Does it matter whether all is in consciousness?

Computer simulation of a forest of neurons, CC BY 2.5. Hermann Cuntz,
PLoS Computational Biology Issue Image, Vol. 6(8) August 2010.
In an earlier article in this blog, I summarized my metaphysical position in two brief paragraphs. That has led to two misunderstandings, both of which derive from this point: Although I say that all reality is in consciousness, and that there is no universe outside, or independent from, subjective experience, I also do not deny that reality exists independent of personal psyches, like the human psyche. I maintain that empirical reality is an experience of an impersonal mind, which I like to call 'mind-at-large' in honor of Aldous Huxley. As such, empirical reality isn't created by personal psyches, and would still exist as an experience in mind-at-large even if there were no life in the universe.

The first misunderstanding that may arise from the above is to think that mind-at-large experiences empirical reality in just the way we, as personal psyches, experience it. I've addressed this error in my previous essay. The second misunderstanding is to conclude that there is no difference between this impersonal mind-at-large and a material world fundamentally outside consciousness, since in both cases reality exists independent of personal psyches. Nothing could be further from the truth! Allow me to elaborate.

There are two lines of argument to address this. The first one is philosophical and rigorous: when we say that our personal psyches are merely segments of a broader mind-at-large, all we are doing is extrapolating a known and empirically undeniable ontological category (namely, consciousness itself) beyond the space-time limits we ordinarily associate with it. But when we say that there is a whole universe outside consciousness, we are inferring a whole new ontological category, and one that is unprovable. These two things aren't equivalent by any stretch of the imagination. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to help you gain some intuition about this: In order to model the early universe, we extrapolate across space and time the validity of the laws of physics known on Earth today; doing so is obviously different, and much more reasonable, than inferring an unprovable flying spaghetti monster to be behind all things!

The second line of argument rests on the different implications and practical applications of these two alternatives:

  1. If all reality is in consciousness, then your consciousness is not generated by your body and, therefore, there is no reason to believe that your consciousness will end when your body dies. Your body is simply the image of a particular state of consciousness you experience when you are alive. When you die, that state of consciousness will change, perhaps quite dramatically. Changes in your state of consciousness, however, happen all the time: when you wake up suddenly from an intense nightly dream, your consciousness changes its state rather dramatically as well. Now, would we live life differently — perhaps in a less anxious, more present and grounded manner — if we knew that death isn't the end of consciousness? If the fear of death were no longer viable as an instrument of social control or economic gain, what would the practical consequences be for our culture, economy, and society at large? And if you knew that your consciousness isn't going to end when you die, wouldn't you be interested in investing a part of your life in preparing yourself for the transition — so it isn't traumatic — and perhaps for what might come next?
  2. If all reality is in consciousness, then your physical body is also in consciousness, not the other way around. As such, your body is the image of psychic processes unfolding in what depth-psychology has come to call your "personal unconscious." I consider the word "unconscious" a misnomer, as I explained in another article, preferring to call it "personal obfuscated consciousness" instead. Be it as it may, the implication is clear: your physical health isn't merely 'connected' to your psychic state; it is your obfuscated psychic state! I discussed this at length in an earlier essay, but the gist is that this opens up an entirely new avenue for treating physical illness through forms of suggestion, clinical psychology, and many other treatments currently considered alternative or even fringe. Indeed, the implication is that medicine could advance beyond acknowledged limits by adopting a holistic mind-body approach, whose impact on our health and well-being are hard to overestimate.
  3. If our personal psyches are merely localizations — alters — of mind-at-large, then, at bottom, our psyches are fundamentally one and the same mind. This opens the door for so-called psi phenomena, like clairvoyance and telepathy, to be credible and entirely natural. If the a priori bias against parapsychology were to disappear, what could science discover in this field? What practical applications could arise as a consequence of more widespread and better funded parapsychological research? In what variety of ways could that impact our personal lives, and those of our loved ones?
  4. If subjective experience is fundamental in nature, and not merely an epiphenomenon derivative from the mechanical behavior of matter, then our feelings and emotions carry much more weight and relevance than otherwise; they are much more significant to our sense of who or what we are, what reality is, as well as to the meaning and purpose of our lives. If love is actually fundamental, and not merely a side-effect of material chemicals suffusing your brain, wouldn't that make a difference as far as how you look upon your relationships? If your sense of calling or purpose is fundamental, and not merely the result of chemicals in your head, wouldn't that make a difference as far as the decisions and risks you take in your life to try and make your dreams come true? Wouldn't we, as a culture, have to take another look at current psychiatric best-practices if we acknowledged our feelings to be real, and not merely the mechanical outcome of chemical imbalances to be corrected with drugs?
  5. Here I invite you to complete this list with your own thoughts. There are many more significant implications and practical applications of acknowledging mind-at-large to be the ground of being, as opposed to inferring an unprovable material universe outside consciousness. I am sure you can think of some, and perhaps relate them in the comments section below.

