Schizophrenic idealism

The Knight's Dream, 1655, by Antonio de Pereda. Source: Wikipedia.

The philosophy of idealism, defended through the ages by great minds like those of George Berkeley, Immanuel Kant, Georg Hegel, Gottfried Leibniz, and John McTaggart, entails that all reality is ultimately just a conscious experience. In other words, unlike realism – which postulates an external, objective world 'out there' triggering our perceptions – idealism postulates the existence of nothing but our conscious perceptions themselves. As such, idealism is a much more parsimonious and cautious worldview. Yet, somehow, realism has come to completely dominate the worldview of our culture. Most of us hardly question the assumption that there is a reality 'out there' independent of our minds; that is, that nature would still go merrily on even if nobody were looking. Leaving aside the scientific evidence to the contrary, one wonders why realism has come to be synonymous with our culture’s collective intuition of reality.

The problem is that most people, when considering the hypothesis of idealism, hardly think it through consequently. And in pondering just a half-baked, 'schizophrenic' version of idealism, contradictions arise that seem to render it untenable. This is not a sign of lazy thinking or stupidity on the part of any one of us; it’s a side-effect of the cultural fog we live immersed in. You see, in meditating about idealism most of us still unconsciously retain some key assumptions of realism. It is these hidden, unconscious assumptions that give rise to the contradictions, not idealism itself. For instance, we tend to retain the assumption that minds are inside brains. And then, given that brains are clearly separate from one another, a contradiction arises. After all, if reality is only in the 'mind' (meaning, only in the brain), how come we all share the same reality? That doesn’t seem possible; reality must be external to minds so we can all look at the same reality from the perspective of different brains. There seems to be no other possible explanation for the fact that we all seem to share the experience of a common reality. Therefore, idealism must be a fallacy.

The argument above is malformed and wrong. It judges idealism while assuming key features of realism. Namely, it assumes that minds are inside objective structures of an external reality: brains. But according to idealism there are no such things as objective structures in a reality external to mind; instead, it’s all in the mind. So the mind is not in the brain; it’s the brain that is in the mind. The dream is not in the body; it’s the body that is in the dream. As such, bodies and brains can be seen as space-time anchors for a certain point-of-view taken by mind within a kind of palpable, continuous dream. The fact that brains are separate from each other in the canvas of such dream says absolutely nothing about the limitations of mind as far as coordinating a dream shared by its many points-of-view in a very consistent manner. When an idealist says that 'it's all in here,' pointing at his head, he is at best expressing himself metaphorically and, at worst, being unconsciously inconsistent with his own position. To a true idealist, reality is not in the head; it's the head that is in the mind.

Ultimately, the dichotomy idealism-versus-realism may be no dualism at all. To say that everything is a construct within a mind is not to deny any of the qualities of experience: the concreteness, solidity, or continuity of things. This form of monistic idealism does not deny physics insofar as the latter entails models for predicting how things behave empirically; it only denies some of our ontological assumptions about how our experience of such behaviors comes into being. In other words, monistic idealism questions only our myths and stories, not our empirical observations. Such non-dualistic view entails merely that the spectrum of qualities normally associated to constructs of the imagination extends further beyond our ordinary intuition – as far as their potential concreteness, solidity, and continuity – than we ever dared think.

I wanted to write this article today to mark the release of my second book, Dreamed up Reality, in the next few days. I wanted to give you a taste of the key idea I dwell upon in it; the idea that, ultimately, all data about reality – about what may or may not be going on – resides in the mind. From a strict epistemic perspective, the 'external' world is a story we tell ourselves; a non-provable myth, reasonable and self-consistent as it may appear. As such, if one wants to set out on a path of exploration unhindered by the cultural fog we live in, one must go back to basics and start from within the mind: What does one really know from experience and what is, instead, myth and story-telling? This was my original attempt and I now decided, through my new book, to share that story.

Computers, Brains, and the End of Logic

The online video of my TEDxBrainport talk titled "Computers, Brains, and the End of Logic" is now out. See above. I wanted to complement the information on the video with two things: a PDF file of the original slides I used during the talk (since the slides were distorted in the video due probably to version differences in Power Point), and specific references to books, articles, and people I mention during the talk.

