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.


  1. It can be helpful to think of any particular object as, rather than a thing in itself, as a "way of experiencing mind at large."

    We can then distinguish (sorry this is going to be terribly unwieldy for the moment) various ways of perceiving what we call a tree:

    'image-of-tree-as-filtered-through-a-human-psyche-within-the-particular-space-time-matrix-common-to-egoic-consciousness; in this particular era


    and so on.

    This way, if we reflect on this, we can begin to get a visceral sense of the relativity of personal consciousness. Rather than confronting a world of absolute objects, we experience Mind-At-Large AS FILTERED THROUGH a particular way of knowing/feeling, inseparable from a particular time, place, cultural conditioning, etc.

    Another great illustration of the relativity of the dynamic constructed image we call "the external world" is neurologist Oliver Sachs' story of Virgil, a man blind from age 6 who recovered his sight in his late 40s, and rather than opening his eyes, after surgery, to an "external world", experienced a mass of unintelligible sensations (images) which he had to work with for many months before the world became once again intelligible to him.

    At every moment, our mind is filtering, based on its particular way of knowing and its conditioning (very different in modern times, than, say, 5000 years ago, and that again different from 500,000 years ago) information from Mind-At-Large and constructing it into the shape of this apparently external "world" which is nothing but a collaborative construction of egoic structures all themselves inseparable from Mind-At-Large.

    its interesting that you're touching on here a much deeper question, one wrestled with in Asia for several thousand years - the relationship of the separate mind or individual egoic psyche to Mind-At-Large. There are the dualists - not anything like Cartesian dualism; who insist on a radical separation; the qualified non dualists - who say we can realize our oneness with mind at large but are yet not the "same"; and of course, the non dualists, who insist that there is really no separation.

    But I would think (hopefully!) that's for another post!

  2. When i said "in this particular era", i was thinking of William Blake's phrase, "The body is that portion of the soul (individualized consciousness) that can be perceived by the senses - IN THIS ERA" (meaning, I assume, in more enlightened, or at least, more inwardly open times, even the ordinary senses perceived far more aspects of Mind At Large than we do now - not that that's necessarily a bad thing - it has probably been necessary these past several centuries for us to concentrate on this world, so when - maybe near the end of this century - our science begins to unfold on a grand scale, all the wonders of the inner realms - we won't get lost as perhaps happened, if it was not just a myth, 10,000 years ago in Atlantis

    Or as I wrote on the forum, regarding someone who may be getting lost in what Sri Aurobindo calls the "intermediate zone" - the occult realm - my sense is we need to be grounded in the deepest depths of our Hearts - our true Selves, the place where we are most connected to Mind At Large (or God, if you will:>)) or the Tao, if you prefer) before it will be truly safe to enter the inner worlds.

    And the funny thing is, once we are grounded there, all of our strenuous efforts to get past materialism will no longer be needed. The inner realms will naturally, easily, organically open to us, our minds being clear, our hearts open, able to trust each other with the tremendous, awesome energies that will become apparent as we enter collectively into the inner realms.

  3. So science uncovers "the laws of nature"; i.e. predictable patterns in the images of conscious processes of mind-at-large or at least that part of mind-at-large that makes up our reality. The word images including in it the the subjectivity or filtering engendered by the capabilities and limitations of how we are localized. This in turn being the result of evolution, one of the predictable patterns in the images of conscious processes of mind-at-large? Hence no conflict between science and idealism.

  4. Just going to do some random typing, since I found this thought-provoking, because it is a key boundary for idealism...

    So what we see around is an "image of the mind-at-large", in the same way looking at someone's brain is an "image of their mind" - but in both cases, as perceived by, or encroached into, our particular localised awareness. As Don suggests, a key point is the relationship between localised minds and this mind-at-large. For in fact, really our experience of other's brains is just part of our mind-at-large image experience?

    It's an intersubjectivity issue perhaps too; need to ponder it a bit more. Perhaps there's an issue of thinking of whirlpools as being 'spatially located', as we tend to do in our mental image of it.

    The story of the blind man is interesting: it's fascinating that when I look around I do literally perceive objects around me, not mutating images which I then think about and conclude are objects. The interpretation or pattern pops out by itself. Our minds are structured, we perhaps end up with little Platonic Forms in each of us which get 'snapped to' and then detailed out. Perception is interpretative and creative, then. What interpretation and creation does the Mind-At-Large do?

    An alternative approach: All of our minds extend over all experience, the Mind-At-Large is just a summation of patterns, and our whirlpool localisation gives us a sense of perspective. However, the whirlpools are not really spatially located, there is no real distance (or time, to get deeper), because distance is a perceptual structure, and object itself. They are co-incident - which means the 'Mind-At-Large" is just a way of saying, the one mind, which has localised patterns.

    I could probably put that better, after some coffee...