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!


  1. This is one of the clearest, simplest overviews of your idealist view I've seen. I wonder if you have a transcript, and if not, perhaps we could all put one together over at the forum. I'll post a note and see if there's interest. your actual talk was only 8 minutes, so if 8 people volunteer to each take one of the minutes, it should be very easy.

  2. It's amazing how productive a force procrastination should be. I should be mixing voiceover recordings, but here I've transcribed the first 5 minutes and 20 seconds over at the forum. Only 2 minutes, 40 seconds to go, folks! Someone want to take over?

  3. Deepak asked me to very briefly summarize to you the key ideas of a book I recently published with the cheeky title of Why Materialism is Baloney. I will summarize that to you briefly, no lights, no charts. Because the core idea of the book, the essence of the book, is as simple as it is heretical in our current world view and the idea is this.
    I claim that reality is exactly what it seems to be, that it has colors, that it has flavors, that it has melodies, that it has qualities, and that those colors, flavors, melodies, qualities, are really outside your head, they really exist in the world.
    You might say well, why is this heretical, right? It’s heretical because the mainstream view in our culture today is that it is your brain that generates all of your subjective experiences, all colors, all melodies, all textures, flavors, they all unfold, are generated and exist within your skull.
    Your real skull, supposedly, is somewhere beyond this room, enveloping this room, from all sides. That is the mainstream materialist, or physicalist view of our culture. (1 minute and 30 seconds).

    Now you might say, this is crazy, why did we come to a conclusion like this? It is not as crazy as it sounds. I don’t want to shortsell physicalism, either. This is an inference that comes from two problems that people think they can only solve by postulating a world outside consciousness and the brain generating consciousness.
    These are the two problems: Number 1: we don’t seem to be able to control reality at will, just by changing our thoughts or wishes about it, like we can control our fantasies. Reality seems to be fundamentally independent of our volition. Therefore it should be outside mind. That is the first inference.
    The second inference is, if everything is conscious experience, if everything has qualities, then how come we seem to be all sharing het same dream, the same world. Because if all is a dream, it should be an individual dream. We are separate people. But we seem to share the same world.
    So materialists will infer that there is an abstract world, devoid of all qualities, akin to a set of mathematical equations, pure quantities, which stimulate your brain through your sense organs, and your brain then creates subjective experience inside your skull modulated by these external, abstract purely quantitative stimuli. That is the rationale of this worldview.
    I think these two motivations are illusory [extraneous?]. We don’t need to make these two inferences. I dare to offer you an alternative explanation – or two alternative explanations, which are summarized in the book.
    I think the first confusion behind the materialist, the physicalist world view, is to mistake a reality outside the control of volition for a reality fundamentally outside consciousness itself. [3’30”]
    These two things are not the same. We all experience mental activity, psychic activity, that is subjective, and yet falls completely outside our volition. Your nightmares: if you had control over your nightmares, you’d never have them. You would never have a nightmare. Your nightmares are the result of mental activity, subjective activity in consciousness, that is entirely outside your volition.

  4. Part II

    Schizophrenic hallucinations, the same thing. They fall outside of the control of the volition of the person. And they can unfold in a very continuous, self-consistent way for years at a time, as anybody who has seen that movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” can attest.
    Te second error I think, is what we call in philosophy the fallacy of begging the question, which is a sophisticated name for circular reasoning. The idea that there needs to be an external world to justify the fact that we share the same reality is entirely based on the notion that because our bodies are separate in the fabric of space-time, then our psyches should also be separate. Therefore, we can only share a dream if this dream is generated by a reality outside us that we can both observe concurrently.
    This is circular reasoning, because it assumes that consciousness is in the body. So if bodies are separate, consciousness is, our psyches should also be separate. Well, this is precisely the point in contention. You cannot argue this point by assuming it in the first place. That’s circular reasoning (5’20”).

  5. Wow Don thank you so much for taking the time to transcribe this! I would happily do the rest but can't seem to access the videos in my part of the world :(

  6. Here's the rest:

    If all reality is in consciousness - in other words if reality really has qualities, colors, melodies, flavors - then obviously it is the body brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in the body brain system. Therefore the fact that our bodies are separate in the fabric of con does not mean that our psyches, our minds, are fundamentally separate.

    The fact that we seem to experience reality centered in the locus of our body does not mean either that consciousness is in the body. We all have examples of this that we experience ourselves. When you dream you have a dream body. You experience the dream centered in that body, through that body, yet obviously your dream body is in your consciousness, your dreaming consciousness, not your consciousness in your dreamed-up body.

    You see if reality is in consciousness, there is nothing preventing the hypothesis which is very reasonable and non inflationary, that there is a segment of our psyches - an obfuscated segment of our psyches, like the segment that generates our nightly dreams - which is common to us all.. like the roots of the tree… it is like the branches of a tree, the separate branches of a tree unified at the roots - maybe our psyches unify at its deepest, most obfuscated, “unconscious” level [“unconscious” is a misnomer, I would call it obfuscated consciousness].

