Some Reflections on the
Philosophy of Bernardo Kastrup
But why, if idealism fails at the individual level, would it succeed at the cosmic level instead?
Bernardo Kastrup is a computer scientist and philosopher living in the Netherlands who has written an impressive series of books on metaphysics. He is well known for advocating a variety of philosophical idealism called "cosmic idealism", and has recently even defended a PhD thesis on this subject. He also has a column in Scientific American. One of his earlier books is called Why Materialism is Baloney, which is popular in the anti-materialistic, spiritual-philosophical scene, and has been mentioned by readers of Integral World a couple of times as something I need to look into. Deepak Chopra praised this book as follows: "Bernardo Kastrup's book is another nail in the coffin of the superstition of materialism. With elegant clarity he explains that mind, brain & cosmos are what consciousness does." He recently appeared as one of the speakers on the "Sages and Scientists" symposium, hosted by Chopra earlier this month.
Bernardo Kastrup: ‘There is
only cosmic consciousness.’
We are here in the airy-fairy world of "consciousness-only" or "mind-first" idealistic philosophers. Consciousness is not seen as the product of material processes, but on the contrary, matter is seen as created by consciousness, or rather Consciousness or Mind. How solid is that view? Does Kastrup have a point? My attempts to start a conversation with him on Facebook were not particularly successful: "You don't understand the first thing about these matters", was the response I got. That may or not be true, but I feel I need to take a stand here, since his work is brought up every now and then. A discussion like this can get pretty technical pretty soon, so I will approach it on an intuitive level, raising questions many readers (and critics) of his work might have.
Obviously, Kastrup doesn't mince words when it comes to his evaluation of materialism, so I will phrase my response—half-seriously, half-jokingly—in similar terms: "Why Idealism is Bonkers".
A realist looks at the moon, and believes the moon is a real object, which will continue to exist even if he doesn't look at it. And since we have been to the moon and back, I think he has a point. An idealist might say: the moon exists as the content of some consciousness. It will disappear if nobody is looking at it. Or he might say: the only thing I am sure of are the sensations of seeing a moon. This is all very incoherent, of course, because how can you have sensations of a moon if there isn't a moon in the first place? And why should existence be assured by somebody watching? (This is the famous idealist maxim "Esse est percipi" or "to be is to be perceived"). There was a time there was no life on earth, but the moon was definitely there. Oh, well... I am not going to go down that road. The human mind has two capacities: perception and imagination. For the imagination, idealist arguments certainly hold true: an imagined moon exists only as long as we keep it in our minds. When idealists claim that this also is true for the world around us, they seem to confuse perception and imagination.
What does "idealism" in this philosophical context actually stand for? Let's start with Wikipedia, the encyclopedia for ordinary mortals like us:
In philosophy, idealism is the group of metaphysical philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as humans can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. Epistemologically, idealism manifests as a skepticism about the possibility of knowing any mind-independent thing. In contrast to materialism, idealism asserts the primacy of consciousness as the origin and prerequisite of material phenomena. According to this view, consciousness exists before and is the pre-condition of material existence. Consciousness creates and determines the material and not vice versa. Idealism believes consciousness and mind to be the origin of the material world and aims to explain the existing world according to these principles.
Idealism theories are mainly divided into two groups. Subjective idealism takes as its starting point the given fact of human consciousness seeing the existing world as a combination of sensation. Objective idealism posits the existence of an objective consciousness which exists before and, in some sense, independently of human ones. In a sociological sense, idealism emphasizes how human ideas—especially beliefs and values—shape society. As an ontological doctrine, idealism goes further, asserting that all entities are composed of mind or spirit. Idealism thus rejects those physicalist and dualist theories that fail to ascribe priority to the mind.
Now, you won't easily find a subjective idealist (or solipsist) these days, who denies the reality of the world around him, and believes his own consciousness is the only thing that exists. He should get medication for this—or at least a reality check. What you do find, is those who claim that "all we know and can know is our own consciousness and everything else is abstraction." This comes dangerously close.
Are matter and energy only abstractions we invent to make sense of our sensations? Tell that to the survivors of Hiroshima. Or think of the interior of the sun. The sun burns your skin. Matter and energy have real, sometimes very destructive effects. How we understand these effects theoretically is of course another... matter.
So most idealists will argue that it is not their own mind that creates the world, but some bigger, cosmic Mind, or "mind-at-large". This might, or might not, be a divine Entity.
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."
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
But why, if idealism fails at the individual level, would it succeed at the cosmic level instead? This seems to me a sleight of hand that causes more problems than it solves. We associate mind and consciousness normally with subjects and biological organisms, and the cosmos is not known to have these features—as far as I can tell.
