Nondualism and the fallacies of panpsychism and artificial sentience

Promotional photograph of the film EX_MACHINA.

The video below is an extended, enhanced remake of my presentation at the Science and Non-duality Conference last week, in San Jose, California. It's adapted for a broader audience and contains some additional points that I thought were worth adding.

We live in culture dominated by two contrived metaphysical inferences: that the world exists outside consciousness and that particular arrangements of matter in that world somehow generate consciousness. This distorted view of reality feeds the delusory dreams of artificial consciousness so prevalent in the media today, such as in movies like Ex_Machina.

In contrast to science fiction, however, there is the cold science fact of our complete failure to articulate, even in principle, how particular arrangements of matter could possibly generate consciousness. But instead of forcing our culture to revise its mistaken metaphysics, this failure is leading to a new delusion: panpsychism, or the notion that consciousness is in all matter, as opposed to all matter in consciousness. Under panpsychism, consciousness is fundamentally fragmented, just as matter appears to be. Single atoms allegedly have very simple consciousness, while more complex psyches, such as our own, can be built bottom-up by connecting atoms together.

In this video, we will see how both panpsychism and our dreams of artificial consciousness arise from a delusory interpretation of the facts of reality, as available to experience. We will see that consciousness isn’t created, but the framework wherein all creation happens. We will see that consciousness isn’t fundamentally fragmented, but fundamentally one. We will see that individual psyches don’t arise from bottom-up integration, but from top-down dissociation of a single consciousness. Finally, we will see how all this follows directly from true nondualism.

The contents of this video are based on the book Brief Peeks Beyond, which can be purchased here:

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  1. Bernardo DID "Disorder" sounds like there is something wrong that has to be fixed. What about DIP - Disassociative Identity Process? Also "alter" may be used in psychology but is hard for the general public to resonate with. Maybe another term could be found for that.

    1. Hi TJ,
      Yes, that's why I put "Disorder" between quotes. I don't mean it as something bad, undesirable, or faulty. But if I gave it another name, I wouldn't be able to link it to the phenomenon of dissociation known in psychology under the label "DID." That's why I used it anyway, with a disclaimer. As for "Alter," I tried to explain what it means. But you're right that maybe it's not the ideal term... I always struggle with the right metaphors and words. You've probably noticed that I've changed them frequently over the years, in an attempt to help people see past the specific words or metaphors, and into what I actually mean to say.
      Cheers, B.

  2. Hi Bernardo,
    Great presentation. 
    Here's what I don't clearly understand. 
    If the movement of the dancer is like the movement of water, how do we know both don't have some self awareness of their dissociated experience in mind at large? 

    Does having an experience, like ripples in water, also require the water having the experience, to be an "experiencer" like the dancer dancing?

    How do we know when something does not have awareness of its experience?

    If inanimate objects are a dissociated part of mind at large, and have experiences (like movement), how do we know they are not self aware of their experiences in some fundamental way?

    I understand living and "non living" are different, but both exist fundamentally in mind at large. This is unavoidable. If we are physically, the second person perspective of dissociated mind at large, aren't inanimate objects also the second person perspective of dissociated mind at large?

    Do not stellar nurseries and galaxies self organize, reproduce, and give birth to other galaxies and stars? 

    Don't they exhibit "natural" self awareness and "intelligence" within mind at large? 

    Aren't they part a larger process of birth, life, and physical death in the universe? 

    But, they are not "biologic" in the normal use of the word. Aren't they still "living" from the point of view of mind at large? 

    And if so, could they be self aware of their experience?

    You understand my hesitancy to completely disavow self awareness to inanimate objects in mind at large. I honestly just can't tell.

    1. Hi John,
      I think our very concept of separate inanimate objects is human invention: it's a conceptual overlay we place on nature. In reality, there are no separate inanimate objects, but a continuum of atoms and energy fields; that is, one whole universe, not separate objects. Where does the river end and the ocean begin? And that one whole universe is aware; it has one inner life. I don't think a cup is conscious because I don't think there is really such a thing as a "cup" to begin with: the cup is a concept we place on a small segment of a continuum of atoms and energy fields in nature.
      But are you, as person, also a mere conceptual overlay? No, since your felt experience ordinarily ends at the boundaries of your body. There is something it is like to be your body, as an entity apparently separate from the rest of the universe. So here it's not merely a question of conceptual overlays, but an ontological reality given by direct experience.
      Now, what makes you different from a cup? It's the fact that you are alive to begin with; that you have metabolism; that you maintain your own internal organization out of thermodynamic equilibrium through burning energy. Insofar as other images "out there" also display the same living processes of metabolism, self-organization, etc., we can reasonably infer that they, too, have a dissociated inner life of their own; that is, that they aren't merely conceptual overlays but alters.
      Even though there are particular processes unique to life (like protein folding taking place within a few seconds), what truly characterizes life is a combination of processes, like metabolism + self-organization + reproduction, etc.
      Cheers, Bernardo.

