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Reality? It’s All in the Mind

A Google search for the word ‘consciousness’ currently returns over 300 million results. Despite this wealth of information, a concise definition of consciousness remains elusive. It’s as slippery a concept as time, another dimension of our daily lives which appears simultaneously familiar and mysterious. We experience consciousness in the awareness of our inner and outer selves, through our thoughts, and our interactions with others. It’s there when we’re awake, somewhere else when we’re asleep, and gone when we die. We take consciousness for granted, if we even think about it at all.

The mainstream scientific view is that consciousness is somehow produced by the brain, although no-one has yet established how this might occur. Under this materialist paradigm, matter is primary, with life, the Universe, and everything else being merely matter combined and recombined in countless random variations. Evolution then accounts for the fact that some of these combinations persist while others do not. This unsatisfactory and incomplete picture, however, is a relatively recent one. For thousands of years prior to the modern scientific era, there was an intuitive understanding within humans that beyond the material world of our five senses there exists a non-material realm and that each somehow interacts with the other. The source of spiritual and mystical traditions, this ancient wisdom was marginalised as the ideas of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment took hold. This transformative period in history paved the way for the techno-industrial wonders that followed, without which life as we know it today would be impossible. But at what cost?

Perhaps the most significant trend in science today is the (re)emergence of consciousness as an interdisciplinary field of study. The shocking implications of quantum physics, assiduously ignored for decades, are converging with cutting edge consciousness research to suggest that matter may arise from consciousness, not the other way around. One of the foremost thinkers in this field is Bernardo Kastrup, whose latest book The Idea of the World makes arguably the most coherent, complete, and far-reaching case thus far for consciousness as the fundamental basis of reality. Kastrup rigorously asserts the primacy of mind, examining what can be learned about the nature of reality based on conceptual parsimony, straightforward logic, and empirical evidence from fields as diverse as physics and neuroscience. In creating an overarching case for idealism — the notion that reality is essentially mental — Kastrup illuminates many mysteries which mainstream materialist science simply cannot fathom. His theory reconciles the classical and quantum worlds of physics, and disposes of the so called ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. It may even hold the secret to the origin and meaning of life.

Although Kastrup has previously written several books on consciousness and reality, he admits that they “didn’t meet the standards of rigour and conceptual clarity that reign in academia today” and that therefore his “philosophy didn’t have sufficient penetration in academia.” For The Idea of the World, he therefore submitted his theory piece by piece for publication in peer reviewed academic journals. Only when successfully published did he assemble and release the work as one complete book. This ingenious approach means that his theory cannot simply be written off by the academic community. At the same time, the book remains accessible to a general audience, with additional material added to form one coherent narrative.

“I’m forced to do this,” he explains, “because if you’re defending a formulation of physicalism, if you’re supporting the idea that reality’s fundamentally physical and that consciousness somehow emerges out of matter, because it’s the mainstream, is implicitly accepted by our culture as the most tenable, most likely alternative, you can get away with a fairly superficial elaboration because you have the momentum of the mainstream behind you. But I come from a corner saying consciousness doesn’t arise from matter, matter arises from consciousness. My reduction base is consciousness. I explain everything in terms of consciousness. This is so counter-intuitive for our culture today. Not in certain moments in the past, certainly not in future, but today it’s very counter-intuitive. You cannot afford to make an incomplete case because you will be pinned down on points you don’t elaborate on. I am forced to upturn every stone, to cover every base in order to remain in the debate. Only to remain in the debate I need to do that. I am held to different standards than somebody elaborating on a formulation of mainstream physicalism.”

Historically, any theory threatening the mainstream belief system of the day was suppressed, ridiculed, or attacked, and modern scientific materialism is certainly no exception. There are a number of reasons for this but chief among them is our need for control — of ourselves, our immediate environment, and of the wider world. Whether through science or spirituality, we seek certainty, and big questions left unanswered leave us deeply uneasy. We’ll settle for almost any half-baked scheme or delusional fantasy, however damaging to psyche or society, rather than admit that we really don’t understand reality at all. The need to feel in control has led us to tolerate or even embrace world-views that are not only hopelessly incomplete but also in direct conflict with each other. The results are twofold. First, we are unable to achieve the synthesis of disparate knowledge which could unravel some of the deepest mysteries facing us. Second, conflict between belief systems — be they religious, scientific or otherwise — creates massive instabilities which we respond to with an ever greater need for control.

