Favorite quotes from Brief Peeks Beyond

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

My new book Brief Peeks Beyond is being officially released today! This means that, if you've pre-ordered the ebook version, you will be getting it today. And it also means that, if you order it now, you will get it immediately!

To celebrate the occasion, in this post I list my 65 favorite passages from the book. The passages capture and summarize some of the essential points rather sharply and succinctly. I've numbered them for ease of reference, in case you want to cite them in social media. Have fun!
Pages 12-13: Because all knowledge resides in consciousness, we cannot know what is supposedly outside consciousness; we can only infer it through our capacity for abstraction. … It is enough that we find one coherent explanation for reality on the basis of excitations of consciousness alone for a postulated universe outside consciousness to become akin to the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Page 14: Inferring that personal psyches share a common root does not entail postulating a new, abstract theoretical entity – namely, a universe outside consciousness – but merely extrapolating consciousness itself beyond its face-value personal limits. As such, to see reality as akin to a shared dream generated by a collective, obfuscated segment of consciousness is much more parsimonious than materialism.
Page 16: Mathematics – quantities and their relationships – is a mental construct. ... By stating that the supposedly objective world consists of pure mathematics, there is an important way in which [physicist Max] Tegmark is at least flirting with [philosophical idealism]. 
Page 18: Mind-at-large suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder; and we are its alters. 
Page 28: No ontology in the history of humankind has been or is more metaphysical than materialism. Unlike all spiritual or religious ontologies ... the strongly objective realm of materialism is, by definition, forever outside experience. It is pure abstraction. ... All the properties we attribute to reality – like solidity, palpability, concreteness – are qualities of experience and, as such, not applicable to the real world of materialism. 
Page 30: There is no actual unconscious. What neuroscience today calls ‘consciousness’ is simply a particular, amplified segment of consciousness. 
Page 31: If all reality is in consciousness, then a pill or a well-placed knock to the head are simply the images of processes in consciousness. … What is a pill but what you see, touch and otherwise feel in your fingers? It has color, flavor and texture. It’s a set of subjective perceptions with the qualities of experience. ... Therefore, that a pill or physical trauma to the head can alter one’s state of consciousness is no more surprising than the fact that your thoughts can change your emotions. 
Page 32: Think of how elusive dreams can be: ... you may remember nothing when you wake up – declaring yourself to have been unconscious all night – and then suddenly recall, hours later, that you actually had a very intense dream. How can you know that you are ever truly unconscious? 
Page 45: For exactly the same reason that there is nothing it is like to be an isolated group of neurons in a person’s brain, there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object. 
Page 49: Empirical reality consists entirely of outside images of ideas in the mind of God. We cannot know how the world is felt by God simply by looking at the world, for the same reason that a neuroscientist cannot know what love feels like just by looking at brain scans. Yet, when we contemplate the magnificence and incomprehensible magnitude of the stars and galaxies through our telescopes, we are essentially looking at a ‘scan of God’s brain.’ 
Pages 49-50: The mystery of death consists in the shift of our experience of the world from second- to first-person perspective. 
Page 51: What Plato called the ‘world soul’ is simply God’s direct subjective perspective; the reverse side of the measurable universe. The measurable universe, in turn, is the obverse side of God’s soul. The Universe, thus, is God’s body. 
Page 59: To consider consciousness an emergent property of brains is either an appeal to magic or the mere labeling of an unknown. In both cases, precisely nothing is actually explained. 
Page 60: Eliminative materialists [claim that] you just compute that you are conscious, but you really aren’t. The premise behind this is ludicrous. I can create a computer program that ultimately attributes the logical value ‘true’ to a variable labeled ‘conscious,’ but obviously that doesn’t take the computer any closer to having inner life the way you and I have, no matter how complex the program. 
Page 61: For the sake of preserving a minimum degree of empirical honesty in our culture, we must remain grounded in the primary datum of reality: experience itself. Experience is what there is before we start theorizing about the world and ourselves. It takes precedence over everything else. It is the departing point and necessary substrate of all theories. ... We must never forget this, lest we totally lose our connection to reality. 
Page 63: Whichever way one looks at it, consciousness is an unsolvable anomaly under materialism: we can neither explain how it is generated, nor why it evolved. Unfortunately for materialists, this one anomaly is also the very matrix of all knowledge and the carrier of everyone’s reality! 
Page 64: We, as a culture, find ourselves now in the strange position of having to explain how abstractions of consciousness generate consciousness. Such a circular problem, of course, can never be solved! We’re just chasing our own tails at light speed. 
Page 67: [Materialist philosopher Daniel] Dennett suggests that, if enough aspects of experience are found to lack any correspondence with consensus fact, consciousness will be shown to be inexistent. This is wholly illogical: even if we find one day that everything we experience fails to correspond to consensus fact, that will simply show that consciousness is populated with illusions. It will leave consciousness itself intact. We are still conscious of illusions, in exactly the same way that we are conscious of our dreams. 
Pages 67-68: To refute some of the face-value traits ordinarily attributed to consciousness doesn’t render consciousness itself – raw subjective experience – an illusion. To argue otherwise is entirely equivalent to proclaiming that, because the Earth isn’t flat – as it appears to be at face value – then it must be an illusion; and to proclaim this while standing firmly on the Earth! Where is one ‘standing’ when one consciously proclaims consciousness to be an illusion? 
Page 70: The ‘hard problem [of consciousness]’ is merely a linguistic and conceptual construction of human beings. It only arises when you conceptualize a whole universe outside consciousness and then postulate that this conceptual universe somehow generates consciousness. So you end up in the position of having to explain how an abstraction of consciousness can generate consciousness. 
Page 71: Provided that the headlines suggest a confirmation of the materialist hypothesis, it is surprising how much inaccuracy one can get away with. Society is very forgiving when the error is on the side of the reigning metaphysics; a virtuous cycle that tendentiously maintains its ruling status. 
Page 72: The brain is the image of a process of localization in a stream of transpersonal experiences, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. The brain doesn’t generate consciousness for exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water. Active neurons are what experiences look like from the outside, this being the reason why brain function correlates tightly with subjective states. 
Page 73: Memories are nothing but ongoing obfuscated experiences in the periphery of the psyche. 
Page 91: The bottom-line is this: when one sees more consciousness consistently accompanied by less brain activity, one is forced to contemplate the possibility that brain function is associated with a localization of consciousness, as opposed to its production. 
Page 102: We just assume that complex phenomena can be reduced to the basic laws of particle physics, because such an assumption is an axiom of the current paradigm. But who is to say that as-of-yet unknown and irreducible causal forces or organizing principles don’t kick in at higher levels of complexity? Who is to say that nature isn’t mostly governed by these higher-complexity principles or agencies, which only come into play when enough subatomic particles interact in a way too complex to simulate or test under controlled conditions? 
Pages 102-103: The widespread cultural notion that science has explained most of the world is scandalously unjustified. For all we know, we’ve explained only very, very little; practically nothing. We just don’t know what kinds of fundamental causal forces and organizing principles may kick in when systems become complex enough to be seen with the naked eye outside a laboratory. Inability to acknowledge this represents a catastrophic failure of skepticism. 
Page 103: Technology is designed to eliminate – by construction – the influence of all but the potentially small set of causal forces that are understood by science. … Because technology is deliberately insulated from the unknown, its effectiveness in the larger world is no evidence that science has a significant understanding of that larger world. 
Page 106: If one’s statistical conclusions are in accordance with the reigning scientific paradigm, it is enough to demonstrate that the odds of a certain effect occurring against chance are very small. However, if the conclusions contradict the reigning paradigm, critics can always dismiss the evidence on the basis that, theoretically, any pattern can be found in the data if random effects can’t be completely ruled out. 
Page 108: Materialism is by no stretch of the imagination a scientific conclusion, but merely a metaphysical opinion that helps some people interpret scientific conclusions. Yet, the emperors with no clothes who promote the materialist belief on TV, in books and what not, present themselves as spokespeople of science itself. When these people promote their flawed logic in the media as an expression of reason, the irony is painful. 
Pages 113-116: Neo-Darwinists conflate the established fact of evolution by natural selection with another hypothesis that is anything but established: that the genetic mutations at the root of the entire process are themselves random or blind. ... We have never run a randomness test on a sufficiently complete set of raw genetic mutations to know the answer either way. 
Page 117: New scientific conclusions arise from the patterns we do find, for these are the footprints of the laws of nature. Neo-Darwinism is an aberration in that one of its key conclusions arises precisely from the alleged absence of pattern, even though no substantial evidence for it exists. 
Pages 121-122: Proper skeptical parsimony is not about declaring things to be impossible, [it] is about making sense of reality with as few postulated theoretical entities as possible. … Precisely by succeeding in explaining reality with less theoretical entities, we realize that what materialism considers anomalous is, in fact, entirely natural. 
Page 126: Because our culture mistakenly takes technological success for evidence of a deep understanding of the underlying nature of reality, we are all guilty, at least by omission, of allowing the neo-priesthood of science to appoint themselves arbiters of truth. This is as insane as appointing a five-year-old kid, who happens to break records playing computer games, chief architect at a major computer company. 
