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., 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.

The greatest contradiction of common sense

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

Are these colors real, or just representations within your head?
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.

This essay is about a shocking contradiction in our common sense about the nature of reality; a contradiction that you are probably totally unaware of. Becoming aware of this contradiction has the potential to change your life.

On the one hand, our common sense says that the colors we see, the sounds we hear, the smells we feel, the textures we sense, are all the actual and concrete reality. We take it for granted that they are all really 'out there,' in the sense of being outside our heads. On the other hand, our common sense also seems to suggest that death is the end of our consciousness. Even if we don't acknowledge this intellectually or spiritually, most of us fear the end of consciousness with enough sincerity to betray our belief in its possibility.

Now, the point of this essay is extraordinarily simple: these two common-sense beliefs are mutually exclusive. They cannot be both true. Either everything you sense around you right now, including the computer in front of you, is a kind of "hallucination" inside your head, or your consciousness doesn’t end upon what we call physical death. And by the time we come to the end of this essay, I believe you will agree with me.

Here is a narrated, video version of this essay:

Let’s start with the postulate that bodily dissolution — death — indeed implies the end of consciousness. Such a notion is entirely based on the idea that your body, particularly your brain, generates all your experiences. After all, what other reason could we have to believe that consciousness ends if the brain stops working? But if the notion is true, then all of your subjective experiences and their qualities — colors, sounds, flavors, textures, warmth, etc. — are merely representations created within your head. The "real world out there" has none of the qualities of experience: no colors, no melody, no flavors, no warmth. Supposedly, it is a purely abstract realm of quantities akin to mathematical equations. It cannot even be visualized, for visualization always entails qualities of experience. In essence, if this is true, your entire life unfolds inside your skull. Your actual skull is somewhere beyond the room where you are sitting, enveloping it from all sides. After all, the room you are experiencing right now is supposedly within your head.

But what if all this is baloney? What if the colors, sounds, and smells you are experiencing right now are the actual physical world, not "hallucinated" representations within your skull? Then the necessary implication is that the physical world is in consciousness, for it is then "made of" the qualities of subjective experience. But if that is so, it is your body that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body. After all, your body is in the physical world, not the world in your body. And then, in turn, the dissolution of your body cannot imply the end of consciousness; not any more than the death of your dreamed-up avatar in a nightly dream can imply your physical death. After all, it is the avatar that is in your dreaming consciousness, not your consciousness in the avatar. Do you see the point?

Therefore, either all reality you can ever experience is a kind of "hallucination" inside your skull, or we have absolutely no reason to believe that physical death entails the end of consciousness. It’s one thing or the other. You take your pick: which alternative is crazier? I’ve taken mine: I am unable to deny the reality of my immediate experience, which far precedes the models and abstractions of our mad materialist culture.

So let us dare entertain the possibility that the physical world is exactly what it seems to be: that it has qualities, not just quantities. Let us acknowledge what every civilization before Western rationalism always took for granted: that colors, smells, sounds, and flavors are not just inside our heads. How do we then explain the big questions that materialists claim to require an abstract reality fundamentally outside consciousness in order to be made sense of?

First question: "If reality is a kind of dream in consciousness, how come we seem to be all sharing the same dream?" The idea behind this question is that, because our bodies are not connected in the fabric of space-time, our personal psyches are also not connected and, therefore, cannot be sharing a dream. But this assumes that consciousness is in the body, as opposed to the body in consciousness. If our bodies are in consciousness, the fact that our bodies are separate does not imply that our psyches are also separate. Nothing in our experience prevents our psyches from being connected — unified — at the deepest, most obfuscated level, like the visible branches of a tree unite at the invisible root. That highly obfuscated, collective root level may well be the unified source of the shared dream we call consensus reality. And that there are highly-obfuscated segments of mind (so obfuscated, in fact, that depth psychology routinely uses the misnomer "unconscious" to refer to them) is an established fact in psychology.

Are these textures real, or just representations within your head?
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the Public Domain.

Second question: "Clearly we cannot change the world by merely wishing it to be different, therefore it must exist outside consciousness." The problem here is to confuse phenomena that fall outside the sphere of volition with phenomena that fall outside consciousness itself. Not all conscious processes fall in the field of volition, as we all know: our nightmares, spontaneous visions, hallucinations, etc., are all undeniably subjective, but not under the control of our wishes. To say that the physical world is in consciousness does not contradict the fact that much of it unfolds according to strict regularities that we’ve come to call the "laws of nature." It only means that processes in a particular segment of mind —the obfuscated, collective root level — unfold according to strict regularities. To say that all nature is grounded in consciousness does not imply that all nature is grounded in the whimsical, tiny segments of consciousness that we call our personal egos, in exactly the same way that dreams and visions aren’t grounded in the ego either.

