The Legacy of a Truth-Seeker

(This is a new, revised and extended version of a poem I originally published in 2012. I feel that this version is the only appropriate and complete one, the earlier one having missed a crucial half of the 'story.' This is also the final version. The video below was created by Peter Jones and imbues the poem with life. Thanks Peter!)


The Legacy of a Truth-Seeker

Having trodden the path for cycles uncountable,
Having crossed the ocean of mind from end to end,
Through all veils, its fountainhead have I finally seen.
To you, honest truth-seeker treading the path behind me,
I grant the gift of my legacy.

I have learned thus:

Only untruths can be experienced.
Hence, only untruths can exist.
Truth is fundamentally incompatible with existence
For it is that which gives rise to existence,
Like a loudspeaker gives rise to sound.

Experiences are self-referential tricks:
They arise from nothing and are made of nothing.
If you dig deep enough within yourself,
You shall always find the layer of self-deception
Upon which any one of your convictions ultimately rests.

One's reality sprouts from the first layer of self-deception
That escapes one's field of critical awareness.
The deeper this field, the more subtle the self-deception.
Those with little critical awareness thus live more colorful lives:
Their fiction is fancier.

The honest search for truth annihilates its own subject
Slowly, recursively, from within.
Having peeled away every layer of self-deception within me,
I have found myself to be like an onion:
Nothing is left.

Only nothing is true.
No external references exist, no outside arbiters.
We are self-created fictions and so is the cosmos.
Truth-seeking is the path to self-annihilation
And thus to liberation.

Rejoice, for your pains, fears, frustrations and regrets
Are all untrue.
There is nothing to fear, nothing to strive for, nothing to regret.
You have no soul; that's just self-deception.
And you won't die; that's just self-deception.

But beware!
As a dream allegorically portrays the inner state of the dreamer,
As a novel insinuates the aspirations of the writer,
As a lie betrays the insecurities of the liar,
So the fiction you call reality reveals something about truth.

Thus pay attention to life,
For truth expresses itself only through its own fictions.
To discern truth in fiction: here is the cosmic conundrum!
To engage wholeheartedly without being taken in: here is the ultimate challenge!
To find meaning in nothingness: here is the epic demand of nature!

Watch reality as you watch a theatrical play:
With inquisitiveness and curiosity.
But watch it as audience, never as character.
Characters spend their lives chasing their own shadows,
Whereas audiences attain subtle insight.

May my legacy serve you as a warning, but also as encouragement.
The prize at the end of the path is handsome:
The freedom to make the deliberate, guiltless choice
Of which untruth to live.
Exercising this choice wisely is the art of life.
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Without Philosophy, Medical Science is Lost

By Larry Malerba, DO

(This is a guest essay by Larry Malerba, adapted from his new book Metaphysics & Medicine: Restoring Freedom of Thought to the Art and Science of Healing, with a Foreword by Don Salmon. For my own perspectives on the topics addressed below, see my earlier essay on the subject.)

The Doctor, by Sir Luke Fildes (1891). Source: Wikipedia.

For quite some time now, freedom of thought has been under siege within the medical profession. More often than not, the war against new ideas is justified in the name of science. When a discipline like science becomes so certain of itself that it believes it can manage without periodic reexamination of its basic principles, it starts to resemble a doctrine. The more doctrinaire it is, the less receptive to outside input it becomes, and the more it balks at challenges to its authority. In the final analysis, medical science justifies its assertions simply by virtue of the claim that it is science. As a consequence, medicine has become intolerant of freethinking and is fast falling behind the curve of new paradigm medical theory and practice.

We romanticize science as man’s search for truth when, in actuality, it often plays the role of defender of the status quo. Rather than a tool for exploration, science has become a means to stifle inquiry and free speech. Science easily becomes an ideology when a civilization neglects its philosophical heritage, spiritual development, and moral responsibilities. The only answer to scientific overreach is a return to freethinking. Just like freedom of religion we need freedom of medical choice and the freedom to debate basic scientific and medical principles. To do otherwise runs contrary to the spirit of science itself.

The modern myth of scientific progress posits that science inevitably evolves toward greater precision, certainty, and understanding. We take it for granted that contemporary science provides a more accurate representation of reality than the science of bygone eras. But this is a highly debatable point that philosophers of science have wrangled over for decades. It is true only in the sense that it applies in a specific and limited way to the material dimension of existence. Science focuses its attention on matter but says nothing about the immaterial, that aspect of our lives that involves purpose, meaning, spirit, and soul. It treats emotion, intuition, imagination, and even psychology as ancillary topics. As far as neuroscience is concerned, consciousness exists only as a byproduct of brain anatomy and function.


Modern science has become increasingly imperialistic, overstepping its bounds and staking claim to basic truths that historically have been the exclusive province of religion, theology, and metaphysics. The message is clear: the only reality is the hard, cold reality of material existence. All else is unscientific, insignificant, and of little relevance to human health.

Modern life is defined largely by the tangible, quantifiable reality that science has mapped out for our convenience, drained of all its symbolic, synchronistic, and spiritual meaning. Our form of medicine is also a reflection of that same influence. Human illness has become a strictly physical event. There is no purpose to suffering; it is merely an inconvenience, a glitch in the biological program that needs to be overridden. By severing consciousness from disease, science believes that it has purged the program of superstition.

When we open our eyes to compare our personal health-related experiences with what medicine teaches us, we begin to realize that something is amiss. Physical medicine is incapable of adequately addressing the deeper causes of illness and the needs of the psyche. We collectively buy into the legitimacy of the external authority of science and medicine, no longer believing our own personal experiences. Medical science is quick to point out that subjective experience cannot be trusted. The rational theories of medicine take precedence over the experiential truths of patients.

I believe that this conflict between scientific knowledge and personal experience is the crisis of our time. The purported unreliability of subjective experience is one of the primary tenets of scientific method. Science has been waging war against subjective experience for a very long time now—and it has taken its toll on Western culture. In the same way that organized religion makes us hesitant to trust personal spiritual truths, medical science has undermined our confidence to make health care choices that are in our own best interests.

Personal experience should not need validation from science in order to justify itself, although it is certainly nice when the two agree. Medical science, on the other hand, does need to be verified by personal experience. If a medical theory or therapy does not bear itself out in the practical experiences of patients, then one has to wonder about its reliability. Restoring trust in experiential knowledge will be the first step in rectifying this imbalance.

Modern science has no ground to stand on when it comes to the larger truths of human existence. It fails to realize that its discoveries have distinct limits—they apply only to the material universe. Because science has deliberately divorced itself from right-brain input it is incapable of achieving a truly holistic understanding of the universe and of medicine and healing.

Western culture has become dangerously alienated from its own spiritual roots. Into the vacuum steps science, functioning as a substitute for religion for many, providing a sense of hope and meaning in an otherwise impersonal and materially impermanent universe. When science fulfills this need, however, it is in danger of becoming just another competing dogma. When science becomes an ideology it is no longer science; it is scientism.

Whereas religious fanaticism once led to the persecution of heretics who dared to question, it is now conceivable that we are not far off from scientistic persecution of those who challenge the dogmas of science. There is no greater evidence of this than in the medical arena, where ideas proposed by holistic practitioners are routinely rejected without fair deliberation, regardless of their merit. They are branded pseudoscience the minute they deviate from conventional theory. In short, they constitute a heretical threat to medical dogma.

Conventional science’s lack of awareness of its own metaphysical presuppositions is the very thing that predisposes it to scientistic influence. The solution is to educate ourselves regarding the differences between science as it was originally conceived, science as it is construed by mainstream medicine today, the particularly disturbing modern trend called scientism, and a more authentic and inclusive form of future medical science that will no longer ignore the lessons learned and knowledge gained from subjective experience.

Most philosophy of medicine is limited to unadventurous discussions of bioethical dilemmas posed by orthodox medical practice. Basic metaphysical assumptions are never questioned. True philosophy of medicine that examines medicine’s philosophical roots has no real voice. It is important for both patient and practitioner alike to become cognizant of the beliefs that underpin Western medical principles. Without this, it will be difficult to institute any kind of meaningful change.