Pages 126-127: We now find ourselves in the position of expecting wisdom and guidance from intellectual specialists who can solve abstract mathematical puzzles but are often largely disconnected from life. No teenager would make this mistake among his or her own circle of friends, as a visit to any schoolyard will show you. 
Page 127: Our progressive abandonment of our relationship with the mysteries of transcendence since the Enlightenment has left a gaping hole in the human psyche. Our culture is desperate to get intellectual permission to believe something else instead, to peek into some new and obscure mystery, so long as it inspires the same amazement and awe previously reserved for transcendence. The neo-priesthood of science sensed an opportunity and rushed to fill the gap. 
Page 129: We’re so focused on living longer, optimizing the performance of necessary tasks, communicating faster and more frequently with one another, accumulating wealth and, most visibly, consuming and entertaining our way to depression that we’ve almost entirely forgotten to ask what this is all about. Why do we live? ... What have philosophers and poets alike been trying to say for the past few thousand years? 
Pages 129-130: The educational system in most modern societies today is almost entirely focused on utilitarian aspects. … A purely utilitarian education tends to turn people into controllable tools; cogs in the machine. Unequipped to even conceive coherently of the higher questions of existence, we’re left with no option but to blindly leverage our utilitarian skills day in and day out, contributing to economic output and wealth generation. 
Page 130: A civilization of stupefied drones going blindly about their practical tasks is constantly flirting with collapse. But the power structures may believe that this can be managed through the right combination of alcohol, tobacco, television, pornography, commoditized shopping culture and, in more severe cases, cognitive behavioral therapy and dependency-creating psychiatric drugs. The mainstream metaphysics of materialism enables this by rendering culturally legitimate the outrageous notion that unhappy people are simply malfunctioning biological robots. 
Pages 132-133: Academic philosophy has [come to] to believe that to ‘prove’ an idea is more important than for the idea to resonate with the innermost selves of people and, thereby, make a true difference. … By denying the affective nature of reality, academic philosophy has alienated itself from a large and significant part of what it means to be a human being alive in the world. In seeking to become more objective and real, it ended up distancing itself from reality. 
Page 134: The cultural indoctrination that deems myths to be inconsequential has left us, as adults, unable to discern meaning and significance in our own imagination the way a child can. The craving that results from such alienation from ourselves has been accumulating in our society for centuries now. 
Page 140: Projection is thus the amazing mental mechanism by which we create ‘the other’ out of ourselves, like Eve from Adam’s rib. It enables the magical rise of a second person from the first person, the ‘you’ from the ‘I.’ Through it, the ‘outside’ world becomes a mirror for the most hidden and unacknowledged aspects of our psyches, so we can, in essence, interact with ourselves by proxy. We get a chance to dance, unwittingly, with that which is repressed within us. 
Page 141: Being conscious is the very essence of what it means to be whatever it is we are. But what does our culture say about this? It says that consciousness arises out of particular arrangements of matter. The projection here is so in-your-face that it may be hard to see: we are projecting ourselves onto matter! 
Page 144: Philosophy gives people intellectual permission to truly embrace what their intuitions and experiences are already telling them to be true. 
Page 145: Without a suitable metaphysics to ground it, depth-psychology is unable to address the real ... How to treat depression without addressing the actual meaning of life? How to treat death anxiety without addressing what death actually is? If depth-psychology avoids these crucial metaphysical questions, its efforts turn into mere academic exercises. 
Page 148: The true strength of materialism is its symbiotic relationship with the economic system and power structures upon which we have all come to depend. 
Page 156: Here is my hypothesis: the afterlife realm comprises a core layer consisting of … intrinsic, essential, invariant properties ... independent of the cultural background of the witness. But surrounding the core layer there is a symbolic layer, which is malleable and acquiescent to one’s particular beliefs and expectations. This symbolic layer is a kind of bridge: it presents the core themes according to whatever imagery is most evocative to each personality. 
Pages 173-174: A choice is either determined by some process – even if the process is yet-unknown, mysterious, unfathomable, ineffable, transcendent, spiritual, ethereal, etc. – or merely random. It seems impossible to find semantic or logical space for libertarian free will if we insist on distinguishing it from both randomness and determinism. … True free will can be the expression of a fully deterministic process, as long as the determining factors of that process are internal to that which the choosing agent identifies itself with. 
Page 175: Metaphysical free will is only valid under models of reality that allow for choices to be made unhindered by factors outside our own subjectivity. 
Page 177: The semantic difference between desire and necessity rests on the corresponding imperatives being external in the latter case. I only say that I have to work because the imperatives of society – which are external to me as a person – require me to do so. If the imperatives that compel me to work were, instead, internal to me – say, an inner imperative to feel useful and productive – I would say that I want to work. Indeed, what is a desire but the direct experience of an inner imperative? 
Page 179: If … we identify not with particular dissociated ideas but with consciousness itself – with that whose excitations give rise to all thoughts and feelings – we attain unfathomable metaphysical free will. This arises not from the power of the ego to control the world, but from the realization that we are the world. How could we feel oppressed by that which we are? 
Page 183: We stopped living the inner life of human beings and began living the ‘outer life’ of things and mechanisms. … All meaning must lie – we’ve come to assume – somewhere without and never within. I even dare to venture an explanation for how this came to pass: because of Western materialism, we believe that we are finite beings who will, unavoidably, eventually cease to exist. Only the ‘outside world’ will endure and have continuity. 
Page 184: Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling and understanding. All else exists only as connotative devices: ‘tricks’ to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and insights unfolding within. 
Page 186: If all reality is in consciousness, then your consciousness is not generated by your body. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that your consciousness will end when your body dies. Your body is simply the outside image of a particular configuration of consciousness that you experience when you are alive. 
Page 186: Your physical health isn’t merely ‘connected’ to your psychic state; it is your obfuscated psychic state! 
Page 187: If love is actually primary – material chemicals suffusing your brain being just an outside image of love, not its cause – wouldn’t that make a difference as far as how you look upon your relationships? … Wouldn’t we, as a culture, have to take another look at current psychiatric best-practices if we acknowledged our feelings to be primary, not merely the outcome of chemical imbalances to be corrected with drugs? 
Pages 189-190: While particular types of brain activity are the outside image of egoic processes in consciousness, the rest of the physical body is an outside image of our personal obfuscated psyche; that is, an image of our repressed, forgotten or otherwise unacknowledged psychic activity. … We can treat all illnesses by influencing obfuscated psychic activity. 
Page 192: The patient must be helped to bring all unhealthy psychic activity into the light of self-reflective awareness, so it doesn’t become somatized. … Once this happens, the patient can be treated through the oldest, simplest and most effective healing method ever devised by humankind: heart-to-heart interaction between patient and healer. 
Pages 192-193: Healers must help patients internalize the treatment, so it drops past the ego and into the deeper layers of the psyche. Here is where the art and skill of the healer comes into play, for this ‘dropping in’ must be accomplished through bypassing egoic barriers and defense mechanisms. A form of benign manipulation is required, which may conflict with present-day notions of ethics. 
Page 196: It is ... conceivable that thoughts and imagination originating in our personal psyche, if they somehow sink into the deepest, most obfuscated, collective levels of consciousness, could indeed affect consensus reality directly. 
Page 201: Cynicism ... is a disguised but extreme form of belief: the often-baseless commitment to the impossibility of something. … Living in the mystery, on the other hand, entails an attitude of openness without commitment. 
Page 202: Show me a person who claims to have no significant anxieties or insecurities and I will show you a liar. The human condition isn’t reassuring and we’re all in the same boat. But because we try to put up this image of strength, we add insult to injury by convincing each other that we are alone in our misery. This only increases our isolation and loneliness. We forget that the only real strength is the courage to present ourselves to the world as we really are, so we can live in authentic community and help each other out. 
Pages 203-204: A quiet and entirely peaceful change in our spending habits is not only impossible to repress, it will also have a much bigger impact than any street revolution. Consumerism – so frantically reinforced by governments, the mainstream media, and validated by the academically-sanctioned delusion of materialism – is what keeps us in the role of cogs in a sick system that benefits only the pathological amongst us. By peacefully refusing to play the role of entranced consumers, we will irremediably undermine the very foundations of this system and enable positive, necessary change. 
Page 206: It is dissociation that creates the experiential ‘outside.’ But this ‘outside’ is not outside consciousness itself; it is simply outside the alter. Our culture has come to mistake the witnessing of mental processes outside our personal alters for the witnessing of material phenomena outside consciousness. 
Pages 208-209: There is vicious, insidious stigmergy in our society today. The agenda of this stigmergy is the maintenance of materialism. It manifests itself as a broad network of subtle local actions, biases and values, each serving powerful interests. These local dynamics build up into a system of global reinforcement; a virtual cabal, so to speak. The stigmergy has turned most of us into entranced drones, serving a mad state of affairs that is slowly but inexorably killing our humanity. 
Page 209: We must summon the courage to acknowledge that some of the most celebrated intellectuals and scientists among us have been no more than arrogant children when it comes to their understanding of the nature of reality and of their own humanity. They do not deserve the wide-ranging reverence we, as a culture, seem to feel we owe them.

