Is ad hominem always a fallacy?

In a series of recent social media posts, I've criticized Sam Harris for his horrendous strawmannning of idealism in a recent podcast interview:

As part of that series, someone tagged me on, and I re-tweeted, a link to an essay of anonymous authorship castigating Sam Harris. Although there is no denying that the essay was filled with ad hominem attacks, there was also substance in it that I considered relevant enough to share, particularly regarding alleged methodological errors in Harris's PhD thesis and criticisms of Harris's positions by renowned intellectuals:

A number of comments followed, some expressing interest in the re-tweeted essay and others criticizing me for amplifying what they considered to be an unfair hit-piece. That made me re-think our modern attitudes about ad hominem: is it always a fallacy to bring up questions about someone's motivations, integrity, qualifications or past actions? The very words "ad hominem" seem to have become synonymous with error and unfairness, regardless of circumstances, which strikes me as a somewhat unexamined attitude.

There obviously are circumstances in which ad hominem is just fallacious. Specifically, if the points in contention have been clearly identified and are not related to the character or background of any of the participants in the discussion, then to attack a participant during one's argument, as if it helped make one's point, is obviously illogical: the argument must be relevant to the points in contention. For instance, if the discussion is about whether idealism is a tenable metaphysical position or not, to argue that a participant in the discussion is dishonest, as part of one's argument for or against idealism, is obviously fallacious: idealism either is or isn't tenable, regardless of the honesty (or lack thereof) of the participants.

Sometimes, however, the legitimacy of one's participation in a discussion, or the relevance of one's background to the discussion, or even the reliability of one's assertions of fact during the discussion, are the points in contention. This happens often in both business hiring decisions and political elections, for instance. In those situations, ad hominem is obviously not a fallacy, for it is precisely the point in question.

Often, of course, circumstances will be such that we will have shades of gray to deal with, not clear black or white: although the points in contention may not be directly related to character or background, the ebb and flow of the discussion can go in a direction that lends some legitimacy to questions of character and background. This may happen, for instance, when a participant appeals to his or her own authority as a key logical bridge in the weaving of an argument. Is an attack on the person's character or background—that is, an ad hominem—then a fallacy? It's impossible to answer this reliably a priori, as only the specific circumstances of the case can allow for a fair assessment.

In the specific case of my re-tweet, I believe that not only were there substantial, non-ad hominem points made in the anonymous essay (whether they are true or not is another question entirely), but even some of the ad hominem attacks were legitimate in the context of my original tweet: I argued precisely that Harris displayed a surprising lack not only of basic understanding, but also foundational knowledge, of the metaphysics he was criticizing. Insofar as the re-tweeted, anonymous essay laid out an admittedly ad hominem case for Harris's lack of solid background in both neuroscience and philosophy, I think sharing a link to those particular ad hominems was not fallaciously out of context. As a matter of fact, I confess to having had a feeling of 'this-explains-it' when I read those parts of the essay (which, of course, doesn't mean that those parts are actually true!), for they provided some sort of account, tentative and unreliable as the case may be, for what I had hitherto considered an incomprehensible lack of knowledge on Harris's part.

Indeed, idealism is one of the foundational topics in both Eastern and Western philosophy. A basic understanding of idealist claims—the claims of Berkeley, Swedenborg, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, and arguably even Plato, Parmenides and Empedocles—is part of the 'ABC' of philosophy. That someone who "received a degree in philosophy from Stanford University and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA" (quote from Harris's website) can fail so resoundingly at such a foundational level is, well, quite amazing. Harris conflates very basic concepts. For instance, he conflates personal consciousness with consciousness as ontic category, something no self-respecting philosophy freshman would do (it's like conflating a wooden table with wood). Parts of his 'argument against idealism' also imply a direct conflation of idealism with solipsism, two entirely different metaphysics that, again, no self-respecting freshman in philosophy would conflate. How is that possible?

My openness to the potential legitimacy of certain ad hominems applies, of course, to me as well. If one of my dialectical adversaries were to think that I make misleading, sophist and ultimately incorrect points consistently, it would be valid for them to question and investigate my motivations, my background, my credentials, my education, my past. And if they were to find funny things during that investigation, an ad hominem attack would be appropriate, I think (notice that this is in no way a nod to libel or defamation, both of which are based on false accusations, and both of which I would respond strongly to, with all recourses at my disposal). I am not saying this just because I happen to know that no such funny things would be found—I'm not hiding behind my private knowledge of the relevant facts—but because I sincerely believe in what I am saying.

As a matter of fact, ad hominem attacks directed at my background and education have been made in the past, and I have taken them seriously. Years ago, a couple of scholars attacked my then-lack of a formal degree in philosophy. They argued that my PhD in computer science was rather irrelevant to the points I was making, as well as to the authority I was implicitly claiming while making those points. And although I knew that their attack was moot (I've been studying philosophy very seriously since early adolescence), I still took the time and trouble to publish—over three years—a number of papers in peer-reviewed philosophy journals and ultimately get myself a second PhD to address the original charge. No one in their sane mind would go to such lengths if they didn't take the original ad hominem to be legitimate, would they?

