Comments on JF Martel's critique of my philosophy

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

Author and filmmaker Jean-Francois Martel has written an essay strongly criticizing my philosophy. In this post, I will offer a response to his essay on a point-by-point basis. Martel sets the initial tone by saying:
My basic belief is that the world is, ultimately, unknowable. ... If the mystery of the real has not been solved, if the mystery cannot be solved, then all philosophical positions ought to be welcome or at the very least tolerated, including panpsychism and (dare I say it?) hardcore materialism.
I actually sympathize with this view. However, it is a fact that there always was and there always will be a cultural narrative that influences – if not outright determines – our view of reality and how we relate to it. This is inescapable; a culture and a civilization cannot exist without it. We will always have a story. So the only meaningful questions are: How good is our story in relation to other possible stories? Which story is best as far as reason, parsimony, and empirical consistency allow us to determine? My work represents, first, an acknowledgement that we will always have a cultural narrative; and second, an effort to improve that narrative as much as possible, based on critical thinking, experience, and the data available to us. I believe the best story available is Idealism. The body of my work is my argument for it. And since a story we will necessarily have, it might as well be the best available.
The entirety of Kastrup’s thought rests on an epistemological premise. He says that the only thing we can know for sure is our consciousness; everything else is inferred and not directly known.
This is an epistemological fact, not a premise. A premise can be a somewhat arbitrary postulate or axiom. What is described above is a fact of existence: we cannot know what no living being has ever been conscious of.
I can doubt the existence of the entities that present themselves to me, but I cannot doubt my own existence as a being who can doubt. It could be that the person standing before me is a figment of my imagination, a hologram or illusion. But as the percipient of such doubtful things, I must be real. Kastrup is here reiterating the Cartesian cogito. However, unlike Descartes, for whom the external world is real, Kastrup takes the fact that the world outside my consciousness may not exist to mean that any belief in an external reality is unnecessarily bulky. Since consciousness alone is knowable, the principle of parsimony demands that we begin with the assumption that consciousness is all there is, at least until something requires us to think otherwise.
Insofar as this suggests solipsism, which is a position I explicitly deny and refute in my earlier book Why Materialism Is Baloney, this is a rather misleading characterization of my philosophy. I deny a world outside consciousness, but I totally acknowledge a world outside our personal awareness. I see personal awareness as a dissociated alter of an impersonal consciousness that I call 'mind-at-large,' in honor of Aldous Huxley. See this earlier essayThe world does exist; it is real; and it is outside my personal, dissociated alter of mind-at-large. It just isn't outside consciousness itself.
Kastrup recognizes that his basic premise already begs questions, because it goes against our standard definition of consciousness as “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and of the world” (Oxford Dictionary; my italics). For if this standard definition is accurate, consciousness cannot exist without something external to it, since consciousness is precisely the awareness of something that is not it.
I do not recognize any question-begging on my part. This is an outright and unfortunate misrepresentation. My starting assertion – that consciousness is the only carrier of reality we can know – does not beg any question. And neither does it contradict the definition of consciousness given above, since the word 'mind' in it is meant as personal awareness, not mind-at-large. As just explained, I do acknowledge the reality of a world outside personal awareness. I just deny that such a world is outside consciousness itself, in the sense of mind-at-large.

All this said, because dictionary definitions of consciousness often beg the question of materialism (the one given, for instance, is straight out of novelist Ayn Rand's discredited objectivism), I state clearly in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, which Martel is critiquing, what I mean by the word 'consciousness': it is that whose excitations are our experiences. As such, the reality we experience – both sensory perceptions and emotions, thoughts, fantasies, etc. – are the patterns of excitation of consciousness, whatever consciousness may intrinsically be. I also claim that there is nothing but those patterns of excitation, a reality outside consciousness being an unnecessary postulate.
...after a shift in context, Kastrup writes: “If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist.” Nevertheless, he bring up “pure consciousness without experience" because his argument requires it. It "may as well not exist," but it has to exist.
This is being taken out of context in a manner meant to portray a contradiction that isn't there at all. So bear with me. As an Idealist, I believe all reality exists only insofar as it is experienced 'somewhere' in mind-at-large. Naturally, however, the existence of experience implies in the existence of that which experiences, which is consciousness itself. This may be as much a linguistic requirement as a metaphysical one but, be it as it may, it is nonetheless inescapable in discourse. The real question, however, is whether anything else is necessary, like a whole universe outside consciousness. Once you accept the existence of experience – and, by implication, that of the experiencer, or consciousness itself – you must ask if anything else is needed to make sense of reality. As stated in the quote above, I deny that anything is. After all, what none of us can ever experience might as well not exist. The statement, however, obviously doesn't apply to the experiencer itself, as an intrinsic aspect of experience. Martel's point, therefore, is specious.