Medicine allows its unconscious philosophy to guide its practices. Putting the cart before the horse, medicine looks for evidence to confirm its predetermined beliefs regarding the nature of illness and cure. It puts theory before practice. When patient outcomes do not corroborate its theories, it persists, forcing the issue in the hope of making reality conform to theory. A simple example of this is the failure of antibiotics to keep up with increasing microbial resistance. Reluctant to revisit the basic principles of germ theory, medicine continues to assume that the only viable approach to infectious disease is to kill bacteria and viruses. This leaves no other option but to continue doing more of the same.

Dysfunctional medical practices and poor patient outcomes begin with false beliefs regarding the nature of health and illness. This makes it nearly impossible for conventional medicine to develop a coherent theory of disease development and treatment. Without a conscious philosophical framework to guide it, medicine has deteriorated into a haphazard collection of treatments and procedures that are subject to change at a moment’s notice. The latest study contradicts a previous study, which invalidates the original study. This is not, as we are led to believe, the trials and errors of science at work. It is medical science navigating without awareness or understanding of its own guiding principles.

I am concerned about modern science’s pervasive disregard for experiential authority, its increasing disrespect for the sacred, and its general encroachment into territory where it does not belong. The same applies to medicine as a whole—it makes light of patient input by calling it anecdotal, focuses almost exclusively on the physical, and downplays the role of consciousness in health and healing. It is the trend in popular culture to refer to those who critique science or medicine as “science deniers.” Many fall for this trap, arguing that science should not be open to criticism. A healthy scientific culture should welcome criticism and review.

A common debate within philosophy of science is whether science is capable of revealing the true nature of reality or whether it is a tool used to achieve practical ends. I am more concerned with whether medical science is capable of serving its original mission of healing the sick. However, it is important to understand what reality means from a holistic perspective. Holistic reality encompasses all phenomena, including consciousness and subjective experience, not just the objective material aspect of human health that medicine deems reality. Healing is a holistic phenomenon that involves much more than just targeted symptomatic relief, temporary palliation, or forcible suppression. It implies that the overall health of a person is moving in a positive direction over the course of time.

Contemporary medical theory is increasingly out of step with the leading currents of our time. What is needed is a renaissance in the field of medical philosophy. In concurring with medicine’s materialistic approach to healing, academic medical philosophy abdicates its responsibility, thus losing an opportunity to make significant contributions to the advancement of medical science. We are in need of a practical medical philosophy that addresses the real needs of patients and practitioners. It is time to bridge the gap so that philosophy becomes indispensable once again to the art and science of healing.

Copyright © 2014 by Larry Malerba. Published with permission.

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Larry Malerba, DO, DHt is a physician whose mission is to build bridges between holistic healing, conventional medicine, and spirituality. He is the author of Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care and Metaphysics & Medicine: Restoring Freedom of Thought to the Art and Science of Healing. He is board certified in Homeotherapeutics, is Clinical Assistant Professor at New York Medical College, and past president of the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. Dr. Malerba has written articles for Huffington Post, Natural News, and the American Holistic Medical Association. He is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Ireland. www.SpiritScienceHealing.com.
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Debating materialism at Sages & Scientists 2014


Logo of the Sages and Scientists conference.

As many of you know, last August I gave a talk and participated in a panel at the Sages & Scientists Symposium in Carlsbad, California. This is an extraordinarily interesting and balanced event, where most sides of the metaphysical spectrum are represented. Deepak Chopra envisioned and hosts the event every year. Carolyn Rangel, of the Chopra Foundation, masterfully puts it all together and runs it. The result is unique and that weekend will stay with me for years. Sages and Scientists surely deserves a lot more coverage than it gets. It's an example of the kind of thing we desperately need more of in our culture.

Here is the video of my brief talk. It works well as a general and easy overview of my philosophy, very accessible to any lay person:


And here is an edited, shortened version of the "Science and Consciousness" panel held in the first evening of the event. I trust you will find much to think about in this discussion involving some of the world's best known and most respected materialists and non-materialists (plus little-me in the middle!).


The participants, sitting from left to right, were: Neil Theise, Stuart HameroffRudy TanziHenry Stapp, myself, Menas KafatosErhard SeilerLeonard Mlodinow, and Michael Shermer. Deepak moderated it.

My most sincere thanks go to Deepak and Carolyn for making it all possible, for giving me the privilege to participate, and for authorizing the video uploads above!
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To understand the anomalous we need MORE skepticism, not less

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

According to Jung and Pauli, things are connected in a web of meaning.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.

Recently, arch-skeptic Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and field-marshal of militant skepticism worldwide, wrote a surprising piece for the Scientific American. In it, Shermer relates a synchronicity that happened recently to him and his wife (both of whom I've had the recent and sincere pleasure to meet in person), in the occasion of their wedding ceremony. The synchronicity seems indeed to have been particularly disconcerting, impacting both Michael and his wife Jennifer at a deep emotional level. I'll let you read the details for yourself. The point I want to make here is this: Shermer confesses that the synchronicity – which he termed an 'anomalous event' – has shaken his skepticism to the core. Personally, I think this is unfortunate; it reflects a generalized misinterpretation of what skepticism actually means. Indeed, I think the problem with the militant skeptic movement is that it isn't skeptical enough. Like an army attempting a forward-escape when pressed into a corner, I think the solution to Shermer's dilemma is not to abandon skepticism, but to embrace it more fully, in an internally-consistent manner. Allow me to elaborate.


Skepticism is a general and healthy attitude of doubt. In terms of ontology and cosmology, a skeptical attitude translates into a preference for parsimony: if we can explain empirical reality with less theoretical entities, why postulate extra, unnecessary ones? Theoretical entities should be doubted unless they are necessary to make sense of things. The parody of the "flying spaghetti monster" evocatively illustrates why parsimony is preferable from a skeptical perspective. While we can't disprove the existence of the monster, we don't need to postulate it in order to make sense of the world. Another example: if you find footprints in your backyard one early morning, you could infer (a) that a burglar tried to break into your house during the night, or (b) that aliens from another dimension landed their spaceship at your neighbor's property, somehow stole his shoes, and then went for a stroll in your backyard before departing to space. Although you cannot disprove explanation (b), the reason you will certainly prefer (a) is parsimony: it only requires entities that you already know to exist (burglars). Explanation (b), on the other hand, requires postulating a number of new theoretical entities: aliens, spaceships and extra dimensions. Clearly, skeptical parsimony is a good and important guiding principle in our efforts to understand reality.

But parsimony regarding theoretical entities is not the same as parsimony regarding nature's degrees of freedom. Less theoretical entities may actually imply that nature has more degrees of freedom to operate. Let me unpack this with an example: during the seventeenth century, so-called "effluvium" theories dominated research on static electricity (see Shavinina, L. V. (2003). The International Handbook on Innovation. Oxford, UK: Elsevier Science, pp. 440-1). For centuries it had already been observed that, if a piece of amber was rubbed, it would attract chaff. Researches postulated that the rubbing dislodged a material substance, called "effluvium," which then stretched out in space mechanically connecting the amber to the chaff and, like an elastic band, pulled the chaff to the amber. The problem with this theory is that it could not account for electrostatic repulsion. So committed to their effluvium theories researchers were at the time, they couldn't even see repulsion: they would describe chaff mechanically "bouncing off" or "falling from" the amber, but not being repulsed by it (see Kuhn, T. S. (1996). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Third Edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, p. 117).

Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.

Precisely by postulating an extra, unnecessary theoretical entity that acted mechanically between bodies (that is, effluvium), researchers artificially constrained the degrees of freedom of nature (that is, they could not accept electrostatic repulsion, only attraction). A failure of skepticism at the level of theory led directly to misplaced skepticism at the level of empirical phenomena. So much so that researchers would even refuse to see instances of electrostatic repulsion when it was right in front of their eyes. Electrostatic repulsion was turned into an 'anomaly.'