More generally speaking, I think we have to guard against irrational and runaway political correctness, which is a growing issue in our culture. Not all ad hominems are fallacies, even if you have grown to associate the very words "ad hominem" with unfairness and low blows. Sometimes it just isn't so. And the discernment to know when it isn't and when it is, is something I believe we must cultivate more carefully. For if our culture is being led by false prophets, emperors with no clothes, it is not only legitimate, but also a moral imperative, to point at them and scream in public: "before y'all listen to him, look and realize that the man has no clothes!"


Here I part ways with Rovelli

© Sidney Harris, The American Scientist, 1977. 
My endorsement, promotion and defense of physicist Carlo Rovelli's Relational Interpretation of quantum mechanics has been very overt and public for years, on Scientific American and other publications. I have also never hid my personal liking and admiration for Rovelli as a scholar and a person: I find him exceptionally thoughtful and open, a bit of a renaissance man, something we so thoroughly miss in a world that often takes its cues from immature nerds passing for intellectual wizards—incomplete human beings who have very narrow relationships with life and themselves, but who happen to excel in fashionable niches or be good at rhetoric.

None of that has changed. I still hold Rovelli in the highest regard and have profound respect for him and his output. But a consequence of this very respect is that I cannot overlook recent output of his with which I also profoundly disagree. The latter is what this post is about. I have made criticisms of Rovelli's latest commitment to certain philosophical ideas in recent interviews and discussions, so I think it is appropriate that I summarize those criticisms in one go-to place. Unlike those about the work of other people I have criticized in this blog, the assessment below—I insist—comes from a place of respect and admiration, not of scorn or patronization.

Rovelli and I are in full agreement when it comes to our view of the nature of physical reality: there is no absolute world of tables and chairs with defined mass, position, momentum, etc., out there, but instead an entirely relational world. The observable properties of all physical systems are entirely relative to the particular vantage point of the observation. Measurement doesn't merely reveal what the properties of a physical system already were immediately prior to the measurement, but brings those properties into existence. In summary, the physical world has no standalone reality. Both Rovelli and I concur that this is the inevitable conclusion from quantum theory and the overwhelming experimental confirmation of its predictions over the past 42 years or so. (Unless, of course, one believes in a de facto infinitude of real physical universes popping up into existence every de facto infinitesimal fraction of a moment, for which we have precisely zero empirical evidence; I believe both Rovelli and I dismiss this alternative as little more than silly fantasy.)

In his original Relational Quantum Mechanics paper of 1996, Rovelli defends the conclusions of quantum mechanics discussed above, but explicitly and deliberately refrains from exploring their philosophical implications. I, on the other hand, am on record—both the popular and academic records—deriving precisely those implications. In my view, if the physical world has no standalone reality and is entirely relational, then there necessarily is a deeper, by definition non-physical but absolute (in the sense of not being relative) layer of reality that grounds the physical world, and of which the physical world is but a measurement image akin to a set of dials. I've known for a while now that Rovelli isn't comfortable with this conclusion of mine, but neither did I expect or require him—as someone approaching the problem from an eminently scientific perspective—to agree with my philosophical exploration of the topic.

Recently, however, Rovelli seems to have gone all the way into philosophical territory. Am I bothered that a scientist is making an incursion into philosophy? Absolutely not! Some scientists do philosophy while believing that they are doing science; that kind of cluelessness is dangerous and reprehensible, but that's not Rovelli's case at all. Perhaps atypically amongst scientists, Rovelli has clarity regarding the difference between science and philosophy and displays great care and thoughtfulness in treading on the latter. So I think it is fantastic that he is daring to do so and wholeheartedly welcome his foray. At the same time, entering philosophy territory does—of course—expose him to hopefully healthy and constructive criticism. This is my intent with the present post.

What Rovelli seems to be now saying is that, although the physical world is constituted of no more than relationships, there is no underlying, non-physical world to ground those relationships. This is problematic for a number of reasons. For one, it immediately runs into infinite regress: if the things that are in relationship are themselves meta-relationships, then those meta-relationships must be constituted by meta-things engaging in relationship. But wait, those meta-things are themselves meta-meta-relationships... You see the point. It's turtles... err, relationships all the way down.

This is surely bad enough, but it isn't the worst part. The worst is this: to speak of pure relationships without non-relational entities to constitute and ground those relationships is literally meaningless, in a semantic sense; there is just no discernible meaning pointed to by the words in this claim, even though the claim itself can be articulated in language. The issue here is analogous to the Cheshire Cat's grin, which stays behind after the Cheshire Cat disappears: there is no meaning in this statement, even though Lewis Carroll was able to articulate it in language, to great effect.

