The Presumption of ‘Substance’

Nick Williams
7 min readAug 6, 2020


All phenomena, without exception, are opaque modulations of an underlying ‘transparent’ medium. The medium is ‘transparent’ because there is absolutely no way that we can know about it except by its modulations, which stand out ‘in relief,’ so to speak. So when we see the modulations of the underlying medium, whatever they might happen to be, we can infer the ‘existence’ of the medium, even though it is, and always will be, perfectly invisible to us. There couldn’t be a modulation if there weren’t a medium to modulate, just as there couldn’t be a wave without the sea. It would be a pretty weird thing to have a modulation of an underlying medium without that underlying medium, after all!

We could infer the medium, if we were subtle enough in our thinking, but in practice we don’t; in practice it actually works the other way around. It ‘works the other way around’ because we use the apparent existence of the modulations as a way of denying the existence of the medium (which is of course very easy to deny because it is invisible). Our convention for seeing things is of course a positive one, which is to say, we see the modulations as being ‘the actual irreducible reality’ and ‘that which is being modulated’ (the medium) as not existing at all. Or rather, we don’t see the medium as ‘not existing at all’ — we just don’t see it. We’re ‘ignorant of the medium’.

This is of course a necessary convention for seeing anything — just as it is a necessary convention for saying anything. We have to focus on the figure and ignore the ground or else the figure won’t be ‘the figure’ and if ‘the figure wasn’t the figure’ then we wouldn’t be able to see it! Just because we have to adopt a ‘positive’ viewpoint in order to be able to pick out the details of what we are looking at (in order to be able to differentiate phenomena, in other words) this doesn’t mean that we have to lose sight of the fact that we are adopting this convention. If we do lose sight of the fact that the world looks the way it does to us because we are using a positive approach (or positive convention of perception) then this means that we will automatically be trapped by what we see — by creating a limited reality and then losing sight of the way in which we ourselves have created it we end up ‘being controlled without knowing that we are being controlled’.

What we’re talking about here is an act of ‘handing over responsibility’ therefore, and it is implicit in the act of handing over responsibility that we don’t know that we are doing so. If we did know this then we would be ‘taking responsibility for the fact that we are handing over responsibility’ and so we wouldn’t be ‘handing over responsibility’ after all! Just so long as we bear in mind that we are adopting a positive convention in how we are looking at things then we are not creating an absolute or final view of things to get trapped in. The apparently ‘small’ matter of forgetting that we are purposefully doing something here (which is so very easy to forget) has very big consequences therefore. Moving from a situation where we are unconstrained in how we see things to a situation where we are ‘constrained in our perceptions without knowing that we are constrained’ is a very big change — no change could be bigger. What could constitute a more significant change than the change from freedom to bondage, after all?

We could say on this basis that there are ‘two ways to be in reality’ — one is the ‘right-handed’ (or ‘honest’) way where we are able to see things in a unconstrained way and the other is the ‘left-handed’ (or ‘sinister’) way which is where our perception is being governed or determined by limiting factors that we have no way of knowing about. We might object to the implications of the term ‘sinister’ but how else could we describe the situation where our perceptions of ourselves and the world are being controlled by factors that we have no way of knowing about? Who is going to be OK about this? The tangible phenomena of everyday life are opaque when apprehended on their own terms (which is to say, when they are apprehended as being actual irreducible realities in their own right rather than being modulations of an underlying reality that we cannot in any way perceive or comprehend) what this means is that we can never see beyond them. ‘Seeing beyond tangible phenomena’ is a fundamental impossibility for us and — furthermore — this is not to say that we understand that this impossibility exists but rather that it never occurs to us that there could be the possibility of ‘seeing beyond the reality of the positively outlined figure’.