The threat of panpsychism: a warning

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

I feel increasingly concerned about what I believe to be a mounting and extremely dangerous cultural threat looming on the horizon: panpsychism, the notion that all matter has consciousness, as opposed to being in consciousness. At a historical nexus when new data and more critical thinking are finally rendering materialism logically and empirically inviable, panpsychism comes in as a tortuous but seductive bandaid. It threatens to extend the delusion of a universe outside consciousness for yet another century. In this essay, I'd like to try and raise the alarm about it.

The meaning of the term panpsychism

Before we begin, let's clarify what I mean by panpsychism. As discussed in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the term 'panpsychism' has so many possible interpretations as to render it at best ambiguous and at worst useless. So more must be said. What I specifically mean here are two particular interpretations of the term that I believe are gaining momentum in both academia and the culture at large:

Panpsychism Interpretation 1: consciousness is just one more irreducible property of matter at a subatomic level, just like mass, charge, spin and momentum are also fundamental properties of subatomic particles. In other words, all matter has consciousness at a fundamental level. Matter, however, remains the broader and more primary matrix of reality.

Panpsychism Interpretation 2: consciousness is the intrinsic nature of matter, not just one more of its properties. However, consciousness is still considered fundamentally fragmented in exactly the same way matter is. In other words, distinct bits of matter – that is, subatomic particles – represent distinct bits of consciousness. According to this view, a single isolated electron has its own very simple form of consciousness: there is something it is like to be an isolated electron. More complex arrangements of matter, like a human brain, allegedly aggregate these bits of consciousness together to give rise to richer, integrated inner lives of the kind you and I experience.

The difference between Interpretations 1 and 2 is subtle. While Interpretation 1 takes consciousness to be just one more irreducible property of matter – the substance of matter still existing outside consciousness – Interpretation 2 takes consciousness to be matter's intrinsic nature. According to interpretation 2, measurable properties like mass and charge are just the extrinsic – external – aspects of this intrinsic nature. That said, Interpretation 2, just like Interpretation 1, also entails that the structure of matter determines the structure of consciousness: the subatomic, fragmented building-blocks of matter still allegedly correspond to fragmented building-blocks of subjectivity.

A more technical discussion of these interpretations can be found in this paper by philosopher David Chalmers.

The motivations for the rise of panpsychism

Our mainstream cultural view is that of philosophical materialism: the notion that the real world consists of matter and energy fields allegedly outside, and independent of, consciousness. Supposedly, it is particular arrangements of matter in this objective world, in the form of biological brains and their respective metabolic activity, that somehow generate consciousness.

A key problem with materialism, however, is that it has been unable to explain, even in principle, how arrangements of matter can possibly generate subjective experience. This is known in neuroscience and philosophy of mind as the 'hard problem of consciousness,' which one of my readers cogently discussed in an earlier essay. The problem is so disconcerting that some materialist philosophers even try to absurdly deny the very existence of consciousness, the sole carrier of reality anyone can ever know. I discussed this appalling philosophical abomination in an earlier essay and, more extensively, in my new book Brief Peeks Beyond.

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Now, as also discussed in Brief Peeks Beyond, the inherent contradictions and in-your-face absurdities of materialism are rendering it untenable in the present historical nexus. In other words, reason and observations are pushing materialism to the breaking point. This is a unique opportunity for our culture to finally recognize and revise its delusional way of looking upon reality and our own nature, the implications of which, as discussed in this essay, could be enormous.

But here is where panpsychism raises its head as the greatest threat on the horizon: it provides an easy escape route for the materialist. It magically 'solves' the hard problem of consciousness simply by declaring consciousness to be either an irreducible property, or the intrinsic nature, of matter. This way, it maintains our present delusion that matter – either in substance (Interpretation 1) or in structure (Interpretation 2) – is the primary aspect of reality. It threatens to usurp from us the unique opportunity we have today to face and correct our delusional worldview. It threatens to deflate all momentum currently building up towards a more truthful ontology. If the interpretations of panpsychism discussed above end up sticking, we will be in for another century of madness. May this essay help raise the alarm against this danger.

Why panpsychism isn't Idealism or Nondualism

The body of my work is a defense of what in the West is called the philosophy of Idealism. In the East, essentially the same view is entailed by the philosophies of Nondualism. According to this view, all reality consists in excitations of consciousness, there being no need to infer a material world fundamentally outside consciousness. As such, reality is akin to vibrations of a 'membrane' of pure consciousness, an idea indirectly corroborated by M-theory. The intricate patterns and regularities of these vibrations are the universe around us. Yet, in the same way that there is nothing to a vibrating membrane but the membrane itself, there is nothing to the universe but consciousness itself. The universe is a behavior of consciousness, not an ontological entity outside and independent of consciousness. I recently summarized this view in a brief essay that can be found here.

However – and to my horror – my ideas sometimes get conflated with the interpretations of panpsychism discussed above. So before I discuss my argument against panpsychism, I want first to make clear how the latter differs from Idealism/Nondualism.

Interpretation 1 of panpsychism squarely frames consciousness as subordinate to matter. Even while granting consciousness the status of an irreducible property, it does so by saying that it is a property of matter. In other words, matter still allegedly exists as a substance outside consciousness, which simply happens to have consciousness. My formulation of Idealism, on the other hand, is very different: it states that matter appears in consciousness as a particular modality of excitations of consciousness. We call these excitations our sense perceptions. Matter does not exist outside or independent of consciousness and, as such, it can't have consciousness. Nothing can have consciousness because consciousness is all there is. Consciousness isn’t a property of matter, but matter an excitation of consciousness. Do you see the gargantuan difference here?

Interpretation 2 of panpsychism imposes onto consciousness the boundaries, divisions and structure we discern in matter. From an Idealist/Nondualist perspective, it's like discerning the different brush strokes that make up a painting and then concluding that the painter is composed of brush strokes! If, as I argue in my formulation of Idealism, reality are the patterns of excitation of consciousness, like ripples are patterns of excitation of water, what Interpretation 2 does is to look for the structure of the ripples and then attribute that to the water itself. Imagine discerning concentric rings of ripples when a stone is dropped in a pond, and then proceeding to say that the water is made up of concentric rings! How logical is that? You see, the pattern of ripples is the structure of the behavior of water, not of water itself. Similarly, the structure we discern in empirical reality – subatomic particles, forces, etc. – is the structure of the behavior of consciousness, not of consciousness itself. It is the structure of the painting painted by consciousness, not of the painter.