Notice that none of the implications and practical applications listed and discussed above would hold under a materialist metaphysics; that is, under the notion that reality exists fundamentally outside and independent of consciousness. I hope, therefore, to have permanently debunked this absurd idea that acknowledging a form of impersonal consciousness to be the ground of reality is, somehow, equivalent to inferring a whole unprovable universe fundamentally outside consciousness. These are anything but equivalent metaphysical views.

(Comments are very welcome. But remember: if there are more than 50 comments below, you have to click on 'Load more' at the very bottom of the page to see new comments.)

Copyright © 2014 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.


  1. This is excellent. IMHO one of the best things you have written. Very tight,clear and convincing. The potential basis of an article "Why Idealism will Replace Materialism as the Metaphysical Basis of a New Scientific Revolution." That one gets nailed to the doors of National Academies of Sciences around the world. :)

    1. Thanks Bob! :-) I'm glad you liked it. As for the New Scientific Revolution: Part 2 of my neuroscience article with Deepak is out has also been co-authored by Menas Kafatos and... guess who? Rudy Tanzi! (google him if you don't know who he is) If you consider the views the article puts forward, then I do think, for the first time ever maybe, that a new paradigm is indeed close... maybe only a few years away, well within our lifetimes. Here is the link to the article:

    2. Interesting. There's a Skeptiko interview with Jeffrey Schwartz (famous both for successfully using mindfulness to treat obsessive compulsive disorder - without medication!, and for proposing a non materialist view of the brain, along with Henry Stapp). Jeffrey is 62, and says he doesn't think the new paradigm will emerge in his lifetime, but holds out hope for people in their 20s, 30s and 40s (in other words you, not me:>)

      I'm inclined to agree with you, though. I look around at the scientists and others I know here in the US, and look online at such sites as Reality Sandwich, and it sure seems to me people are ready. Definitely, the non scientists (those educated about these issues) are ready, and they FAR exceed in number the scientists.

      The question then, it seems to me, is what is the crucial number of scientists ready for the new paradigm to create a tipping point?

      I'm so glad to see you're actively working with other people now (Chopra, Tanzi, Kafoutas - sp??). I think this is the way to go.

      My nomination for some of the best people doing this work:

      Tom McFarlane (student of Merrell-Wolff)
      Avery Solomon (student of Paul Brunton, whose description of the brain is amazingly close to yours)
      Ed Kelly's group in Charlottesville, VA
      Matthijs Cornelissen, who is actively working with numerous universities in India encouraging them to incorporate Indian philosophy and psychology in their psych departments. You would be amazed to find out how open Indian professors are to non materialist views. The new paradigm may take root first in India!

      Many more, but I'll continue this at some point on the forum. Thanks again so much for your work. I enjoyed both parts 1 and 2. really good stuff.

  2. I think you give too much importance to the ontological simplicity. The only direct knowing that I have is my consciousness, so I do not think any legitimate inference about the nature of reality independent of my consciousness. If such reality is similar to my consciousness or it is not, this is something we can not know.

    In addition, all your practical applications can be accommodated in materialism:

    1. Materialism is compatible with an afterlife, if we consider the notion of second body.

    2. Materialism can recognize that the mental state affects physical health.

    3. Psi phenomena could be explained by physical theories.

    4. Materialists can still give importance to the feelings even if they believe that the feelings are epiphenomena, since there is no necessary connection between beliefs and behaviors.

    This is because there is no necessary connection between ideas and behaviors.

  3. " If your sense of calling or purpose is fundamental, and not merely the result of chemicals in your head, wouldn't that make a difference as far as the decisions and risks you take in your life to try and make your dreams come true?"