Let me clarify this more, for the sake of those who haven't read the book yet. I argue in it that all experiences are excitations of consciousness, like a note is an excitation – a mode of vibration – of a guitar string. It follows from this that, if consciousness is at rest, there is no experience, but just the potential for experience. This is entirely analogous to the guitar string at rest embodying just the potential for all notes, but no actualized note. However, notice that there is nothing to a vibrating guitar string but the string itself. A note is just a behavior of the string, not a new, separate ontological category or entity. There's just the string, whether it is at rest or vibrating. Likewise, there is nothing but consciousness, whether it is at rest or excited. As such, there is nothing to experience but consciousness itself. Experience is just a behavior of consciousness, produced when it actualizes its potentials. So by acknowledging that consciousness may be either excited – i.e. experiencing – or at rest, I am not creating any new ontological category. There's still just consciousness. The passage of my book quoted by Martel states merely that consciousness alone is sufficient to make sense of reality, and that anything allegedly beyond it might as well not exist. Naturally, consciousness itself – whether it is at rest or not – is not beyond consciousness! Thus, the contradiction Martel intended to show isn't there. This is clear once you actually grasp what is meant.
Because [consciousness] can change, and because it continues to exist in a “pure” state in the absence of change, it must be temporal; it must exist in time.
No. Space and time, as the framework of ordinary experience, are in consciousness. They are parts of the patterns of excitation of consciousness. Naturally, however, since language has the notions of space and time intrinsically built into it, any ontological description of states of affairs necessarily appeals to the notions of space and time as the scaffolding of description. When I talk of 'excitations' or 'vibrations' of consciousness I am making just such an appeal in order to convey certain ideas. Clearly, however, this should be understood as a metaphor. Consciousness, of course, doesn't literally vibrate, since it isn't a thing; it's the experiencer. This is central to my philosophy, so I regret that Martel seems to have failed to grasp it. Space and time themselves exist only insofar as they are experienced and, as such, are themselves 'vibrations' of consciousness.

Notice that this limitation of communication applies not only to my ontology, but to any ontology. Go ahead and try to describe the underlying nature of reality without making any explicit or implicit reference of the notions of space and time. You will quickly realize that you can't, and for a simple reason: we cannot describe any pattern without laying this pattern out across a dimensional scaffolding. There is no pattern if there is no space-time. And if you can't talk of patterns, you cannot describe or articulate anything. You might as well shut up and stop bothering with philosophy. Yet, Martel himself articulates a philosophical position.
In other words, consciousness for Kastrup is extended: it is a thing, even if it is the only thing.
Oh gosh, no! must exist as a transcendent object for his idealist system to cohere.
It isn't an object! It is the (only) subject! This is precisely the key point of my whole story. I am afraid there are fatal misunderstandings underlying Martel's critique of my position.
...the conceivable mode of consciousness, the one that everyone can agree on under empiricism, is synonymous with the subjective experience of the objective. 
The shared, consensus aspects of experience do not require the existence of a universe outside consciousness; they only require personal psyches to be fundamentally united at deep, obfuscated levels (see the videos below), which is precisely what I articulate when I talk of dissociated alters: we are all alters of one and the same mind-at-large and, therefore, can share the same 'dream.' Naturally, experience itself does not require an objective world. I can dream realistic dreams all night, live lifetimes of rich experience in multiple 'universes,' and nobody would claim that those must necessarily be 'objective' – i.e. exist outside consciousness – to validate my experience of them. The self-consistent, enduring storylines vividly hallucinated by schizophrenics are experienced without that experience needing to correspond to anything objective.
...monistic idealism demands that I use my intellect to negate [the] apparent objectivity [of reality].
It is precisely the opposite: it is your intellect that infers objectivity. Without your intellect all you have is subjective experience. Isn't this obvious? And since this point is the premise for the rest of his argument, what follows, well, doesn't follow.
...suffice it to say that experiential consciousness and non-experiential consciousness belong to different ontological categories. 
Again, no. A vibrating string and a string at rest aren't different ontological categories. In both cases there is just the string. For exactly the same reason, there is just consciousness. We know it because we know that there is such a thing as experience, which is a behavioral manifestation of consciousness. What else could it be? Experience is a behavior of consciousness – like vibration is a behavior of the string – not a different ontological category. Martel's whole argument is built on multiple layers of misunderstanding.
When I am conscious of an objective reality, I am conscious of it precisely as something located outside of my subjectivity. When I see a table, I immediately intuit that this table is not me, that it exists outside of me and would continue to do so if I closed my eyes. The table does not for a moment manifest as something synonymous with me, that is, with the I-ness that conditions my consciousness. 
Here Martel mixes up two entirely different definitions of 'objectivity,' which I have explored ad nauseum in my work. What he argues is that there is a world outside his personal volition and sense of identity. I don't deny this. We are dissociated alters of mind-at-large with dissociated volition and sense of identity, just like the dissociated personalities – alters – of a patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) have separate and different wishes, preferences, memories and senses of identity. Often, one alter even wants to hurt another. Yet, all alters of a patient with DID are unquestionably part of one and the same psyche. Similarly, we, as dissociated alters of mind-at-large, are still all part of mind-at-large. The 'outside world' is simply the images of mental processes in mind-at-large that fall outside our personal alters. As such, these processes are both outside the control of our personal, dissociated volition, as well as sense of identity. Yet, none of this requires 'objectivity' in the sense of something outside the mental. The empirical world is outside the dissociated alters, alright, but not outside consciousness. This is all explained in abundant detail in my two latest books, Brief Peeks Beyond and Why Materialism Is Baloney, but a brief overview can be found in the two videos below.