Because of this misattribution, Interpretation 2 entails that consciousness is fundamentally fragmented, atomized, and that the complex inner life of human beings is built bottom-up, through an entirely unexplained aggregation of separate bits of consciousness. This is contrary to the key notion of Idealism/Nondualism that consciousness is unitary and essentially undivided. In my work, I call this unitary consciousness 'mind-at-large' (in honor of Aldous Huxley, who first used the term in the 1950's). Many in Nondualism call it 'Infinite Consciousness,' or 'Cosmic Consciousness,' or 'Brahman,' etc. In all cases, the idea is that consciousness is fundamentally one. As I discuss in Brief Peeks Beyond, the appearance of individual, separate psyches arises from a process of dissociation of mind-at-large, analogous to how people with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) exhibit multiple, disjoint personalities that are often unaware of each other. This way, separate personal psyches are illusions arising from top-down dissociations of mind-at-large, as opposed to the bottom-up aggregations of 'bits of consciousness' entailed by panpsychism. This difference between panpsychism and Idealism/Nondualism is critical: the former proposes fragmentation as the fundamental reality, while the latter proposes unity, fragmentation being just an illusion arising from dissociative processes.

Both interpretations of panpsychism imply that every inanimate object has its own subjective inner life. In other words, they imply that there is something it is like to be your home thermostat, or a chair, or a rock. This is not implied by Idealism/Nondualism, which state that all objects are in consciousness, not that all objects are conscious. I discussed this difference in this essay and, more extensively, in Brief Peeks Beyond.

Idealism/Nondualism are not panpsychism. Indeed, in many ways these are even opposite worldviews.

Why panpsychism doesn't make sense

As I wrote in my earlier book Why Materialism Is Baloney,
The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property – namely, consciousness – which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it – namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature.

You may claim that it is impossible to assess whether an inanimate object, like a thermostat, is really conscious or not. This is true: we cannot even know for sure whether other people are really conscious, since it is impossible for us to gain access to the inner life of someone or something else. For all you know, everyone else is just a kind of sophisticated biological robot, completely unconscious, but manifesting all the right conscious-like behaviors out of complex calculations.

Still, the point here is not what can be known for sure, but what inferences can be justified on the basis of observation. That’s all we can hope to accomplish when developing a worldview. And we can infer that other people are conscious. After all, we observe in other people, and even in animals, behaviors that are entirely analogous to our own: they scream in pain, behave illogically when in love, sigh deeply when lost in thoughts, etc. We explain our own manifestations of these behaviors based on the firsthand knowledge that we are conscious: you know that you scream because you actually feel pain. So it is reasonable to infer that other people, who are physically analogous to you in every way, manifest those same behaviors for the same reason that you do – namely, that they are also conscious. Were it not to be so, we would need two different explanations for the same types of behavior in entirely analogous organisms, which is not the simplest alternative.

Therefore, there is indeed good empirical justification for the inference that other people and animals, and perhaps even all life forms, are conscious. But there is no empirical justification to infer that inanimate objects, which manifest no external behaviors that anyone could possibly relate to one’s own inner experience, are conscious in any way or to any degree whatsoever. As such, the only possible reason to believe in panpsychism is to make materialism work. (Pages 19-20)

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The panpsychist implication that all inanimate objects – as well as all combinations and permutations of objects and parts of objects – have their own separate inner life is:
  1. Unsupported by evidence. I can only prove to myself that I, as a living being, have a private inner life. To the extent that other living beings display behavior analogous to mine and share the essential feature of metabolism that characterizes me, I feel comfortable enough inferring that they, too, have private inner lives. But I cannot make the same inference about an inanimate object: it neither displays conscious behavior nor does it have metabolism.
  2. Unfalsifiable. There is no conceivable way to disprove that there is something it is like to be a chair or an isolated neuron, since the only way to check it is to be a chair or an isolated neuron, which I am not.
  3. Unnecessary. It simply isn't needed to make sense of reality. There is no phenomenon that goes without explanation by denying that chairs have an inner life of their own;
  4. Inflationary. It implies an exponential explosion of dissociated streams of inner life in the universe.
Something that is unsupported by evidence, unfalsifiable, unnecessary and inflationary might as well be discarded in an ontology. Therein lies my argument against the two interpretations of panpsychism discussed here.

It is true that Idealism/Nondualism imply that the universe as a whole has subjective inner life; in other words, that there is something it is like to be the whole universe. This is discussed in more detail here. But attributing inner life to parts of the whole – unless one can infer dissociation from the observation of behaviors and metabolic activity – is a mistake of categories. It attributes to a part, without empirical or logical grounding, a holistic characteristic that can only be inferred for the whole.

Panpsychism, according to the two interpretations of the term discussed in this essay, is fundamentally different from Idealism/Nondualism. Moreover, it doesn't stand to logical and empirical scrutiny as Idealism/Nondualism do. It doesn't even stand to subjective introspection: spiritual traditions in both East and West have always insisted that consciousness is, at bottom, one. Indeed, these traditions directly contradict the notion that consciousness is fundamentally fragmented and scattered. That panpsychism today often passes for a more scientifically-consistent form of Idealism/Nondualism is a dangerous confusion that, if left unchecked, threatens to perpetuate our delusion. Most worryingly of all, this confusion seems to be common even in Nondualism circles.

(A follow-up essay has been published here.)

Out-of-body experiences explained... or are they?

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup (hereby released into the public domain)
of the original painting La Gare De Perpignan by Salvador Dali.

In my newly-released book, Brief Peeks Beyond, I dedicate a whole chapter to exploring the mainstream media's bias towards the metaphysics of materialism when reporting on scientific results. I illustrate this with examples from research on consciousness, memory and psychoactive substances. My claim is that the media too easily errs on the side of materialism, with the net result of hyping misinterpretations of scientific observations. Even in cases where these observations contradict materialism, they are spun – sometimes shockingly – so to apparently confirm it. This constitutes a virtuous, self-reinforcing cycle that renders the materialist metaphysics virtually immune to cultural criticism.

As it turns out, in the past couple of days another, perhaps less dramatic but nonetheless significant example of this has come to light. The Mail Online has published an article titled 'Brain scans reveal what happens during an out-of-body experience.' The article goes on to say that 'They have been interpreted as evidence of the existence of a soul and even life after death, but now scientists may have unravelled what is going on when people have out-of-body experiences.' It then claims that the scientific finding 'suggests abnormal brain activity may lie behind out-of-body experiences.' So here we have a mainstream media piece claiming that science may have finally explained out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in a reductionist way, consistent with the metaphysics of materialism. Alas, it would appear that the brain is the mind and all those OBEs that seem to show otherwise are perfectly explainable. But is this really a fair interpretation of what the article itself reports, when looked at critically?

– and assuming that tricks or lies can be discarded – during a time when the person was lying in her bed, then this is a veridical element that can be independently verified. In this brief essay, I am not interested in arguing for the validity of any specific veridical report – this has been done by many others in the literature – but simply highlight the incontrovertible fact that it is those veridical elements, whatever they may be, that legitimize OBEs. Therefore, any attempt to explain OBEs in a materialist, reductionist manner must either refute all veridical elements reported or explain, under materialism, how a person can correctly report events outside the range of the person's five senses.

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The study reported in the Mail Online does neither. As the article itself explains, what scientists did was to fit volunteers with special video headsets displaying images captured by a remote camera affixed to another person's head. This way, they created the illusion that the volunteer was experiencing the world from another person's point of view. The volunteer was then put inside a brain scanner where his or her brain activity was measured. As it turns out, the areas of the brain correlated with our sense of location in space displayed anomalous activity. Now stop and consider this critically: is there anything really surprising about this? If I am a volunteer and I get fitted with some unnatural headgear that artificially feeds me with the visual field of another person, in another location, of course my sense of location in space will be altered. The whole situation is highly anomalous and unnatural, how could my brain activity remain normal?

