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.)


  1. This is very funny. Does anyone here believe in synchronicity? I was just this morning grabbing an open 10 minutes to add to an ongoing response on to a critique I made of physicalism. In the course of putting the essay together, I recalled Huston Smith's comment that a psychiatrist once said to him that strictly speaking (that is, according to strict DSM - Diagnostic and Statistical Manual used by mental health workers to diagnose mental illness) materialism, or physicalism, meets the criteria for a psychotic disorder.

    Anyway, just before coming to this page, I was putting the following together:

    Key Features that Define the Psychotic Disorders


    Delusions are fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence... Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and.. do not derive from ordinary life experiences. … Delusions that express a loss of control over mind or body [as in a delusional belief that one is completely at the mercy of deterministic activities at the cellular level] are generally considered to be bizarre [such as the idea that] one's body or actions are being acted on or manipulated by some outside force [neurotransmitters, genes, etc]. The distinction between a delusion and a strongly held idea..depends in part on the degree of conviction with which the belief is held despite clear or reasonable contradictory evidence regarding its veracity.”

    So if Integral World was the patient, what would be the diagnosis? In recent years, there have been an increasing number of articles which triumphantly celebrate the delusion that an unfindable, abstract, purely quantitative shadow world exists, and that our thoughts are completely controlled by this abstract unfindable world for which there is no possibility of there being even one scintilla of evidence. There is, on the contrary, overwhelming evidence that we are in fact aware and that our mind affects our brain and body, that regular patterns of experience are inexplicable within this delusional belief system, and that there are qualities that pervade our experience which are equally inexplicable by means of these delusional beliefs. This is clearly a fixed belief “not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence.”

    This appears to meet the following criteria for Delusional Disorder, 297.1.

    A. The presence of one (or more) delusions with a duration of 1 month or longer.
    B. Criterion A for schizophrenia has never been met.
    C. Apart from the impact of the delusion or its ramifications, functions are not markedly impaired, and behavior is not obviously bizarre or odd.
    D. If manic or major depressive episodes have occurred, these have been brief relative to the duration o the delusional periods.
    E. The disturbance is not attributed to the physiological effects of a substance or another medical condition and is not better explain by another mental disorder, such as body dysmorphic disorder or obsessive-compulsive disorder [this last criterion is interesting; one assumes that Frank and David have not been taking LSD or some other hallucinogen which ahs influenced their beliefs]

    The DSM next asks the diagnostician to specify the type. The Grandiose type seems most appropriate: “This subtype applies when the central theme of the delusions is the conviction of having some great insight or having made some important discovery.

    as for intellectual fundamentalism, I rather like the term "fundamaterialism'

    Great essay, Bernardo!

    1. Great stuff! :-) Yes, materialism meets the criteria for a psychosis...

    2. Hi Bernardo!
      Another great essay. From my personal experience of watch people (including myself), I believe this personality flaw is often a result of emotional insecurities - obtained in early childhood (parental failures). I can think of two books: "Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman and "A Mistake Was Made, But Not by Me" - can't remember author. :( Cheers! :)

    3. Fantastic! Bernardo has explained lawyers and Don, economists. :)

    4. Hi Bernardo. I understand this is a tongue in cheeky piece. Maybe in the cheekines you have addressed this and I have not understood it. When I have come across people who seem to be fanatically attached to materialism under the label of 'skeptic' or 'rationalist' it is clear many of them have made real efforts to study critical thinking. Sometimes this has become a badge of self importance 'look at me and how magnificent i am at critical thinking compared to you'. But at other times the effort they have gone to seems genuine and they really do have a command of critical thinking. I still struggle to understand how it is they have so uncritically accepted materialism and avoided the crater sized inconsistencies in it. or maybe I will find out once i finish your book..

  2. I would only add that using the word "intellect" or "intellectual" to describe the extremely limited thought processes of these fundamentalists does a great injustice to true intellectuals. A good start might be to look at Iain McGilchrist's "The Master and His Emissary", or - since it takes at least a few months to really get a sense of the deeper levels of what the book explores, there are some good videos - particularly the one at Schumacher College - where McGilchrist explains the different kinds of attention mediated by the left and right hemisphere. What you are really pointing to is an extreme "left mode" form of attention - linear, narrowly focused, detached (to the point of being disconnected), only capable of dealing with the known, with an absurdly positive view of one's ability to understand reality.