This is an odd situation, once we start looking into it — the pragmatically real world that we inhabit is made up of tangible phenomena that we automatically take to be ‘final’ in their nature (i.e. as we have just said, it simply never occurs to us that there could be any sort of reality beyond them). It is the easiest thing in the world to slip into this way of looking at things — so easy in fact that we don’t even know that we have stepped in to anything, so easy that we couldn’t be persuaded — not for love nor money — that there is any other way. So when we slip into the ‘positive’ way of seeing the world (without ever having registered that this is what we have done) then there is this ‘assumption of substance’ — we are supposing that the all the various phenomena which we are cognizant of have this ‘substance’ to them, and that the physical universe itself is composed of this self-same ‘substance’. What exactly the substance is (or what the term ‘substance’ actually means) is something that we never bothered to go into. We never bother going into it because it’s one of those things that are so very ‘obvious’ that we never feel the need to go looking into them any further. We are ‘blinded by the obviousness’, in other words.

This overwhelming quality of ‘supreme overwhelming obviousness’ (or ‘supreme overwhelming self-evidentness’) is what the positively defined reality is all about — that is, needless to say, the whole point of it. The whole point is clearly that the positively defined figure should be a ‘positively defined figure’, but this doesn’t mean that we can or should legitimately infer some kind of ‘substance’! It actually means the exact opposite of this — it means that we should not (and cannot) infer any such thing! It is as if we’re drawing a picture of a little man on a page and we heavily outline what we are drawing in black ink in order to make it stand out more to us. The fact that we have done this shows that we needed to do it because of the inherent lack of substance in the situation — it can hardly be taken as ‘proof of substance’, which is what we do every day with the positively-defined world. The rational/conceptual mind defines/conceptualises everything (because that is its mode of operation) and we take this as evidence that the objects which we are defining or conceptualising actually exist!

Instead of talking about this phantom ‘substance’ that we are all so very convinced by, we could speak in terms of certainty. When we look at the world via thought, via the thinking mind, then that world is of course made up of certainties; the thinking mind pulls this off by observing the world in a narrow way that it doesn’t recognise as being narrow — that’s the way to produce certainty, that’s the trick in a nutshell. What’s happening is that we are ‘asking closed questions’ and when we ask closed questions we are guaranteed answers that fall into the same mould. Thought is made up of an array of ‘cells’, an array of ‘categories’, and these cells or categories operate on the basis of binary logic. Binary logic (‘is it or isn’t it?’, ‘did it or didn’t it?’) understands nothing but certainty; Aristotle’s ‘law of the excluded middle’ means that it’s always either one end of the measuring stick or the other. ‘Certainty’ — like substance — is one of those things that seems so self-evident to us; just as we see it as being entirely natural and reasonable that there is this thing called ‘substance’ which is solid and reliable and which never needs to be questioned, so too we see ‘certainty’ as being a very natural quality of the world, a quality that genuinely belongs to the world rather than being some sort of arbitrary imposition on our part.

When we embrace the positive convention of seeing the world then certainty is seen as being ‘only right and proper’ — it is seen as being a property or quality that we both expect and require from reality — this is, in fact, what makes reality real for us — the ‘fact’ that it is certain! The real is proved to be ruled by virtue of the certainty with which we perceive it (even though a more accurate and more telling way of putting this would be to say that ‘the real is proved to be real by virtue of the certainty with which we ourselves accept it’). Certainty is our own invention in other words, and not a property of reality itself. Certainty is our own creation and we live in its shadow every day of our lives.

We simply can’t see that our precious certainty is what prevents us from ever encountering anything real. When we relate to certainty as a supposedly self-evident feature of the world around us we are incestuously relating to our own dull, lifeless projections — the world itself is something we never see. The world isn’t to be found in the ‘positively-emphasized features’ (or ‘figures’) that we focus exclusively on, it is to be found in what we aren’t focusing on, in what we can’t focus on. The world isn’t contained in what is obvious, or in what we ‘know’, in other words. Reality doesn’t lie in what we artificially separate out and then assume, as a result of this act of ‘separating out’, to contain ‘substance’; on the contrary, reality is ‘the medium’ — it is the invisible, intangible, unknowable reality that we automatically (and arrogantly) discount as ‘not being there’.