Most importantly, does this result explain the veridical aspects of an OBE? I blush to have to explain this: it was the scientists themselves, through the video headset and the remote camera, who gave the volunteers remote sensory access to another location in space. No volunteer had an actual OBE at any point in this study. Obviously, the question that needs to be answered to truly explain a veridical OBE is: how can people witness distant events when they are not fitted with video headsets linked to remote cameras? As such, this study doesn't provide any materialist explanation for OBEs at all. That the headlines suggest so is a rather blatant sign of materialism's virtuous cycle of self-reinforcement so generously enabled by the media; a sign of the materialist stigmergy, or 'bottom-up conspiracy,' discussed in Brief Peeks Beyond. Even the original scientific paper itself is clear regarding the scope of its conclusions. The authors write:
These results extend our understanding of the role of the posterior parietal and medial temporal cortices in spatial cognition by demonstrating that these areas not only are important for ecological behaviors, such as navigation and perspective taking, but also support the perceptual representation of the bodily self in space. (Summary)
In other words, the results simply show the role of certain brain areas in our internal representation of our own body's position in space. It has nothing to do with explaining the veridical aspects of OBEs, or even the origin of non-veridical imagery.

As I write in Brief Peeks Beyond,
the key insight here is how, through lack of rigor and misplaced enthusiasm, an entirely undemonstrated notion can be hyped by the mainstream media to the point of looking fully established. ... I suspect that many journalists feel safe to exaggerate if they’re backed by the clout of the mainstream metaphysics; what could go wrong, right? (Pages 82-83)

The cognitive short-circuit of 'artificial consciousness'

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

The new sci-fi film Ex_Machina has been teasing back into the cultural dialogue dreams of artificial consciousness: the idea that we humans, through the Faustian power of technology, can birth into being mechanisms capable of inner life, subjectivity and affection. Since these dreams are entirely based on implicit assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality at large, I thought a few observations would be opportune.

The first thing to notice is the difference between artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. The former entails the ability to process information in ways that we consider intelligent. In particular, an intelligent machine should be capable of constructing an internal, symbolic representation of its environment so to interact coherently with it. We can test whether a machine is intelligent or not purely by observing its behavior in the environment. Alan Turing's famous test aims precisely at that. However, none of the symbolic information processing in an intelligent machine needs to be accompanied by inner experience. It can all happen totally 'in the dark.' As such, an intelligent machine is, for all intents and purposes, simply a glorified calculator. There isn't anything it is like to be the machine.

In conscious machines, on the other hand, the idea is that those internal calculations are accompanied by subjective inner experience, or inner life. In other words, there must be something it feels like, from the point of view of the machine itself, to perform the calculations. This is a whole different ballgame than mere artificial intelligence. Moreover, there is absolutely no way to definitively test whether a machine is conscious or not, since all we can ever hope to access is its architecture and behavior. Short of becoming the machine at least for a brief moment, we cannot know whether there is anything it is like to be it.

What makes so many computer engineers believe in the possibility of artificial consciousness? Let us deconstruct and make explicit their chain of reasoning.

They start by making – whether they are aware of it or not – certain key assumptions about the nature of consciousness and reality. To speak of creating consciousness in a machine one must assume consciousness to be, well, 'creatable.' Something can only be created if it wasn't there in the first place. In other words, engineers assume that consciousness isn't the primary aspect of reality, but a secondary effect generated by particular arrangements of matter. Matter itself is assumed to exist outside and independent of consciousness.

Next, they imagine that if they can mimic, in a machine, the particular flow of information characteristic of our own brains, then the machine will be conscious like us. This is best exemplified by the work of Pentti Haikonen, who devised what is probably the cleverest machine architecture so far aimed at artificial consciousness [Haikonen, P. O. (2003). The Cognitive Approach to Conscious Machines. Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic]. In my book Rationalist Spirituality I summarized Haikonen's work as follows:
His greatest insight has been that the human brain is but a correlation-finding and association-performing engine. All the brain does is to try and find correlations between mental symbols of perception and capture these correlations in symbol associations performed by neurons. In his artificial “brain”, these associations are performed by artificial associative neurons. All symbols in Haikonen’s artificial brain architecture are ultimately linked, perhaps through a long series of associations, to perceptual signals from sensory mechanisms. This grounds all symbol associations to perceived things and events of the external world, which gives those associations their semantic value. In this framework, the explanations derived by the brain are just a series of symbol associations linking two past events. The predictions derived by the brain are just extrapolated symbol association chains. (Page 48.)
There are, however, many problems and internal contradictions in the engineers' reasoning. For instance, for Haikonen's machine to be conscious there must already be, from the start, a basic form of consciousness inherent in the basic components of the machine. Although he talks of 'creating' consciousness, what he proposes is actually a system for accruing and complexifying consciousness: by linking bits of matter in complex ways, the 'bits of consciousness' supposedly inherent in them are associated together so to build up a complex subjective inner life comparable to yours or mine. Naturally, for this to work it must be the case that there are these 'bits of consciousness' already inherent in every bit of matter, otherwise nothing accrues: you can associate zeros with zeros all you like, at the end you will still be left with precisely zero. So unless consciousness is a property of every bit of matter – a highly problematic philosophical position called panpsychism – all those symbol associations in Haikonen's architecture won't be accompanied by experience, no matter how complex the machine. Haikonen will perhaps have built an intelligent machine, but not a conscious one.

Notice that panpsychism – the notion that all matter is conscious – entails, for instance, that your home thermostat is conscious. Allegedly it has a very simple form of consciousness incomparable to mine or yours, but nonetheless there is still something it is like to be your home thermostat. The same applies to your vacuum cleaner, your ballpoint pen, the chair you're sitting on, a rock, etc. Literally everything is supposedly conscious under panpsychism, having its own private, subjective inner life. As I wrote in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney,
The problem with panpsychism is, of course, that there is precisely zero evidence that any inanimate object is conscious. To resolve an abstract, theoretical problem of the materialist metaphysics one is forced to project onto the whole of nature a property – namely, consciousness – which observation only allows to be inferred for a tiny subset of it – namely, living beings. This is, in a way, an attempt to make nature conform to theory, as opposed to making theory conform to nature. (Page 19)
Insofar as we have no empirical reason to believe that a rock is conscious to any degree whatsoever, we have no reason to believe that Haikonen's machine is conscious. You see, the mere mimicking, in a computer, of the type of information processing that unfolds in the human brain is no reason whatsoever to believe that the computer is conscious. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to make my point clear: I can simulate in a computer all the chemical reactions that take place in human kidneys. Yet, this is no reason to believe that the computer will start peeing on my desk. A simulation of the phenomenon isn't the phenomenon.

Some argue that panpsychism isn't necessary to validate the possibility of artificial consciousness. They argue that consciousness is a property only of the brain as a whole, somehow created by its complex network of information associations, not of individual bits of matter. Indeed, as discussed in my book Brief Peeks Beyond,
Some neuroscientists and philosophers speculate that consciousness is an ‘emergent’ property of the brain. ‘Emergence’ happens when a higher-level property arises from complex interactions of lower-level entities. For instance, the fractal patterns of snowflakes are emergent properties of complex interactions of water molecules. But to merely state that consciousness is an emergent property of the brain is rather a cop-out than an explanation. In all known cases of emergence, we can deduce the emergent property from the characteristics of the lower-level entities that give rise to it. For instance, we can deduce the fractal shape of snowflakes from the characteristics of water molecules. We can even accurately simulate the formation of snowflakes in a computer. However, we cannot – not even in principle – deduce what it feels to see red, to be disappointed or to love someone from the mass, charge or momentum of material particles making up the brain. As such, to consider consciousness an emergent property of brains is either an appeal to magic or the mere labeling of an unknown. In both cases, precisely nothing is actually explained. (Page 59)
Again, we have no reason to believe that computers can give rise to consciousness; only to intelligence.