Continuing on...
And if Jung and Freud insisted on the term “unconscious” to designate those parts of the psyche that are objective even though we are not aware of them, it’s because the evidence points to psyche being vaster than consciousness.
Martel seems to ignore my whole articulation of the nature of the 'unconscious,' as explained in both my most recent books. In summary, I argue that there is no unconscious, just obfuscated parts of consciousness from the perspective of alters. This is entirely consistent with the notion of dissociation. There is a brief explanation available in this article. Martel may disagree with my argument about the nature of the 'unconscious,' but then he must criticize the argument, instead of ignoring its existence.
[Kastrup] posits a supra-personal consciousness which, we have seen, is empirically inaccessible to us.
No, it's fairly accessible. What is inaccessible is the intrinsic nature of consciousness (personal or otherwise) since we, by definition, only experience its excitations. But a transpersonal form of experience is entirely accessible and described extensively in centuries of mystical literature as well as the more recent field of transpersonal psychology. Jung himself, which Martel refers to, is famous precisely for his idea of the 'collective unconscious,' which explicitly endorses a transpersonal form of mentation from an indirect experiential perspective.
...this supermind must be something ... that cannot be experienced yet must exist.
Of course it can be experienced; and it has, throughout history, as I've just pointed out above. There is plenty of introspective evidence for mind-at-large, as mystical and spiritual literature overwhelmingly shows. Look, for instance, at Richard Bucke's book Cosmic Consciousness for a number of case-studies. Needless to say, contemporary literature has plenty more cases. The list of references is endless; so much so I find this assertion by Martel rather bewildering.

We are dissociated alters of a transpersonal form of consciousness wherein transpersonal mental processes unfold. A table is part of an image of these transpersonal mental processes, as perceived from the point-of-view of a dissociated alter (i.e. a person). That's why the table seems to be not-me: indeed, it's not my alter! This simple explanation makes sense of the illusion of objectivity without requiring anything other than the empirically obvious: mentation itself. Indeed, inferring mind-at-large is much more parsimonious than inferring a universe outside consciousness, since it only requires extrapolating a known ontological category – namely, consciousness – beyond its face-value boundaries, while a world outside consciousness is an entirely new ontological category. All this is extensively elaborated upon in my work.

Now Martel talks about my assertion that living entities are dissociated alters of mind-at-large:
How did this dissociation occur within mind-at-large? How did consciousness fall from wholeness to fragmentation (even if said fragmentation is only apparent)? ... This is a problem that I don’t think Kastrup’s monistic idealism can solve logically.
Not only can it, I've explicitly done it. I tackle this problem directly in both my most recent books. Perhaps Martel failed to notice it? In a nutshell, dissociation arises from the reverberation of mental contents that neuroscience has empirically found to characterize ordinary awareness. I provide several references to scientific studies showing this in the books. This reverberation, I contend, obfuscates all mental contents that aren't reverberating, leading to dissociation. How this came to pass is a question of natural history: evolution by natural selection has shaped the human psyche in this manner. Reverberating ordinary awareness, as I discuss in both books, leads to self-reflective awareness, which clearly has survival advantages.