Shermer, as nearly everyone else engaged in militant skepticism, seems to conflate parsimony regarding theoretical entities with parsimony regarding the degrees of freedom of nature. Proper skeptical parsimony is not about declaring things to be impossible. It has nothing to do with pruning as many degrees of freedom off reality as conceivable. After all, reality remains what it is regardless of our theoretical abstractions. Proper skeptical parsimony is about making sense of reality with as few postulated theoretical entities as possible. The very concept of 'anomaly' is a reflection of this misunderstanding of parsimony: an anomaly (if true) is simply a phenomenon that doesn't conform to our theoretical expectations. It doesn't have a different ontological status than any other phenomenon in nature, for the same reason that electrostatic repulsion doesn't have a different ontological status than electrostatic attraction. Both are entirely normal and natural.

Today, the metaphysics of materialism postulates an extraordinarily complex theoretical entity: a whole universe fundamentally outside the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure, which is consciousness itself. Materialists do this for exactly the same reason that researchers earlier postulated effluvium: it seems to be a reasonable inference that explains most aspects of reality (provided that you refuse to see the anomalies, of course). The problem is that it makes an implicit and fallacious assumption: it assumes that reality cannot be made sense of without the postulated world outside consciousness. If it can, then, based on the application of proper skeptical parsimony, it is as unnecessary to postulate a world outside consciousness as it is to postulate the flying spaghetti monster. Indeed, I claim that we can explain reality on the basis of excitations of consciousness alone. This has been done in allegorical language in several of the world's metaphysical traditions. It has also been done in modern, straight-forward, logical language in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. Summaries and overviews of my argument can be found in other recent essays in my blog, as well as in recent videos in my YouTube channel, all of which I invite you to peruse.

Now, the key point is this: precisely by succeeding in explaining reality with less theoretical entities, we realize that what materialism considers anomalous is, in fact, entirely natural. When we dropped effluvium, electrostatic repulsion also became natural. What Shermer considered a shattering anomaly can, under this more parsimonious and skeptical metaphysics, be seen as ordinary. More details in my book. And that reality is allowed to have more degrees of freedom under this view does not, in any sense whatsoever, contradict the proper application of skeptical parsimony. Much to the contrary.

In conclusion, in order to make sense of anomalies what we need is more skepticism of the proper kind: skepticism about postulated theoretical entities like the spaghetti monster and a whole universe outside consciousness (which one is more inflationary?). More skepticism of the proper kind will allow us to see that nature has more degrees of freedom to operate than we could accept to be the case before. And, as we've seen, this won't even be the first time in history that we make, and then correct, this kind of mistake. Michael Shermer has no reason to abandon skepticism. If anything, he now has an extra reason to embrace his skepticism more fully and in an internally-consistent manner.
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Theology: Jerry Coyne's reply


This is a portrait of me, according to Jerry Coyne. :-)
Read to the end to understand!

A few days ago I posted an essay responding to Jerry Coyne's attack on theology. The essay was later picked up by the Science and Non-Duality website. Coyne has now responded to it in his blog. The present post is a reply to that.

After some gratuitous attacks and sarcasm directed at the Science and Non-Duality website, Coyne writes:
Kastrup, who was trained as a scientist (see below) but then jumped the rails and abandoned materialism, has decided that I’m dead wrong—that theology has an object after all, and that he can prove it.
There isn't a single instance in my essay in which I use the words "prove" or "proof." My point was, and remains, that there is a coherent way to think of certain concrete aspects of nature as matching the most common attributes associated with the word 'God.' Coyne creates a straw man here.
"Why Materialism is Baloney" sets off warning bells, but of course that must perforce be the view of someone who’s defending God’s existence.
There isn't a single instance in the book where I argue for the existence of a personal deity. The book consists in an entirely naturalistic account of reality based on the principles of parsimony, logic, and empirical honesty. Coyne would have known this if he had read even a few sections of the book he is commenting on. (Thanks for the free promotion, by the way! As they say, any publicity is good publicity!) My motivation to talk about 'God' was entirely derived from Coyne's own attack on theology. As people familiar with my output know, before now I have even refused to use the 'G' word in public presentations.
Throughout the article Kastrup implies that there is no reality independent of consciousness ... That, of course, is untenable, as there is plenty of evidence about what was going on in the Universe before consciousness evolved.
This is a silly logical fallacy known as 'begging the question.' Coyne is assuming materialism – the notion that consciousness is generated by biological nervous systems – in his argument against a non-materialist ontology. If one argues that the ground of reality (that is, the ontological primitive) is consciousness itself, then nervous systems are in consciousness, not consciousness in nervous systems. Nervous systems are thus images of particular processes in consciousness, which could and did evolve later than other, earlier processes in consciousness. As such, the fact that there is evidence for the existence of the universe before biological nervous systems evolved simply does not invalidate the argument. More on these silly logical fallacies in the video below.


But of course you can further argue that our notion of what happened before brains existed is a construction of those brains; but I don’t think that anybody who is science-friendly wants to go that route.
Neither do I, as is clear from the essay Coyne is commenting on. Did he really read what he is criticizing? Anyway, after this Coyne finally starts to raise points that at least aren't silly:
First, when there is a human being who says she is conscious, we know that that that human exists and is saying those words.  We don’t know the same about God, whirlpools or not. In other words, the existence of a Universe says nothing about either human or divine consciousness. While we can perceive other humans, there is no similar evidence for God. But at least we know that our view of reality is filtered through senses that have evolved (largely to represent reality!), and in real, demonstrable entities.
The notion that inanimate reality is an image of mental processes in mind-at-large is a necessary implication of the starting premise of my ontology – i.e. that all reality can be explained as excitations of consciousness alone (not necessarily personal consciousness, mind you) – and empirical observations. I reject the inference of a whole unprovable universe outside consciousness, on the basis that it isn't necessary to make sense of things and fails parsimony criteria. From this and from the empirically-undeniable observation that brain activity correlates with first-person experience, we can deduce that brain activity is the image of subjective experience (as viewed from the outside). It can't be anything else. Now, from this latter point and the empirically-undeniable observation that consensus reality is a shared experience originating beyond personal awareness, we can deduce that empirical reality is the image of conscious processes in mind-at-large (as viewed from the outside). It can't be anything else. There is no false analogy here. The logic is clean.
In contrast, Kastrup is stuck not only with having to sneak in God via a false analogy, but then with his claim that theology has valid methods for understanding God’s “consciousness” though his creation.  That’s Natural Theology, a discipline that became obsolete with Darwin, though it has had a revival of sorts with arguments about “fine tuning” and “The Moral Law”.
Well, this isn't really a rebuttal of anything. The point of my argument is that there is a place for natural theology. I then proceed to explain what it is and why dismissing it was unwise. To refute this, Coyne has to do more than simply point to the historical fact of its earlier dismissal, which is not in contention. What he does instead is a mere re-statement on his position. I can't begin to imagine where he found any false analogy anywhere near this...
It’s not so obvious to me that these attributes—particularly “omnipotence”—would apply to even a Universal Consciousness. You can see here that Kastrup, desperate to prove his god, is simply making stuff up: throwing out words without considering whether they fit into a logical framework.
According to the premise of my argument, all reality is an excitation of mind-at-large, analogously to how quantum field theorists say that all reality is an excitation of a postulated quantum meta-field. Unlike the quantum meta-field, however, mind-at-large is, by definition, conscious. We can thus conclude that whatever reality was, is, and will be, it was, is and will be the conscious manifestation of mind-at-large. There is a strong and obvious sense in which this is omnipotence, since it entails conscious, operational power over all reality, past, present and future.
Yes, theology tries to find out about God from nature. The problem is that it can’t find out squat, because its methods don’t allow the discernment of truth.
This is an arbitrary statement from someone who is not versed in theology.
That is why, of course, the gazillion different religions on this planet have come to different conclusions about “God’s perspective.”
I am certainly not going to defend religious literalism here, which I probably dislike more than Coyne's materialism. Now, if one looks past the pedestrian literal appearances of different religions, one finds significant, quite fundamental, and even altogether amazing commonalities, as many theologians know. I hereby recommend to Coyne Aldous Huxley's wonderful book The Perennial Philosophy.
How does Kastrup know that the Hindus are wrong and there’s only one God?
Touché! Err, maybe not. Hindu theologians know pretty well that all deities of Hinduism are meant symbolically as aspects of one single immanent and transcendent entity, Brahman. In another correspondence with Christianity, Hinduism also has a Holy Trinity of their own, called the Trimurti, encompassing the deities Brahma (not Brahman), Vishnu and Shiva. Vishnu even 'incarnates' as a man, considered Son of God and named Krishna, which echoes Christ, God incarnate and member of the Christian Holy Trinity.
Kastrup’s argument fails miserably, I think, though it’s not for want of trying.
This just doesn't follow from the foregoing. It's an unsubstantiated claim.
It’s because, like all such arguments, it’s motivated less by logic than by wish-thinking. The man starts with his conclusion—God exists—and then retrofits the arguments to “demonstrate” that. Like all theology, it’s philosophical creationism.
I actually start from the notion (substantiated extensively in the book) that consciousness is a sufficient ontological primitive, everything else following from that plus empirical observations. What Coyne writes above is an empty rhetorical device.