Let me try to illustrate this with an example: movement is a prime instance of a relational phenomenon, one which Rovelli himself uses in his original 1996 paper. Movement, indeed, is always relative: if you are sitting inside a high-speed train, relative to you the train is not moving; but relative to someone standing on a platform, the train is moving at high speed. Movement is relational. With this example in mind, Rovelli essentially maintains that the entire physical world is like movement; it's not made of things with standalone reality, but of relationships. Up until this point I agree wholeheartedly with him, for the theoretical and experimental results simply prove this to be the case. However, Rovelli now proceeds to deny that there is anything that moves. So we end up with a world in which everything is movement but there is nothing that moves. Is this coherent? Does this even have any meaning, in a semantic sense, beyond the words themselves?

How does Rovelli justify this rather surprising proposition? He cites 3rd-century Indian mystic Nāgārjuna, interpreting the latter's writings to mean that there is no ultimate essence to reality except emptiness. So the world is made of movement, although there is nothing that moves, because ultimately the world is empty; it's made of nothing. This surely would sound great in a late-romantic poetry book, but is it reasonable when taken literally? Does it make any explicit sense? After all, when I look around I do see a lot going on. That I deny naive realism doesn't entail or imply that I deny the obvious existence of something.

Although I think and work mostly under the value system of the Western Enlightenment—which takes objective, explicit, unambiguous, logically consistent, conceptually clear, empirically substantiated reasoning to be the reliable path to truth—I am known to admire Indian and Eastern philosophy in general as well. They embody a different avenue to knowledge: that of meditative introspection and self-inquiry, a subjective—as opposed to objective—path of exploration. Kierkegaard referred to the exponents of these two paths as 'geniuses' and 'apostles,' respectively, highlighting their differences.

Personally, I think both paths have their merits and are complementary. I myself have adopted both paths in different works. Although the majority of my output is based on objective reasoning and evidence, I've treaded the subjective path in e.g. my book, More Than Allegory. However, I don't think it is valid to mix and match these paths in the course of defending any particular point of view, because doing so is blatantly inconsistent; it's a way to indulge in confirmation bias. Allow me to elaborate.

Rovelli takes a purely objective path to the conclusion that the physical world is entirely relational. He uses explicit, conceptually clear logical reasoning and empirical evidence to do so. He goes where this reasoning and evidence take him, all the way until a point where the inevitable implication is something he doesn't seem to like: that there must be a deeper, non-physical and non-relational layer to reality, which grounds the relationships that constitute the physical world, giving semantic meaning to the very word 'relationship.' From that point on, Rovelli arbitrarily abandons all post-Enlightenment epistemic values and switches to a vague, ambiguous, hand-waving, second-hand appeal to the mystical insights of someone who is no longer around to clarify what he meant. Never mind that the result is a peculiar Frankenstein monster, neither objective nor subjective; that Rovelli managed to avoid a conclusion he doesn't like—he describes how relieved he was upon reading Nāgārjuna, because the latter freed him from the pressure of having to find out what the underlying essence of reality is—seems satisfactory to him.

It's far from satisfactory to me. The paths of the 'genius' and the 'apostle' are complementary in the sense that, when both are applied in an internally consistent manner and lead to the same conclusion, we get a particularly satisfying kind of reassurance that we are on to something. But switching between these two modes in the course of making a point is entirely akin to changing the rules of the game while it's being played: it's cheating. When Rovelli does this, he puts his subjective preferences ahead of an objective inquiry into nature, and abandons the post-Enlightenment epistemic values that he has been known to champion. We get Rovelli the mystic, the apostle, dressed in a lab coat. This is not okay, not only because it isn't honest—and by this I don't mean that Rovelli is being malicious or deliberately deceptive, just that he seems to be deceiving himself and inadvertently misleading his audience, which has come to expect level-headed objectivity from him—but also because it leads to a literally meaningless conclusion: that the world is made entirely of movement, although there supposedly is nothing that moves.

Not only is it internally inconsistent to mix and match objective and introspective modes, introspective insights are also well-known to be largely ineffable. Therefore, when put to words, they almost invariably fail to capture the salient nuances of the intended point. That's why whole schools of thought in the East (and some in the West) have entirely given up on trying to explain what reality is. Instead, their writings are what Peter Kingsley refers to as forms of 'Μῆτις' (Mêtis) or 'incantation': they are meant not to describe reality, but to trick you into seeing it for yourself; to make you 'trip over' your own conceptual narratives and finally see through them. In weaving these incantations, sages will freely and liberally use contradiction, cognitive dissonance, metaphor, sleight of hand, shocking absurdities pronounced with a solemn face, deliberate inconsistencies, lies and, sure enough, even true statements mixed in; only the desired effect counts (Nisargadatta Maharaj, the Eastern sage I admire the most, contradicts himself several times in each page of I Am That). And I believe this is all epistemically valid because it is entirely consistent with the stated goals. The problem only arises when one fishes out a particular statement from the mystical writings of someone else, interprets it literally—as if it had been written by an 18th-century European philosopher in the finest Apollonian tradition, as opposed to a 3rd-century Indian sage—and then uses it as an arbitrary bridge to change the course of what is otherwise meant as an objective argument. This just doesn't work and should be viewed with at least great suspicion.