    Dr. Les Fehmi tells an amazing story about an emergency room nurse who had suffered terrible migraines, panic attacks, stomach pain and a host of other ailments, and in 3 weeks cured her of all them by simply teaching her to balance this "left mode" attention with a more open, experientially immersed "right mode" attention - a kind of attention that doesn't grasp rigidly what it attends to, that is flexible, open to the mysterious and the unknown, and deeply connected to others and the world around it.

    You an find a brief overview of the story here:

    1. Hi Don, yes, as I mentioned in the text, "intellectual fundamentalism" is merely the notion that only the intellect is valid. It does not correlate with either a strong or a weak intellect, but with how one values the intellect (be it weak or strong) with respect to the other psychic functions. I see many "intellectual fundamentalists" around who have surprisingly weak intellects, as well as many very intelligent people who are not "intellectual fundamentalists."

    2. hmmm, no I meant that I thought your definition of intellect was too limited. "intellect" covers both left hemisphere and right hemisphere functioning but nowadays many people think it only applies to critical analysis - and even a terribly diminished form of critical analysis.

      I'm about 20 years older than you - and that was actually a time (though fast approaching its end) when "intellectuals" were primarily drawn from the humanities, and there were very few scientists who had anything to say to the broader culture who were given much attention. The intellect required for understanding music, literature, painting, etc is one which is integrated with narrow objective attention (the kind scientists tend to cultivate when they're narrowly educated) AND wide, open, metaphorically rich experiential attention. This is not yet intuition but it is simply a form of well-cultivated intellect that most well educated people at least through the middle of the 20th century understood to be the mark of a well educated person. Perhaps CP Snow in his late 1950s lectures was among the first to be completely idiotic about this, saying that just as someone would be considered uneducated if they didn't know Shakespeare or at least the literary equivalent, they should be equally considered uneducated if they didn't understand the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

      I don't remember the exact wording - it was really priceless - but in his 1973 book, "Small is Beautiful", E F Schumacher said that this attitude of Snow's went against everything that literate humanity had accepted as true, noble and beautiful for thousands of years. What, Schumacher said, do you miss if you don't know Shakespeare or the artistic equivalent? Your life. What do you miss if you don't know the 2nd law of thermodynamics? You won't be familiar with a particular abstract formulation, but it is not going to make one whit of difference in your quality of life.

      That's what i was referring to as the true intellect, not the severely truncated one that people like Dawkins and Dennett believe in.

    3. sorry, I'm writing too much and too fast… I meant to say the fact that I'm 20 years older than you means I can actually remember a time when there was a very different public perception of what "intellectual" meant, and it was dramatically different and far richer than our present day notion.

    4. Hi Don, you are correct: I used (and normally use) the term "intellect" to refer to the language-based, analytical, sequential, "left-brain" (a la McGilchrist) psychic faculties. Maybe this isn't an accurate use of the term but, I suspect, most people will understand it this way. I stand corrected if you think this isn't proper.

    5. as with most of your observations, you're clearly correct in spirit. For me it's more of a 'skillful means' as the Buddhists call it, or simply, a tactic.

      To avoid people thinking you're being anti-intellectual (and it's even more likely in continental Europe, where - you may be surprised - the disease of pure limited left brain thought is less than in England and the US) it could be a helpful tactic, I think, to note that unbalanced intellectual thought is the problem, rather than the full range of intellect. That is likely, I think, to get you a broader hearing overall.

  3. Hi Bernardo,

    I've been following you for a while now but never commented, I'm a big fan of what you are doing, keep it up, the world needs you.

    Love this diagnosis, the recent twitter exchange with Brian Cox springs to mind.


    1. I'm afraid I'm not amused, Bernardo. I'm rather tired of armchair psychologists pathologising my views in a couple of areas I could mention, and it would be hypocritical of me to applaud that kind of thing in relation to those I happen to disagree with.