Coyne closes with a proper ad hominem:
Sadly, I was unable to ignore this flea, as I had an attack of Maru’s Syndrome.
Glad you didn't ignore me, Jerry. I feel very jumpy!
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The magic trick of disappearing consciousness

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

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Explaining consciousness remains one of the top unanswered challenges in science and philosophy today. How can the warmth of love, the bitterness of disappointment, the redness of an apple, the sweetness of strawberries, be explained in terms of mass, momentum, charge, spin, or any of the attributes of matter? How can concrete qualities be explained in terms of abstract quantities and relationships? Nobody has an answer to this, and not for lack of trying. Such absolute failure to resolve the so-called 'hard problem of consciousness' has led to a bizarre twist in philosophy of mind over the past three or four decades: the trick of disappearing consciousness. In a nutshell, it consists of this: since we cannot explain consciousness in terms of unconscious matter, it must be the case that there is actually no consciousness; that consciousness is somehow an illusion. In what follows, I'll contend that this position is absurd, lacks empirical and logical integrity, and is pursued solely out of psychological, cultural, and social pressures. The very fact that I find myself in the position of having to make a case for this is a clear indication, I believe, of the appalling state of our culture and epistemology at all levels today, especially the highest, academic ones.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett is perhaps the leading proponent of the disappearing trick. In his book, inaccurately and rather pretentiously titled Consciousness Explained, as well as in his talks titled The Magic of Consciousness, Dennett shows that many of our perceptions and beliefs are illusory, in the sense that they do not correspond to consensus facts. He parades a whole list of perceptual illusions right out of National Geographic's TV show Brain Games to make his point. This, he claims, chips away at what we call 'consciousness' and will eventually lead to the conclusion that, ultimately, there is nothing there; that the notion of consciousness will 'disappear' once we understand all the tricks employed by the brain. It's difficult to see how illusions of and in consciousness can indicate the non-existence of consciousness (I tend to suspect that they indicate the opposite), but bear with me. As the title of one his TED talks illustrates, Dennett claims explicitly that consciousness – that is, qualia, subjective experience itself – is an illusion. At the end, there is just the material brain. Obviously, Dennett doesn't close his argument: he is unable to actually explain how some perceptual illusions – particular contents of consciousness – could possibly imply the non-existence of consciousness itself. He just leaves us with the promissory note that, at some point in the future, somehow this will be the case.

And Dennett isn't alone. Others, like psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, suggest the same thing, as this short video illustrates (also below). Despite being a surreal display of in-your-face incoherence, the fact that the video is cladded with the gentle and trust-inspiring demeanor of an affable old man renders it worth watching; if nothing else, for the curious cognitive dissonance it triggers. And since Richard Dawkins has recently tweeted this very video, I think it is fair to conclude that Dawkins too, endorses this curious view of the nature consciousness.


Despite the surreal spectacle I just subjected you to, let us try to remain collected and lucid here. If consciousness is indeed an illusion, who or what exactly is having the illusion? Where can the illusion reside if not in consciousness itself? After all, if the illusion weren't in consciousness, we couldn't be talking about it, could we? The supposed non-existence of consciousness simply does not follow from the observation that certain perceptions or beliefs fail to correspond to consensus facts. If anything, what does follow is that there is such a thing as consciousness, where the illusions pointed out can reside. Dennett suggests that, if enough aspects of experience are found to not correspond to consensus facts, consciousness will be shown to be inexistent. This is wholly illogical: even if we find one day that everything we experience fails to correspond to consensus fact, that will simply show that consciousness is populated with illusions; it will leave consciousness itself intact. We are still conscious of illusions, in exactly the same way that we are conscious of our dreams. This is all so obvious it pains me to have to point it out.

To try and escape the inescapable, the magicians will appeal to language games and a kind of word-dance that materialist philosopher Galen Strawson called 'looking-glass': to use the word 'consciousness' in such a way that, whatever one means by it, it isn't what the word actually denotes. The result is two-fold: on the one hand, you can't pin down the magicians because, whenever you debunk a certain interpretation of their argument, they claim that they meant something else with the word 'consciousness.' On the other hand, the implication is that the magicians' position becomes entirely hollow. Why do they do this? Why these ridiculous semantic dances, word games, purely grammatical bridges pretending to be logical arguments, and promissory notes that defy reason? More on this below. For now, bear with me a little longer.

If we have the patience to tease apart some of these word-dances, we find out that what appears to be denied are just some of the face-value traits ordinarily attributed to consciousness, not consciousness itself. Consider this quote by Susan Blackmore in a 2002 article:
If consciousness seems to be a continuous stream of rich and detailed sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts, then I suggest this is the illusion.

First we must be clear what is meant by the term “illusion”. To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be―more like a mirage or a visual illusion. And if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery.
Naturally, this completely empties the trick of any significance. Yes, consciousness apparently isn't exactly what it seems to be on face-value... duh. So what? To say that some of the face-value traits ordinarily attributed to consciousness are false doesn't mean that consciousness itself – raw subjective experience – is an illusion. To argue otherwise would be entirely equivalent to proclaiming that, because the Earth isn't flat – as it appears to be on face-value – then it must be an illusion; and to proclaim this while standing firmly on the Earth! Where is one 'standing' when one consciously proclaims consciousness to be an illusion?

Obviously, raw subjective experience – that is, consciousness – isn't an illusion: it is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know. It is the sole undeniable empirical fact of existence. Yet, Blackmore chooses her language so to still be able to say 'consciousness is an illusion.' Read this part of her quote again: "To say that consciousness is an illusion is not to say that it doesn’t exist, but that it is not what it seems to be." This usage of language sounds a bit counterintuitive to me. When we say that the alien spaceship in the sky last night was an illusion, we mean that the spaceship wasn't there; that it didn't exist. Maybe an airplane existed there instead, but not the alien spaceship. Similarly, when we say that the movement in this image is an illusion, we mean that the movement isn't there; that it doesn't exist. But when it comes to consciousness, Blackmore departs from this intuitive usage of the term 'illusion.' Why? Why look for a counterintuitive way to still label consciousness an 'illusion'? At the very least, this opens the door wide open to misunderstandings, since the word 'illusion' clearly evokes non-existence. When we learned that the Earth was actually a spheroid, we didn't turn around and proclaim the Earth to be an illusion. We simply said that the Earth wasn't what it seemed to be. So why not just say: 'consciousness isn't what it seems to be' and stop there? Instead, Blackmore went as far as titling her piece "The Grand Illusion."