“In the psychology behind mainstream physicalism, control is definitely a big thing. It has been shown that, for instance, a large motivation for religious people has to do with control by proxy. Although the ego can’t control the unfolding of natural events on its own, if it believes that there is a higher agency that has that power and which is aligned with the ego in terms of value systems and intentions, then we achieve some form of control by proxy. But the same thing applies to mainstream physicalism which is an unprecedented attempt by humanity to achieve control, control of nature. Scientists, like at the large hadron collider at CERN, in which I’ve worked a few years, have spent billions of dollars to understand nature, to have a closed model of nature’s behaviour, the standard model of particle physics. Now, what’s the impetus behind that? It’s a form of control because even if you can’t decide how nature will unfold, if you understand how it works and can predict it, that’s already a form of control and it reduces anxiety a lot.”

As Kastrup has repeatedly pointed out, the mainstream scientific view of reality rests not on hard facts but on a series of unexamined assumptions. The existence of a material world outside and independent of mind is merely a theoretical inference. Superficially, it seems to make sense of the world around us when in fact it simply creates intractable difficulties such as the aforementioned hard problem of consciousness, postulating all manner of needlessly complex and incompatible theories while still failing to explain that which we actually experience. The so-called mind / body problem is simply a false dichotomy.

“The idea of matter as something outside and independent of mind has become almost self evident because it’s a cultural habit. If you examine it carefully, what we actually have as evidence are the contents of perception. Of course, I’m not denying the perceived world. There are things that I can touch, feel, see and hear, and they seem to be completely independent of my own personal mentation. If I park my car in my garage at the end of the day, lock the door, come up, and then sleep, the next morning my car will be right there where I left it. It seems that it was right there even when I was asleep, so there obviously is a world outside and independent of our personal consciousness that seems to hold its state independent of our observation. That world presents itself to us as the contents of perception, which I do not deny. What I question is a step that we smoothly make after this, that the world that I perceive and which seems to be independent is made of matter fundamentally outside and independent of consciousness itself. Not only my personal consciousness, but independent of consciousness as an ontological category, as a type of existence. It is fundamentally outside consciousness. Well, that step is not granted empirically because all I can experience are the contents of perception, which are themselves mental. They are experiences. What I see and hear is an experience, the table that I touch and feel is very concrete and palpable. Well, what are concreteness and palpability, but qualities of experience? When I say that the contents of my perception originally arise from something outside mentality, that is a theoretical inference. The goal of this inference is to explain why the world I perceive seems to be so independent of my personal mentation. It seems to stay there and hold its state regardless of whether I’m looking at it or not. We all seem to share this same world. It’s an understandable theoretical step, but it has a big problem. Once you say that the basis of reality is unconscious matter that can only be described through quantities like mass, charge, momentum, spin, spatial temporal position and so forth, if that’s all there actually is, you are left with an enormous gap between those quantities and the qualities of experience, what it is like to see the colour red, to have belly ache, to fall in love. There’s nothing about charge, mass, or momentum that allow me to deduce what it feels like to have belly ache, to fall in love, or see the colour red. That’s the hard problem of consciousness and it arises as a direct consequence of this theoretical inference that the real world out there is made of matter fundamentally outside and independent of consciousness, a world that is fundamentally quantitative and not qualitative. Quality somehow being conjured up by the brain in ways that we do not understand. Once you face such a fundamental problem, because of a theoretical inference you made, the logical thing to do is to go back to the inference and review it because it’s clearly throwing you a curveball. It’s clearly putting you in a position that completely untenable. Is there a different way of explaining why the universe we inhabit seems to be so independent of all personal volition that it doesn’t care about what we want, about what we imagine? It unfolds according to regular laws, the laws of physics. We all seem to inhabit it. Is there a way to explain all this without postulating anything different from consciousness itself? Could the universe out there be a mental phenomenon that presents itself on the screen of our perception as the perceived physical world? That’s what I try to do in the book and it circumvents the hard problem of consciousness altogether because it doesn’t postulate this ontological category, namely matter outside and independent of consciousness, to begin with.”