    2. I agree we are mistaken when we try to "retrofit" human experience to mind at large.
      I agree also that comparing consciousness to a cup or A.I. is fruitless. All second person perspectives of reality (matter/energy) by definition are not conscious (self aware) in and of themselves.

      In fact, anything created from a second person perspective (A.I.) is at best just a "rearrangement" of matter and energy, not capable of creating consciousness itself. That's why we call them second person perspectives. 

      But, by definition any second person perspective is in consciousness, including us. But, who's consciousness? Ours alone? No. All second person perspectives are fundamentally in the consciousness of mind at large, including ours. Paradoxical, I know.

      From the point of view of Dream Theory, all is in and of consciousness,  just like when you dream. Are there living and non living things in your dreams? Yes, it appears so to the you in your dream, just like in our waking life. But, as soon as you awake you realize everything in your dream was in and of you the dreamer.

      The question of conscious vs inanimate in your dreams becomes an oxymoron. So it is here in the physical. The appearance of a you here and different others and things is in and of the One dreamer (mind at large). And when we "die" here, we awake and understand we and every thing else, are of the One and It is us, just like when we awake from our dreams. You understand.

    3. Bernardo, my questions come from the other side. Let me separate them, and sorry for being so long, but I think the discussion might be important.

      1. How do you know that something _does_ have experience? In other people you do, because you construe them to be similar to yourself, and you can observe what you can best interpret as intentional action. No such intentionality is visible on the part of the universe. Your argument works by stating a certain relationship between the brain and the mind, and inferring a similar relationship between the universe and God's mind. This argument is a total non-sequitur.

    4. 2. The "mathematical similarity" you point out between neurons and super star clusters is not a functional one. There is nothing that suggests that clusters of galaxies are functionally similar to synaptic vesicles, mitochondria etc. and there is a directed and conditional flow of information. Also, it if were, this would be an incredibly inefficient and slow way to run God's mind, and also a very short-lived one, because the lifetime of stars is quite limited with respect to the state changes that would be allowed by the interactions of galaxies. Your conjecture is beautiful, but when we look closely, it is too weak and probably unnecessarily sullies your line of thought. The syllogism "X⟶Y, X is possible by some vast stretch of imagination, therefore Y" is ugly.

    5. 3. In a universe that only exists as a dream of our minds, why do we need a manifestation of brains, why does there seem to be such a close functional correspondence to the brain and the mind? If I damage my hippocampus, I stop forming long-term memories. If I inhibit my fusiform gyrus, I can no longer discern faces. If I deactivate the DLPFC, certain attentional processing becomes impossible, etc. IMHO, this suggests that the brain implements the mind. Your description of mind and brain being different perspectives appears to be incomprehensibly metaphorical, because I have no idea how to functionally define and analyze a first-person and a second-person perspective, and how to causally relate them.

    6. 4. Idealist monism and materialist monism both seem to make presuppositions that can not be empirically tested in principle. In the former, matter is a construction of the mind, not just in the sense that matter is conceptual and thus a cognitive construct, but in the sense that the universe is a lucid dream fixated by conscious activity that can in principle be changed like other dream content if we find out how. In the latter, minds are produced by the activity of matter. Since we are by necessity located inside of our minds and cannot get out there, we won't be able to directly find out what is going on, but must be content with theories that have more or less explanatory value. If we know that we cannot know something, we are not free to pick one variant that we feel sympathetic to, but must remain agnostic.

    7. 5. Your main argument against materialist monism does not appear logically strict, but an appeal to intuition. You point out that you have not encountered a convincing explanation of how material, mechanical interactions could give rise to conscious experience. This does not guarantee that others have not. For instance, I have come across such explanations, and I find them entirely convincing. It is certainly interesting that our intuitions are different, but there are psychological explanations that can account for the source of your intuitions. Revelations or experiences induced by meditation and substances are unhelpful, because we can certainly come up with physicalist models of brain states that would make the subject experience such content.

    8. 6. Even if we granted your argument against materialist monism, and if we decide not to buy into panpsychism, idealist monism in your particular interpretation does not automatically follow. For instance, it might be sufficient that only your mind exists, and God's mind does not.