Rovelli has been one of the greatest exponents of the post-Enlightenment epistemic values in the 21st century. I regret that he now seems to be so breezily departing from those very values, so as to acquiesce to his own subjective preferences about what nature should or should not be. Subjective, introspective paths of inquiry may even be the royal road to truth, but their value rests precisely in direct, personal insight. I would find it laudable if Rovelli decided to engage in self-inquiry and the whole arsenal of meditative techniques, in order to directly experience the nature of reality for himself; he might then find out that that 'emptiness' is mind at rest, a subject without objects, pregnant with the potential for every conceivable internal relationship. But fishing out statements from someone else's introspective insights is consistent neither with objective reasoning nor with the schools of direct knowing, for the words of the latter were never intended to be used in this manner (again, they were meant as 'incantations,' not descriptions). Instead, it's a disservice to both and dilutes the credibility of the otherwise priceless legacy Carlo Rovelli has been methodically building for decades.

The Church's incomprehensible suicide

I woke up today to the news that the Vatican has declared homosexuality a 'sin' and a 'choice' (Some have claimed that what the Vatican considers a 'choice' is merely a homosexual union, not sexual orientation per se. But let us be frank: if one's sexual orientation isn't a choice, neither is one's aspiration to a homosexual union. I therefore stand by my interpretation: by framing homosexual unions as a choice, the Vatican is effectively framing homosexuality itself as a choice. For sexuality without union is either an empty notion or a call to promiscuity. And I doubt the Vatican is guilty of the latter.). The irony is pungent, as the only choice here is the Church's: that of insisting on playing legislator, prosecutor and jury, instead of nurturing re-ligion—from the Latin re-ligare, to re-connect with transcendence. As a result, while the Church busies itself with using its now-scarce airtime to encourage violations of human rights, we are left without religion. How did it come to this?

I have had the rare privilege of—very, very briefly—meeting His Holiness Pope Francis almost three years ago; an opportunity I treasure sincerely and with all my heart. He strikes me as a man who understands the Church's dilemma, who wants it to focus on liturgy—the preeminent expression of true religion—and has enough human empathy to cognize the suffering the Church has historically inflicted on the LGBT community. But clearly, either I am wrong about him, or he is unable to lead the Institution of which he is the head. Either way, the result is the same: the pursuit of a suicidal path for the Catholic Church and the imposition of even more suffering on a community that has already had a lot more than its fair share. This is a multi-dimensional catastrophe. If this Pope couldn't change course, what hope have we left?

It's not like the issues in question are subtle, or nuanced, or difficult to evaluate, or ambiguous, or unclear, etc. No. They are crystal clear and very plain. Let us review them briefly.

If an institution were to tell you that you cannot love the person you love, that loving them is a sin, that you are sick for loving them, or—insult beyond insult—that you choose your sexual orientation and gender identification, you would immediately and unambiguously declare it a violation of your most basic human rights: the right to love and the right to be who you are.

If an institution were to declare that your sexual orientation is some kind of willy-nilly game of make belief—that you, in reality and by your very nature, are sexually attracted to another gender than you purport to be, presumably just for the heck of it or to irk others—you would revolt at such a preposterous accusation. Who believes that a homosexual transsexual chooses to live a life of constant exclusion, scorn and discrimination, and to engage in sexual acts with people they supposedly aren't attracted to, just for the heck of it? No, really, who in their sane mind believes this? I mean, we don't even need to bring science into this—never mind, for instance, that about 25% of fruit flies are homosexual, presumably because they choose to be so just to irk the scientists who study them—this is a matter of plain, good-old commonsense.

Let me try to make this more alive for you. I happen to have been born a heterosexual male. So I imagine the Church telling me: "Bernardo, you don't really like women, you just choose to pretend to like women, just for the heck of it. What you really like—and should like—is men, and you should go have sex with men and dress like a woman." How about that? This is what is being said to the LGBT community.

While the Church busies itself with this kind of ancillary and dangerous nonsense, we, our culture, our society, continue to starve of meaning, of purpose, of spiritual nurture, of transcendence, of love—in short, of re-ligion. Why? Because the Church is missing in action, busying itself with stuff that, at best, has little, very little, to do with re-ligion. You see, nobody in their sane mind is going to go to Sunday mass just to be judged according to archaic standards. And therefore—guess what?—few, and ever fewer, go to church. What they need—namely, re-ligion—is not to be found in a church anymore. And this is the Church's deliberate choice; the only true choice being made here.