    This is interesting. It ties into the ideas of "True Will" or submitting to "God's Will" and all the other different formulations of the same idea. That, as part of a larger consciousness, you have a "purpose" and a place which may be different from what you logically work out you should be doing. And hence, the stronger place of intuition and emotion in the decision-making (or guiding?) process perhaps.

    And the health comments are spot on. Our bodies are "images" of our emotional health as much as anything else. Pains and so on are often localised, like "stuck thoughts" in particular places, causing apparently physical issues. Reminds me a bit or Reichian therapy for releasing stuck emotions which I've been reading about:

    1. From your other article: "We claim these convenient fictions to be legitimate because we can build working technology based on them: empirically, things work as if the fictions were true, and that’s good enough. Why not apply the same sensible pragmatism to the healing arts? Maybe acupuncture works as if energy meridians were true and, until we know better, that’s good enough too."

      Perhaps *everything* works on an "as if" basis, of course.

    2. >Perhaps *everything* works on an "as if" basis, of course.

      I currently feel this is dead on and related to the idea that everything is at least as much metaphorical as it is "real". Im still struggling with how to express this.

    3. "All that is, is metaphor" - more literally than is usually thought! The "imagery" around us is its own metaphor, it represents itself. A result would be that the meaning of something would be the one we attribute to it.

      We'll be uniting philosophy, science and magick before we know it.

    4. Bob:

      Wallace and several others suggest adding introspection to scientific methodology to accommodate a consciousness-based view. However, this does not necessarily account for qualities (qualia). Bortoft, and other followers of Steiner and Barfield have spent decades developing a quality based biology, physics and psychology. But this still doesn't necessarily connect the phenomenon (image) to the Infinite Mind or Reality.

      You might think of it as "magic", but David Frawley has written extensively on how to understand the appearances (images, phenomena) from a symbolic perspective. Look at his book on The Sacred Fire; John Davidson, who is quite clever but unfortunately a truly terrible writer, wrote a series of books in the 1990s going through every system of the body and looking at it symbolically It was fun but quite a bit of a mess, but still might give some ideas.

      What we might do is start a separate thread and go through the various regions of the brain and understand them symbolically. Hmm, maybe I'll start one. take a look

    5. Don is this the book: "Yoga And Sacred Fire Self Realization And Planetary Transformation"?

    6. All the world is a metaphor for something ineffable. "All the world an icon," wrote Cheetham. "All that doth pass away / Is but a symbol," wrote Goethe. In the last chapter of Why Materialism Is Baloney, there is a section called "Reality as metaphor," where I discuss this extensively!

  4. Is Bernardo's idealism the most unashamedly ego-centric philosophy there can be?
    'I experience myself therefore everything I experience must exist within something ontologically similar to me. Even these things that I experience as being ontologically different, these non-conscious things, even these must be nothing more than an emergence from something ontologically the same as me, because me is all that I can know for sure. These things that are not conscious, why would they exist within something ontologically similar to themselves? Surely it makes more sense that they exist within something ontologically similar to me, my experience is more important and more fundamental than these non-conscious things. A thing that is like me but is more fundamental and all pervasive makes so much more sense to me than some thing that is like the non-conscious things but more fundamental and all pervasive. So this must be right, this must be the only thing that really makes sense, this must be the most parsimonious philosophy, because it's all about me and my consciousness, everything happens within something like me because me is all I know'

    1. 'And a world outside of consciousness wouldn't be knowable so if I can't know it, it must be absurd to think that such a world can exist. Everything that exists must surely be knowable by me.'

    2. Interesting... "Bernardo's idealism' says that egos are, ultimately, illusions with no actual ontological substance, for the same reason that whirlpools are nothing but the stream... yet, you accuse it of being ego-centric...

      'Bernardo's idealism' is based on parsimony and an attempt to avoid postulating unnecessary ontological primitives. Since conscious experience -- not only MY personal experience, but conscious experience in general -- is the only empirically undeniable aspect of reality, "Bernardo's idealism' sticks to it. But you call parsimony ego-centrism...

      And finally, you again mix up 'Bernardo's idealism' with solipsism. This is nonsense. I deny solipsism and I have explained this so many times, in some many places, I have no energy to do it once again.