Third question: "There are tight correlations between brain states and subjective experience. Therefore, the brain must generate consciousness." Well, there is an alternative way of seeing this that is incredibly self-evident: the brain is not the cause of consciousness, but merely the image of a process in consciousness. Take lightning: it doesn't "generate" or "cause" atmospheric electric discharge; it’s just the way atmospheric electric discharge looks. Take a whirlpool in a stream: it doesn’t "generate" water; it is simply the way water flow localization looks. There is nothing to a whirlpool but water, yet we can point at it and say: "There is a whirlpool!" Similarly, there is nothing to the brain but consciousness, yet we can point at it and say: "There is a brain!" As a whirlpool is the image of flow localization in water, so the brain is merely the image of flow localization in consciousness. As such, it is no surprise that brain states correlate with personal — that is, localized — subjective experience: one is simply the outside view of the other. Yet the brain doesn’t "generate" consciousness for exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water.

Fourth question: "If I take psychoactive drugs or suffer physical trauma to my head, my subjective experience will change. Therefore, the brain generates consciousness." The rationale here is the following: pills and trauma are assumed to exist as physical things outside consciousness. Then, because they can clearly alter your subjective experiences through physically interfering with the brain — which is also assumed to exist outside consciousness — then, the argument goes, consciousness must be generated by the brain. Notice that this entire rationale simply assumes that pills, trauma, and brains exist outside consciousness, which is precisely the point in contention! You see, if all reality is in consciousness, then a pill or a well-placed knock to the head are simply the images of processes in consciousness; they are also in consciousness, not outside it. Where else could they be? What is a pill but what you see, touch, feel in your fingers? It has color, taste, texture. It's a set of subjective perceptions with the qualities of experience. As far as you or anyone else can ever know for sure, a pill is in consciousness. Therefore, that a pill or physical trauma to the head alter one’s state of consciousness is no more surprising than the fact that your thoughts can change your emotions. Thoughts and emotions are both in consciousness, and we are perfectly comfortable with the fact that they can influence one another. For that exact same reason, we should be perfectly comfortable with the fact that drugs and physical trauma also influence our subjective states. As there is nothing to the brain but consciousness, so there is nothing to a pill and physical action but consciousness.

All questions that lead materialists to naively insist on the existence of an unprovable, abstract universe outside consciousness can be logically and empirically made sense of under the rigorous and parsimonious view that all reality is a phenomenon of consciousness, in consciousness, as I explain in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. Your intuition that the world you experience around you right now, with all its colors, sounds, smells, and textures, is the actual physical world — as opposed to a kind of hallucinated reproduction inside your head — is entirely correct. The implication of that, however, is that your consciousness — your subjective feeling of being — will not cease to exist upon your physical death. This is an inescapable conclusion derived from logic, clear thinking, and empirical honesty, not mere wishful thinking. It so happens to also be a hopeful conclusion.

Magic mushrooms and brain activity revisited

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

Unidentified wild mushrooms.
Photo by Selene's Art. Used with permission.

In Chapter 2 of Why Materialism Is Baloney, I illustrate a broad pattern associating procedures that reduce brain activity with expanded consciousness. These include hyperventilation, meditation, ordeals, gravity-induced loss of consciousness, strangulation, cardiac arrest, brain damage, and even psychedelics. Indeed, a 2012 paper by Carhart-Harris et al. has showed that psychedelics only reduce neural activity, with no increases anywhere in the brain. This is counter-intuitive from a materialist perspective since, according to materialism, consciousness is brain activity (a totally inactive brain is, after all, a dead and unconscious brain under materialism). Recently, however, an inaccurate and misleading media report on a more recent paper by the same team has claimed that the researchers have now "found increased activity in regions of the brain that are known to be activated during dreaming." This, if it were true, would contradict the conclusions of the earlier study. However, it is simply false. In this article, I want to clarify this.