      I would ask you to check your facts: are there no instances of people interested in the arts, possibly with great facility as poets, painters or musicians, who happen to be intellectual materialists? A brief spell with Google will show that isn't the case. Nor will you find it too hard to find examples of intellectual materialists who are deeply concerned about moral values. I can't readily understand why that's the case and agree it shows cognitive dissonance, but such people aren't psychotic, and some of them can in fact be very empathic.

      I don't agree with materialists, but I'm not going to pathologise them, even in jest. Sorry, but that's how I feel about this.

    2. Michael, this isn't a post about materialists...

    3. In fact, some religious literalists are intellectual fundamentalists in my view...

    4. Bravo, great point. I should write a post about composer Milton Babbiit's (his real name!1 delicious irony) infamous essay in 1957 - "Who Cares If You Listen?" He wrote that composers should be respectable people like mathematicians and scientists, and write for a specialist audience only who can "understand" their music.

      If you're not aware of the whole 12 tone mid 20th century thing (I unfortunately studied it for several years at the conservatory) the whole attitude fits exactly what you're talking about.

      if I have time later this week I might post something more on it. It was an enormous struggle to think I could actually write genuinely good music that people might actually want to listen to - that was so looked down upon back in the early 70s when I was in school. One teacher told me he didn't care about what music sounded like; he was only interested in "intervallic relationships."

      Truly absurd.

    5. There you go, it illustrates the point!

    6. Don you are not the first person I have heard talk about how dogmatic arts programs were then. Ironically I was a frustrated modernist in architecture in the late seventies when the dogma was post-modernism which I loathed. Funny how Boulez of all people, became a great Mahler conductor, so there is always hope. I wonder if academic arts is still movement dominated?

    7. I've lost touch with the academic arts community totally, so can't say. I know in the 80s there was already a strong reaction against the extreme (left mode!) intellectualism in music. I went to a "modernist" music concert once in 2009, at Furman (in Greenville) and talked briefly with the composer. Listening to the music and talking with him, I might have been back in 1970. It was eerie. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is moving on.

      A lot of us who are hanging out here are probably having a strange feeling of living in several different worlds - we're aware a new one is being born and then we're seeing people variously living out the late 20th century (neo liberals) the 1950s (most of the right wing in the US) the 19th century (Christian fundamentalists) the middle ages (Islamic extremists) and who knows what else. Interesting times!

    8. >A lot of us who are hanging out here are probably having a strange feeling of living in several different worlds

      This is so true Don. I suspect it is something everyone who has lived passed 50 has experienced since at least the mid nineteenth century. As automation finally starts scything through whole meta-categories of jobs over the next 20 plus years, we are going to find out just how interesting the times we live in are.

    9. Well, Bernardo, if it's not about materialist intellectual fundamentalism, then presumably it's about intellectual fundamentalism in general. Which hardly makes it much better. Though I may find people who over-rely on intellectualism tiresome, I don't think they're psychotic.

      Look all over the Web and you'll find articles employing cod psychology penned by neoDarwinists, climate alarmists, materialists (or their opponents), you name it. As you know, I'm an enthusiastic supporter of your views on Idealism, which you generally argue very well against all comers, but I don't like the idea of pathologising people, who are rarely as one-dimensional and functionally inadequate one might be tempted to caricature them.

      My admiration for your work remains undiminished, but I don't agree with you on this particular occasion.

    10. Hi Michael,

      It's OK to disagree. Just for the record: this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. You shouldn't take it literally. The idea is to do to them what they do to e.g. people who are overly emotional or highly intuitive (they pathologise those people), have them taste their own poison, etc.

      Cheers, B.

  4. Great essay, and quite funny. I'd agree with Don about the danger of throwing our the intellectual baby with the bathwater, but I understand this is not what you're actually doing. Something about all this reminds me of 'Big Bang Theory'. Professor Sheldon Cooper seems a classic clinical case. I wouldn't call it 'intellectual fundamentalism' though, but something like autism, or even just plain stupidity. But Michael makes a good point that people rarely fall clearly into a diagnostic category. We problem all have a hint of the disease that surfaces form time to time, and I suspect that I do.