    9. 7. Ex Machina does not require materialist monism. It suffices that minds supervene over information processing (computation). Even if your mind or God's mind have no material basis, they still process information, i.e. something computes. A computationalist universe can be idealist or materialist or even dualist, but if the computations of our mind are made possible by the computations of some substrate, then this substrate can also compute the mind of an artificial intelligence. If the brain as we construct it in our perception and conceptualization is a causal system that implements our minds, then it is possible that artificial causal systems can be built that implement artificial minds with properties that are similar to ours. Ex Machina works in a dream, too.

    10. Hi Joscha,

      Many of the criticisms you leverage at me have been addressed in the links listed in Section 2 of this post:
      However, since you took the time to carefully articulate your points, I will reply more specifically:

      1) You mischaracterize my argument. The argument, as stated in the video, is that the brain is a material system like the rest of the universe, and yet there is something it is like to be a brain: namely, the inner life of its owner. So what nature is telling us in the form of a brain is that, apparently, material systems have inner life. Now, separate inanimate objects are a conceptual overlay we humans project onto nature. In nature itself, there are not separate inanimate objects, but simply a wholistic field of particles and force fields. As such, the fact that brains have inner life suggest that the universe _as a whole_ also has inner life. The alternative is to say that consciousness emerges from the particular structure of brains, which runs into the hard problem of consciousness and is a much less parsimonious ontology, as argued in the video. There is no issue whatsoever with my logic here.

      2) Your argument is based on the fallacy of anthropomorphism. I am not saying that the universe is functionally equivalent to a _human_ brain. My argument doesn't require that it be. As a matter of fact, my argument doesn't require even that the universe look like a brain (see point 1 above); the fact that it does is an interesting bonus. All this said, information signals (gravity, light, radio waves, information carriers yet unknown to physics) are exchanged at a cosmic scale with possible functional correlates. It's also conceivable that quantum entanglement plays a role unconstrained by speed limitations (this has been argued even for human brains; see e.g. Penrose and Hameroff). That these signals are "slow and inefficient", as you say, is an anthropomorphic assessment: unlike a human being, who lives 80 years, the universe has been around for almost 14 billion years. The scales are different. What's slow for you is not necessarily slow at that cosmic scale.

      To be cont...

    11. Continued from above...

      3) The image of a process obviously correlates with the process, without causing it. That's why brains correlate with inner life: a brain-body system is what inner life looks like from a second-person perspective. That physical intervention in the brain affects inner life is no more surprising than that e.g. thoughts influence emotions, or the other way around. After all, if ALL is in consciousness, then physical intervention is also a process in consciousness. I elaborate on this in the links referred to in my previous post. I don't understand your difficulty with the two perspectives of experience: it's explained clearly in the video.

      4) Unlike what you suggest, there are two enormous differences/asymmetries between the two options you list. First, idealism sticks to the one empirically-undeniable fact of existence: consciousness, or that-which-experiences. Materialism, on the other hand, infers a totally new ontological category _in addition to_ consciousness: a material world outside mind. Given this, and everything else being equal, one should certainly prefer idealism for exactly the same reason that evolution is preferable to the flying spaghetti monster: parsimony. Second, materialism does not have sufficient explanatory power: it takes matter as the ontological primitive and then fails to explain consciousness itself, which happens to be all we can be sure to exist. Idealism, on the other hand, takes consciousness to be the ontological primitive and then successfully explains matter as a particular category of experience, or behavior of consciousness. Idealism and materialism aren't even remotely equivalent.

      5) There is no account of how the properties of matter can possibly give rise to the qualities of experience (the so-called "hard problem of consciousness"), which is widely recognized not only in philosophy of mind, but even by Science magazine, which listed it a few years ago as the second most important unanswered question in science. If you have a satisfactory answer to this question, prepare to receive a Nobel Prize. :-) Humor aside, my argument is one of parsimony (i.e. it explains reality with a minimum of inferences), which is entirely valid in logic.

      To be cont...

    12. Continued from above...

      6) I am not saying that idealism follows from the untenability of materialism or panpsychism. What I am saying is that idealism is the best, most parsimonious ontology we have, with the highest explanatory power. From that, it then follows that materialism and panpsychism are flawed. The body of my work is my argument for idealism.

      7) I can only repeat what I already explained in the video: the quest for "artificial consciousness" boils down to an attempt to artificially induce dissociation in a cosmic mind. The image of this dissociation is what we call life: metabolism, self-organization, reproduction, etc. So robots or computers that aren't alive won't have a private, dissociated, subjective inner life of their own. After all, a simulation of dissociation ISN'T dissociation, for the same reason that a simulation of urination on my computer won't make the computer pee on my desk.