The idea of the primacy of consciousness is, of course, nothing new. As mentioned earlier, dressed in various guises, it’s been with us since time immemorial at the heart of ancient wisdom traditions. This accounts for much of the resistance to current findings in consciousness research: we’re terrified of letting God return through the back door. Although religiosity is already resurgent — partly in response to mounting political, social, economic, and environmental crises — any further developments seen as running counter to the creed of scientific materialism are anathema to the faithful. However, no truly objective analysis will be able to simply lump The Idea of the World in with the woolly thinking still found in the ‘Mind, Body and Spirit’ section of book stores. Would-be critics must now address Kastrup’s ideas head-on and as the ideas are presented: clearly, methodically, scientifically.

“For people to really understand what I’m saying, either they have to be already open to this, to have a suspicion that the mainstream narrative doesn’t really work, or they really have to police themselves and have the discipline to listen to what I’m saying instead of what they think I’m saying, what they assume I’m saying. With idealism, this idea that consciousness is the only fundamental aspect of reality and everything else arises within consciousness, because this idea has been historically associated with religions, both in the East and the West, people immediately categorise you, maybe even subconsciously, in the religious or spiritual category. They will throw a set of ready made criticisms that they think is applicable to everybody who comes from that angle. Well, that’s not at all the angle I’m coming from, the angle of first person experience, spiritual insight, meditative insight. I’m coming from the angle of logic, internal consistency, coherence, empirical grounding, and parsimony, which are the values of science that we hold dear today as guides towards truth. People have to give me a chance to make my case and to be judged in a more or less impartial way, instead of projecting onto me and my argument what they think should apply to anybody who talks about consciousness being primary. My critics can’t get away with just dismissing my argument and saying, ‘Oh, it’s just woo-woo, it’s just flaky.’ That’s not enough any more. If they want to criticise what I’m doing, they have to go into the details of it, into the substance and point out exactly where my argument is wrong and why. The discussion now has to be a substantive one. I am not simply dismissible any more. That was precisely the goal I had in mind with the book. If people want to engage, I’m fair game. I’m very willing to engage with my critics, but on substance, not on superficialities.”

The psychiatric phenomenon of dissociation — very generally the feeling of detachment from reality — is a central concept in Kastrup’s theory which outlines the possible mechanisms by which it works. We are each individuated units of universal consciousness temporarily disconnected from the overmind, or mind at large. Like a cell isolated within a brain or a star isolated within a galaxy, we have lost direct access to the whole.

“What helps now is the amount of data on dissociation we’ve amassed with modern neuro-imaging techniques. This allows us to dress these old ideas with modern, empirically grounded language that people can relate to, with less of a spiritual sound for those prejudiced against spirituality. The phenomenon of dissociation, dissociative identity disorder, is well known in psychiatry today. There are people who manifest what they call dissociated alters, multiple centres of consciousness within a single personal psyche. In the old days, it used to be called multiple personality disorder. There’s also plenty of evidence that the different alters or the different dissociated personalities of a person suffering from this condition can be simultaneously conscious or co-conscious. They can even fight with each other for control of the body. Although for a long time extreme forms of dissociation have been called into question, whether the patient might be confabulating or telling stories in order to evoke pity and get attention, today we know that’s not the case because of modern neuro-imaging. We now have objective evidence for the reality of extreme forms of dissociation and we know that different dissociative processes can be identified. There’s something these dissociative processes look like under a brain scanner. The idea I’m putting forward, and of course it’s much more thoroughly elaborated upon in the book than we can do in a brief interview, is that each living being is itself a dissociated alter, a dissociated personality so to say, of universal consciousness. In the same way that our conscious inner life appears to other people in the form of our body, our brain, and brain activity that can be measured, in the same way that this conscious inner life appears to others in the form of a physical construct that we call the biological body, the conscious inner life of the inanimate universe as a whole presents itself to us in the form of what we call the inanimate universe, that physical construct with stars and galaxies and galaxy clusters and so on that we describe as the physical universe. Studies and simulations have shown that, at its largest scales, the universe in fact does look like a nervous system. Its pattern of interconnections and distribution of mass, including dark matter and dark energy, interconnect, they are mathematically very similar to the way our neurons and synapses organise and arrange themselves in a biological brain, which again suggests, and that’s a key thesis in the book, that what we call ‘matter’ is nothing more than what conscious inner life looks like from across a dissociative boundary. My conscious inner life looks like my body, with its brain and its nervous system when observed from across my dissociative boundary. In other words, from the point of view of other people looking at me. And the inanimate universe looks like what we call ‘the physical universe’ when observed from my perspective, which is also across a dissociative boundary, my dissociative boundary. That’s all there is to matter. That’s all that matter is. It is the appearance of experiential inner life presenting itself across a dissociative boundary.”

