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INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber



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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 150+ essays on this website.
SEE MORE ESSAYS WRITTEN BY FRANK VISSER

Essays on Bernardo Kastrup:
Part One | Part Two | Part Three

‘Why the Tree
Will Continue to Be’

Further Musings on the Idealism
of Bernardo Kastrup

Frank Visser

This seems to be a desperate and irrational attempt to keep the idealistic project afloat.

In my previous essay "Why Idealism is Bonkers" I gave my reasoned impressions of the philosophy of Bernardo Kastrup, even if headed by a rather flippant title. But then again, Kastrup had used the same strong language in his book title Why Materialism is Baloney. I argued that his claim to have a "more parsimonious and empirically rigorous" position than materialistic science is able to offer did not come across as convincing—at least not to me.

In that essay I primarily relied on secondary sources, so after writing it I pursued this matter further and found an online video by Kastrup in which he explains and clarifies his philosophy. Urban language aside, in the current essay I will engage a couple of his arguments which he has presented in favor of his brand of idealism. For he wants to make sure, this is no longer the standard idealism known from Bishop Berkeley, but a modernized version that can live up to the philosophical standards of today.

What was Bishop Berkeley's idealism about? For Berkeley things only existed when they are perceived, either by us or by God Himself. Esse est Percipi ("to be is to be perceived") was his motto. In the previous essay I already gave the humorous Limerick about God in the end doing all the perceiving, but will repeat it here:

A fallen tree in a forest
A fallen tree in a forest
There once was a man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

—Ronald Knox


Dear Sir, Your astonishment's odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by Yours faithfully, God

—Anonymous


Why will a tree "continue to be", even when nobody is looking at it? Or does it? To get a feel for the problems at hand, let's focus on a very mundane empirical phenomenon. Let's look at the classical philosophical question (which sounds almost like a Haiku or Koan):

If a tree falls in a forest
and nobody is there to hear it,
does it make a sound?

Wikipedia brings some clarity and sanity to this conundrum:

"The answer to this question depends on the definition of sound. Since sound does not exist without our hearing of it, sound does not exist if we do not hear it. However, when a tree falls, the motion disturbs the air and sends off air waves. This physical phenomena which can be measured by instruments other than our ears exists regardless of human perception (seeing or hearing ) of it. Putting together, although the tree falling on the island sends off air waves, it does not produce sound if no human is within the distance where the air waves are strong enough for a human to perceive them." (my emphasis)

Sounds seem to occur only in brains/minds, but does that mean the source of these sounds doesn't exist? Of course not, for how can one have sounds without having a source in the first place? Sounds are sensations, which only exist in relationship to a brain/mind which has the sensation; but air vibrations which cause the sound sensation can happily exist without somebody hearing them. This seems to me a quite reasonable, realist position when it comes to the status of the outside world.

For idealists, however, this is not at all obvious. They argue for a more "parsimonious" philosophical position which does away with the outside world (yes, you read it well), with a world that exists independent of mind— or at least of any M/mind as such.

‘a purely non-theistic articulation of idealism’

I found this video by Kastrup on YouTube (posted 1 July 2014), in which he explains his position, and how he goes beyond Berkeley, with remarkable clarity and lucidity. In it, he wants to defend idealism from a modern perspective, in a way "that doesn't include any notion of God, or whatever, a purely non-theistic articulation of idealism, a modern articulation of idealism." Kastrup explicitly denies he is invoking God to make his philosophy work. Let's see if that's the case.

Kastrup: “There is no need to postulate anything beyond consciousness.”