I am writing this response as I read Martel's critique. I confess to be confounded, at this stage, by how much he seems to miss or fail to understand of my book and work in general.
In “The Linguistic Con Game of the Mind/Matter Duality,” Kastrup writes: “Mind is what we are. It refers to our identity, not to one of our abstractions. It’s the ‘medium’ of experience, not a type of experience.” This absolute transcendentalization of mind-at-large as non-experiential “medium” is the irrational jump that makes Kastrup’s rational system hold together.
Mind-at-large is not a 'non-experiential medium.' It is the ground of experience itself. What could be more 'experiential' than the ground of experience? The absolutely undeniable, concrete existence of experience necessarily entails an experiencer, which is the ground of this experience. There's nothing transcendental about it. In fact, it is the most present, intimate, obvious, natural, self-evident datum of existence: you've known it since you were born. Arguably, you've never known anything else. How can anyone sanely deny this? Now, what defines our sense of identity is – as I'm sure the vast majority of people would agree – our subjective inner life, which happens to be all we can ever know. What else could we identify with? So what is the 'irrational jump' here?

Because Martel builds his argument upon a series of initial misunderstandings and omissions, his house-of-cards becomes increasingly nonsensical as he constructs it:
But this move from finite, experiential consciousness to infinite, omniscient consciousness entails an ontological leap that makes his theory no more parsimonious than materialism
...and then, immediately after stating this, Martel quotes a passage from my book where I precisely explain why this very statement is incorrect! I don't feel I need to explain this again.
I agree that the evidence for transpersonal states of consciousness is significant.
This directly contradicts what Martel said above, about 'supermind' (that is, mind-at-large) being 'something that cannot be experienced.' It's confusing.

In the remainder of his essay, Martel just rehashes his confused misrepresentations of my philosophy and arrives at conclusions that reflect solely his misunderstanding of it.

Martel has recently published a book that I found to contain several gems of social and cultural commentary. It is a book that I recommend to anyone unreservedly, despite disagreeing with its panpsychist undertones. I believe there is more than sufficient value in it to ignore the parts I think are mistaken. But his foray into formal ontology in attempting to criticize my work is, I'm afraid, rather disastrous. Had this essay been written by someone I respected less, I probably wouldn't have bothered to respond. The points made should have been raised in a clarifying Q&A session, not in an essay attempting to offer criticism.

What motivated this rather brash reaction by Martel was probably my recent, rather confrontational essays against panpsychism. I understand and sympathize with this, since nobody likes to see one's sacred cows being shot at. But I should make one thing absolutely clear about me: I am not here to accommodate sensitivities; I'm not here to collect a large audience by catering to the inclinations of the highest possible number of people; I'm not here to find compromises that give everyone a warm and fuzzy feeling. My commitment is to truth, and truth alone, whatever the cost. I may be wrong in many of the things I say, but I will only say what I believe to be true. And I will say it even if it means shooting at the sacred cows of people I like and respect.

Copyright © 2015 by Bernardo Kastrup. All rights are reserved.


  1. Does Martel even bother reading the subjects he criticizes?

  2. Mr. Martel seems to be criticizing something that actually mirrors his own world view. The most bizarre part was his ability to throw Bernardo's philosophy into a Cartesian box. Never expected that to happen! Nevertheless very interesting read. I especially enjoy this kind of dialogue as I can read the critique first and chew it on my own before reading Bernardo's response. Keep 'em coming!

  3. I feel that Martel is missing many points by a long shot, although his critique does highlight some ambiguities that could be cleared up.

    If he was stirred into action by the attack on panpsychism, well, so was I. It looks like shooting oneself in the foot to give so much weight to Chalmers' and Strawson's definition while ignoring any definitions that could include monistic idealism. Panpsychism/hylozoism comes in many flavours and it seems to me that it can be supported without turning it into a sacred cow.

    I've now said my piece on this here and there and will drop it. I see it as merely a linguistic disagreement.

    1. In my defense, I specified precisely and explicitly what versions of panpsychism I was attacking...
      That said, yes, panpsychism (the intrinsic version) boils down to idealism if the underlying nature of matter isn't fundamentally fragmented in the form of subatomic particles, but in fact a holistic hyper-dimensional brane, as proposed by M-theory. This version, however, is certainly not what people in neuroscience and philosophy of mind understand by panpsychism.

    2. In fairness to Strawson, he's recently admitted that he's not so sure about "smallism":

      "The further assumption that I'm going to make for the purposes of discussion is that

      [D] there are a great many ultimate constituents of physical reality.

      [D] is sometimes called "smallism". It's widely accepted, but—is now clear—I'm not sure it's true. It would obviously be false if any version of [B] (thing monism) were true, and although it seems extraordinarily difficult to understand how any version of [B] could be true, given the seemingly evident and irreducible plurality of concrete things, it may yet be, as already remarked, that [A] there is a fundamental sense in which spacetime is indeed the only thing there is, and that all the particle phenomena recognized in the current standard model are just "various modes of vibration of tiny one-dimensional rips in spacetime known as strings" (Weinberg 1997: 20). On another thing-monist view, the wave function is the only thing that exists.

