The elevator pitch of a world in consciousness

A dangerous web of concepts.
Photo by Bernardo Kastrup, hereby released into the public domain.

It strikes me how often discussions about the nature of reality get muddled in misunderstandings arising from concepts. Words like 'mind,' 'consciousness,' 'subjectivity,' and even 'world' can evoke all kinds of unintended meanings, depending on the listener's background, expectations, prejudices and proclivities. 'Isms' like 'idealism' and 'panpsychism' are even worse, since they hopelessly attempt to package, in only a few letters, the meanings of disparate and complex ideas that have taken many books to expound on. As a result of this conceptual pollution, we get caught in a dangerous web of words that make simple, self-evident arguments look tortuous, complex and even implausible.

Ideally, I would love to do away with words and convey meaning directly, through some form of telepathy. But until we figure out a way to do that, I'm afraid we're stuck with words. The best we can then hope to accomplish is to make as few assumptions as possible about the meaning that words will carry to different listeners. This extremely short essay is my effort to summarize my views on the nature of reality in precisely that way. In what follows, what I do not say is just as important as what I do say. So please police yourself to avoid projecting meaning onto what is stated below that actually isn't there. Here we go:

  1. I consider it self-evident that experience exists. The redness of an apple, the sweetness of an orange, the warmth of a hug, the spaciousness of a landscape: they all obviously exist as experiences, illusory or not.
  2. Therefore, I must acknowledge the existence of that which experiences.
  3. I argue that experiences are behaviors of that which experiences, like the dance of a dancer. For the same reason that the dance is nothing but the dancer in action, experiences are nothing but that which experiences in action.
  4. The behavior of that which experiences and the witnessing of such behavior by that which experiences are a single process: experience.
  5. Therefore, there is no reason to infer the existence of objects separate from that which experiences: its behaviors alone account for the entirety of what we call the empirical universe.
  6. I model these behaviors as oscillations, vibrations or excitations of that which experiences, much like a ripple is an oscillatory behavior of water.
  7. Given our linguistic associations, I consider it entirely valid to call that which experiences 'mind' or 'consciousness.'
  8. I also consider it valid to say that that which experiences is a 'subject,' despite the absence of objects. After all, our culture has come to consider experience a phenomenon exclusive of subjects.
  9. I argue that the inner-lives of different living beings are dissociated streams of experience of that which experiences.
  10. Finally, I argue that metabolizing organisms  that is, living bodies – are what these dissociated streams of experience look like from a second-person perspective.

For a book-length elaboration of these ideas, please consider perusing my latest book, Brief Peeks Beyond.

Available online.

Mind and Brain: A skeptical look

Photo of my presentation at the Alzheimer Symposium, Amsterdam, June 2015.

Below is my presentation at the Alzheimer Symposium 2015 last June in Amsterdam, with corresponding blurb. Enjoy!

Perhaps no other disease has a more fundamental bearing on our sense of identity and the nature of mind than Alzheimer’s. It wreaks havoc with the human psyche and one’s sense of self by corrupting the brain. Precisely for this reason, Alzheimer’s raises one of the oldest questions in history, investing it with a renewed sense of urgency: What exactly is the relationship between mind and brain? Surprisingly, in what is called the ‘hard problem of consciousness,’ no one in science or philosophy today has any idea how brain metabolism can lead to conscious experience or our felt sense of self. Yet, we operate under the assumption that it somehow does, for the correlations between brain function and subjective experience are overwhelming. In fact, Alzheimer’s disease is a particularly compelling instance of such correlations, wherein destruction of brain tissue fundamentally alters our subjective experience of life. But is this assumption the only rational and empirically honest framework for interpreting the relationship between mind and brain? In this talk, we will critically review the array of reasons we assume that the brain generates the mind. We will inquire if these reasons are indeed sound in view of logic and the available data, and what other alternatives there might be to rationally make sense of observations. The presentation will not offer definitive answers, but rather invite the audience to take a broader look at the issue, in the spirit of skepticism. It is hoped that such a broader perspective into the nature of self and its relationship to brain function will lead to new insights, for both caregivers and patients, on how to relate to Alzheimer’s disease.


The heart of the matter

A few hours ago, I had a lively and productive dialogue with Canadian author and filmmaker Jean-Francois Martel, which is now episode 6 of my Inception Dialogues podcast. See the video below. As my regular readers know, Martel and I exchanged criticisms through our respective blogs in the past couple of months. See, for instance, this article. However, this latest dialogue helped both of us notice more commonalities between our respective positions than we had realized before.