For example, how is that cosmic Mind (or Spirit) able to create, not only the cosmos itself but also our own individual minds? And how does it supply bodies to these minds? Has this Mind/Spirit created each and every life form, not only human beings but insects and bacteria as well? Will every new-born baby be provided with a mind of its own? How does that relate to the processes of genetics and evolution? How did this Mind/Spirit manage to generate so many minds, and how many minds are there actually? The list of questions to be answered by this "solution" is of course endless. And, widening our scope to really cosmic dimensions: is this Mind/Spirit creating minds and bodies on other planets in other solar systems in other galaxies as well?
Not daunted at all by these questions, idealists often claim that their view is more parsimonious then that of materialism. After all, we know our own consciousness directly, but the existence of matter is something that has to be inferred from our sensations. Isn't it therefore much "simpler" to assume only (my) consciousness exists? That is a simplicity "this side of complexity", it seems to me, which comes at a high cost. For it is much more complicated to find a plausible explanation for the shared world we live in given these conditions. The solution offered by idealists is quite artificial and unparsimonious, if you ask me, compared to the realist claim that the world around us is, well... real.
“For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn't give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.
Occham's Razor taught us "Entities should not be multiplied without necessity." Sometimes there just is this necessity. Acknowledging the reality of the outside world is a case in point.
In this black-and-white world, you are either a naive realist or a cosmic idealist. In a recent article by Deepak Chopra, which was posted by Kastrup on Facebook with a recommendation, we read, for example:
Account for consciousness and you explain everything. No models are needed. The everyday mind is the arena of consciousness. Stick with it, experience it deeply, and be self-aware. Only then will reality be fully comprehended, absent any model at all.
While it may be true that consciousness is (still) the blind spot of science, it is equally true that reality is the blind spot of idealism. For our consciousness will tell us no interesting fact about the Periodic System of the elements, or the processes of evolution, or the age of distant galaxies. It will tell us at most (and then even imperfectly) how it feels to be human, and what states of consciousness are possible to us. "Account for consciousness and you explain everything"? Why go to the opposite extreme? Why go in one easy jump from naive realism to cosmic idealism? It seems far wiser to move from naive realism to critical realism, which no longer takes reality at face value and takes the role of projection or brain processes into account.
The irony with these Mind-only philosophers is that they happily go to their office, meet with people, get home again and spend the evening chatting on Facebook with like-minded admirers, and even fly to the US attending conferences about spirituality and science, all the time proclaiming that "only consciousness exist". Will reality every dawn on them? Are these events not real? Are these offices not real? Is their home not real? And if so, where does that leave idealism as a viable philosophy?
‘more parsimonious and empirically rigorous’
With this background we can look at the specifics of Kastrup's brand of idealism. Says Freewiki, which promotes a holistic worldview, in contrast to the perceived "materialistic and mechanistic" Wikipedia (indeed, Kastrup doesn't seem to have a Wikipedia page):
Kastrup proposes an idealist ontology that makes sense of reality in a more parsimonious and empirically rigorous manner than main-stream physicalism (=materialism), bottom-up panpsychism, and cosmopsychism. The ontology proposed by him and some of his colleagues also offers more explanatory power than these three alternatives, in that it does not fall prey to the "hard problem of consciousness", the combination problem, or the decombination problem, respectively.
His thesis can be summarized as follows: There is only cosmic consciousness.
We, as well as all other living organisms, are but dissociated alters of cosmic consciousness, surrounded by its thoughts. The inanimate world we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of these thoughts. The living organisms we share the world with are the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated 'alters'.
What is special about Kastrup is that he argues very precisely and logically, point by point, and not only appeals to a general a priori understanding or metaphysical convictions. He attaches great importance to the fact that his theory explains the empirical findings both from quantum physics and from neurophysiological research well and simply. He presents this point of view so logically, conclusively and clearly that we can assume that materialism (or physicalism) in all its variations, which is currently still considered "scientific" in ideological discussions, is fundamentally refuted or that its suitability as a scientifically meaningful explanatory principle for a comprehensive understanding of the world is disproven.
These are quite some extravagant claims. Is this idealist view "more parsimonious and empirically rigorous" than its competitors? I have expressed my grave doubts about that. Does it really have "more explanatory power"? In what domains of reality? And is the "hard problem of consciousness"—a term introduced by David Chalmers for the mystery of how the brain can produce a mind—really overcome by stating "there is only cosmic consciousness"? Or is it simply by-passed? For we seem to have a hard problem in reverse now: how can Mind create both mind and body? How do this alter-mind and its appearance-body relate to eachother?
Says Kastrup in one of his columns for Scientific American:
The idea is to extend consciousness to the entire fabric of spacetime…. This view—called “cosmopsychism” in modern philosophy, although our preferred formulation of it boils down to what has classically been called “idealism”—is that there is only one, universal, consciousness. The physical universe as a whole is the extrinsic appearance of universal inner life, just as a living brain and body are the extrinsic appearance of a person’s inner life.