      If you want to take this further, please use my forum instead of this comment section:!forum/metaphysical-speculations

      Cheers, B.

    13. Dear Bernardo, thank you for your thoughtful and sincere reply. I really care about these issues, so I take it to the forums. Email would be fine, too, if the presence of an audience you desire to "resonate well" with would distort the discussion for you.

    14. Hi Joscha,
      Great, I saw your post in the forum. I'll pursue it there shortly (a bit swamped right now but will return to it). I do prefer open discussions that others can follow too, so the discussions enriches us all, and I don't mind it if you make me look bad... :-) I'm committed to truth above my own image (the latter is largely irrelevant).
      Cheers, B.

  3. For those interested in reading more about this model of reality.

  4. Every individual should be able to access that dimension which is non-physical (by this I mean, beyond what your sense organs or their extensions - instruments like telescopes, microscopes, math or physics or other inferential methods) if they can withdraw their senses and try to realize who "they" really are. What you perceive as "reality" is a gigantic, extraordinary illusion or maya created by your senses. Of course, unless you have had a glimpse of that dimension or experienced it yourself, this may seem like utter nonsense. The real yoga is based on this understanding (not the popular kind, which is merely physical and is concerned with the body / mind). Rising above the body, above the mind and accessing that dimension is a privilege. It is not easy either as you have to lead a life of purity - in thought, word and deed, if you want to access that dimension. You need to have the intense longing to know, from deep within yourself and it should be the single and only focus of your life. All this may sound like nonsense, but to those who know, this is the only truth they know. Look at the world around - everything is in flux, you, your body, your restless mind and every atom in the cosmos, every particle.. Nothing can be learned from the physical and the world is horrible today because of the mindless materialism that permeates it as people are stuck in their mind / body identification and fail to recognize the true reality. This ignorance is called "maya".

  5. Bernardo, you can't understand the true reality through words, or intellectual methods (as you are trying to do in this video).. it has to be directly experienced and if you can experience that, you will know what I'm saying is true. You may read all the books, maybe every little piece of knowledge that is written out there but you cannot grasp it as you are trying to understand something which has no boundaries. You cannot learn about the infinite through finite methods. You cannot "explain" this...

    1. This is all true, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't improve our word-based cultural narrative so to get us closER to truth than the delusion of materialism. More on it here:

    2. I agree with your basic premise here on the improvement to our "word-based cultural narrative". I realize it's extremely hard to put what one has experienced into words and I've tried to do this time and again, to no success. That's because people who have not experienced this have no reference point and keep going back to their logic based arguments, which are circular in nature. I would love to have a discussion with you on this as it is so rare to meet someone who can truly understand. I have hundreds of friends and acquaintances. However, not even one (seems unbelievable) can even grasp a little of what I'm saying, as they try to "understand" it logically. I'm in the US, near Boston and if you are ever here, please send me an email : I will willingly drive wherever you are to meet you.

  6. Thank you Bernardo for your brilliant essays on monistic idealism! It is a truly wonderful and liberating metanarrative which helps us dislodge from the dream of separation and effectively points us back towards our Self.
    I like your analogy of inanimate phenomena as ripples and animate phenomena as whirlpools of consciousness. May I suggest yet another way of differentiating these which I think is implicit in your analogy and that makes both intuitive and conceptual sense: animate phenomena have points of view of consciousness (are the eyes of the world so to say) as opposed to inanimate phenomena which are "points in view" but have no points of view. It is in a sense a qualitative difference which I think is readily experienced in daily life (and in dreams). We can be in a mutual relationship with another point of view of consciousness but not with "points in view". But of course as in a dream both animate and inanimate phenomena are in the dream, that is in ever-present consciousness.

  7. Just as a postscript to the above comment there may, as the saying goes, be turtles all the way down. Even seemingly inanimate phenomena as for instance atoms may have a perhaps rudimentary form of point of view (as Whitehead suggested). That could leave us with a dual-perspectival monism, not of matter and consciousness, which as you make absolutely clear is to make too many and ungrounded assumptions, but of interior and exterior perspectives. Every seeming individual being having both point of view (interiority) and "point in view" (exteriority). Has the backdoor been opened for a return of panpsychism? No, because there is no so called matter in the equation, only different perspectives within all-embracing consciousness.

  8. Post-postscript. Coming full circle we see the inherent limits of thoughts and language. Relaxing the grip of trying to understand we open to the fullness of Mystery itself. In this cloud of unknowing we arrive at last. And here we see that we never really left.