Comments on JF Martel's critique of my philosophy
|Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.|
Author and filmmaker Jean-Francois Martel has written an essay strongly criticizing my philosophy. In this post, I will offer a response to his essay on a point-by-point basis. Martel sets the initial tone by saying:
My basic belief is that the world is, ultimately, unknowable. ... If the mystery of the real has not been solved, if the mystery cannot be solved, then all philosophical positions ought to be welcome or at the very least tolerated, including panpsychism and (dare I say it?) hardcore materialism.I actually sympathize with this view. However, it is a fact that there always was and there always will be a cultural narrative that influences – if not outright determines – our view of reality and how we relate to it. This is inescapable; a culture and a civilization cannot exist without it. We will always have a story. So the only meaningful questions are: How good is our story in relation to other possible stories? Which story is best as far as reason, parsimony, and empirical consistency allow us to determine? My work represents, first, an acknowledgement that we will always have a cultural narrative; and second, an effort to improve that narrative as much as possible, based on critical thinking, experience, and the data available to us. I believe the best story available is Idealism. The body of my work is my argument for it. And since a story we will necessarily have, it might as well be the best available.
The entirety of Kastrup’s thought rests on an epistemological premise. He says that the only thing we can know for sure is our consciousness; everything else is inferred and not directly known.This is an epistemological fact, not a premise. A premise can be a somewhat arbitrary postulate or axiom. What is described above is a fact of existence: we cannot know what no living being has ever been conscious of.
I can doubt the existence of the entities that present themselves to me, but I cannot doubt my own existence as a being who can doubt. It could be that the person standing before me is a figment of my imagination, a hologram or illusion. But as the percipient of such doubtful things, I must be real. Kastrup is here reiterating the Cartesian cogito. However, unlike Descartes, for whom the external world is real, Kastrup takes the fact that the world outside my consciousness may not exist to mean that any belief in an external reality is unnecessarily bulky. Since consciousness alone is knowable, the principle of parsimony demands that we begin with the assumption that consciousness is all there is, at least until something requires us to think otherwise.
Insofar as this suggests solipsism, which is a position I explicitly deny and refute in my earlier book Why Materialism Is Baloney, this is a rather misleading characterization of my philosophy. I deny a world outside consciousness, but I totally acknowledge a world outside our personal awareness. I see personal awareness as a dissociated alter of an impersonal consciousness that I call 'mind-at-large,' in honor of Aldous Huxley. See this earlier essay. The world does exist; it is real; and it is outside my personal, dissociated alter of mind-at-large. It just isn't outside consciousness itself.
Kastrup recognizes that his basic premise already begs questions, because it goes against our standard definition of consciousness as “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and of the world” (Oxford Dictionary; my italics). For if this standard definition is accurate, consciousness cannot exist without something external to it, since consciousness is precisely the awareness of something that is not it.I do not recognize any question-begging on my part. This is an outright and unfortunate misrepresentation. My starting assertion – that consciousness is the only carrier of reality we can know – does not beg any question. And neither does it contradict the definition of consciousness given above, since the word 'mind' in it is meant as personal awareness, not mind-at-large. As just explained, I do acknowledge the reality of a world outside personal awareness. I just deny that such a world is outside consciousness itself, in the sense of mind-at-large.
All this said, because dictionary definitions of consciousness often beg the question of materialism (the one given, for instance, is straight out of novelist Ayn Rand's discredited objectivism), I state clearly in my book Brief Peeks Beyond, which Martel is critiquing, what I mean by the word 'consciousness': it is that whose excitations are our experiences. As such, the reality we experience – both sensory perceptions and emotions, thoughts, fantasies, etc. – are the patterns of excitation of consciousness, whatever consciousness may intrinsically be. I also claim that there is nothing but those patterns of excitation, a reality outside consciousness being an unnecessary postulate.
...after a shift in context, Kastrup writes: “If something is fundamentally beyond all forms of experience, direct or indirect, it might as well not exist.” Nevertheless, he bring up “pure consciousness without experience" because his argument requires it. It "may as well not exist," but it has to exist.