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The biggest problem with the notion of artificial consciousness is the assumption that, in nature, consciousness is somehow subordinate to matter. Otherwise, what sense would there be in attempting to create human-like consciousness by engineering matter? Indeed, under panpsychism, consciousness is seen as just one of many properties of matter, like mass, charge, momentum, etc. Matter is allegedly primary, consciousness being just a property of matter. Under the emergentist hypothesis just discussed, consciousness is seen as an epiphenomenon of matter: an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of atoms in the brain, just like a snowflake is an emerging secondary effect of particular arrangements of water molecules. Yet, if we are true and honest to the most basic fact of existence, we must grant that consciousness is primary, not subordinate to matter. Again from Brief Peeks Beyond:
Consciousness – whatever it may intrinsically be – is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure. It is the one undeniable empirical fact of existence. After all, what can we really know that isn’t experienced in some form, even if only through instrumentation or the reports of others? If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist. Because all knowledge resides in consciousness, we cannot know what is supposedly outside consciousness; we can only infer it through our capacity for abstraction. (Page 12)
In my work, I propose a coherent and rigorous philosophical system wherein all aspects of reality are explained as excitations of consciousness, consciousness itself being the primary, fundamental medium of all existence. If that is the case, there is absolutely no sense in talking about creating consciousness, since consciousness is already there from the start. It is what there is. It can't be created for it is that within which all creations unfold.

According to my system, reality unfolds in one stream of subjectivity that I call 'mind-at-large.' We, human beings, are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large, much in the same way that a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder has multiple, disjoint, apparently separate personalities. We seem to share the same reality because the empirical world is merely what collective mental processes, unfolding outside our individual alter in the broader stream of mind-at-large, look like from our dissociated perspective. In other words, the world is an image: the experiential perception by an alter of mental processes outside the alter. I summarized this idea in an earlier, short essay that I encourage you to peruse.

As such, what we call 'conscious entities' are merely dissociated alters of mind-at-large. An image of that dissociation is a human body. And insofar as we have empirical reason to infer that other animals are also conscious in ways similar to ourselves – that is, insofar as they also have private, subjective inner lives – their bodies, too, are images of this cosmic dissociation. Going further down the chain of biological complexity, it isn't unreasonable to infer that metabolism itself – that process common to all life – is the most basic image of dissociative processes in mind-at-large.

Therefore, our feeble attempts to engineer an entity with a private, subjective inner life similar to our own aren't really attempts to create consciousness. Instead, they are attempts to induce dissociation in mind-at-large, so to create alters analogous to ourselves.

Based on this understanding, do we have any reason whatsoever to believe that the mere mimicking of the information flow in human brains, no matter how accurate, will ever lead to a new dissociation of mind-at-large? The answer to this question can only be 'yes' if you think the kidney simulation can make the computer urinate. You see, if the only known image of dissociation is metabolism – that is, life – the only reasonable way to go about artificially creating an alter of mind-at-large is to replicate metabolism itself. For all practical purposes, dissociation is metabolism; there is no reason to believe it is anything else. As such, the quest for artificial consciousness is, in fact, one and the same with the quest for creating life from non-life; or abiogenesis.

The computer engineer's dream of birthing a conscious child into the world without the messiness and fragility of life is an infantile delusion; a confused, partial, distorted projection of archetypal images and drives. It is the expression of the male's hidden aspiration for the female's divine power of creation. It represents a confused attempt to transcend the deep-seated fear of one's own nature as a living, breathing entity condemned to death from birth. It embodies a misguided and utterly useless search for the eternal, motivated only by one's amnesia of one's own true nature. The fable of artificial consciousness is the imaginary bandaid sought to cover the engineer's wound of ignorance.

I have been this engineer.

Beyond Reason

By Aditya Prasad

(This is a guest essay submitted to the Metaphysical Speculations Discussion Forum and voted for publication by forum members. All opinions expressed are those of the author.)

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup of original artwork, hereby released into the public domain.

It is very hard to know at any moment whether or not you are dreaming. I taught myself at age 4 to dream lucidly, and have had over a thousand lucid dreams since, and I still find myself frequently generating false positives when I investigate whether or not I'm awake.

On the surface, this might seem absurd. Surely when green dragons are flying around your living room, and you even have the presence of mind to check whether you're dreaming, you cannot fail to discover that you are.

And yet, this kind of thing happens all the time for me. Even if my suspicion is aroused by oddities and absurdities, it is apparently trivial for my mind to generate a perfectly satisfying explanation and convince me to move right along. Oh, those are just my pet dragons. I thought they were blue for a sec.

It seems to me that all the cognitive faculties I use to arrive at certainty about my world can be hijacked without consent, knowledge, or even suspicion. One cannot simply think his way out of schizophrenia or confabulation.

The illusion of continuity of experience can be provided by false memories. The ability to reason properly can be tinkered with simply by the mind producing satisfaction with its answers. External validation can be supplied by imaginary characters.

If this is beginning to remind you of solipsism or the Matrix, it's for good reason. Anyone who thinks about these issues long enough realizes that indeed, there is no rational conclusion one can be absolutely certain about. None at all.

Or more precisely, although one is likely absolutely certain about a great many things, such certainty is not necessarily indicative of any underlying truth. If otherwise intelligent people can be certain that they do not have an arm that they actually do, is it such a stretch to imagine that I could tinker with your brain in such a way that makes you conclude that 1 + 1 = 3 – and fail to understand, or even be surprised, when you cannot find a hole in your proof of the fact?

So great a thinker as Descartes is supposed to have locked himself in a room until this epiphany dawned on him. Certainty is just another feeling – one that serves to let us navigate our lives without seeming like we're on an endless acid trip.

But there's another kind of certainty. One that does not find its basis in reasoning at all. It is the certainty that conscious experience seems to be taking place. Though its nature or cause may be unclear, it is simply not meaningful to deny that something seems to be happening. After all, if one tried to deny it, one would be doing so using this very capacity itself.

Now, it's not hard to come up with a seemingly rational counterargument: a computer could print out "I deny that I am experiencing anything" and indeed not be experiencing anything, for all we know. And if you are in fact not conscious, none of what I'm about to say will be convincing. I am sorry for the loss of those readers.

So instead of resorting to reason, I'd like to invite you to simply sit for 30 seconds and experience the flavor of the certainty of experience itself. No doubt there will be a million thoughts vying for attention and drowning out this obvious realization, but try to ignore those for now. See if the recognition that you are experiencing requires any reasoning.

The more one practices, the more one comes to get a feel for how this differs from rational certainty. More interestingly, one gets a feel for how it provides the very basis for that capacity. The feeling of a thought being true, or false, or uncertain, or funny, or boring, are all simply modulations of this faculty of experience. The very process of reasoning itself is just one more manifestation of this faculty.

To which the rational mind typically responds: "Yeah, and? So what? I can explain it all. Some neurons in the prefrontal cortex fire like so, and bam. Experience, reasoning, and the whole shebang."

It somehow conveniently forgets that, as with all rational conclusions, it might conceivably be wrong – without any hint of irony. If I insert it into another circumstance (say, a dream in which heads are filled with jelly beans instead of neurons), it would just as triumphantly declare an "explanation" in terms of whatever conditions it finds itself in. "Yes, conscious experience is caused by jelly beans in the skull. So what?"

That is the mind's job, after all, and it does it well. But it has been my experience that as this second faculty (of direct experience) reveals itself more and more, the more the reasoning mind begins to sense some disingenuity in trying to explain it with its limited resources.

After all, if one tries to explain a certainty (experience) in terms of uncertainties (neurons or jelly beans), shouldn't one at least be up front about it?

Which is not to deny the mind its place. Indeed, in this dream that you and I currently seem to be sharing, the capacity for consciousness may be consistently correlated with the firing of specific neurons – and nothing but reasoning would reveal that to us.

But it would be a tragic mistake to conclude that this tells the whole story. Indeed, mystics across the ages have urged us to follow the rabbit hole deeper. What is the nature of this fundamentally certain capacity that we carry with us – quite apart from its mundane (in the most literal sense of the word) "explanations"? Is there something to be gained from meeting it on its own terms, without the rational mind as an arbiter and intermediary?