Before I get to the essence of the issue, I want to insist on something I feel I cannot stop repeating. To quote my own words in the book (p. 50):
In both science and philosophy one must extract conclusions not from local and partial pieces of the data, but from a careful consideration of the data as a whole. One must look for broad patterns, because it is from these broad patterns that reliable conclusions can be extracted. While particular reports of transpersonal experiences could possibly be explained away, the broad pattern that associates peak transpersonal experiences with reductions of brain activity clearly points to a robust and consistent phenomenon.
Whether psychedelics only reduce neural activity (and they do) or not, is just one small element in the broader pattern. It would be unfortunate to focus one's attention exclusively on this small element, at the cost of losing sight of the whole pattern illustrated in the book.

OK, now on to the key point. I have taken the time to read through the actual scientific paper published recently, as opposed to the science media digest. And the paper is very clear. Here is a key passage (p. 2):
...the effects of psilocybin on the variance of brain activity parameters across time has been relatively understudied and this line of enquiry may be particularly informative ... Thus, the main objective of this article is to examine how psilocybin modulates the dynamics and temporal variability of resting state BOLD activity. (The italics are mine.)
"BOLD" stands for the Blood-Oxygen-Level-Dependent activity detected by a functional brain scanner (fMRI). It is a measure of the level of metabolism in the brain region being studied. This level of metabolism is what we call brain activity. Therefore, BOLD is a measure of brain activity. Clearly, unlike in the 2012 study mentioned above, the researchers this time aren't reporting on brain activity as measured by a time-averaged BOLD, but on the variability of that activity; that is, on how much the BOLD signal amplitude changes over time. Naturally, a brain displaying higher levels of activity variation can still have, overall, much lower levels of activity than normally. This is easily illustrated in the figure below. In both graphs, the activity level is represented by the area under the curve. Clearly, there is much more activity on the left side than the right side, even though the right side displays much higher variation of activity level. Do you see the critical difference?

The researchers go on to report on their findings (p. 11):
In summary, increased variance in the BOLD signal was observed in the bilateral hippocampi and ACC ... This change in variance is the expression of an increased amplitude of the BOLD signal fluctuations in these regions ... bursts of high amplitude activity have been seen in human rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep ... Given that phenomenological similarities have previously been noted between the psychedelic ... and dream states, it is intriguing to consider whether altered hippocampal activity may be an important common property of these states. (The italics are mine)
This excerpt probably makes it abundantly clear what the journalist who wrote the inaccurate IFL Science article got wrong, and what the correct interpretation is. If I were inclined to conspiracy theories, I would be feeling rather excited by now. However, I am of the personal opinion that this is merely a case of misunderstanding by a science journalist. It highlights the need to go to the actual scientific papers when one is seriously trying to derive conclusions from new research.

The new study in no way contradicts the earlier findings. As far as I can see from all this material, it stands that psilocybin only decreases neural activity. It doesn't increase it anywhere in the brain. The new study simply finds that the levels of activity, although either unchanged or reduced when compared to the baseline state, vary more over time in brain areas associated with dreaming. That's it.

Is the increase of variability relevant for understanding how psychedelics work? Of course. The study in question argues cogently for it. Do the new results make the original results more consistent with materialism? Certainly not. Materialism states that a fully-inactive brain is fully unconscious. Therefore, there is an undeniable dependency between brain activity and consciousness under materialism. Granted that this dependency is not as trivial as to say that the more activity there is, the more consciousness there should be. That would be an exceedingly simplistic and naive misinterpretation of materialism. For instance, a brain wherein all neurons were to fire together would be maximally active, yet the amount of information in this hypothetical brain state would be equal to that in a fully inactive brain: that is, precisely zero. I grant this with no discomfort. But results showing an increase in global variability in large brain areas, consisting of millions of neurons, do not mean that there is more information in these brain areas. For instance, the graph to the left, in the figure above, could easily represent much more information at the microscopic, neuronal level than the graph to the right, provided that it is different sets of neurons that are firing at each moment. In fact, short of exceedingly high levels of activity wherein more than half the available neurons are firing, the more active a certain brain region is, the higher the chance that more information will be present.

For the reasons I summarized in the 6-point argument in an earlier reply to Steven Novella, results showing a tight correlation between decreased overall brain activity and unfathomably expanded awareness and cognitive function remain, and will always remain, highly problematic for materialism. Whichever way a materialist twists the observations to try and fit them into his metaphysics (for instance, with convoluted, ambiguous, obscurantist arguments about the interplay between excitatory and inhibitory brain activity, which I discuss at length in my book), the bottom line is exceedingly simple: under materialism, consciousness is brain activity. When one finds substantially more consciousness correlating consistently with substantially less brain activity, one is forced to contemplate the possibility that the brain is somehow associated with filtering, constraining, or localizing consciousness, instead of generating it.