This is being taken out of context in a manner meant to portray a contradiction that isn't there at all. So bear with me. As an Idealist, I believe all reality exists only insofar as it is experienced 'somewhere' in mind-at-large. Naturally, however, the existence of experience implies in the existence of that which experiences, which is consciousness itself. This may be as much a linguistic requirement as a metaphysical one but, be it as it may, it is nonetheless inescapable in discourse. The real question, however, is whether anything else is necessary, like a whole universe outside consciousness. Once you accept the existence of experience – and, by implication, that of the experiencer, or consciousness itself – you must ask if anything else is needed to make sense of reality. As stated in the quote above, I deny that anything is. After all, what none of us can ever experience might as well not exist. The statement, however, obviously doesn't apply to the experiencer itself, as an intrinsic aspect of experience. Martel's point, therefore, is specious.
Let me clarify this more, for the sake of those who haven't read the book yet. I argue in it that all experiences are excitations of consciousness, like a note is an excitation – a mode of vibration – of a guitar string. It follows from this that, if consciousness is at rest, there is no experience, but just the potential for experience. This is entirely analogous to the guitar string at rest embodying just the potential for all notes, but no actualized note. However, notice that there is nothing to a vibrating guitar string but the string itself. A note is just a behavior of the string, not a new, separate ontological category or entity. There's just the string, whether it is at rest or vibrating. Likewise, there is nothing but consciousness, whether it is at rest or excited. As such, there is nothing to experience but consciousness itself. Experience is just a behavior of consciousness, produced when it actualizes its potentials. So by acknowledging that consciousness may be either excited – i.e. experiencing – or at rest, I am not creating any new ontological category. There's still just consciousness. The passage of my book quoted by Martel states merely that consciousness alone is sufficient to make sense of reality, and that anything allegedly beyond it might as well not exist. Naturally, consciousness itself – whether it is at rest or not – is not beyond consciousness! Thus, the contradiction Martel intended to show isn't there. This is clear once you actually grasp what is meant.
Because [consciousness] can change, and because it continues to exist in a “pure” state in the absence of change, it must be temporal; it must exist in time.
No. Space and time, as the framework of ordinary experience, are in consciousness. They are parts of the patterns of excitation of consciousness. Naturally, however, since language has the notions of space and time intrinsically built into it, any ontological description of states of affairs necessarily appeals to the notions of space and time as the scaffolding of description. When I talk of 'excitations' or 'vibrations' of consciousness I am making just such an appeal in order to convey certain ideas. Clearly, however, this should be understood as a metaphor. Consciousness, of course, doesn't literally vibrate, since it isn't a thing; it's the experiencer. This is central to my philosophy, so I regret that Martel seems to have failed to grasp it. Space and time themselves exist only insofar as they are experienced and, as such, are themselves 'vibrations' of consciousness.
Notice that this limitation of communication applies not only to my ontology, but to any ontology. Go ahead and try to describe the underlying nature of reality without making any explicit or implicit reference of the notions of space and time. You will quickly realize that you can't, and for a simple reason: we cannot describe any pattern without laying this pattern out across a dimensional scaffolding. There is no pattern if there is no space-time. And if you can't talk of patterns, you cannot describe or articulate anything. You might as well shut up and stop bothering with philosophy. Yet, Martel himself articulates a philosophical position.
In other words, consciousness for Kastrup is extended: it is a thing, even if it is the only thing.
Oh gosh, no!
...it must exist as a transcendent object for his idealist system to cohere.
It isn't an object! It is the (only) subject! This is precisely the key point of my whole story. I am afraid there are fatal misunderstandings underlying Martel's critique of my position.
...the conceivable mode of consciousness, the one that everyone can agree on under empiricism, is synonymous with the subjective experience of the objective.
The shared, consensus aspects of experience do not require the existence of a universe outside consciousness; they only require personal psyches to be fundamentally united at deep, obfuscated levels (see the videos below), which is precisely what I articulate when I talk of dissociated alters: we are all alters of one and the same mind-at-large and, therefore, can share the same 'dream.' Naturally, experience itself does not require an objective world. I can dream realistic dreams all night, live lifetimes of rich experience in multiple 'universes,' and nobody would claim that those must necessarily be 'objective' – i.e. exist outside consciousness – to validate my experience of them. The self-consistent, enduring storylines vividly hallucinated by schizophrenics are experienced without that experience needing to correspond to anything objective.