      Nevertheless I'll assume [D] at this point, for many philosophers believe it to be true."

      Perhaps there is hope for him yet...

    3. Very interesting quote by Strawson. Do you have the reference, Anonymous? He seems to have missed M-theory, which bites the bullet fully with one brane, not strings.


    5. It seems to me that if Strawson gets over his smallism and some of his less critical statements about the brain, he's going to wind up at a position that is really not that far from yours.

  4. Sorry if this shows up twice - I'm trying a second time: This is from the Stanford entry on panpsychism: Thus for some fifty years after the 1929 publication of Whitehead's panpsychist Process and Reality and the 1925 publication of C. D. Broad's emergentist Mind and Its Place in Nature there was relatively little interest in either doctrine. There is a small but growing number of explicit defenders of panpsychism at the present time. The most prominent are Galen Strawson, David Griffin, Gregg Rosenberg, David Skrbina and Timothy Sprigge (now sadly deceased). Strawson's views are briefly discussed below. Sprigge, in A Vindication of Absolute Idealism (1983), defends an idealist based panpsychism somewhat akin to that of Royce. Sprigge summarized his views and provided some novel defences of them in Sprigge (2007), which is a response to a number of critics, a number of which explicitly discuss panpsychism (see e.g. Maddell (2007)). Griffin, in Unsnarling the World Knot (1998), espouses an atomistic panpsychism in the form of an explicit interpretation, extension and defense of Whitehead's version of the doctrine. Rosenberg (2005) provides the currently most detailed, developed and well defended panpsychist view of the Jamesian sort. While Skrbina (2005) is largely a compendious review of the long history and perennial significance of panpsychism in Western philosophy, the work also incorporates a defense of the doctrine.

    Although not providing full scale defences of panpsychism, several other writers have recently approached the problem of consciousness in ways sympathetic to panpsychism. See for example chapter eight of Chalmers (1996), or the articles by Piet Hut and Roger Shepard, Gregg Rosenberg, and William Seager, all in Shear (1997).

    Even more recently, largely as a result of the work of Galen Strawson, a new crop of young philosophers who defend various forms of panpsychism has sprung up. A sampling of their views can be found in Skrbina (2009).

    The current burst of scientific and philosophical studies of mind sparked by the “cognitive revolution” has rekindled debate about the perennial dilemma of emergentism versus panpsychism. The recently renewed and once again influential claim of some philosophers, especially David Chalmers, that the explanation of consciousness presents a uniquely difficult problem for science has forced the reexamination of the metaphysical foundations of the scientific world view (see The Conscious Mind 1996). Chalmers calls this problem the “hard problem of consciousness”; it is also sometimes called the “explanatory gap” or the “generation problem”. The key difficulty is how to explain in naturalistic terms the generation of consciousness by “mere matter”. Once again it seems imperative to decide whether and how mind emerges upon, or exists only under, some specifiable and non-universal natural and non-mentalistic conditions or whether mind itself forms a part of the fundamental structure of the world, perhaps in some of the ways panpsychists have suggested.

  5. So here are the major names the article considers to represent current views of panpsychism: Chalmers and Strawson are there, and also Piet Hut, Roger Shepard, Gregg Rosenberg, William Seager, David Skrbina and Timothy Sprigge.

    Using the rather rough categories of "bottom up" vs "Top down" (or what Bernardo calls the "intrinsic" version) panpsychism, Chalmers and Strawson - who Bernardo mentioned - seem most in the bottom up camp (David Lane, a philosophy professor at UC San Diego, regularly publishes what I consider to be a particularly pernicious form of panpsychism/physicalism over at - I'd be intrigued to see Bernardo take him on; he gets a LOT of attention; i've tried since 2011 to suggest a few possible problems with his panpsychist view but i've completely failed in this attempt; perhaps Bernardo or someone else might give it a try; Frank Visser, the webmaster, is always eager for competing views). Shepherd seems mostly bottom up though has occasionally quite timidly expressed sympathy with both idealist and non dualist views.

    David Ray Griffin has wavered over the years; he seemed to once have been top down and has moved more over the years to bottom up. Skrbina, Rosenberg and Sprigge seem much closer to the top down view (particularly Rosenberg, who has explicitly expressed sympathy with idealist views; not surprisingly since he is so much influenced by James).