The Church's notion that it does what it does because it is grounded on the solid tradition of the Bible is a monumental intellectual misunderstanding and failure. I, for one, would never call for the Bible to be re-written or re-edited or upgraded; that's not the point. On the contrary: the Bible, as it is, is the spiritual treasure of the West, just as the Holy Quran, the Vedas and other traditional scriptures are spiritual treasures as well. The Bible shouldn't be made out to be something other than what it is, for the value of a treasure resides in what it is.

HOWEVER, it is naive to think that the Bible embodies its own standalone meaning; that's not the nature of the written word. The meaning of words is evoked through an act of interpretation. We cannot evade it: without interpretation, the written word is just squiggles of ink on paper. Whatever you think the scriptures say, is the result of an interpretation. Maybe you espouse a particular interpretation and reject others, and maybe you are even right about it, but your choice is still an interpretation; it cannot be anything else, for only a deliberate act of interpretation can extract meaning from mere syntax and grammar.

As such, when one calls for the Church to evolve, to progress, to stay in tune with the needs of the time, one is not necessarily calling for a break with the traditional written word, or a departure from our tried-and-tested spiritual foundations. Again, I shall grant this unreservedly: the sacred words of scripture must not be upgraded or re-edited; they do not need to—and should not—evolve, for they are the intuitive reflection of eternal absolutes. But—and this is the crucial point—we evolve, we change, we develop the ability to interpret the absolute through new perspectives, under new lenses, with more depth and nuance. And we have the moral obligation to do so, for anything else constitutes an evasion, a denial of life.

Therefore, our very act of interpretation—which determines how the eternal words of scripture reveal themselves to us—evolves, changes, unveils hitherto obfuscated angles, perspectives and layers of meaning. To deny this is to deny the divine gift of becoming; to willfully choose ignorance over wisdom. For if the progression of our own spiritual insights are to be cavalierly dismissed and pooh-poohed, what spiritual perspectives are we left with? How is any moral code ever to be grounded on spiritual insight, if the latter becomes a mere fossil?

The Church's take on conservatism is thus based on a logical fallacy. It misses the whole point and then—to add insult to injury—encourages and provides moral justification for flat-out violations of human rights. This is a disgrace, and all I have for it is contempt.

I have long despaired over the slow death of the Church in the West. But no more. This is the final straw for me, personally. Perhaps the death of this Church is, after all, what is required, so that something with true life in it might emerge from the ashes. For an institution that makes the inane and cowardly choices the Church insists on making—including the recurring choice to focus on everything but re-ligion—has no true life in it anymore. It is a mere phantasm running on inertia.


Decoding Jung's Metaphysics: Prelude

Today my new book, Decoding Jung's Metaphysics, is being published. To celebrate the occasion, I am reproducing below Chapter 1, 'Prelude,' of that work. Enjoy!


Call it not vain—that lofty thought
Which peoples heaven with visioned lore,
So that each star of light is fraught
With some fair chronicle of yore:—
Call it not vain, though earthly vision
May not peruse that page Elysian,
But strive to read it in vain;
Mind will the links of form supply,
Of forms that never more may die,—
To mind they are all plain.

Leopold J. Bernays, from the poem The Constellations, published in the appendix of his translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1839)

Born on the margins of Lake Constance, in Kesswil, Switzerland, in the summer of 1875, Carl Gustav Jung was one of the most important figures of early modern psychology. Together with Sigmund Freud, he pioneered the systematic exploration of the depths of the human psyche beyond the threshold of direct introspection, a mysterious realm he and Freud called ‘the unconscious.’ Both men discerned tremendous significance in aspects of our inner lives that had hitherto been neglected by science, particularly dreams.

The author, sitting on the margins of Lake Constance, across from where Jung was born.

However, unlike Freud—who thought of the unconscious as merely a passive repository of forgotten or repressed contents of consciousness—for Jung the unconscious was an active, creative matrix with a psychic life, will and language of its own, often at odds with our conscious dispositions. It is this aspect of his thinking that led Jung down avenues of empirical investigation and speculation rich with metaphysical significance. This little book is about those extraordinary speculations and their philosophical implications.

As we shall soon find out, for Jung life and world are something very different from what our present mainstream metaphysics—materialism—posits. The conclusions of his lifelong studies point to the continuation of psychic life beyond bodily death, a much more intimate and direct relationship between matter and psyche than most would dare imagine today, and a living universe pregnant with symbolic meaning. For him life is, quite literally, a kind of dream, and interpretable as such.