Before you get excited about conspiracy theories, I think the explanation for this is as human as it is prosaic: if a magician acknowledges that the 'illusion' of consciousness is just a matter of false attributions – like we falsely attributed flatness to the Earth without the Earth becoming any less real because of it – then the magic trick is revealed and loses its appeal. The magician that does this goes out of business. That some of the face-value traits ordinarily attributed to consciousness are false is trivial; it means exactly nothing as far as solving the hard problem of consciousness. It leaves us exactly where we started: we cannot, even in principle, explain how raw subjective experience arises from mass, momentum, charge or spin. But would that be an acceptable admission? Careers have been built on the premise that we are making progress in unraveling the 'hard problem.' If that turns out not to be the case, what would happen to funding, prestige and promotions? What would happen to one's legacy even after one's death? What would happen to one's feelings of self-worth and meaning in life? In this context, it is easy to see how tempting it could be to find a way to say that 'consciousness is an illusion' (even though it would more-than-likely evoke the wrong meaning, as it actually did) and thereby implicitly suggest that the 'hard problem' is becoming more treatable. Look at the last statement in Blackmore's quote: "if consciousness is not what it seems, no wonder it’s proving such a mystery." This is a rather overt attempt to understate the 'hard problem.' And it is fallacious. Give this some thought, but please notice: I am not suggesting here that there is purposefully misleading or dishonest behavior on the part of Susan Blackmore or anyone else. I personally, and sincerely, do not think that such is the case. I rather think she and the other magicians are fooling themselves; the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing. Indeed, what I am suggesting is that we all have natural, understandable, and perhaps even unavoidable subconscious motivations that impact our opinions and judgment in a way that completely escapes the field of our critical awareness. And I believe that this is behind much of the in-your-face incoherence and absurdity in philosophy of mind today. The subconscious power of emotional commitment to a position, once one become's invested in it, should not be underestimated; even among those who proclaim the supremacy of logic and reason.

Other magicians don't go as far as Dennett, but buy into – and promote – the fundamental notion underlying the magic trick. Take Paul and Patricia Churchland, for instance: their claim is that certain aspects of conscious experience do not really exist – like beliefs and intentions – although something most of us would call 'belief' and 'intention' is undeniably experienced by every person to have ever lived. The Churchlands conclude so because these aspects of experience appear to be structured along syntactical patterns that have no obvious correspondence in brain anatomy or function. Naturally, one can criticize their position by pointing out that one also cannot find the high-level structure of software in the gates and wires of the computer chip running the software. Nonetheless, that obviously doesn't mean that the software structure is inexistent. But let's leave this aside. The point here is this: the Churchlands contribute to the absurd notion that one can deny the existence of direct, felt experience on the basis of theoretical abstractions.

The Churchlands' position is ontology-bound: they start from the inference that the brain generates the mind. Therefore, if you cannot find a brain-basis for a certain aspect of experience, then that aspect of experience cannot exist. This is entirely logical if you accept the premise. However, it doesn't change the fact that people experience something we ordinarily call 'beliefs' and 'intentions.' Even if it were correct to call it an illusion, the then-illusory experience would still be a fact as such. Whatever the case, the experience isn't nothing. And, because of the 'hard problem,' it remains entirely unexplained, despite the Churchlands' best efforts.

The Churchlands' definition of 'illusion' is based on the notion of correspondence: a thing or phenomenon A is only not-illusion if it directly corresponds to a thing or phenomenon B; otherwise it is illusion. In this specific case, A is the subjective experience of beliefs and intentions and B is the corresponding structures and dynamics in the brain. But think about this without any a priori ontological assumptions for a moment: does A stop existing just because there isn't a B to which A corresponds? Have your experiences of belief and intention disappeared just because someone couldn't find anything corresponding to them in the brain? Of course not. We could define the word 'illusion' so that we could label those experiences as 'illusions,' but that doesn't make them disappear. As existents, they must still be explained by neuroscience and philosophy of mind. The Churchlands don't help us do so.

You must now be thinking: 'OK Bernardo, you have rejected every avenue ever attempted for solving the hard problem of consciousness. So what is your solution?' My solution is simple: there is no hard problem to begin with; it is merely a linguistic and conceptual construction. You see, the 'hard problem' only arises when you (a) infer the existence of a whole universe outside consciousness, and (b) postulate that this universe somehow generates consciousness. So you end up in the position of having to explain how an abstraction of consciousness can generate consciousness. This circular problem can never be solved! We're just chasing our own tails at light speed.

Every theory of nature must grant at least one free miracle: a so-called ontological primitive. This is so because we always need to explain one thing in terms of another thing. Clearly, however, we can't keep on explaining one thing in terms of another, and then another, and then another, forever. At some point you hit rock-bottom: you encounter a thing that you simply cannot explain, but in terms of which you can explain everything else. That thing is the ontological primitive. Under materialism, depending on your favorite theory, examples of ontological primitives are the laws of physics and the fundamental subatomic particles in the Standard Model; or the hyper-dimensional branes of M-theory; etc. In all cases, you always have that thing or things for which there can be no further explanation; they simply are. Now, notice that most ontological primitives under materialism are invisible, abstract entities: nobody has ever seen a hyper-dimensional brane itself, or a superstring, or even a fundamental subatomic particle (we only observe the results of their supposed decay as indirect statistical measurements on a computer screen). The problem is that, after granting reality to abstract entities ('convenient fictions,' as anti-realist philosophers call them), we are faced with the challenge of having to explain the most concrete and undeniable aspect of existence – our consciousness – in terms of these convenient fictions. Our inability to do so is the 'hard problem.' We invent abstract entities and then try to explain ourselves in terms of our own abstractions. The 'hard problem' merely reflects a self-referential confusion of categories that has grown completely out of hand. Decades from now we will look back and wonder, flabbergasted, how we could ever have been so deluded.

In my work – see, for instance, my book Why Materialism Is Baloney – I propose that the obvious thing to do is to take consciousness itself as the ontological primitive. This is right in our faces since birth. Then, we can – and I claim to actually do it in the book – explain every other aspect of reality in terms of excitations of consciousness, which obey certain patterns and regularities amenable to modeling. Under this view, the ground of all reality is an impersonal flow of subjective experiences that I metaphorically describe as a stream, while our personal awareness is simply a localization of this flow — a whirlpool in the stream. It is this localization that leads to the illusion of personal identity. Moreover, it is your body-brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body-brain system. Think of reality as a collective dream: in a dream, it is your dream character that is in your consciousness, not your consciousness in your dream character. This becomes obvious when you wake up, but isn’t at all obvious while you are dreaming. Furthermore, the body-brain system is merely the image of that process of localization in the stream of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, your brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Yet, because the image of a process carries valid information about the process — just like the colors of flames carry valid information about the microscopic view of combustion — brain activity correlates tightly with subjective experience.

For more details of this worldview, I invite you to peruse recent essays in this blog, recent videos in my YouTube channel and, most importantly, my most recent book. It is in the book that the complete case is laid out, and nowhere else.
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In defence of theology: a reply to Jerry Coyne

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

Theology represents an ancient area of human thought.

Theology has been the subject of much bashing by neo-atheists over the past several years. A fresh blog post by Jerry Coyne today seems to encapsulate the essence of their grievance: theology is claimed to be a discipline with no subject of study. Correctly defining theology as "the study or science which treats of God, His nature and attributes, and His relationships with man and the universe," Coyne asks rhetorically: "What good is a discipline that tries to tell us about the qualities of a nonexistent object? It’s as useful as a bunch of scholars trying to tell us about the characteristics of the Loch Ness Monster, or Paul Bunyan." (the hyperlink is mine) Any counter-argument to this is delicate, since it necessarily requires defining the most overloaded word in the history of language — 'God' — in some particular way that many are bound to disagree with. Yet, there are some common attributes almost always associated with 'God,' and 'God' alone: omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence. Thus, it is fair to say that, if one can identify a subject of study for which there is concrete, objective evidence and which incorporates the three attributes just listed, then one will have debunked Coyne's argument against theology. This is precisely what I intend to do in this essay. But in order to make my argument, I first need to take you on a brief tour of a more parsimonious, logical way of interpreting the facts of reality than the materialist metaphysics entails. Bear with me.