    I've spoken at some length with Piet Hut, who is a very interesting guy. originally inspired by Tarthang Tulku (a Tibetan Buddhist teacher who has worked to express Buddhist views in modern language, particularly that of the phenomenologists), taught experiential classes along phenomenological lines for some years, and has brought that view into his work at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, where somehow he is able to keep working but has met a LOT of resistance.

    I talked with Piet about Tibetan Buddhism, neuroscience, Sri Aurobindo and a host of other related topics, back around 2000 (might have been 2001, I don't recall). He felt there was a great readiness even back then for a major breakthrough in ontological views in science. he knew many scientists who were ready but didn't know about each other and were frightened for what it might do to their careers to express even the slightest doubts about materialism (look at the force brought down on Nagel just a few years ago - and man isn't even a scientist!). My sense was that Piet was happy to go beyond labels (much like Bernardo) but felt that phenomenology, interactive dualism, idealism and panpsychism all had potential to do good work in undoing materialism. I still have that sense myself (my preference is for ontological agnosticism, as I wrote in "Shaving Science With Ockham's Razor", but that's another story:>)

    So, hope that sheds a little light on the "matter" (pun intended).

  6. Oh, I forgot to mention William Seager in my follow up - don't know where he stands....

  7. And so the debate continues. Very good. Martel is obviously confused about even his own beliefs, let alone Bernardo's. That's okay. This is our shared, larger consciousness "at work". I enjoy all the pains and pleasures of awareness.

  8. OK, if anyone can answer this, please do. Bernardo says there is nothing to the notes of a guitar string but a guitar string. However, I disagree with this. In order for a guitar string to play a note, it has to be plucked by an outside force and its vibrations have to ripple air particles that are picked up by ears that can convert the patterns into electrical signals interpreted by a brain. There is more to it though. In order for a guitar string to vibrate, there needs to be time for each interval to play out through and space for the string to move about in. So there is the guitar string, plus space, time, an outside force that plucks it, air particles, an ear, and a brain. All of that is required for it to play a note. Going by this analogy in its entirety as I have laid it out, what outside force plucks consciousness into some sort of excitation? Can it just pluck itself? If so, what does it pluck itself with, itself? When the consciousness goes into an excitation, in what medium does it do this in, something akin to space? Surely if it is moving in some way, it is moving in some thing, such as space or something like space. I've been awake for too long and I'm trolling slightly due to that but some of this comment is serious so if anyone knows, please answer. Cheers.

  9. you forgot the steel manufacturer to forge the materials . . . : } . . . its just an analogy

  10. Hi Bernardo,

    Thank you for your willingness to tackle materialism head on. As you rightly say (or imply), we really need to abandon this silly metaphysic. And I am glad that you are taking this on with intelligence, energy, and a positive attitude. With that much, you earn my respect straight-away.

    Although I agree with you on so much, as always it is the points where I think I may disagree that I wish to bring up. I do not wish to be unreasonably negative, but only try to bring the discussion forward. I will quote you, and then make a few comments.

    "consciousness is the only carrier of reality we can know"

    This seems to make a distinction between consciousness as the carrier, on the one hand, and some other reality which is carried by it, on the other. In the final analysis, I am not sure if such a distinction can be made. I would instead propose that all there is is experience, and that the distinction between consciousness (i.e. awareness or the knowing) and what it knows is an abstraction (probably a necessary abstraction for communication purposes). This is so because we never experience consciousness without an “object”, that is, some sort of content. So I would propose that it is experience that is the fundamental reality, not consciousness on its own.

    "all experiences are excitations of consciousness"

    This seems to assume that there is a form of unexcited consciousness in which there is no experience. But if there is no experience, then there is no awareness. I would contend that this is an empirical truth, and it is one of the bases on which the early Buddhist understanding of the world rests. In other words, consciousness without some sort of content does not and cannot exist.

    According to early Buddhist meditation theory, the mind can reach extremely subtle states that can last for very long periods of time, during which the experience is completely stable. One such experience is the experience of nothingness - but even this is an experience. This is a very “unexcited” state, but an experience nonetheless.

    "if consciousness is at rest, there is no experience, but just the potential for experience"

    To me this is neither experience nor consciousness. This is just nothing, as opposed to the experience of nothingness.

    "But a transpersonal form of experience is entirely accessible and described extensively in centuries of mystical literature as well as the more recent field of transpersonal psychology."

    But “a transpersonal form of experience” is just a perception - a particular kind of experience - the sort that is available in deep meditation. It is not obvious that these perceptions stem from a transpersonal reality, and to me this is only one possible interpretation. On the principle of parsimony, it seems quite sufficient, and I would suggest preferable, to regard these as personal states that are induced through meditation practice.

    Just some random thoughts. If you have any comments, I would much appreciate to hear from you.