    And it is that collective obfuscated segment of our psyches that generates the dream we call consensus reality. This avoids the postulate of an abstract, unprovable world, fundamentally outside conscious experience. A world of quantities and abstractions, a world that nobody can ever prove and which actually creates more serious problems than the explanation it offers. Namely, it creates the hard problem of consciousness, which is our futile attempt to explain how consciousness can come out of an abstraction of consciousness, a problem we will never resolve.

    You see if our bodies are in consciousness, our bodies cannot create it. Yet the fact that brain activity correlates with consciousness, subjective experience, can easily be made sense of.

    Everything you experience are images of processes in consciousness. Like lightning is the image of atmospheric, electric discharge. Like flames are the image of combustion. Flames don’t generate combustion. They are just the way combustion looks from the outside. Lightning doesn’t generate atmospheric electric discharge. It is just the way electric discharge looks from the outside.

    I say that your brain and the brain activity is the image of a process of localization in the broader stream of mind that we call the world, the universe. The brain doesn’t generate consciousness for exactly same reason that lightning doesn’t generate atmospheric electric discharge. It is the outside view of your conscious processes. And of course it correlates with subjective experience, because it’s the image of it. It conveys relevant information about it.

    I will conclude by leaving you with a metaphor that I talked to you about last night.

    If all of reality is the stream of consciousness, the flow of subjective experience, I think the brain - the body as a whole - is like a whirlpool in that stream. It’s the image of a localization process in the broader stream of consciousness. The brain doesn’t generate consciousness for exactly the same reason that the whirlpool doesn’t generate water.

    And the dilemma of neuroscience today is to try to explain how the whirlpool generates water, which is an insolvable problem. It will never be resolved.

  7. I just made an outline of the talk to help me get a clearer sense of it. Hope this is helpful:

    1. Reality is what it appears to be, the colors, sounds, flavors, qualities all exist in the world.
    2. The materialist view is that all color, sound, quality is generated by and exists within the brain. The brain then, is in a way “beyond” this room, this grass, this sky, even those stars.
    3. Why do materialists think this way? Two reasons:
    a. We can’t control reality by means of our thoughts and desires; it seems independent of our volition, and is therefore outside mind.
    b. Everything can’t be conscious experience, otherwise we wouldn’t all be sharing the same world. If it were all just a dream, we’d all be having individual dreams, because we are obviously all separate people.
    i. Therefore, materialists conclude the real world is one devoid of qualities, a world of pure quantity wholly describable by mathematical equations.
    4. But we don’t need to make these inferences.
    5. First, there can be a reality outside the control of our volition without it necessarily being outside consciousness altogether.
    a. The evidence? We all experience mental activity outside our volition; for example, our nightmares, schizophrenic hallucinations, (and though he didn’t mention it, most of our emotions and thoughts! – just try to stop thinking)
    6. The second error is a matter of begging the question – circular reasoning. The reason materialists think there has to be an external reality in order for us to have common experiences is based on the notion that because our bodies are separate, our minds must be also. But this idea assumes the consciousness is IN the body, the very assumption that idealism is questioning, and for which materialism has no proof. The claim idealism is making is that all reality is in consciousness, therefore the body/brain would be in consciousness too. Therefore, the agreed-upon fact that our bodies are separate does not mean that our minds must necessarily be separate. That is the very assumption that is in dispute.
    a. Example of an experience of the body in consciousness – we experience this in our dreams. Our dreams are centered in the dream body, but the dream body is in your consciousness.
    7. If reality is in consciousness, then it is reasonable to infer that there is a segment of our psyches – the deepest, most obfuscated level, where our apparently distinct or “separate” psyches are unified – which generates the world of common experience.
    a. This avoids having to postulate the existence of an abstract world, a world fundamentally outside consciousness experience for which there can never be – by definition – any proof.
    b. By postulating such an abstract non-conscious world, we create the hard problem of consciousness, which can never be resolved as long as we make such a postulate. By contrast, the assumption that all reality is in consciousness completely resolves the hard problem, by preventing it from arising in the first place.
    8. The question remains, why does brain activity correlate with consciousness, subjective experience?
    a. Everything we experience are images in consciousness just as lightning is the image of atmospheric, electric discharge, and flames are the image of combustion.
    b. The brain activity is an image of a process of localization in the broader stream of mind we experience as the universe. It is the external, outside or objective view of your conscious and “unconscious” (or obfuscated conscious) processes. It obviously will correlate with subjective experience because it is the image of it, and as such, conveys relevant information about it.
    9. A helpful metaphor is to think of the brain and body as whirlpools in the stream of consciousness, the flow of subjective experience. The body/brain – like all matter – can be thought of as the image of a localization process in the broader stream of consciousness. The brain doesn’t generate consciousness for exactly the same reason that the whirlpool doesn’t generate water.

  8. Thanks for all this, Don. Much appreciated.