Intellectual fundamentalism

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

Disclaimer: this essay adopts the format of a fictional medical description of a fictional psychiatric condition – called "intellectual fundamentalism" – for the purposes of social and cultural criticism. The essay should be interpreted metaphorically, not literally. The signs, symptoms, causes, risk factors, treatments and preventive steps described hereinafter are not – insofar as the author is aware – medically recognized or cited in, for instance, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The author disclaims any and all responsibility and liability for any and all damages incurred from misinterpretation of this essay.

Notice: although it would be natural for you to expect any criticism I write to be targeted at materialism or materialists, this time this post is not necessarily about materialists. What I say below, in my view, is as applicable to many materialists as it is to many religious literalists or people without any particular metaphysical position. Please keep this in mind while reading.

An intellectual.

Intellectual fundamentalism is a dangerous condition that affects increasing and alarming numbers of people worldwide. Though its origins can be traced to the West (some think René Descartes was the index case), modern means of communication and easy travel have allowed it to spread far and wide into the East as well. This essay is an attempt to raise awareness of this dangerous epidemic, so people can identify the early signs of the condition and take appropriate steps.


Intellectual fundamentalism is characterized by a severe psychological imbalance: exaggerated focus on one specific psychic function – namely, the intellect – to the detriment of all others, including intuition, poetic imagination, emotional intelligence, artistic sensitivity, empathy, perceptual awareness, etc. Curiously, the intellect isn't always the patient's dominant psychic function: often, those whose intellects are relatively limited also fall victim.

Signs and symptoms

Patients tend to implicitly or explicitly deny the efficaciousness and reliability of all psychic functions except the intellect. They insist that the intellect is the only valid avenue for approaching reality, even though they are unable to coherently justify why. The condition blinds them to this obvious cognitive dissonance and causes them to arbitrarily consider their position self-evident. If, while in therapy, the patient is confronted with the fact that the human psyche is equipped with many other forms of cognition beyond the intellect, he will typically point at historical instances in which these other faculties have been unreliable, while ignoring all other historical instances in which they have been vital. Such tendency at selectively considering evidence is a hallmark of intellectual fundamentalism.

In social interactions, the condition manifests itself clearly in the patient's approach to communication. A psychologically healthy individual, when conversing, tries to look past the particular logical and grammatical constructs used by his interlocutor, so to understand what the interlocutor is actually trying to say. In other words, a healthy individual is interested in what his interlocutor means, as opposed to what his interlocutor says. A sufferer of intellectual fundamentalism, on the other hand, looses interest in intended meaning and focuses, instead, on the form of the logical and grammatical constructs used by his interlocutor. The patient will fixate obsessively on what is said, losing sight of what is meant. When a logical flaw is found in what is said, the patient will construe it as sure evidence that his interlocutor is unworthy and completely close himself up to the intended message. This fixation on form above intended meaning is not only detrimental to the patient – who misses out on much of the subtlety and nuance of what others try to convey to him, particularly those who have most to contribute for seeing the world in a different way – but also to his interlocutors: it is frustrating for family, friends and acquaintances to interact with someone who insists in finding flaws in the finger pointing at the moon, instead of looking at the moon.

Indeed, sufferers of intellectual fundamentalism derive great satisfaction from finding logical flaws, ambiguities and inaccuracies in the way others communicate. Since they see the intellect as the only valid psychic function, differentiating themselves from others on an intellectual basis provides them with powerful feelings of self-worth and adequacy, hiding whatever other unpleasant psychic issues might be present. This narrow field of awareness may seem naive and ridiculous to an external observer, but it is sincerely embraced by patients and has great importance in their value systems.

Because patients are severely dissociated from most other segments of their own psyches, they become delusional in believing that all reality is amenable to intellectual modeling and apprehension, despite the complete lack of any rational reason for such belief. In other words, patients believe arbitrarily that all reality fits into the only psychic function they acknowledge as valid: the intellect. This delusion is a natural self-defense mechanism attendant upon the condition: were the patient to acknowledge otherwise, he would have to face the anxiety of great uncertainty. Moreover, he would also have to acknowledge the severe limitations of his own psychic state, with associated feelings of inferiority and shame. The delusion is, thus, the patient's effective way to avoid distress by losing contact with reality. For this reason, intellectual fundamentalism is considered a psychosis, as opposed to a neurosis.