    Bhikkhu Brahmali

    1. Hi Bhikkhu,
      Maybe this helps:
      Cheers, B.

    2. Thanks. I've read it and it may answer some of my questions, but not all, I think. At least the last two remain:

      "if consciousness is at rest, there is no experience, but just the potential for experience"

      To me this is neither experience nor consciousness. This is just nothing, as opposed to the experience of nothingness.

      "But a transpersonal form of experience is entirely accessible and described extensively in centuries of mystical literature as well as the more recent field of transpersonal psychology."

      But “a transpersonal form of experience” is just a perception - a particular kind of experience - the sort that is available in deep meditation. It is not obvious that these perceptions stem from a transpersonal reality, and to me this is only one possible interpretation. On the principle of parsimony, it seems quite sufficient, and I would suggest preferable, to regard these as personal states that are induced through meditation practice.


    3. If you deny anything beyond your personal experience, you are a solipsist. My argument against solipsism is in Why Materialism Is Baloney.

    4. Hi Bernardo,

      I am certainly not a solipsist. What I am concerned about is the necessity of positing a mind-at-large.

      You seem to offer two main arguments in a favour of this:

      (1) Mind-at-large helps us explain our shared experience of the world.
      (2) Mind-at-large seems to be an experience common to several contemplative/mystical traditions.

      I do not think either of these points necessitates postulating a mind-at-large. As for the first one, you make the point yourself, referring to an article published in Nature, that our shared experience of the world could be the result of communication. You seem to accept that this could at least be part of the explanation. However, once we abandon the materialist paradigm, interpersonal communication might happen at a much deeper level. It might be the case that we are continuously exchanging information at an obfuscated consciousness level, to use your terminology. If this is the case, then our shared experience of the world is perhaps no big mystery after all.

      Regarding the second point, my argument is that no experience can ever validate the idea of a mind-at-large, just as it cannot validate any concept of a supreme god. We can no doubt experience profound states of mind that are extremely blissful, devoid of a sense of self, and which are entirely non-dual. However, they are still just experiences, and it is impossible to infer from them that there is a separate reality, which is always there irrespective of our experience, that we might call mind-at-large. All we can know is that we had such an experience and that it lasted for a certain amount of time.

      In sum, I feel it is unnecessary to postulate a mind-at-large, and that this just adds a layer of mysticism to what otherwise is a theory almost entirely based on what is directly available to our senses, including the mind.

      Cheers, Ajahn Brahmali (previously Bhikkhu Brahmali)

    5. Regarding the first point, you still need to infer something interpersonal through which this purely mental, obfuscated communication you speak of happens. You then have two options: (1) you postulate some new, yet-unknown kind of physical field or force that could carry the communication; or (2) the communication happens through transpersonal aspects of mind, which means you're back to mind-at-large. Inferring that mind itself extends beyond face-value personal boundaries (that is, inferring (2)) is much more parsimonious than postulating unknown and unmeasurable new fields/forces (that is, (1)). But that's not all: if you acknowledge that all that exists is experience -- which you seem to do -- postulating (1) is incoherent, since it implies a non-mental medium uniting fundamentally separate minds. And if such medium isn't physical but mental, that implies (2). You can't escape this: the moment you deny anything beyond experience, you are forced either into solipsism or (2). Anything else requires a medium outside mind/experience.

      Regarding your second point, what you are saying is that no ontology can be derived from experience. This mean you can't build any philosophy of any type -- since experience is all we have -- and the discussion becomes pointless. I agree that all we can know is experience itself, not a world beyond experience. But my ontology doesn't postulate that world. As such, if one has a veridical trans-personal experience, that's all I need to validate my point. Now, of course, if there is experience, we can speak of that-which-experiences. If experience is personal, then that-which-experiences is personal. If experience is veridically transpersonal, then that-which-experiences is transpersonal, or mind-at-large.

    6. "Regarding the first point, you still need to infer something interpersonal through which this purely mental, obfuscated communication you speak of happens."

      Do you? Aren't you here applying materialist categories to the mental world? I cannot see any reason why communication cannot happen mind to mind without postulating some overarching mind-at-large. Once we move out of the materialist paradigm, it seems to me that all sorts of possibilities open up.

      On point two, I think you are doing very well arguing against materialism without invoking the mind-at-large. That is, your idea of a mind-at-large seems to come on top of your other arguments.

      My understanding is that everything always changes, including any “veridical transpersonal experiences”. In other words, we perceive certain experiences as transpersonal, but these are just perceptions and we cannot draw any ontological conclusion from them, such as the existence of a mind-at-large. In fact I would argue the exact opposite. It is possible to know the mind at such a fundamental level that you know that no such thing as a mind-at-large can possibly exist. (I am here assuming that mind-at-large refers to an ever-present “ground of consciousness”, that is, some sort of ever-present reality.) If it can be known that a mind-at-large cannot exist, we are forced to find some other explanation for our shared experience of the world.