...monistic idealism demands that I use my intellect to negate [the] apparent objectivity [of reality].
It is precisely the opposite: it is your intellect that infers objectivity. Without your intellect all you have is subjective experience. Isn't this obvious? And since this point is the premise for the rest of his argument, what follows, well, doesn't follow.
...suffice it to say that experiential consciousness and non-experiential consciousness belong to different ontological categories.
Again, no. A vibrating string and a string at rest aren't different ontological categories. In both cases there is just the string. For exactly the same reason, there is just consciousness. We know it because we know that there is such a thing as experience, which is a behavioral manifestation of consciousness. What else could it be? Experience is a behavior of consciousness – like vibration is a behavior of the string – not a different ontological category. Martel's whole argument is built on multiple layers of misunderstanding.
When I am conscious of an objective reality, I am conscious of it precisely as something located outside of my subjectivity. When I see a table, I immediately intuit that this table is not me, that it exists outside of me and would continue to do so if I closed my eyes. The table does not for a moment manifest as something synonymous with me, that is, with the I-ness that conditions my consciousness.
Here Martel mixes up two entirely different definitions of 'objectivity,' which I have explored ad nauseum in my work. What he argues is that there is a world outside his personal volition and sense of identity. I don't deny this. We are dissociated alters of mind-at-large with dissociated volition and sense of identity, just like the dissociated personalities – alters – of a patient with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) have separate and different wishes, preferences, memories and senses of identity. Often, one alter even wants to hurt another. Yet, all alters of a patient with DID are unquestionably part of one and the same psyche. Similarly, we, as dissociated alters of mind-at-large, are still all part of mind-at-large. The 'outside world' is simply the images of mental processes in mind-at-large that fall outside our personal alters. As such, these processes are both outside the control of our personal, dissociated volition, as well as sense of identity. Yet, none of this requires 'objectivity' in the sense of something outside the mental. The empirical world is outside the dissociated alters, alright, but not outside consciousness. This is all explained in abundant detail in my two latest books, Brief Peeks Beyond and Why Materialism Is Baloney, but a brief overview can be found in the two videos below.
And if Jung and Freud insisted on the term “unconscious” to designate those parts of the psyche that are objective even though we are not aware of them, it’s because the evidence points to psyche being vaster than consciousness.
Martel seems to ignore my whole articulation of the nature of the 'unconscious,' as explained in both my most recent books. In summary, I argue that there is no unconscious, just obfuscated parts of consciousness from the perspective of alters. This is entirely consistent with the notion of dissociation. There is a brief explanation available in this article. Martel may disagree with my argument about the nature of the 'unconscious,' but then he must criticize the argument, instead of ignoring its existence.
[Kastrup] posits a supra-personal consciousness which, we have seen, is empirically inaccessible to us.
No, it's fairly accessible. What is inaccessible is the intrinsic nature of consciousness (personal or otherwise) since we, by definition, only experience its excitations. But a transpersonal form of experience is entirely accessible and described extensively in centuries of mystical literature as well as the more recent field of transpersonal psychology. Jung himself, which Martel refers to, is famous precisely for his idea of the 'collective unconscious,' which explicitly endorses a transpersonal form of mentation from an indirect experiential perspective.
...this supermind must be something ... that cannot be experienced yet must exist.
Of course it can be experienced; and it has, throughout history, as I've just pointed out above. There is plenty of introspective evidence for mind-at-large, as mystical and spiritual literature overwhelmingly shows. Look, for instance, at Richard Bucke's book Cosmic Consciousness for a number of case-studies. Needless to say, contemporary literature has plenty more cases. The list of references is endless; so much so I find this assertion by Martel rather bewildering.