Jung was many things: psychiatrist, psychologist, historian, classicist, mythologist, painter, sculptor and even—as some would argue with good reasons—a mystic. But he expressly avoided identifying himself as a philosopher, lest such a label detract from the image of empirical scientist that he wanted to project. Nonetheless, much of what Jung had to say about the psyche has unavoidable and rather remarkable philosophical implications, not only concerning the mind-body problem, but also the very nature of reality itself. Moreover, when he was being less guarded—which was often—Jung made overt philosophical statements. For these reasons, as I hope to make clear in this book, Jung ultimately proved to be a philosopher, even a very good one.

In the pages that follow, I shall first attempt to tease out the most important metaphysical implications of Jung’s ideas on the nature and behavior of the psyche. Second, I shall try to relate Jung’s many overt metaphysical contentions to those implications. Third, based on the previous two points, I shall try to reconstruct what I believe to have been Jung’s implicit metaphysical system, demonstrating its internal consistency, as well as its epistemic and empirical adequacy. I shall argue that Jung was a metaphysical idealist in the tradition of German Idealism, his system being particularly consistent with that of Arthur Schopenhauer and my own.

The consistency between Jung’s metaphysics and my own is no coincidence. Unlike Schopenhauer—whose work I’ve discovered only after having developed my system in seven different books—Jung has been a very early influencer of my thought. I first came across his work still in my early teens, during a family holiday in the mountains. Exploring on my own the village where we were staying, I chanced upon a small bookshop. There, displayed very prominently, was an intriguing book titled I Ching, edited and translated by Richard Wilhelm, with a foreword by one Carl Gustav Jung. Jung’s introduction to the book revealed the internal logic and root of plausibility of what I would otherwise have regarded as just a silly oracle. He had opened some kind of door in my mind. Little did I know, then, how far that door would eventually take me.

Jung’s hand in my work can probably be discerned in many more passages than I myself am aware of, for I have internalized his thought so deeply over the years that I don’t doubt I sometimes conflate his ideas with mine. Moreover, Jung’s image has been a perennial presence in both my intellectual and emotional inner lives. In moments of stress, anxiety or hopelessness, I often visualize myself in conversation with him—he would have called it ‘active imagination’—so as to envision what he would have had to say about my situation. This level of intimacy hopefully helps me represent Jung’s thought accurately and fairly in this volume. The reader should have no doubt that doing so is of utmost importance to me.

Naturally, it is also conceivable that the same intimacy could hamper my objectivity, leading me—surreptitiously and unintentionally—to pass an idiosyncratic amalgamation of his views and mine for his metaphysics. To guard against this risk, I’ve re-read—for the third or fourth time in my life—all of Jung’s relevant works in preparation for writing this volume. I have also reproduced relevant excerpts of Jung’s writings to substantiate my case, only making assertions I could trace back to multiple passages in their corresponding context. This, I hope, ensures the objectivity and accuracy of my interpretations.

Jung has written over twenty thick volumes of material over his long and productive life. Much of it is limited to clinical psychology or mythology and has little metaphysical significance. The material that does have metaphysical relevance, however, is still quite extensive.

The author, with a red pyramidal lake stone uncannily reminiscent of the one Jung describes in his autobiography.

So whenever Jung’s views changed—substantially or simply in terms of nuances—over the years, I have prioritized his later writing. In addition, Jung’s metaphysical views seem to have congealed only towards the end of his professional life, which renders his earlier writings less relevant. For these two reasons, my argument is based mostly on works he wrote from the 1940s onwards, with two exceptions: the edited transcripts of his Terry Lectures, held at Yale University in 1937-1938, and a collection of essays published in 1933. Both provide tantalizing early insights into Jung’s growing confidence regarding his metaphysical views.

It is important to notice that, regardless of the period in which it was written, Jung’s discourse on metaphysics and related topics comes nowhere near the level of conceptual clarity, consistency and precision that today’s analytic philosophers demand. Jung was an extremely intuitive thinker who favored analogies, similes and metaphors over direct and unambiguous exposition, appearing to frequently contradict himself. This happened because he didn’t use linear argument structures, but instead circumambulated—a handy Jungian term meaning ‘to walk round about’—the topic in question in an effort to convey the full gamut of his intuitions about it. Indeed, he didn’t arrive at his views purely through steps of reasoning to begin with, but largely through visionary experience. It is thus only natural that he should express these views in an intuitive, analogical manner.

In this context, Jung’s many seeming contradictions reflect attempts to explore a theme from several different perspectives and reference points. For instance, if he claims that the psyche is material, just to turn around and say that it is spiritual, he means that there is a sense in which the psyche is analogous to what we call ‘matter’ and another sense in which it is analogous to what we call ‘spirit,’ each sense anchored in its own implicit reference point. It is these radical and sudden flips of perspective—confusing and aggravating for an analytic disposition as they are—that help Jung delineate and express his views in a way that appeals to more than just reason.