In this short video, Kastrup discusses five basic objections, the "key points that can be raised against idealism". Here is a brief summary, together with his answers:

Five Objections to Idealism and Their Refutation
OBJECTION REFUTATION
1. How to tell reality from imagination? Perceptions of the empirical world can be shared by more than one person, they are collective. Imagination, dreams etc. cannot be shared.
2. How to tell reality from visionary experiences? Visions are, again, private, they cannot be shared. And they are involuntary. They are generated by a part of your mind which you don't identify with.
3. Do objects that are not being perceived exist? Subsequent perceptions of an object display at most continuity. This can be explained by the collective unconscious, which generates the "dream" we call "reality" and which we all share.
4. What causes perception? What causes the contents of perception if there is no outside world? There are dissociated parts of your mind, which you don't identify with, that cause perceptions.
5. What causes anything? This leads to an endless regression: what causes the cause? This begs the question. Take a vibrating string, is the vibration separate from the string? It is a state of the string.

Are you still there? Taking these "refutations" one by one, I find them quite unconvincing:

1. How to tell reality from imagination?

I have raised that issue in my previous essay as well. In my opinion, idealists confuse perception and imagination. Imagined trees can only exist within consciousness, but perceived trees can exist without any consciousness being aware of them. Isn't the very reason that we can share our perceptions precisely that this shared world is a real world? How obvious can it be? Kastrup needs to resort to the illogical notion of a collective cosmic dream here, to make a shared world plausible at all.

But within an idealist framework it is very hard to tell "reality" from imagination. Imagination is within the control of our egoic mind, but "reality" is a kind of imagination outside of the control of our egoic mind, because it is part of the collective unconscious mind, says Kastrup. Now, the collective unconscious is the Jungian realm of archetypes such as heroes and villains, but it is hardly the realm of tables and chairs, or planets and stars! Again, archetypal heroes and villains have no "real" existence, but tables and chairs, or planets and stars definitely do! Even Kastrup concedes that point.

2. How to tell reality from visionary experiences?

In Kastrup's understanding, visions differ from imaginations in that they can't be controlled by our conscious, egoic mind. This may very well be true, but this doesn't imply any relationship to an outside world, in my opinion. Perhaps the question is meant to read: how to tell dreams or fantasies from visionary experiences?

As an aside, this question is relevant for Integral World, which has frequently criticized Ken Wilber's opinions about the mechanism of evolution as a spirit-driven process, which seems to be based on his meditative experiences. He is a strong opponent of Darwinian evolution, and Kastrup seems to have doubts about that as well (see video below this essay).

3. Do objects that are not being perceived exist?

This is the key argument of idealism—or perhaps: against idealism. As Kastrup argues, if we put a bottle on a table in a room, and we leave the room, does the bottle disappear? Obviously not. We can have a second person stay in the room and confirm that to us.

The continuity argument is really curious. Just because some dream episodes or schizophrenic episodes, as he claims, show some sort of continuity, does that mean that the continuity we observe in the real world is dream-like? Dreams can be repetitive, chaotic or nightmarish too. Does that mean reality is repetitive, chaotic or a living hell too? It just means some psychic structures are persistent over time.

Kastrup is very selective in his use of metaphors or examples to bolster his idealistic views. His key-point is that we don't need to postulate anything beyond consciousness, for he has alternative explanations for anything formerly understood as real or objective. These alternative explanations involve a universal consciousness or Mind for which there is not a shred of evidence.

4. What causes perception?

It is here that our credulity is stretched to its limits. Kastrup claims we can do away with the outside world, beyond our minds, because he can explain our perceptions (of what, actually?) in a different way.


Olivine basalt collected by the Apollo 15 crew.

When we see a clear moon at night the first, naive, thought that arises is that there's really a moon out there. Well, we have been to the moon and back several times, and have even brought moon stones with us. Was that a travel in consciousness-space or what? We should have very good reasons (better than just "parsimony") to deny its reality up front. We can imagine we are going to the moon, and we can really go there. Big difference.

If that's not a big difference for you—dream on...

As with the example of sounds: the sensation of sound may be mind-based but the existence of vibrations in the air is not. It is entirely unclear to me how a collective unconscious mind could generate the sensation of a moon in someone's mind, if that moon doesn't actually exist. Or, alternatively, how that collective unconscious mind can generate a moon "out there." Kastrup has no idea how this would work.

This seems to be a desperate and irrational measure to keep the idealistic project afloat, and deny the outside world in which we move and live.