Here is a narrated, video version of this essay:

Consciousness is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure; it is the one undeniable, empirical fact of existence. As I elaborate extensively upon in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, we do not need more than this one undeniable fact to explain reality: all things and phenomena can be explained as excitations of consciousness itself. As such, the ground of all reality is an impersonal flow of subjective experiences that I metaphorically describe  as a stream, while our personal awareness is simply a localization of this flow — a whirlpool in the stream. It is this localization that leads to the illusion of personal identity and separateness. Moreover, it is your body-brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body-brain system. Think of reality as a collective dream: in a dream, it is your dream character that is in your consciousness, not your consciousness in your dream character. This becomes obvious when you wake up, but isn’t at all obvious while you are dreaming. Furthermore, the body-brain system is the image of that process of localization in the stream of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, your brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Yet, because the image of a process carries valid information about the inner dynamics of the process — just like the color of flames carries valid information about the microscopic details of combustion — brain activity correlates with subjective experience.

This worldview entails that the brain we can see and measure is simply how personal experience looks from the outside. In other words, neurons are what our thoughts, emotions and perceptions look like when another person views them from the outside. They aren't the cause of subjective experience, but simply the outside image of experience. For example: a neuroscientist might put a volunteer in a functional brain scanner (fMRI) and measure the patterns of his brain activity while the volunteer watches pictures of his loved ones. The neuroscientist would have precise measurements showing a pattern of activity in the volunteer's brain, which could be printed out on slides and shared with the volunteer himself. The patterns on those slides would represent what the volunteer's first-person experience of love looks like from the outside. In other words, they would be the image of subjective processes in the volunteer's personal consciousness; the footprints of love. But if the neuroscientist were to point at the slides and tell the volunteer: "this is what you felt when you looked at the pictures of your loves ones," the volunteer would vehemently, and correctly, deny the assertion. The first-person experience of love doesn't feel at all like watching neurons activate, or 'fire.' You see, the image correlates with the process and carries valid information about it — like footprints correlate with the gait and carry valid information about it — but it isn't the process, for exactly the same reason that footprints aren't the gait. Looking at patterns of brain activity certainly feels very different from feeling love.

As our personal psyches are like whirlpools in a broader stream, so the broader stream itself is an impersonal form of consciousness that underlies all reality. Aldous Huxley ably called it 'mind-at-large,' a term that I will adopt from this point on. Now, for the same reason that the experiences of another person appear to us as a seemingly objective image — namely, an active brain — the seemingly objective world around us is the image of conscious experiences in mind-at-large. Moreover, for exactly the same reason that feeling love is completely different than watching the brain activity of someone in love, the first-person experience of mind-at-large will feel completely different than your watching the world around you right now. The world is the image of conscious experiences in mind-at-large, but mind-at-large doesn't experience the world the way we do, for the same reason that our volunteer inside the brain scanner doesn't experience patterns of firing neurons! The volunteer experiences love, not firing neurons. When we look at the world around us, we do see the footprints of conscious experience, but not the gait. And this is why theology not only has a concrete and worthy subject of study and speculation, but perhaps the ultimate one. Allow me to elaborate.

George Berkeley used to say that empirical reality was an experience in the 'mind of God,' his term for 'mind-at-large.' The term, although admittedly old-fashioned and highly ambiguous, was and remains appropriate: if all reality consists of ripples (that is, inanimate objects and phenomena) and whirlpools (that is, living creatures) in the stream of mind-at-large, then the attributes 'omnipresent,' 'omniscient,' and 'omnipotent' apply to the stream for obvious reasons. Therefore, it is fair to say that all empirical reality is the image of ideas in the 'mind of God.' We cannot know how the world is felt by 'God' simply by looking at the world, for the same reason that a neuroscientist cannot know what love feels like just by looking at brain scans. Yet, when we contemplate the magnificence and incomprehensible magnitude of the stars and galaxies through our telescopes, we are essentially looking at a 'scan of God's brain.'

Thus, theology does have a very concrete subject: mind-at-large, or 'God.' And theology also has concrete data to make inferences about this subject: nature itself. After all, nature — from atoms to galaxy clusters — is an image of God's mental activity, just like a brain scan is an image of a person's subjective experiences. Theologians themselves have explained this in their own language, as a careful read of, for instance, Henry Corbin will reveal. If one denies the validity of nature as data for the study of 'God,' one must deny the validity of brain scans as neuroscience data. What theologians call 'Creation' is the 'scan' — the image, symbol, metaphor, icon — of 'God's' ongoing, conscious, creative activity. "All the world an icon," as Tom Cheetham summarized it. Goethe, in Faust, preferred the word 'symbol' instead of 'icon.' He wrote: "All that doth pass away / Is but a symbol." What in nature doesn't pass away?

Coyne could counter this by saying that we already have the natural sciences for studying nature, and that the scientific method is much better suited for this purpose. This is as strictly correct as it misses the point: theology is an attempt to see past the mere images and make inferences about the subjective processes behind those images, which include emotions and intentionality; it is an attempt to see past the 'brain scan' and infer how it 'feels to feel' love in a direct way; it is an attempt to see past the footprints and understand where the hiker wants to go, as well as why he wants to go there. In this sense, theology and the natural sciences are entirely complementary.

And this isn't all. If we are whirlpools in the broader stream of mind-at-large, then the implication is clear: at bottom, our personal psyches are not only one with each other, but also one with mind-at-large. After all, there is nothing to a whirlpool but the stream itself. This way, we are merely alters of mind-at-large, in the exact same sense that people with Dissociative Identity Disorder also have multiple alters. It follows that the expression of the deepest, most obscure and obfuscated regions of the human psyche (which depth psychology has come to erroneously call the 'unconscious') may reveal something about the direct subjective perspective of mind-at-large itself. And here is the key point: people express their 'unconscious' perspectives through symbols and allegories, much of which forms the basis of religious texts. Carl Jung's masterpieces Aion and Answer to Job make this abundantly clear. Therefore, insofar as theology provides a way of interpreting the symbols and allegories of the 'unconscious' psyche so to make sense of 'God's' subjective perspective, it also has a valid subject of study and a valid source of data.

In conclusion, both nature itself and religious texts are expressions of a mysterious divine perspective and, as such, valid sources of concrete data for theological study. Theology has a clear, concrete subject, as well as a clear and concrete challenge: to decode the divine mystery behind the images (both 'unconscious' and empirical) that we can ordinarily access during life. Coyne is simply wrong. While the natural sciences attempt to model and predict the patterns and regularities of nature, theology attempts to interpret those patterns and regularities so to make some sense of their first-person perspective; that is, God's perspective. Theology also attempts to interpret the symbols and allegories in religious literature so to reveal the 'unconscious' psychic processes behind them, which betray something about the inner-workings of 'God's mind.' In both cases, theology represents an attempt to provide a hermeneutics of texts and nature. This is essential, because a life worth living isn't only about practical applications, but also meaning and purpose.
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Does it matter whether all is in consciousness?

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

Computer simulation of a forest of neurons, CC BY 2.5. Hermann Cuntz,
PLoS Computational Biology Issue Image, Vol. 6(8) August 2010.

In an earlier article in this blog, I summarized my metaphysical position in two brief paragraphs. That has led to two misunderstandings, both of which derive from this point: Although I say that all reality is in consciousness, and that there is no universe outside, or independent from, subjective experience, I also do not deny that reality exists independent of personal psyches, like the human psyche. I maintain that empirical reality is an experience of an impersonal mind, which I like to call 'mind-at-large' in honor of Aldous Huxley. As such, empirical reality isn't created by personal psyches, and would still exist as an experience in mind-at-large even if there were no life in the universe.