    I like the idea that serial music is an outcome of this condition, although (imo) there are some exceptions that do actually work as music. I also like the idea that it is caused by the same factors in early life as lead some people to become professional comedians.

    1. Typo alert. I meant to write, 'We probably all have a hint of the disease...'

  5. Bernardo Kastrup's Metaphysical Fantasies

    1. Perhaps... not as bad as physics' latest fantasies though.

  6. Well, here's another take. I am an Aspberger's person. When I was a child (and a young man) I believed everything that was told to me and I definitely took everything literally. In trying to adapt to a world for which I was not prepared I learned to see (like learning to type kind of learning). I knew that I felt things very deeply but believed that no one else did. So I tried to stifle all of those other aspects of my psyche. But they kept coming out. I loved playing the guitar. I loved drawing, mountain climbing, horse back riding and on...

    Yet, I always considered physical science to be the king of pursuits. I was ashamed of my parents for being uneducated hicks. I read and read (I still do). By the time I was a senior in high school I came to the realization that school was not the place to be educated.

    I have been a recovering intellectual fundamentalist for a better part of a half century. It is an ongoing process. It's fun too. I get to change my mind often. God created the Universe in six days. Well no, what about the Big Bang. You mean the Big Bang probably never happened. Oh wait...

    Basically for me it is a matter of paying attention to subtleties of body language and behavior which might give me clues. I still have trouble with satire at times. However, your tongue-in-cheek post didn't affect me like it did Mr. Larkin. I do tend to take myself too seriously most of the time. My wife just says, "Chill".

    Great post Bernardo. I got it. It has only taken me seventy years. :)

    1. :-) As a recovering intellectual fundamentalist myself, your post is sobering for me...

  7. From an ancient tome found in the stars ~

    Terra~Prithvi quarantine

    Delusion ~ separation

    Created by identification with vehicle as self.

    Causes division ~ and all the energetic repercussions of the experience in consciousness of division.

    Economic, social and political systems all built on this delusion, making it hard for those seeking to awaken. Being that has taken form to help in the process of awakening also finds the form-delusion difficult to navigate, getting caught up in the energetic splitting and resulting divided energies creating chains of cause and effect which spin out into eternities within the dimensional plane created by this particular exploration of consciousness.

    Since the nature of this delusion seems to be one of forgetting true identity and a long sleep of creating fascinating, though often violent dreams within these universes of division characterized by seeming to forget all the substance is one, Terra-Prithvi has been quarantined for tendencies towards extreme violence and destruction.

    As nothing is essentially touched or changed, all is well. Yet Oneness would like to relieve the suffering of that portion of being caught up in this delusion.

    Being does arise within the myriad of forms, as love, and within all of their wisdom traditions, though often distorted in ways by this lens of separation vehicles within the Oneness. Advaita vedanta does proclaim the truth as that which can't be negated to draw attention to an energy of Oneness without opposing divisions, though this is often seen as simplistic. Sufis dance in love, to That Oneness awareness. Devotional open to love and find the beloved everywhere.

    In spite of the powerful magnetic qualities which tend to draw the separate into union, the male and female expressions back into Oneness through physical, psychic and heart levels, this perception through the lens of separation still seems to confuse and cause enormous suffering, rather than opening to the profound inherent pleasures intrinsic to union, and the peace & bliss of the natural state of Oneness.

    Best to all ~ in play & joy, Brin

    1. Interesting... I wonder what motivated you to post this under this essay, as opposed to other essays in this blog?

    2. • using the creative license described in this post as the way to avoid this strange malady ~

      • while raising the concern of confusing what is fundamental, with fundamentalism

      • As so beautifully described in the hsin hsin ming:
      "If the mind makes no discriminations,
      the ten thousand things are as they are, of a single essence. To understand the mystery of this One-essence
      is to be released from all entanglements.
      When all things are seen equally
      the timeless Self-essence is reached.

      ....In this world of Suchness
      there is neither self, nor other-than-self.

      To come directly into harmony with this reality
      just simply say when doubt arises 'not two.'
      In this 'not two' nothing is separate,
      nothing is excluded."

      Best to all, Brin ~

    3. Thank you, doctor! :))