We are dissociated alters of a transpersonal form of consciousness wherein transpersonal mental processes unfold. A table is part of an image of these transpersonal mental processes, as perceived from the point-of-view of a dissociated alter (i.e. a person). That's why the table seems to be not-me: indeed, it's not my alter! This simple explanation makes sense of the illusion of objectivity without requiring anything other than the empirically obvious: mentation itself. Indeed, inferring mind-at-large is much more parsimonious than inferring a universe outside consciousness, since it only requires extrapolating a known ontological category – namely, consciousness – beyond its face-value boundaries, while a world outside consciousness is an entirely new ontological category. All this is extensively elaborated upon in my work.
Now Martel talks about my assertion that living entities are dissociated alters of mind-at-large:
How did this dissociation occur within mind-at-large? How did consciousness fall from wholeness to fragmentation (even if said fragmentation is only apparent)? ... This is a problem that I don’t think Kastrup’s monistic idealism can solve logically.
Not only can it, I've explicitly done it. I tackle this problem directly in both my most recent books. Perhaps Martel failed to notice it? In a nutshell, dissociation arises from the reverberation of mental contents that neuroscience has empirically found to characterize ordinary awareness. I provide several references to scientific studies showing this in the books. This reverberation, I contend, obfuscates all mental contents that aren't reverberating, leading to dissociation. How this came to pass is a question of natural history: evolution by natural selection has shaped the human psyche in this manner. Reverberating ordinary awareness, as I discuss in both books, leads to self-reflective awareness, which clearly has survival advantages.
I am writing this response as I read Martel's critique. I confess to be confounded, at this stage, by how much he seems to miss or fail to understand of my book and work in general.
In “The Linguistic Con Game of the Mind/Matter Duality,” Kastrup writes: “Mind is what we are. It refers to our identity, not to one of our abstractions. It’s the ‘medium’ of experience, not a type of experience.” This absolute transcendentalization of mind-at-large as non-experiential “medium” is the irrational jump that makes Kastrup’s rational system hold together.
Mind-at-large is not a 'non-experiential medium.' It is the ground of experience itself. What could be more 'experiential' than the ground of experience? The absolutely undeniable, concrete existence of experience necessarily entails an experiencer, which is the ground of this experience. There's nothing transcendental about it. In fact, it is the most present, intimate, obvious, natural, self-evident datum of existence: you've known it since you were born. Arguably, you've never known anything else. How can anyone sanely deny this? Now, what defines our sense of identity is – as I'm sure the vast majority of people would agree – our subjective inner life, which happens to be all we can ever know. What else could we identify with? So what is the 'irrational jump' here?
Because Martel builds his argument upon a series of initial misunderstandings and omissions, his house-of-cards becomes increasingly nonsensical as he constructs it:
But this move from finite, experiential consciousness to infinite, omniscient consciousness entails an ontological leap that makes his theory no more parsimonious than materialism
...and then, immediately after stating this, Martel quotes a passage from my book where I precisely explain why this very statement is incorrect! I don't feel I need to explain this again.
I agree that the evidence for transpersonal states of consciousness is significant.
This directly contradicts what Martel said above, about 'supermind' (that is, mind-at-large) being 'something that cannot be experienced.' It's confusing.
In the remainder of his essay, Martel just rehashes his confused misrepresentations of my philosophy and arrives at conclusions that reflect solely his misunderstanding of it.
Martel has recently published a book that I found to contain several gems of social and cultural commentary. It is a book that I recommend to anyone unreservedly, despite disagreeing with its panpsychist undertones. I believe there is more than sufficient value in it to ignore the parts I think are mistaken. But his foray into formal ontology in attempting to criticize my work is, I'm afraid, rather disastrous. Had this essay been written by someone I respected less, I probably wouldn't have bothered to respond. The points made should have been raised in a clarifying Q&A session, not in an essay attempting to offer criticism.
What motivated this rather brash reaction by Martel was probably my recent, rather confrontational essays against panpsychism. I understand and sympathize with this, since nobody likes to see one's sacred cows being shot at. But I should make one thing absolutely clear about me: I am not here to accommodate sensitivities; I'm not here to collect a large audience by catering to the inclinations of the highest possible number of people; I'm not here to find compromises that give everyone a warm and fuzzy feeling. My commitment is to truth, and truth alone, whatever the cost. I may be wrong in many of the things I say, but I will only say what I believe to be true. And I will say it even if it means shooting at the sacred cows of people I like and respect.