The original slides, in PDF format, can be downloaded from this page. I am sincerely grateful to the M. C. Escher company, The Netherlands,, for the kind permission to use M. C. Escher's work in my slides. Now, the detailed references:
  • At ~2:15 minutes I refer to Daniel Dennett's concept of 'Maximally Bland Computationalism.' Dennett elaborates on this concept in his lecture 'Magic of Consciousness,' available on DVD;
  • At ~3:40 minutes I begin a brief discussion on the Correspondence Theory of Truth, which is at the basis of our logic and rationality. More on this can be found, for instance, here: Stephen Read, Thinking About Logic, Oxford University Press, 1995, pages 18-31;
  • At ~4:56 minutes I refer to a certain type of experiment carried out in physics since 1981. That is a reference to the experimental validation of Quantum Entanglement. The specific work I had in mind is this: Alain Aspect et al., Experimental Tests of Realistic Local Theories via Bell’s Theorem, Physical Review Letters, Vol. 47(460), 1981;
  • At ~5:45 minutes I mention the fact that the experiment works even if the detectors are separated by miles, as done in Switzerland in the late 1990s. The reference is to the following paper: W. Tittel et al., Violation of Bell Inequalities by Photons More Than 10 km Apart, Physical Review Letters, Vol. 81(17), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.81.3563, 1998, pages 3563–3566;
  • At ~5:50 minutes I add that it also works if the choice of measurement is made only after the photons are already in flight. The reference is to the following paper: G. Weihs et al., Violation of Bell’s Inequality under Strict Einstein Locality Conditions, Physical Review Letters, Vol. 81(23), doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.81.5039, 1998, pages 5039–5043;
  • At ~6:45 minutes I refer to an experiment in Austria that threw realism into question. Here is the complete reference: Simon Gröblacher et al., An Experimental Test of Non-Local Realism, Nature, Vol. 446, doi:10.1038/nature05677, 19 April 2007, pages 871–875;
  • At ~7:10 minutes I display a snapshot of a website discussing the results of that Austrian paper. The website article can be retrieved here: Quantum physics says goodbye to reality;
  • At ~8:10 minutes I start a discussion on Intuitionism, a philosophy of mathematics created by Dutch logician Luitzen Brouwer. A thorough and more modern discussion of Intuitionism can be found here: Michael Dummett, The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic, appearing in: Michael Dummett, Truth and Other Enigmas, Harvard University Press, 1978;
  • At ~9:30 minutes I illustrate with an example how the requirement of consistency with earlier choices forces certain truths in arithmetic. The derivation I show was adapted from one appearing here: Ian Stewart, Professor Stewart’s Cabinet of Mathematical Curiosities, Profile Books, 2008, pages 37-38;
  • At ~12:23 minutes I refer to other work suggesting that truths are based on habits. I mentioned Alfred North Whitehead and Rupert Sheldrake. Here are the works I had in mind: Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, Free Press, 2nd edition, 1979; and Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, JP Tarcher, 1981;
  • At ~13:50 minutes I begin to discuss a particular work of Dutch artist M. C. Escher. The work in question is "Waterfall;"
  • At ~14:35 minutes I refer to a large detector used in particle physics. The detector in question is the ATLAS experiment at CERN, a piece of equipment I have had the privilege to help design when I was at CERN in the mid-1990s;
  • At ~14:43 minutes I refer to the 'strange loops' of Douglas Hofstadter. See: Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Penguin Books, 1979;
  • At ~15:30 minutes I quote Carl Jung on the slide. Here is the complete reference to that quote: Carl Jung, The Red Book: Liber Novus, W. W. Norton & Co., 2009, page 230;
  • At ~15:50 minutes I discuss Jung's general position on the meaningfulness of absurdity. This can be seen in nearly all of Jung's books. Two examples: Carl Jung, Dreams, Routledge Classics, 2002; and Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Fontana Press, 1995.
I hope this has been useful!

Life after TED

Image credit: TEDxBrainport 2011, Vincent van den Hoogen.

It’s been over a week since I gave a talk at the TEDxBrainport event. Here is how the organizing committee is now describing my talk:
How real is reality? Are we all collectively cheating ourselves that the world that surrounds us is real? A bit like the movie ‘The Matrix’ but without machines at the steering wheel. It's this mind-boggling thought that Kastrup leaves the audience with. Starting with the bivalent operation of computers – the instrument we use to investigate the working of our own brain – via the definition of logic, Kastrup holds up a mirror that will keep a lot of us reflecting on reality and gives a new direction to what ‘thinking out of the box’ might mean.
When I read this, my involuntary and completely sincere thought was: “Wow, I’d like to watch this talk and meet this guy!” Somehow the contents of our own thoughts seem to sound a lot more inspiring (and inspired) when they are reflected back to us through the words of others. Having read books and watched talks from other authors and speakers over the years, I’ve drifted towards the naïve notion that the people behind those wonderful ideas had a degree of inner clarity far greater than their audience's. Yet my insight from reading the blurb above is that that is not necessarily the case. After all, this time I know better than anyone how much the speaker in question is troubled by inner doubts and questions.

Some thoughts on education

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Image credit: TEDxBrainport 2011, Vincent van den Hoogen.