To find out, they invite us to spend at least as much time in this other mode as we do in reasoning mode. Why? I'm afraid I won't be able to give you a satisfying reason.

Copyright © 2015 by Aditya Prasad. Published with permission.

The Reality Nervous System

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

"When you see the world you see God. There is no seeing God apart from the world. Beyond the world to see God is to be God."*
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj

One of the most important ideas discussed in my new book Brief Peeks Beyond, particularly in Chapters 2 and 9, is the notion that empirical reality – all things we see, hear, touch, smell and taste – can be understood as a nervous system. This may sound extremely counterintuitive at first, even absurd, but it elegantly solves many of the most important unanswered questions in science and philosophy today, such as the nature of matter and the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness.' The simplicity and parsimony of this interpretation of reality, together with its surprising explanatory power, render it nearly self-evident in my view. The point is so important that I decided to summarize it in this essay, so to give you a brief sense of its logic and perhaps encourage you to explore it further in the book.

I will lay down the argument point by point, trying to keep it as simple as possible. Further elaboration can be found in the book. Therefore, before you conclude that the interpretation below doesn't address important empirical elements, please give me the benefit of the doubt and peruse the book.
  1. What do we know about a human brain and what do we merely assume about it? We know that measurable electrochemical activity in and across neurons correlates with contents of consciousness, like our perceptions and emotions. Many of us then assume that, because of these correlations, the brain somehow generates consciousness, even though nobody can explain how. For the sake of argument, let's leave aside the assumptions and stick to what we know. We are then left with a system that has, in the words of Lee Smolin, external and internal aspects: the external aspect is the brain we can measure, while the internal aspect consists of our conscious feelings and perceptions [Smolin, L. (2013). Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, p. 270]. The external aspect isn't necessarily the cause of the internal aspect, but simply what the internal aspect looks like when viewed from outside.
  2. However, the brain is merely an arrangement of so-called material particles like, say, a crystal. So unless we can make the case that the internal aspect – that is, consciousness – is associated exclusively with the particular structure of the brain, we have no alternative but to infer that the whole material universe should also have an internal aspect (this is a serious and reasonable speculation that Smolin himself has engaged in). As it turns out, honest scientists and philosophers know that we can't even coherently conceive of – let alone explain  how consciousness can come out of any particular material structure, unless it is inherently associated with all matter [Chalmers, D. (2003). Consciousness and its Place in Nature. In: Stich, S. and Warfield, F. eds. Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind. Malden, MA: Blackwell, pp. 102-142]. Therefore, let's bite the bullet and say that the whole empirical world has an internal aspect, not only brains. The visible universe is then a kind of cosmic brain: a nervous system with unfathomable inner life.  Indeed, a striking comparison published in The New York Times a few years ago shows the similarity between the structure of the universe at the largest scales and biological nervous systems (see the figure linked below). A more thorough study has shown that these similarities go way beyond mere appearances. From this perspective, the quote that opened this essay is a simple statement of fact, not a convoluted spiritual metaphor.

  3. Does that mean that a crystal is conscious? Not any more than an individual neuron in a person's brain can be said to be conscious. From Brief Peeks Beyond: "If you daydream about a tropical holiday location with trees, waterfalls and singing birds, all those images will correlate with particular, measurable patterns of activated neurons in your head. Theoretically, a neuroscientist could identify different groups of neurons in your brain and say: group A correlates with a tree; group B with a waterfall; group C with a singing bird; etc. But, based on your direct experience of what it feels like to imagine this scenario, is there anything it is like to be group A in isolation? Is there anything it is like to be group C in and of itself? Or is there only something it is like to be the whole daydreaming you – your whole brain – imagining trees, waterfalls and birds as component parts of an integrated scenario? Do you experience multiple separate streams of imagination – one for trees, another for waterfalls and another for birds – or only one stream wherein trees, waterfalls and birds are all together? Do you see the point? Unless there is dissociation, there is nothing it’s like to be separate groups of neurons in a person’s brain. We can only speak of the holistic stream of imagination of the person as a whole. For exactly the same reason that there is nothing it is like to be an isolated group of neurons in a person’s brain, there is nothing it is like to be an inanimate object" (pp. 44-45). Clearly, there is no reason to say that a rock is conscious the way you and I are. The universe as a whole has an external and an internal aspect, the rock being simply a segment of its external aspect, like an isolated neuron is a segment of a brain. Unless we have good reasons to think otherwise, we must assume that –  just as our own inner life – the internal aspect of the universe is a unified stream of consciousness; 'God's dream,' so to speak. The empirical world we perceive is like a 'scan of God's brain' while dreaming. Creation is the external aspect of 'God's' creative mental activity, just like an active brain is the external aspect of a person's inner life.
  4. But wait: you and I seem to have entirely separate streams of consciousness. My inner life is not the same as yours, neither do they seem to be connected in any fundamental way. Moreover, neither my nor your inner life has the presumed cosmic scale of 'God's inner life.' Why is that? As I explain in detail in the book, a living organism is the external aspect – the outside image – of a dissociative process in 'God's mind.' Dissociative processes are well known in psychology. They cause a particular segment of our stream of consciousness to separate from the rest of the stream. This separation happens through different forms of amnesia or obfuscation of mental contents. For instance, a person with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) has multiple 'alters,' or identities. Each alter is seemingly separate from the others and often unaware of the others' existence, unless told by another person. What I am thus saying is that 'God' has DID and we are Its alters. Indeed, I am saying that every living being is what a dissociated alter looks like in the 'scan of God's brain' we call empirical reality. That we can identify biology in the universe is a diagnostic confirmation of 'God's DID' just as the identification of a spot on a brain scan is a diagnostic confirmation of, say, an aneurism. (By this I don't mean to convey any negative connotations, such as to suggest that life is a disease; the metaphor breaks down at this point.)
  5. The elegance of this view is that it dispenses entirely with the need to postulate anything other than the obvious: consciousness itself. We do not need to postulate a whole material universe outside consciousness anymore. Empirical reality is merely the outside image – the external aspect – of the mental activity of a cosmic consciousness, while body-brains are merely the outside image of dissociated segments of this cosmic consciousness. And what is a body-brain but something we can see, touch, measure; something with the qualities of experience? Indeed, the empirical world is the experience, by an alter, of the rest of the stream of consciousness outside the alter. It is dissociation that creates the duality between internal and external aspects. But this duality does not imply or require anything outside experience: the external aspects are themselves experiences; experiences of alters. As explained in Chapter 9 of Brief Peeks Beyond, 'everything that currently motivates us to believe in a world outside consciousness can and will be understood as the effects of mental processes outside our particular alter, which we witness from a second-person perspective.' (p. 207)
So there you go: a simple, parsimonious and, dare I say, elegant and powerful explanation for the most vexing questions facing science and philosophy today. Most significantly, this explanation is not arrived at by adding new theoretical entities or postulates, but precisely by getting rid of unnecessary and inflationary theoretical entities and postulates that have clouded our understanding of reality for centuries now. It's time we cleaned up the house and restored reason and empirical honesty to our ontology. It's time we saw a postulated material world outside consciousness – which, absurdity of absurdities, allegedly generates consciousness – for what it is: the tortuous fiction of confused minds.

* Nisargadatta Maharaj, S. (1973). I Am That. Mumbai, India: Chetana, p. 58. The italics are mine.


Muddy sea monster reveals the meaning of life

Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Someone very close to me – a person intimately connected to the matrix of life and nature, as expressed in her highly symbolic art – had a dream this morning that I found extraordinarily significant for reasons I'll soon explain. In her words:
I remember being chased by a huge mud monster that came to the shore from the sea. It would eat anything in its path: bushes, plants and eventually all humanity, because it was heading inland. I and my colleagues managed to run and find shelter in some sort of laboratory, where we would be temporarily out of the path of the monster. While in the lab, I and another woman were supposed to take a test (as in a school test), but we had to choose the test ourselves. I assumed that the more exciting and difficult the chosen test was, the higher the grade could be. I found an interesting crossword puzzle with images, but I thought it would be too easy and not the type of test I was expected to choose. At some point, I dropped the test and left the safe zone of the laboratory, moving to another, non-secure area that was in the path of the monster. I did it because I wanted to save a child who was left there, in harm's way. There was a constant feeling of fear, despair and hopelessness.
So to help you understand the amazing significance I see in this dream – its symbolic portrayal of the meaning of life and of our present historical nexus – I will share with you a possible Jungian interpretation of it. I'm not an analyst, but have been a dedicated student of analytical psychology for several years now.

