in some larger whole, this hierarchy of wholes in theory finds it ultimate expression in the ultimate whole of everything. This whole is the ultimate reality. It is that which breaks our frames and shows us the light. It is that which enlightens us: contact with it gives us the new information we need to update our frames. It is the ultimate shape or form of the universe, and of everything in it: life, mind, love, hope, depression, and taxes.

In Ennead–9, Plotinus writes the following:

The first Principle may indeed be conceived of as a spring (of water) which is its own origin, and which pours its water into many streams without itself becoming exhausted by what it yields, or even without running low, because the streams that it forms, before flowing away each in its own direction, and while knowing which direction it is to follow, yet mingles its waters with the spring.

He is speaking here of the Neoplatonic One. The Neoplatonic One, at least as a matter of philosophical theory, is supposedly beyond language, thought, and concept. It is even beyond being and non-being, insofar as these too are but concepts; insofar as these too are but limited frames (From a phenomenological/pragmatist viewpoint, what is “being” is what is relevant to our evolutionary frame, what is “non-being” is what isn’t).

Central to Neoplatonism is the idea of emanation. The One emanates downward into lower (though not in a moral sense) modes of being. And this is indeed what has occurred as the universe has evolved. Frames have diversified and broadened (through evolution; through unknown processes beyond our ken as well, perhaps), particularizing the One into the Many.

In keeping with the importance of emanation, we must keep in mind that our diversified frames are just as real as the One from which they emanate. As the writer Iain McGilchrist argues:

The claim that All is One is well-intentioned, but, it seems to me disastrous, because it is just half a truth. We sense that we are not as separate as our everyday manner of thinking implies, and that is wonderful. But the impulse to simplify causes problems — because the other equal truth is All is Many.

John Muir adds to McGilchrist’s musings:

Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with an married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.

In a wonderfully insightful addition to both of these strains of thought, William James makes the following remarks:

Grant that the spectacle or world-romance offered to itself by the absolute is in the absolute’s eyes perfect. Why would not the world be more perfect by having the affair remain in just those terms, and by not having any finite spectators to come in and add to what was perfect already their innumerable imperfect manners of seeing the same spectacle? Suppose the entire universe to consist of one superb copy of a book, fit for the ideal reader. Is that universe improved or deteriorated by having myriads of garbled and misprinted separate leaves and chapters also created, giving false impressions of the book to whoever looks at them? To say the least, the balance of rationality is not obviously in favor of such added mutilations. So this question becomes urgent: Why, the absolute’s own total vision of things being so rational, was it necessary to comminute it into all these coexisting inferior fragmentary visions?

A possible answer the questions James brings up may be something like this: True Oneness means transcendent Oneness, Oneness on a meta level: Oneness not as the negation of Manyness, but as the Oneness of Oneness and Manyness, rather than the Manyness of Oneness and Manyness.

This Oneness implies a view that transcends all delimiting frames. Therefore, we must ask ourselves: is there a way to talk about what the universe is like when no frame is used? Is there, in Thomas Nagel’s words, a true “view from nowhere”? Perhaps, but in this case the thing we are talking about may not even be “the universe.” Perhaps even the concept of “the universe” is vastly limiting. Perhaps concepts themselves are vastly limiting. Perhaps everything we are is so incomprehensibly limiting that we have no chance at ever comprehending anything close to the true nature of the universe, blind in ways that we have no idea about. We would probably need to broaden our frames ten trillion times before we could have any idea what’s going on. And would even that help? What if the complexity is truly infinite, no frame big enough to encompass it? What if every word in the previous sentence is a completely faulty way of conceptualizing anything? We can’t know. And that’s a good thing. To know so much would probably be torture.

All we can know is this: The One is where we go to wisdom. Wisdom is the ability to transcend the blindnesses of our current frame, and the information that knocks us out of the confines of our current frame is found within the One, outside of the delimited material world that we have constructed for ourselves. Contact with the One is therefore a kind of transcendence of the material world, and is where we find wisdom, self-transcendence, and enlightenment, if such a word means anything. Though we live in a secular world, perhaps this makes it worthy of being called “sacred.”



Finn McBride

The Skrillex of blogging. My Wattpad is @ireallylovemangos