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

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

The second line of argument rests on the different implications and practical applications of these two alternatives:
  1. If all reality is in consciousness, then your consciousness is not generated by your body and, therefore, there is no reason to believe that your consciousness will end when your body dies. Your body is simply the image of a particular state of consciousness you experience when you are alive. When you die, that state of consciousness will change, perhaps quite dramatically. Changes in your state of consciousness, however, happen all the time: when you wake up suddenly from an intense nightly dream, your consciousness changes its state rather dramatically as well. Now, would we live life differently — perhaps in a less anxious, more present and grounded manner — if we knew that death isn't the end of consciousness? If the fear of death were no longer viable as an instrument of social control or economic gain, what would the practical consequences be for our culture, economy, and society at large? And if you knew that your consciousness isn't going to end when you die, wouldn't you be interested in investing a part of your life in preparing yourself for the transition — so it isn't traumatic — and perhaps for what might come next?
  2. If all reality is in consciousness, then your physical body is also in consciousness, not the other way around. As such, your body is the image of psychic processes unfolding in what depth-psychology has come to call your "personal unconscious." I consider the word "unconscious" a misnomer, as I explained in another article, preferring to call it "personal obfuscated consciousness" instead. Be it as it may, the implication is clear: your physical health isn't merely 'connected' to your psychic state; it is your obfuscated psychic state! I discussed this at length in an earlier essay, but the gist is that this opens up an entirely new avenue for treating physical illness through forms of suggestion, clinical psychology, and many other treatments currently considered alternative or even fringe. Indeed, the implication is that medicine could advance beyond acknowledged limits by adopting a holistic mind-body approach, whose impact on our health and well-being are hard to overestimate.
  3. If our personal psyches are merely localizations — alters — of mind-at-large, then, at bottom, our psyches are fundamentally one and the same mind. This opens the door for so-called psi phenomena, like clairvoyance and telepathy, to be credible and entirely natural. If the a priori bias against parapsychology were to disappear, what could science discover in this field? What practical applications could arise as a consequence of more widespread and better funded parapsychological research? In what variety of ways could that impact our personal lives, and those of our loved ones?
  4. If subjective experience is fundamental in nature, and not merely an epiphenomenon derivative from the mechanical behavior of matter, then our feelings and emotions carry much more weight and relevance than otherwise; they are much more significant to our sense of who or what we are, what reality is, as well as to the meaning and purpose of our lives. If love is actually fundamental, and not merely a side-effect of material chemicals suffusing your brain, wouldn't that make a difference as far as how you look upon your relationships? If your sense of calling or purpose is fundamental, and not merely the result of chemicals in your head, wouldn't that make a difference as far as the decisions and risks you take in your life to try and make your dreams come true? Wouldn't we, as a culture, have to take another look at current psychiatric best-practices if we acknowledged our feelings to be real, and not merely the mechanical outcome of chemical imbalances to be corrected with drugs?
  5. Here I invite you to complete this list with your own thoughts. There are many more significant implications and practical applications of acknowledging mind-at-large to be the ground of being, as opposed to inferring an unprovable material universe outside consciousness. I am sure you can think of some, and perhaps relate them in the comments section below.
Notice that none of the implications and practical applications listed and discussed above would hold under a materialist metaphysics; that is, under the notion that reality exists fundamentally outside and independent of consciousness. I hope, therefore, to have permanently debunked this absurd idea that acknowledging a form of impersonal consciousness to be the ground of reality is, somehow, equivalent to inferring a whole unprovable universe fundamentally outside consciousness. These are anything but equivalent metaphysical views.
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On how the world is felt

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

George Berkeley, perhaps the first rigorous Idealist in the West.
Source: Wikipedia.

In my previous article in this blog, I summarized my metaphysical position in two brief paragraphs. That has led to two misunderstandings, both of which derive from this point: Although I say that all reality is in consciousness, and that there is no universe outside, or independent from, subjective experience, I also do not deny that reality exists independent of personal psyches, like the human psyche. I maintain that empirical reality is an experience of an impersonal mind, which I like to call 'mind-at-large' in honor of Aldous Huxley. As such, empirical reality isn't created by personal psyches, and would still exist as an experience in mind-at-large even if there were no life in the universe.

The first misunderstanding that arises from the above is to conclude that there is no difference between this impersonal mind-at-large and a material world fundamentally outside consciousness, since in both cases reality exists independent of personal psyches. I will address this misunderstanding in my next essay in this blog. The second misunderstanding, which I address below, is to think that mind-at-large experiences empirical reality in just the way we, as personal psyches, experience it. In other words, if I see a wooden chair in my room, I might conclude that mind-at-large experiences that chair in just the way I do: as a four-legged object with brown color and certain grainy patterns on it. This would certainly be a misunderstanding of my philosophy, and probably false! Allow me to elaborate.

My philosophy entails that the brain we can see and measure is simply how personal experience looks from the outside. In other words, neurons are what our thoughts, emotions and perceptions look like when another person views them from the outside. They aren't the cause of thoughts, emotions or perceptions, but simply the image of the respective processes in personal consciousness. For example: a neuroscientist might put a volunteer in a functional brain scanner (fMRI) and measure the patterns of his brain activity while the volunteer watches an erotic movie (this has actually been done!). The neuroscientist would have precise measurements showing a clearly discernible pattern of activity in the volunteer's brain, which could be printed out on slides and shared with other neuroscientists. The patterns on those slides would be what the volunteer's first-person experience of arousal look like from the outside. In other words, the patterns on the slides would be the image of processes in the volunteer's personal consciousness; the footprints of those processes.

But the image of a process is not the process, for exactly the same reason that footprints are not the gait. Yes, the image correlates with the process — like footprints correlate with the gait —but it isn't it. Patterns of brain activity are certainly very different from the first-person experience of watching an erotic movie and feeling aroused. As a matter of fact, slides from a brain scanner aren't arousing at all, are they? The image of a process does carry valid information about the process, but it isn't the process, for the same reason that patterns of brain activity aren't the experience of feeling aroused! Firing neurons are the footprints of our feelings, but watching neurons fire in another person's head feels utterly different from having the experience of arousal yourself.

Now — and here is the key point of this essay — the same rationale must be applied to mind-at-large. When we watch the world around us, what we see is the image of conscious processes in mind-at-large, just like firing neurons are the image of conscious processes in another person's psyche. For exactly the same reason that feeling aroused is completely different than watching someone else's brain, the first-person experience of mind-at-large will feel completely different than watching that chair in your room. Mind-at-large doesn't experience a chair the way we do, for the same reason that our volunteer inside the brain scanner doesn't experience patterns of firing neurons! The volunteer experiences arousal, not firing neurons. Do you see the point? Tables and chairs — and all empirical reality, for that matter  are the image of conscious processes in mind-at-large; but they aren't the processes themselves. The chair is merely the way the processes look from our point-of-view; the footprint of what is happening in mind-at-large. When we look at the world around us, what we see are the images of conscious processes that completely transcend our ability to visualize from a first-person perspective. We see the footprints, not the gait. At every waking moment of our lives, just by looking around, we are witnessing a profound mystery.

As my readers know, I often use the analogy of mind-at-large being comparable to a stream, while we, personal psyches, are whirlpools in that stream. Under this analogy, our perceptions of empirical reality are ripples from the broader stream that penetrate our respective whirlpools, our sense organs being analogous to the rim of the whirlpool. This way, what we perceive are ripples, not the active processes in the stream that generate those ripples in the first place. The ripples are the footprint, not the active conscious processes in mind-at-large.

An entirely analogous rationale is well-known in depth-psychology: dreams are the image of processes in the so-called 'unconscious' psyche (a misnomer, but never mind); the footprints of the 'unconscious.' Dreams are what those 'unconscious' processes look like from the perspective of the ego. They are images that correspond to 'unconscious' psychic activity, but the 'unconscious' activity in and by itself remains just that: 'unconscious.' The analogy with empirical reality and mind-at-large is perfect: empirical reality is merely our 'dream' of the activity in mind-at-large.

In conclusion, it is a mystery to us, as localized psyches — whirlpools in the stream — how the conscious processes unfolding in mind-at-large actually feel like from the perspective of mind-at-large itself. That we can look around and see a world rich in patterns says no more about the subjective experience of being mind-at-large than watching images in a brain scanner says about the subjective experience of arousal. Bishop Berkeley, perhaps the first really cogent and rigorous Idealist, used to say that empirical reality was an experience in the 'mind of God,' his time's appropriate term for 'mind-at-large.' Borrowing from his terminology, it would be fair to say that we, as human beings, cannot ordinarily know how God experiences the world, even though the whole world is an idea in the mind of God. We cannot know how the world is felt by God, for the same reason that a neuroscientist cannot know what arousal feels like just from looking at brain scans. Yet, when we contemplate the magnificence and incomprehensible magnitude of the stars and galaxies through our telescopes, we are essentially looking at a 'scan of God's brain'!