Associated with this, sufferers of intellectual fundamentalism display a tendency to interpret everything literally. Since they are alienated from the cognitive faculties necessary to capture the deeper meaning of symbols, allegories, metaphors, and other indirect ways of conveying ineffable meaning, they have no alternative but to try and make sense of reality on a purely literal basis. Indeed, many patients deny even that anything at all exists that can't be described or conveyed in literal form. They then project their inability to see beyond literal appearances onto all other human beings, deeming others' attempts to communicate ineffable meaning to be drivel.

Depending on the degree of advancement of the condition, the denial of all forms of cognition other than the intellect usually grows to become a fixation. At this point, if still left untreated, the condition can further evolve into a hero syndrome, which drives the patient to try and "save the world" by attempting to eradicate all human activities, views, and general outlooks that do not conform to intellectual value systems. If and when this happens, the patient may become a threat to the community. The condition is also particularly contagious at this advanced stage.


The causes are not yet fully understood, but well-substantiated hypotheses have been put forward. Some speculate that attempts at self-affirmation during adolescence can evolve into intellectual fundamentalism in later years. A hypothesis is that children who are socially-impaired and have difficulties commanding the respect of their peers find self-worth, instead, in lonely intellectual pursuits. Other times, an individual might even be reasonably well integrated into his peer group, but eventually discovers that he has an intellectual edge over others, which he then attempts to profit from. The self-worth found in both cases is, naturally, directly proportional to the individual's belief that the intellect is superior to all other cognitive faculties: one needs to narrow the playing field to the particular segment where one has a perceived advantage. This way, there is significant psychological incentive for the individual to dissociate from the rest of his cognitive faculties, eventually leading to full-blown intellectual fundamentalism.

The tendency displayed by sufferers to try and humiliate others during discussions arises from the need to increase this engineered perception of self-worth. Compensation for bullying suffered in early years is strongly believed to be a factor in this process, as well as the general psychological predisposition colloquially referred to as "nerdish."

Risk factors

  • Receiving high academic education in science or engineering;
  • Working in academic, scientific, or engineering environments;
  • Being publicly recognized as an expert in a scientific or engineering discipline;
  • Episodes of bullying in childhood or adolescence;
  • Having a "nerdish" predisposition in childhood or adolescence;
  • Difficulties letting go of appearances or social posture (that is, a strong persona);
  • Lack of appreciation or patience for art, poetry, and psychology;
  • Lack of appreciation or patience for myth and religion;
  • Lack of empathy and sensitivity.

Prevention and treatment

The cultivation of a rich variety of outlooks is essential for preventing intellectual fundamentalism. For instance, if one's professional life is highly specialized and focused on science or engineering, one can reduce one's risk by cultivating hobbies such as play-acting, reading poetry and the classics, volunteering for social work (particularly with senior citizens), cultivating a vegetable garden and other forms of interacting directly with nature, attending exotic religious rituals about which one hasn't developed early prejudices, cooking, painting, attending art exhibitions, meditating, going to silent retreats, etc. It is important that one insists in pursuits that one's first instinct is precisely to avoid.

If intellectual fundamentalism has already taken hold, talk therapy with a qualified psychologist is recommended in addition to the steps above. With the guidance of the therapist, one can slowly bring up to awareness one's repressed psychic functions and cognitive faculties. In severe cases, confrontational therapy or medically-supervised journeys with legal and safe psychedelics can be last resorts.

(This essay has been written by a recovering intellectual fundamentalist who still experiences occasional rebounds of the condition.)

An interesting twitter conversation

Tweeting away...
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released in the Public Domain.

This is a somewhat unusual post, but I suspect it can be very helpful in clarifying my formulation of Idealism and general metaphysical position. Maybe many of the questions discussed below are precisely the questions you have.

First, a brief intro. As you've probably noticed, I very recently joined twitter (@BernardoKastrup). A lot of the discussions I've faced there thus far have been with militant pseudo-skeptics and focused on posturing rather than understanding. But sometimes something of real value comes up, when someone makes all the right criticisms, asks all the right questions, and tackles all the right points. This has happened in the conversation I reproduce below, which I trust you will find interesting. Many thanks to @MichaelDavidLS for this sincere and productive exchange. (PS: I've re-ordered some of the tweets to bring structure to the dialogue and make for easier reading. In the original discussion, we went back-and-forth on some of the topics in a less structured manner.)