5. What causes anything?

The same applies to this last objection to idealism. To state that postulating a real moon as the cause of the perceptions we have of the moon leads to an endless regression is disingenuous.

There are proximate causes and distant causes (and perhaps even ultimate causes). The moon as planet is caused by gravity. What we see is light reflected from the sun. Gravity is caused by we-don't-know-yet-what, but that shouldn't prevent us from analyzing proximate causes in the least. The realist explanation of the perception of the moon seems to me not only less contrived but even a matter of sanity.

The analogy of a string easily backfires: can we really not separate the string from its vibration? A string doesn't vibrate all by itself, but only when energy is applied to it from outside. There you have it. Reality asserts itself again and again. The cause of the vibration could even be resonance from another string!

Because a dream can be experienced as reality, reality itself can be considered to be a dream? What kind of philosophical reasoning is that?

On Getting a Reality Check

Peek-a-boo is a prime example of an object permanence test
Peek-a-boo is a prime example
of an object permanence test.

In developmental psychology there is such a thing as "object permanence", the capacity to see objects as persisting even if they disappear from sight. It is the age where "peek-a-boo" is so exciting, around 24 months. Even animals develop this understanding (when their owner is away from home, he is still "somewhere", to their reassurance). Dogs are better than cats with this, but that is still under investigation. It is related to the frontal cortex. We are not born with this capacity but have to learn it through trial and error, discovery and delight!

Idealism seems to be the philosophy of a less-then-two-years old. If I don't look, it isn't there. Even to raise the question is telling.

There is a strong element of derealization in all these anti-realist arguments from Kastrup. This is psychiatric condition:

"Derealization is an alteration in the perception or experience of the external world so that it seems unreal. Other symptoms include feeling as though one's environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional coloring, and depth. It is a dissociative symptom of many conditions including severe stress, trauma, depression and anxiety." (Wikipedia)

If this sounds harsh, bear in mind that Kastrup sees no problem in explaining all of cosmic reality with a pathological syndrome: that of Dissociated Identity Disorder (DID). Recall that he sees the relationship between the cosmic Mind and the lesser minds and the outside world as a kind of dissociation or fragmentation, specifically by analogy with this pathological condition. DID usually occurs only after severe trauma, such as abuse or war or health problems. What on earth has happened to the cosmos?

Isn't it just a little bit weird to frame the cosmos in those terms?

Kastrup uses the term "collective unconscious" for this hypothetical universal or cosmic consciousness, thus overstretching the intended meaning of that Jungian term. Such a cosmic consciousness, which exists at the foundation of both the subjective and objective world, is for all practical purposes a God to me—Kastrup's denials to offer a theistic perspective to the contrary. His God is just the God of Vedanta or other psycho-spiritual systems, not necessarily a Christian theistic God.

Kastrup shows a strange intellectual superiority in this video, as if all these objections to idealism can easily be refuted (which he really seems to have done to his own satisfaction). He argues that, because in our dreams we sometimes experience realistic moments, all of reality might ultimately be a mind-based dream. Because a dream can be experienced as reality, reality itself can be considered to be a dream?

What kind of philosophical reasoning is that? And isn't a "shared dream" a contradiction in terms? As he said, dreams are by definition private and personal. Seeing the cosmos as a whole as "a dream of Brahman" would make more sense, since Brahman supposedly is a single Subject. But a "shared dream"? That doesn't add up for me. A miraculously "synchronized common dream" even less. This notion is uncritically proposed by Kastrup to make some sense of reality.

"There is no need to postulate anything beyond consciousness"? I beg to differ here, because that need shows up for me every single day of my life! Call me naive, but I take it that the tree continues to be, precisely because the tree out there is real. There is every reason to go beyond a naive realism, philosophically speaking, and take all the subjective factors into account that influence our perception. But denying the reality of the outside world as such seems psychologically quite unbalanced.

Yes indeed, bonkers.

BERNARDO KASTRUP ON DARWINIAN EVOLUTION

Kastrup: “We don't know whether mutations were really random or not.”




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