Education is universally recognized as a key prerequisite for a healthy, vibrant, viable society. Hardly anyone would dispute that. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a clear, unanimous view on what one should be educated for. Although there certainly are many more nuances to this question, I will limit myself to contrasting only two of them, which I consider most relevant to our present time: I will call them utilitarian education and philosophical education.

A utilitarian education aims at equipping one for the performance of practical tasks that have a direct and relatively short-term utility in a society. Electricians fix power distribution networks; engineers build dams, computers, and all kinds of handy apparatuses; physicians fix our bodies; diplomats avoid wars by resolving conflicts. The value and importance of these practical tasks to our society is unquestionable: through them, we can live longer, more healthily, and perform our own tasks more effectively. But they ignore a bigger question: Why do we live in the first place? And what should we know and understand in order to live meaningful, fulfilling lives?

This is where a philosophical education comes in; an education that equips us to look critically and thoughtfully at the world around and inside us; an education that helps us understand nature, history, and the dynamics of the human mind; an education that helps us take the lead in driving our lives to a meaningful goal, as opposed to falling unconsciously into the role of mindless consumers who only come around to asking ‘What has this all been about anyway?’ in their deathbeds. A philosophical education equips us to choose and make something truly meaningful out of our lives.

We live in an age that – especially after the 1960s – turned so drastically towards pragmatism that we’ve nearly forgotten to ask why we live. Utilitarian advancements are important in that they extend and optimize our lives, but leaving it at that is akin to restoring and turbo-charging your car so you can leave it rotting in the garage. We’re so focused in extending our lives, optimizing the performance of necessary tasks, communicating faster and more frequently with one another, accumulating wealth and, most visibly, consuming and entertaining our way to depression, that we’ve almost entirely forgotten to ask what this is all about. Why do we live? What is love all about? What is art all about? What have philosophers and poets alike been trying to say for the past few thousand years? What is going on?

It’s legitimate to try and optimize our lives, but not at the cost of neglecting to ask what life is for in the first place. Failing to provide a philosophical education that foments the growth of thoughtful human beings attuned to their own place in nature is a recipe for long-term dysfunction. A society of depressed drones going blindly about their practical tasks and mindless entertainment is hardly a utopia. The way to avoid this nightmare is not the outrageous fad that depressed human beings are simply malfunctioning robots fixable through the popping of a few pills; only a form of education that we, worryingly, seem to have lost familiarity with can provide a human alternative for our future.

Living in a world of inductive inferences

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Our unfathomable world of inferences. Image source: Wikipedia.

It occurred to me a few years ago, while watching the evening news, how much the world we live in is one of inductive inferences, that is, largely subjective extrapolations and generalizations. I’ve held this intellectual position for a long time but it was only then that it struck me as a deeply felt experience, not just a mere abstraction.

Regardless of our intellectual, religious, or philosophical positions, perhaps most of us assume many more notions about how reality is put together than the empirical facts of experience could justify. In science, this inductively inferred web of notions and beliefs takes the form of models, which are mathematical mock-ups that are to reality much like a map is to the streets of a city. Empirically, only very few positions in the map are actually tested against the actual configurations of the myriad streets it purports to represent. But since the map is generated by a coherent mental procedure – that is, a coherent set of axioms and derivations about the nature of reality, which Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm – by confirming a few of its implications empirically we attain tremendous psychological confidence about the validity of the mental procedure as a whole and, therefore, about the entirety of the map.

For instance, with the Standard Model of particle physics we’ve constructed a pretty good map of matter at the subatomic level, insofar as the Standard Model correctly predicts the vast majority of experimental observations of individual particles and relatively simple systems of particles. In other words, when we test the map against a few, small, isolated alleys of the city, we find an excellent match. And since the map was not put together ad hoc, but derived from a coherent mental procedure, we extrapolate these simple matches and inductively infer that the map accurately represents all the complex networks of streets, highways, junctions, tunnels, and overpasses of the entire city. What gets lost in this is the fact that nobody has ever simulated anything macroscopic, starting from the basic laws of particle physics, to check if the simulated results would match up with the realities we ordinarily experience. In other words, nobody really knows if the reality of the weather, the oceans, forests, people, bothersome neighbors, traffic jams, office intrigues, illnesses, marriages and divorces, teenage delinquency, politics, history, etc., can really be reduced to the empirically verified behavior of subatomic particles. As a matter of fact, nobody even knows if relatively simple, microscopic systems, like large protein molecules or DNA, can be reduced to the basic laws of particle physics. We just assume they can, because such an assumption is an axiom of the current scientific paradigm. Yet who is to say that entirely novel and irreducible causal forces don’t emerge (in the sense of strong emergence) at slightly higher levels of complexity? Who is to say that nature isn’t mostly governed by these emergent causal agencies, which only come into play when enough subatomic particles interact according to configurations currently too complex to test under controlled conditions? I discuss this hypothesis at length in Chapter 6 of Rationalist Spirituality.