      By the way, I have just ordered a couple of your books to get a deeper understanding of your anti-materialist arguments. :-)

    7. >> I cannot see any reason why communication cannot happen mind to mind without postulating some overarching mind-at-large. <<

      If communication happens from mind to mind, without anything not-mind in between, then the minds are necessarily and fundamentally connected and, therefore, one. That's where the notion of 'mind-at-large' comes from.

      >> your idea of a mind-at-large seems to come on top of your other arguments. <<

      Clearly not, thus.

      Your second point I believe has been tackled in my earlier comments! Just to stress something to avoid possible misunderstandings: mind-at-large is not the ground of consciousness; it is consciousness. I am making no ontological attributions to mind-at-large other than that it experiences and is one. I might as well call it 'that-which-experiences.'

      I hope you enjoy the books, have fun. :-)

    8. "If communication happens from mind to mind, without anything not-mind in between, then the minds are necessarily and fundamentally connected and, therefore, one."

      I cannot see that "oneness" is necessarily implied by connectedness. I think other interpretations are possible.

      Just briefly on the second point. We need to distinguish between raw experience and interpretation of that experience. When a Christian says they have experienced God, I don't buy that without a careful examination of that experience. When asked about its exact nature, they are able to identify a number of qualities in that experience that they normally identify with God, and so they they jump to the conclusion that this was God. But there is no aspect in that experience that necessitates such a conclusion. They are conflating experience and interpretation.

      I hold that the same is true of any "veridical transpersonal experience". An experience can have qualities that makes it seem transpersonal - egolessness, total unification of perception, an experience of unlimited consciousness, etc. - but to conclude that it actually is transpersonal is an interpretation. It is so important to be careful here, because we are bound to bring our conceptual baggage to any experience we have. To avoid that we need to be thoroughly open to any possibility. My claim is that when experiences are fully subject to scrutiny, including the most profound meditative experiences, it can be directly known that consciousness is not an ever-present reality.

    9. If there are only minds -- nothing else in between -- and these minds are all interconnected with each other, I challenge you to explain to me how this does NOT imply mind-at-large. If there are only drops of water -- no air in between -- and they are all touching each other, we call it a puddle.

      Interpretations of mystical and out-of-body experiences are indeed very suspicious: how does one know one really saw angels or dead grandma? But I am not talking about mystical or out-of-body experiences at all. I'm talking about a realization that our sense of separate identity is a hallucination. This is not an addition (angels, dead grandma) but a subtraction of concepts. You can doubt it, but then you must doubt absolutely anything you think or say, since all you have is experience. Those who experienced that their sense of personal identity is a hallucination don't doubt for a moment the validity of their experience.

  11. We are in uncharted waters and this is going to take a lot of imagination. I am mostly arguing form an early Buddhist perspective, wherein every being is seen as a separate stream of consciousness. Within this system there is no mind-at-large, yet communication between the streams of consciousness is possible. I still fail to see see why separation and connectedness cannot co-exit. In fact this is exactly how we experience the world.

    I agree that our sense of identity is a hallucination, but experience without ego does still not imply mind-at-large. When you abandon your sense of identity, you are still a separate stream of consciousness. It is not the separation that gives rise to the sense of identity. The sense of identity, rather, is just a misapprehension of the stream of consciousness.


    1. Hi Ajahn,

      >> I still fail to see see why separation and connectedness cannot co-exit. In fact this is exactly how we experience the world. <<

      I agree, they do co-exist: mind-at-large and dissociated segments ("streams") of mind-at-large. :-)

      >> When you abandon your sense of identity, you are still a separate stream of consciousness.<<

      When you abandon your _concept_ of identity you still remain a dissociated stream of mind-at-large. You only stop being a dissociated stream when you die. Yet, from within the dissociation, if you abandon concepts, you can still experience the primordial sense of being inherent to all mind-at-large, dissociated or not.

      Cheers, B.

    2. Hi Bernardo,

      Thanks for taking the time to have this discussion. I guess we are going to have to agree to disagree. The world of experience is extremely fascinating, and of course it is all we have. I have no doubt that anyone who goes deep enough and keeps on inquiring with integrity will discover the truth. I am saying that without any prejudice! :-)

      Keep up the good work. I believe you are doing an important service for us all. The materialist paradigm is destructive and anyone who helps move us in the right direction deserves credit.

      With best wishes,


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