Before closing this brief introduction, a few notes on terminology are required. Throughout this book—unless otherwise stated—I try to stick to the same terms and denotations that Jung himself used, even though his terminology is now largely outdated. I’ve done so to maintain consistency with his corpus. For instance, Jung defines ‘consciousness’ as something considerably more specific than what philosophers today refer to as ‘phenomenal consciousness’ or simply ‘consciousness’ (this, in fact, has been the source of endless misunderstandings of Jung’s work). So, unless I explicitly write ‘phenomenal consciousness,’ I use the terms ‘consciousness’ and ‘conscious’ according to Jung’s own restrictive definition.

Some of the other terms I use have both colloquial and technical philosophical meanings, which unfortunately differ. I try to consistently use those terms in their technical sense. By the term ‘metaphysics,’ for instance, I don’t mean supernatural entities or paranormal phenomena, but the essence of being of things, creatures and phenomena. As such, a metaphysics of nature entails a certain view about what nature is in and of itself, as opposed to how it behaves (which is the subject of science) or how it appears to observation (which is a subject of cognitive psychology and phenomenology).

But fear not: knowing as I do that much of the readership of this volume will be composed of psychologists, therapists and people generally interested in metaphysics—as opposed to professional philosophers alone—I’ve striven to keep the jargon to a bare minimum. I also either explicitly define technical terms on first usage or use them in a way that makes their intended meaning clear and unambiguous from the context.

This is only one of many stylistic choices I’ve made to ensure that this little volume is not only readable, but also clear, compelling and enjoyable to a general readership. I hope you find inspiration in it to, someday, delve more deeply into Jung’s extraordinary legacy.


A strange perspective on the practice of science: response to Peter Vickers

A more complete, revised and final version of the essay originally published here is now available at: 

Vickers portrays the practice of science as a subjective exercise driven by majority opinions, prejudices and vulgar associations. It is almost embarrassing to have to respond to such a piece, but here it is, nonetheless.


The anti-establishment sentiment

Very few things in the cultural dynamics of our civilization these days are clear. But one of them is this: the anti-establishment sentiment that manifests itself in many different ways, but most notably in politics, is not a passing fad; it's not a blip or a temporary aberration; it reflects, instead, a more fundamental movement in the collective human psyche that is here to stay.

As a nominal member of the intellectual establishment who, nonetheless, has been fighting—for over a decade—against what is perhaps the most entrenched position of that establishment, I am not surprised by this movement. To speak only of metaphysics, which is my main area of expertise, it is patently obvious to me that militant, self-appointed intellectual elites often display an appalling combination of prejudice and hubris, ignorance and condescension. Although their understanding of the relevant issues is often shockingly limited, they behave as though they were the authorities everybody else is supposed to blindingly follow. How long could this last before people saw through the charade?

We've come to a point where a significant portion of the intellectual establishment sincerely regards what is effectively a prejudiced manipulation of the masses as education; a point where otherwise legitimate and important social values—such as intellectual authority and political correctness—have been hijacked and weaponized for the sake of preserving an outdated status quo. For these reasons, the attitude of "trust me, I am an authority and I know better than you" has taken on overtones of deceit and conceit. How could anyone be surprised by this?

There are broadly legitimate grounds for anti-establishment sentiment. Decades—if not centuries—of hubris, condescension, prejudice and manipulation don't go unnoticed. However, as is the case in any major movement of the collective psyche, this sentiment carries with it both an opportunity for betterment and a potential for disaster. I've written about this before:

Neo-skepticism and post-truth: a call to reason

Dismantling idols: the current cultural inflection point

I do feel, however, the need to repeat what I believe to be some of the most critical points. If you share in the anti-establishment sentiment I described above, please keep in mind, as you read what follows, that I am coming from the same place you are coming from.

Like you, I look with disdain upon noisy pseudo-authorities, the self-appointed police of pseudo-reason, the pseudo-philosophers who see themselves as guardians of science and truth, the pompous mouth-pieces of scientism, etc. But I do not disregard science itself. That some science is visibly bad, that scientific conclusions can be—and often are—reversed, that some scientists are plain idiots: none of this entails or implies that science itself isn't valid or critically important. Let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Science is extremely valuable and indispensable to our survival. Without it, we won't be able to live on this planet once our population plateaus at around 11 billion people mid-century. Indeed, science is perhaps the most important human development of the past five centuries. We owe much to it, and depend on it for our very lives. My own work is largely based on science, often the science done by my opponents.

It goes without saying that some scientific results are unreliable (science is done by humans and, as such, just as imperfect as we all are), but there are scientific conclusions so robust that they command broad consensus: human activity is changing our climate in ways that threaten our survival; vaccines work and have saved countless millions of lives; COVID19 is vastly more dangerous than the flu; face masks and social distancing help contain the spread of respiratory diseases; etc.