The key is "appearance" here. Calling our brain and body "the extrinsic appearance of a person's inner life" doesn't explain how this is done. Our minds create images, but not brains. Brains get tumors and can be operated upon by others, but the same is not true of our images—they remain invisible to others. We have access to (some of) our inner mental processes, but not to our own brain processes. Kastrup goes into great detail arguing for his solution to the mind body problem, but I can't help being left with the feeling that the body-part of the equation gets not the attention it deserves. And extrapolating this understanding of how mind and body relate to a hypothetical Mind and the cosmos at large seems unwarranted.
Kastrup original contribution is that he uses the metaphor of Dissociated Identity Disorder (DID) to clarify the relationship of the cosmic Mind to the lower minds. Just as in psychiatric cases a human being can disintegrate into subpersonalities or "alters", which seem to have a memory of its own, but are not aware of eachother, so the Divine Mind has "dissociated" into all lesser minds. We normally don't know the contents of someone else's mind. And our body and that of other organisms are "the extrinsic appearances of other dissociated 'alters'". This is quite a tall order to swallow. Is this supposed to "fundamentally refute" materialism? Does this provide "a comprehensive understanding of the world"? Is the body really just the "external appearance of a dissociated alter"? How could that possibly work in practice?
David Chalmers recently wrote a paper about idealism, which mentions Kastrup's work in passing. He describes three versions of idealism (micro, macro and cosmic) and classifies Kastrup as a "cosmic idealist", who sees the relationship between the cosmic Mind and all lesser minds as a process in which "the cosmic subject undergoes some sort of cognitive fragmentation into different components, modes, or guises, each of which lacks access to the other components." And he comments:
Of course this view raises many questions. There are many disanalogies between the universe and a DID subject, and it is not at all clear how to find analogous within-subject fragmentation at the level of cognitive processes in the universe. The view is also massively revisionary about our minds and our relations to one another. It makes our ordinary mode of existence pathological, since in this mode we are unaware of the vast majority of experiences we are having. This entails a massive failure of introspection, where our ordinary beliefs reflect a near-complete lack of knowledge about our own consciousness... Still... cognitive fragmentation seems a coherent view that is worth taking seriously.
Baloney = nonsense, bullshit (Urban)
This seems to me to be a rather generous assessment, given the problems with this view he just listed. But perhaps Chalmers has become jaded by the study of so many options in the philosophy of mind. He considers cosmic idealism "the most promising version of idealism", and concludes that in fact any solution to the mind-body problem is equally (im)plausible: materialism, dualism, panpsychism or monism.
Disclaimer: I have not (yet) read any of Bernardo Kastrup's books, but have read quite some of his articles and watched some of his YouTube videos. These could not convince me of the superiority of his "consciousness-only" perspective, nor of his claims to be "more parsimonious and empirically rigorous". Kastrup might ignore my response because I haven't studied his books, but I think the questions I raise are pertinent to his project nonetheless. The universe described by Kastrup comes across as uncanny, with its dissociated, traumatized (?) God.
All we know is our own consciousness. True, but trivial. We can, apparently, know interesting things about the material outside world, through this very consciousness. These things don't become available by focusing on consciousness only. Why would we need this metaphysical and quite outlandish intellectual superstructure at all? For surely, we don't understand mind better by blowing it up to cosmic proportions. Nor do we understand anything else in the real world, like evolution, any better by saying that such and such too happens "in consciousness".
I have not been able to find many reviews of his books from a perspective that is not already favorable towards these "metaphyscial speculations". Some, from a skeptical perspective, were predictably quite negative. Obviously, a detached evaluation of his work hasn't yet started. Kastrup's association with Deepak Chopra and the like will not help with this. But I do agree with the skeptics that invoking a whole cosmological metaphysics to explain the hard problem of consciousness, that introduces so many questions of its own, is hardly a promising option. But that's just my humble opinion.
Holy crap. So we are now positing that the entire universe “suffers” from a multiple personality disorder because we need to solve a non-problem that we created ourselves out of stubbornly postulating that there is something special and quasi-magical about consciousness. — Massimo Pigliucci
A four-minute teaser for "Why Materialism is Baloney".
What if I told you that we are all alter-ego's created by the universe? Well that's pretty much what one new theory on the mystery of consciousness suggests.
 David Chalmers, "Idealism and the mind-body problem", philpapers.org. Forthcoming in (W. Seager, ed.) The Routledge Handbook of Panpsychism. Oxford University Press, expected 16 Dec 2019.
There's an enormous variety of types and dimensions of idealism, in various combinations. There's even a "realistic idealism", according to Chalmers, which says:
"The physical world really exists out there, independently of our observations; it just has a surprising nature."
In his PhD defense (see Note 2) Kastrup emphasized he does believe in the reality of chairs and tables, but just wants to add these ultimately exist "within mind-at-large". It is unclear to me what is added by that maneuver to our understanding of reality.