If all is indeed within universal consciousness, is universal consciousness therefore the ground of being? Origin, source, alpha and omega? This cuts to the core of the big existential questions: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going? In seeking answers, we can view science and spirituality as essentially engaged in the same quest. In the quantum cathedral at CERN they drill ever deeper into the bottomless pit of reality, unearthing yet more questions. But if reality is fundamentally non-material, riddles such as the Big Bang, the origin of life, and what lies behind it all take on a very different dimension.

“Let’s start from the beginning, That Which Experiences, or universal consciousness. I use these two names for the same thing. Every theory of nature has to have what philosophers call an ontological primitive, an element in a reduction base. What is this? An explanation always consists of a reduction. You explain one thing in terms of another. In other words, you reduce one thing to the other. You can explain a body in terms of organ systems, you can explain organ systems in terms of tissues, tissues in terms of cells, cells in terms of molecules, molecules in terms of atoms, atoms in terms of subatomic particles. You have to stop somewhere. You cannot keep on explaining one thing in terms of another or reducing one thing to another forever. At some point, you will hit rock bottom. That rock bottom is your ontological primitive. It’s the thing that simply is in nature. It does not have an explanation. However, you should be able to explain everything else in terms of it, in terms of that ontological primitive. That is the game. If you can put forward a minimum set of ontological primitives, ideally only one, in terms of which you can explain everything else, then you’ve hit jackpot. That’s the best explanation you can possibly have for the nature of reality. Physicalists try to do that in terms of a large set of ontological primitives, all the basic subatomic particles in the standard model. Then, they fail to reduce the qualities of experience to that large set of ontological primitives. It’s not only an untenable theory of the nature of reality, it’s also a non-parsimonious one. What I try to do in the book is to say, there’s only universal consciousness. Let me now try to explain everything else in terms of the patterns of excitation of universal consciousness. If I succeed, then not only do we explain more than physicalism because now I can explain the quality of the experience as excitations of universal consciousness without the hard problem of consciousness and I also have a minimum set of ontological primitives, namely only one, universal consciousness itself, which has certain attributes. It’s self excitable, it can excite itself according to certain patterns. That’s That Which Experiences, that’s universal consciousness. It’s an ontological primitive to which I can reduce everything else in nature.”

Having considered the question ‘Where did we come from?’ within Kastrup’s model, we can now ask ‘Why are we here?’ and ‘Where are we going?’ Such considerations are, of course, meaningless to scientific materialism which has variously answered them with “For no reason” and “Nowhere” or “Random accident” and “Techno-utopia in the stars”. But another possibility exists. Was the formation of alters of universal consciousness — you and me — a deliberate process? If so, to what end? We observe patterns throughout nature suggestive of intelligence, and increasing complexity suggestive of striving and natural teleology. Could there be some purpose to it all?