      Maybe a non-ego-centric metaphysics for you would be the flying spaghetti monster. He created your ego and is ontologically separate from you. Bow to Him. In fact, why don't you join His church? Here is the handy link:

    3. But it is not true that "since conscious experience - staff not only MY experience, but overall in conscious experience - is the only empirically undeniable aspect of reality", because the only empirically undeniable aspect of reality is my experience here and now, aka, the only thing that accepts solipsism. So if we are to accept others consciousness, the past, the future, and other things, I do not see why not accept the existence of matter as it is understood through mathematics, although it is always beyond our experience.

    4. Juan, the direct answer to this is in the essay itself. To make it easier, here is the relevant passage: "...when we say that our personal psyches are merely segments of a broader mind-at-large, all we are doing is extrapolating a known and empirically undeniable ontological category (namely, consciousness itself) beyond the space-time limits we ordinarily associate with it. But when we say that there is a whole universe outside consciousness, we are inferring a whole new ontological category, and one that is unprovable. These two things aren't equivalent by any stretch of the imagination. Here is a rather dramatic analogy to help you gain some intuition about this: In order to model the early universe, we extrapolate across space and time the validity of the laws of physics known on Earth today; doing so is obviously different, and much more reasonable, than inferring an unprovable flying spaghetti monster to be behind all things!"

    5. If rocks did philosophy then the same argument would lead them to conclude that we are but ripples of Matter. A materialist may argue that rocks have been around a lot longer than we have so it is a bit arrogant for this new comer to assume they have prominence when it comes to ontological primitives.
      My point really is that I think it is much more effective to concentrate on two things in an argument against materialists: firstly, the hard problem of consciousness; secondly, the scientific evidence for conscious intent being able to affect matter. I think claiming a logical philosophical superiority is a philosophically flawed position and using an evidence based approach is more compelling but I guess essentially less philosophical.

  5. Since materialism as a metaphysical position is now on my radar, I noticed this blog posting on NPR today:

    Interestingly, while the author touches upon the ways in which we culturally conflate science and materialism, the comments section is loaded with defensive remarks which do precisely that, mostly in response to readers' perceived attack on science. None of the detractors seem to respond directly to the differentiations which are made in the post.

    Three years ago I would have read the post above and also been totally dismissive of it. Then I had something like a direct experience, and I simply couldn't make sense of it within my existing worldview. So I began opening my mind to new questions which I probably would have ridiculed before. Somehow this experience I had intuitively left me with the sense that consciousness is the ground of existence, but with most of its spokespeople being unbearable new age personalities, I dropped my exploration of this feeling and decided to live uncomfortably with duality as the only 'reasonable' alternative to fall back on. I've recently stumbled upon your book "Materialism Is Baloney," and the transformation I feel as I work through your arguments in the book and on this blog is truly ineffable. I am excited to work through and re-examine my beliefs within this new perspective. Your intellectual labor has added unparalleled depth and meaning to my life---thank you! -Sarah

    1. Wow, thanks Sarah! I am very happy it's been useful to you, and it gives me great encouragement to hear your words!

    2. Try reading Paul Brunton's 'Hidden Teaching Beyond Yoga'. This explains the paradigm of consciousness at great length and how you can realise this truth for yourself.
      Martin K

  6. Yes, I enjoyed the article. It would actually be impossible for an externally (to the mind) material universe to exist, as where and how could it end. I've always viewed this problem as a dream where you are only concerned with local features, say of a room, and what exists outside the room is not necessary to 'imagine' or visualize.

    Martin Kostyrka

  7. Words words words... When the word-stream stops, the absolute peace of utter simplicity prevails. Rarely does anyone notice that it's timelessly here/now anyway. Why don't we notice? Because we are too busy, often with trying - necessarily impossibly - to grasp with the complexity of words the ungraspable aforementioned utter simplicity. The very act of grasping pushes it away.
    As Rumi said, “silence is the language of god, all else is poor translation.”

    1. My reply is here:

    2. Thanks Bernardo. Yes, I know many intellectuals looking for a conceptual structure on which to hang their non-materialistic intuitions and experiences. They just can't let go and realize that one IS the truth regardless of words. And so I can see the value of conceptual models that negate false beliefs such as materialism. It kind of leaves the window open for the breeze to come in if it wants to. So, I wish you well with your book. Regards, John.


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