I acknowledge my responsibility for having probably misled many of you into the misunderstanding I've tried to correct above. Although I always try to choose my words carefully, accurately and rigorously, in my effort to make my writing easier and more accessible I commit inaccuracies. When I wrote that empirical reality — including tables and chairs — is experienced by mind-at-large, I didn't mean to imply that it is experienced in the way we experience it. I apologize for the potential misdirection and hope this essay corrects any misunderstanding.
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My philosophy and quantum physics

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

Probability waves of an electron in a hydrogen atom.
Source: Wikipedia.

In my book Why Materialism Is Baloney, I argue that we do not need to postulate a whole universe outside consciousness – outside subjective experience – in order to make sense of empirical reality. The implication is that all reality, including our bodies and brains, are in consciousness, not consciousness in our bodies and brains. My worldview is compatible with a classical view of nature: it doesn't exclude the possibility that objects may exist in definite states and locations even if no living creature is observing them. Indeed, my worldview accepts a non-personal form of consciousness underlying all nature, in which objects can still exist as non-personal experiences, with definite outlines, even when not observed by personal psyches. The latest experiments in quantum mechanics, however, seem to defeat this classical view of empirical reality.* They seem to show that, when not observed by personal psyches, reality exists in a fuzzy state, as waves of probabilities. Although this seeming implication of quantum mechanics is in no way incompatible with my worldview, this essay aims to make more explicit the harmonious – even natural and synergistic – relationship between the two.

Before we begin, let me briefly recapitulate the core ideas in the book. Consciousness is the only carrier of reality anyone can ever know for sure; it is the one undeniable, empirical fact of existence. My view is that we do not need more than this one undeniable fact to explain reality: all things and phenomena can be explained as excitations of consciousness itself. As such, underlying all reality is a stream of subjectivity that I metaphorically describe as a stream of water (water being analogous to consciousness). Inanimate objects are ripples in the stream, experienced subjectively by the mind-at-large that is the stream itself. Living creatures are localizations of the flow of water in the stream: whirlpools. The body-brain system is, as such, the image of a process of localization in the stream of subjective experiences of mind-at-large. The body-brain system doesn't generate consciousness for exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn't generate water. And since there is nothing to a stream full of ripples and whirlpools but water in movement, all reality is simply consciousness in movement. The movement of consciousness/water is what we call subjective experience.

Because of a natural mechanism of amplification that I explain in Chapter 5 of the book, and briefly summarize in this article, the movements of water within each whirlpool obfuscate the movements outside the whirlpool. Therefore, a living creature is self-reflectively aware only of the ripples that penetrate the rim of its own whirlpool – in our case, our skin, eyes, ears, tongue, and nose – but is unaware of everything else going on in the stream. This is the reason why we can't see when we close our eyes: the ripples from the broader stream that we call photons can no longer penetrate the rim of our whirlpool and get amplified within it. And since our thoughts, emotions, and other forms of perception do get amplified inside, the outside ripples in the form of photons end up becoming obfuscated like the stars are obfuscated by the sun at noon. Yet, those ripples are still in consciousness, for the same reason that the stars are still in the sky at noon. They just aren't in our personal consciousness; that is, they don't penetrate our whirlpool. As such, all nature is in consciousness in the form of ripples (inanimate objects and phenomena) and whirlpools (living creatures) in the stream. But only certain aspects of nature enter personal consciousness, in the form of ripples that penetrate a whirlpool and get caught and amplified within its internal vortex.

This worldview is entirely compatible with classical physics: it does not exclude the possibility that the ripples of the broader stream that never penetrate a whirlpool can still exist in definite form, in a definite space-time locus. They can still exist as definite experiences in non-personal mind-at-large; that is, the stream itself. But quantum mechanics has been showing that such a view is untenable: when not observed by personal, localized consciousness – that is, when not penetrating a whirlpool – reality isn't definite.* Instead, it exists only as fuzzy waves of probabilities. How to reconcile this with the worldview just described?

Clearly, the ripples in the broader stream (mind-at-large) must be ripples of probabilities, governed by Schrödinger's equation. They are subjectively experienced by mind-at-large as fuzzy possibilities, not definite storylines. There is nothing counterintuitive about it: when we ponder about our own uncertain futures, we know exactly what it feels like to experience reality as fuzzy possibilities. Now, we know from direct experience that, when a ripple of probabilities does penetrate a whirlpool, the many possibilities superposed in it collapse into one well-defined, classical storyline. Thus, it is reasonable to infer that whatever collapses the ripple of probabilities into one specific storyline has something to do with the amplification inherent to each whirlpool. I would go further and speculate that the mechanism of collapse is the amplification: only one of the possibilities superposed in the ripple gets amplified, obfuscating all others in exactly the same way that all reality external to the whirlpool is obfuscated. In other words, collapse happens for exactly the same reason that you can't see when you close your eyes. This is quite parsimonious because both collapse and obfuscation are explained by one and the same mechanism in the whirlpool. Now, as it turns out, the particular storyline 'chosen' for amplification by one whirlpool is consistent with what other whirlpools also 'choose,' since we all seem to share the same reality. How exactly this synchronization happens is an open question, although there are reasonable avenues of speculation. But that it can happen isn't at all surprising, since all whirlpools are, ultimately, one and the same mind. It is intuitively reasonable to expect that one consistent storyline should prevail in this one mind-at-large.

There is a sense in which what I describe above brings the Copenhagen and Many-Worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics closer together: a kind of collapse does occur, in that only one out of the many possibilities superposed in the probability ripple is amplified and thus experienced in a classical sense. This clearly differentiates one storyline from all the others and avoids the need to postulate classical parallel universes. But this collapse isn't a fundamental ontological transition: it consists simply in the amplification of one particular possibility, which then obfuscates all others. All possible storylines continue to be experienced as fuzzy, obfuscated possibilities in the stream of mind, but only one is amplified and clearly experienced in a classical manner. Again, this is parsimonious in that it avoids the need to postulate different ontological categories for superposed ('fuzzy') and collapsed ('definite') storylines. It all becomes a matter of degree, not of change in fundamental nature. Finally, notice also that this interpretation is entirely compatible with quantum decoherence, for reasons that escape the scope of this brief essay but which physicists will immediately recognize.

This is a relatively unexplored avenue of thought that, currently, is still too speculative. In Why Materialism Is Baloney I made the deliberate choice not to include it. The first reason for this I just mentioned: it isn't mature enough. The second reason was my goal to make the ideas in the book entirely compatible with the classical view of nature, because that's much more intuitive and accessible to the average person. It is possible, however, that in the future I will elaborate more on the above. Please let me know in the comments section below if you think this is a good idea (Attention: if there are more than 50 comments you have to click on "Load more" at the very bottom of the page to read the latest comments.)

* See, for instance:
  1. Kim, Y.-H. et al. (2000). A Delayed Choice Quantum Eraser. Physical Review Letters 84, pp. 1–5. The authors show that observation not only determines the reality observed at present, but also retroactively changes the history of what is observed accordingly. This is entirely consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally a story playing itself out in mind.
  2. Gröblacher , S. et al. (2007). An experimental test of non-local realism. Nature 446, pp. 871-875. The authors show that reality is either entirely in consciousness or we must abandon our strongest intuitions about what objectivity means. Physicsworld.com, in a related article, went as far as to claim that ‘quantum physics says goodbye to reality.’
  3. Lapkiewicz, R. et al. (2011). Experimental non-classicality of an indivisible quantum system. Nature 474, pp. 490–493. The authors show that, unlike what one would expect if reality were independent of mind, the properties of a quantum system do not exist prior to observation. Renowned physicist Anton Zeilinger, in a related New Scientist article suitably titled “Quantum magic trick shows reality is what you make it,” is quoted as saying that “there is no sense in assuming that what we do not measure about a system has [an independent] reality.”
  4. Xiao-song Ma et al. (2013). Quantum erasure with causally disconnected choice. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 110, pp. 1221-1226. Again, the authors show that no naively objective view of reality can be true, which is consistent with the notion that reality is fundamentally subjective. A less-technical explanation of the experiment in this paper, as well as its results, can be found here.
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