An argument often mentioned in defense of science is the effectiveness of technology. We live in a technological society driven by computers, wireless communications, drugs designed at the molecular level, and all kinds of marvelous technological apparatuses. That they all consistently work is a testimony to the correctness of science, one might claim. And the evidence this provides is certainly much more visible and palpable than the relatively few and impenetrable (by comparison) laboratory experiments reported in scientific papers. Yet this argument is fallacious: technology is designed so as to eliminate – by construction – all but the potentially small set of causal forces that are understood by science. Take computers, for example: their binary behavior operates on a statistical basis. If enough electrical charges build up and cross a certain statistical threshold, the computer reads a ‘1;’ otherwise, a ‘0’ is read. It is conceivable that many more causal forces are at play in the buildup of the electrical charges but, through the diligent and ingenious application of statistical techniques, we eliminate their effect by construction. Analogous mechanisms are built into all technologies, for this is the only way to ensure that “noise” and unanticipated factors do not cause our apparatuses to stop working. Amongst those “unanticipated factors” there may lie evidence that things aren’t quite what we think they are…

Science, as a group activity subject to all the psychological and sociological biases of collective human behavior, is just an example of our tendency to extrapolate the little we know and construct vast worlds of inductive inferences to live in. Culture itself already embodies an unfathomable web of extrapolations that most of us take for granted without a second thought; as though they were empirically confirmed facts. From the moment we can understand what is spoken to us, we begin to get entangled in this web. As a result, later in life we end up assuming, for instance, that we are our brains; that our consciousness is a product of brain activity, even though there is not even a tentative, properly formed explanation for how that could possibly be the case. We accept that we are locked up inside what Alan Watts called a “bag of skin,” entirely separate from the world “out there.” We accept that the present is determined by the past, even though all that is available to observation are correlations, not causality (the latter is part of our web of inductive inferences, as I discuss in Chapter 1 of Dreamed up Reality). We assume that all reality is amenable to our rationality and ordinary perception mechanisms, even though we know the same certainly does not apply to amoebae or earthworms. We inductively infer that history and cosmology explain how we got here, even though both seem to revise their stories more often than one would feel comfortable with. We accept that death is the end of our identity and personal history, even though a growing volume of data published in leading medical journals seems to cast doubt on this notion. We believe that truth is literal, everything else being at best a good metaphor and, as such, ultimately unreal. Yet, aboriginal cultures throughout the world are incapable of making a distinction between literal and metaphorical truths (we actually have reason to believe they are correct, as I discuss in my upcoming book Meaning in Absurdity). Clearly, the world we live in is largely a matter of education and culture – of projected, inductively inferred concepts – not of hard empirical facts. If one looks critically and skeptically enough, there is precious little of the latter, if any.

Reality is far too diverse, broad, elusive, ambiguous, and complex for us to pin it down empirically to any sufficient degree. Even the empirical data we do collect can only be interpreted within the framework of a paradigm of thought and is, therefore, not really neutral. But in our desperate search for closure we confabulate models and extrapolations to construct unfathomable edifices of assumed truths. They make up the world we actually live in as far as our experience of reality; a world of stories, not facts.

TEDx Brainport talk on the limits of logic

TEDx Brainport poster.

On Friday, May 13th, I’ll be giving a talk at the TEDxBrainport event in Eindhoven, a locally organized part of the famous TED series. In there, I will be discussing some of my latest thoughts on logic and ontology – that is, on the nature of our thoughts, truth, and reality – as elaborated upon in my third, upcoming book Meaning in Absurdity (to be published by IFF towards the end of 2011 or early in 2012). The key idea I will explore in my talk is the scope of logic in our ongoing efforts to make sense of nature and of ourselves. We tend to think that, through logical and rational inquiry, we can and will eventually uncover all the mysteries of nature and of being. But that thought rests on an unjustified assumption – namely, that the limits of logic and rationality are at least coextensive with the boundaries of reality. In other words, we must assume that all reality is amenable to logic, as if logic were a somewhat omnipotent intellectual tool.

Yet we know since the time of Agrippa and his famous Trilemma that one cannot use logic to justify the validity of logic itself. Therefore, for all we know, the entire edifice of our rationality may rest on a shaky foundation of intuition alone. As it turns out, recent experiments in physics even suggest that the core foundation of our logic, the correspondence theory of truth, has no grounding whatsoever in empirical reality. So here is the question I want to ask in my talk: In order to make sense of reality and of our condition in it, do we need to transcend our current logic and rationality?