“I think there is a sensed instinctual purpose. I think deliberate thought, self-reflective thought, meta-cognitive apprehension, I think these are capabilities that have evolved in animals and achieved an apex in human beings. Humans are highly self-reflective. They not only experience, they know that they experience. They don’t only think, they turn their thoughts into objects of meta-thoughts, and those meta-thoughts into objects of meta-meta-thoughts. In other words, I can think about how I think, I can think about my emotions, I can evaluate my own way of behaving and judge it. That’s conscious meta-cognition. I think only human beings, as far as we know, are capable of that. I don’t think universal consciousness at large, beyond human beings, the consciousness that underlies the unfolding of the inanimate in the organic universe, has this capacity for conscious meta-cognition. In other words, it doesn’t make deliberate choices. It doesn’t plan things out deliberately, but it does unfold according to volition. You could call that instinctual volition. It’s the kind of volition that we experience, for instance, when we choose to take our first step in the morning with our left or right foot. It’s an instinctual choice driven by some kind of preference, even if it’s a bodily preference. It’s instinctive. It’s not deliberate. I think that’s the kind of choices that underlie the unfolding of the inanimate universe, this kind of instinctive, non deliberate, non meta-cognitive choices. But something that unfolds instinctively can still unfold according to a purpose. Schopenhauer called it an instinctual striving. What I call the universal consciousness at large Schopenhauer called the will, and the will strives towards something. The will strives towards the meta-cognition that it has achieved in the form of human beings in order to understand what it’s undergoing, to understand its own unfolding. I think we are the universe’s way to meta-cognize itself, to understand what it’s doing, what is driving it. There is some kind of instinctive will driving the unfolding of the universe. After all, the universe is not static. It’s changing, it’s evolving, it’s going somewhere that has to be driven by some kind of intention. Even if it’s not deliberate, even if it’s not planned out, there is an impulse. The universe now has a chance to meta-cognize that, to understand that at a meta-cognitive level through us. But as long as we are locked up in mainstream physicalism, the absurdities of materialism, we will just close our eyes to that.”

Some of you may be wondering why any of this matters in the ‘real’ world, but if our fundamental understanding of reality is transformed, the implications are vast. A corrosive combination of scientism, militant materialism, religious fundamentalism, apathy, and despair is threatening our survival as a species. There is a war of everyone against everyone that no-one can win (see The Crisis of the West and the Quest for Meaning). However, if we uncover deeper truths about who we are and why we’re here, it may be possible to step back from the brink of disaster before it’s too late.

“I don’t think in theory a conceptual structure, like I’m putting forward, itself is transformational. It just gives people permission to undergo the transformation themselves. Indeed, if the entire universe is fundamentally mental then the notion of meaning and purpose is not only tenable, it becomes intrinsic to the unfolding of nature. If nature is dynamic, if it’s changing and going somewhere, as opposed to just remaining the same, holding its state indefinitely, that ought to be because of some kind of impetus, some kind of impulse, a desire, instinctive as it may be, to go somewhere, to achieve something. I’m saying these things metaphorically. A desire to be in another state. It entails a purpose, even if it’s not a deliberate purpose. Even if it’s not a planned out purpose, but just instinctive, it’s still a purpose. It’s still an internal attractor pulling the universal mind towards something, which may still be unfathomable to us, but which I think and suspect very strongly it has something to do with achievement of conscious matter cognition, self reflection, which is currently embodied in us.”

Thus, the source of our suffering may indeed lie in our misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. If Kastrup really is on to something here, it could change everything, as the hard problem of consciousness simply dissolves. Subjective experiences which science fails to explain suddenly begin to make sense. If space and time are not fundamental, phenomena which appear to violate their rules, which all of us have experienced in some form, appear normal rather than paranormal, natural rather than supernatural. Science and spirituality can take their place as pieces of a wider reality. If consciousness is fundamental, and each of us but an infinitesimally small part of a universal entity, even our understanding of life and death is transformed.

“If we are dissociated alters and what we call life is just the image of that dissociation, then death is just the end of that dissociative boundary. Then, all the insight that we’ve accumulated within our lives as alters, which have been within the boundaries of our alter, they’re spread into consciousness at large upon the end of that dissociation, upon the collapse of that boundary. This may very well be the meaning of life as far as we know. Today, the ideas I’m putting forward are considered counter-intuitive, but there was a time thousands of years ago in which it was self evident. Of course the basis of everything is consciousness. There will be a time in the future, maybe a not so distant future, in which it will be self evident again. People will look back at the 19th, 20th and early 21st centuries and will say, ‘Those people were crazy! They thought there was this magical thing called matter outside and independent of consciousness, which somehow organised itself in certain structures and magically gave rise to consciousness. How absurd that was. Those people were nuts!’

Originally published in New Dawn magazine Special Issue Vol 13, No 6