Human-induced climate change poses perhaps the single greatest existential threat our civilization has ever faced. We—or worse, our children—will pay an unimaginably steep price for inaction in this regard. We must get our act together at a global scale to adapt some of our way of life, limit emissions, preserve what is left of our planet's natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and ultimately save ourselves. It is flat-out criminal to ignore this, or use it for short-term political gain.

We must also be mindful of what I call multi-level deceptions: those in which the deceiver points with dissimulated indignation to an actual deception carried out by someone else—thereby deliberately riding the wave of our outrage—merely to pass his own deception for the alternative. Astute bigots and con artists the world over have realized that this is a fantastically effective way to disarm and manipulate people so to push their self-centered agendas: it preys precisely on the justifiable anti-establishment sentiment emerging in the collective psyche. What a tragedy it would be to see through old lies and manipulation just to fall—uncritically—for another, more up-to-date form of manipulation.

Let us not allow bigots and con artists to use our hard-earned skepticism to deceive us. Let us not allow the naked paranoia of beyond-implausible conspiracy theories to turn our anti-establishment sentiment into a bad joke that delegitimizes it and disenfranchises us. Let us honor the realization that our idols are hollow, their message deceitful, manipulative and condescending, but not lose our bearings by swinging to the opposite extreme of unreason. No previous generation has faced threats of the magnitude we are now facing. If we are to have a chance to survive as a civilization, we must exercise our discernment very carefully: the truth is always more nuanced and multifaceted than what any tweet or Facebook post can capture.

Above all, let us never forget that those who are the targets of our most severe value judgments are also human beings, struggling, suffering and afraid like we all are, despite possible appearances to the contrary. After all, we have, by necessity, become experts at putting up a brave face—towards others and towards the mirror—even when our soul is dissolving into tears that flow inwards. May the common humanity of these invisible tears somehow unite us and see us through the storm ahead.


Open letter to Bill Gates

Dear Bill,

On this day in 1955 humanity welcomed you to this weird but wonderful world of ours. Since then, you have been a tremendous force, leaving your mark in our civilization in many different ways. You are one of a very few people who have been taken into history already in their lifetimes, which speaks volumes to your capacity to exert change. So, before anything else, let me wish you a happy birthday and many, many more productive years.

Although it is your birthday and you are the one to make a wish, I shall dare to make a wish for you: may you be more vocal and assertive in your drive to restore nuclear power as a safe—certainly much safer than e.g. coal-burning plants, as far as human health is concerned—extremely cheap, clean and readily available source of energy for humanity. As I've discussed elsewhere not long ago, if we are to save our environment and make our civilization sustainable on the long run, passive-safety reactors, which you are familiar with and investing in, are an obvious choice with no comparable alternatives.

Indeed, if we are to recycle our refuse on a grand scale, we need ridiculously cheap, readily available energy, for recycling consumes huge amounts of it. If we are to implement vertical and urban farming—our best option to achieve sustainable food production on the long run—the enormous energy demands of 24/7 artificial lighting are only plausibly met by cheap nuclear power. If we are to survive the imminent drinking water crisis, we need desalination plants everywhere, whose enormous energy demands can, arguably, only be met by nuclear power plants. The list goes on. A green sustainability revolution can only be enabled by clean nuclear power, for which the technology options are available. I wish environmentalists and governments would understand that.

So this is my appeal to you: please dedicate more effort and resources to making people—particularly environmentalists—aware that the nuclear technology we have today is entirely different from the dirty, unsafe nuclear reactors of the 50s and 60s. With passive-safety technologies available today, a defective nuclear reactor is one that simply shuts down by itself, and never melts down. With technologies we have today, nuclear reactors consume nuclear waste, as opposed to producing it. I don't have kids, but if I did, I would be quite happy to live right next door to a nuclear power plant built on these new technologies. And these technologies are—at least as far as I can see—the only game in town to enable a truly green sustainability revolution; our only plausible option to save our environment and, frankly, ourselves.

I do not have the platform required to raise awareness of this; but you do. The vast majority of people won't have the understanding of technology and science to conclude, by themselves, that we have the technologies to clean up our act, if only we deployed them. What the vast majority of people do have is prejudice; prejudice  evoked by Chernobyl, Fukushima and Three Mile Island; disasters caused by ridiculously primitive and dangerous nuclear reactors, for which we have vastly better and safer alternatives today. Even governments—pressured by popular prejudices that drive voting patterns—surrender to what they know is a flawed position; just look at Germany. Only someone like you, with your means and visibility, can help raise awareness of this critically urgent issue. We can save ourselves and the planet, if we only are brave enough to apply the science and technology we already have.

Solar and wind power—which have, arguably, worse environmental impact than modern nuclear technology would have—are certainly good, but they will never meet the extraordinary energy demands of a green sustainability revolution. Please engage with governments and environmentalists to raise awareness of this; and if you are already doing so, please do more. Nothing is more critical or more urgent.


Bernardo Kastrup, 28 October 2020.