Subject, object, and instincts

Cave paintings at Altamira, produced at a time when human instincts
were, perhaps for the first time in history, starting to become
self-reflective. Source: Wikipedia.
I'm on a roll today, and want to elaborate more on the contents of my previous article. Particularly, I want to explore how we could interpret, or perhaps even explain, the notions of subject, object, and instinct on the basis of the metaphor developed there. I will organize the remainder of this post in the form of questions and answers. Note that you will need to have read my previous article in order to make sense of the below.

Who are we, as subjects, in the context of the metaphor? We are the liquid mercury ocean of Mind. As such, there is only one Subject. Our differentiated individualities are an artifact of different segments of that single ocean rising up and coiling around themselves. Our individual egos are associated to each individual coil.

What is my individual life, according to the metaphor? Your individual life is a set of subjective experiences. As such, it is a set of ripples propagating through the folded coil of the ocean of Mind that corresponds to your particular point-of-view within reality. As these ripples propagate through the coil, they are recursively reflected on the surface of Mind, like the images in two mirrors facing each other. Such recursive amplification of these particular ripples renders all other ripples on the ocean of Mind as nearly imperceptible as the stars at noon. Yet, all ripples on the entire ocean of Mind are your experiences, available in your consciousness, since you are the only subject that exists.

What are the objects of the world that I perceive around me? According to the metaphor, all that there is is a single ocean of Mind and the ripples of experience that propagate through it. As such, there is no separate, truly objective, autonomous world 'out there.' The illusion of objects arises as an artifact of folded consciousness: Objects are merely the recursively reflected images of ripples in the ocean of Mind. It is the recursive reflection that creates the illusion of something separate from Mind. If there were no reflections, all experience would be unambiguously subjective, though lacking self-awareness. According to this notion, even your own thoughts are objects, for they are themselves recursively reflected in Mind. This, indeed, seems to match our personal experience, given our ability to judge and critique ourselves.

How can the metaphor explain instincts? Instincts, if interpreted broadly, are the non-reflected ripples in the ocean of Mind. As such, instincts are the experiences of unfolded consciousness. All the ripples propagating through non-folded segments of the ocean of Mind are conscious experiences unaccompanied by self-awareness. In other words, these are true experiences of the one Subject, but the Subject is not aware that It is having these experiences; these are perceptions perceived, feelings felt, but not known to be perceived or felt. As such, what is unique about instinctual experiences is that they are not themselves objects of thought, the way experiences in folded consciousness are. Note that this notion equates instincts to the unconscious, which is not very far from the position held by Jungian psychology.

What if there were no ripples? Then there would be Mind, but without experiences. There would still be a Subject, but the Subject would 'live' in a bottomless abyss of nothingness; a great void. I don't mean this in a negative way, but am simply following the logical implications of the metaphor. Note that, if this is true, then the underlying 'medium' of existence is fundamentally emptiness. Experiences are simply disturbances on this 'medium' of emptiness; 'emptiness dancing,' if you will (when I arrived at this conclusion, I finally truly understood what Adyashanti meant with the tittle of his book).

So where is Nature going with it all? Perhaps these local coils of self-reflecting Mind that we call people, animals, and other conscious entities represent the current status of a teleological process in Nature whose ultimate goal may be the formation of one single 'cosmic coil' wherein all ripples in the ocean of Mind will be amplified in a self-aware manner. Perhaps nature is an evolutionary laboratory wherein Mind is experimenting, trying to iteratively find a solution to a problem that itself has not been articulated; the answer to a question that is itself intuited, but not yet known.

Copyright © 2012 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.


  1. Bernardo,
    I enjoyed this post (and the last) and the way you summarized these ideas. They're very similar to many ideas from Indian Philosophy/Belief that have always jived up with me.

  2. The talk of recursion of the self-aware mind reminds me of the ideas of Hofstadter. Was he an influence on these ideas?

    1. Hi Sock. Though I read "Godel, Escher, Bach" many years ago, and was not directly aware of its influence on these more recent ideas, I think I'd have to say that Hofstadter, in general, is a big and positive influence on me, even though his final conclusions and mine are diametrically opposed! Cheers, B.

  3. Bernardo,

    I really like your concept, your ideas are certainly intriging and they help considering and further elaborating on the various aspects of consciousness.
    However, without further assessing their validity, your thoughts so far for me seem to depict just one of the many other possible concepts that can provide us a similar theory of perceived consciousness.

    Albeit still valid as a descriptive concept, in a way it as good as any other that “does the job”. So, it seems to me that there is value to gain if somehow it would be possible to get more "grips" on your concept and thus possible allow to make it more "agreeable" than the next one.

    In Simon Powels "the Psilocybin Solution", consciousness is suggested to be a stream of information, what he seems to conclude based on his findings / experiences perceived in altered states of consciousness induced by the psilocybinated brain (as compared to our more common-days experience).
    Powel suggest the mind/brain combination under influence of psilocybin can actually "meet" with what he calls the "Other" (which he believes similar to the Mind at Large as described by Huxley). Encounters with this Other results in actually sharing information orignated from a more common / collective consciousness (your mercury world).

    Since I see the similarity here with your concept of Mind, there are now (with reference to Powel) interesting experiments to consider that could provide at least to some extend some further basis to your thoughts.
    Do you recognise this? It would be nice to learn more about your insights regarding your suggested mercury world concept when discussed from the perspective of experiences as mentioned by Powel.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts by the way, they are quite inspiring.


    1. Hey Rob,
      I didn't know Simon Powels, but will have a look; thanks for the hint!
      What you describe of his metaphor for the mechanisms behind consciousness, in my view, isn't contradictory with what I wrote, is it? Running a little risk of hubris, I think the metaphor I made encompasses and then goes beyond what you described above. Is that right?
      What experiments did you have in mind to falsify either one of these metaphors?
      Cheers, B.

  4. Hi Bernardo,

    No, I don't think your thoughts are contradictory to Powell's ideas (btw, I noted I that I misspelled his last name, it should be Simon Powell, as you probably have found out yourself by now), although his ideas may be a bit more "down to earth".

    I also don't think any of these concepts are actually falsifiable, but I do think your description could have additional value if you had reflected on these from the perspective of a practical experience obtained when following Powell’s foot steps, if you know what I mean (I suggest you read his book), although I would accept if you feel such goes beyond the intention of your blog.. ;-)

    Maybe something to elaborate while enjoying a nice Valpolicella?


    1. A glass of Valpolicella is always welcome! :)


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