Spiritual Protection, by Selene's Art.

Dream interpretation

The monster comes from the sea, which is a symbol of what Jung called the 'collective unconscious': a deep, vast, but obfuscated region of the psyche shared by all humanity. Being a monster, it represents a threatening, animal-like, instinctive, unthinking aspect of ourselves. Its muddy character links it back to the ground, to something primordial, earthy, intrinsic to our animal nature. In the terminology of analytical psychology, the monster represents the collective shadow of humanity: a negative and destructive force within us all that we normally do not acknowledge.

The land represents our ordinary waking state of consciousness, which is where the dreamer's ego dwells. For as long as the monster was in the sea, not only was the dreamer's ego unaware of its existence, it also felt safe ('ignorance is bliss,' as the saying goes). But by leaving the sea and coming onshore, the monster penetrates the realm of self-reflective awareness, thereby directly threatening not only the dreamer, but all humanity. 'There was a constant feeling of fear, despair and hopelessness,' she says. The dream's message here is that the dreamer is becoming increasingly aware, in her waking life, of the destructive potential of humanity.

The monster 'would eat anything in its path.' This is an evocative symbol of humanity's compulsive, addictive, unthinking extraction and consumption of resources for selfish short-term satisfaction, as well as of the environmental destruction it leaves behind. The monster is insatiable and never gives any consideration to what it is doing. It is interested only in fulfilling its primal desires (symbolized by eating voraciously). As the shadow of humanity, the monster represents our own behavior towards the Earth today and its ultimate consequences for ourselves. The dream is unambiguous on this point: 'eventually all humanity' will be consumed.

But the dreamer's ego finds refuge in a laboratory. Naturally, a laboratory is a place where research – inquiry – is done; a place where we discover the secrets of life and nature. The lab has a secure zone that is temporally out of the destructive path of the monster. This suggests that humanity still has time to figure something out before the destruction is complete and irreversible. There is still hope, but we cannot waste any time.

The dreamer was going to undergo a test. This implicitly suggests that she could be admitted as a staff member of the laboratory if she passed the test, thereby becoming a researcher. But the dreamer had the freedom to choose the test herself, which suggests that she could automatically become a researcher simply by choosing one that she knew she could pass. In other words, everyone is qualified to do research simply by proving his or her own skills, no matter how simple or insignificant these skills may appear to be. Every contribution is helpful and important. That the dreamer felt she had to choose an 'exciting and difficult' test betrays her unnecessarily severe expectations of herself, based on a mistaken notion of self-worth. It also betrays her need to meet external expectations, instead of simply focusing on what she can naturally – and therefore effortlessly – contribute to the research effort.

However, before she could take the test, the dreamer felt an irresistible urge to save a child who was in harm's way, despite having to risk her own life in the process. This symbolizes a choice between living from the head (taking the test and doing research) or living from the heart (surrendering to empathy and the expression of compassion). The dreamer's choice was clear. Saving the child was a symbol of our potential to save the whole of humanity by pursuing the path of the heart. 'If any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole of mankind,' says The Holy Quran (5:32).

Seclusion, by Selene's Art.

The meaning of life according to the dream

In my new book, Brief Peeks Beyond, I write:
Life is a laboratory for exploration along only two paths: feeling and understanding. All else exists only as connotative devices: ‘tricks’ to evoke feeling and understanding. All meaning resides in the emotions and insights unfolding within. (p. 184)
The dream symbolizes the path of understanding with the laboratory. The path of feeling is symbolized by the dreamer's impulsive, self-sacrificial act of rescuing the endangered child/humanity.

More importantly, the dream shows that, once a species emerges from the sea of instinct onto the shore of lucid self-reflection, the clock starts ticking on a natural time-bomb. On the one hand, self-reflection gives us the unique opportunity to understand life, self and nature through inquiry (symbolized by passing the test and becoming a researcher in the laboratory), as well as to become cognizant of, and therefore able to effectively express, our feelings (symbolized by saving the child/humanity). On the other hand, self-reflection also gives us the Faustian power – through technology – to overindulge in our selfish primal desires, to the point of destroying the Earth. The drive towards runaway consumption, symbolized by the mud monster, is an inherent part of being alive. Self-reflective life is then a race between self-understanding and self-expression on the one hand, and self-destruction by overindulgence on the other. Therefore, we must grab the opportunity to pursue understanding and express our feelings while there is time. The window of opportunity is limited by the very nature of self-reflective life and its associated collective shadow. The human species is a desperate gamble on the part of the Earth. The responsibility to make it count rests squarely with us.

By becoming self-reflectively aware of our own feelings, we get the unique chance to partner with them and express them lucidly in the world. Instinctive animals also have feelings, but do not know that they have them, remaining fully immersed and trapped in their instinctive flow. As such, animals cannot work with and express their feelings in quite the same way we humans can. By and large, they do not create art, express love and compassion, or seem to experience empathy at the level we do because of our ability to self-reflect. The uniquely lucid emotional life of humans is a vehicle for the expression of whatever it is we are.

Similarly, while immersed in the flow of instinct, we cannot hope to comprehend whatever it is we are. We remain slaves of our own nature, lacking any level of self-understanding that could lead to inner peace and completion (which Jung called 'individuation'). As I wrote in my earlier book, Why Materialism Is Baloney,
consensus reality is nothing but a metaphor for the fundamental nature of mind. ... What is it trying to say? A job loss, a new romantic relationship, a sudden illness, a promotion, the death of a pet, a major personal success, a friend in need... What is the underlying meaning of it all in the context of our lives? What are all these events saying about our true selves? These are the questions that we must constantly confront in a metaphorical world. We must look upon life in the same way that many people look upon their nightly dreams: when they wake up, they don’t attribute literal truth to the dream they just had. To do so would be tantamount to closing one’s eyes to what the dream was trying to convey. Instead, they ask themselves: ‘what did it really mean?’ They know that the dream wasn’t a direct representation of its meaning, but a subtle metaphorical suggestion of something else. And so may waking reality be. As such, it is this ineffable something else that – I believe – we must try to find in life. (pp. 206-207)
It is only through our ability to self-reflect that we can hope to interpret the metaphor of life, thereby finding this 'something else.' Interpreting life entails an effort of inquiry. The dreamer's laboratory represented humanity's limited opportunity to inquire – so to arrive at a hermeneutics of life and cosmos – before the mud monster of our collective shadow destroys everything. The clock is ticking. Again from Why Materialism Is Baloney:
We have been deputized by mind at large to look back at itself and try to make something out of what we see. For all we know, we’re the only game in town as far as being able to do it. But what do we do instead? We look away! We don’t like to be confronted with the darkness within ourselves, so we numb our psyches with every conceivable distraction, making sure that the ‘unconscious’ remains ‘unconscious,’ instead of being brought into the field of self-reflectiveness. We don’t like to be confronted with the darkness we see in the empirical world either, so we tell ourselves ‘That’s not me!’ And by disidentifying with it, we eliminate any chance we might otherwise have of making something out of all the suffering and evil around us. The tragedy we are faced with is that all this suffering might be for nothing, since the ones deputized to interpret it are looking away instead of trying to make sense of the metaphor. Instead of asking ‘All this darkness is part of me too, so what does it mean?’ we watch gossip shows on television. (p. 211)

The Womb, by Selene's Art.

Jung's 'collective unconscious,' through the dreams it grants each of us every night, may be instinctively trying to bring our attention to our essential role in the play of existence, as well as to our limited window of opportunity to play this role. The dream that motivated this essay has convinced me of it. Human life may be the pinnacle of nature's greatest, perhaps most desperate gamble yet: a race between lucid self-understanding and self-expression on the one hand, and self-destruction on the other. We may be in for a photo-finish.