Kastrup, Bernardo

1. The Idea of the World

Kastrup, B (2017). The idea of the world: a multi-disciplinary argument for the mental nature of reality. John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Goodreads review. Medium review. Ecstadelic review. Amazon review. Note absence of review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

1 Brief Summary of Main Points

Kastrup advocates idealism and has harsh critiques of panpsychism and physicalism and pancomputationalism (where’s the medium?). He thinks that “conscious experience—whatever its underlying nature—is the primary datum of existence.” He calls it the universal experiential space the that which exists (TWE) (reminiscent of YHWH’s “I am that I am”) because like Descartes, sort of, he thinks that he knows for sure mind exists. He thinks “experience is a pattern of excitation of that which exists (TWE)” p.63. Personally I find this to be a mash-up of a physics concept with idealism that he doesn’t really justify. It seems impressionistic to me. Nevertheless his ideas are apparently consistent with my idea of the electromagnetic field as the ground of experience.

“[I seek to] explain the facts of nature more parsimoniously than physicalism and bottom-up panpsychism.” IOW p. 57 From the preface: “according to the ontology described and defended here, reality is fundamentally experiential. A universal phenomenal consciousness is the sole ontological primitive, whose patterns of excitation constitute existence. We are dissociated mental complexes of this universal consciousness, surrounded like islands by the ocean of its mentation.”(p.6) From Chap 4: “the notion of a mental universe would still be the most parsimonious and powerful explanation for our daily experiences.” (p. 54).

The book is divided into 5 parts, as outlined in the Overview. Part I is a critique of modern philosophy of mind, particularly it tendency towards abstraction away from experience (Chap 2) and its false assumption that there is a hard problem (there’s none if you adopt idealism and avoid both physicalism and panpsychisms)(Chap 3). Part II sets out his idealism positively both under classical and quantum mechanical physics. Part III defends against common critiques. Part IV looks at neuroscientific evidence for and against. Part V is a critique of modern physicalism, particularly the hard problem and the combination problem, both of which put him up against David Chalmers, who popularized both.

Part II is where his main argument is, and those unable to read the whole book should start and end here.

1.1 Chaper 4

Premise: “the best explanation for the facts of nature entails that these facts are essentially phenomenal….matter in the inanimate universe is simply the extrinsic appearance of impersonal mental processes, in the same way that human brain activity is the extrinsic appearance of personal mental processes….[I] defend a present-day form of the ontology of idealism, according to which all existence consists solely of ideas: thoughts, emotions, perceptions, intuitions, imagination, etc…. so-called ‘material’ brain activity is how a person’s conscious inner life—her thoughts, feelings, fantasies, beliefs, etc.—appears to other people….”

Idealism v. solipsism: “it is important to keep in mind the distinction between idealism and solipsism. According to solipsism, the world is your individual dream. The whole of existence unfolds in your individual psyche alone. All other seemingly conscious creatures are merely figments of your imagination; there is allegedly nothing it is like to be them. This is not what idealism posits. According to idealism, the whole universe is in mind, but not in your individual psyche alone, for mind extends far beyond the boundaries of personal introspection. The outside world is indeed outside your individual mentation, just not outside mind as an ontological class. Idealism grants that other living organisms are truly conscious—that is, that there is something it is like to be them—and their appearances and behaviors aren’t merely figments of your personal imagination. As such, idealism is different from solipsism and shouldn’t be confused with it as you make your way through the next chapters. (pp. 53-54).

1.2 Chapter 5

He thinks that idealism is the most parsimonious explanation of the facts of consciousness.

Consciousness contains all: “The question of what physical entities are or are not conscious is not the only angle through which to approach the mind-body problem. Indeed, according to the ontology of idealism, physical entities exist only insofar as they are in consciousness, irrespective of whether they are conscious or unconscious. In other words, whilst physicalism and bottom-up panpsychism entail that there are physical entities or arrangements thereof that circumscribe consciousness, idealism posits that all physical entities and arrangements thereof are circumscribed by consciousness. This is a significant distinction that alone sets idealism—whatever its particular formulation—apart from all other ontologies discussed.”(p. 59).

Thoughts exist but their thinker may not: “I am not necessarily making an ontological distinction between experience and experiencer here; in fact, soon I will claim precisely that there isn’t such a distinction… it inevitably exists, whatever its nature may be and wherever its boundaries may lie.”(p.62)

Everything physicalism thinks is real exists in a mind (but perhaps not only in a mind). “if a neurologist performs a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan or an electroencephalogram (EEG) of a person’s brain activity, the measurements are only known insofar as the neurologist—or someone else—sees them consciously.” p.62

There started to be so many offbeat claims that reeked of spirituality that I began to lose interest. For example: “the entire physical universe may be akin to a ‘nervous system’ in the specific sense that all its activity may be accompanied by experience. Is there any circumstantial empirical evidence for this kinship? As it turns out, there is: a study has shown unexplained structural similarities—not necessarily functional ones, mind you—between the universe at its largest scales and biological brains (Krioukov et al. 2012).2 We can thus cautiously attempt:…that which exists is associated with the entire universe,” (pp. 65-6) I found this exasperating and decided to stop more or less here.

If the universe is a whole “that which exists”, which is to say if there is one universal mind, how can there be private experience? This is where he introduces the notion of the alter. An alter is a “dissociation” of a part of the universal mind from the whole. A bit like monads, it seems (p.67-68) “

He seems to be thinking about Markov blankets when talking about alters

He thinks there are “top down” mechanisms for subdividing, blinding, walling off, and segregating alters from from the whole of consciousness. Obviously this is an important problem for anyone who thinks the primitive of the universe is fully bound and that you have an unbinding problem, not a binding one. He then starts thinking about how alters vie for control and dominance. (p. 71)

2 My Critique

  1. Very broadly, he seems to use the concepts of “internal” and “external” without much effort to define them. To a physicalist this is exasperating, as the distinction between the two is the $1,000,000 question. EG: “spatially unbound consciousness is posited to be nature’s sole ontological primitive. We, as well as all other living organisms, are dissociated alters of this unbound consciousness. The universe we see around us is the extrinsic appearance of phenomenality surrounding—but dissociated from—our alter.”(p. 57). What does he mean here, exactly? It’s hard to figure out.
  2. Alter. He keeps talking about alters. The I is an alter. What is an alter? This is a brand new term in the literature, apparently imported from religion, but it is not clear what it actually means beyond the metaphor. One finds oneself thinking about Liebnizian monads, but that may just be me.
  3. One has a vague sense that he is conflating epistemology with ontology. Yes, true enough, all we know first-hand is experience. That is an epistemological problem. But that says absolutely bupkus about ontology. Yet he seems to effortlessly elevate this epistemological problem into an ontological virtue. EG “all we can know is experience, so maybe experience is all there is!” What? “All I can see is blue skies, so maybe blue skies are all there is!” “All there is for dinner is roast chicken, so maybe roast chicken is all there is!” Obviously he says lots and lots and lots about all this, but this is the underlying initial impression one gets having read a lot of it — that there is some kind of occult solipsism infecting his thinking.
  4. His thinking seems syncretic, even hypomanic, and he puts himself forward as a polymath. He pulls things from all over the place. At a certain point in describing alters he started talking about dissociative identity disorder in psychiatry and then controversies over it, proof involving fMRI and so on, and one finds oneself thinking “wut?” The looseness of the associations between ontology and psychiatry is jarring and does not inspire confidence.

Other Material

He has written a large number of non peer-reviewed books. Kastrup’s website, www.bernardokastrup.com, where he has gotten into arguments with Philip Goff. Freewiki page: “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.”