One particular topic, however, deserves further elaboration than what was discussed in the dialogue. Martel considered it the heart of our disagreement: one hour, 2 minutes and 25 seconds into the video, he refers to my four-point argument against materialism, as discussed in my earlier book Why Materialism Is Baloney. The four points consist of increasingly inflationary statements about reality that are entailed by materialism. Here they are:
  1. Your conscious perceptions exist;
  2. The conscious perceptions of other living entities different from your own, also exist;
  3. There are things that exist independently of, and outside, conscious perception;
  4. Things that exist independently of, and outside conscious perception generate conscious perception.
In a nutshell, a materialist must grant all four points. An agnostic realist must grant the first three. An idealist grants only the first two. And finally, a solipsist grants the first point alone. As an idealist, I grant points one and two, but not points three and four. As an agnostic realist, Martel grants points one, two and three. His motivation is the following:
How does statement two not imply statement three? ... Because for there to be other living beings that I can then judge to be conscious or not conscious, I need to believe they exist outside of me.
To believe that they exist outside of you – that is, outside the stream of conscious experiences you call your life – does not require that they exist outside consciousness itself. It only requires that there be other streams of conscious experience different from your own, which is precisely what is stated in point two. By denying point three, I don't deny the inner lives of other people, since their inner lives are in consciousness. I don't deny that you have an inner life – a personal stream of experiences – different from mine and ordinarily inaccessible to me. I don't deny that you have experiences that I don't necessarily have. But your inner life is in consciousness and so is mine. By acknowledging that you have your own inner life I am not forced to acknowledge that this inner life is hosted, generated, modulated, or otherwise couched in anything outside consciousness. I am simply acknowledging a broader variety of experiences than those I ordinarily have access to as an individual. And the inner lives of other living beings appear in my inner life as the subjective images I call other bodies. My subjective inner life appears in your inner life as your subjective perception of my body. Only subjective experience is required.

This is a simple but often misunderstood point. The idealist denies that anything exists outside consciousness, but not outside his own personal stream of mentation. Indeed, the idealist acknowledges that countless other experiences do exist, which happen to not be included in his own inner life. None of this implies that there must exist anything outside experience itself, since I am only talking about different streams of experience. I can grant validity to statements one and two above without any need to grant it to statements three or four.

Addendum of 19 August 2015:

I'd like to summarize some key points that I've had to make in the comments section below:
  1. If one says that the qualities of experience – or qualia in philosophical jargon – like the redness of red or the taste of an orange exist in the world, as opposed to inside our heads, then the world necessarily entails at least one non-personal/trans-personal experiencer. There is no escape from this, since experience by definition entails an experiencer. Redness cannot exist without being experienced as such, since redness is an experience. The only valid point of debate is whether the experiencer is human (or at least human-like) or non-human, embodied or disembodied. I argue that it is disembodied – bodies existing as experiences within the experiencer – and not even human-like.
  2. One cannot explain how different people experience the same world unless one infers something transpersonal, which binds together different streams of personal experience information-wise. Under materialism, a universe of matter outside mind is such an inference. The most parsimonious inference, however, is to simply extend the one thing we know for sure to exist – i.e. mind – beyond its face-value personal boundaries. This is analogous to inferring that the Earth extends beyond the horizon in order to explain the cycle of day and night, instead of postulating a flying spaghetti monster who pulls the sun out of the sky. It is impossible to offer a coherent ontology that isn't solipsist and doesn't infer something beyond ordinary personal experience.
  3. My formulation of idealism differs from Berkeley's subjective idealism in at least two points: (a) I argue for a single subject, explaining the apparent multiplicity of subjects as a top-down dissociative process. Berkeley never addressed this issue directly, implicitly assuming many subjects; and (b) I argue that the cognition of the non-dissociated aspect of mind-at-large ('God' in Berkeley's formulation) is not human-like, so it experiences the world in a manner incommensurable with human perception (details in this essay). In Berkeley's formulation, God perceives the world just as we do.
  4. If one's goal is to offer a viable alternative to materialism as the ontology that grounds our cultural narrative, unarticulated, disconnected intuitions and ambiguities won't do. One needs a coherent, unambiguous and explicit system that (a) explains everything materialism does; (b) preferably explains at least some of what materialism does not explain but which has been empirically verified; and (c) does all this preferably with less ontological categories than materialism. I argue that my formulation of idealism does all three.