Our modern madness

A fundamental metaphysical dichotomy for at least the last few hundred years has been the question of whether reality is objective (i.e. realism) or a projection of the mind (i.e. idealism). Here is a brief analysis of how these two lines of thinking emerge:

  • An idealist takes his immediate experience as the starting point, and builds from there. To him or her, perceptions in consciousness are the primary data of reality, requiring no reduction. Everything else are abstractions of a different ontological order, including the concepts of matter, energy, and space-time. In other words, we invent the notions of matter, energy, and space-time to create stories that tell us what is going on, but the primary data of reality are perceptions themselves, not the concepts we attach to them;
  • The realist, on the other hand, takes concepts and abstractions as the starting point, like the notion that the perceptions in his own consciousness are caused by objects in an imagined, autonomous reality outside of his mind, even though he or she has no direct access to that reality. He or she then tries to reconstruct consciousness itself from those abstractions, like the notion that it is a particular arrangement of matter (i.e. a brain) that generates consciousness. Notice that there is a forward and then a backward motion here: First, the realist projects outward the independent reality of an imagined model (i.e. matter, energy, space-time); and then, he or she tries to reconstruct the primary data of experience back from that abstraction!
Engraving of the eighth print of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress
depicting inmates at Bedlam asylum. Source: Wikipedia.

Clearly, the realist position not only entails a seemingly gratuitous back-and-forth, but also a tortuous attempt to substitute stories for reality. If you can take some distance from the assumptions of our cultural paradigm and read the above clear-headedly and without bias, you may be amazed that realism ever caught on at all, let alone become the reigning worldview of an entire civilization. I find it truly astonishing.A realist may reply to this by questioning how it is possible that a seemingly autonomous and continuous reality, consistently experienced by so many different people, could emerge from voluble, unstable, and different minds. After all, if I park my car in my garage this evening and go to sleep, tomorrow morning my car will (hopefully!) be exactly where I left it, even though I was (apparently) unconscious during the night. The same, indeed, can be said of the rest of reality: We wake up to where the world has gone, apparently without us, since we last fell asleep. It is this continuity and autonomy that motivates the realist to postulate that reality is not dependent on minds, but must exist on its own. This is the origin of the mad game of replacing reality with models and abstractions.

The seeming autonomy and continuity of reality is a challenge for idealism; there just is no question about that. Ignoring it makes the idealist look naive. But it is, by no means, an impossible challenge. In fact, conceiving of reasonable and coherent explanations for how a mind-projected reality can behave in a continuous and seemingly autonomous way is a much simpler challenge than explaining how conscious perception can somehow emerge from unconscious matter. The latter is the problem the realist is left with; a problem we have no solution for today, not even tentatively.

In my books, I have attempted to suggest at least two different ways in which a stable and continuous reality can emerge from voluble minds. In Dreamed up Reality, I consider the possibility that the continuous storyline of reality (including the laws of physics themselves), emerge out of the local interactions between minds much like sand ripples emerge from the local iterations between grains of sand driven by wind. Technically, the idea is that physics is itself a weakly-emergent property of interactions between minds, as discussed here.

In Meaning in Absurdity, I explore the idea that our minds are much broader than the segments we are ordinarily conscious of. As such, reality may be a projection not only of the thoughts and ideas we are aware of, but also of those we are not aware of. In Jungian terminology, the idea is that the unconscious mind is also causally effective in constructing the reality we ordinarily experience. And then, since the unconscious has been empirically observed to entail a collective layer (the collective unconscious), the uniformity and continuity of reality, as far as the experience of different individuals is concerned, could have its origin at this collective layer of mind shared by us all.

The fact that our culture as a whole has adopted the assumption that reality is separate from our minds makes it easy for anyone to adopt the same assumption without looking like a fool. We find ourselves in a cultural context wherein an extraordinary form of self-deception has gained legitimacy. But then again, that we are collectively mad does not make it any less concerning that we are mad. In my view, we need to go back to basics: to our immediate experience of reality, which is all we have. Let us go back to our humanity and at least question the modern madness of replacing reality with concepts and abstractions; of taking the map for the territory. Let us recover what we lost since childhood, both as individuals and as a society. We, somehow, slowly lost contact with the nature-given truths of existence that any aboriginal today would consider us totally crazy for denying. And crazy we may be.

Note: I'd like to thank the participants of the Skeptiko discussion forum for the spirited debates that inspired some of the articulations above.

Copyright © 2011 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.

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